Monday, May 02, 2016

In Defense of Digital Tools (by a Non-Tool)

Like many of my friends and colleagues, I found the recent broad critique of the Digital Humanities in LARB by Daniel Allington, David Golumbia, and Sarah Brouillette to be pretty gripping reading. I know many of those same friends and colleagues have many disagreements with the characterization of the Digital Humanities in that essay; here are a few of mine.

The first paragraph of "Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): a Political History of the Digital Humanities" is carefully considered -- the authors are not newbies to this debate, and know what they're doing. I'll work mainly from the paragraph in these brief comments, since it introduces many of the main themes of the essay that follows. I'm also much more interested in the overall tenor of this essay than in debating at great length every individual topic they cover. So here is the opening paragraph:
Advocates position Digital Humanities as a corrective to the “traditional” and outmoded approaches to literary study that supposedly plague English departments. Like much of the rhetoric surrounding Silicon Valley today, this discourse sees technological innovation as an end in itself and equates the development of disruptive business models with political progress. Yet despite the aggressive promotion of Digital Humanities as a radical insurgency, its institutional success has for the most part involved the displacement of politically progressive humanities scholarship and activism in favor of the manufacture of digital tools and archives. Advocates characterize the development of such tools as revolutionary and claim that other literary scholars fail to see their political import due to fear or ignorance of technology. But the unparalleled level of material support that Digital Humanities has received suggests that its most significant contribution to academic politics may lie in its (perhaps unintentional) facilitation of the neoliberal takeover of the university. (Source; my emphasis)
Many of the points Allington et al. make, here and throughout the essay, can be characterized as deflating a caricature of a DH-branded balloon: while the Digital Humanities positions itself as a "radical insurgency," in actuality it is anything but. But I have to shrug a bit at these types of arguments: even if there's some truth in the idea that DH is not the vanguard of a progressive revolution within academia, so what? What actual harm is it committing? If you don't find the scholarship interesting, you don't have to read it.

I put in bold-face the two phrases that suggest where the harm might fall for Allington et al. On the first assertion -- that the rise of the DH has "involved the displacement of politically progressive humanities scholarship," I'm very curious to know what progressive humanities scholarship they're thinking of, and how it's been displaced. The  American academic environment I have always known (I started graduate school in 1995) has been elitist (bordering on casteist), exclusionary, and utterly dependent on a capitalist economic system. Yes, there were Marxist, black, queer, feminist, and postcolonialist voices in this pre-DH university. But they were marginal then -- and sadly, remain marginal now. Have they been further displaced by DH? Or are we talking more about branding? (i.e., postcolonial theory was once seen as "the next big thing," while today it isn't quite as shiny)  If so, I'm still unimpressed. Branding led to a certain bubble-like atmosphere within postcolonial studies (think of Dirlik's idea of "the Postcolonial Aura"); that bubble has, undoubtedly, popped. And I'm not sorry.

Here's a way of thinking that might get us past this muddle (and I think I agree with the authors that the hype around DH is a mistake): let's stop branding our scholarship. We don't need Next Big Things and we don't need Academic Superstars, whether they are DH Superstars or Theory Superstars. What we do need is to find more democratic and inclusive ways of thinking about the value of scholarship and scholarly communities. In my brief time engaging with DH scholars and scholarship, I have had very good experiences, while I have struggled with some of the other academic communities I have worked in. With its emphasis on collaboration and on resource-sharing, I have found Digital Humanities to be a more inclusive and welcoming community than, say, the community of scholars intensively focused on French and Continental theory.

The second phrase I put in bold in the paragraph above ("the neoliberal takeover of the university") is one that I take quite seriously. I recently gave a talk where I cited Wendy Brown's new book quite extensively (Undoing the Demos), and I share the authors' concern with what Brown and others have been calling the Managerial University. I should probably also point out that last year I published a favorable review of Sarah Brouillette's awesome book, Literature and the Creative Economy (here's the Project Muse link to my review)

For at least part of this argument -- the question of the dependence on funding -- I have to say that the authors of "Neoliberal Tools" have a point. There's no doubt that university administrators are only too happy to encourage DH projects (I had a conversation like that just last week with an administrator at my own university...), while conventional humanities scholarship can be a harder sell, specifically with regards to funding.

However, we should note that funding isn't everything: DH projects might easily find funding, but that doesn't mean they will find audiences composed of interested faculty and students. At my own institution, I attended several talks this year related to critical race studies that were standing-room only, while some prominent DH speakers we invited got relatively modest audiences. So it's not so much a question of "don't believe the hype"; I'm not quite clear there is that much hype around DH for the graduate and undergraduate students I have been working with.

In general, I think we need to be more careful than Allington et al. are being with regards to exactly how and when DH practitioners are complicit in managerialism / neoliberal takeover. I put the blame for this phenomenon first and foremost on the institutional frameworks that govern our universities: boards of directors, university presidents (especially those that come into their positions from the corporate world rather than through academia itself), and upper university administration more concerned with "prestige" and financial shortcuts (i.e., online education) than with the core values of liberal arts education.

There's a relatively easy fix for the possible harms that could come from an overly cozy relationship between scholars engaged in digital humanities work and university administrators and funding agencies. And that is to deemphasize the dollar values of big grants as much as possible while emphasizing the actual outcomes of the projects funded -- specifically, their value as humanities projects. Finally, for people just starting out in DH, I might suggest considering whether you even really need big grants -- there's so much we can now do with "off the shelf" tools (see Lauren Klein's essay, "Hacking the Field: Teaching Digital Humanities with off-the-shelf Tools."). If we really can't do DH work without big grants (and without the sense that the size of those grants reflects the quality of the scholarship), then Allington et al. will be proven correct. But there are so many DH practitioners who are doing interesting work without this grant infrastructure (for example, Jonathan Goodwin did this enlightening and revealing project without seeking any grant support at all).

* * *

Don't just take my word for it...

I would recommend checking out some responses to Allington et al. by other people (and if you know of other responses, please post them in the comments below).

Joshua Danish in the comments at LARB has some understandable strong feelings. Danish points out (I think rightly) that the real object of critique here is the legacy of the DH program at the University of Virginia. While the authors do have a lot to say about Franco Moretti (at Stanford), there's little discussion of the rest of the DH program at Stanford in the essay under discussion. Nor is there much discussion of the DH programs at other institutions, including George Mason, Maryland, Nebraska, Kansas, etc. Each of these programs are different from one another. And while to me it seems accurate to say that the Digital Humanities first congealed as an academic field at the University of Virginia, it has not been "central" to DH as a field for some time. To construe it as such in order to support an argument that the field is composed of Jerome McGann clones is highly problematic.

Along these lines, I found the comments from Schuyler Esprit, a Caribbeanist and Postcolonialist scholar who had earlier in her career worked with some UVA people, quite salient:

(See her whole Storified Twitter response here.)

And I also agree with many points made by Grace Afsari-Mamagani at HASTAC, including especially this paragraph:
Suggesting that “the workers in IT departments of corporations such as Elsevier and Google are engaged in humanities scholarship,” then, is particularly problematic. There is a fundamental difference between the “preservation and access” agenda at play with a project like Google Books and the “preservation and access” agenda pursued in an academic library or department: the latter tends to care deeply for the content itself, and to integrate an awareness of a particular object’s needs and potential uses. The production of digital archives and editions becomes itself an act of scholarship, reliant upon criticism about the role of scholarly resources, accessibility across demographics, use cases, and book and media history, all typically supplemented with contextual information and annotations reliant on deep engagement with existing scholarship. (Link)
This nails it for me. One way to attack DH (and people have been saying a version of it for years) is to say that it's too dependent on tools and applications developed by for-profit companies like Google (and indeed, Wordpress), who don't share our values or priorities (especially with regards to archival content). I doubt we'll be able to overcome at least some dependence on Google anytime soon, but I do think that projects like Scalar (a non-profit CMS developed with a DH grant that is now free to use, and pretty powerful) suggest that we can use DH grant money to develop non-profit versions of commercial applications that are suitable for scholarly projects in the humanities. Along those lines, I think we also need non-profit versions of social networks (witness the recent controversy over, among many other things), so we can talk about essays like this one in venues other than Facebook (TM) and Twitter (TM). 

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