- Digital Humanities as Appendix
Sometimes the digital humanities can seem like an inversion rather than a branch of the humanities. Self-described digital humanists often emphasize, even celebrate, how their practice differs from that of their disciplinary colleagues. Whereas most humanities scholars do their research more or less in isolation, digital humanists typically collaborate in teams that include technologists, librarians, and students. While the quintessential product of most humanities research is an interpretation presented in a monograph or an essay, digital humanists more often experiment with form, developing broad archives, interactive maps, and computer-generated models. Books and essays usually go through peer review before appearing with the imprimatur of a university press or scholarly journal; digital humanities projects are evaluated at a later point, undergoing, to borrow a couple of phrases from Kathleen Fitzpatrick, “crowdsourcing review” to receive (or not) “community imprimatur.” 1 Finally, digital humanities projects often are not organized around substantiating an argument but instead prompt their audiences to independently investigate a subject through a more participatory, open-ended, and nonlinear process.
While experimentation with alternative ways to practice and present the humanities can be exhilarating, there are of course trade-offs. Many humanities scholars continue to look askance at digital humanities work. Because such work often does not foreground specific arguments, many digital humanities projects can seem peripheral to the debates and questions that animate their own research. Take, as evidence, the differences between book and digital history reviews in the Journal of American History. The JAHhas shown a greater interest in encouraging digital scholarship than many journals, as the [End Page 131]presence of the digital history reviews section attests. But these reviews can make digital humanities scholarship seem preparatory to or distinct from the kinds of historical research assessed in book reviews. Whereas reviews of books almost always critically assess the contributions of an argument, that is very seldom the case in the digital history reviews. Much more often those review online archives, evaluating their utility in providing scholars with easy access to important materials or providing instructors a teaching resource for their students. Judging by these reviews, many humanists might understandably think that digital humanists produce valuable public humanities projects and useful tools for research but not necessarily, taking arguments and interpretation as the measure, scholarship.
If the two articles under consideration here are any indication, that opinion is likely to change. Matthew Wilkens’s “Geographic Imagination of Civil War–Era American Fiction,” published in American Literary Historyin 2013, and Cameron Blevins’s “Space, Nation, and the Triumph of Region: A View of the World from Houston,” published in the JAHin 2014, signal that digital humanists and digital humanities methods are beginning to yield significant arguments. They are two examples of how digital humanities methods and digital humanities research are increasingly paying interpretative dividends, generating insights that will be of interest and value to humanities scholars who have little if any specific investment in DH qua DH.
These two articles share a remarkable amount in common. Wilkens and Blevins both sketch and analyze the cultural construction of space in the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century. Wilkens seeks to survey the “geographic imagination” (804) of Civil War–era American fiction, Blevins the “imagined geography” (124) constructed by one Texas newspaper, the Houston Daily Post, around the turn of the twentieth century. The transposition of noun and modifier does suggest one important difference in their approaches and their preoccupations. Blevins is primarily interested in readers, not actual but imagined ones. He argues that the number of times people encountered particular place-names in the paper’s pages helped determine the ways they negotiated and navigated geographic space. In his account, the imagined geography of the Houston Daily Postwas first and foremost a commercial geography that both reflected and helped actively shape economic activity in the region...