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Ruminations on Digital Humanities

February 24, 2013

For this week’s explorations for History and New Media, also known as History in the Digital Age, I would like my readers to take a look at Elena Razlogova’s “Digital Humanities for What?” ( I relate to her conundrum: When and where is the intersection between history, activism, and technology?

For my part, I would answer that the tension between history and activism has a much longer history. One only need to look as far as much older seminal texts like E.H. Carr’s “What is History?” or Peter Novick’s “That Noble Dream” to learn that history itself is never a static object on a sterile plane. It is created for and by subjective creatures, namely human beings. The introduction of artificial intelligence, among them search algorithms, complicates this already challenging landscape. Razlogova muses, “Twitter is thus incapable of seeing social movements: if it existed in the mid-twentieth century, it would have trended the Watts Riots; but would have completely missed the “long civil rights movement” crucial for understanding why the riots happened.”

From my perspective, the elephant in the room is who we are talking to. They fall into at least two prominent categories: Well heeled and affluent individuals who invariably find discussions of systemic racism and entrenched structures of economic injustice in their seminars and colloquia “interesting.” Then there are those working in the humanities like myself: low paid adjuncts, funding running out, avoiding massive debt, uninsured, etc. Is this an uncomfortable comparison to make? Yes. Is it entirely inaccurate? No.

This social dynamic cuts right to the heart of what Razlogova is advocating: Should more academics put themselves on the line for political causes? The affluent group is quite happy to have a buffer between themselves and the actual oppression they study, often with very little awareness of problems privilege presents in knowledge production or their own role in systems of inequality. The struggling group has better things to do than stick their neck out: Mainly hoping for a stable income and a reasonable quality of life. Is Razlogova really surprised that “political commitment” is problem for these groups?

Yes, I realize I’m making a starkly reductionist argument. But an honest appraisal of who the individuals Razlogova is talking about when she refers to those working in “digital humanities” might help tease out why we are not seeing people jump into looking at Wikileaks data sets.

One Comment
  1. The difference here is that Elena Razlogova has a commitment to the digital humanities. She is making the argument not to discredit the field, but to activate it. She helped build the Center for History and New Media. So rather than using her argument as a blunt instrument to promote an anti-intellectual stance that discounts the possibility of the digital humanities, instead use your social position and the tools and privileges that you do have to help strengthen and build movements that can create structural changes.

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