Source: Taking up Drucker’s challenge

Writing in 2013, Johanna Drucker describes digital methods in art historical research as standing a precipice, their potential utility for revolutionizing the field becoming increasingly apparent, and yet limited evidence that any of this possibility can be realized. Drucker suggests that what is needed is a proof-of-concept: “we have to see a convincing demonstration that digital methods change the way we understand the objects of our inquiry.”1 To follow Drucker by drawing an analogy with the hard-fought uptake of Theory in 1980s’ art history departments across the US, theory-heavy methodologies (psycho-analysis, all varieties of Marxist theory, feminist approaches, etc.) gained a foothold as scholars of all specializations have demonstrated that these methods open up radically new ways of thinking about art objects. If digital methods can only help us to work faster or at a larger scale (the shadow of Big Data looming), does this really present us with anything qualitatively new? Faced with another ‘digital humanities’ project that uses computational power to count words across a large textual corpus, are we more likely to be awed or yawn?

In this respect, Adam Kirsch’s critique that digital tools “no matter how powerful, are themselves incapable of generating significant new ideas about the subject matter of humanistic study”2 has some persuasive heft. However, I would argue that this proof-of-concept—a grand and ground breaking study that proves once and for all that Digital Art History is viable—is straw man reasoning, especially as framed by Kirsch, and demonstrates a severe ignorance of the many, many, many scholars already doing remarkable, engaging, and truly innovative digital work, some of which I’ll touch on below. The success of digital art history does not depend on the unveiling of a single tool that changes everything, but a widespread realization that we—card carrying digital humanists and cranky naysayers alike—are already thoroughly engaged in the digital, which necessitates a critical self-awareness of the distinctly different material conditions of a digital world. It is this critical self-awareness of the implications of the digital that I believe Drucker challenges us to take up in our scholarship, and it is this that will open up radically new ways of engaging with our objects of research.

With these articles very much in mind, I attended a talk yesterday given by Matthew Kirschenbaum entitled, “Bitstreams: Locating the Literary in the Media Archive,” which was the keynote lecture of the “Boundaries of Literature Symposium” put on by the UNC Comparative Literature & English Association of Graduate Students.3 Although nominally a specialist in bibliographic studies, Kirschenbaum is a scholar at the forefront of the field of digital humanities. In his first book Mechanisms (2008), he examines the materiality of ‘the digital’ and explores what this means for humanistic research; in his forthcoming second book Track Changes (2016), he investigates how writers have used computers as a part of their everyday writing practices and questions what this means for the ongoing scholarly discourse surrounding their work. In the talk Kirschenbaum gave the other day, he focused specifically on how digital archival practices have already significantly impacted how scholars approach literary objects, but also remarked upon the obverse—that digital archives depend upon older, more ingrained notions of the literary. Sifting through John Updike’s floppies to create forensic disk images of their contents, Kirschenbaum had to check each one to make sure that it was ‘Read-Only’; otherwise the forensic program could detrimentally ‘write’ over the files on the disk. As media theorist Lev Manovich argues, new media technologies continue to traffic in the interface conventions of analog media, such as how we interact with websites as pages, albeit pages we scroll instead of flipping through.4

Although primarily a literary scholar, I want to bring Kirschenbaum’s work into play because I think it illustrates the kind of scholarship that Drucker intends when she makes a distinction between digitized art history and digital art history. On the one hand, digitized art history employs the same critical and analytic methods as prior art historical work, but utilizes digital resources like online image databases to access objects of research; digital art history may use these resources as well, but also critically applies methods made available by computational systems to analyze objects of research.5 Kirschenbaum is looking at digital literary materials, but is using digital forensic technologies to analyze these materials in ways not previously possible—and applies this method with a critical self-awareness of what is uniquely digital about both his objects of research and his methods. The digital methods that Drucker articulates are manifest in the work of scholars like Kirschenbaum, as well as the above cited Manovich, but it is perhaps indicative that these scholars reside in interdisciplinary academic positions, and not just plain old Art History departments.

Importantly, the digital art history that Drucker outlines is not limited to scholars working with more contemporary ‘born-digital’ materials like Kirschenbaum and Manovich, as illustrated by her example of a possible digital analysis of The Arnolfini Portrait.6 This concern came up in the in the Q & A session following Kirschenbaum’s talk, as UNC English Professor Whitney Trettein —also a remarkable scholar applying digital methods—7 posed a question about how the prevalence of digitized materials spanning across the entirety of cultural history affects the conception of periodicity and scholarly specialization. Does a medievalist making use of an online database to access to digital facsimiles of an illuminated manuscript need to be just as critically self-aware of the digital nature of their scholarship as a researcher working with contemporary new media artworks?

I believe that both Kirschenbaum’s and Drucker’s answer to this question would resoundingly be yes. As Drucker argues, “digitization is not representation but interpretation.”8 The digital facsimile used by the medievalist is itself an artifact that has been produced as a result of a chain of decisions and continues to be preserved by another chain of decisions and actors. Even if the digital materiality of that facsimile is not the primary object of research, this fact cannot be ignored, as this digitality will necessarily impact the course of the research. To a great extent, we are all digital humanists now. Drucker’s challenge is that, collectively, we need to recognize that we already largely engage in a digitized art history, but must make the leap to practicing digital art history by bringing to bear a critical self-awareness about how we work as scholars in an increasingly digital world.


[1] Johanna Drucker, “Is There a Digital Art History?,” Visual Resources 29, no. 1–2 (2013): 5.
[2] Adam Kirsch, “The Limits of the Digital Humanities,” New Republic, May 2, 2014,
[4] Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001), 74-76.
[5] Drucker, “Is There a Digital Art History?,” 7.
[6] Ibid., 6.
[8] Drucker, “Is There a Digital Art History?,” 12.