MLA 2012: Seattle, WA
Proposal: 1 April 2011

Special Session: Digital Humanities v. New Media

Convened by Victoria Szabo, Duke University
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The idea of a panel on Digital Humanities v. New Media arose partly in response to the gap between the Digital Humanities sessions at MLA 2011, which largely focused the use of digital tools to aid in new interpretations of texts or sets of text traditionally understood as appropriate objects of inquiry in English studies, and those that addressed New Media, which focused either on multimodal expression, often within the context of rhetoric and teaching, or on more explicitly theoretical approaches to inherently "new?"media forms.

On the one hand, through "digital humanities" scholarship we run the risk of uncritical appropriation of novel quantitative approaches, and reliance on digitization as a self-evident good. New Media Studies offers up potential for critique of our new tactics. On the other, "new media" as an object of inquiry can get bound up in a presentist approach that reads media genealogies through the lens of present digital practice, rather than as contextualized part of the broader range of historical analogues and antecedents made newly accessible through digital humanities resources.

The goal of this panel is to put these two approaches to the digital turn in the humanities in dialog with one another. How does reading one in light of the other enrich the broader conversation about humanities knowledge production, and the constitution of the disciplines themselves? One possibility for a more fully theorized digital humanities scholarship, for example, is that it might privilege the research question over a specific media form (text, image, film, game, etc.). The consequences for disciplinary definition could be substantial.

Alison Byerly's "Everything Old is New Again: The Digital Past and the Humanistic Future" begins by highlighting the ways in which the have uniquely cordoned off both of these critical terms within the humanities. She argues that the absence of analogous "digital sciences" or "digital social sciences" reflects a sense of the humanities as the area of greatest tension between technological form and traditional content. Similarly, media studies quickly defined "new media" as a field whose newness suddenly made other recent media seem old by comparison. Both encapsulate a crucial contradiction: they attempt to project the present into the future, but succeed only by invoking the past.

Andrew Pilsch's "As Study or As Paradigm?: Humanities and the Uptake of Emerging Technologies" takes a rhetorical approach to the question, suggesting that both fields are constituted through two competing practices, "paradigm" and "study," by which humanities disciplines absorb the new. Following Jeffrey Nealon's thesis on the role of theory in English studies, he argues that digital humanities is a paradigmatic means to produce new and novel readings across historical periods in textual studies. Alternatively, following Gayatri Spivak on the creation of sub-disciplinary "studies," he suggests that new media studies operates like another possible object of study, akin to an historical period or an identity group.

David Gruber picks up on the rhetorical approach Pilsch introduces, applying it in a particular case study of a digital art/literature project with which he is involved, Tunnel Vision ( This project takes Mark Strand's well-known poem "The Tunnel" as an allegory for the human relationship with technology and digitally reanimates the poem to question the unique coming together of material body and machine functionality. Gruber argues that as a result of its conceptual and material properties, Tunnel Vision is able to be situated as both a Digital Humanities and New Media Studies project, depending on whether your approach is interpretive or theoretical. He argues that such work closes the circle of theory and practice, ultimately obviating such distinctions.

Finally Victoria Szabo addresses the question by interrogating digital humanities authorship practice through the lens of new media studies critique in "Digital Humanities v. New Media: Theory, Practice, Critique." She argues that the database aesthetic that dominates digital humanities practice itself shapes the production of knowledge about both traditional and new media objects in fundamental ways. Using her "Apprehending the Crystal Palace" project as an example, she suggests that when we add on top of the multimodal scholarly archive an overt analytical and interpretative framework in the form of data visualizations, suggestive search terms, timelines, layers, maps and paths, we explicitly draw the trails of hypermedia narrative atop a substrate of fortifying "data," eliding and complicating distinctions between subject and object, metadata and data, presentation and critique. The role of the unitary academic author thus is inextricably bound up with that of the database developer who creates the structural conditions through which the argument is made.

Collectively our panelists consider what is at stake for the humanities as it attempts to embrace new technologies formally, conceptually, practically, and methodologically. The cordoning off of special areas of inquiry as "digital" or "new" is a temporary containment strategy; the digital becoming increasingly ubiquitous and the new an ever-moving target. What makes these terms useful, however, is that each signals a distinctive approach around which new practices coalesce and communities form. Perhaps the most significant shift in the humanities heralded by the digital turn is that from the unitary scholar to the digital collaborator, whether on the level of critical-engine generation or new media object creation.


Alison Byerly is Professor of English and Provost at Middlebury College. She recently completed a book on virtual reality and the Victorian novel, entitled  Are We There Yet? Virtual Travel and Victorian Realism,  forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press.  She has participated in workshops and seminars on the evaluation of digital scholarship, including a session earlier in this convention, and spoke on “the future of the humanities in the digital age, ” along with Steven Pinker and David Thorburn, as part of MIT’s Communications Forum. She is currently working on a project on “Victorian social media.”

Andrew Pilsch is a lecturer in English Pennsylvania State University, University Park. His recent Ph.D. research offers a genealogical account of the development of "transhumanism," a discourse of late 20th century science, religion, and philosophy in which the human is constructed as an object of ongoing evolutionary processes works. His approach is as a rhetorician and his work primarily deals with exploring the cultural ramifications of cybernetics and the changing landscape of humanity in the face of emerging technology. He has become increasingly interested in the forces shaping academic knowledge production.

David Gruber is a doctoral candidate in the Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media Program at North Carolina State University. His research interests are in writing studies, the philosophy of technology, and the rhetoric of the body with a specific emphasis on exploring depictions of human co-development with technology as historical and rhetorical objects, created and shaped by modes of inquiry. He strives to use digital media artwork as a way to creatively visualize and interrogate the human-technology relationship. When asked whether he is a rhetorical critic, a Digital Humanist, or a New Media Studies scholar, he prefers all of the above.

Victoria Szabo is an Assistant Research Professor in Visual Studies and New Media in the Department of Art, Art History & Visual Studies at Duke University. She also directs the Program in Information Science + Information Studies. Her work focuses on digital media authorship, in theory and in practice, with special attention to spatial media, databases, and mixed reality systems. She is a the co-director of an interdisciplinary Humanities Lab at Duke called "GreaterThanGames: Transmedia Applications, Virtual Worlds, and Digital Storytelling," and a core collaborator in Wired!, a group focused on visualizing the built past through annotated maps and 3D reconstructions. She is currently working on historical “digital city” projects with a public-facing dimension in Durham NC, Venice, and Bremen. Before coming to Duke she spent nearly 10 years as a professional academic technology developer at Grinnell and Stanford, and started out her academic life studying Victorian literature and culture.