David M. Berry and Anders Fagerjord, Digital Humanities: Knowledge and Critique in a Digital Age

David M. Berry and Anders Fagerjord, Digital Humanities: Knowledge and Critique in a Digital Age (Cambridge, England; Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017, reprint 2018) 208 pp. £55 hb. ISBN: 978-0-745-69765-9.

Digital humanities is a field characterised by its disparate methods and approaches: distant reading and text mining can appear to have little in common with, for example, ontological mapping or social network analysis, and the intersection of researchers across the humanities who describe themselves as practitioners of digital humanities can often have little else about their research in common. It is also a field characterised by controversy, with critics setting it in opposition to ‘traditional’ humanities, particularly evident in the first rumbles of distant reading, initially (and incorrectly) viewed as standing in aggressive contrast to close reading. These debates and issues have existed since the field’s beginnings – even before the first use of the term itself in 2001 – and have never been fully put to rest. With funders and institutions increasingly looking to digital humanities projects for measurable impact and outreach, the field has more recently been criticised as acting as a tool of the neoliberal university, and passionate assaults and parries still appear regularly in print. 

Against a background of controversy and scholarly misunderstanding, David M. Berry and Anders Fagerjord represent these facets of digital humanities well, touching on such conflicts in a push to develop a ‘critical’ digital humanities that does not shy away from criticism but instead interrogates the wider role of the field. The overarching argument of the book is that the time has come for digital humanities to position itself more critically. The authors suggest that we have experienced different waves of digital humanities, and the next should be focused on a critical digital humanities; on a practical level, this might mean building reflection into digital humanities projects and funding bids. At the same time, there needs to be a recognition that the perceived opposition is no longer between the analogue and digital; it is impossible to imagine research being carried out today that does not make use of software for Word processing, for example, and the internet for searching. As such, Berry and Fagerjord suggest that we are in a “post-screenic” phase, meaning that we are moving away from seeing the use of a screen as a marker of digital humanities and towards a model in which digital humanities must be able to offer not only tools, but also “theoretical interventions” (2). Those who identify as digital humanities researchers are doing more than entering terms into a search box in a digital database; this kind of digital engagement is no longer sufficient for a researcher to identify themselves as a digital humanities practitioner, and so we should think in terms of an axis or scale of digital humanities that recognises such a seismic shift in the way research is conducted, while retaining the distinctiveness of digital humanities.

Some of the ambivalent history of the field is explored in a chapter on “Genealogies of the Digital Humanities”, showing the root of digital humanities in a kind of computational thinking drawn from the logic of computer algorithms. This chapter makes a strong connection with the discipline of Computer Science, but supports its discussion with examples from digital humanities. Berry and Fagerjord’s analysis demonstrates how digital humanities changes what we understand by academic work, adding elements such as the creation of ontologies, metadata and visualisations to the everyday demands of research. The book highlights that some disciplines have been more open than others to the opportunities presented by digital humanities techniques, such as linguistics, because it is sometimes easier to see how the techniques offered support ‘traditional’ methods in those areas. Nevertheless, the chapters that follow explore different elements of this computation thinking, including its fundamental skills (here expressed as automation, abstraction and decomposition), algorithms and programming languages, and finally the aesthetics of computation, comparing this kind of thinking to that fostered by archives, such as library classification systems and how they shape ways of understanding knowledge hierarchies. Throughout, the book recognises what makes computational thinking distinctive while also effectively aligning it with its ‘traditional’ humanities counterparts and its significance in the landscape of higher education. In a chapter on “Knowledge Representation and Archives”, for example, a parallel is made between the handwritten annotations that preceded markup languages, and the languages and techniques we use to do this digitally. In a later chapter on “Research Infrastructures”, Berry and Fagerjord highlight how university structures rely on the digital, and what infrastructure support is needed for this kind of work not only to take place, but also to grow and develop. Other chapters outline digital methods and tools in more detail, and explore digital scholarship and interface criticism. It provides thoughtful insight into the field for those unfamiliar with its history and approaches, and also has a strong argument for those seeking to conceptualise and interrogate the field itself.

It occasionally feels like this volume would benefit from clearer integration of case studies of successful digital humanities projects which, although present, are not central to the scheme of the book; as a digital humanities researcher, I have been particularly struck by the issue of sustainability and the replication of efforts by different researchers around the world who are simply not aware of what work has already been done. However that is not the purpose of this book, and its argument that digital humanities, having gone through several waves already, needs to shape itself more clearly into a field with its own critical discourse, is compelling. The book will be of interest not only to those new to digital humanities seeking to understand how its approaches and debates might appear in, or influence, their work, but also those already entrenched in the field looking to its future.

Dr Emily Bell, University of York