Historicizing “Digital Humanities”

Brian Lennon

Fall 2015


Paul Klee, Angelus Novus, 1920, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Paul Klee, Angelus Novus, 1920, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons


“Digital humanities” is a deliberately, rather than accidentally presentist name for an amalgamation of discourses and practices that are not new at all. Literary humanist involvement with computing is coterminous with the history of computing itself, beginning with research on machine translation immediately after the Second World War and in computer-assisted or computer-enhanced philological activity going back to the 1950s. Before asking ourselves what is at stake in debates both in and around the image of “digital humanities” today, we will situate its emergence in relation to this history and to its immediate antecedent, humanities computing. Topics to be examined will include the history of tension between quantitative and qualitative research methods in the humanities; the history of computational philology, from literary scholarship’s involvement with cryptology during the First World War to the machine translation research of the 1950s; debates and issues in research methodology, academic publishing, and the academic labor market; race and gender in the history of computing; and relations beween humanities scholarship and the contemporary security state. We will both examine and challenge the self-segregation of DH from the study of the impact of technology and media on culture (in science and technology studies, media studies, and other well-established but quite separate fields), as well as its promotion as a set of practices removed from or explicitly hostile to theory. We will also consider some developments since 2013 for which DH enthusiasts were unprepared, and which have left them excluded from emerging critical conversations on the politics of the technology industry, software engineering ethics, and the legislative regulation of data collection and analysis.


You will need a copy of David Kahn, The Codebreakers: The Comprehensive History of Secret Communication from Ancient Times to the Internet (1996 edition). I haven’t ordered it through the bookstore because used copies are much more reasonably priced and you may prefer your own sources. Same goes for Robin Winks, Cloak & Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939-1961 (second edition, 1996).

You will also need access to a copy of Edward W. Said, Orientalism (preferably 25th anniversary edition, 2004).

It doesn’t matter to me if you’re reading an ebook format, PDF or text, used print copy, library copy, or anything else. I only ask you to obtain your own copies because I can’t provide you with PDF selections from these particular titles.

My Zotero collection dhhist includes all other the readings referenced below and also includes links to most of them. Where Web links are not available (and with the exception of the Kahn, Winks, and Said), I will provide a PDF version by other means.

The following bookmarklet will reload a Web page and redirect it through PSU Libraries’s ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu proxy (which will take you to webaccess.psu.edu first for authentication, if necessary). Wherever PSU Libraries subscribes to the material in question, this should be enough to gain you access to full text.

PSU EZACCESS ⟵ Click and drag to your browser’s bookmark bar, or add it manually as a browser bookmark

If you find that a Project Muse link still leaves you stranded, use this one instead:

PSU EZ-MUSE ⟵ Click and drag to your browser’s bookmark bar, or add it manually as a browser bookmark


  • One presentation, based on a reasonably extensive blog post shared via the course wiki, plus responsibility for leading discussion for the duration of the session. The reading expected is more and more extensive from Session 10 onward, so I advise you to do your presentation during one of Sessions 2-9.
  • One session as designated respondent to a presenter
  • One session as minute-keeper, taking notes on directions and important turns in our conversation and sharing a brief written summary via the wiki before our next meeting
  • Weekly blog posts attempting a synthesized response to each range of readings and presenting some provisional conclusion (rather than a series of questions or statements of hesitation, indecision, confusion, etc.). Apart from that intellectual requirement, the format is open, and we can discuss this further if need be
  • A final written essay (see Session 16, below)


Session 1: IntroductionsSkim readings for the first few sessions
Session 2: Modernity, secularization, historical humanismIbrahim A. Al-Kadi and Lyle Broemeling on relative frequency analysis in Abbasid and Fatimid cryptology. David Kahn, “The Rise of the West,” in The Codebreakers, on the emergence of modern European diplomacy and modern European diplomatics. Two articles by Christopher Celenza on Lorenzo Valla. Gerhard F. Strasser on European Renaissance cryptology. John Guillory on the genesis of the media concept. Paul Bové on Vico’s critique of Descartes.
Session 3: Empire, philology, universityEdward W. Said, “Silvestre de Sacy and Ernest Renan: Rational Anthropology and Philological Laboratory,” in Said, Orientalism. David Kahn, “Ancestral Voices,” in The Codebreakers. Siraj Ahmed on the colonial history of comparative literature. Geoffrey Galt Harpham on philology and racism. Aamir Mufti on Orientalism and world literature. Two articles by Michael Holquist and one by Timothy Bahti on Kant, Wolf, von Humboldt, and the Prussian university. Edward W. Said, “The Latest Phase,” in Orientalism, on the afterlives of Orientalism in postwar U.S. social science.
Session 4: Literary criticism and scholarshipThe emergence of literary criticism and scholarship in the United States: Shawn Rosenheim, “Introduction,” The Cryptographic Imagination; article by John Irwin on the transmission of European imperial philology by the American Renaissance; David Kahn, “The Pathology of Cryptology,” in The Codebreakers; articles by Edward H. Abrahams and Withayne J. Baker on the career and works of Ignatius L. Donnelly; articles by Susanna Ashton, Nina Baym, Nancy Glazener, and Zachary Lesser on Delia Bacon and mid– to late 19C cryptanalytic theories of Shakespearean authorship more generally. General history of discipline formation: two sections of Gerald Graff, Professing Literature: “Literature in the Old College, 1828–1876” and “The Early Professional Era, 1875–1915” (read the latter up to and including chapter 6, “The Generalist Opposition”). Other 19C–early 20C statistical studies of language and literature (to skim): R.D. Lord’s note on Augustus de Morgan and the statistical study of literary style; Thomas Mendenhall, “The Characteristic Curves of Composition” (1887); George Zipf, “Relative Frequency, Abbreviation, and Semantic Change” from Selected Studies of the Principle of Relative Frequency in Language (1932); George Udny Yule, “Introductory, Personal and Apologetic,” from The Statistical Study of Literary Vocabulary (1944).
Session 5: Scholars at war, I“Crisis at the Outset: 1890–1915,” in Gerald Graff, Professing Literature. Three chapters from David Kahn, The Codebreakers: “The Professor, the Soldier, and the Man on Devil’s Island,” on the career of Auguste Kerckhoffs; “Room 40,” on British cryptanalysis during World War I; “Two Americans,” on the early careers of Herbert O. Yardley and William F. and Elizebeth Friedman. Shawn Rosenheim, The Cryptographic Imagination, 139-144 on the Friedmans during World War I. Also, if necessary, please refresh your understanding of 19C “Baconian” controversies, by reviewing one or more readings from Session 4. If you wish you might also read ahead at this point into materials for Session 6, beginning with Veggian and Manly.
Session 6: Scholars at war, IIJohn Matthews Manly, Edith Rickert, and interwar technocratic reformism in U.S. English and literary studies: article by Henry Veggian on Manly, Rickert, and the shift from historical philology to cryptanalytic formalism; re-read David Kahn, “Two Americans,” 351–363 on Manly’s service in MI-8; Manly’s address to the Modern Language Association of America as its 1920 president, titled “The President’s Address: New Bottles.” Three selections from Edith Rickert, New Methods for the Study of Literature (1927): Manly’s “Introductory Note”; Rickert’s introductory note, titled “To Skeptics”; and Chapter 1, “Introductory: Reasons and Methods.” Chapter 8, “Scholars versus Critics: 1915–1930” in Gerald Graff, Professing Literature. David Kahn, “Secrecy for Sale,” in The Codebreakers, on the mathematization of cryptanalysis.
Session 7: Scholars at war, IIIShawn Rosenheim, The Cryptographic Imagination, 145–169, on the Friedmans during World War II; Gerald Graff, “Groping for a Principle of Order: 1930–1950” and “General Education and the Pedagogy of Criticism, 1930–1950,” in Professing Literature; David Kahn, “Duel in the Ether: The Axis” and “Duel in the Ether: Neutrals and Allies,” in The Codebreakers; Robin Winks, “Notes” (470-483), plus the chapters “The University,” “The Campus,” “The Library,” and “The Professor,” in Cloak & Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939-1961.
Session 8: Postwar tension and triumphalismC. P. Snow, “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution”; F. R. Leavis’s response, “Two Cultures? The Significance of C. P. Snow”; Lionel Trilling’s evaluation of the exchange, “The Leavis-Snow Controversy.” Machine translation: Brian Lennon, “Machine Translation: A Tale of Two Cultures”; Warren Weaver, “Translation.” Two chapters from Andrew D. Booth et al., Mechanical Resolution of Linguistic Problems (1958): “Historical Introduction” and “The Nature of Calculating and Data Processing Machines.” Two chapters from Émile Delavenay, An Introduction to Machine Translation (1960): “Computers and Language” and “Future Prospects.” The first of Dolores M. Burton’s three articles in Computers and the Humanities, on automated concordances and word indexes in the 1950s. Gerald Graff, “History versus Criticism: 1940–1960” and “Modern Literature in the University: 1940–1960,” in Professing Literature.
Session 9: Humanities computing, I — machine translationTwo more chapters from Andrew D. Booth et al., Mechanical Resolution of Linguistic Problems (1958): “The Analysis of Content and Structure” and “Stylistic Analysis.” Two retrospective essays by Roberto Busa on “new philology.” Thomas N. Winter’s and Roberto Melloni’s articles on Busa. John W. Ellison’s contribution to Computers in Humanistic Research: Readings and Perspectives (1967). The second and third of Dolores M. Burton’s three articles in Computers and the Humanities, on automated concordances and word indexes in the 1960s and 1970s. Susan Hockey’s history of humanities computing. Three notices from issues 1-3 of Computers and the Humanities in 1966 and 1967: Louis Milic’s “The Next Step,” Irwin C. Lieb’s announcement of the ACLS Program for Computer Studies in the Humanities, and Bernard W. Wishy’s announcement of the Center for Computer-Oriented Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. Martha Nell Smith (2002) on electronic scholarly editing. Gerald Graff, “Rags to Riches to Routine,” in Professing Literature.
Session 10: Humanities computing, II — authorship, neo-structuralism, and securityFrederick Mosteller and David L. Wallace, Preface to Inference and Disputed Authorship: The Federalist (1964: “We apply a 200-year-old mathematical theorem to a 175-year-old historical problem, more to advance statistics than history”), plus Mosteller’s 2009 memoir of his work with Wallace (“I didn’t know there were Federalist papers, much less that both Hamilton and Madison had claimed authorship of some of them”). Louis Milic’s 1991 assessment of progress in stylistics as frustrated by the “Marxism and victimization theory” of “postmodern critics who assert the death of the author.” Surveys of authorship attribution and stylometry more generally, including further polemics against post-structuralism, “postmodernism,” “theory,” etc.: John Burrows; Hugh Craig; John Burrows and Hugh Craig (co-authored); David I. Holmes (two articles); Patrick Juola (one shorter and one very long article); Joseph Rudman; Efstathios Stamatatos. William Winder on computational criticism as programmatic neo-structuralism and anti-poststructuralism. James Cummings on the Text Encoding Initiative as a neo-structuralist project. Larry Witham in The Washington Times on The National Endowment for the Humanities’ new “digital direction” as a steering “clear of culture wars.” The rise and fall of cliometrics: William G. Thomas II on debates about quantitative methods in historiography in the 1960s and 1970s. Security applications of humanities computing: articles on authorship identification, profiling, “unmasking,” etc. for plagiarism detection and social media surveillance, including “anti-terrorism” surveillance: Ahmed Abbasi and Hsinchun Chen (two articles); Shlomo Argamon et al.; Moshe Koppel et al.; Efstathios Stamatatos and Moshe Koppel.
Session 11 (may extend into Session 12): “Digital humanities” — emergence, 2001–2008; rise with austerity politics, 2008–2012Context: scholars at war, IV: Montgomery McFate on getting scholars out of the ivory tower and onto the real battlefield. Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus on “surface reading.” Bruno Latour opining that critique has “run out of steam.” Tom Scheinfeldt proclaiming a “sunset” of ideology. Excerpt from Matthew Jockers, Macroanalysis on the homology of Jockers’s research with National Security Agency text mining activities. Matthew Kirschenbaum et al. wondering if digital humanities enthusiasts should accept military funding for their work. Brian Lennon on the digital humanities and national security. Nomenclature: John Unsworth on a 2001 proposal for a master’s degree in digital humanities; three essays by Patrick Svensson and two by Matthew Kirschenbaum, on humanities computing and/as digital humanities. Historians aboard: Jo Guldi and David Armitage, “Introduction” to The History Manifesto; David Mimno on computational historiography. Culturomics, or 21st century social Darwinism: Franco Moretti, “Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History” Part 1; Jean-Baptiste Michel et al. on millions of digitized books; The Cultural Observatory at Harvard University, “Culturomics FAQ”; Hans Van Halteren et al. on machine learning and a “human stylome.” Three items on Google’s short-lived (2010-2011) Digital Humanities Awards program: Marc Parry (2010) in Chronicle of Higher Education; Google Official Blog announcement, 2010; current Research at Google Award Programs page. Austerity and boosterism: Andy Guess in Inside Higher Ed; four of Patricia Cohen’s articles for The New York Times, in a short-lived series titled “Humanities 2.0” (2010-2011); William Pannapacker in the CHE proclaiming digital humanities “the next big thing” (2009), then “Digital Humanities Triumphant” (2011), then finally threatening “No DH, No Interview” (2012) (for some numbers suggesting that all three claims were fanciful, read ahead to the “Context: numbers” subsection of Sessions 12-13).
Session 12 (may extend into Session 13): Foundations of the critique of “digital humanities”First, skim, reread, or otherwise refamiliarize yourself with our previous readings from work by Paul Bové, Edward W. Said, and Henry Veggian. Then, read the following: Intellectual-historical perspectives: Kenta Tsuda on social and cultural “evolutionism” across the social sciences and humanities. Tim Cresswell on the “striking similarities between the new quantitative revolution and the old one.” Philip Mirowski’s critique of Bruno Latour. Focused critiques of Franco Moretti by Christopher Prendergast (2005, 2014), Katy Trumpener, Tony Bennett, and Matthew Wickman. David Golumbia on the cultural logic of computation. Parts I and II (1973 and 1979) of Stanley Fish’s “What is Stylistics and Why Are They Saying Such Terrible Things about It?” Nathan K. Hensley’s genealogy of the postcritical. Martha Nell Smith (2007) on the social politics of humanities computing. Tara McPherson on why the digital humanities are so white. Natalia Cecire on the digital humanities and virtue. Djelal Kadir on dissent and digital transumption in an age of insecurity. Articles by Federica Frabetti, Thomas Haigh, David Berry, Gary Hall, and Alexander Galloway on the belatedness of digital discourses, originary technicity, and the post-digital. Berry’s interview with Galloway on Latour, reticular empiricism, and Deleuzianism. Economic and political-economic perspectives: Rob Lucas on the political economy of coding. Hank Robison and Alvin Chang’s Harvard Business Review report titled “America’s Incredible Shrinking Information Sector.” Seth G. Benzell, Laurence J. Kotlikoff, Guillermo LaGarda, and Jeffrey D. Sachs’s National Bureau of Economic Research paper predicting a decline in demand for “code-writing high-tech workers.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook for computer programmers, predicting only 8 percent growth from 2012-2022 (no more than the average for all occupations). Supplement: if you found Tsuda’s essay interesting, read also Francesco Boldizzoni, “Truth on the Cross: Science and Ideology,” from The Poverty of Clio, and Boldizzoni’s response to his critics. Begin your final writing project (see Session 16).
Sessions 13 and 14: “Digital humanities”: plateau and decline, 2012–Boosterism deflated: Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Richard Grusin, and Rita Raley, papers from the “Dark Side of the Digital Humanities” session at the 2013 MLA convention. Essays by Adeline Koh and David Golumbia in the 2014 special issue of differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies collecting papers from the “Dark Side of the Digital Humanities” session. Now we have questions: Bettina Berendt et al., “Is It Research or Is It Spying?” Jonathan Wilson, “Digital History in the Surveillance State.” Jan Christoph Meister, “Weaponizing the Digital Humanities.” Michael Widner, “The Digital Humanists’ (Lack of) Response to the Surveillance State.” (Also read Kieran Healy’s “Using Metadata to find Paul Revere.”) Other critical perspectives: Tom Eyers and Tim Hitchcock on the new positivisms. Brian Connolly re-evaluating the arguments of Latour, Marcus and Best, and Moretti. Stephen G. Nichols on the anxiety of irrelevance. Sharon O’Dair’s critique of Kathleen Fitzpatrick. Adeline Koh’s interview with Wendy Hui Kyong Chun. Blog posts by David Golumbia on NEH-ODH award distributions, definitions of “digital humanities,” the 2013 conference “Dark Side of the Digital” at The Center for 21st Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and the personal conduct of prominent DH enthusiasts. Essays by Moya Z. Bailey, Amanda Phillips (2011), Alexis Lothian (2011), Alexis Lothian and Amanda Phillips (co-authored, 2013), Anne Cong-Huyen, Fiona Barnett, and Domenico Fiormonte on field formation and center-periphery dynamics. Mimi Thi Nguyen against efficiency machines. Daniel Allington on the managerial humanities. Daniel Allington and Lindsay Thomas re-evalating open access. Lisa Fagin Davis on the disappearance of digital humanities projects and resources. Terry Harpold on DH as the discourse of the university and the master. Three more essays by Gary Hall and two by Alan Liu. Six blog posts by Andrew Prescott. Twenty-eight tweets by Ian Bogost. Historians overboard: Critiques of The History Manifesto: Deborah N. Cohn and Peter Mandler; Lynn Hunt in Annales 7.2); Tim Hitchcock. Cameron Blevin’s re-evaluation of Scheinfeldt’s “Sunset for Ideology?” Stephen Robertson on the differences between digital history and digital humanities. The public sphere: Stanley Fish’s two columns in The New York Times; Stephen Marche in Los Angeles Review of Books; Adam Kirsch in New Republic and Catherine Tumber in The Baffler; Jon Baskin et al. in The Point. Higher ed journalism: Pannapacker’s post on the “Dark Side” session (2013). Kathryn Conrad, “What the Digital Humanities Can’t Do.” Carl Straumsheim in IHE on the “digital humanities bubble.” Adam Crymble in IHE on the “backlash against the digital humanities movement.” Multi-authored letter to IHE about the MLA’s DH-tinted proposals for reforming graduate programs, plus Vimal Patel’s article on the proposal for IHE and commentaries by Rebecca Schuman and Geoff Shullenberger. Marc Parry in CHE on critiques of The History Manifesto (2015). Context: numbers: Mark Sample and Scott Weingart on recent dips in digital humanities conference representation and attendance; Brian Lennon on occurrences of the phrase “digital humanities” in the MLA Job Information List. Context: current events: Serena Golden on Marshall Sahlins’s resignation from the National Academy of Sciences; Peter Swire on the USA FREEDOM Act as “the biggest intelligence reform in 40 years”; Roberto J. González in Counterpunch on the rise and fall of the U.S. Army Human Terrain System; The New York Times editorial board on A.P.A. psychologists’ collusion with military torture. Pew Research Center findings on U.S. Americans’ attitudes about privacy, security and surveillance. Chris Chambers, Paul Voosen, and Shoshana Zuboff on Facebook’s “emotional contagion experiment.” Audrey Watters on whether it’s time to give up on computers in schools. Mike Isaac on the lack of progress in Silicon Valley workplace diversity programs. Ian Bogost in The Atlantic on computational theocracy. Bryan Appleyard in New Statesman on “the new Luddites” (also reread Benzell et al.’s literature review, concluding that “Luddism is back in favor”). Robert C. “Uncle Bob” Martin’s promotion of a “programmer’s oath” (“the social and political landscape has recently changed very dramatically”). Continue your final writing project.
Session 15: Distinct alternatives to “digital humanities”Kimon Keramidas on nomenclature choices. STS and the historiography of computing: Reread Haigh, “We Have Never Been Digital.” Lee Vinsel, “95 Theses on Innovation.” Media studies and the cultural study of technology: Lisa Nakamura on Navajo women and the racialization of electronics manufacturing; Anna Everett lecture “Gaming Matters: Playing with Black Womyn MPCs,” Thursday, December 3, 2015 for the Digital Culture and Media Initiative. Eric P.S. Baumer et al., “Why Study Technology Non-Use?” (introduction to special issue of First Monday on that topic). Privacy and adversarial stylometry: Kacmarcik and Gamon, “Obfuscating Document Stylometry to Preserve Author Anonymity”; 2 articles by members of the Drexel stylometry group (Brennan, Greenstadt, Afroz): “Practical Attacks Against Authorship Recognition Techniques” and “Adversarial Stylometry: Circumventing Authorship Recognition to Preserve Privacy and Anonymity”; Drexel Privacy, Security and Automation Lab site (https://psal.cs.drexel.edu/). Cryptography and social responsibility: Rogaway, “The Moral Character of Cryptographic Work”. Political philology: Paulson, “For a Cosmopolitical Philology”; Rubin, “Techniques of Trouble: Edward Said and the Dialectics of Cultural Philology.” Employment and funding opportunities announced in @dcmipsu Twitter timeline. Continue your final writing project.
Session 16 (during finals week): Final writing projectSubmit a completed 5000-word critique or defense (not an attempt at both!) of “digital humanities” that demonstrates substantive engagement with our course of readings; also, present a condensed version during this session.