Rethinking the Humanities: DH and EH

At the Digital Environmental Humanities workshop (www.dig-eh.org) that took place September 7-8, 2013, in Montreal, Quebec and hosted by McGill University, colleagues came together from various environmental humanities disciplines to discuss with a smaller group of digital humanities colleagues the possibilities of harnessing methods and tools being established in the one field to the benefit of the other field. In the sense that discussions around new collaborations and new research projects began to form, the workshop was a success. At the same time, it clearly revealed some of the deeper issues around perceptions of the digital humanities. We became keenly aware of the need for a more general discussion about both the environmental humanities and the digital humanities in order to better understand what might exactly constitute a digital environmental humanities.

1) Similarities
A couple of points can be made about DH and certain disciplines within EH in terms of their constitution. First, a less positive take on this nature might emphasize the division between making (or doing) and critiquing (or theorizing) that has characterized both DH and EH. In DH, there has been much debate about the difference between theory and practice and which makes or break what it means to be a digital humanist. At the same time, calls have been made to go beyond this split and to embrace the “big tent” view of DH.  Within environmental literary studies, a similar divide has been made between those who do environmental activism and those who critique notions of nature, between those who reject theory in order to better embrace the urgency of environmental issues and those who insist that theory is a necessary part of doing. For many EH scholars, this tension is in fact what characterizes their work and they insist on the necessity of inhabiting “a difficult space of simultaneous critique and action” (Bird Rose, van Dooren, et al.).
This point can lead to a more positive interpretation of the division between making and critiquing in the humanities. Both EH and DH are redefining the humanities in their attempt to bring together these two types of scholarship and research. By extending humanities interpretation to environmental issues (EH) and by creating new tools and methods for humanities research (DH), both disciplines are advocating for a new way of thinking about the humanities. Moving beyond traditional work in the humanities, EH and DH are illustrating that the humanities matter for other reasons as well. It remains to be seen if other disciplines, such as the sciences in the case of EH, or digital design and gaming in the case of DH, will recognize the worth of such contributions from the humanities.
One final point to be made about the nature of humanities scholarship in EH and DH is that both are promoting models of interdisciplinary and collaborative work. They are thus moving away from the single authored monograph that has for such a long time characterized the evaluation of work in the humanities. This requires an important paradigm shift within the disciplines themselves to imagine new ways of determining the value of creative, cross-disciplinary contributions to larger public discourses on the environment and digital culture. By the very nature of the work they do, both EH and DH are reshaping the humanities at many different levels: administrative, academic, and more generally in the public life that research has once it moves beyond the walls of the university.

2) Differences
At the same time, this reshaping takes on different forms within DH and EH. For EH, rethinking the humanities means pushing beyond the human and including the non-human world in their field of study. Illustrating the need for humanities scholarship in areas that have previously been seen as belonging to the sciences has been a central way in which EH has been working to advocate for the humanities. The question may then be asked to what extent these new objects of study are being examined with the same interpretive approaches, in short, whether in fact the humanities are really doing anything differently by studying the environment. Scholars within Animal Studies have objected that the humanities remain in fact all “too human” (Wolfe). Even if EH is “posing fundamentally different questions, questions of value and meaning informed by nuanced historical understanding of the cultures that frame environmental problems” (Mistra article), it is not clear to what extent these different questions are being posed using a new methodological framework.
As for DH, it has largely promoted developing new tools and methods through quantitative research and approaches. In this sense, DH looks at the same objects of study (for the most part written texts but also images, film, art) but through a different lens. Because of this emphasis on new methodologies (distant reading vs. close reading, quantitative vs. qualitative), DH has been accused of stripping the humanities of its human side (read interpretive, critical, etc.). Yet actual applications of DH clearly illustrate that the computer never replaces the human being and that a hybrid approach is always required. So while it may be introducing methodologies that would have been foreign to the humanities in the past because of limits of time and scale, it is also illustrating what makes the humanities distinct from a purely qualitative approach for example.
To conclude, it is important to emphasize that the differences between EH and DH tend to converge when scholars articulate advocacy for the humanities. While highlighting the need for more cultural critique within DH, Alain Liu concludes that our responsibility is “to   show   that   the humanities   are   needed   alongside   the   sciences   to   solve   the intricately   interwoven   natural,   technological,   economic,   social, political,    cultural  problems  of the  global  age.”  This sounds in many ways like the types of statements made about the need for EH. This is even more so in the final sentence of Liu’s article where he asserts that there is no area of “energy, environment, biomedicine, food, water, education, and so on that does not require humanistic involvement.” The vague reference to “humanistic involvement” leaves open the possibility of scholarship that introduces new methods of analysis and scholarship that introduces new objects of study.

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