Back in 2009 (when I was a grad student), I started writing about the various ways in which the word “digital” is value-laden. What power does it have? How does it act or behave in particular contexts? What’s implied by it? That is, what goes unsaid when it’s used? And, most interesting, what happens when it’s “dropped” or removed from a sentence? How does its removal shape interpretation and even “ruin” the significance of an argument?

I applied this analysis to four chapters in the first volume (2012) of Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matt Gold, and published it as an essay in the second volume (2016), edited by Gold and Lauren Klein.

Below’s a link to that essay, titled “Dropping the Digital.” I’ve also included the first two paragraphs of it and pointed to a 2012 talk and 2018 interview where I discussed it. The second volume of Debates is available online (open access) and in paperback, library cloth, and ebook formats, too.


Excerpt of the chapter, "Dropping the Digital," where Debates in the Digital Humanities is "ruined" by the deletion of "digital" from its chapters

Dropping the Digital
Published in Debates in the Digital Humanities (Gold and Klein, eds.) in 2016 | University of Minnesota Press | eighteen pages | open access

Links: essay (HTML); publisher’s page (HTML); HASTAC interview (HTML) with Jon Heggestad; talk (HTML) at Pitt


In the following paragraphs, I “ruin” digital humanities in order to isolate what makes them distinct or compelling in the first place. Ruination is a technique whereby a text is procedurally manipulated to render it less persuasive. The manipulated text is interpreted alongside the original, and key differences between the two versions are analyzed. Informed by a long legacy of text manipulation, including work by OuLiPo, Brion Gysin, Kathy Acker, Tom Phillips, Lisa Samuels, Jerome McGann, Mark Sample, Stephen Ramsay, and—most relevant here—Kari Kraus, I consider ruination’s conjectural exercises. Borrowing from Kraus’s “Conjectural Criticism,” we might say ruinations are “concerned with issues of transmission, transformation, and prediction (as well as retrodiction)” (Kraus, ¶4). They facilitate “knowledge about what might have been or could be or almost was,” with a bias toward possibility rather than demonstrability or empiricism (¶5). Ruinations point to possible trajectories without fully illuminating them, and they insinuate that the stuff of digital humanities has been insufficiently identified and described. They also underscore how digital humanities may differ from other strains of humanities and—most important—ask what else digital humanities could be, or should do, or might at least consider.

For the purposes of this argument, my particular ruination technique is “dropping the digital,” where I remove the word “digital” from a sentence in order to examine how its absence shapes meaning and interpretation. My source material for ruination is the 2012 edition of Debates in the Digital Humanities (edited by Matthew K. Gold). Not only is this collection of essays rife with persuasive writing and argumentation, it also begs for additional attention to how the word “digital” is used to qualify humanities research.

Read the rest of the essay online or in print.


Image care of the Debates in the Digital Humanities series published by the University of Minnesota Press and edited by Matt Gold and Lauren Klein. This page was created on 22 July 2019 and last updated on 21 June 2021.