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“The struggle for new technologies and old prestige” – talking about books, technology and the role of digital humanities in the 21st century

Prof. Dr. Peer Trilcke and Prof. Dr. Heiko Christians | Photo: Sandra Scholz
Prof. Dr. Peer Trilcke und Prof. Dr. Heiko Christians | Foto: Sandra Scholz/ Illustration: Seeliger
Photo : Sandra Scholz
Prof. Dr. Peer Trilcke and Prof. Dr. Heiko Christians
Photo : Sandra Scholz/ Illustration: Seeliger
Prof. Dr. Peer Trilcke and Prof. Dr. Heiko Christians
The humanities love the book. And the book loves the humanities. But since the digital has entered culture and science, YouTube and Netflix subscriptions have replaced library cards, tablets and laptops are bought in class sets, since the “digital humanities” have entered the arena, the humanities, too, are no longer what they used to be. But what are they today? And what exactly are “digital humanities”? How do they work as a science? Can they learn anything from the traditional humanities? What will happen to the book? Matthias Zimmermann discussed these questions with Prof. Peer Trilcke, Germanist, Director of the Theodor Fontane Archive and co-founder of the Network Digital Humanities, and Prof. Heiko Christians, media scientist and author of the book “Wilhelm Meisters Erbe: Deutsche Bildungsidee und globale Digitalisierung”.

Why are the digital humanities even called digital humanities?

Trilcke: Because digitization - at least that is the theory behind this term – leaves no field of the humanities untouched, because we are now dealing with a coherent complex of questions, methods, objects, and environments of the digital in the humanities. As early as in the second half of the 20th century there was the so-called “humanities computing”, but it essentially had the status of an auxiliary science. The much broader designation of “digital humanities” encompasses a very different set of aspirations: In digital humanities, the digital becomes the foundation of research in the humanities, perhaps also its central challenge.

Christians: It is a cleverly chosen term. You could choose to go into total confrontation and label it computer science. But this is not the intention. This term still suggests that the humanities are following their own tradition in a somehow reformatted digital version. Whether that’s true is precisely the question we’re debating now. Is that really the case or is it simply clever rhetoric to conceal a break that definitely exists or that must or should take place? People are always ranting about the imprecision or arbitrariness of the phrase “digital humanities”. For me, it’s a clever denomination that raises more questions than it answers, which is not a bad thing.

Trilcke: I understand the word formation as a clear aspiration toward continuing the tradition. In contrast to compounds such as “bioinformatics” or “business informatics”, there is initially no disciplinary break. We remain part of the humanities, don’t switch to computer science and yet there is a different infliction, which, of course, can have significant consequences.

Christians: But the breaks are named very clearly in the American debate. “Meaning” and “Numbers” are the big issues there. These are topics around which there has been no fusion at all in the humanities or where there has been no joint work. We also shouldn’t forget that the humanities in the US are different from the humanities in Germany. Even if the Americans orientated themselves towards the German humanities when founding their humanities, they designed them quite differently - for example with mandatory general studies for everyone, with a “Center for Performing Arts” or a donated collection on campus. For the humanities in the German tradition, the book was the absolute target. This was connected with practices of dealing with books, reading techniques, questions of value, normative questions, etc. The digital humanities ultimately deal with amounts of data and try to establish associated practices as part of the humanities. At the same time, it is about participating in a kind of older legitimacy without immediately being assigned to IT. I think this is also the struggle for new technologies and for old prestige.

Trilcke: But it’s an extremely interesting and very important struggle. For example, the digital humanities also react to, bring up and research, the general datafication of humanistic subjects. Our cultural memory, for example, is now being conceptualized as data. This is a mind-blowing transformation, since operations such as internalization or appropriation, which go hand in hand with ideas of memory or cultural heritage, suddenly become lopsided and also problematic. What this digitization of our cultural memory means – not just for the humanities but for society as a whole – is still not being sufficiently reflected, not by the digital humanities either.

Christians: Well, natural sciences benefit from the fact that they can flag out progress; they usually don’t solve the same problem twice. There is progress, and on this basis new problems can be formulated and, in turn, solved. The humanities, on the other hand, are in a permanent productive crisis mode with themselves. There is always the pressure to legitimize results and methods, to redefine objects – sometimes it is world history with major events, sometimes microhistory, sometimes a famous personality, sometimes the average consumer, sometimes art, sometimes everyday life, sometimes it is the elites, then again the oppressed. Thus, a crisis momentum is permanently introduced, because from the outside there is the impression that the evidence or relevance of the humanities approach is “now” no longer guaranteed.

The digital humanities respond to this crisis orientation of the humanities by proposing methods that seem to entail the kind of progressiveness of the natural sciences. Problems that have been solved need not be solved again. Managing, storing, and analyzing data: Either it’s successful or it isn’t. At some point, you push the button and it works - or it doesn’t. In this way, problem-solving strategies and the rhetoric of scientific and informational cultures are continued. This is certainly a paradigm shift because the crises of the humanities were also productive. They formed both a mirror and driving force of social processes. Let’s take the historical sciences in the 1960s and 1970s, which didn’t want to just write the history of battles or diplomacy anymore but looked at social, large-scale shifts in society. I think this kind of irritability in the humanities is something very valuable.

Trilcke: Absolutely! In fact, in my opinion, the digital humanities currently still face the challenge of really catching up with these foundational figures and styles of thought of the humanities. This may be due to the fact that the digital humanities still draw heavily on research logics from the natural sciences and engineering. Also, the orientation of parts of the digital humanities on the “maker culture,” i.e. building applications, services, tools, is initially unfamiliar in the humanities’ conceptual space. Unfortunately, there is a great danger of ending in deadlocks when it comes to exchange. Yet the digital humanities can learn a lot from the humanities, for example in reflecting on these activities.

Christians: It’s quite remarkable that contents are not yet to be generated automatically. I don’t mean that in a sarcastic way at all; it’s actually quite conceivable. This already happens to some extent in journalism under the pressure of topicality and quantity. But the humanities’ legitimacy is based on the fact that researchers spend several years working out their results – often already drawing on databases. But that is what’s so interesting about the humanities, that they permanently generate imprecise narratives of exact objects or processes – and that precisely through these deviations knowledge is actually created. This is why I have reservations about an educational strategy or policy that believes it can produce a higher level of education in schools with a guarantee of exactness and fairness through purchasing campaigns for technical devices. But education does not come about by effectively bringing information to people. Instead, you must irritate people, provoke transmissions that look quite different or make the subject matter look different. Among other things, you have to get the learners to observe themselves through different eyes – by taking note of the narratives of other people and times in a multi-perspective but coherent way and then transferring them inaccurately to themselves. Educational processes work through vagueness, imprecision and not through the exact supply of large amounts of information or through speed. I learn certain things only when I slow them down. Exactly the way I begin to see other things, or to see them at all, when I play a movie in slow motion. Educational processes and institutions are actually slowing-down machines. They prepare students for life, even and especially by shielding them from it and slowing down certain processes. But if we erase that with a paradigm of technical efficiency, speed, and accessibility that is identical with the world out there, we lose something very important.

Trilcke: Bringing the momentum of interruption into these processes, into these practices, is enriching for any educational process and science. Perhaps such irritations are even a competence of the humanities that becomes more important the more computer sciences develop into a leading discipline. Meaning that someone says: Stop, take a break, let’s have a closer look at the mistakes in the processes, at the things that don’t work. We also need to pay attention to the bug reports of digital machines or to the data that is thrown away because it can’t be processed or understood – to those things that are too individual to be part of a recognizable pattern. All of these can certainly be places where the “numbers” may open up possibilities for “meaning”.

Christians: In media history, there are always phases with a kind of “data overload”: For example, when books were first printed rather than copied by hand, huge amounts of books became available very quickly, and society had to learn how to deal with this data overload. New techniques were needed to do this. What happened next can be described as a kind of scaling change. You can observe this in many fields. For example, historiography has been pursuing a “global history” for some years, making the scale very large – migrant flows, economic processes, etc. – and at the same time it presents microhistory that reconstructs a day in the life of a Tuscan mill owner on 600 pages. You see: A controller is being moved back and forth on a scale. That’s exactly what’s happening right now under the headline “digital humanities”. It’s no longer a canon of maybe 100 books attributed to a particular cultural hemisphere. Instead, people say “large scale” – which already includes the word scaling – and push it up and evaluate “Google Books” or whatever. So – just by humanities standards – huge amounts of data. Media science, as I understand it, observes how cultures are permanently forced to deal with other dimensions of data volumes and how they try to develop new practices and legitimations for this. This suits it better than loud activism under short-lived political slogans of the day.

Why did the opening of the humanities to the digital happen so late? Were or are they more resilient to the digital?

Christians: The humanities have never only focused on the book itself. It has always been about “well-written” books (and the competence to recognize them as such). Today, almost only emeriti/emeritae write thick readable science books in Germany, because they have the time for it, because they have happily escaped the fund-raising pressure and the permanent reform in universities. And when their books are reviewed, almost the first thing that is mentioned is whether they are well or poorly written. This is a peculiar factor in the humanities – that they are always supposed to produce an added aesthetic value. A research paper in these subjects can be very informative, but if it is poorly written it is perhaps not worthless, but only an also-ran. This shows one of those diffuse criteria of the humanities that are very valuable but just difficult to translate into a clear process.

Trilcke: I see it exactly the same way. The operationalization of the discourse in the humanities, in the sense of formalization, is a challenge that the digital humanities are still working on and will probably continue to work on for a long time. What is being debated in the humanities cannot be formalized completely. But that is not the point. First of all, it’s about the fact that there are questions in the humanities that can certainly be formalized, especially when we go into the large scale, i.e. when we analyze large corpuses and data sets. And then it is also about us, who (to a large extent) also see ourselves as cultural scholars, to understand that our culture as well as the way we deal with cultural artifacts today is influenced by completely new logics: for example by the logic of codes. I always find it inspiring to talk intensively about code with computer scientists who work together with us on projects and to look at code, to observe it as it operates but also to understand it as a form of textuality and linguisticity.

Christians: I think what you’re saying is extremely important in another respect. Universities still have to produce elites, but they may no longer be called elites. These elites no longer come from the humanities, but we are getting – and this is where the sign change becomes apparent – programming elites, so to speak. This has been noticeable in the U.S. for some time now, where these elites had enormous prestige much earlier, but even here in Germany, where we have a 200-year tradition of producing elites in the humanities and social sciences, the public influence of intellectuals suffers if they are not technologically savvy – at least when they want to comment on things that are affected by digitization. So it’s perfectly logical to rename or structure the humanities so that programming and coding plays a role in them. I think the digital humanities are also a first attempt to merge classical intellectual elites with new programming elites and to justify the redistribution of high incomes.

Trilcke: Although this is not the first attempt. As early as the 1960s, there were attempts to computerize questions in the humanities with information aesthetics - although not with cloud computing at that time but still with punch cards. But these remained sporadic initiatives. The fact that large-scale digitization in the humanities ultimately began much later than in some other disciplines has various reasons. Some disciplines were computerized much earlier simply because their objects can only be observed in data form.

Christians: The observation must be automated. Otherwise it can’t take place.

Trilcke: Exactly. This is simply not the case in the humanities. Our objects are not data-shaped at first. They have become data-shaped rather incidentally – and initially not out of the humanities. A platform like, for example, where copyright-free digital texts are published, was a private initiative. Some people simply typed out books and put them online. In this way, an increasing number of texts became digitally accessible. At some point, the digital humanities joined in, as a kind of big data analysis in the humanities. These data-like objects open up other possibilities, such as formalized pattern recognition, which can also be liberating because it leaves all the hermeneutic prejudices behind, also the need for meaning, that characterize close reading. And perhaps these large amounts of data, which far exceed the small and subtle text selection of the canon, conceal other patterns that we haven’t seen so far because we always stuck our noses into the individual book.

Christians: I’d very much like to ask the classic question: “Cui bono?” Who benefits from all of it? Who loses and who wins? Technical globalization is not a charity event, after all. Historians, for example, have been through this quantification of their methods many times. In the 1970s, for example, statistics were increasingly used in economic history, and terms were isolated for conceptual history and their frequency was checked in large text corpora. It remained, however, preliminary work for the real work – historical semantics – and ultimately an auxiliary science. The digital humanities strive to be much more than that, of course, and may soon be. But what about the discussion for the philologies? After all, you could say, Germany created a world standard in the 19th century with, for example, edition philology and philosophy-saturated text interpretation, which was exported everywhere. Now a “lab culture” is coming from California that is somehow reformatting and redefining this model, equipping it with new technologies and applying it to other subjects. But there’s something to lose here as well, isn’t there? The German departments at American universities are currently only surviving because they cooperate with the engineering sciences, for example, and offer German courses for their students, who all want to spend a year at Siemens in Germany, etc. I’d say that the German philology tradition should think very carefully about whether to really force this “Stanford-California-Tec-Lab Culture” upon itself or to want to have it forced upon itself without comment. This should at least be debated. After all, completely different ideas about pay scales, jobs, employment contracts, institutional affiliation, profitability, hierarchies, and so on, also depend on this new culture. A certain German corporate culture, by the way, was also connected to the old structure and idea of our education. For other countries, this idea still seems to be attractive.

Trilcke: To simply replace the traditional philologies, the humanities and cultural studies with tech labs – that would surely be insane, and the university should be warned about it.

Christians:. It will not be enough just to warn them about it.

Trilcke: That’s true.  We have to make clear what is at stake. Digital humanities are humanities and our society needs these places and these institutions of history-conscious, theoretical, even philosophical reflection –of interruption, as you’ve called it. The digital humanities are built on that. Without that foundation, they’re just data sciences. For us, however, it’s about something else. We want to expand the humanities disciplines: in terms of methods and objects but also modes of reflection and interdisciplinary reverberation chambers. The discourse and discussion between IT disciplines and the humanities is socially relevant. We can’t leave the datafication of our cultural memory, which is taking place, to Google.

Christians: Absolutely, but all of us are seeing even now how the processing, management, and use of cultural memories are increasingly datafied and digitized. So again, what does that do to our cultural memory? There used to be these wooden cigar boxes with 50 photos that were taken out whenever guests came over. Then they lay on the table and stories were told – about uncle Otto and how important or funny he was. Now we have thousands of photos on our laptops or smartphones in these yellow, poorly labeled or unlabeled virtual folders or endless galleries. And when we want to show someone a picture of a party, a child, or a new car, we can’t find it. That’s exactly what’s happening on a large scale. Institutions digitize their inventories and no longer have access to them, or have to hire someone who can do that. But then this person has no idea what to do with them because he or she doesn’t know the history of the institution or simply isn’t able to construct an interesting context for showing them.
I think that preserving cultural heritage in the digital realm sounds incredibly good at first, but it entails a whole bunch of problems. By the way: If it were so secure, copies of the most important documents of our cultural heritage wouldn’t be stored on microfiche in some mining tunnels in this country ... But even if the data are absolutely secure and quickly accessible, you still have to work with them in such a way that they come alive in some way for the present, you have to create an interaction with current social processes. You often have the impression that it is more like an off, a digital off.

Trilcke: Culture is always essentially latent, characterized by an immense storage memory where things that are not relevant at the moment are reposed and stored. An institution like the Theodor Fontane Archive (which I direct) is responsible not least for precisely such latent objects, i.e. for objects that are not currently circulating in culture but should be retrievable because they have potential, as a promise of the future. And of course, digital archives in particular must constantly ask themselves what else should be included in their digital repositories - and what may perhaps be forgotten altogether; to “scrap something”, i.e. “discard” or even "throw away”, is the term in archival jargon. Archives have been doing this for thousands of years. And it must also be done for digital archives. So we need employees who say, “Stop! What kind of digital object are you? Are you relevant, possibly for eternity?”, and who then decide, “You will become part of our archive. We’ll take care of you, provide long-term archiving, and guarantee a stable address, a standardized format, and all that.” Or who just say, “You won’t get in here, we'll forget about you and delete you.” For that, we need highly specialized staff, which we simply don’t have at the moment and the necessity to have this staff doesn’t seem clear to everyone yet.

Christians: And we are discussing this against the backdrop that comparable debates often say, “Humanities are a field which doesn’t grow," i.e. there is a very tough battle for resources raging behind the scenes. But if we now point out and say that we will need one or more staff members for the digital archive, this will hardly be implemented. Personnel are expensive. Instead, (annual) one-time purchases are recommended, preferably new technology. This acquisition talk seems to be unbreakable, is simple in budgetary terms and has enormous political significance. Purchasing new technology is somehow always considered “progressive”. (But in what direction does this go? With what horizon? There humanities scholars come into play again). I find this, that is blind faith in pure acquisition progress in schools and universities, rather problematic and unintelligent. We should really have a tough discussion about what we need in schools and universities and why and in what form we need it.

Are Digital Humanities the future of the humanities? Or will they exist side by side?

Trilcke: I am of the opinion that our culture is becoming richer. Datafication is a matter of fact, our objects of knowledge are becoming digital, new methods, new formats, and channels of distribution and communication are developing; but the book printer around the corner continues to produce beautiful material objects–-an ebook cannot replace a work of book art nor can a digital copy replace a handwritten manuscript by Theodor Fontane.

Christians: I’m inclined to say that books have disappeared from the institutional context of learning and teaching. More books are being produced than ever before, but in actual fact they no longer play a role in teaching at universities and schools. And this observation is not irrelevant. It has consequences for the readers of this huge amount of books and for the amount of books itself which continues to be produced out there.

Trilcke: That is one point. I ask myself the question what the consequence is. Do we have to preserve the book at the university? Probably not: the book market works well without us. But we should respect the book as an aesthetic artifact. At the same time, however, we have to consider the digital. That’s a lot. But somehow we have to cope with it as a faculty of philosophy - as humanities and as digital humanities. We have to adapt to new objects, methods and environments, and at the same time respect the old ones: „Alles Alte, soweit es Anspruch darauf hat, sollen wir lieben, aber für das Neue sollen wir recht eigentlich leben“ (“We should love everything old, insofar as it has a claim to it, but we should actually live for the new,”) says Melusine in Fontane’s last novel “Der Stechlin”, whereby it is also about what we should “love”. If we think that the digital humanities will simply replace the humanities, we say goodbye to the core of what has made up the humanities in past centuries. The digital humanities must not forget this.

Christians: That still sounds too idyllic and not confrontational enough to me. I think it will continue to be about where social elites are being produced. In this confrontation, coding will be a key skill of future elites. Subjects where this is not taught or applied and where this isn’t an issue, will be left behind. Therefore I believe that the digital humanities will oust the classical humanities. There is rarely room for all in the front row. They will again be called something else, but will focus on completely different practices in dealing with cultural artifacts, replacing the old routines. I’m quite sure of that. I believe in the book as a historical reference for being able to observe culture. Because all cultural observation is (being able to) make comparisons. But as a teaching tool or cure for the problem areas that we have addressed here, the book is history. It will continue to be read for entertainment. It also has a huge technical advantage – it doesn’t need electricity. The sun can be wherever it wants to, you can always read a book, if you are able to, that is. I see that my students throw away their books before moving and put them in boxes on the sidewalk because they don’t want to move with them. I find that extremely interesting. In the past, you couldn’t even sleep if certain books weren’t at hand. There were lots of notes and scribbles in them, and you had important books as special editions. That’s over now. The book as a companion, as a reference point for a biography, as a comforting cult object or as a wisdom cube, etc. is gone. It now robustly provides casual reading material. And that’s okay. It now occupies a different social place. And in the places we’re talking about, the university and the school, the book has to be actively called to mind, or it will soon be gone altogether, I’d say.
What’s the price? It could be high after all. Books, so basically texts, linearly composed, limited, and stable sets of texts, provide particular opportunities for dealing with simultaneity. In a text, as it were, an infinite quantity of impressions or features is brought into a somehow justified or comprehensible sequence and constellation. This has a calming effect. You can understand it, be at odds with or adopt it, (very important: find it again in exactly the same way), identify with it or get upset about it – but you take the time to have exactly this confrontation. Databases, for example, don’t allow for that. Little films partly relieve us of the most important work: our own imagination. We don’t even know yet how personality formation works in times of digitization and when confronted with huge amounts of data. Perhaps we will also say goodbye to this concept of personality. I am very curious to see whether a new term will take its place ...

The Researchers

Prof. Dr. Heiko Christians studied German philology, philosophy, education science, and Dutch philology at the University of Cologne. Since 2008, he has been Professor of Media Culture History at the University of Potsdam.
E-Mail: heikochristianst-onlinede

Prof. Dr. Peer Trilcke studied literature, media, Scandinavian studies, and philosophy at Kiel University. Since 2016, he has been Junior Professor for German Literature of the 19th Century focusing on Theodor Fontane at the University of Potsdam. Since April 2017, he has been Director of the Theodor Fontane Archive at the University of Potsdam and spokesperson of the Potsdam “Network Digital Humanities”.
E-Mail: trilckeuni-potsdamde


This text was published in the university magazine Portal Wissen - Eins 2021 „Wandel“ (PDF).