Transformations in Digital Humanities

Transformations in Digital Humanities:

The purpose of this blog post is to assess the Transformations in Digital Humanities by examining some of the ideas in art. I will then discuss some of the methods and approaches used in digital humanities.

“One might subsume the eliminated element in the term “aura” and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.” (Benjamin, 1936)

This is what Walter Benjamin claims in ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. If there is no tradition in art in the age of mechanical reproduction then is it really art? The ‘aura’ that surrounds the art in question has an atmospheric quality that belongs only to the original and cannot be replicated. Benjamin’s words echo louder in today’s society with the ever growing advancements of technology. With these fast technological advancements, is the ‘aura’ that surrounds the art in question fading? Benjamin suggests that an original work of art has an incomparable beauty and besides this a presence in space and time that a replica could not match. This is a valid point up to a certain extent. A century ago, art was exclusive and could not be viewed by just anybody but now, you are the click of a button away from viewing painting. While a painting or a picture might not have the originality of the original in that it is lacks the element of space and time, I believe that it can still have an aura. Perhaps the ‘aura’ might not be lost in a mechanical age however has instead evolved/progressed just as culture in society has done so too.

The argument made by Benjamin over eighty years ago has resonance in the Digital Humanities today. In the mechanical age, are we losing something by giving a computer the task of analysing a text instead of a human? By this reckoning we choose quantity over quality. Stanley Fish argues that there is nothing human about investigating words by using a computer and that what the Digital Humanities does is arbitrary because it uses a computer to process data to come up with a variety of possibilities. In his column for The New York Times Mind Your P’s and B’s Fish uses Milton’s ‘Areopagitica’ to illustrate the use of b and p pattern. The purpose of this is to compare it to the methods used by the Digital Humanities to suggest that it is reaching and not making a concrete argument:

‘To my knowledge, I am the first critic to put forward this interpretation of the sequence… Doesn’t the fact that for 368 years only I have noticed the b/p pattern suggest that it is without significance, an accidental concatenation of consonants? Aren’t I being at best over-ingenious and at worst irresponsibly arbitrary?’ (Fish 2012)

I would suggest that Fish is not being over-ingenious in his argument. In fact he has made a plausible statement. It could be argued that this is an astute analysis of the prose that Milton played used in his work. Besides, while a computer may be used to analyse a large scope of work it is still done using a human process.

Ramsey suggests that computing humanists may be unable find a way into the ‘mainstream of literary criticism’ because some of the scientific methods and other approaches are foreign to them. (Ramsay 2003) Ramsey highlights the use of Algorithmic Criticism as it searches for an analogue to reach the potential of art and the spontaneity of human inquiry. (Ramsay 2003) Therefore this can be used to document a variety of possibilities that we ourselves may not conjure. This might support Fish’s argument that there is nothing human here but you could also argue that this is using the human process to create a new tradition in Humanities. Lisa Spiro believes that the way forward for digital humanities is by focusing on a community that comes together around values such as openness and collaboration. In doing so this community needs a statement of values to tackle the challenges that they face. (Spiro et al, 2012)

Digital reproduction technology can be seen in one way as democratic as it satisfies a demand for access to a collection while it preserves the status of the original object. On the other hand it can be regarded as being oppressive as the people who are in determine what is accessible to the public.(Palmer 2011) Thematic research collections are digital resources and are somewhat of a laboratory for digital humanists. They are being developed by institutes such as libraries archives and museums. The content provided by these places has always been useful but not ideal to access. But now institutes have begun to select collections to make them available online for the public. These digital resources act as a virtual laboratory in which materials and tools can be used in order to aid the scholarly process and production of new knowledge. (Palmer et all, 2011) The Digital Humanities is not looking to do away with the traditional methods involved in humanities; it is simply branching out and creating new traditional methods.


  1. Benjamin, Walter. ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction‘. First published in 1936.
  2. Palmer, Carol. ‘Thematic Research Collections’. Companion to Digital Humanities.   Susan Schreibman, Ray  Siemens, John Unsworth. Web. 22 Sept 2011.
  3. Fish, Stanley. ‘Mind Your P’s and B’s: The Digital Humanities and Interpretation‘. New York Times, Opiniator. 23 January 2013.
  4. Ramsay, S. “Special Section: Reconceiving Text Analysis: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism.”Literary and Linguistic Computing 2 (2003): 167-74. Web.
  5. Gold, Matthew K., and Lisa Spiro. “”This Is Why We Fight”: Defining the Values of Digital Humanities.”Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota, 2012. 16-36.

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