Response to “A Political History of Digital Humanities”

Posted by on May 3, 2016 in DH

A recent article in the LA Review of Books, Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities (Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette, and David Golumbia), is in heavy rotation on the social media playlist just now. I seldom write sustained responses to online work, but this piece inspired me to seize the rhetorical moment.

To begin: I have never met any humanities scholar who has undertaken digital work with the view that it produces quick results; involves no quantitative analysis, reading, or writing; and attracts lots of easy money. I don’t think it fair to broadly impose such views on digital humanists of all stripes. DH centres and projects struggle for funding like other research centres and projects. Across most institutions, faculty and staff alike struggle to get recognition for digital humanities work, because it doesn’t meet traditional standards for what constitutes published research. I take issue with the assertion that humanities scholars who want to acquire digital competencies are “forcing the system to accommodate them”—rather, I think this problem encourages fruitful interdisciplinary collaborations. And in my experience, this problem does not yield contempt for humanities scholars who are not devoted to digital methods or subjects.

I’m troubled by the lineage that Allington et al trace through UVA to effectively connect midcentury New Bibliographers to Jerome McGann, Johanna Drucker, and other humanities scholars involved in digital projects. McGann and Drucker are among the named folks from the University of Virginia who produced brilliant, trailblazing thought in DH with projects like SpecLab and IVANHOE. Works such as Radiant Textuality and Graphesis demonstrate that McGann and Drucker do not privilege authorial intent (or writer intent, or coder intent). I’m curious to know in what context McGann posits the archive as the “guarantor of knowledge,” to use the phrase of Allington et al. As a point of contrast, in Radiant Textuality, McGann theorizes text as algorithmic: as generating conditions of engagement to present a non-identical environment for meaning-making. Now, I allow that, as the authors of “A Political History of Digital Humanities” contend, some of Franco Moretti’s early applications of distant reading might have been well served by expertise in quantitative methods for social analysis. Even so, his ideas broke ground on which others have built innovative, productive analyses. Allington et al suggest that quantitative text analysis and digital editions make up the bulk of digital projects in the humanities; this was largely true in the late 20th century (as Susan Hockey notes in her history of humanities computing), but no longer reflects the spectrum of work that builds and critiques digital methods and platforms.

This article has spurred many others to articulate wonderfully diverging points of view, but the most important critique that I took from it addressed gender, race, sexuality, and class politics in digital humanities scholarship. The article quotes Martha Nell Smith’s accurate characterization of 1990s DH as uninterested in these politics. Speaking very generally—but leaving room for many stellar exceptions, such as the Orlando Project and the Victorian Women Writers Project—digitally oriented research and methods in the humanities have been inexcusably obtuse about these politics until far more recently than most scholarship in humanities departments. Perhaps this blindness owes to the influence of computer science techno-culture, which still takes the white male lone wolf as its normative subject (characterized as such by Judy Wajcman, in Feminism Confronts Technology, back in 1991). But this influence is waning, because it must. A crucial part of mobilizing humanities scholarship in the world is recognizing that every medium, environment, and artifact is an argument. Often, digital tools make sexist, racist, classist, and ableist arguments. We are making up for previous decades’ relative quiet on the politics of digital methods by making our voices heard now and making space for others: some of the most important digital humanities criticism today incorporates intersectional issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability to address and redress the problems of uncritical engagement with supposedly neutral digital tools and methods. Allington et al cite a few important participants in this conversation—Deb Verhoeven, Miriam Posner, (briefly) Bethany Nowviskie—but there are so many others.

I felt the need to post my response despite the deluge of other responses because I believe so strongly in the value of digital tools and projects to the humanities. I have not addressed every point that I took issue with in “A Political History of Digital Humanities,” but others have and will. Allington et al anticipate their argument’s main weakness in their throwaway comment about an inevitable rebuttal: “But that’s not my Digital Humanities!” Following McGann, I define my digital humanities as, simply, creative and critical humanities practices in our age of digitally mediated and remediated cultural records. Other scholars offer astute definitions of DH that diverge from mine—and that’s fine, and that’s good. Some digital humanists are into object oriented ontology, and others are not. Some are post-critical, and others are not. The article presupposes that its criticisms will apply to all digital humanities scholars and scholarship, but there is no unified DH enabling a neoliberal agenda. There is only “my Digital Humanities.”

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