Digital humanities and media studies: staging an encounter

Mosaic of close-ups from Vertov's The Eleventh Year
Visualization of all close-ups of faces from Vertov’s The Eleventh Year by Lev Manovich, in “Visualizing Vertov.”

This is the introduction I gave to a workshop on media studies and digital humanities at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies annual conference in Chicago on March 8, 2013. Fellow participants: Eric Faden, Hannah Goodwin, Jason Mittell, Jason Rhody, and Jasmijn Van Gorp. Many thanks to the SCMS livestreaming team. You can view the taped event here.

In 2000, the media scholar and digital humanities practitioner Johanna Drucker sat on a panel at SUNY Albany with Jacques Derrida. They were there to discuss digital media, but something totally unexpected happened: failure. Derrida was “unable,” writes Drucker, “to get a purchase on digital media.”1

The problem was not Derrida, but theory itself. Derrida made his observations at a remove, pronouncing at a distance on the changes wrought by digital technology. “This will not do,” Drucker declares, not even for one of the greatest theorists of our time. We must theorize digital technology through critical engagement with the medium itself, through making and breaking and building and reflecting. Pressing the humanistic against the digital, acknowledges Drucker, we fail and fail and fail, and “what is revealed in the processes is not what the machine does not know — but what we have not, until this exercise, been ourselves able to see.”2

Film "fingerprints," which look like multicolored donuts
Film “fingerprints” created by Frederic Brodbeck using his Cinemetrics software.

Thirteen years later, media studies remains largely absent from the array of disciplines that have staked a claim on digital humanities. I say this with two important caveats: first, that, as witnessed by today’s workshop participants, some media scholars are doing digital humanities; and, second, work that we might be happy to claim as digital humanities goes on under different names. Alex Juhasz, for example, does work that might be called digital humanities, but has chosen instead to ally herself with feminist traditions of activist media.

But the fact remains that SCMS has yet to host a panel or workshop explicitly devoted to digital humanities — evidence, one might venture, of a lingering divide in the discipline between theory and praxis. Or perhaps media scholars, so expert at interpreting the ideological effects of media objects, understand too well the dangers of engaging flippantly with digital media. Perhaps we’ve just needed time to think about it.

Jason Mittell and I decided to force the issue by putting together this workshop, with the aim of seeing what happens when media studies and digital humanities converge. Our aim is not to argue for any particular approach to DH and media studies, but to gesture toward what might be done at the intersection of the fields. To that end, we’ve assembled some people who are doing interesting research, and we’ve asked them to keep their presentations brutally short, so that we can reserve most of the time here for questions and discussion — in which I hope you’ll see yourselves as much participants as those of us at the front of the room.

Graph displaying shot lengths for Charlie Chaplin's His New Job
Shot lengths for Charlie Chaplin’s His New Job, created using Yuri Tsivian’s Cinemetrics database. Read Matt Hauske’s analysis here.

How one defines digital humanities is so contentious that anyone who does DH has to suppress a groan when the question arises, as it inevitably does. But since I’m the one doing the introducing, I’ll share with you my definition, which is a simple one: it’s the use of digital technologies to investigate humanities questions. I say “investigate” and not “answer” because it is eminently clear that one cannot definitively answer a humanities question. Definitive answers make no sense for the humanities, which deals in and excels at ambiguity, paradox, and shades of gray — all qualities at which, I think we can agree, digital technology fails miserably. So why apply the one to the other? Because it’s the friction between the two that’s productive. From moment to moment, as we answer email and check Facebook, we already swim apparently effortlessly between the realm of the human and the ruthlessly binary logic of the digital. Digital humanities seeks not to bridge a divide but to trouble an already collapsed distinction, bringing the two ways of knowing into a productive dissonance.

And such a paradox should not, after all, seem so unfamiliar to film scholars. We know better than anyone that reality consists of a plenitude, contingency, and variety to which film can never be adequate. The messy and nonsensical world rushes past us like a river, in Bazin’s familiar formulation. We know our efforts to hold it in our hands are futile. And still film tries, and still we remain faithful to it, because, paradoxically, it is in the bending of reality to artifice that we witness some of its most arresting truths.

Bar graph
Screengrab from Mark Hansen’s shi jian: time, published in Vectors Journal of Culture and Technology in a Dynamic Vernacular 3:2 (Summer 2012).

It’s tempting to see some looming significance in the counterprogramming of this workshop with the close analysis workshop across the hall. But I caution us against such easy dichotomies, in which we figure digital humanities as a new episteme to replace the old. Instead, I urge us to see this as an opportunity to draw on those qualities at which media studies excels — the ontology of the image, a nuanced understanding of indexicality, an aliveness to the variegations and ambiguities of spectatorship, to name a few — and to ask what they can bring to the digital humanities. We will, of course, fail to find answers, but that is, maddeningly and inevitably, the point.

1. Johanna Drucker, “Theory as Praxis: The Poetics of Electronic Textuality,” Modernism/Modernity 9:4 (2002), 683–691, 683.

2. Ibid., 688.

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