Everyone who discusses it will, it seems, at some point or another point to Matthew Kirschenbaum’s idea of digital humanities as a “tactical term.” There are many reasons this makes sense: as a tactical term, “digital humanities” can accommodate the various kinds of research that occur under its auspices, can prevent having to make claim of superiority or primacy as a method/field, and can suggest in its own terms the way it functions in the academy.
In fact, it’s tremendously useful to think of “digital humanities” as a tactical term. The only problem I really have is that “tactical term” is a tactical term.
Near the end of his essay, Kirschenbaum writes that his essay is not intended as a provocation (426). While I’ve no doubt that it could be read as such, I’d like to pull a similar move and say, from the outset, I don’t mean this post as a provocation.
In fact, I’m completely serious that his idea of digital humanities as a tactical term is useful, as is his reminder that “DH is a means and not an end” (427). That also draws the strongest parallel between “digital humanities” and “humanities,” I think, insofar as no one in my experience has ever claimed to study literature simply for the sake of liking to study literature . Everyone I’ve spoken with claims to study literature because it provides historical knowledge, gives them practice thinking about certain kinds of things, has liberatory potential, etc.
I identify these three to be fair, because they’re the reasons I usually give. My point isn’t to undermine people’s reasons or suggest that there’s something “deeper” going on. Rather, my point is that digital humanities – ironically, given the evident distaste of many participants for what’s lumped under “high theory” – is often the one area that can exceed “high theory” in its ability to navel-gaze.
At the same time, articles like Kirschenbaum identify why that’s the case in a way that’s unusual. Before coming to UB, I spoke with a current member of the Center for the Study of Psychoanalysis (etc.), who laughingly identified it as an empty signifier – a place around which certain constellations of research developed and found form, but one that doesn’t necessarily dictate the form.
I think, in part, it’s what Kirschenbaum so aptly identifies. By “tactical term,” after all, he means that most attempts to arrive at a definition are self-defeating because they risk excluding significant parts of DH and/or eliding the term’s history (415).
(As a side note, and perhaps because of my own sympathies with things that would indeed fall under “theory,” I’m more than a little surprised that, given the overlaps of definition and the core elements comprising it, no one in these essays seems to have made much of the Wittgensteinian idea of family resemblances.)
What he identifies implicitly that I find most useful, I think ,is the idea that although there will be DH centers, etc., long into the future (as he points out, there are serious infrastructural and terminological investments at this point), what they actually are may change heavily in a way that really won’t limit either them as digital humanities or elide their significance in the long run – perhaps, that is, people should continue to focus on doing things and let the results determine direction.
. Actually, I can think of someone, but he’s well-adjusted to the point of perversity.