otters’ noses, digital humanities, political progress, and splitters


Here’s the thing that confuses me the most about this DH conversation. See, for example, the recent defense of the digital humanities in the LA Review of Books (which, at least from my experience of it, needs to consider a name change) by Juliana Spahr, Richard So, and Andrew Piper, which responds to this other LARB article byDaniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette, and David Golumbia. The defense is as curious as the article that requires the defense be offered, which offers the now familiar accusation of neoliberalism.

The last time I took on this subject I was inspired by Monty Python’s argument sketch. This time round though my first thought was of this scene from Life of Brian.

Of course the whole point of it is to satirize the divisive nature of political progressivism. Apparently it pointed specifically at the leftist politics of England at the time, but really this kind of stuff has a timeless quality to it.

What does it mean to be neoliberal as opposed to liberal or… what? paleoliberal? (And yes, there are paleoliberals though apparently the meaning of that is quite variable.) Hillary Clinton is neoliberal, or at least might be, as a Google search would suggest. I don’t actually want to go into a lengthy definition of the term here but only to point out its rhetorical use, essentially as a kind of ad hominem attack made by groups on the left politically against other groups or individuals that most people would also consider liberal (e.g. Hillary Clinton).


But before getting into this matter, let’s play the believing game. Let’s believe that the digital humanities is neoliberal. That would mean that for whatever reason, humanities scholars who shared neoliberal views gravitate toward DH research, become neoliberal through their DH work, or maybe more obliquely come to have neoliberal effects in aggregate even though no one of them is in fact neoliberal. English Studies and the humanities in general are replete with faculty who view their work as political and as achieving political ends. Almost uniformly those politics are leftist. But even if there were now a group of scholars whose work was neoliberal rather than leftist, would that mean that we would call to exert disciplinary means to silence them?

Apparently so because that’s what the critique of DH, here and elsewhere, calls for: an end to the scholarly work of these academics on political grounds. Presumably the expectation is that the knife being used here shouldn’t cut both to the left and the right. No doubt the reality of academic life is that politics come into play in such decisions. I just don’t usually encounter people explicitly arguing that we should employ specific political commitments to evaluate scholarship.

Of course Spahr et al refute the neoliberal accusation anyway, but then the defense gets interesting. They write, “there is a second more general problem embedded in Allington et al.’s assertion that DH’s ‘institutional success has for the most part involved the displacement of politically progressive humanities scholarship and activism.’ This claim suggests that there has been a dominant politically progressive humanities scholarship to be displaced.” They go on to suggest, using New Criticism as a historical example, that scholarly methods are not bound to political ends, that different people can use different methods for different political goals. In short DH has no more or less potential to be politically progressive than any other method.

What does it mean to say that scholarship is “politically progressive”? I can see how some scholarly work might be progressive within the context of the discipline by bringing noncanonical authors to the attention of colleagues or expanding the scholarship on such authors. This would seem to be the understanding Spahr et al have as well, as they point to numerous examples of DH work along these lines. But honestly the majority of literary scholarship doesn’t address such authors. Do a cursory database search in your own library and I’m sure you’ll discover, like me, that there were hundreds of peer-reviewed scholarly articles published on Shakespeare last year. That’s just the easiest example. Clearly thousands of articles are written each year on canonical literary figures and texts. And that’s fine with me. I’m just not sure what kind of semantic gymnastics are necessary for that work to become “politically progressive.”

When it comes to literary studies, English departments, and politics, to generalize over my 20ish years of experience, my colleagues, not surprisingly, tend to be liberal by any conventional sense of the political designation. Some of them become involved in politically progressive groups or movements on campus or beyond, but I can’t say that I’ve ever experienced a department culture itself as a hotbed of political activism or progressivism. Nor do I think that it needs to be because there should be no expectation that employees of an academic department share political commitments such that they be asked to carry out explicit political goals as part of their jobs. I’d have to say the same thing of academic conferences. Undoubtedly there are some meetings that are explicitly political and some politically progressive acts come out of such meetings (e.g. various declarations or positions or resolutions). But if you randomly attended various sessions, I don’t think you’d find them any more politically progressive than the content of a random academic journal you might read.

Actually, my experience with the local politics of departments is that they are fairly conservative in the sense that they are quite resistant to change. Certainly there are trends in theory and method that have some impact on course content, maybe even drawing attention to a new set of texts or authors. But for the most part, English departments, their curricular structures, their course content, their pedagogic practices, their shape of faculty specialization, their definitions of research, teaching, and service, and so on are unchanged during my academic career. If there’s political progress, or really progress of any kind, wouldn’t there first have to be change? Even if the progress we were hoping for would not be our own progress but other people’s progress or change (which, I would have to say, is pretty arrogant) wouldn’t one still expect that to require us to do something differently? How does one create progress in oneself or others by continuing to do the same things?

Historically I am sure that it would be easy to accuse English Studies of a patriarchal ethnocentrism in support of an industrial-capitalism, nationalist hegemony. Indeed Spahr et al offer a quick jab at New Criticism along these lines. One could also point to the willingness of departments to “adjunctify” themselves and their graduate students by turning first-year composition into a kind of labor camp in exchange for some maintenance of the status quo in terms of tenure-track faculty work and department structures. Those are the “sins of the fathers” I suppose. In the contemporary moment we certainly find ourselves in an intractable situation vis-a-vis composition. And we would have to recognize that, in the gentlest terms, we have a long way to go in terms of the diversity of graduate students and faculty.

I have to admit that if the purpose of literary criticism, rhetorical studies, or any other kind of English Studies scholarship is to engender some tangible political change in contemporary America (or anywhere else on the planet) or even on college campuses that it strikes me as a fairly oblique strategy for accomplishing such goals. I would have to assume that the political progression that is sought is one within scholarly communities themselves. Even that doesn’t seem very effective and mostly tends to manifest a kind of Life of Brian scene. Whatever political progress is being made in scholarship has a fairly subtle impact on what English professors actually do. It must be fairly well hidden within the content of courses whose titles and general areas of investigation (e.g. a literary period) remain unchanged.


I would, however, support a more progressive discipline if we wanted to pursue one. I think there are a variety of ways we could be more progressive in terms of a more diverse curriculum (and not just a more diverse literary curriculum), which would of course necessitate a diversity of faculty, scholarly methods, pedagogies, and academic genres. It would, in my view, de-prioritize historical disciplinary commitments and seek to approach the task of investigating literate/electrate culture and practices with an educational mission at its core. In short, I find it hard to envision any kind of progress where we keep doing basically what we’ve been doing for decades. But I’m not sure if making such progress is something we all want to do together. In fact I’m fairly sure it isn’t.

Most importantly it would make progress on the use of adjuncts in our departments. I wouldn’t lay the blame for adjunctification on our departments (let alone on DH), but we must recognize that our use of adjuncts and TAs, especially as composition instructors, has allowed faculty to lead particular kinds of academic careers, including producing the kinds of scholarship we do, politically progressive or not. I would say this is equally true of faculty in other disciplines, so it’s not just about us. It’s really about larger structural issues on campuses.

I think those are the hard political questions in English Studies. How do we grow and change with the rest of academia toward a more diverse, engaged, and sustainable version of ourselves?  And to be honest, while I think addressing digital media and culture will be central to that question, the particular methods of DH seem like a really minor part.

  • “The defense is as curious…” Yes, there’s something going on here that has little to do with the value of DH as a set of tools for investigation, presentation, collaboration, and dissemination. Would this discussion even be possible in its present form without the vague “digital humanities’ covering term, which no one seems to like? The Monty Python connection is apt.