Should Digital Humanities Support “New” or “Old” Humanities?

In a searching reflection on the fact that most digital humanities projects focus on research topics (great writers, archives, etc.) prior to 1850, Andrew Prescott wonders what is the proper balance in the digital humanities between reinforcing old and new understandings of the humanities? Prescott, who is Professor of Digital Humanities at King’s College London and formerly a Curator of Manuscripts at the British Library, writes:

“Discussion of the digital humanities frequently gives vent to impatience with disciplinary boundaries and expresses a desire to reshape the humanities. This has been pithily put by Mark Sample: ‘It’s all about innovation and disruption. The digital humanities is really an insurgent humanities’. Comments such as this have excited the ire of the eminent critic Stanley Fish who noted that little is said of the ‘humanities’ part of the digital humanities, and asked ‘Does the digital humanities offer new and better ways to realize traditional humanities goals? Or does the digital humanities completely change our understanding of what a humanities goal (and work in the humanities) might be?’ Fish’s questions are fair ones, and are not asked often enough. Is the digital humanities aligned with a conventional Ronald Crane view of the humanities, or do they seek to help move us towards – as both [Tim] Hitchcock’s and Sample’s comments seem to suggest – a post-humanities?”

(See the full text of Prescott’s lecture, “Making the Digital Human: Anxieties, Possibilities, Challenges,” which he presented at the Digital Humanities Summer School, Oxford University, 6 July 2012.)

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