Poking in the fog – My personal access to Digital Humanities Theory

By accident, I started a Twitter-controversy about the necessity and existence of theory in Digital Humanities. On the way to my office early in the morning, I interpreted a quote of Franco Moretti as if he had said that no research about the theory of Digital Humanities existed, and I wanted to acknowledge some work in this field.

The limit of 280 characters easily leads to reductions and misinterpretations. While Moretti had meant other things than discussed on Twitter (as Rachele Sprugnoli (@RSprugnoli) clarified in the same thread), I also didn’t intend the questions that arised afterwards (well, except for the second one of course):

  • Is there a need for further theories in Digital Humanities? (Yes!)
  • Is theoretical research on Digital Humanities missing at all? (No!)
  • Is it possible to find THE theory for Digital Humanities (No!)

It’s ironic that such a discussion was caused by me, since I’m usually more interested in trying out new approaches on my texts, while my colleague Dr. Stefan Karcher (@streka) is the one in our department, who is always thrilled to reflect the methods and to locate it in academic discourses and science communication. Yet, theoretical aspects must be kept in mind of everybody working in the field of Digital Humanities, which I want to illustrate in the following by describing my personal access:

“It was just me and my sources”

In the beginning of my Ph.D., I told my academic advisor Prof. Winrich Löhr my only wish: the topic should deal with Latin literature, since I was a trained Latinist. I didn’t think about computational approaches or even calling myself a digital humanist before. It was just me and my sources, when I decided to analyse women in Augustine’s letters. The church father, who lived in North Africa of the 5th century, is famous for his ambiguous attitude towards women. Some researchers treat him like a misogynist, others like a predecessor of feminism. Such black and white thinking dissatisfied me. Most of the statements were based on his Confessions where Augustine tells about his earlier life, which seemed to be dominated by his mother and where he dismissed his longtime companion, despite that she was the mother of his only son. However, we only know about all of these events because Augustine narrated and wrote about it. He was the playmaker and decided what the readers got to know about numbers, extent, and manner of his life’s events. Aside from that, I wanted to take a more instant access to his relationships to women and hoped to find it in his letters in which Augustine had to deal with specific concerns of his female addressees. Therefore, my plan was to translate and comment on the relevant letters – solid conventional research.

One year later, Digital Humanities started to become an important issue for me, when I read that Augustine regarded men and women as intellectually equal, because in both cases, he refers to the bible. I wanted to prove this in detail and started to count and categorize all intertextual indications to a pre-text mentioned in the editions. In the meantime, I received all letters as plain text files, so that I was able to explore it in even more ways [i.e. to analyse the distribution of intertextual indications within a letter (data|article)]. Little by little, more ideas entered my mind, as for example which questions I could raise that would need too much time if I wanted to solve them by established non-digital methods. Fascinated by the new possibilities, I had thanks to the text files, I was far more interested in concrete findings than in theory. To gain more technical experience, I visited summer schools (like manusciences, dhmuc, sna-summerschool, and the 1st summerschool of Digital Humanities in Heidelberg, where I had the unique opportunity to organize big parts of the program).

Nevertheless, applications were one thing, but another was to explain my approach and to refer to the tradition of literary practices to do more like poking in the fog. You can’t talk about your findings if you can’t properly explain what you are doing – this means to not just document the techniques and tools (even if it’s also very important to avoid black boxes and to ensure maximum transparency), but also to be aware of the academic traditions and origins of your approach. Therefore, I located it in the terminology discussions from Distant Reading (Franco Moretti) up to Macroanalysis (Matthew Jockers), Scalable Reading (Martin Mueller), and Surface Reading (Stephen Best/ Sharon Marcus) and gave a talk about it. The day after, my colleague Stefan and I realized that we use similar methods, but had nobody to talk about it. We decided to found a forum and called it Distant Reading Forum, since it was a catchy term. In one of the first sessions, we discussed Morettis Conjectures on World Literature in which he coined the term Distant Reading and Barbara Herrnstein-Smith’s “What was Close Reading;“ and finally we realized we had to give ourselves a different name, because it was too reductive on the one hand and too polemical on the other hand. Reductive, because we also wanted include close reading with digital methods (cf. Martin Paul Eve’s Close Reading with Computers); polemical, because it gave the wrong impression that people had no more need for reading books and Distant Reading would replace Close Reading (cf. Ted Underwood, Distant Horizons, p. 145). Already in this early stage, we had learned that even the terminology was very important, because by choosing a certain term you choose a certain tradition, as Claire Lemercier and Claire Zalc (p. 142) observed:

Discourse analysis, corpus exploration, content analysis, lexicometry, logometry, stylometry, textometry, lexical or textual statistics, distant reading, topic modeling: the terms vary, reflecting the diversity of schools, disciplinary orgins, and software packages.

However, the categorization of digital approaches was not the only thing I had to ask myself. It was also a question, if I could call myself a digital humanist at all. Asking for a definition of Digital Humanities is not new (already in 2010 Matthew Kirschenbaum stated: “’What is Digital Humanities?‘ essays like this one are already genre pieces.“), but as the field and the positions are undergoing constant changes, the question of defining DH has to be raised over and over again. For example, a couple of weeks ago, it became relevant again, when Frederik Elwert observed a rise of the so-called Computational Humanities. Researchers like Folgert Karsdorp felt the “need for robust computational research in the Humanities“ and founded JCHR in order to fill this gap (you got me, I love this expression). They had the impression, that Digital Humanities events are not suitable for presenting technical results. So, when does someone become a member of the DH group? Is he/she excluded when the explanations are too technical and the humanists are not able to follow them? Or, on the other hand, is he/she an outsider when coding skills are missing? Questions like these are not trivial, since often funding depends on the DH label. Personally, I agree with David Hamidović (p. 6) who writes:

The definition of DH seems to me to be articulated around three pillars: new tools, computational analysis, new process. And the last dimension is the most essential for added value in comparison to traditional scholarly work in humanities.

Everybody, who is able to contribute something significant to at least one of the pillars (especially the last one), can give himself the DH label. If it needs complicated software engineering speech, it’s still DH, as far as it has an important outcome for humanities‘ research. If there’s not one line of coding mentioned, but if there’s still a real research progress caused by computational analyses and new processes, it’s also worth to be called DH.

One final aspect I want to address: Does there exist THE theory of DH? Certainly not. The field is too diverse to find one theory covering everything or to say it in the words of Matthew Kirschenbaum:

Stefan and I supposed that the perspective on DH is very much constituted by the home discipline of the respective DH practitioners (and we are certainly not the first who think this – e.g. Mareike König mentions it 2016 as an aspect to explain why the definition of DH is so shredded). The mindset, selection, and presentation of method, and theories: it makes a difference whether DH is practiced by a historian, an English literature scholar, or a computer scientist. To find out more about this phenomenon and to prove if it’s correct at all, we called out for a Corpus Contest, which took place in September 2019. We will inform about the results and our personal insights on different channels very soon.

How to conclude? As someone who understands himself as practitioner, as someone who even has a  theory-loving colleague to deal with all this theoretical stuff, I have investigated surprisingly much time on theoretical aspects. Every serious scientist should repeatedly deal with these questions as well, because otherwise she/he will be unable to communicate the findings properly in a very dynamic field.


Best, Stephen/ Marcus, Sharon: Surface Reading. An Introduction, Representations 108 (2009) [retrieved 24 October 2019].

Elwert, Frederik: #beyondDH. The sudden but consequential rise of the Computational Humanities, A Belter’s Life. Reports from the data mines on CERES 2019 [retrieved 24 October 2019].

Eve, Martin Paul: Close Reading with Computers. Textual Scholarship, Computational Formalism, and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Stanford 2019.

Hamidović, David: An Introduction to Emerging Digital Culture, in: Ancient Worlds in Digital Culture, hg. v. Claire Clivaz, Paul Dilley, David Hamidović, Digital Biblical Studies 1, Leiden/Boston 2016, 1-16.

Herrnstein-Smith, Barbara: What was Close Reading? A Century of Method in Literary Studies, The Minnesota Review 87 (2016), 57-75.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew: What is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments? ADE 150 (2010), 55-61 [retrieved 24 October 2019].

König, Mareike: Was sind Digital Humanities? Definitionsfragen und Praxisbeispiele aus der Geschichtswissenschaft, Digital Humanities am DHIP 2016 [retrieved 24 October 2019].

Jockers, Matthew: Macroanalysis. Digital Methods and Literary History, Topics in the Digital Humanities, Urbana, Illinois 2013.

Lemercier, Claire/ Zalc, Claire: Quantitative Methods in the Humanities. An Introduction, trans. by Arthur Goldhammer, London 2019.

Moretti, Franco: Conjectures on World Literature, New Left Review 1 (2000) [retrieved 24 October 2019].

Mueller, Martin: Scalable Reading, Scalable Reading dedicated to DATA. Digitally assisted text analysis 2012 [retrieved 24 October 2019].

Nunn, Christopher: Augustinian Correspondence Database 3 (ACDb3), in heiDATA: Heidelberg Research Data Repository, 22017.

Nunn, Christopher: References in the Correspondence of Augustine. Chances and Boundaries of digital “Distant Reading” Processes, in: Revue des études augustiniennes 62,2 (2016), 223-233.

Underwood, Ted: Distant Horizons. Digital Evidence and Literary Change, Chicago/London 2019.

Cite this article as: Christopher Nunn, "Poking in the fog – My personal access to Digital Humanities Theory," in INFODITEX -BLOG, 2019-11-08, https://infoditex.hypotheses.org/1275.

Christopher Nunn

After my graduation in latin philology and theology I started a doctorate in ancient church history. In an early stage of my dissertation - it was 2013 - I was enabled to work with my corpus by using plain text files. This was the moment I felt that I should not leave this great opportunity out to work digitally and to find the potentials but also the limits of computational textual methods. In my dissertation I deal with 385'911 words or 19'379 sentences - 252 latin letters written by St. Augustine. As one of my results you can for example visit my Augustinian Correspondence Database (ACDb 3) or my database about Keywords in Augustine's Letters (KAL). What else can I say? With Stefan I am sharing not only this blog but also my employment being Quality Manager at the faculty of Theology in Heidelberg. Contact: christopher@infoditex.com or @ChNunn on twitter

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2 Responses

  1. DH is a rather abstract notion, so it is no wonder that there is no theory covering all the specific activities which can be found under this term. But there is a rather long tradition of thinking about theoretical aspects of DH and it focuses on something which is common to almost all activities in DH: Modeling. A lot of the work of Willard McCarty, for example, can be seen as an attempt to clarify the theoretical implications of this notion for the digital humanities. Recently books and articles by Julia Flanders, Arianna Ciula, Øyvind Eide, Andrew Piper, Ted Underwood, myself and others have contributed to this discussion. And all have emphasized, the importance of modeling for DH and tried to advance our theoretical understanding of it.

    • Thank you for extending the list of research with a theoretical focus on DH. A review of all this work on DH theory would be interesting to have an overview which aspects are already addressed by whom.

      Furthermore: Thank you for the first comment in this whole blog! It’s an honor for our junior research infrastructure, that it comes from the top of the field!

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