Theory, Method, and Digital Humanities
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55 Theory, Method, and Digital Humanities Tom Scheinfeldt The criticism most frequently leveled at digital humanities is what I like to call the “Where’s the beef?” question—­ that is, what questions does digital humanities answer that can’t be answered without it? What humanities arguments does digital humanities make? Concern over the apparent lack of argument in digital humanities comes not only from outside our young discipline. Many practicing digital humanists are concerned about it as well. Rob Nelson of the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab, an accomplished digital humanist, ruminated in his proposal for THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) 2010, “While there have been some projects that have been developed to present arguments, they are few, and for the most part I sense that they haven’t had a substantial impact among academics, at least in the field of history.”1 Another post on the Humanist listserv (volume 124), which has covered humanities computing for over two decades, expresses one digital humanist’s “dream” of “a way of interpreting with computing that would allow arguments, real arguments, to be conducted at the micro-­ level and their consequences made in effect instantly visible at the macro-­level.”2 These concerns are justified. Does digital humanities have to help answer questions and make arguments? Yes, of course: that’s what the humanities are all about. Is it answering lots of questions currently? Probably not: ­ hence the reason for worry. But this suggests another, more difficult, more nuanced question: When? When does digital humanities have to produce new arguments? Does it have to produce new arguments now? Does it have to answer questions yet? In 1703, the great instrument maker, mathematician, and experimenter Robert Hooke died, vacating the suggestively named position he occupied for more than forty years—­ Curator of Experiments to the Royal Society. In 56 Hacking the Academy this role, it was Hooke’s job to prepare public demonstrations of scientific phenomena for the Fellows’ meetings. Among Hooke’s standbys in these scientific performances were animal dissections, demonstrations of the air pump—­ made famous by Robert Boyle, but made by Hooke—­ and viewings of preprepared microscope slides. Part research, part icebreaker, and part theater, one important function of these performances was to entertain the wealthier Fellows of the Society, many of whom were chosen for election more for their patronage than their scientific achievements. Upon Hooke’s death, the position of Curator of Experiments passed to Francis Hauksbee, who continued Hooke’s program of public demonstrations . Many of Hauksbee’s demonstrations involved the “electrical machine,” essentially an evacuated glass globe which was turned on an axle and to which friction—­ a hand, a cloth, a piece of fur—­ was applied to produce a static electrical charge. Invented some years earlier, Hauksbee greatly improved the device to produce ever greater charges. Perhaps his most important improvement was the addition to the globe of a small amount of mercury, which produced a glow when the machine was fired up. In an age of candlelight and on a continent of long, dark winters, the creation of a new source of artificial light was sensational and became a popular learned entertainment, not only in meetings of early scientific societies, but in aristocratic parlors across Europe. Hauksbee’s machine also set off an explosion of electrical instrument making, experimentation , and descriptive work in the first half of the eighteenth century by the likes of Stephen Gray, John Theophilus Desaguliers, and Pieter van Musschenbroek. And yet, not until later in the eighteenth century and early in the nineteenth century did Franklin, Coulomb, Volta, and ultimately Faraday provide adequate theoretical and mathematical answers to the questions of electricity raised by the electrical machine and the phenomena it produced . Only after decades of tool building, experimentation, and description were the tools sufficiently articulated, and phenomena sufficiently described for theoretical arguments to be fruitfully made. There’s a moral to this story. One of the things digital humanities shares with the sciences is a heavy reliance on instruments, on tools. Sometimes new tools are built to answer preexisting questions. Sometimes, as in the case of Hauksbee’s electrical machine, new questions and answers are the byproduct of the creation of new tools. Sometimes it takes a while; in which meantime tools themselves and the whiz-­ bang effects they produce Theory, Method, and Digital Humanities 57 must be the focus of scholarly attention. The eighteenth-­ century electrical machine was a parlor trick. Until it wasn’t...


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Subject Headings

  • Communication in learning and scholarship -- Technological innovations.
  • Scholarly electronic publishing.
  • Humanities -- Information technology.
  • Humanities -- Digital libraries.
  • Humanities -- Research.
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