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.

Marjorie Burghart

Ingénieur d'étude - EHESS - CIHAM UMR 5648 (Lyon). Membre du Board of Directors du Text Encoding Initiative consortium (jan. 2012 - dec. 2013). Représentante de l'ALLC-EADH au Publications Committee de l'ADHO

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3 réponses

  1. Lucas dit :

    I like the adoption of the three orders to DH and, yes, they are not water-tight but they give an inspiring perspective on the field. It´s also worth to focus on the diachronic dimension. I´d say that as time goes by we find much less « fighters ». The use of a new medium becomes sort of self-evident (e.g. the use of social media in PR of scientific institutions). When mainstream catches up with the pioneers, those who « prayed » & « faught » dissappear unless they start to « work ».

  2. Digital humanities and the study of intermediality in comparative cultural studies is about how intermediality influences the negotiation of culture(s)—in theory and application—and how, cultural practices shape the use of (new) media and their social significance. The notion of intermediality—a concept of old, but with renewed perspectives and practices in digital humanities—raises a number of issues including social and cultural practices, pedagogy, aspects of globalization, the cultural industries, the publishing of scholarship online, etc. A paradox is that neither social theories concerning modernity, modern publicity or the media, nor humanities theories regarding different cultural forms, types of texts, or genres have paid enough attention to the fact that « the past and present of contemporary culture and media are indeed part and parcel of multimodal and intermedial culture and media » (Lehtonen, Mikko. « On No Man’s Land: Theses on Intermediality. » Nordicom Review 22.1 [2001]: 71). The processing, production, and marketing of cultural products such as music, film, radio, television programs, books, journals, and newspapers determine that today almost all aspects of production and distribution are digitized. Culture today is multimodal as it makes use of technology, as well as symbolic forms (Lehtonen, Mikko. « On No Man’s Land: Theses on Intermediality. » Nordicom Review 22.1 [2001]: 75). Hence the relevance of the study of intermediality and digitality in various humanities and social sciences disciplines and fields. Similar to intermediality studies, digital humanities is (an emerging) field of study both with regard to the construction of theoretical frameworks and their application in the study of culture and the application of new media technology including pedagogy, the publication of scholarship, etc. At a time when many disciplines and fields in the humanities and social sciences are defined as processes of multi-, inter-, and trans-medial construction, interaction, and practice, the development and study of their encounters take on a primary relevance to scholarship and this perspective is a primary point of departure. Intermediality is a phenomenon for the creation of new forms of artistic and critical innovation, among others to find ways for their distribution (i.e., open access to scholarship published on the world wide web), new scholarship about intermedial and interdisciplinary perspectives of old and new products of culture, the link(s) of cultural communities in cyberspace, and to be applied as a vehicle for innovative educational practices. Discursive practices including visualities form a complex (inter)medial network of signifying practices which construct realities rather than simple representations of them. Socially constructed meaning or what we call and practice as « culture » take place through processes of the negotiation of stories, images, and meanings; that is, through constructed and contextual agreements, power relations, and their authorization and legitimation of social positions and loci. Therefore, the ways (inter)medial discursive practices are produced, processed, and transmitted are relevant for research and practice and this occurs, increasingly, in digital humanities. (see Digital Humanities and the Study of Intermediality in Comparative Cultural Studies. Ed. Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek. West Lafayette: Purdue Scholarly Publishing Services, 2013. & New Perspectives on Material Culture and Intermedial Practice. Ed. Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek, Asunción López-Varela Azcárate, Haun Saussy, and Jan Mieszkowski. Thematic Issue CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 13.3 (2011):

  3. Jim dit :

    Enjoyable and practical — thank you for posting. I’m unsure that the third category really is a « category » of DH, though. They’re observers. I was thinking that those who prayed may well be those who approach DH primarily from the technical end and whose work jettisons traditional humanities practices in favor of methodologies created by the digital; e.g.. distance reading practices that involve a rejection of close reading.

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