Primitives and the foundations of Digital Humanities

In this week’s reading, John Unsworth attempts to locate some basic ideas that are common to all humanistic scholars in order to set some terms of agreement for thinking about the digital humanities. He draws explicitly on Aristotle’s notion of ‘primitives,’ or a set of terms whose meanings are self evident and without dispute, that form the basis of knowledge. He lists a number of humanistic primitives, such as comparing, annotating, illustrating, etc. The bulk of the piece explores how these primitives inform digital humanities projects, such as a site devoted to the presentation of William Blake’s illustrated journals.

Before stating what I think are the piece’s limitations, I should note that I think it’s a very worthy and perhaps even necessary exercise. With new fields like DH, there tends to be a sense of chaos, uncertainty, and instability that is both productive and limiting. It is productive because it invites explorations and experimentation without regard to traditional boundaries. In fact, it encourages the transgression of the traditional, and in the process, if executed persuasively, could lead to new ways of thinking and/or acting in the world. On the other hand, few rules or the lack of any set of agreed-upon standards can also result in lots of poor work, sloppy thinking, a lack of analytical rigor, and just a slew of projects without any clear usefulness.

My primary problem with this piece is that it lacks what is perhaps the most essential task taken up by humanists, namely, interpretive work. The primitives listed by Unworth seem designed to express what digital humanities are already doing–comparing, illustrating, etc. However, my question is, How do projects in DH change or assist the work of interpretation that is central to all humanistic work, from philosophy to history, from art criticism to the deconstruction of literary texts? This will likely remain my main question throughout the semester.

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