The Destructiveness of the Digital Humanities (‘Traditional’ Part II)

In what purport to be responses or rebuttals to critiques I and others have offered of Digital Humanities (DH), my argument is routinely misrepresented in a fundamental way. I am almost always said to oppose the use of digital technology in the humanities. This happens despite the fact that I and those I have worked with use digital technologies in hundreds of ways in our research and that our critiques—typically including exactly the ones DHers are responding to—make this explicit.

It is undeniable that DH is in some sense organized around the use of some digital tools (but not others, and this gap is itself is a very important part of how, on my analysis, the DH formation operates, a matter I have written about at some length). What I and the scholars I work with, as opposed to some conservative pundits, worry about is not the use of digital technology in the humanities. Speaking only for myself, what I oppose most strongly is the attitude toward the rest of the humanities I find widespread in DH circles: the view that the rest of the humanities (and particularly literary studies) are benighted, old-fashioned, out of date, and/or “traditional.”

This is what I mean when I describe DH as an ideological formation, more than it is a method or set of methods. The destructiveness in the ideological formation is what I oppose, not the use of tools per se, or even the actual work done by at least some in DH. The ideological formation, I have argued, is what distinguishes DH from the fields that preceded it (that is not to say that computational ideologies were not present in Humanities Computing—they certainly were—but they had failed to find the institutional purchase and power DH was seeking, which is why Humanities Computing needed to be transmuted into DH). Further, I have argued repeatedly that this destructiveness is an inherent feature of DH, perhaps even its most important constitutive feature: that is to say that the most common shared feature in DH work is its “incidental” destructiveness toward whatever it declares not to be part of itself.

There are deep and interesting ideological reasons why the apparent championing of digital tools should overlap with this overtly destructive attitude toward humanistic research, some of which I’ve just touched on in a recent post, “The Destructiveness of the Digital.” It has something to do with the destructiveness toward whatever is considered “non-digital” among digital partisans, which is part of why I have called DH the “cyberlibertarian humanities” (a claim that is just as routinely misrepresented by DH responders as is the rest of my critique).

I want to leave that aside, in favor of presenting just one unexpectedly clear and symptomatic public example of the destructiveness embedded in DH. In her interview in the LARB “Digital in the Humanities” series, senior DH scholar Laura Mandell approvingly quotes another senior DH scholar, Julia Flanders, saying: “We don’t want to save the humanities as they are traditionally constituted.”

We don’t want to save the humanities as they are traditionally constituted

That, to me, summarizes DH—or at least the part of DH that concerns me and others very greatly—in one compact sentence.

Now I’m sure, as soon as I point it out, there will be a lot of backtracking and spin to claim that this sentence means something other than what it clearly seems to. This is true even though practice shows that the plain reading is correct, and that DHers frequently speak in disparaging and dismissive ways about the rest of literary studies. Yet when pressed, and this is part of why I see DH as resembling so many other rightist formations, rather than simply owning and admitting its disparagement of other approaches, DH starts to blame those who point it out and portray itself as the victim.

In context, I don’t think there is any other reasonable way to read the sentence. What “the humanities as they are traditionally constituted” means here is “the humanities other than DH.”

(It seems worth noting that the characteristic double-mindedness in DH about what constitutes DH itself makes this even more problematic and more transparently a kind of power politics: the only kinds of humanities research that should be saved are not “the kind that uses digital tools,” since virtually all humanities research these days uses digital tools in many different ways, but instead, “whatever scholars who are identified with DH say is part of DH,” a fact which in certain moods even some DHers themselves acknowledge.)

Further, that quotation has been out there now for over a year, and nobody has, as far as I know, bothered to comment or push back on it, despite plenty of opportunities to do so; that fact in itself shows the insensitivity in DH to its own institutional politics.

For reference, here is the entire exchange in which Mandell’s statement appears:

Another concern that has come up deals with public intellectualism, which many scholars and journalists alike have described as being in decline (for example, Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times essay last year). What role, if any, do you think digital work plays? Could the digital humanities (or the digital in the humanities) be a much-needed bridge between the academy and the public, or is this perhaps expecting too much of a discipline?

I have a story to tell about this. I was at the digital humanities conference at Stanford one year and there was a luncheon at which Alan Liu spoke. His talk was a plea to have the digital humanities help save the humanities by broadcasting humanities work — in other words, making it public. It was a deeply moving talk. But to her credit, Julia Flanders stood up and said something along the lines of, “We don’t want to save the humanities as they are traditionally constituted.” And she is right. There are institutional problems with the humanities that need to be confronted and those same humanities have participated in criticizing the digital humanities. Digital humanists would be shooting themselves in the foot in trying to help the very humanities discipline that discredits us. In many ways Liu wasn’t addressing the correct audience, because he was speaking to those who critique DH and asking that they take that critical drive that is designed to make the world a better place and put it into forging a link with the public — making work publicly available. Habermas has said that the project of Enlightenment is unfinished until we take specialist discourses and bring them back to the public. This has traditionally been seen as a lesser thing to do in the humanities. For Habermas, it is seen as the finishing of an intellectual trajectory. This is a trajectory that we have not yet completed and it is something, I think, the digital humanities can offer.

The archness and self-contradictory nature of this passage are emblematic of a phenomenon we see more and more of in DH circles. Literally within the same paragraph where she declares that the rest of the humanities should go away, in a remarkable instance of what I like to call right reaction and what Michael Kimmel calls aggrieved entitlement, Mandell says that is the rest of the humanities that are engaged in “discrediting” DH. One has to ask: what is the proper way for “non-DH” humanists to react to a very successful effort—in many places, literally the only thing administrators know about what is happening in English departments these days—that says that the humanities shouldn’t be saved? To simply stop practicing our discipline? And given that your project is predicated on ending the rest of the humanities, how could any response that disagrees with that not also be (wrongly) construed as “discrediting” your practice?

It’s also worth noting that in Mandell’s story, Alan Liu is the one making the request to support the humanities, and that Liu is one of the few English professors identified with and accepted by the DH community who has refused to give ground on the importance of non-DH literary studies. In other words, his request could and should have been met with sympathy and respect, if DH really did not contain a kernel of destructive animus toward the rest of the humanities. It’s worth noting that as this microcosmic scene suggests, Liu’s efforts to get the DH community to support non-DH literary studies have seen very little uptake.

In fact, if we step back from the scene just a bit, it is a bit bizarre to imagine the scene, where one digitally-respected senior scholar says “please don’t kill the rest of the humanities,” and a few others say, “no, we want to kill them.” Of all the people in the world who should be speaking up to kill the rest of the humanities, how did we get to the place where it is people who are nominally literature scholars leading the charge? The answer to that is DH: not the use of tools and building of archives—more power to them—but the destructive, “digitally”-grounded ideology that DH is built from and that it revels in. The one that says all other forms of knowledge have suddenly become outmoded and “traditional,” and this one new way is now the exclusive way forward.

Late last year I wrote a post where I discussed the way that Immanuel Wallerstein analyzes the concept of “traditional” and its place in the global system of capital. This piece builds on that one, and I recommend reading the whole thing, but I’ll just quote one paragraph from Wallerstein that is especially germane to this point:

Historical capitalism has been, we know, Promethean in its aspirations. Although scientific and technological change has been a constant of human historical activity, it is only with historical capitalism that Prometheus, always there, has been ‘unbound,’ in David Landes’s phrase. The basic collective image we now have of this scientific culture of historical capitalism is that it was propounded by noble knights against the staunch resistance of the forces of ‘traditional,’ non-scientific culture. In the seventeenth century, it was Galileo against the Church; in the twentieth, the ‘modernizer’ against the mullah. At all points, it was said to have been ‘rationality’ versus ‘superstition,’ and ‘freedom’ versus ‘intellectual oppression.’ This was presumed to be parallel to (even identical with) the revolt in the arena of the political economy of the bourgeois entrepreneur against the aristocratic landlord. (Immanuel Wallerstein, Historical Capitalism, 75)

I doubt it will surprise anyone familiar with my way of thinking that I wrote this with an eye toward precisely the way that the idea of “traditional” is used in DH: DH has always cast the rest of the humanities as “traditional,” in just the way that Wallerstein notes—and this despite the incredibly variety of approaches (including the very approaches that ground DH) that “traditional” seems to indicate.

This alignment of the DH project against what it falsely projects as “traditional” academic practice is part of why I see it as closely aligned with neoliberalism, in a deep and fundamental way that can’t be ameliorated by ad-hoc patches applied here and there. Until DH confronts the way that it has from its inception been deeply imbricated in a cultural conversation according to which technology points toward the future and everything (supposedly) “non-technological” points to the past, it will be unable to come to terms with itself as the ideological formation I and many others see it as.

The fact that this can occur within a disciplinary milieu where the identification of ideological formations had until very recently been a major part of the stock in trade is not just ironic, but symptomatic of DH as a politics. When you think about it, one way of looking at the social scene there is that DH scholars, who have in general eschewed and even dismissed the project of interpretation, especially politicized interpretation, in favor of formalism and textual editing and “building,” turn to their colleagues who still do specialize in interpreting ideologies and say, in this one instance, our own profession, that we don’t know how to use the methods in which we specialize. Is that credible? Is it credible that the critics of DH, who typically are people who specialize in sniffing out ideologies, don’t understand how to do ideology critique in our own field, but DHers, who in general avoid ideology critique like the plague, can somehow do it better than we do? Who is attacking whose professionalism here? And what could be more destructive to literary studies than to say that literary scholars do not understand how to do their own work?

To end on a positive note: despite being frequently accused of wanting to “end” DH, whatever in the world that would mean, that is only true in a very limited sense: I want to “end” the practice within DH of calling the rest of the humanities “traditional” and “anti-technology” and “out of touch” and “the past.” I want to “end” the rejection of theory and politics and the weird idea that “close reading” is some kind of fetish, within the context of literary studies. I want to end the view that “building” is “doing something,” whereas “writing” is not, and even the view that “building” and “writing” are different kinds of things. I want to end the view that DH is “public” and the rest of literary studies is not. I want DHers to embrace the fact that they are part of the humanities. This might end “DH” per se as an ideological formation, but it would not end the careers of scholars who want to use digital tools in the service of humanities research, of whom I am very much one. One might think that would be asking virtually nothing at all—embrace and support the disciplines of which you are a part—but as the twinned quotation from Flanders and Mandell shows, especially given that it is offered specifically as a rebuke to exactly that request coming from “within” DH, it turns out to be asking a great deal.

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