de-baits in the digital humanities

The LA Review of Books has published 4 interviews so far in an ongoing series on the digital humanities conducted by Melissa Dinsman. The series promises “Through conversations with both leading practitioners in the field and vocal critics, this series is a means to explore the intersection of the digital and the humanities, and its impact on research and teaching, American higher education, and the increasingly tenuous connection between the ivory tower of elite institutions and the general public.”

At this point, I am not interested in resolving the following questions:

  • What is the nature of the digital humanities’ relationship with neoliberalism?
  • What does it take to be a real digital humanities scholar?
  • Can/should digital humanities save the rest of the humanities?
  • Is/are the digital humanities anti-intellectual?
  • Is/are the digital humanities racist, sexist, or guilty of some related ethico-political violation?
  • And, of course, what is/are the digital humanities anyway?

I have been interested in the rhetoric of these conversations as they occur in journals, in the press (like LARB), at conferences, and across social media.

While I have no answers to these questions, I feel confident in saying that the rhetorical moves one sees here are commonplaces in the humanities for seeking to delegitimize one’s opponents. I suppose one could say that’s because critique is as critique does, and it’s rhetorically effective, regardless of whether the one making the accusation believes it or if it is true. (Again, not interested in adjudicating here.) To be clear, I’m quite certain that those offering critiques of DH firmly believe in their arguments. That said, believing in critique is a little like believing in a hammer. It’s largely unnecessary for the tool to do its job. Instead, the role of belief probably lies more in deciding that the hammer is the right tool for the job that needs doing.

Now I am tempted to try to understand the arguments that are at work here. For example, I am fairly confident that the underlying objection leveled at DH is an objection to a quantitative, empirical methodology, which is clearly facilitated by computers, but in an abstract sense wouldn’t require them. That is to say in a kind of philosophy 101 “what if” scenario, if some super human genius was able to process massive amounts of text and perform extensive calculations on that data without a computer, the objections to the results would be the same.

The only problem with trying to do that is that it simply will not get you anywhere. In academic disagreements, one never accepts a summarization of one’s argument made by another. Honestly I think Socrates was the last person to be able to get away with that and that’s probably only because Plato wrote both parts.

As a rhetorician, your  next move might be to try to understand the purposes driving these arguments. It’s easy enough to get the basics of the thesis statements (e.g. “DH is some kind of bad” and “No, it isn’t”). I am apparently arguing on my spare time. But why are they really doing this? If this were a television reenactment of couple’s therapy then maybe we’d be trying to get at what each person was really feeling, what their real motivations were.  But I am not interested in hermeneutics, as I think I’ve already said.

Instead I’m interested in de-baiting, removing the fuel from the argument rather than arguing. Not because I don’t like arguing (after all, I am a rhetorician) and not because I want everyone to get along. I have no illusions that anything I might say would end such arguments.  You’re thinking there of an entirely different narrative. It’s a spin on the one where the two guys have to fight it out before they can become buddies. In the spin the guys have far too much ego to ever decide to become buddies on their own, someone else has to step in (e.g. the police chief or maybe “the woman with a past”) to insist that they join forces. Those roles are older than Plato.

This in/ter/vention is less well known, more experimental and heuristic, method. The idea I guess is to proliferate responses to these questions, not in an effort to get to the truth but only for the purposes of making them productive of something else. It’s not for folks who are already occupied by these matters and have stakes there. It’s for the rest of us, particularly those of us who do “digital work” of some kind in humanities departments, and don’t want our work territorialized by these arguments.

The method is a kind of modified electrate approach where argument is processed through the popcycle, image reason, and the punctum. Monty Python’s argument clinic is already a comic intervention into rational-rhetorical argumentation. It would be understandable if one only remember the central joke of this sketch, where Cleese and Palin contradict one another, but it’s processing the rest of the sketch which can contribute to de-bating. It’s the situation of argument as contradiction in the midst of abuse, complaint, and finally simply volunteering to have yourself hit on the head. Then of course there’s the conclusion where an infinite series of cops arrive with the intention of ending the sketch with the imposition of their authority, but (in an abstract sense) it can never happen, because there’s always another cop on the beat.

It’s not necessary to cast our colleagues in these roles, though one might take a cue from Ulmer’s Heuretics and create a tableux vivant where the argument clinic de-baits the digital humanities. The point though is to attune oneself in a different, productive way.