The humanities have traditionally laid claim to value in virtue of the meanings they enrich. In practice, if not in theory, the activities of humanists have handled meaning by revelation and discovery. Eschewing the sophistry that would lend good arguments even to bad ideas, the humanist, like the scientist, digs and delves — even if, alone with her books and the light of her intuition, she is less scientist than shaman, less explorer or inventor or legislator of a world, than its supplicant or priest. Humanistic activity, traditionally conceived, begs to be judged on its failure or success as meaning — i.e., as a contribution to an intersubjective, creative process. It is as a set of attachments to conversation and dialogue that this activity commands our respect. The elitism of many of those attachments notwithstanding, we who “do” the humanities tend to ascribe value to our work in terms of the survival of ethical thinking and feeling as forms of conversation. Since the value of conversation lies in its openness to the unforeseen, viz., in its contribution to the unfolding of history, it resists measurement by normative units of utility or efficiency.
But of late, it has become clear that this conception, long imagined to make a bulwark against the encroachments of instrumental rationality, no longer holds. How regularly our noblest intentions seem to fold before the demand — institutional, social, or even personal — for results. In the face of this demand, what Raymond Williams called “emergent structures of feeling” — which by definition elude the relative certainty of normative representation — can have no value, and representation itself can secure its place only by the vinculum of the bottom line, by the dollar sign’s lead balloon. If to be humane involves, in part, an ability or willingness to make our feelings legible to one another, what to do about the captivity of the legible itself to the ledgers of capital? One way of understanding the digital humanities, I think, is as a figure for this captivity. Once more, then, into the breach….