the humanities’ dead letter office


Adeline Koh writes “a letter to the humanities” reminding them that DH will not save the humanities (a subject I’ve touched on at least once). Of course I agree, as I agree with her assertion that we “not limit the history of the digital humanities to humanities computing as a single origin point.” Even the most broadly articulated “DH” will not save the humanities, because saving is not the activity that the humanities require: ending maybe, but more generously changing, evolving, mutating, etc.

Koh’s essay echoes earlier arguments made about the lack of critical theory in DH projects (narrowly defined). As Koh writes:

throughout the majority of Humanities Computing projects, the social, political and economic underpinnings, effects and consequences of methodology are rarely examined. Too many in this field prize method without excavating the theoretical underpinnings and social consequences of method. In other words, Humanities Computing has focused on using computational tools to further humanities research, and not to study the effects of computation as a humanities question.

But “digital humanities” in the guise of “humanities computing,” “big data,” “topic modelling,” (sic) “object oriented ontology” is not going to save the humanities from the chopping block. It’s only going to push the humanities further over the precipice. Because these methods alone make up a field which is simply a handmaiden to STEM.

I have no idea what object oriented ontology is doing in that list. Maybe she’s referring to object oriented programming? I’m not sure, but the philosophical OOO is not a version of DH. However, its inclusion in the list might be taken as instructive in a different way. That is to say that I was maybe lying when I said I had no idea what OOO is doing on this list alongside a couple DH tropes. It is potentially a critical theorist’s list of enemies (though presumably any such list would be incomplete without first listing other competing critical theories at the top). And this really brings one to the core of Koh’s argument:

So this is what I want to say. If you want to save humanities departments, champion the new wave of digital humanities: one which has humanistic questions at its core. Because the humanities, centrally, is the study of how people process and document human cultures and ideas, and is fundamentally about asking critical questions of the methods used to document and process. (emphasis added)

So “humanistic questions” are “critical questions.” As I read it, part of what is going on in these arguments is an argument over method. As Koh notes, DH is a method (or collection of methods, really, even in its most narrow configuration). But “critical theory” is also a collection of methods. As the argument goes, if the humanities is centrally defined by critical-theoretical methods then any method that challenges or bypasses those methods would be deemed “anti-humanistic.”

I’ve spent the bulk of my career failing the critical theory loyalty litmus test, so I suppose that’s why I am unsympathetic to this argument. Not because my work isn’t theoretical enough! One can always play the theory oneupmanship game and say “my work is too theoretical. It asks the ‘critical questions’ of critical theory.” But actually I don’t think there’s a hierarchy of critical questions, though there clearly is a disciplinary paradigm that prioritizes certain methods over others, and from within that paradigm DH (and apparently OOO as well while we’re at it) might be viewed as a threat. The rhetorical convention is to accuse such threats of being “anti-theoretical,” as being complicit with the dominant ideology (like STEM), or, perhaps worse, being ignorant dupes of that ideology.

I can certainly account for my view that critical-theoretical methods are insufficient for the purposes of my research. That said, I have no issue with others undertaking such research. The only thing I really object to is the claim that a critical-theoretical humanities serves as the ethical conscience of the university.  If the argument is that scholars who use methods different from one’s own are “devaluing the humanities” then I question the underlying ethics of such a position.

I’m not sure if the humanities need saving or if the critical-theoretical paradigm of the humanities needs saving or if it’s not possible to distinguish between these two. I’m not part of the narrow DH community that is under critique in this letter. I’m not part of the critical-theoretical digital studies community that Koh is arguing for. And I’m not part of the other humanities community that is tied to these central critical-humanistic questions.

I suppose in my view, digital media offers an opportunity (or perhaps creates a necessity) for the humanities to undergo a paradigm shift. I would expect that paradigm shift to be at least as extensive as the one that ushered in critical theory 30-40 years ago and more likely will be as extensive as the one that invented the modern instantiation of these disciplines in the wake of the second industrial revolution. I’m not sure if the effect of such a shift can be characterized as “saving.” But as I said, I don’t think the humanities needs saving, which doesn’t necessarily mean that it will continue to survive, but only that it doesn’t need to be saved.