Digital humanities as public humanities: Implications of Alan Liu’s essay ‘Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?’ and its critique of digital humanities

By David Phillips

David Phillips

As we come closer to an understanding of the pitfalls of attempting to develop a catch-all definition of the ‘digital humanities’, and as our exploration reinforces the notion that the digital humanities writ large is an amalgamation of a broad range of approaches with distinct methodologies, applications and objectives, it seems that the most fruitful approach to coming to a better understanding the digital humanities is to provide a much broader, more flexible and open-ended definition.

In examining the mission statement by Alan Liu of the 4Humanities initiative he established we find the core objectives of digital humanities.

Humanities began because the digital humanities community—which specializes in making creative use of digital technology to advance humanities research and teaching as well as to think about the basic nature of the new media and technologies—woke up to its special potential and responsibility to assist humanities advocacy. The digital humanities are increasingly integrated in the humanities at large. They catch the eye of administrators and funding agencies who otherwise dismiss the humanities as yesterday’s news. They connect across disciplines with science and engineering fields. They have the potential to use new technologies to help the humanities communicate with, and adapt to, contemporary society. (p. 490, ‘Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities’ )

Liu’s message is that at its basis, digital humanities does the following:

It makes creative use of digital technologies that help advance humanities research and teaching
It opens up possibilities through the application of new approaches to media and the application of new technologies
It has the potential to assist in humanities advocacy
It has a role to play within the larger mission of the humanities
It is fundamentally interdisciplinary in its ability to interconnect disciplines
It has the potential to help the humanities communicate with the public
It has the potential to help the humanities adapt to contemporary society

What interests Liu the most in this equation is the potential of the digital humanities to move beyond the traditional role take a “leadership [role] in advocating for the humanities.” Rather than just have a ‘servant function’, digital humanities can play an important function in advocating for the humanities “outside the academy”. In addition to reiterating the now well-known phenomenon of cutting back on funding to the humanities and arts while strengthening academic programs in the STEM fields, Lui identifies an external challenge to the pivotal role of the humanities in communicating its discoveries to the public.

He writes,
In short, just when the humanities need more than ever to communicate their vision of humanity (and so their own value) to the public, they find themselves increasingly cut off from the modes of communication that produce some of today’s most robust discourses of public knowledge. While able like anyone else to reach out through the new media, humanities scholars by and large must do so as individuals unsupported by any of the institutional and professional structures that afford them their particular identity qua humanists or scholars. (Gold, 496)
Herein lies the opportunity and the potential of the digital humanities to provide tools that can help communicate this vision to the public. In essence, if we accept the premise that Liu is making, the digital humanities are most effective in their reach and their use as a tool for advocacy when they are conceived as public humanities. He draws the conclusion that “just when the humanities need more than ever to communicate their vision of humanity (and so their own value) to the public, they find themselves increasingly cut off from the modes of communication that produce some of today’s most robust discourses of public knowledge. While able like anyone else to reach out through the new media, humanities scholars by and large must do so as individuals unsupported by any of the institutional and professional structures that afford them their particular identity qua humanists or scholars.” (Gold, 497)
Public humanities, in this context, can be defined as the introduction of “humanities ideas, disciplines and concepts to the non-academic public . . . plac[ing these] disciplines and concepts of the humanities in the context of the general public’s common experiences and activities. [They] use intellectual resources that are accessible and engaging to people with diverse experiences and backgrounds. By illuminating common experiences [they] allow participants to understand them with greater awareness and appreciation of their content.” (Humanities Council of Washington, DC. ) The emphasis of this evolving discipline is on effective engagement with the public.

From a pedagogical perspective, in order to achieve these forms of engagement, according to Brown University Professor Steven Lubar, director of his university’s Public Humanities Program, beyond academic research skills and reflexive practice, public humanities ‘trainees’ need to develop communications skills and community skills. Communications skills include “how to write and how to talk with people,” while community skills involve “how to be part of and work with a community” and “how to be part of many communities at the same time.” (Steven Lubar’s address ‘On Public Humanities’, a welcoming speech for the incoming class of public humanities M.A. students at Brown University in 2012.

Revealingly, the public humanities scholar, in addition to having project management, marketing, fundraising, and business skills, is expected to have both production skills and digital skills. The former are defined as “whether in graphic design and construction, or audio and video – learn[ing] how to do some basic design and recording and producing – or learn[ing] enough to be able to talk knowledgeably to the people who you’re working with who do this.” The latter are defined as “learn[ing] how to build websites, figur[ing] out Zotero and Omeka and whatever other programs might be useful in your work. More important, feel[ing] comfortable with the digital world; know[ing] how to use the tools you need, how to learn new ones.” (Steven Lubar blog post)

One such example of a public humanities project that is attempting to foster a public and cross-institutional dialogue on a critical issue that requires building public awareness is the Guantanamo Public Memory Project of the Brown Center for Public Humanities, which includes both a national dialogue, a traveling exhibit, and a blog site. According to the project’s website, “This project is part of a national effort of faculty, students, historians, and activists to build public awareness of the history of the US naval station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and foster dialogue on the future of the place and the policies and issues related to it. The project asks: what should we remember about Guantanamo – and  why should we remember it now?” ( Of the four key goals listed for the project, the first reinforces the message that Liu has presented. The first project goal of the Guantanamo Public Memory Project is “to use Guantanamo as a basis for public education and engagement about a significant historical site and a topic of political controversy.”

The Public Memory Project Blog ( that provides the public face to this project is subdivided into four categories. The first, ‘About GPMP’ provides introductory material and “a look at the past, present, and future of the Guantanamo Public Memory Project.” The second, ‘National Dialogue and Traveling Exhibit’, documents the ways in which “students and communities [are] explor[ing] GTMO’s history and debat[ing] its implications in a traveling exhibit.” The third, ‘Reflection + Action’, explores what “GTMO’s history suggest[s] about what to do now”, and invites the public to weigh in with comments and observations. The fourth, “This Week in Guantanamo: Past and Present” draws from historical archives to place current events “in historical perspective” by juxtaposing them with earlier events.

What seems most innovative to me in my brief exploration of this blog and the corresponding public humanities project is the use of digital tools to “create” and “enhance” public memory, along with its potential to bring communities together, mainly through the power of digital media, in a shared discussion of the implications of policy decisions made at Guantanamo, and by extension American public policy and social agenda issues that reach beyond Guantanamo. The ‘Reflection + Action’ section of the blog includes the following blog post, “Guantanamo Bay’s Other Anniversary: 110 Years of a Legal Black Hole” (December 29, 2012):
Liz Ševčenko recently wrote an article for The Guardian  ( on the importance of opening dialogue about Guantánamo, writing that “…Guantánamo is much more than a prison: it’s made up of the thousands of people who worked there, grew up there, and served there, whose stories reveal the many things Gitmo is and can be. Refugees remember Gitmo as both a site of confinement and a step to freedom; Cuban workers and American ex-pats remember it as both a place of exile and a treasured home. These stories inform what Guantánamo is – and what it means to close it. Last month, a national dialogue began on what to remember about Guantánamo and why. The Guantánamo Public Memory Project involves historians, archivists, activists, military personnel, and over a dozen universities in raising public awareness of Gitmo’s long history and foster dialogue on the future of this place, its people, and its policies. This fall, students from Pensacola to Phoenix collected stories of people who worked, grew up, served, were held, or advocated at Guantánamo to develop a digital timeline, interactive map, and physical exhibit, just opened in New York and traveling around the country.”
As the work of public humanities scholars makes concrete, the digital humanities thus help scholars break free of their isolation in three ways: first, by taking advantage of new modes of communication that allow scholars to communicate more effectively with the public, second, by providing the institutional and professional structures that can support scholars and provided broader forums both for dissemination of information and open discussion of its merit and implications, and third by taking a leadership position in public engagement and discussion of issues of social importance such as social justice and environmental activism. Digital humanities, rather than being limited in its characterization as a set of tools, becomes the avenue through which humanities scholars demonstrate the relevance of their work to the public. In Liu’s words, “The idea is to create ways to allow humanities scholars deliberately, spontaneously, or collaboratively to generate a bow wave of public awareness about their research and teaching that propagates outward as part of the natural process of research and teaching.” (Gold, 497)
Responding to the voice of digital humanities’ critics, who view these tools as a crude instrumentalism of the humanities, Liu suggests that “the appropriate, unique contribution that the digital humanities can make to cultural criticism at the present time is to use the tools, paradigms, and concepts of digital technologies to help rethink the idea of instrumentality. . . Phrased even more expansively, the goal is to rethink instrumentality so that it includes both humanistic and STEM fields in a culturally broad, and not just narrowly purposive, ideal of service.” (Gold, 501) In other words, the digital humanities, along with the humanities in general as they undergo this twenty-first century shift to interdisciplinarity and to an outward orientation that embraces advocacy and the potential for public engagement, universal access and widespread use of research resources through the public humanities, can provide a bridge to a post-disciplinary future in which the humanities expands as it enters into dialogue with other fields of study including adjacent fields such as new media studies, as well as with other disciplines further afield in the sciences and social sciences.
In concluding that “ultimately, the greatest service that the digital humanities can contribute to the humanities is to practice instrumentalism in a way that demonstrates the necessity of breaking down the artificial divide of the “two cultures” to show that the humanities are needed alongside the sciences to solve the intricately interwoven natural, technological, economic, social, political, and cultural problems of the global age,” (Gold, 502) Lui provides a constructive avenue for establishing a strong argument for using the digital humanities as a bridge to sharing the findings of humanities scholars with the public. Such an approach invites the exploration of contexts in which possibilities are provided for comparison and deep integration of knowledge across disciplinary spectrums. Just as importantly, this revisioning of instrumentalism brings humanities research much more directly into the public domain, enabling dialogues that provide a possibility for a redefinition of the public role of the humanities as a source of knowledge critical to developing a sophisticated understanding of interdisciplinary approaches to the challenges of our increasingly interconnected world, above and beyond the boundaries of member societies.


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