Building Community: Meditations on the DH BeNeLux Conference
The first DH BeNeLux conference, organized by KB Library and Huygens ING in the Hague, was held on June 12-13, 2014. Aimed at creating a local community of digital humanists working in Belgium (Be), the Netherlands (Ne), and Luxembourg (Lux), DH BeNeLux garnered international interest and fostered some important discussions.
As a sort of outsider looking in (an American researcher working in a Dutch historical research institute), DH BeNeLux was a quick way to learn some of the very local digital humanities landscape. The leaders in the field were obvious in their (and their PhD students’) talks, local challenges were made apparent, and new connections were made.
Melissa Terras, Director of the University College London Center for Digital Humanities, delivered the keynote that opened the conference on Thursday. Situating the development of the field historically, Terras’ presentation was both a call to action for determining what the DH BeNeLux conference will provide to the local community and a confirmation that digital humanities as a field is here to stay.
Moving quickly through some individual projects like the Great Parchment Book Project while also providing a background for the field’s long development (a highly-retweeted concept she provided was that numerical analysis has a 600-year history), Terras gave the audience (or at least myself) a different perspective on digital humanities. While it’s generally looked at as having only boomed in the last couple of decades alongside the development of computing power, this larger situation both legitimizes the methods and points to the diffuse understanding of the concept. The presentation delved into, or at the very least, raised the question of what differentiates a digital humanist from a plain old humanist.
The two main takeaways that I came out of Terras’ keynote with are : start local, and use what’s already out there. Very actionable advice from one of the most prominent figures in the field.
The Quote of the Conference
The humanist is becoming the reproductive organ of the digital machine.
I had the pleasure of attending MMSDA in London and Cambridge last month, where van Hulle was one of the lecturers for the Modern strand. He truly is one of the leading local digital humanists, so it was great to hear his perspective as part of the DH BeNeLux final panel on Friday afternoon. His approach to digital humanities scholarship is quite interesting – always backed by theorists and references that are not necessarily the norm (i.e., I haven’t heard a single mention of Borges).
Moderated by University of Amsterdam’s Rens Bod, the panel invited four prominent digital humanists to present what was referred to as “spicy arguments.” Van Hulle built his argument from Samuel Butler’s satirical Erewhon published in 1872, which alludes to the fact that man acts (as McLuhan later suggests overtly) as the “sex organs of the machine world”. In combining this with a discussion of what is currently happening in the field (most of which was was sadly lost to time or perhaps left to other bloggers, as I couldn’t take notes fast enough), he came to the tongue-in-cheek assertion – much to the delight of the audience, all of whom whooped, clapped, and then hunched over their devices to tweet the *very* spicy argument – quoted above.
While I have yet to write up my impressions of the four breakout sessions, you’ll be able to find this on my personal blog within a day or two. My overall impression of the conference was that there is currently a struggle happening between the overarching concept of the ‘digital humanities’ (or ‘Digital Humanities’, as you like it) and the individual fields. Is there really a difference between digital humanities and digital history, for example? Or is a digital history project like MATRIX’s Slave Biographies just history done within the scope of digital humanities? OR, even further, is it just history done with digital methods?
The idea of community within digital humanities is also something of consideration at this moment. When more and more digital humanities centers and practitioners are coming out as it were, the formerly international community is now seeing a growing sense of the local. While by its nature, digital humanities easily fosters the larger community, the growth of smaller communities will likely play a big role in the overall development of the field in the next five to ten years.
The DH BeNeLux conference was, in the end, a resounding success, largely due to the organizers (Karina van Dalen-Oskam, Steven Claeyssens, Mike Kestemont, and Marijn Koolen) and the logistical efforts of Suzanne van Kaam. With over 150 attendees, the conference fostered the local connections and connectivity intended, and also started some great discussions that will be continued within the larger community at DH2014 in Lausanne in a few weeks.