fishondh

In April 2010 I organized “Pastplay” (or “Playing with Technology in History”, as we called it before Bethany Nowviskie came up with a much better name), with the financial support of the The History Education Network / Histoire et éducation en réseau (THEN/HiER). It was the most rewarding two days of my career. Much of the credit goes to Bill Turkel, who I thanked at the meeting for “taking my phone calls”. He did much more, of course, helping me think through, and then plan the event. Bill also brought in several people who I didn’t know, and quickly came to admire.

Stephen Ramsay was one. He articulated a new hermeneutic for digital humanities – “community, relationship, and play” – that has since come to define that meeting. These words struck a chord with me, and I’ve seen them quoted by several others as well. They are taken from a remarkable essay that Stephen contributed to the volume that emerged from Pastplay, which is now winding its way through the editorial process.

This morning I was delighted to see Stephen quoted at length (his Pastplay paper, as well as his important essays “Towards an Algorithmic Criticism” and “Reading Machines”) in a column in the New York Times. He was referred to as “perhaps the most sophisticated theorist of the burgeoning field” of Digital Humanities by Stanley Fish, who is writing a series of columns on DH. Those who know Fish will not be surprised to hear that he is not a fan of the new movement.

Fish’s column is making the rounds on Twitter, and will get its due in the blogosphere. He laments that DH has “little place for the likes of me and for the kind of criticism I practice: a criticism that narrows meaning to the significances designed by an author, a criticism that generalizes from a text as small as half a line, a criticism that insists on the distinction between the true and the false, between what is relevant and what is noise, between what is serious and what is mere play.”

There’s a lot to unpack here, and his desire to distinguish between relevance and noise, serious and play, lies at the heart of where the Pastplay group is going. But I’ll leave that for later. For now, it strikes me that this is what we hear every time there is a changing of the guard; the establishment of new ideas within academia typically comes amidst retirements, as professors move from writing papers to newspaper columns, and a new generation sets the agenda. And Fish is correct to end with: “I have a lot to answer for”. That, after all, was one of Stephen’s points: a researcher’s research program is his/hers, and should be viewed as a contribution to an ongoing conversation within a community of inquiry.

At the same time, I appreciate Fish’s reminder that DH is making claims that new movements typically make. DHers could and should argue that there is something truly transformative about computing and the internet, but the larger point is that we need to remain hungry and humble. About a year ago the question of “who is in and who is out” was a hot topic in DH circles, and it seems to me that DH remains a big tent – with room, perhaps, for even the likes of Fish, should he want to join the party.