What are the digital humanities?

By David M. Berry

Digital humanities are at the leading edge of applying computer-based technology in the humanities. Initially called ‘humanities computing’, the field has grown tremendously over the past 40 or so years. It originally focused on developing digital tools and the creation of archives and databases for texts, artworks, and other materials. From these initial uses, and as computation developed, computers offered increasingly sophisticated ways of handling and searching digitised culture. For example, with recent advances in digital imaging, it is now possible to produce very high-quality reproductions of books and artworks that can transform our ability to study them.

Pianist Shin Suzuma uses a digital score app for ensembles
Pianist Shin Suzuma uses a digital score app Syncphonia for ensembles powered by Sussex University research funded by AHRC

The key to understanding the digital humanities is to reject the idea that digital technology is invading the academy. Computers were used for humanist ends from very early on in their history, and not only, as one might expect, as mere storage for large libraries of text. Computer networks, particularly the internet, have also enabled digital files to be used from almost anywhere on the globe. This access to information has had a tremendous effect on the ability to undertake research in the arts and humanities.

Digital humanities incorporate key insights from languages and literature, history, music, media and communications, computer science and information studies and combine these different approaches into new frameworks. More recently, the disciplinary focus has widened to include critical digital studies, as well as fields more commonly associated with engineering such as machine-learning, data science and artificial intelligence. Indeed, as early adopters of technology, digital humanists were prescient in seeing that computation would have an increasing centrality to research in the humanities.

As part of their work, digital humanists have developed new methods, such as computer-based statistical analysis, search and retrieval, topic modelling, and data visualisation. They apply these techniques to archives and collections that are vastly larger than any human researcher or research group can comfortably handle. These methods enable ambitious projects to be created with large interdisciplinary teams that are brought together to work on difficult or complex projects. Digital humanists are transforming the idea of what a humanities research project can be, giving us new ways of seeing past and present cultures.

These new collections of historical or literary artefacts are often publicly available on the web or in digital databases, and the material they contain is more openly available than previously possible with print. They increase the ability for humanists to combine data sets, social media, sound, web and image archives and also to move between them with greater ease. Equally crucial has been the creation of software for analysing, understanding and transforming these digital materials. Digital tools can also be freely accessed over the internet so they can be easily incorporated into other projects, enabling the rapid diffusion of new methods, tools and ideas across disciplinary boundaries. These digital technologies open up exciting opportunities for connecting the humanities to a wider public culture.

The social network Facebook has authorised giants like Amazon, Netflix, Spotify and Microsoft to access the personal data of its 2.2 billion users, according to the 'New York Times'. Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images.
The social network Facebook has authorised giants like Amazon, Netflix, Spotify and Microsoft to access the personal data of its 2.2 billion users, according to the ‘New York Times’. Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images.

However, with the greater diffusion of digital technologies into our lives, new concerns have arisen about the capacity these technologies have to spy on their users, about digital bias and discrimination, and the emergence of ‘fake news’. Companies such as Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google use our data in very intrusive ways, making collection of both public and private data a public matter of concern. Here too digital humanities, with its expertise across many knowledge areas, can help us understand these problems and provide critical interventions and policy insights.

The academy is now much more comfortable with the use of computation across disciplines. It has brought new powers of analysis, comparison and understanding to a range of research areas. The digital humanities have been exemplary in transferring digital techniques and methods into the humanities and by doing so have laid the ground for a golden age of humanities research in the 21st century. In a digital age, the humanities need to communicate humanistic values and their own contribution to public culture more than ever. The humanities continue to ask the important question: what is a life worth living? The digital humanities are part of this tradition, helping us to reflect on this question and expanding our understanding of human culture in a digital world.

David M. Berry is Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Sussex. He writes widely on the theory and philosophy of computation and algorithms. His most recent book is Digital Humanities: Knowledge and Critique in a Digital Age (with Anders Fagerjord). His forthcoming British Academy-supported research is concerned with the idea of a university in a digital age.

This post originally appeared on the British Academy blog.

An Ivory Tower of One’s Own

Seat number 1 is by far the best in the room. Close to the high window, it is well lit, there is no neighbor to the left and the aisle leaves plenty of space for ones elbow to roam freely. From this seat there is a nice view of the room and the narrow gallery with wooden railings that overlooks it. Each morning at ten o’clock there are at least two people who have decided that this seat will be theirs.

— Arlette Farge, Le goût de l’archive (1989)

Image result for the allure of the archives

Last week Sean Takats visited the Lab to deliver a workshop – about Tropy, a free image management system oriented to the needs of archival researchers – and give a lecture, “Subjectivity and Digital Research.”

Sean’s talk was elegant and stimulating, and the first take-home was this: research is embodied, and the material conditions of the researcher in the archive shape the kind of research they can and do perform. And this really is a take-home all about taking home. Institutional archives are increasingly the sites of photographic data capture. Exploratory and interpretive decisions increasingly take place at home.

Or in the office, or on the train, or another library, or the deepest corner of the More Than Just … Coffee! Lounge on Hoe Street in Walthamstow, or the pay-per-hour workspace into which it will gentrify overnight in the summer of 2023. Research takes place, perhaps, with headphones in. At a different set of temperatures, in different clothes, in fewer clothes, with different levels of caffeine and hydration. With a different set of objects, people, and landscapes in the visual field, in difference ambiences, and with different activity in-between bouts of research.

Consider, for example, Londa Schiebinger in her acknowledgements to Secret Cures of Slaves: People, Plants, and Medicine in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World:

Writing history has changed […] Although one loses the tactile pleasure of eighteenth-century papers and leather bindings, one does not miss the mold, dust, jet lag, and hours waiting for things to be delivered to the reading-room table. Now one can read Jean-Jacques Barthélemy while taking breaks to do laundry (the benefits – physical and intellectual – of interspersing heavy-duty research and writing with mundane chores should not be underestimated).

Such materialities must surely show up in research outputs. But how exactly? We might start by saying that research occurs in a different set of moods, although tracing the affective shift feels quite daunting to me. Another starting point is that non-archive research spaces are all variously wannabe Woolf’s rooms-of-one’s-own. So perhaps we can consider how researchers in those spaces encounter different affordances, stimuli, textures, and impediments according to factors such as gender, class, race, and ability.

Back to the archive: well, it’s full of researchers taking photos. Sean cited empirical as well as anecdotal evidence to demonstrate how practices have shifted. There was a twinkle in Sean’s eye – like a little camera flashing – whenever he spoke about this transformation, and his Tropy project promises to further normalise, elaborate, and refine it. Nevertheless, I don’t think the lecture adopted a fully normative stance. That is, Sean wasn’t here to endorse the transformation, exactly.

His interest was rather – and maybe this is the second big take-home – given that this shift is actually happening, shouldn’t we be alert to the implications? And in particular, alert to the stories we tell about research?

David M. Berry‘s handwritten notes from Sean’s talk

How have researchers’ subjective experiences of conducting research changed? Do we need a new language of archival research in the digital age? Do the explicit and implicit stories we tell about how knowledge is generated reflect and/or support actual practices?

Sean identified a residual discourse of the romanticized archive. Arlette Farge was cited as one example. In fact, Sean suggested, there is even a kind of travel literature of the archive. What happens when you descend into the archive? The archive is a strange and distant land: we journey there, and we bring things back. Along the way we encounter wonders, obstacles, even perils. But mostly we don’t …

The day was very hot; we walked up the hills, and along all the rough road, which made our walking half the day’s journey.  Travelled under the foot of Carrock, a mountain covered with stones on the lower part; above, it is very rocky, but sheep pasture there; we saw several where there seemed to be no grass to tempt them.  Passed the foot of Grisdale and Mosedale, both pastoral valleys, narrow, and soon terminating in the mountains—green, with scattered trees and houses, and each a beautiful stream.  At Grisdale our horse backed upon a steep bank where the road was not fenced, just above a pretty mill at the foot of the valley; and we had a second threatening of a disaster in crossing a narrow bridge between the two dales; but this was not the fault of either man or horse.  Slept at Mr. Younghusband’s public-house, Hesket Newmarket.  In the evening walked to Caldbeck Falls, a delicious spot in which to breathe out a summer’s day—limestone rocks, hanging trees, pools, and waterbreaks—caves and caldrons which have been honoured with fairy names, and no doubt continue in the fancy of the neighbourhood to resound with fairy revels.

— Dorothy Wordsworth, Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland, AD 1803

… mostly we just patiently make some progress. Sometimes it’s swift and steady, sometimes erratic and embarrassed, filled with stumbles and setbacks. We have good days and bad.

And on some level, we want others to understand all this, and to know that it is what makes our knowledge authentic.

We want them to admire the rituals we recited to gain our safe passage, the amulets we brandished to complete our homecoming.

We want them to know that we’ve been there, man.

To agree that the figure in front of them contains a few molecules from far-flung climes.

To acknowledge our body as a body of work.

To suspect that the faraway glint in our eye, as we wait our turn to speak, is actually a speck — immured in eye-lime by ancient Lucretian optics — of moulted surface-veil of the specimen itself.

To admire us for our professional clarity of thought, sure …

… but more profoundly, to vent visceral awe for our throats as they professorially clear, inviting the infinitesimal yet non-zero possibility that what dislodge and dance in our alveolar folds are secreted atoms of air of that very zone, and that the syllable forming at our lips is a lost-and-found zephyr of the archive itself. Like Swift’s academicians of Lagado, who have to wave around whatever whereof they aver, we suspect that our judgments can only be validated by relations that are physical, even somatic.

Um, okay, Sean put it way more sensibly than that, but I still wasn’t totally sold on any link between archival research and travel literature. Until, that is, he read out an email — from a former supervisor, I think — offering guidance to Young Sean for his first visit to the archive. “It is pretty simple I think. You fill out a form, and have a little interview and a card.” It was pretty simple, and yet the email was remarkably detailed. And although Sean didn’t quite put it this way, there’s no way that it was purely generosity or loquacity or attention-to-detail. There was a real love of storytelling there, and the story was Recollections of a Tour Made in the Reading Room.

So here’s another take-home. If researchers feel that they are laying hands on history through its tangible artefacts, perhaps this goes together with a tendency to conceal the use of digital sources: Google Books, Artful, Gallica, and many others. With a little detective work you can figure out that folk are doing this — Sean mentioned, for example, lacunae: research which claims to be citing physical sources, but consistently cites only the editions of a work that have been digitised in some particular repository. So how do we interpret this silence? Is it professional malpractice if you don’t cite Google Books … when you typed it into your article from Google Books?

Sean’s talk was also about posing a question, or set of questions. If we’re still overly entranced by the old travel narratives, what stories are we neglecting? What stories could we, should we be telling about our research?

One obvious answer is: more accurate stories, rooted in the best available evidence about our real collective experiences. Would such stories still be travel literature, I wonder, or some other genre? Perhaps a descendant of travel literature — science fiction? Perhaps utopian fiction? I’m certainly persuaded that using a database, constructing keyword searches, reading a patchwork of text, needs to become part of the account of doing research. We should give serious consideration, as researchers, to the way that IT conditions our research practices: the practices we proudly theorise and teach as methodology, the practices we feel a bit shady about, and even the practices we don’t notice, but which are nevertheless technologically traceable. How do we leave tracks, trails and traces of our subjectivity? Each researcher is potentially gathering a mass of data about how they gather data.

Sean finished with an open question, which was a callback to Arlette Farge’s Le goût de l’archive (1989). “What, in 2019 — in a dematerialized and iterative archive — is seat number 1?”

There was a lively Q&A. I hardly took any notes and I won’t try to summarise. I think I can just about remember three sort of interrelated questions from Tim Hitchcock, Caroline Bassett, and Rachel Thomson.

Tim asked about how we were imagining archives before this particular wave of romanticization, which he suggested was rooted in the 80s and 90s, just as the archive is starting to transform. He brought up an earlier Foucauldian analysis of the archive as an antagonistic mechanism of order and control: a way of understanding the inescapable web of technology and language in which we are caught and from which we are construed.

Caroline asked about the ways in which the argument was grounded in history specifically, and spoke specifically to the historians’ archive. What is the prior structure that that makes the thing that you set out to collect “history”?

And I think Rachel asked about democratization and authority, and suggested that this argument might be interestingly reframed in terms of loss of historians’ traditional prestige. Could this be a moment of re-territorialization? Might it turn out that people can do history without historians? Might they do it in totally different ways, or do totally different things altogether?

There were plenty of other questions and plenty of answers.

I asked one about zooming out from archival research and thinking about all kinds of academic practice in the same way — especially teaching.

Having mulled it over a bit more, I guess I was really thinking about that gripe you sometimes get about students who don’t do the set reading … or who somehow game the reading. It’s grounded in a recognition that a patchwork of Google Books text fragments isn’t intellectually transformative in the same way substantial linear readings of chapters and books are … and perhaps also a faint recognition that we currently aren’t that good at conveying this fact via formative, summative, and informal assessment.

Speaking anecdotally, reading a whole damn book is a big deal, takes absolutely forever, and it fundamentally changes who I am. I am a pretty bad reader, and perhaps the worse a reader you are, the more it changes you. I can advise a student to be wary of shortcuts, but I know I wouldn’t persuade me.

So perhaps we do need a new language, or a new set of stories, around learning in an era of widely available digital shortcuts. How much do we need to nudge such a discourse along, and how much is it emerging spontaneously? My hunch is that it’s largely emerging spontaneously, and the questions are more around how to steer its growth.

One area might be citation. Citation has connotation, and perhaps the connotation is systematically false. What if we were to experiment with a citation system which elegantly communicates not provenance, but some sense of how the author came across it, and how deeply and widely they have explored the context in which it occurred?

Then again — and this was my follow-up question, a thing I always trot out these days in various guises (I think because of Simmel) — does increasing the truthfulness of the stories we tell about our research, learning, and teaching necessarily always produce more truth per se … or whether it might in some cases be destructive of truth? Might silence, misdirection, equivocation, euphemism, tact, white lies, opacity, deferral validated by uncertainty, and all manner of ruses also be built into the enabling infrastructure of truth?

Creative practice is perhaps where this is most obviously seen: the fidelity between a poetics and a poetry is seldom a descriptive fidelity — why on earth would a poet settle for that? — but is rather a provocative and generative fidelity. The poet represents their practice in ways that enable and modify their practice. Such representations both coheres with and contradict representations capable of communicating their practice.

All this pertains to the tacit validity claims of scholarship. Perhaps to cite a work is to impersonate something, and a linear reading of whatever is in the codex may not be the best way to identify and to inhabit the ‘something’ you are impersonating. For starters, if you haven’t read through the source text in that way, you won’t be alone. Has there been a big DH project to model where citations cluster? Because I have a suspicion that the history of philosophy is the history of conversations between first chapters.

So what kind of poetics ought we aspire to for research? I think my instincts are pragmatic: it would be great if we could recognise and duly weigh the transformative power of longform textual encounter, or could rediscover similar transformative power in more distributed, patchwork formats. So a poetics, or a new travel narrative, that might allow you to take your bearings in that more fragmented reading, without insisting on linearity, to find ways to make that experience more cumulative.

The Tropy workshop was excellent, an opportunity to learn its current capabilities, but also a nice glimpse into its ongoing evolution, and into how the interplay of “nice to have” and “easier said than done” influences development priorities. Speaking personally it was the incidental side quest which really did it for me: arriving late to the Zotero party. Zotero is a free research and citation management system — a bit like Endnotes, if you’re familiar with that — that is oriented toward collaborative research (it integrates easily with Google Docs, for example, although I’m not sure about CryptPad and others). It very zestily searches the web to identify whatever you click and drag into it, and gives you nice titles and abstracts and hooks to hang your own metadata too. Sean even gave me a Zotero sticker, and you know what, I stuck it on my laptop. And then he was gone. Mood:


Historical simulacra: breathing life into the digital dead

By Tim Hitchcock

The blog post that follows is adapted from the text of a short presentation I gave to a symposium held at the University of Sussex on the 18th of January 2019: Subjectivity, Self-Narratives and the History of Emotions. It was organised by my excellent colleague Dr Laura Kounine, and I was honoured to be asked. I very much enjoyed the day, and the other presentations reflected a wonderful variety of perspectives on the history of emotion, illustrating just why the ‘emotional turn’ has grown in significance. Having said this, as usual, I found myself ‘outside the tent, pissing in’—not able to write a convincing ‘history of emotions’, and not entirely convinced by much of anything.

I am afraid the talk that follows is much more a case of me thinking aloud, rather than a clearly thought-through position piece. As often happens – at least to me – the synopsis and title of this talk was written long before the talk itself, and it has turned out rather differently than I initially envisaged. I very much hope that this does not seem disrespectful. I should also admit at the outset that while I very often try and write with emotions, I am not a historian of emotions; and hence am rather speaking from outside the tent.

With these caveats in mind, there are just a couple of things I want to discuss today – first, the remarkable rise of ‘emotions’ as a category of analysis – the creation of a what has occasionally been termed, the ‘emotional turn’. And second, the impact of new – digital – research methods on historical research. And I want to do this, primarily as a way of getting at something third – the changing nature of the ‘historical project’, and what we actually think we are doing, when we write about the dead. I believe that both these developments impact directly on the kinds of writing we do, and both have altered aspects of the underlying project of academic historical scholarship.

And the place to start is with the remarkable recent rise in the history of emotions. This symposium is perhaps evidence enough of the centrality of emotions to some of the most innovative work of the moment. You can, of course, trace a narrow historiographical path back to the work of people like William Reddy and Barbara Rosenwein – and via them to the histories of gender, post-structuralism, and all the rest. But I don’t think this actually captures the significance of the rise of ‘emotion’ studies. Its ubiquity is remarkable.

I was recently asked to contribute to a festschrift for a well-respected senior historian – to be filled with the work of their students, inspired by fifty years of scholarship. Now, the historian in question started off in urban history, did some medical history, and wrote a lot of great stuff on the evolution of social policy. But, the one thing they did not do is write about emotions. And neither did their students. And yet when the book was produced – including some wonderful micro-histories and accounts of the impact of social welfare policy – it was touted by OUP as an ‘introduction to and critical reflection on the growing field of the history of emotions’. My understanding is that this was a theme forced on the editors by OUP. And yet, there was no more emotion between the covers of that volume than in your average box of shredded wheat. The press was clearly jumping on what it perceived as a bandwagon, shoehorning some excellent social history into this ‘growing field’.

lightning talks
‘Lightning Talks’, British History in the Long Eighteenth Century, 5 December 2018

In a similar way, the seminar I help run at the Institute of Historical Research on the Long Eighteenth Century recently ran an introductory session for new researchers, just starting out on their PhDs. We could fit in some twelve presentations, drawn from across the country – capturing a cross-section of new PhD students working on 18th-century history. And what was remarkable was the prominence of ‘emotions’ in how those PhD students formulated their subject. Over a third explicitly used the language of ‘emotion’ as part of the framing of their doctorate. And, while all had smart things to say, when questioned about why they chose ‘emotions’ as a framing device (admittedly an unfair question), they all struggled to give a clear answer. You could still see the impact of new sources, and older traditions, but the sore thumb that stood out among them was one crying and laughing along the way. Economic and political history, digital history, urban history, even history from below, were all largely absent, and in their place was ‘emotion’.

If we wanted to explain how we got here, we could go back to Lefebvre and Peter Gay perhaps, and into second wave women’s history, queer theory, body history and the history of sexuality – or if you want another trajectory, via anthropology and psycho-history, to Robert Darnton and Barbara Taylor.  But none of these lineages really seem to me to account for this – sudden – popularity for the analysis of emotions.

And what occurs to me, is that the fundamental drivers of this ‘turn’ lie primarily in a newly felt need to reconstruct unknown lives, and interrogate ‘experience’. Looked at not as a lineage, but as an intellectual technology in its own right, one aspect of the ‘work’ that the history of emotions performs is to allow us to imagine the interior life of a dead person for whom we have no personal record, and to be able to footnote our imaginings along the way.

This in turn, allows us to generate on the page, that sense of a lost ‘experience’ told via the lives of people who did not otherwise record their innermost thoughts. A historically specific model of an emotional landscape, or community, allows us as historians to paint the silent dead, in the emotional colours of their class, gender and epoch.

In other words, the history of emotions – it appears to me – is a means to a literary end, and a fragment of a broader impetus to reconstruct the worlds of people not adequately reflected in the archives – of women; of the poor; of those excluded by race, sexuality and disability. To have a model of how emotions worked within marriage in 1880s Leeds or Manchester, or to be able to discuss the fear felt by untold soldiers on the Russian Front in the First World War, forms a strategy for breathing life into the silent dead. Arguably, it allows us to embed what Virginia Woolf described as the ‘rainbow’ in biographical writing – emotions, perspective, interiority used on the page – to evoke a reader’s response.

Old Bailey Voices.png
The Old Bailey, c.1808, reproduced in 3D by Ben Jackson for the ‘Old Bailey Voices

And this is where the history of emotions seems to me to intersect with digital history. It is a remarkable thing, but the nature of historical research has changed fundamentally in the last twenty-five years. The digitisation of the historical record, has essentially liberated us from many of the structures of the archive – even as it creates new controlling structures along the way. Connections that just thirty years ago would have been impossible to make, are suddenly open to us via keyword searching and nominal record linkage.

And for a select band of historical figures – the 18th and 19th century Anglo-phone working class, criminals, paupers, and the ancestors of various Mormons – we are confronted, indeed seduced, by the possibility of re-constructing hitherto unfindable lives, in evidence scattered across the ever more comprehensive records of the nation state.

digital panopticon
The Digital Panopticon

In a project I was recently part of, the Digital Panopticon, we tied together some forty or fifty datasets, covering the trials, convictions and punishments of some 90,000 mainly working class Londoners – criminals and transportees to Australia. For many of these men, women and children, there are tens of brief references – single lines of information – marking their journey through the systems of criminal justice. To this can be added census material and life events. All building into what feels like the bare bones of a remarkable series of biographies.

jane tyler
Jane Tyler, 1765-?  53 Records in the Digital Panopticon

This is a single person’s collection of historical data – Jane Tyler – for whom we have 53 separate items of evidence, leading up to her eventual transportation on the Second Fleet to Australia in 1789.

We can know people’s weight, and height, their distinguishing marks, and who they shared a prison cell with. We can know how much money they had with them when they arrived in New South Wales; and we can read their very words recorded in the Old Bailey Proceedings.

For some, we can even look in to their eyes, and search for meaning.

Sarah Durrant, convicted to two years imprisonment at Wandsworth Gaol, for the theft of
£2000 worth of banknotes on 9 January 1871.

This is Sarah Durrant, convicted in 1871 of receiving two stolen bank notes, and sentenced to two years’ hard labour in Wandsworth prison – in a mugshot that has all the characteristics of a formal portrait.

There are problems. I have written about this elsewhere, so will not labour this point today; but the digitisation of the Western archive – in part driven by the commercial impetus to monetise popular western demand, has increasingly skewed the historical record – by race and national identity. The white working class – citizens of well-ordered states – are suddenly hyper-available for analysis and empathy; while 98% of the rest of the world are simply denied a ‘right to be remembered’. There is a massive challenge to right this imbalance – and to at the very least – acknowledge the absences from the archive.

But there are also new and profound possibilities. If, as I suggested earlier, the work performed by the history of emotions is to allow us an interior view of the lives of those otherwise excluded from the archive, then digital history has created a framework of bald records upon which that emotional representation can be hung.

If the ‘work’ of the history of emotions is the recovery of interior lives, then perhaps the ‘work’ of digital histories is the evidencing of external lives. It provides what Virginia Woolf set against her ‘Rainbow’: the ‘granite’ of event and fact, driving a narrowly-evidenced narrative, made humane and palatable with emotional insight.

By combining the points of sharp light, provided by digital research methods, with a model of communities of emotion, we are apparently allowed to create more fully-rounded historical actors – whose interior life is suddenly available in a new way – whose motivations and behaviour can be understood and used as part of a broader analysis. And given that the essence of ‘modernity’ is generally thought of as the rise of ‘interiority’ among the middle classes of the early nineteenth – this is a big deal. It apparently allows us to ‘use’ working class lives and sensibilities as part of the project of writing the dead in a new and inclusive way. For a start it helps expose the ridiculous and infinite condescension, that suggests that historically ‘modern’ western middle class people were somehow possessed of a richer interior emotional landscape than pre-modern, working class and non-western people.

And as a long term practitioner of ‘history from below’ in the British Marxist tradition, you would imagine that I would simply be elated by this (or whatever emotionally positive term is appropriate to my gender, class and community). This combination of new sources about the working class, available because of digital search, together with a new technology of knowing about emotions and community, would appear to do much of the work only tilted at by micro-histories and history from below.

So I wonder why I am not actually convinced? Why does this not feel like a new high point in the history of historical scholarship?

And I think it is primarily because, when you combine this strategy, with the return to narrative evident in the vast majority of academic history writing, several slightly weird things happen.

We have increasingly moved from the social sciences to the humanities, and from explanations of the evolution of the social order; to profound engagements with the past as a ‘distant mirror’. To my bemusement, even recent history, including that of the 1960s and 70s – a period I remember with a clarity that suggests I was not taking enough drugs at the time (something I absolutely deny, by the way) – is now frequently received as journeys into difference. In part, my suspicion is that historians have come to accept the truism that the digital revolution, when combined with the political and social revolutions associated with feminism and the collapse of communism, formed a historical disjuncture that makes traditional forms of causality, seem ever less relevant. Historians have drunk the Kool-Aid served up by the likes of Zuckerberg and Fukiyama.

And when these journeys into the past as a foreign country – an unrelated past world of difference – are also presented in the guise of narrative accounts of individual lives – via biography, collective biography and micro-histories – we change the historical project. By adopting forms of writing that use techniques drawn from fiction but made plausible by digitisation and the history of emotion, we effectively undermine the difference between fact and fiction; contributing to the political process that says if it ‘feels’ right, then it is right.

And this is where I become anxious. What a combination of digitisation with a history of emotion, used in pursuit of new forms of historical writing, geared towards ‘experience’, does is allow us to create a specific kind of historical simulacra, in Baudrillard’s sense of the word. We can now collect small fragments of light, to illuminate this moment, or that exchange – five or ten or twenty moments, when a historically real person, stood in front of a clerk, and had some aspect of their lives turned in to the fiction of accounting.

We tell ourselves, we are pursuing Baudrillard’s first stage of simulacra building – ‘the sacramental order’ – in which our partial collection of signs reflects ‘a profound reality’. But, it seems to me, the addition of any claim to insight into emotions and experience sends our representations of the past directly to his fourth stage – the ‘pure simulacra’, in which our representations are in fact simple fictions, that have no relationship to any reality whatsoever. We increasingly use the tools of genre writing to create empathy, but our bricks are without straw.

If, as practising historians, we simply adopt a methodology that allows us to write from a more fully imagined human perspective; to appeal to the idea of ‘experience’ as a topic of historical writing without also doing the work of the social sciences along the way, we effectively abandon the older historical project of explanation; and in the process, abandon the cultural authority that comes with interpreting, how we got here. When Jo Guldi and David Armitage published The History Manifesto a few years ago, its many flaws were paraded before a spiteful audience (myself included); but it did get one thing right. As they suggested, unless we claim the high-ground of historical explanation; claim a science of social evolution (whether Marxist or otherwise), we will become mere stylists, using the past as a dress-up box for the intellectual equivalent of seasonal panto.

We can make our readers cry, but I worry that we increasingly fail to make them think.