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On ‘The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities’

Boston — The digital humanities continues to gain to prominence at the Modern Language Association, but it seems like it might be reaching the top of its growth curve.  There was even some talk of what will happen after the “DH bubble” bursts.  Mark Sample’s annual list of DH-related sessions notes that there are 66 sessions this year, a slight increase over the 58 that were held last year (with 44 and 27 in the two previous years).  It’s still only 8% of the total number of sessions, but the prominence of DH may owe a lot of its visibility to social media and the excited attention it has been given by regular media. At the same time, there seems to be a growing backlash against DH, right on schedule.

In “Literature is Not Data: Against the Digital Humanities,“ Stephen Marche, writing in The Los Angeles Review of Books, attempts to place DH outside of the traditional humanities. Amusingly, the accompanying picture captures an emerging mood: Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction pointing a gun with the caption, “Say ‘Digital Humanities’ one more goddamn time.” MaybeDH is great—I’m on the record as thinking so—but it seems like some people are just sick of hearing about it—even while they can’t get enough of it.

One MLA panel yesterday expounded on “The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities.” Like all the DH sessions I’ve attended this year, it was packed. Amid the surge of Twitter conversations (like drinking from a bundle of firehoses), I was able to absorb some points in the larger bill of indictment: 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.

The reaction of the DH’ers in the audience was captured immediately by Amanda French, “I didn’t recognize the digital humanities in what the panel was discussing.”  Just after the session, Ryan Cordell told me, “There were so many horrible mischaracterizations that I had trouble attending to the valid critiques.”

Many DH’ers were baffled especially by the conflation of the digital humanities and MOOCs. At the Q&A, French said, “I don’t know a single digital humanist who likes MOOCs.” In the Presidential Forum on DH that followed, Cathy Davidson said that the popularity of MOOCs with administrators—and unpopularity with DH’ers—is that MOOCs are the least disruptive to methods of education that were devised during the industrial revolution.  We need to see the “liberal arts as a startup curriculum for resilient global citizenship,” Davidson said, and—while it is not perfect, given the ongoing challenges of access and inclusion—“the digital humanities is the only field in the humanities that takes that project seriously.”

Others observed that the notion that DH has not been sufficiently self-critical—and therefore subject to co-optation—is belied by the constant self-scrutiny of the movement; consider Matthew Gold’s recent collection of such reflections: Debates in the Digital Humanities, the extensive work of Bethany Nowviskie, and many others, on academic labor, and a vast archive of self-critical conversations that can be found online

On Twitter Matthew Kirschenbaum observed that the claim that DH’s emphasis on “making things”—asserted by Stephen Ramsay—is anti-theoretical is wrong because making things is putting theory into practice: it’s a false dichotomy.

Robin Wharton noted that DH is sometimes characterized in techno-utopian terms (more often by the media than DH’ers themselves—and I take my share of blame for that), and DH’ers have to be careful about how they talk about their work. Amy Earhart said, “DH’ers are entrepreneurial: we are always selling what we do.”

Perhaps it is inevitable that—in our work with administrators, foundations, the general public—we talk about DH in ways that might trouble our colleagues in the humanities.  As Natalia Cecire tweeted, “1. DHers usually don’t see dh as a panacea. 2. Admins often do. 3. DHers often need for admins to have this erroneous belief.”

The conclusion of the “dark side” dialogue seemed to settle on the idea that the harshest critiques were focused on “DH”—a construct, something imagined—rather than the actual practices of individual digital humanists.  The digital humanities is not a monolithic movement: it’s a “big tent.” And the critiques that are being made of it sometimes take individual cases as representative of the whole.

“It’s a sign of progress that DH now has active rather than passive detractors,” observed Nowviskie, who cited the craftsman William Morris, “You can’t have art without resistance in the materials.”

William Pannapacker is an associate professor of English at Hope College, in Holland, Mich. His Twitter handle is @Pannapacker.

POSTSCRIPT 1/29/13 . . .

The panelists from the “The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities” have posted their papers with a few additions online at www.c21uwm.com.  For individual links, see below:

Wendy Hui Kyong Chun (Professor of Modern Culture and Media, Brown University)http://www.c21uwm.com/2013/01/09/the-dark-side-of-the-digital-humanities-part-1/

Richard Grusin (Professor of English and Director of the Center for 21st Century Studies, UW-Milwaukee)  http://www.c21uwm.com/2013/01/09/dark-side-of-the-digital-humanities-part-2/

Patrick Jagoda (Assistant Professor of English, University of Chicago)http://www.c21uwm.com/2013/01/09/the-dark-side-of-the-digital-humanities-part-3/

Rita Raley (Associate Professor of English, UC-Santa Barbara)http://www.c21uwm.com/2013/01/09/the-dark-side-of-the-digital-humanities-part-4


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