In my other two posts, I looked over four tools and digital projects–DOAJ, Bamboo Dirt, Republic of Letters, and London Lives 1690 to 1800–all of which had their problems. Something about these projects reeked of conservatism, of turgid academia, and the public aspect of the site decomposed along with the lack of interest in reaching an audience that might otherwise find interest in parsing the data.
The Republic of Letters and London Lives, in particular, exposed the wounds of DH. It becomes difficult, from my perspective, to justify the idle collecting of data that reaches the eyes of the few, that has no interest in extending itself beyond this age-old habit of canonizing thinkers. As problematic a thinker as he was, Howard Zinn attempted to take history out of the hands of the ruling classes (the so-called “intellectual elites”) and place it into the hands of the people. Again, there are problems with this model that I do not have the historical background to debate. The fact, also, that the medium is different (a book) changes the conditions. But the question remains: why do public, open-access digital work if bringing the information to the public peddles the ideology that the “public” historically had no say in cultural productions?
For example, the Republic of Letters can trace the complex networks of correspondence Voltair, Benjamin Franklin, and John Locke found themselves a part of without themselves being able to recognize how, visually, that network over such vast geographic space looked. But the research question is reducible down to prominent thinkers that the public has been told in history classes are responsible for the visage culture took on at the time.
I recall a debate on Youtube between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault. Foucault and Chomsky agree with on a big point. History, Foucault argues, should not be traceable back to the prominent figures that those in power have told us should become signifiers of that history. This seems especially logical from the standpoint of an internet culture that conducts the bulk of research from a tattered armchair at home. The internet is a subversive technology, after all (which might account for all of the net neutrality debates cropping up in the wake of the FCC’s recent defeat at the hands of Verizon and its greedy data hoarding). The public thus has a say in what creates and maintains cultural trends.
The Digital Humanities is in a position to popularize academia by doing the same work as Neil Degrasse Tyson, who like Carl Sagan before him has taken the mantle of the avuncular scientist and philosopher who waxes poetic about the wonder of the cosmos. Digital projects can be academic, yes, but they should be dynamic, too. They should become multi-media experiments in answering big, overarching research questions. They should be like games for the public to interact with. They should be teaching tools for the professor struggling for a topic in the classroom. They may, one day, render the university sterile, but I have a hunch that that won’t be the case.