The Three Orders or Digital Humanities Imagined #dhiha5

I would like to thank Lou Burnard for his careful translation of my original post.
 See also the German translation by Anne Baillot, Mareike Koenig and Laura Roos.

So who are the Digital Humanists? A complex and developing community it must be accepted, as the Round Tables to be held at the DHIHA5 conference will no doubt show, particularly those devoted to training, to forms of digital culture, and to career development. Cultural diversity in DH, expressed notably by multilingualism, is also a currently hot topic of debate, at least in France and in Italy.

But beyond language, it seems to me that there is another way of reading the fault lines in the community of those who claim to be Digital Humanists. Long ago I realised that the Digital Humanists from the community in which I was developing had a different profile from those I happened to come across in other spheres, quite independently of their linguistic or cultural backgrounds. To try to understand these differences, I hope the medievalists (who I know to be numerous here, and to whom I belong) will forgive me a mischievous application of the famous work by George Duby.

Oratores, bellatores, laboratores: those who pray, those who fight, those who work. The three orders distinguished by G Duby could be characterised briefly in that way, and that, I feel, may also be a key to understanding the DH community.

Those who work are those taking responsibility for production, in G Dumezil’s tripartite division. In the Digital Humanities, these are those people interested in practical aspects, leading to concrete results. Sometimes computing specialists interested in the Humanities, often enthusiasts with a training in the Humanities who have made the effort of understanding and mastering the tools and concepts needed for creation. This is the sphere, I fear, which is at once the most indispensable and the most problematic with respect to career development and to academic recognition. In academic life, concrete productions seem to be those least valued (and by “concrete” I mean not simply straightforward implementation work, but also modelling, design, interface issues…). Moreover, there is a vicious circle: if a young humanities researcher starts getting involved in the creation of DH resources, and developing skills in this domain, there is a high probability that these DH skills will be called on before any others, since they are rarer, thus insidiously propelling this person towards a career path in what is known (with admirable optimism) as the “alternative academy” : as a technician, a digital librarian, etc.

Those who fight are those taking responsibility for the defence of the Digital Humanities, politically and intellectually. They also often fight to give the DH their own separate disciplinary status. Do the DH deserve that? Personally, and on purely intellectual grounds, I doubt it very much. But the goal is not an intellectual one: only recognition of the DH as an academic discipline can provide those who work with the alternative of a truly academic  career. The fight, in my view, is more social than fundamental, for I am convinced that new methods and technologies are or will be taken up for themselves,  where they are useful to the disciplines concerned. I want to believe that by a kind of darwinism whatever confers an advantage is naturally selected in the evolution, both of animals and of research practices.

Those who pray are the last category, into which (it seems to me) fall many of those whom I would characterise as “non-practising believers”, interested by the DH phenomenon and enthusiastic, but not involved themselves in any practical aspect. Paradoxically, I have the impression that this position can sometimes be more effective in advancing an academic career than that of the laborator: discussions about DH can be more highly valued from a career perspective than their practice.

These categories are not water-tight, fortunately. Those who fight in particular come from the two other “orders”. On the other hand, it seems that communication between those who work and those who pray is weak, and that these two categories of Digital Humanists are tending to drift further and further apart, which seems to me much to be regretted. Can it be that the challenge of the years to come for our community will be – if not the abolition – at least the avoidance of a society built on Orders?

Reference works

  • Georges Duby, The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1981 (1st ed. in French: Paris, Gallimard, 1978).
  • Georges Dumézil, Mythe et Épopée (I – L’Idéologie des trois fonctions dans les épopées des peuples indo-européens, 1968; II – Types épiques indo-européens : un héros, un sorcier, un roi, 1971; III – Histoires romaines, 1973), Paris, Gallimard, rééd. 1995.

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