Johanna Drucker’s “Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship” is, to me, one of the more exciting pieces that we’ve read in my digital humanities course so far. I’m not saying that I agree with all (I’m not even sure about “most”) of what she writes, but I think that the questions she asks are valuable and, in some senses, on a different vein than a great deal of the conversation surrounding DH that I’ve encountered so far.
Drucker’s first guiding question seems to fall within the ordinary purview of many DH conversations: are, she asks, “humanitists actually doing anything different or just extending the activiites that have always been their core concerns, enabled by advantages of networked digital technology (easier access to primary materials, speed of comparison, searching, etc.)?” (85). This is a question, it seems to me, of compartmentalization in the same sense that asking whether a “speculative turn” in philosophy can be referred to as a cohesive movement: while it has certain values (that I don’t mean to underrepresent) in terms of how we think of things, it mostly asks us to look into the seeds of time and say which grain will grow and which will not (as it were).
Her second question, she writes, “frames a very different agenda: Have the humanities had any impact on the digital environment? Can we create graphical interfaces and digital platforms from humanistic methods?” (85).
Obviously, the second question does not differ in some respects from the first: it’s a question that begs for definitions. Some of these, I think, she handles well: she implies, for example, that of primary importance to the thought of humanities are “the role of affect, notions of non—self-identiticality of all expressions, the force of a constructivist approach to knowledge as knowing, observer dependent, emergent, and process driven” (87). Some of these she does less well: her final example, of the difference in ideas of time and temporality between humanists (who look at time as often “in relativistic terms as in absolute ones” (93)) and scientific researchers (as “imagined by researchers checking the frequency of urination in lab rats or number of commuters […] during certain hours” (93)) falls apart when one remembers that not all scientific researchers spend their days monitoring urination or counting commuters, somewhat in the same way that not all humanities researchers spend their time parsing what bird metaphors meant about where Shakespeare spent most of his time.
The question, for me, gains value exactly in the moments when it assumes the application of a set of humanistic methods, theories, etc., against some forms of practice and representation. What is interesting is the way in which such an application seems to be a road test of what is done, something that (sort of correlatively to what Heather posted below) forces us to make sense of what it is we’re doing when we do humanities, the challenge of application. It may be the case, as she seems to argue, that computers reify models in ways to make them seem authoritiative and conducive to misunderstanding (here, though, I’m thinking of a student I had who, after reading a basic description of Freudian theory, turned in a draft of a paper detailing the various analogues one can find between the gun in Jewett’s “A White Heron” and a penis in form, function, and use – a paper unburdened, I should add, by any internal censorship or even sense of propriety as well as indicating a rich descriptive vocabulary). It may even be the case that if you “put the average person in front [of Google Maps] and they believe they are seeing the world, not a constructed version of it” (91; italics in original) – which we could no doubt usefully differentiate from putting this same average person in front of _Of Grammatology_ and seeing the degree to which they understand its workings, or (more directly) asking an average person why they’re uncomfortable starting a sentence with a coordinating conjunction…
My point, however, is that I think the kinds of questions she’s asking here are very useful insofar as they force a reflection on what it is we actually do to begin with. The question ‘do we need another deconstructive reading of a text?” (specific readings, I suspect, not being as hard a thing to make a computer do as I might hope they are for the sake of job security), we can ask “why would we need such a reading, or a thousand of them” – paradoxically, then, I think one of the things Drucker most usefully identifies is the way in which digital humanities gives a space from which to take stock of what it is we are already doing.
 I mean this absolutely: if there is one thing I dislike about her piece, it’s the leveling work of “humanities versus science” in it. I realize it’s only one example – though, in a longer post, I think it would be possible to show across the board – but her discussion on temporality reveals it very clearly. If I were to tell my friends who do research in medicine, structural geology, and theoretical astrophysics that they had a view of time that didn’t take into account its experience as perceived (cf. 93), they would all take issue for different reasons. I realize she’s most likely discussing this within the terms of “humanities representation versus modes of representation conventionally available within digital humanities,” but there’s still the question (raised, in particular, by her – I think playful – mention of the possibility of different potential event horizons) of whether that sort of leveling is productive.