What should the humanities be?

A while ago I wrote a blog post expressing my frustrations with the available definitions for the collection of disciplines known as “the humanities.” You can read it on TechStyle, the group blog for Georgia Tech's Brittain Fellows, here. I explained how I didn't think defining the humanities in terms of the canon of “literature,” the method of “reading,” or the advancement of “values” could adequately provide a framework for an academic discipline. Today, briefly and humbly, I would like to propose a definition I think could serve as a framework for the humanities.

The definition I propose is quite simple: the humanities are the disciplines concerned with the production, distribution, and interpretation of human readable texts.

I'm borrowing my use of the term human readable from the Creative Commons project. Creative Commons builds on the distinction, likely familiar to digital humanists and computer scientists alike, between machine readable codes, which are designed to be interpreted by a computer, and human readable codes, which are designed to be interpreted by a person. Creative Commons, for example, creates a machine readable version of their licenses, designed to permit search engines to automatically discover works that have been released with particular re-use rights, and a human readable version of their license, designed to permit “ordinary people” to understand the terms of a particular license and what these terms mean. However, Creative Commons further distinguishes the human readable version of the license from the technical legal code of the license itself. This legal code has sometimes been dubbed the “lawyer readable version.” To fully appreciate the difference between human readable and lawyer readable, you can compare the human readable version of the Creative Commons Attribution license to the full legal code of the same license.

My suggestion then, is that the humanities should focus on texts that are human readable in the sense that Creative Commons human readable licenses are intended to be. That is to say, texts that are written to be read by a varied audience, rather than a narrow group of professionals with intensive and explicit training in interpreting these texts. Texts that are meant to serve as contact zones, where a variety of constituencies might negotiate common understandings of shared issues.

I propose that we focus on the human readable, but not that we limit ourselves to it. Clearly the human readable is always deeply interlinked with a wide variety of other actors: legal and machine codes, media technologies, economic entities, human biology. I only suggest that we make the human readable our point of entry. I believe it is an important point of entry. After all, for all of the specialized knowledge produced by our highly technical and segmented culture, we still rely on human readable texts to build political and economic coalitions that span these specialized forms of knowledge. The science of climate change, for example, cannot impact the political and economic processes that shape the human influence on the climate without the production of human readable texts that explain the significance of the science. Furthermore, these texts do not operate in a vacuum, rather their reception is shaped by earlier texts.

So, that is my modest proposal. The humanities as the study of human readable texts. What do people think?

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