Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, May 2, 2016

Critiquing the Critique of Digital Humanities

Disclosure: IANADH (I am not a digital humanist), but I did get my PhD from the University of Virginia.

There’s a good deal of buzzing in the DH world about this critique of the field by Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette, David Golumbia — hereafter ABG — whose argument is that DH’s “most significant contribution to academic politics may lie in its (perhaps unintentional) facilitation of the neoliberal takeover of the university.” Let me do a little buzzing of my own, in three bursts.

Burst the First: In the early stages of the essay, ABG claim that the essential problem with DH, the problem that makes it either vulnerable to co-optation by the neoliberal regime or eagerly complicit in it, is its refusal to see interpretation as the essential activity of literary study. This refusal of interpretation, in ABG’s view, is the key enabler of creeping university-based neoliberalism, in literary studies anyway.

And here’s where the argument takes an odd turn. “It is telling that Digital Humanities ... has found an institutional home at the University of Virginia.” In ABG’s account, UVA is the academic version of the headquarters of Hydra, an analogy I wish I had not thought of, because now I’m casting the roles: Jerome McGann as Red Skull — that one’s obvious — Bethany Nowviskie as Viper, ... but I digress.

Anyway, ABG say that the strong digital-humanities presence at UVA makes sense because of a long institutional history of refusing the centrality of interpretation, starting with Fredson Bowers, the textual scholar who fifty years ago began building UVA’s English department into a world-class one — textual criticism being one of those modes of humanistic scholarship that de-emphasizes interpretation. (Or outright rejects it, if you’re, say, A. E. Housman.) ABG then add to Bowers another problematic figure, E. D. Hirsch — but wait, didn't Hirsch make his name by writing about hermeneutics, in Validity in Interpretation and The Aims of Interpretation? Yes, say ABG, but Hirsch had a “tightly constrained” model of interpretation, so he doesn't count. Similarly, though it would seem that the work of Rita Felski is essentially concerned with interpretation, she has suggested that there are limits to a posture of critique so she goes in the anti-interpretation camp also.

It would appear, then, that for ABG, narrow indeed is the path that leads to hermeneutical salvation, and wide is the way that leads to destruction. But an approach that credits scholars for being interested in interpretation only if they follow an extremely strict — and yet unspecified — model of that practice is just silly. ABG really need to go back to the drawing board here and make their conceptual framework more clear.

While they’re at it, they might also ask how UVA ended up hiring people like Rita Dove and Richard Rorty and Jahan Ramazani, and allowing New Literary History — perhaps the most prominent journal of literary interpretation and critique of the past fifty years — to be founded and housed there. Quite an oversight by the supervillains at Hydra.

Burst the Second: ABG write,

While the reading lists and position statements with which the events were launched make formal nods toward the importance of historical, sociological, and philosophical approaches to science and technology, the outcome was the establishment, essentially by fiat, of Digital Humanities as an academic and not a support field, with the accompanying assertion that technical and managerial expertise simply was humanist knowledge.

This notion, they say, “runs counter to the culture not only of English departments but also of Computer Science departments,” is tantamount to “the idea that technical support is the cutting edge of the humanities,” and “carried to its logical conclusion, such a declaration would entail that the workers in IT departments,” including IT departments of Big Corporations, “are engaged in humanities scholarship.”

Quelle horreur! That’s about as overt an act of boundary-policing as I have seen in quite some time. Get back in “technical support” where you people belong! And stop telling me to reboot my computer! I’ll just offer one comment followed by a question. There is a long history, and will be a long future, of major scientific research being done at large corporations: Claude Shannon worked for Bell Labs, to take but one crucial example, and every major American university has been deeply entangled with the military-industrial complex at least since World War II. Think for instance of John von Neumann, who spent several years traveling back and forth between Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study and the Atomic Energy Commission. Do ABG really mean to suggest that in all this long entanglement of universities with big business and government the humanities managed to maintain their virginity until DH came along?

And lest you suspect that these entanglements are the product of 20th-century America, please read Chad Wellmon on Big Humanities in 19th-century Germany. The kindest thing one could say about the notion that the "neoliberal takeover of the university" is just happening now — and that it's being spearheaded by people in the humanities! — is to call it historically uninformed.

Burst the Third: The core of ABG’s argument: “Digital Humanities as social and institutional movement is a reactionary force in literary studies, pushing the discipline toward post-interpretative, non-suspicious, technocratic, conservative, managerial, lab-based practice.” This argument is based on a series of, to put it charitably, logically loose associations: many vast multinational corporations rely on digital technologies and “lab-based practice,” and DH does too, ergo.... But one could employ a very similar argument to say that many vast multinational corporations rely on scholars trained in the interpretation of texts — legal texts, primarily — and therefore it is “reactionary” to continue to produce expertise in these very practices. (Think of how many English majors trained in the intricacies of postcolonial critique have ended up in corporate law.) ABG have basically produced a guilt-by-association argument, but one which works against the scholarly models they prefer at least as well as it works against DH.

In fact: much better than it works against DH. What do we have more of in the humanities today: digital humanists, or people who fancy themselves critics of the neoliberal social order but who rely all day every day on computer hardware and software made by Big Business (Apple, Microsoft, Google, Blackboard, etc.)? Clearly the latter dramatically outnumber the former. There are many ways one might defend DH, but one of my favorite elements of the movement is its DIY character: people trained in the basic disciplines of DH learn how to get beyond the defaults imposed by the big technology companies and make our computing machines work for our purposes rather than those of the giant tech companies.

I am not sure to what extent I want to see neoliberalism vanquished, because I am not sure what neoliberalism is. But if there is any idea that has been conclusively refuted by experience, it is that the reactionary forces of late capitalism can be defeated by humanistic critique and “radical” interpretative strategies. If I shared ABG’s politics, I think I’d want to seek collaboration with DH rather than sneer at it.


  • Thanks a lot for this thoughtful rebuttal, I appreciated it.

  • I've been plastering this all over the place. Might as well put it here too: With apologies to Walt Kelly: "We have met the neoliberal enemy and he is us." I've also been playing with the idea that critique was created by neoliberal black ops as a way to keep large numbers of intellectuals snarled up in internecine warfare and far away from the gears of the capitalist machine.

Post a Comment

[Basic HTML tags can be used in this comment field.]