Saturday, February 2, 2013

Restrictive 'Humanities'

Hmmm. The Humanities. The Digital Humanities. As a Digital Medievalist, Andrew Prescott said in an email to me today that he has a BA, a Bachelor of Arts degree, not a BHum. We are PhDs, not PhHums. When did the 'Arts' become the 'Humanities'? 'Humanities' are everywhere and nowhere. The study of the 'Human'? Virtually all fields do that in some, even tangential, regard; indeed, 'the proper study of mankind is man' [and woman], as Pope helpfully reminds us.

Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ashmole 1462, ff. 9v-10v

The definition of 'humanities' is shifting again. From its origins in English as a translation of humanitas, where 'humanness' was denoted (in the late fourteenth century Wycliffe Bible:, to its specificity in the educational ideal of Studia Humanitatis, to its current ubiquity, the word has formed the focus of lengthy and detailed scrutiny. In 'Renaissance Humanism and the Future of the Humanities', Literature Compass 9/10 (2012), 665-78 (, Jennifer Summit traces the origin of the Humanities to the Renaissance, publicising the utility of Renaissance scholarship for the current debate, pointing out that 'No more is "the human" the unique commitment of the humanities' (667), but that the Renaissance transformation of education still has lessons for contemporary academe. The trends that she discerns are temporally assigned to the fourteenth century when 'the unprecedented expansion of lay literacy and education across Europe...made the studia humanitatis a mechanism for both socializing the rising literate classes and sorting them into appropriate stations' (671).

In their recent Short Guide to Digital_Humanities (available as a stand-alone PDF here, taken from their book:, Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner and Jeffrey Schnapp offer an interpretation of 'humanities' that confirms the post-medieval definition offered by Summit. 'For nearly six centuries,' they say, 'humanistic models of knowledge have been shaped by the power of print as the primary medium of knowledge production and dissemination'. This equation of the humanities with the dawn of print, or with the Renaissance more specifically, is unhelpful.

First: the dawn of print did not displace, and still has not displaced, the manuscript; indeed, the digital age itself has not done so, and, I venture, will never do so. Most of my students still take notes, even though I am quite happy for them to use tablets and laptops; in the 'modern' era, James Joyce wrote with a pen (see left); the Beatles Lyrics are manuscript; Seamus Heaney's evocative translation of Beowulf exists in hybrid form--as typescript with manuscript emendations, corrections and expansions. The age of the manuscript, then, is still with us, and very much in vogue with large numbers of students wanting to study palaeography, calligraphy, and book-making, and with the 'handwritten' object or the celebrity autograph in huge demand, and demanding increasingly exorbitant prices.

Secondly, to associate the origin of Studia Humanitatis with the Renaissance is to risk overstating the 'dawn of modernity' theory that underpins Stephen Greenblatt's contentious book, The Swerve (on which, see my previous blog, and see Let's be clear that the 'humanities', as defined under Studia Humanitatis in the Renaissance, derived from the Medieval curriculum--the Trivium, in particular (see Paul Oscar Kristeller, Renaissance Thought II: Papers on Humanism and the Arts [NY, 1965], p. 178). Medieval scholars, students, thinkers, writers--people--were not some antiquated and utterly unlike-us body of beings. The Medieval is not set apart from the Renaissance by some thickly-drawn line of differentness.

Our desire to situate ourselves historically, to explain how we have come to where we are, to think through how we can compare text technological 'revolutions' like the manuscript-to-print, print-to-digital shouldn't blinker us to the full story that history offers. It shouldn't suggest a yearning to disguise the long march of humanity--the really longue durée--, to exclude (tiresomely, yet again) a whole millennium of rich, meaningful and pertinent textual cultures in the Medieval period. And this is only the tip of a global iceberg often missed in these debates claiming academic ground; these debates also, too frequently, preclude the astonishing contribution of Eastern and Islamic cultures, among many others, that properly belong to 'Humanities', Digital or Otherwise. Instead of restricting what 'humanities' does or doesn't mean, then, it is time for generous, capacious and welcoming methodologies and definitions that seek to include, temporally and spatially, rather than exclude.