The Scandal of Digital Humanities

Posted on: 05-4-2016 Posted in: Uncategorized

My apologies for a prolonged absence as we’ve built (and rebuilt) our new labs. With the renovations nearly complete, and with so many pixels glowing over recent charges by Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette and David Golumbia that digital humanities enable neoliberalism, I felt it time to take up this blog once again.

The authors of this provocative piece take pains to explain that they’re talking about not all of digital humanities, but a specific variety stemming from a particular tradition of textual studies and humanities computing. As many online have already protested, their genealogy of DH omits a great many areas of inquiry that have contributed to the field’s variegated and contested formation, including history, classics, archaeology, hypertext and hypermedia studies, cybercultural studies, electronic literature studies, critical media studies, maker culture, game studies and platform studies, to name but a few. Even taken on its own narrowly defined terms, the arguments aligning the digital humanities with neoliberal priorities seem to leave out an awful lot of what digital humanists actually think, say and do. To take just one example, neoliberalism accounts in part for the enclosure of common goods by private interests, and the subjection of all areas of life to a strictly economic logic. In contrast, much work in DH involves either detourning commercial tools and products for scholarly purposes, or building Open Access archives, databases and platforms that resist the pressure to commercialize, as Alan Liu points out. That’s why DH projects (including my own) are so often broken, unworking or unfinished, and far from anything “immediately usable by industry.”

Still, the very taint of technology is enough to convince some conventional humanists that DH must somehow smack of neoliberal tendencies. The equation seems to go like this: since both DH and neoliberal management require funding for technology, they’re ideologically aligned, while conventional humanists are by implication non-technical and thus non-managerial. The authors of the LARB piece argue that digital humanists themselves position the field as a corrective to traditional humanist scholarship, supplanting radicalism and progressive inquiry with merely “disruptive” innovation, in the sense employed by Clayton Christensen, whose theories of entrepreneurship have driven managerial and pedagogical reforms at post-secondary institutions across North America over the past two decades. These authors would not be the first to conflate disruptive managerial strategies like MOOCs and the unbundling of degrees with the goals of DH, suggesting that digital humanists need to do more still to distinguish their own inventive and critical explorations of alternate pedagogies and methodologies from the corporate “innovations” increasingly favoured by university administrations. It needs to be reiterated that DH, while perhaps not always and everywhere “radical,” is rarely just “innovative”.

In fact, from a managerial perspective, the kind of computationally expensive uses to which digital humanists typically put technologies– such as running topic models of large corpora for hours or days on end in the hope of discovering new discursive patterns for interpretation–would appear as an impractical and inefficient tax on resources with no immediate application or return. It might also be objected that neoliberalism has been advancing at least since the abandonment of the gold standard, while DH has been around only about fifteen years, or half that time if you consider only the “new Digital Humanities” that Steven E. Jones documents, and which are closely tied to the rise of social media corporations like Twitter and Google that are allegedly part of the problem. Nevertheless, while DH may not be the determining cause of all our woes, the case could still be made that it exacerbates neoliberal tendencies that already exist within the academy and media culture at large, and which depend increasingly on the same technical systems as DH. I’ve learned enough over the years from my outstanding colleague and sometime lab mate Sarah Brouillette and her many crucial critiques of capitalist culture to recognize signs of exploitation in the workplace. While our approaches to DH don’t always align, her insights have strongly informed my own writing and practice, and ought to be taken seriously.

The LARB piece encapsulates a large undercurrent of ressentiment within academia that blames DH and neoliberalism alike for sapping both prestige and resources from the “pure” scholarly pursuits of merely thinking and writing, which need not involve labs, teamwork, or indeed any technology at all, let alone big grants to fund it all, but only books, pens and paper. That attitude is of course hugely disingenuous: it perpetuates the monastic myth of the isolated (tenured) scholar as ideal, while ignoring how little anyone could get done today without the computers, email clients, catalogues and databases, e-journals, cloud storage, online book resellers and social networks that keep us connected to the world of scholarship, not to mention online travel agents for booking passage to conferences and research archives. In today’s academy, we’re all already digital.

If the digital humanities seem at times to pander to the neoliberal discourses and tendencies that are undeniably rampant within post-secondary institutions, it’s not because they necessarily contribute to exploitative social relations (although they certainly do at times, just like every other academic sector). I rather suspect it’s because digital humanists tend as part of their scholarly practice to foreground self-reflexively the material underpinnings of scholarship that many conventional humanists take for granted. DH involves close scrutiny of the affordances and constraints that govern most scholarly work today, whether they’re technical (relating to media, networks, platforms, interfaces, codes and databases), social (involving collaboration, authorial capital, copyright and IP, censorship and firewalls, viral memes, the idea of “the book,” audiences, literacies and competencies), or labour-related (emphasizing the often hidden work of students, librarians and archivists, programmers, techies, RAs, TAs and alt-ac workers). Far from being “post-interpretative, non-suspicious, technocratic, conservative, [and] managerial,” the “lab-based practice” that we promote in the Hyperlab, at least, involves collaborative and broadly interdisciplinary work that closely scrutinizes the materiality of scholarly archivization, bibliography, writing and publishing across media, as well as the platforms and networks we all use to read and write texts in the 21st century.

If anything, DH is guilty of making all too visible the dirty gears that drive the scholarly machine, along with the mechanic’s maintenance bill. Of course, it doesn’t help appearances that many of these themes also happen to be newly targeted areas for funding agencies as they try to compensate for decades of underfunding, deferred maintenance, rising tuition and falling enrolments on campuses everywhere. Now, some would argue (and I’d agree) that these material costs should ideally be sustained by our college and university administrations and not by faculty research grants. But DH isn’t responsible for either the underfunding of higher education over the last 25 years or the resulting mission creep of scholarly grants, which in addition to funding “pure research” are increasingly expected to include student funding packages, as well as overhead for equipment, labs and building maintenance, even heat and power. The fault and burden of DH is that it reveals all the pieces of this model of post-secondary funding that seems novel to many humanists, but which has long been taken for granted within the sciences. This is the model that acknowledges that most funding programs aren’t intended mainly for tenured professors to buy books and travel, but for their research infrastructure and, above all, their students who justify the mission of scholarship in the first place, and who fill in while we’re flying off to invade foreign archives like the detritivores we are.

DH doesn’t so much pander to the system (at least not more than any other field) as it scandalously reveals the system’s components, while focusing critical attention on the mechanisms needed to maintain them. And that’s precisely its unique and urgent potential: by providing the possibility of apprehending these mechanisms fully, DH takes the first steps toward a genuinely materialist and radical critique of scholarship in the 21st century. To ignore the valuable critical insights of digital humanists and, under the flag of anti-neoliberalism, retreat into an unreconstructed view of humanist scholarship as a pure, isolated and unmediated expression of critical genius would be both dishonest and dangerous.

Still, most scholars will find that their digital humanist colleagues present an easier target than their deans, VPs, presidents and funding agencies, against whom any accusations might well be met with professional or financial repercussions. Digital humanists are the convenient enemies within, and ones who have a lot of arcane knowledge about digital codes and protocols at that. Who’s to say the DHer who built that Omeka exhibit or installed your school’s LMS isn’t also mining Bitcoins for darknet interests, running online surveillance for Amazon or tweaking high-frequency trade algorithms on the derivatives market? As long as critics elide the media corporations that own the code with those who are best qualified to interpret, challenge and rewrite it, we’re not likely to be able to identify and resist incursions of neoliberal governmentality into academia when they actually occur.

– Brian Greenspan

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