Keep the Discussion Open or Be a Blob of Jellyfish: “How Do You Define DH?”

On Monday someone on Twitter breathed a sigh of relief that it no longer was necessary to post a definition of “digital humanities” in order to sign up for Day of DH 2012.  On the same day, two people asked me, “What does ‘digital humanities’ mean?” The term is not old news yet, inside or outside academia. And it’s still being defined, even by people who live inside the DH’s deepest inner circles. This is evidenced by the many repeat participants in Day of DH who modified their definitions from last year.

That the term is still being defined is crucial to this field. To cheer over not having to post a definition is an act of closing down the discussion of what a digital humanist is and does and what the digital humanities means. Having a permanent definition is a fabulous way to build a neat, comfortable box around yourself and what you do. You never have look beyond the edges of the box or at yourself, lolling in the box.

Robert Frost wrote many poems in which he explored the catastrophe of certainty. “Etherealizing,” which was published in Steeple Bush (1947), makes this point particularly well:

A theory if you hold it hard enough
And long enough gets rated as a creed:
Such as that flesh is something we can slough
So that the mind can be entirely freed.
Then when the arms and legs have atrophied,
And brain is all that’s left of mortal stuff,
We can lie on the beach with the seaweed
And take our daily tide baths smooth and rough.
There once we lay as blobs of jellyfish
At evolution’s opposite extreme.
But now as blobs of brain we’ll lie and dream,
With only one vestigial creature wish:
Oh, may the tide be soon enough at high
To keep our abstract verse from becoming dry.

This poem is more than a simple critique of evolution, a theory Frost had difficulty accepting because it made the nature sound too mechanistic and determined.  The poem takes the position that receiving theories and definitions of terms without constant interrogation will turn them into codified systems of belief. The risk of never questioning belief or certainty is a “mind … entirely freed” from the body, which lies on the beach like a “blob[ ] of jellyfish” (359). In other words, a mind stranded from its body is like a belief insulated from inquiry and renewed questioning. It is as useless and inert as the soft jellyfish lying on the shore. Beliefs, theories, definitions, and scientific laws eventually change.

Here’s my definition of the digital humanities, which is different from the original one I posted at the Day of DH 2012 site. In that definition, I emphasized discussion as though all DH people do is sit around and talk. I omitted participation in online projects. Here’s a better working definition for me:

  • The digital humanities represent an inclusive, open community that includes students, researchers, teachers, and other people interested in developing online projects and participating in discussions of issues related to the learning, teaching, social, political, technical, economic implications of those projects and the Web more generally. The digital humanities encompass building, collaborating, learning, making knowledge, playing with the imagination, and sharing with others, online and offline.

You can find many more definitions at Day of DH 2012.

Author: Elizabeth F. Cornell

Elizabeth F. Cornell is the director of communications for Fordham IT, at Fordham University. Formerly, she was a post-doctoral fellow in the English Department at Fordham.

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