"What is DH, really?" or "Shamelessly indulging a tangent or two"

I'm quite fascinated by the dialogue between this weeks' readings, or, well, to be more precise, between our actual readings and the additional articles by Nan Z. Da and Ted Underwood that Dr. Drouin sent our way. Not that I didn't appreciate Ted Underwood's guiltily satisfying teardown of periodization in the other article of his we read, but I think I'm just at the point in the semester where I'm hoping to start bringing my thoughts together into something resembling coherence, and, although they oppose one another, these two though pieces seem related to our other readings precisely because they are trying to get at the heart of what exactly the "Digital Humanities" are. The interesting thing to me is that both sides seem to be remarkably astute in both their criticism and their defense.

Personally, although it was not one of our key readings this week, I found Nan Z. Da's criticism of the field in "The Digital Humanities Debacle" refreshing, especially because she hits upon something I've felt since the get-go but couldn't put my finger on: the tendancy of DH to redefine terms at will in a way that rather fundamentally changes their meaning. Taking Da's "close" and "distance" reading example, for instance--it sounds quite nice to argue for the necessity of "distance" reading, as Moretti has done extensively in Graphs Maps Trees, and yet this close/distance dichotomy presented is not what the literary act of "close reading" actually means. "Close reading" in literary studies, as Da points out, simply functions "as a description of smart, attentive, original exegesis", in other words, insightful analysis that actually says something about what is being examined. This insight almost always moves from very "close" to somewhat "distanced" as one attempts to show what these findings mean for either the individual work, the author's body of work, or some corpus at large. Although of course I understand the argument of Frank Moretti and other's that looking at something from a great distance can reveal new and interesting things about it, certainly it is a bit, well, tricky, to suggest that "close reading" in its traditionally understood sense requires a viewed-from-way-far-away component in order to be sound. This is rather like manipulating the language to prove a point, although I suppose this is what we are all doing on some level or other, and is DH really to be condemned for playing the same game?

How does Da's scathing criticism (although tempered by some rather sensible recommendations of accountability and so on towards the end) square, though, with the enthusiasm of Ted Underwood and Roopika Risam and many others we've read who truly feel, as argued by Risam in "New Digital Worlds", that "The potential for digital humanities lies in its capacity for world making--for using digital humanities scholarship to create new models for knowledge and the world" (142). These are lofty statements indeed, and yet seem, in some cases as when one is exploring the possibility of "A digital cultural record that puts social justice at its center" (Risam 144), to not be wholly exaggeration. Is the discrepancy perhaps between ideal and real, potential and actual? Da looks closely and finds actual dificiency in DH scholarship as it is currently conducted, and which I am sure this is not a pleasant accusation for anyone, it doesn't necessarily devalue the potentiality of DH to accomplish "world making" asserted by Risam, either. I wonder if, in tempering its eagerness to claim itself the Absolute New Method of Criticism, as Da suggests occurs naturally in any critical movement, DH will not (or has not already?) become a much more useful tool in the process.