Theory & Practice

The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0 states that “Digital Humanities is not a unified field but an array of convergent practices”.

(“A Digital Humanities Manifesto,” 2009)


Image Source: Creative Commons – Pixabay

This statement underscores the role of practice in the discipline. Digital humanists are involved with the making and doing of digital projects.  For Risam, “the most significant contribution of digital humanities is to developing and sustaining the digital cultural record of humanity.” (Risam, 2017) She suggests;

“They – we – do this by thinking critically about digital methods for humanities research and objects of knowledge and by building digital archives, maps, databases, and other digital objects that populate the digital cultural record.”

(Risam, 2017)

This is the hack space within digital humanities.  The use of the word hack carries with it connotations of activism and the type of activity that involves breaking down barriers and challenging traditional or established boundaries.  Digital humanities have always been involved with work that pushes the boundaries of the use of digital technologies within the humanities, since its emergence from the discipline in humanities computing and elsewhere. (Schreibman et al., 2004)

In everyday use, where once the term hack almost exclusively carried inference to demonised digital pirates, in more recent years hack culture has been adopted by the centre. It is now common to see it applied in contexts that celebrate sharing, collaborative action and promote the role of ‘hack’ in delivering better, more effective and efficient solutions.  Popular culture is awash with life hacks.

Twitter: @pixelscapes


In a public-sector policy perspective, the hack sits within wider dominant narratives of service and organisational change and innovation. Examples include in the health sector with Australia’s Health Hack (“Health Hack”) and the Care Hackathon in Scotland (“Carehackathon,” 2016).  The dangerous pirate has become a handsome, swashbuckling buccaneer.

This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand it represents a positive move towards mainstreaming more civic-centred, systems-thinking approaches within policy and practice. It demonstrates a broader shift in organisational thinking, from silos to systems, that I genuinely believe is essential.

Yet on the other hand, the adoption of peripheral thinking by centre is problematic. It loses its most valuable quality – the very ‘edginess’ that made it creative and pioneering.

The sanitisation of hacking is potentially as dangerous as it is helpful.

It is the danger of white-washing critical thinking and practice. It is the danger of a single narrative. Novelist Chimamanda Adichie’s excellent Ted Talk portrays the danger of a single story far more powerfully and eloquently than I could hope to:


TedGlobal 2009 – The danger of a single story | Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie



There is a pragmatic need for disciplines and practices to establish themselves within the scholarly sphere and attract the recognition and resources needed to sustain teaching and research in these spaces.

As it has grown and developed digital humanities has struggled with its own identity, how to define itself and its space. The first volume of Debates in the Digital Humanities published in 2012 is a seminal publication in the emergence of the field. It used the metaphor of ‘The Big Tent’ of digital humanities.  The metaphor came under critique and from which emerged the #transformDH movement.

The website describes the movement as “Toward a digital humanities of transformative research, pedagogy, and activism for social justice, accessibility, and inclusion”. (“TransformDH Tumblr,” 2015)

Reflecting on the movement, Bailey explains its origins:

“#transformDH was born out of a sense of absence. It was 2011, the year that “Big Tent DH” surfaced as a term to describe digital humanities as inclusive and welcoming of different disciplines. But for those of us whose academic homes were in gender and queer studies, race and ethnic studies, and disability studies, and whose personal and political work embraced the digital, it appeared as if the “big tent” was not big enough.”

(Bailey et al., 2016)

Klein and Gold note that these challenges in defining a discipline are not unique and turn to art history, providing an analogy to discourses in sculpture. The act alone of juxtaposing these two communities of theory and practice, with their parallel concerns of shaping space, form and structure, is inspired.  They argue for borrowing Krauss’s concept of an expanded field, such that sculpture or digital humanities “emerges as “only one term on the periphery of a field in which there are other, differently structured possibilities” (Krauss, 38).”” (Klein and Gold, 2016)

Contemporary discourse in digital humanities promotes activism and pushes the boundaries of this expanded field.  #TransformDH makes deliberate use of the hashtag, both as a social movement but also as a recognition that the symbol itself, in form and design, reflects the concept of intersectionality that its proponents promote. Intersectionality is a key concept which challenges digital humanities be critically self-reflexive in their practices, to bring greater literary and cultural criticism to their work and be aware of these differently structured possibilities.

“…cultural critique is perhaps misunderstood by its detractors in the field as an attempt to force a theoretical rubric onto digital humanities or to rehearse a “hack” vs. “yack” binary. Rather, theoretical moves are implicit within digital humanities projects and excavating them is necessary to ensuring intellectual diversity. We have the opportunity to build a more inclusive field, new methodologies, and new forms of analysis.”

(Risam, 2015)

Many theorist-practitioners are urging for this greater cultural criticism in the field, drawing from the intersect with other fields of cultural theory and practice. This include discourses on culture and politics of identity in fields such as critical race, gender and ethnic studies, linguistics and new media studies.  (Risam, 2015)

Many communities of practice that work in and around the spaces of digital humanities are conscientiously working with and employing these peripheral, intersectional, messy spaces as counter-balance to the fact that, ‘like any scholarly field, digital humanities veers towards the monolithic, constructing centers and peripheries.’ (Risam, 2015)

Finn dreams up ‘strange storytelling contraptions’, that ‘resist categorization according to the logic of traditional academic disciplines and methodologies’ and refers to them as “experimental humanities: critically grounded projects that involve explicitly creating and then assessing work that is intended to foster positive change in the world. (“Research | Ed Finn”)

Hall reclaims the truly disruptive nature of the pirate (Hall, 2017) and describes what he refers to as the ‘inhumanities’. His Inhumanist Manifesto positions the aim of his work as being, ‘ to disarticulate the existing playing field and foster instead a variety of antagonistic spaces that contribute to the development of counter-institutions and counter-environments.’  (Hall, 2017)

These approaches to critical theory and practice go beyond binary thinking and put forward fundamentally different ways of understanding, performing and engaging in the work of digital and humanities, in theory and in practice.




A Digital Humanities Manifesto, 2009.

Adichie, C.N., 2009. The danger of a single story, TedGlobal.

Bailey, M., Conghuyen, A., Lothian, A., Philips, A., 2016. Reflections on a Movement: #transformDH, Growing Up, in: Debates in the Digital Humanities.

Carehackathon [WWW Document], 2016. . Care Hackathon. URL (accessed 12.8.17).

Hall, G., 2017a. Masked Media: On Open Humanities, Living Books and Pirate Philosophy.

Hall, G., 2017b. Gary Hall: The Inhumanist Manifesto. Media Theory.

Health Hack [WWW Document], n.d. . Health Hack. URL (accessed 12.8.17).

Klein, L.F., Gold, M.K., 2016. Digital Humanities: The Expanded Field, in: Debates in the Digital Humanities.

Pixelscapes, J.🐉, 2017. How to get artists to draw for you. @pixelscapes.

Research | Ed Finn, n.d.

Risam, R., 2017. Colonial and Postcolonial Digital Humanities Roundtable.

Risam, R., 2015. Beyond the Margins: Intersectionality and the Digital Humanities 9.

Schreibman, S., Siemens, R., Unsworth, J., 2004. Companion to Digital Humanities (Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture), Hardcover. ed, Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture. Blackwell Publishing Professional, Oxford.

TransformDH Tumblr, 2015. . #TransformDH.