Even as a DH neophyte, I could find much to criticize in this article; it has the impression of being one-sided, seems to ignore much of the history of DH and the good (and often groundbreaking) work that many scholars (yes, scholars, not technocrats) have done, and it appears intent on making broad statements about a single institutional model (i.e, it uses just one example as an negative paragon for the field as a whole). I was admittedly a bit lost especially in reading this statement:
“What Digital Humanities is not about, despite its explicit claims, is the use of digital or quantitative methodologies to answer research questions in the humanities.”
I’ve only been studying Digital Humanities for about a year now, and yet I can’t think of anything that has been written about the field that is more ignorant (was this article even written by people who know anything about DH?, I wondered). In fact, the statement is an exact antithesis of what I consider DH to be: digital and quantitative methodologies can be used very effectively to both answer but also pose research questions in the humanities. Does it always work? Not necessarily - but the experimental nature of it is what makes it so appealing - and so promising and potentially effective (where would the sciences be if not for hypotheses and experiments, after all?).
I digress. Because also as a DH neophyte, I don’t feel quite confident enough in my knowledge of DH to give a full critique. Instead, I will focus on something else: I have been quite taken with the number and quality of thoughtful, eloquent responses and critiques in kind. I’ve gathered them here, as food for thought:
- Grace Afsari-Mamagani ("In Defense of DH") makes the excellent point that DH is “a matter of combatting erasure: how might we criticize and then reappropriate the tools that have become so ubiquitous outside the academy so that they help us do the hard work of situating our texts and our research within discourses of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability, and socioeconomics?” and that “project-based learning can be a powerful mechanism for allowing thinkers to engage with one another and with their communities, academic and otherwise”
- Schuyler Esprit (twitter: @schuyleresprit) made a number of remarks on twitter, helpfully amalgamated in Storify. Her succinct responses brought together are quite powerful in their individual narrative and the the understanding of DH as a tool for making research happen, contributing greatly to her formation as a scholar.
- Amardeep Singh (“In Defense of Digital Tools [by a Non-Tool]") acknowledges both the background of the authors but also their tenor, questioning the exact ways the pre- and post-DH academic world (“elitist” and “utterly dependent on a capitalist economic system” even 20 years ago) has contributed to the further demarginalization of certain sectors of academia. In the interest of not “branding,” he suggests that “what we do need is to find more democratic and inclusive ways of thinking about the value of scholarship and scholarly communities.”
- Alan Jacobs ("Critiquing the Critique of the Digital Humanities") clearly states “I am not a digital humanist” from the get-go, yet makes several excellent points, including UVa’s establishment of a widely-recognized journal of literary criticism (against the backdrop of its DH scholars contributing to the downfall of the university system, no less!). He also questions the article's claim regarding the liaison between universities and the “military-industrial complex” as a DH-induced phenomenon: “Do ABG [the authors] really mean to suggest that in all this long entanglement of universities with big business and government the humanities managed to maintain their virginity until DH came along?” And finally, in a move to see DHers as against the constraints of Big Businesses, Jacobs points out how we use our knowledge and expertise to work for our own research purposes, rather than large tech companies.
- One last point that has been running through the back of my mind is stated by Jacobs matter-of-factly: “I am not sure to what extent I want to see neoliberalism vanquished, because I am not sure what neoliberalism is.” Bravo.
- And finally, from my own field of Mediterranean archaeology, Bill Caraher contributes to the discussion with “Digital Humanities and the New Liberal Arts.” Caraher notes the anticipated backlash of the LARB piece, but also recognizes some of the important points that the article makes, imagining the humanities and liberal arts in the 21st century. He rightly notes the “pressures from outside the academy to make higher education relevant to the economic (and political) needs of the community (and our stakeholders),” a trend in the news as of late. He also questions the methodologies and teaching of skill sets - broadly speaking - to university students, and what the future of this is: “If integration and dis-integration of skills represents a constant pressure on how we justify our practice in the classroom and in our disciplines, there is the equal pressure to dissipate and disintegrate disciplinary learning and research across the curriculum.” What are the functions of each course, each discipline, each skill that we teach? Caraher very persuasively uses the LARB article not as a mouthpiece for a “critique about critique,” or really even as a reflection on the Digital Humanities, but more to question the nature and direction of higher education itself. I hope he follows up on these musings, as I found them very insightful.
- ETA: More twitter comments, brought together in Storify and this time from Alan Liu: "On Digital Humanities and 'Critique.'" Liu echoes many of the sentiments of those above, but even better, posts a link to his work-in-progress book, Against the Cultural Singularity: Digital Humanities & Critical Infrastructure Studies, which "bear[s] on the critical potential of the digital humanities and critique." One of the best lines from his text goes completely against the grain of DH's supposed neoliberalist agenda: "The critical potential of this tendency in the digital humanities to be lightly-antifoundationalist can now be stated: it is precisely the ability to treat infrastructure not as a foundation, a given, but instead as a tactical medium that opens the possibility of critical infrastructure studies as a mode of cultural studies."
Last but not least, the comments section of the LARB article has a number of thoughtful responses as well, and I would encourage you to read them, too.
I stand firm in my thoughts that this article encourages divisiveness in the humanities, the university, and the Digital Humanities, rather than bringing disciplines together (as DH frequently does so well!). But most of all, I’d hate for this article to overshadow the wonderful series of interviews organized by my fellow CLIR postdoc Melissa Dinsman,“The Digital in the Humanities” (also, coincidentally, in the LARB). There are three interviews to start, and a number more to come, all offering excellent viewpoints about the relationships between the digital and the humanities. Perhaps use that a starting point for learning about a variety of perspective of what Digital Humanities has to offer the university and researchers in the 21st century.