Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, August 1, 2014

How Uninformed Critiques of Digital Humanities Are Taking Over Journalism!

This essay by Catherine Tumber is disappointingly empty, but also indicative of a certain and all-too-common mode of thought. It seems that Tumber has read almost nothing in the digital humanities except Adam Kirsch’s recent critique of that multifaceted movement, and — remarkably enough! — she agrees with Kirsch, "whom we can thank for reading these books so we don’t have to,” adding nothing of her own to his arguments, except the evidence of what appears to be half an hour of web browsing.

She assures us that in his treatment "Kirsch does not cherry pick; he plucks work by leading theorists in the field.” But one of the most common modes of intellectual cherry-picking is taking passages or ideas out of their context, and Tumber, who as we have just seen has not read the books in question, is scarcely in a position to judge whether Kirsch has done that or not. Some of the leading figures in DH — in a response which, though it was published in the same journal that published Kirsch’s critique, Tumber seems unaware of — make it clear that his treatment of their ideas grossly misrepresents them: 

Third, the notion that so called “digital humanities” is characterized by an urge “to accelerate the work of thinking by delegating it to a computer” is patently nonsensical. Throughout Digital_Humanities we argue not “to throw off the traditional burden” but, on the contrary, for a critical and transformative engagement that is rooted in the very traditions of humanistic inquiry. If Kirsch did some close-reading of the book, he would find it to be a celebration not of the digital—as some starry-eyed salvific or materialist ideology—but of the vitality and necessity of the humanities.

Having read the book, I think their statement is quite accurate. But don’t take my word for it: read it yourself. You’ll be a big step ahead of Catherine Tumber.

Here’s what we could use more of in this debate: 

1. Reading a lot before critiquing, in the spirit of intellectual responsibility

2. Remembering that many of the approaches to literary study we’re familiar with were themselves attacked as anti-humanistic just a couple of decades ago. 

Here’s what we could use less of in this debate: 

1. Critiquing without doing much reading. 

2. Presenting your lack of interest in a particular intellectual approach, or set of approaches, as a sign of virtue or humanistic integrity. It’s okay not to be interested in everything that everyone else is doing; we don’t need so to exalt our preferences for something else. 

3. Stupid clickbaity headlines. “Technology is Taking Over English Departments”? “Bulldozing the Humanities”? Give me a break. 


  • This is the second time I have encountered this kind of reductionism from Catherine Tumber. It's the main problem I have with her book, American Feminism and the Birth of New Age Spirituality

  • Oh, how disingenuous. Not only did I praise some directions taken in digital humanities, but I didn’t take Kirsch’s word for it: I read “Literary Commons in the Digital Age” and found that it supported his claims. My post made an argument by analogy—in the humanist tradition—to which Alan seems to be tone deaf. One needn’t read the literature exhaustively to know which way the wind is blowing or, at the very least, to raise questions about its direction. Why didn’t he engage my argument: that the “city” of humanities is endangered by a suburban-style, subsidized, data-driven disaggregated mash-up of human sensibilities? That we might one day regret it as we do the horrific post-war evisceration of our cities? Had I seen any evidence of such moral, aesthetic, historically attuned reservations in this literature—or a sense that digital language runs the risk of alienating the soul and flattening the tone of culture—I would not have seen fit to write what I did. How disappointing that my very real concerns are reduced to a matter insufficient data gathering.

    Catherine Tumber
    Visiting Scholar
    Northeastern University School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs

  • Catherine Tumber:

    Your response is curious in a number of ways. Without contesting my point that you haven’t read the works that Kirsch reviewed — you hardly could, since you announced that yourself — you defend your position by pointing out that you read other things that you think support Kirsch’s point of view.

    Perhaps aware that this is not an especially convincing defense, you then claim that “One needn’t read the literature exhaustively to know which way the wind is blowing.” That’s possibly true, though questionable; but when a subdiscipline has been developing for at least a quarter-century with increasing complexity and prominence, I’m pretty sure you need to read more than a handful of short articles on one website — which is all you show any evidence of having read. So when you write, “Had I seen any evidence of such moral, aesthetic, historically attuned reservations in this literature ... I would not have seen fit to write what I did,” your superficial approach to gathering evidence ensures that that statement remains weightless.

    I also find it noteworthy, and discouraging, that your rhetoric here goes beyond even the “clickbaity headlines” that I lamented in my post. Digital humanities may become the intellectual equivalent of “the horrific post-war evisceration of our cities”! It “runs the risk of alienating the soul and flattening the tone of culture”! It is even — let me save the most shocking critique for last — “suburban-style”!

    Such apocalyptic rhetoric would be absurd even if it were grounded in significant — even if not “exhaustive” — reading. But to crank up the alarmist rhetoric that high on the basis of such limited knowledge is simply irresponsible.

    I would suggest, to anyone who is seriously interested in pursuing these questions, to start with Digital_Humanities, which is available as a PDF here. Even those who don’t want to read the whole thing, who have just a few minutes, could try searching for the term “humanistic”: that in itself will be enough to reveal how seriously these authors are thinking about their role as inheritors of old and vital questions about what kind of learning is truly humane, truly human.

    Then perhaps one might turn to Jerome McGann’s new book A New Republic of Letters: Memory and Scholarship in the Age of Digital Reproduction. There is no more central figure in DH than McGann, and he shows with great scholarly panache the ways that DH is continuing the ancient and honorable work of philological textual scholarship — the core discipline of the humanities throughout their history.

    The evidence is available for those who care to pursue it.

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