(digital) humanities and darkness

I am crawling out from under the #mlasick illness I and so many others picked up in Boston. If you followed the Twitter stream during the conference, it is likely you encountered the conversation surrounding the session "The Dark Side of the Humanities." I wasn't able to attend the session, but the participants have uploaded their comments here. In The Chronicle William Pannapacker summarized the critique offered by the roundtable participants (Richard Grusin, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Patrick Jagoda, and Rita Raley)  this way:

That DH is insufficiently diverse. That it falsely presents itself as a fast-track to academic jobs (when most of the positions are funded on soft money). That it suffers from “techno-utopianism” and “claims to be the solution for every problem.”  That DH is “a blind and vapid embrace of the digital”; it insists upon coding and gamification to the exclusion of more humanistic practices.  That it detaches itself from the rest of the humanities (regarding itself as not just “the next big thing,” but “the only thing”).  That it allows everyone else in the humanities to sink as long as the DH’ers stay afloat. That DH is complicit with the neoliberal transformation of higher education; it “capitulates to bureaucratic and technocratic logic”; and its strongest support comes from administrators who see DH’ers as successful fundraisers and allies in the “creative destruction” of humanities education. And—most damning—that DH’ers are affiliated with a specter that is haunting the humanities—the specter of MOOCs.

In short, DH is an opportunistic, instrumentalist, mechanized response to the economic crisis—it represents “the dark side of capitalism”—and, as such, it is the enemy of good, organic humanists everywhere: cue the “Imperial March” from Star Wars.

Reading through the presentations onilne, this summary strikes me as defensive (Pannapacker clearly sees himself as a digital humanist) but accurate. In an online addendum to her presentation, Raley responds to the negative reaction the roundtable generated: "The upset seems in part to derive from a misunderstanding about our critical object: though our roundtable referred in passing to actually existing projects, collectives, and games that we take to be affirmative and inspiring, the 'digital humanities' under analysis was a discursive construction and, I should add, clearly noted as such throughout. That audience members should have professed not to recognize themselves in our presentations is thus to my mind all to the good, even if it somewhat misses the mark." OK. Maybe. But I think it strikes me as unrealistically naive to imagine that such attacks on the "discursive construction" of DH are not also unavoidably an attack upon the people who do the work. After all, the argument is that the digital humanities needs to act differently and does this not necessitate that DHers act differently?

Part of this is a well-covered methodological shift where digital humanities work tends to rely less upon traditional critical theory. This perceived "rise" of DH is thus seen as a threat, and I think this is the source of the greatest hostility: the idea that DHers might not view critical theory as a master discourse for their work. After all, it doesn't really make much sense to conflate DH, which in the end is a fairly narrow and specialized form of research, with the larger digital cultural revolution. It may not even make sense to conflate the emergence of digital technologies with the rise of neoliberal, global capitalism. However those are the links that are being made here. DH=digital culture=neoliberalism. Of course that's not an attack on DHers. No, of course not, because DHers can still accept critical theory as their personal savior; they can still be saved from the dark side. That's not an attack on critical theorists though; that's just an analysis of a discursive construction.

In this talk Wendy Chun makes an interesting observation: "The humanities are sinking—if they are—not because of their earlier embrace of theory or multiculturalism, but because they have capitulated to a bureaucratic technocratic logic."  This observation comes out of this talk about DH "saving" the humanities and appears to imply that DH saves the humanities by moving away from theory and multiculturalism. I actually see this a little bit differently. I agree that the humanities aren't sinking because of theory or multiculturalism. I actually don't believe either have had much impact on the humanities outside of the relatively narrow sphere of graduate studies and scholarship. It would be difficult to find an English undergraduate major where theory plays a visible role and multiculturalism in most cases has meant the addition of a "nonwestern" class requirement.  When the humanities, English in particular, thrived in the US (up through the 1960s), I would think it was precisely because the curriculum was aligned with the bureaucratic, technocratic logic of the day. Would we not aruge that the Eurocentric, patriarchal, canonical curriculum of literary studies supported our mid-century Anglo-American nationalist ideology? Certainly it was not offered as a critical resistance. As far as that goes, that curriculum continues to chug along, probably 80-90% unchanged on a national level (same courses, same books, same assignments). It's just less appealing now to students who have more choices, especially women who now have far more freedom in their choice of major than 40 years ago.  In a similar vein, I was struck by Richard Grusin's observation of "a class system within DH that generates an almost unbridgeable divide between those on the tenure-track, those in what have come to be called “Alt-Ac” positions, and those in even more precarious and temporary positions." I agree with him that there's a complex problem there. These DH projects require a different kind of infrastructure, including employees in new kinds of positions. And there is a connection to be made with the emphasis on what we might euphemistically term "flexibility" in labor practices. However, in my view, this dh class system is dwarfed by the pyramid scheme that characterizes English Studies. All this "critiquing" stands firmly on the backs of TA and adjunct labor. We all know that. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. 

On a more positive note, Grusin wants to put an end to the division between production and critique, and Chun wants to forge better relations with science and engineering. Raley similarly wants to break down divisions between theory and practice. However, it seems odd to me to point to the DH community as the obstacle to such goals. To the contrary, I would think it is the traditional humanities that have the deepest antipathy for science and engineering. Certainly it is the traditional humanities that have the most invested in maintaining the separation between production/practice and critique/theory with the latter being the master term. All one has to do is look at the treatment of writing instruction in English to see how the humanities have denigrated production/practice over the decades. If DH rejects the role of critical theory as its master discourse (or, heaven forbid, turns to other theories), then it is only because of the way in which the traditional humanities have long established these hierarchies. 

So, yes, let's put production and theory on a level playing ground in our curriculum and our research. Let's reshape our faculty and our discipline so that an interest in making is equally valued with an interest in critiquing. Let's embrace the DIY culture, as Raley suggests, that doesn't recognize elitist hierarchies that forbid makers from building their own theoretical views. But we should recognize that this isn't about reforming DH, it's about reforming the humanities.