On “Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship,” by Johanna Drucker

On “Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship,” by Johanna Drucker

In the classic chapter “Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship,” Johanna Drucker argues that computational methods are at odds with humanistic approaches. She suggests that the digital humanities needs to develop humanistic models for computer-based inquiry. In doing so, practitioners can actively resist the flattening affects of using tools, platforms, and systems that were created through purely quantitative methods, rather than the qualitative approach inherent to the humanities.

Drucker’s chapter has become a digital humanities touchstone since its publication. Many DH tools developed since offer opportunities for the interpretive, non-linear representation of cultural materials (e.g. Neatline and  NewRadial). Such initiatives reflect a fork in DH thinking from instrumentalism to interpretation, and I would suggest that the interest in glitch, randomness, and curiosity-driven research that is encompassed in streams like critical making and electronic literature are also relevant to Drucker’s arguments in “Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship.” (Although e-lit practitioners, of course, were exploring in this direction long before the 2012 publication of Debates in the Digital Humanities).

Drucker closes her chapter with an inquiry that is relevant to my own explorations into the possibilities and perils of open digital scholarship. She suggests, “The question is not, Does digital humanities need theory? but rather, How will digital scholarship be humanistic without it?” (94). Indeed, in thinking of the development and mobilization of online tools and platforms for digital scholarship, it is easy to bypass humanistic design in the name of convenience, accessibility, relevance, and ease of implementation. But Drucker is right to remind us that “it is essential if we are to assert the cultural authority of the humanities in a world whose fundamental medium is digital that we demonstrate that the methods and theory of the humanities have a critical purchase on the design of platforms that embody humanistic values” (86). A point very well taken.


Work cited

Drucker, Johanna. 2012. “Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold. Minneapolis: U Minnesota P.

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