Cardiff University Digital Humanities Network Launches

Digital Symptoms

’Twas the week before Christmas and the bells of Cardiff University were ringing out with glee as on 16 December 2015 Cardiff University’s Digital Humanities Network held its inaugural meeting. And what a productive and rewarding meeting it proved to be! Led by Anthony Mandal, from the Cardiff’s Centre for Editorial and Intertextual Research, the participants (more of which shortly) engaged in lively discussion and debate about how to go about achieving the Network’s plans to make Digital Humanities an integral (and visible) part of the work we do at Cardiff University.

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The aim of the Network is to build significant capacity in Digital Humanities practice at Cardiff University. In addition to drawing established practitioners based in the University (principally, the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences), the Network will also support scholars interested in embedding Digital Humanities in their own research activities, and to foster exciting and innovative collaborative projects.

IMG_1108While Digital Humanities  in its various manifestations has been a field of study for nearly five decades, there remains little consensus as to what it actually entails, and scholarship has tended to focus on fairly circumscribed, fundamentally ‘academic’ activities: database development, digital textual editing, digitization and the archive and, more recently, Big Data. Yet, simultaneously, media theorists are increasingly engaging with the digital-at-large in culture and the arts, exploring the impact of new media paradigms on social behaviour or arts practice. Despite their shared interests, these two fields do not interact as fully as they should, given the opportunities for mutual dialogue that would benefit and enrich both. In light of these blind-spots, the Digital Network intends to stimulate the emergence of a more responsive critical ecology, distinctively inflecting our interests and work to date in a holistic manner. Specifically, the Network will further reinforce our role as a research-led institution at the heart of an expanding regional creative economy that makes central use of digital culture (e.g. as evidenced by Creative Exchange WalesREACT and, more recently, Creative Cardiff).

IMG_1116The workshop began with Anthony giving a broad overview of Digital Humanities and how that term has been used and understood by various academics and institutions. It was particularly valuable to learn that that very term used to describe the field—‘Digital Humanities’—came about as a publishing strategy to make ‘Humanities Computing’ seem more appealing to humanists, when Susan Schriebman et al. were preparing their Companion to the Digital Humanities (2004; new edn, 2016). The substitution of the word ‘Digital’ for ‘Computing’—certainly, to my ears at least—places less emphasis on the technical and mechanical side of things (hardware, scientific, mathematical, etc.) and more on the creative, imaginative and interpretative: three concepts that are always going to be attractive to any researcher in the humanities. Effectively, I suspect, the shift from ‘Computing’ to ‘Digital’ also reveals what Marjorie Garber would describe as a symptom of culture: an anxiety that ‘underlies’ modern life. The difficulty in not just trying to define the Digital Humanities but even to find an appropriate name for it belies an unease with just what it means to do research in the digital era and even what it means to be alive in a world where the digital pervades all aspects of our lives. The constant discussion surrounding what the Digital Humanities means reinforces, then, our anxiety, which may be subconscious, about the digital world as we try to make sense of this new paradigm that is changing the way we do research.

IMG_1117It is not surprising, then, that when Anthony had finished his introductory talk, the conversation moved straight on to whether or not ‘Digital Humanities’ was an appropriate term to describe the sort of work we wanted to do in the network. Sara Pepper (Creative Cardiff) made the point that outside of academia no one, certainly within the creative industries, would even recognise the term let alone use it. Furthermore, and revealingly, many people in the room who are doing important work that could be classified as ‘Digital Humanities’ do not identify with that term. The question then became did we want to use ‘Digital Humanities’ to define the group or should we, instead, go for something far more distinctive that would allow us to engage with wider digital concerns and with Cardiff’s own creative and digital economies, such as ‘Digital Cultures’? Almost unanimously everyone agreed that ‘Digital Cultures’ more accurately captured what we wanted to explore within the network and it would also allow us to reach new audiences as ‘Cultures’ speaks not just to the humanities but other disciplinary fields as well. Dissent was voiced, interestingly enough, by Paul Rosin, Professor of Computer Vision. Paul felt that by changing the name we were losing sight of the computational aspect that informs all digital work, something that more accurately describes his work. However, instead of seeing this sort of discussion as a means to an end (what do we call ourselves?), our guiding principle was to foster discussion in the first place. For many people in the room, this was the first time where they had been give an opportunity to investigate these issues with their colleagues within the walls of Cardiff University itself.

IMG_1111The discussion then moved forward to examining the four key themes that we wish to explore in the workshops over the next eighteen months: Curating the Digital ArchiveTextual–Visual–VirtualRemediation and AdaptationBig Data and the Humanities, and whether or not everyone was happy with these themes and the schedule and structure we had in place for them.  Finally, we discussed the website which will be going live very shortly and where you will be able to keep updated with all the information about the network and workshops. We will also be using the website to showcase original digital content and as a space for interrogating how the digital can be used pedagogically, theoretically and practically. Stay tuned for more updates.

— Michael John Goodman
Goodmanmj@cardiff.ac.uk

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