September 27, 2013 8:35 pm
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At the Digital Environmental Humanities workshop (www.dig-eh.org) that took place September 7-8, 2013, in Montreal, Quebec, hosted by Drs. Posthumus and Sinclair from McGill University, around 25 colleagues came together from various environmental humanities (EH) disciplines to meet with a smaller group of digital humanities (DH) colleagues. The main objective of the workshop was to discuss the possibility of forming a new community around the digital environmental humanities (DEH). To the extent that discussions about new collaborations and new research projects took place, the workshop was a success. At the same time, some of these discussions revealed the deeper issues around perceptions of the digital humanities and the challenges of cross-disciplinary perspectives within the humanities. We became keenly aware of the need for a more general discussion about both the environmental humanities and the digital humanities in order to better understand what might exactly constitute a digital environmental humanities. This post is a first attempt to begin thinking through these similarities and differences.
A couple of points can be made about DH and EH in terms of their constitution. First, a less positive take might emphasize the division between making (or doing) and critiquing (or theorizing) that has characterized in part work in these disciplines. In DH, there has been much debate about the difference between theory and practice and what proportions of each might constitute a legitimate claim on being a digital humanist. Within EH, a similar divide has formed between those who do environmental activism and those who critique notions of nature, between those who reject theory in order to better embrace the urgency of environmental issues and those who insist that theory is a necessary part of doing. For many EH scholars, this tension is in fact what characterizes their work and they insist on the necessity of inhabiting “a difficult space of simultaneous critique and action” (Bird Rose, van Dooren, et al.).
This point can lead to a more positive interpretation of the division between making and critiquing, between practice and theory. Both EH and DH are redefining the humanities in their attempt to bring together these two types of scholarship and research. By extending humanities interpretation to environmental issues (EH) and by creating new tools and methods for humanities research (DH), both disciplines are advocating for a new way of thinking about the humanities. Moving beyond traditional work in the humanities, EH and DH are illustrating that the humanities can matter more broadly in a contemporary digital society (beyond academia). To do so, they need to be, argues both EH and DH, more interdisciplinary and collaborative. Moving away from the single authored monograph characteristic of humanities research requires an important shift within the disciplines themselves to imagine new ways of determining the value of creative, cross-disciplinary contributions to larger public discourses on the environment and digital culture. By the very nature of the work they do, both EH and DH are reshaping the humanities at many different levels: administrative, academic, and more generally in the public life that research has once it moves beyond the walls of the university.
At the same time, the work of reshaping follows different paths within DH and EH. For EH, rethinking the humanities means pushing beyond the human and including the non-human world in its field of study. Illustrating the need for humanities scholarship in areas that have previously been seen as belonging to the sciences has been a central way in which EH has been working to advocate for the humanities. The question may then be asked to what extent these new objects of study are being examined with the same interpretive approaches, in short, whether the humanities are really doing anything differently by studying the environment. Scholars within Animal Studies have objected that the humanities remain in fact all “too human” (Wolfe). Even if EH is “posing fundamentally different questions, questions of value and meaning” (Nye, Rugg et al.), they continue to do so using the more general methods of humanistic inquiry.
As for DH, it has largely promoted developing new tools and methods through quantitative research and approaches. In this sense, DH often studies the same objects (for the most part written texts but also images, film, art) but using a different set of tools. Because of this emphasis on new methodologies (distant reading vs. close reading, quantitative vs. qualitative), DH has been accused of stripping the humanities of its human side (that is, interpretive, critical, etc.). Yet actual applications of DH clearly illustrate that humanistic inquiry and building digital tools go hand in hand. So while DH may be introducing methodologies that would have been foreign to the humanities in the past because of limits of time and scale, it is also illustrating what makes the humanities distinct from a purely qualitative approach.
To conclude, it is important to emphasize that EH and DH overlap in important and key ways: their interdisciplinary and collaborative approach; their advocacy for the humanities; and finally, their desire to go beyond the purview of traditional humanities.
Bird Rose, Deborah, Thom van Dooren, et al. “Thinking through the Environment, Unsettling the Humanities,” Environmental Humanities 1 (2012): 1-5.
Nye, David, Linda Rugg, et al.., “The Emergence of the Environmental Humanities,” Mistra May 2013. Internet.
Wolfe, Cary. “’Human, All Too Human’: ‘Animal Studies’ and the Humanities.” PMLA 124.2 (2009): 564-75.