Right Reaction and the Digital Humanities

A while back, I had an encounter that struck me at the time, and continues to strike me, as perfectly emblematic of the Digital Humanities as an ideological formation. While it includes a kind of brutal incivility that I associate with much of the politics that persists very near the “nice” surface of DH (of which one needs no more shocking example than the recent deeply personal and brutally mocking responses by two people I had thought were her close friends and colleagues to a perfectly reasonable and non-personal piece by Adeline Koh), I try to avoid such directly uncivil tactics if I can, and so I have deliberately let a significant amount of time pass so as to remove as much as possible the appearance of personal attack in writing this up. I have also omitted a significant amount of information so as to (hopefully) obscure the identities or institutional affiliations or even professional specializations of the persons involved, including avoiding all pronouns that would reveal the gender of any of the speakers, as I am much less interested in criticizing one individual than in showing how this person’s conduct represents a significant part of the psychology and politics that drives parts of DH.

The bare bones of the story are as follows. I am the co-leader of a “Digital Humanities and Digital Studies Working Group” (DHDS) at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), where I teach in the English Department. The group usually proceeds by reading and discussing texts, although sometimes we look at projects, consider projects by group participants, and have visits from outside speakers. Recently, a DHDS meeting was scheduled with a group of speakers who had been invited to campus for other reasons. These speakers included fairly well-known members of the DH community. One of them, to whom I’ll refer as A, occupies a position of some significant seniority and power in that community. (The other speakers, who don’t play much of a role in what follows, I’ll refer to as B and C.) Nevertheless, I had never met, talked to, or read anything by A prior to this meeting, in part because A has published very little about DH.

The meeting was attended by the group of speakers, a few faculty members from VCU, and a half-dozen PhD students from the MATX program in which I am a core faculty member, all of whom I had worked or was currently working with in some form or another.

The meeting began with the convener who had organized this event asking me to speak about a symposium we held at VCU a few years ago called “Critical Approaches to Digital Humanities,” about my own experience in DH, and about the overall course of discussions we had had to that point in the DHDS working group. I spoke for just over 5 minutes. I gave a brief overview describing how I came to the views I hold and how the symposium came into being. My main focus was my own experience: I mentioned that I was one of the first two people (along with Rita Raley of UCSB) hired as a “digital humanist” in the country and that despite being employed as a “Digital Humanities professor” since 2003, and despite a large number of projects and publications, my name does not occur in any of the typical journals, conferences, list, organizations, etc. I described my view, familiar to those who know my work or me, that DH is seen at least as profitably as a politics than it is a method, and that as a politics its function has been to unseat other sites of authority in English departments and to establish alternate sites of power from existing ones, and in no small part to keep what I broadly call “cultural studies of the digital” out of English departments, and generally to work against cultural studies & theoretical approaches, while not labeling itself as such. I discussed how frequently I am published in forums devoted to debating the purpose of DH, but that as far as DH “proper” goes, the unacceptability of my work to that community has been a signal and defining part of my career—despite my continuing to be employed as a professor of DH. Needless to say, it was clear that none of A, B, or C had ever heard of me or read anything I’ve written, which is fine: for just the reasons that make me so skeptical of DH as an enterprise, the main part of my work is not the sort of stuff that interests DHers, although it does seem to be of significant interest to those who see studying the digital per se to be important, which I am of course glad about.

B and C first responded to what I’d said for a while, saying something positive about the concerns I’d raised.

Then A started talking, with a notably hostile tone, which I found remarkable in itself given that A was in part my guest and that I’d said nothing whatsoever directed at or about A (it’s also worth noting that A is not in English). “I have to take issue with what David has said,” A said. “DH is not a monolith.” I hadn’t described it as a monolith (I had said it is profitably viewed as a politics as well as a method) and as usual the point of this familiar claim wasn’t clear (“not a monolith” suggests that my critique is valid for some parts of DH, but that there are others of whom it isn’t true; but A went on immediately, as do almost all of those who use the “not a monolith” response, to dispute every allegation I’d made across the board), except that I was very wrong. Yet the disrespect and hostility emanating from A were palpable. So was A’s complete dismissal of my own reports of my experience, and perhaps even more stunningly, of my own work as a scholar, with which A was clearly entirely unfamiliar, but whose quality A had already assessed based on my brief story.  I saw my students looking at me with jaws agape—they had heard my skepticism and critique of DH many times, of course, and a couple of them had seen something of what was on display here, but as several of them said to me later, they had never seen it in action as a political force, where the excess of emotion and the brute point of the emotion (in some sense to shut me down or disable my line of critique without engaging it directly) were so readily visible.

Some of the other points A made that I took notes on at the time: “I don’t accept analyses based on power,” apparently meaning that any analysis of any situation that looks at political power is inherently invalid, a claim I found not only remarkable coming from a humanist of any discipline, but also one that we typically hear only from the political right, which is to say, the party that benefits from its alignment with power, an alignment it often tries to downplay even as it benefits.

“The grants awarded by ODH [the Office of Digital Humanities at the National Endowment for the Humanities] are not uniform” (I had pointed out that ODH exclusively or near-exclusively funds tools-and-archives, a point that I am not alone in making and that I wrote up in a blog post with detailed analysis of one year’s awards). Interestingly, either B or C chimed in at this point to say that actually they agreed that the awards were remarkably uniform in their focus on tools and archives, the point I was making.

UKIP

To this I responded, “yes they are, and I’ve done a statistical analysis that shows it. There have never been any grants awarded for critical study.”

A replied: “they aren’t uniform, and it is their prerogative to decide what to fund. And as we just saw [referring to a single recently-published article on big data] statistics aren’t reliable.” (I really struggled not to laugh at this point: a DHer committed to quantitative analysis so angry at me as to argue that statistics as a whole are not valid? But it happened; there are even witnesses.) I tried to point out that we were not dealing with sampling (aka the usual meaning of “statistics”) but with an analysis of the complete list of all ODH grants for a single year, and a briefer examination of all the grants for other years, in which virtually no grants are devoted to “theory” or cultural studies as such, or to critical analysis of the digital. A waved this off with A’s hand and a pronounced sneer. (Interestingly, this was one point where either B or C interjected a bit in my favor, opining that there is a uniformity to the grants along the lines I suggested and that they are unprecedented, but A was unmoved.)

I asked: “is it the prerogative of funding agencies to provide unprecedented amounts of funding [A shakes head vehemently no, to disagree that they are unprecedented] for projects not requested by the units themselves?” A replied: “they aren’t unprecedented.” I insisted that they are and asked for the precedent to which A was referring, and A rejected my question as inappropriate without giving any actual response.

I said that despite the general truth that DH is not a “monolith,” there is a “core agenda” or view of “narrow DH” that is widely-understood in the field, often referred to as “tools and archives.” I referred to the Burdick et al Digital_Humanities volume as a recent example that explicitly sets out this single-focused agenda for DH. A interrupted again, angrily, dismissing my comments, insisting that “that volume has been widely discredited” and that the “narrow” view of DH was incorrect.

Toward the end of the conversation one of the more telling exchanges occurred. I had noted that “a main point of DH has been to reject the role of theory in English Departments, and it has been successful.” A replied quite a bit later, as if they comment had struck some kind of nerve: “the one thing I agree with David about is that DH is opposed to theory,” making it clear that this was a very good thing.

One dynamic that is worth pausing over: B and C are both relatively well-known members of the DH community. Not only were they visibly shocked by A’s conduct, but they both several times made comments in which they tried to “heal the breach” by granting that certain parts of my critique were probably right, and several times explicitly endorsed some of my specific comments. Yet anyone sitting in that room, no doubt including B & C themselves, walked away seeing the conflict between A and me as the thing that was happening, as the main political event. To me, B & C stand for all those perfectly well-meaning DHers who are not themselves directly invested in its poisonous political agenda. I do not resent the fact that B & C could not repair the event more fully. But I think they are emblematic of the role played by all those in the DH community who don’t understand or endorse or take seriously what I have tried for years to explicate as its politics. They are, broadly speaking, ineffective, and as such, end up adding gravitas to the power of those with an agenda. Their level of conviction and commitment, especially politically speaking, is far shallower than those who really do care. My impression, which may be self-serving, was that B & C were actually more inclined to take my statements seriously because of the wide-ranging and inexact vitriol of A’s performance; at some level I hope that the level of attack those of us who dare to try to locate the politics of DH might inspire others of reasonable mind to do the same.

Then in the evening we had a series of talks by the guests. It will surprise no one to know that A’s paper (composed, I am 99% sure, prior to the events of the day) explicitly and at length endorsed exclusively the tools-and-archives, “narrow” definition of DH that A had strenuously attacked me 6 hours earlier in the day for suggesting was the core of DH. A seemed not to recognize at all that this contradicted what A had so vehemently stated hours before. It even sounded like DH was a monolith after all, which I found a bit shocking.

I let this post sit for quite a while, though I took notes at the time for the purposes of writing it up. What I found remarkable about the encounter was the way that, as I have seen many times, any critique of DH in general receives what I take to be a typical rightist reaction form. First, hostility and belittling of the target; then, absolute rejection of anything the target says, typically without even having heard what that was; then, an assertion of positive principles that, more often than not, actually endorses what the critique was, but with the added affirmation that what is done was correct. This is the same pattern I encounter when I criticize Tor, or bitcoin, or cyberlibertarianism. I am an idiot; I am wrong for saying these things tend to the right; I don’t understand what the right is; actually, the right is correct, and these things should tend to the right–and despite this being my original thesis, I am completely wrong. I see that as part of the rightward tilt that is endemic to digital technology, absent careful and vigilant attendance to one’s political means and ends. “The digital” is strongly aligned with power. Power and capital in our society are inextricably linked, and in many ways identical. Strongly identifying with “the digital” almost always entails a strong identification with power. That identification works particularly well, as do all reactionary ideological formations, by burying that identification under a facade of neutrality. “I reject political analyses,” this position says, while enjoying and strongly occupying the position of power which it currently inhabits itself. Much like Wikipedia editors or GamerGate trolls, this simultaneous embrace of and disavowal of power is key to the maintenance of rightist political formations.

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