What is Digital Humanities? An Italian perspective

[From my previous blog, but still worth reading, I believe]

There is been a lot of discussion around Digital Humanities lately, caused by (but also causing – or the other way around) what Ted Underwood called a PR crisis. This affected the current job market in humanities and literary studies, where “a lot of job postings are suddenly requesting interest or experience in DH”. Underwood has an interesting approach on this, saying that is perfectly legitimate for a literary scholar NOT to have a deep understanding of digital humanities and do his job perfectly well. Only these days there is a need to demonstrate some sort of awareness of what is happening in the DH field, even if you are not in fact doing it, in the same way in which, during a job interview, you can pretend that your line of research might be interesting from, say, a post-colonial point of view, even though following that kind of lead never crossed your mind before (and maybe never will). For some reasons, though, says Underwood, DH prevented people to make such a claim (what he calls “intelligent, informed BS”). Quite often, when people is asked about DH

they feel they have to say “no, I really don’t do DH.” Which sounds bracingly straightforward. Except, in my opinion, bracingly straightforward is bad for everyone’s health. It locks deserving candidates out of jobs they might end up excelling in, and conversely, locks DH itself out of the mainstream of departmental conversation.

Which, of course, is very bad. The reason of this is perhaps in the very nature of Digital Humanities, which, “— unlike some other theoretical movements — does have a strong practical dimension. And that tends to harden boundaries.” To this I would add that DH in itself is not a clear and straightforward field as it might appear to be at first sight. In some ways we are all interested and affected by the use of digital and technological tools in our life by now, both academical and personal. But is this enough to build a new field of academic research (which is what we are trying to do in the end)? I believe that there is a lot more than that at stake with DH, and I will try to make my point later on. (To be fully honest here, I think that the next one that says in front of me that using computers and digital tools is meant to make humanities research easier will not survive my reaction – and normally I am a very quiet person). Also, as James O’Sullivan pointed out recently, there is a tendence to assume a defensive position in talking about DH, what he calls a “knee-jerk reactionary way” caused by the fact that this is the moment in which Digital Humanities is claiming to be a discipline on his own

Digital Humanities is not as new as people might think, it’s just that the boundaries are only now being defined. The use of technology in humanist pursuits is not even a phenomena of what we have so proudly declared the “digital age”. […] When a new camp is established, the other camps get uneasy – how will the newcomers encroach upon their space? This anxiety is greeted with two things – attack and defence. […] Digital Humanities is here, and it’s here to stay. As already noted, it’s been here a while.[…] Digital humanists don’t need to convince the doubters – we simply need to justify our existence. There will always be doubters, particularly in the humanities, where subjectivity holds dominion.[…] Perhaps the doubters don’t actually doubt Digital Humanities, but rather, perhaps their apprehension is directed towards everyone suddenly claiming to have roots in this latest camp?

This is very well said, and in many ways I do not disagree with it, but I feel that there is really no need to take a defensive approach here.The depiction of the other side (the attacking camp, so to speak) is overstated, in my opinion. When James says that “it is all about attack”, well, I am not sure. There have been position against DH, the most (in)famous being the one by Stanley Fish in his New York Times blog (but Fish argument against Digital Humanities dates back to the 1970s, as Stephen Ramsay pointed out). Judging from the number of jobs requesting DH skills nowadays, however, it seems to me that this kind of attack is more superficial than real. Deep down DH is fully accepted and requested, and in some sense this might not be a good thing for the discipline, especially if coming from academic environments who do not really understand what is involved in serious DH work. Readings from the camp of Informatica Umanistica (the Italian version of DH – a definition more similar to Humanities Computing, in fact, since it avoids the term digital) convinced me that the problem we are facing (which in a sense might justify the defensive mechanism as internal rather than external) is due to the situation from which we speak as digital humanists. In spite of all the attempts to define what is digital humanities, we are still lacking in my view a clear and comprehensive definition. In fact, we might say that we have almost as many visions of digital humanities as digital humanists. Each one has is his own (which is probably true of literary scholars as well, I suspect, but luckily that camp is already well-established). As a newly formed DAH group, last year, in fact, we spent an awful amount of time discussing what DH is, and I suspect that this was helpful for the teaching group as well (this year, judging from the work of the new MA here in Cork, everything is much more focused). We re-visited, at least I did, a debate on the scope, meaning, nature (and indeed the sheer existence of digital humanities as a field) that occurred during the last 5 (perhaps 10) years, mainly in the Anglo-American academy (Ireland is kind of catching up now, I believe).  Apparently we moved on past this debate, if what Underwood said is true. According to him by now it should be easy to get a sense of what digital humanities as a discipline is:

There are a lot of ways to develop that kind of familiarity, from reading Matt Gold’s Debates in Digital Humanities, to surfing blogs, to blogging for yourself, to Lisa Spiro’s list of starting places in DH, to following people on Twitter, to thinking about digital pedagogy with NITLE, to affiliation with groups like HASTAC or NINES or 18th Connect.

This is not to say that humanities scholars discovered computers only ten years ago. Far from that. Actually the connection, in my opinion, dates back to the very moment in which the modern (say digital) computer (as opposed to the analog machine of Babbage) was conceived and developed. I will say more about that in a moment. For the moment I will stick a bit more with the debate on DH.
A few years ago, I remember, from my scant and random readings on the subject at that time (a few years before coming to Cork), that a similar debate took place in Italian academy – more or less in the same period of the anglo-american one, perhaps with a delay of a year -, when an attempt was made to insert Informatica Umanistica (IU) in the government’s list of official academic discipline. At that time the attempt failed, and I believe that even now IU is not in the list. Obviously there was an attempt to define it properly, and the debate was rich and complex, with different schools of thought (the Scuola romana, lead by Tito Orlandi from La Sapienza, a group from the University of Pisa – where computational linguistics was already established in the 1960s by Antonio Zampolli, former President of ALLC for many years, “quelli di Milano” etc.). Some of this debate can be read  (in Italian) at Griselda Online (see, for instance, Francesca Tomasi’s All’origine delle humanities computer sciences). Recently, in light of what I am doing here now, I resurrected the few Italian books and articles I had on the subject, and added a few more recent ones, trying to understand what was going on in Italy regarding Digital Humanities. I must say that I found the reading very interesting. I will try to summarise some here, hoping that this will contribute to a better understanding of what we DH people are doing. I will focus on two articles by Domenico Fiormonte who, in my view, engages with some important issue (I must say, as a “disclaimer”, that my choice might not be entirely “scientific”, but due to the fact that Domenico is one of the two umanisti informatici that I met in real life – the second one being Giuseppe Gigliozzi, who was teaching at my University in Rome when I was (under)graduating there. Gigliozzi, unfortunately died, before his time as they say, a decade ago. Surely it was a loss for the discipline and the community of IU)
However, there is science involved here as well. In my opinion, Fiormonte’s approach to DH is stimulating and engaging, also challenging at times, pushing boundaries in an interesting but also rigorous and uncompromising way.
Summarising what he gained from the roman bunch of digital humanists as a student, Fiormonte mentions three important principle that should be followed by all researchers in DH:

  1. everything that in humanities is intuitive (starting with the idea of text) in the digital world needs to be formalized.
  2. shifting from analog to digital implies and requires a redefinition of what a “cultural object” is.
  3. every coding act (every kind of digitization) has to be based on an hermeneutic process.

These are kind of very basic principles, but they can easily be forgotten or taken for granted. In fact, another thing that Fiormonte highlights is that, to a certain extent, the current success of the label Digital Humanities is a risky one, in the sense that “the most important gains of informatica are coincident with the main worries of informatica umanistica: a superficial way of building practical applications, scant attention to the digitalization process, the geopolitical and linguistic upper hand of one part of the scientific community, the risk of losing and manipulating cultural memories, etc.”

A way to avoid a superficial approach is to keep in mind the interdisciplinarity proposed by Tito Orlandi and the group of informatici umanisti of La Sapienza in Rome. Fiormonte understands interdisciplinarity not only in the sense that digital humanists are collaborating with software developers, adopting (and adapting) software that can help in their research and teaching, but because they (we) are taking part of a transformation of language itself.

Tito Orlandi’s approach to interdisciplinarity, praised by Fiormonte, is based on a “convergence between natural science and cultural science that move beyond the practical applications” :

The encounter between informatica and humanities is correctly interpreted [by Tito Orlandi] as a revolution of languages: a paradigmatic shift that foster the possibility of a (re)unification of scientific discourse. Today, when discipline that were usually considered distant, such as biology, or, more recently, neuroscience, enter more and more often in the humanities camp, the kind of interdisciplinarity practiced by Orlandi in forty years of experimental work seems to be a model that was able to conjure up the rigor and the reciprocal scientific understanding and respect without creating or fostering egemonic discourses and positions.

Interdisciplinarity might in fact be traced way back to the very beginning of the discipline, and of digital computing itself. Fiormonte and Numerico argue that the theoretical framework on which the first digital computers were built, after World War II, was a response not only to technological, military and industrial needs, but also to a number of questions asked more often in the humanities camp than in the scientific one, such as the alternative between “two different ideas on the nature of language and how it works”:

On one side there is a coalition between the vision of language as a formal structure (sintatticismo) with the idea that communication is purely a transfer of information, and on the other side, a conjunction between the idea of language as social interaction with a notion of computer as medium.

This were the two main paths along which computing and computer languages evolved, according to Fiormonte and Numerico. The origin of it can be traced in Turing’s theory of the universal machine. Turing’s innovation was the idea that the machine could (and should) operate not with numbers but with symbols, opening up a new space, a space for linguistic revolution. In a sense, we can say that, since the very beginning, the digital computer became the battlefield of a cultural war between the so called two cultures, and if in the first part of the history of digital computing, the engineering and mathematical camp were winning, and doing research in humanities computing was, at best, an odd and visionary thing (such as for the likes of Busa and a few other pioneers), today, with the cultural advent of personal computing, internet and social networks, the balance is not anymore very clear, and the humanities are gaining more and more space, even claiming a part on the engineering of a new computer architecture. In an article in which he tries to address how “computer languages represent, model, and (re)construct knowledge” (a central point, as I have said earlier), Fiormonte (again!) states that fostering “an interaction between the discussions about digital representation with semiotics is one of the few ways to break into the mechanisms and probe the mechanics of symbolic production of digital tools and technologies, exposing both potentialities and problematic issues.” And he hints towards a humanistic point of view on the future of computing when he says that

we should not forget that the formalism provided the model for the birth and development of informatica, allowing machines to achieve the amazing results that are in front of us today. But I am convinced – and I am not the only one – that the actual model of computing machine is reaching a critical point. And even if the contribution of a humanist to the creation of a new model can be considered irrelevant by many, I still think that is important, maybe even necessary, to have such a discussion.

DH people routinely ask themselves if we should eventually drop the word digital, because what we are actually doing is the very same thing that we always did as humanists. I don’t disagree with this position. But, looking at the Italian label, informatica umanistica, I think that, given the interdisciplinary nature of informatica itself, we could also reverse the claim, dropping the adjective umanistica.
The question I am now asking myself (and anyone else who dare to answer, of course. Comments are welcome) is:

Should we perhaps say that, as digital humanists, what we are actually doing (in fact, what we have been doing for a while already) is pure a simple informatica, with no humanistic or scientific label attached? would this be too daring, too far-fetched?


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