Critical Digital Humanities? Or Digital Humanities Criticism?

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    Daniel Fawcett

    As a point of departure for our discussion, I’d like to suggest something: the “digital humanities” is a problematic name, made even more problematic by the fact that it doesn’t really mean anything.

    I’m not really trying to start a flame war here, as I think that we are engaged in something that really does matter. But I was having a conversation with someone in the ACS program (who shall remain nameless) who asked, “What does ‘digital humanities’ actually mean? And what do you people actually do? Because it seems to me like none of you can even define what it is.” Our conversation continued to wend its way through a lot of different topics: do DH-ers build digital tools to for pedagogical purposes? How is what we do different from any number of social science approaches that use or examine digital tools and literacy? And, most importantly, how can we use DH to interrogate issues of race, class, and gender in modern academic work?”

    I think that the reading for today really did give some insight there. While it is obvious that racist, sexist, or classist approaches to knowledge and productivity would be encoded into technological practice, I think that many of us want to think that DH is immune to those issues. After all, we are all in a process of engaging social justice and critical thinking, right?

    But McPherson’s text gave a nice way into looking at how we can study DH with an eye to deeper issues of institutional privilege and systemic power imbalances. I recall a different conversation with a colleague, this time a computer science person, who argued that “Technologies are neutral. A car can’t be racist, and a building can’t be sexist.” I pointed out to him that, while the car might be neutral, the system of assumptions that went into the car’s design and production can be (and often are) sexist, and that buildings can, in fact, be racist.

    Most useful in McPherson’s analysis, I think, was a contextualization of UNIX in terms of its time and place. As she pointed out, UNIX might have been developed by lefties in the higher education in the late ’60s and early ’70s, but that was also the time during which the logics of neoliberalism and post-Fordism were strongly colonizing our technological, business, and social practices. As McPherson wrote, “I am highlighting the ways in which the organization of information and capital in the 1960s powerfully responds—across many registers—to the struggles for racial justice and democracy that so categorized the United States at the time.” This situation is exactly what the DHs should be doing, but unfortunately often isn’t.

    I would argue that one of the reasons why the digital humanities isn’t being as engaged as it should be descends from the neoliberal logic of the modern university. We have to prove that we are useful and relevant in this STEM obsessed environment, and DH projects bring in the grant dollars. So, we spend a lot of time arguing over what “DH” really means, build projects that relate to the concerns of STEM disciplines (which are rarely critical interventions into race, class, or gender), and pump out bland grant requests that are hopefully going to secure some sweet, sweet government scratch.

    Meanwhile, as McPherson writes, “we risk adding the digital humanities to our proliferating disciplinary menus without any meaningful and substantial engagement with fields such as gender studies or critical race theory.” I don’t think that is a foregone conclusion, but it is something that does keep me up at nights.

    I think that might also go for digital humanist Nate Kreuter, who writes the 3X3 in Cullowhee blog. (Full disclosure: I think the blog is no longer active.) Kreuter wrote frequently about the transition from a digital humanist student, transitioning to the life of a full-time, tenure-track academic. In his blog Why I Hate the Term ‘Digital Humanities’ But Love the Thing Itself (Mostly)”, he writes the following

    I think that [the term “digital humanities”] becomes more and more of an obligation for humanists to account for and incorporate appropriate digital technologies in their work, whether those uses of technology are for the discovery of new knowledge and relationships, or for the transmission and display of finished work, or some combination of the two.

    But his argument is that DH, by being a specific term and not just “humanities,” forces a ghettoization of the disciplines, with traditional humanists feeling left out, as if they aren’t good enough to be invited to the party. I see his logic playing out in this way: if we over-emphasize DH, then the people who do traditional humanities work will not only feel left out, but will be up for the chopping block. After all, if a university can only hire one new English professor, should they hire the Anglo-Saxonist who still writes his journal articles on a legal pad with a pen, or hire the DH-er, who can code and knows her way around technical issues? There is still a place for the traditional humanities, and they should be encouraged to use technology. But they shouldn’t feel as if they are being forced to use the technology.

    Alex Koch

    I should admit I don’t have much of a suggestion for fixing each of the problems brought up this week in the readings. And in many ways, the chapters seemed eerily similar to pieces/critiques I’ve read from other disciplines – it’s simply par for the course, pun fully intended.

    That said, the reading I found myself most drawn to was Ian Bogost’s ‘The Turtlenecked Hairshirt.” To be clear, I wasn’t drawn to it out of malice, but rather its devil’s advocate nature. Too often in the humanities I feel we fall into the trap of either agreeing with ourselves or doing too much talking and not enough doing. Bogost addresses the issue of centrality in the study of humanities, and how humanists too often look out the window rather than go through the door, so to speak, into the outside world. We are so concerned with being central, with being accepting, with being outward – and yet we spend most of our time speaking only with others who agree with us. This, naturally, doesn’t allow for much growth or outward focus. Bogost, if I’m reading it correctly, seems to say that this is the cause of the barriers existing around humanities scholarship, and that those barriers may possibly be broken down by further inclination toward digital humanities scholarship.

    Bogost’s article is, a bit pretentious. His language is flowery and over-the-top. He’s clearly a showoff, and this article only exists to expound his anger towards the community at large…but a community he is nonetheless a part of. One can assume Bogost feels a certain amount of guilt for being a part of the “fetid den of Lacanian self-denial,” he so describes, and likely wrote this piece in part to cleanse himself of his transgressions against the world. With this in mind, I took in this treatise with a grain of salt. But the heart of his argument still rings true: without a concerted effort to look outward, the humanities will shrivel into a hateful husk of a community, but luckily digital humanists are working to prevent such a future.

    In the same vein, William Pannapacker’s article ‘Digital Humanities Triumphant?’ is a warning against elitism in the digital humanities field, and echoes the concerns of Bogost. The reticence of digital humanities scholars to accept outsiders is certainly understandable. When one spends most of their career defending its legitimacy, they are bound to become defensive and insular. Particularly due to the competitive nature of federal funding… As “digital” becomes an ever-increasingly-used buzzword for the humanities (so that even the stodgiest, most “old school,” universities and departments have begun embrace this development) it seems only fitting that we’d see schisms and cliques form to keep the “powers that be” outside of the hip, new, academic world DHers have cultivated. But this attitude isn’t doing the field any favors. Pannapacker states that the humanities community at large has accepted digital humanities as a viable field, and no longer do they need to fight to prove themselves. But now, as Pannapacker points out, they’ve created an aura of exclusivity and even refer to digital humanists as the “cool kids table.” So, as Bogost also said, this leaves very little room for growth – especially as everyone looks to display their unique voice and/or approach.

    I return to Bogost because, even with scholars like Pannapacker – who are doing their best Santayana impression (“Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”) – the academy continues to swallow emerging disciplines and fresh discourse whole…Spawning new versions of debates and critiques we’ve (as paying members of the academy) already taken part in. I don’t really know what to suggest to avoid this, because at the end of the day Academic Gatekeeping is all about the benjamins.
    Which brings me to the article I’m contributing this week…. I realize it doesn’t have much to do with academia, but Big Data and data mining are occurring in the public sphere as well. As someone with a background in communication, I’m interested in the way digital humanities affects the community as a group of users, not just from a usability standpoint, but how advances in technologies will impact their day to day lives. The WSJ article by Elizabeth Dwoskin titled “What Secrets Your Phone is Sharing About You” discusses a company called “Turnstyle Solutions,” a data mining company who sells information about customers to paying businesses. They mine customer data by tracking their movements on their phones, judging how the customer spends their time and then selling this information to businesses that might profit from understanding their customer’s consuming habits better.

    Where our parents’ generation worried about getting cancer from prolonged cell phone usage, we now have to worry if our phones are telling our local gym how often we’re visiting nearby fast food restaurants. Big Brother isn’t just watching us; he’s kind of judgy, too.

    Chris Glipin, Turnstyle’s founder, says: “We know there is more value to be extracted from this data…[b]ut we’re wanting to move cautiously and turn on the tap slowly—in a way that doesn’t offend customers.”

    The value is clear – businesses would certainly benefit from being able to more accurately target current and potential customers. And don’t we, as consumers, want to be more specifically catered to? It would certainly make our consuming experience more personal and efficient. But at what cost? With mobile device usage becoming more common, and endless amounts of personal data streaming constantly, companies such as Turnstyle will have access to heaps of information most people would never willingly volunteer. There seems to be no sphere of privacy surrounding mobile data, and some argue that perhaps there should be. And unless you’re a technical juggernaut, you’re likely unaware of how to lock down your own data. It’s going to be an ongoing argument for quite some time to come, but I think the discussion of ethics in digital humanities is an interesting, and important, one. I’d love to hear everyone else’s reaction to this article, and see how you would approach ethics in the digital humanities field.

    Daniel Fawcett

    Alex, I’m really glad that you looked so carefully at Bogost’s piece. I was thinking about writing in response to that one, but… Bogost is an odd duck for me. I love his work, yet he regularly pushes me into a state of both fury and despair. His work is regularly brilliantly insightful while being simultaneously nonsensical piles of horse dung. I have this complicated love/hate relationship with the man’s work (and his Twitter feed), but I know that when I deal with him, I often fall down the rabbit hole.

    I do think that Bogost regularly writes to purge himself of his transgressions, as you interestingly put it. (I’ll bet the man has a Catholic upbringing. And, as a recovering Catholic myself, I know what to look for in others.) But it seems to me that, more than anything else, he winds up simply digging himself more deeply into the hole that he claims to want to get out of.

    I think that some of Bogost’s critiques are put forth more clearly and with a more coherent “call to action” in “Can Digital Humanities Mean Transformative Critique?” In particular, the authors directly address Bogost’s fear that we are a cloistered cabal when they write the following:

    What would digital scholarship and the humanities disciplines be like if they centered around processes and possibilities of social and cultural transformation as well as institutional preservation? If they centered around questions of labor, race, gender, and justice at personal, local, and global scales? If their practitioners considered not only how the academy might reach out to underserved communities, but also how the kinds of knowledge production nurtured elsewhere could transform the academy itself? These questions are not hypothetical. These digital humanities already exist. Here we offer a curated list of projects, people, and collaborations that suggest the possibilities of a transformative digital humanities: one where neither the digital nor the humanities will be terms taken for granted.

    And really, I’m not going to comment on that. I’m going to let their comment speak for itself.

    But I wonder what Bogost would say in response? It would probably be flowery and convoluted, however he responded.

    Becky Jenkins

    My contribution to the library is Alan Liu’s “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?” The article is the final section of the final chapter (Part VI. Envisioning the Future of the Digital Humanities) of the Jocker book we’ve been reading, and from what I’ve read, Liu seems to be a superstar in the world of DH.

    The difference between Liu’s argument and the others that we read for this week is that Liu looks at cultural criticism with a wider aperture on his lens; instead of critiquing race theory in DH, gender inequality in DH, the feeling of exclusivity (“the cool kids’ table) to the field, or even user theory (is that a thing? if not, I totally just made a thing!) – (the idea that DH is elitist because tools aren’t properly shared or distributed, or only available to certain people) – Liu is making the wider argument that critical cultural analysis is missing from the Digital Humanities (as compared to regular, boring Humanities) as a whole. He writes that it is his “fear that this lack will stunt the growth of our field.”

    He asks what will DH contribute (methodologically) to the wider Humanities field – and argues that the gap between the two won’t be closed until we can move “seamlessly” between text analysis and cultural analysis. As partners, though, Liu also argues that the two fields can benefit from each other – with so many humanities departments on the fiscal chopping blocks, DH can bring new functionality and new work to these fields, bridging a gap between traditional scholarship and more interdisciplinary, technical, exploratory, or experimental DH work. (“The digital humanities can transcend their “servant” role in the humanities through leadership in advocating for the humanities.”) He says this could be DH’s “unique value” to the academy.

    He concludes with “Ultimately, the greatest service that the digital humanities can contribute to the humanities is to practice instrumentalism in a way that demonstrates the necessity of breaking down the artificial divide of the “two cultures” to show that the humanities are needed alongside the sciences to solve the intricately interwoven natural, technological, economic, social, political, and cultural problems of the global age.”

    I think this article does an excellent job of summing up a major role of DH and DH’ers within the wider context of Humanities. I also think Jocker’s inclusion of this piece as the final chapter of the book of DH debates positions it as a look forward to what is to come for DH – full integration of Digital Humanities into the academy, as a partner to many fields, from traditional humanities to science and biology to engineering and technology. To become more than a field-within-a-field, DH will have to expand its sights.

    Our conversations over the semester and these readings especially have convinced me that every DHer must know some coding to be successful. The Digital Humanities are born of both traditional humanities and computing science – to understand the field, one must understand how the building process works. I’m still not convinced that every DHer should be fluent in a dozen different coding languages, but I think an important part of any DH education should be programming theory and several basic languages. I think there is plenty of room for both beginner and expert level coders, and also beginner and expert level cultural thinkers. If the field is to remain truly interdisciplinary, we’re going to need many different voices guiding the way.

    • This reply was modified 10 years, 2 months ago by Becky Jenkins.
    Katlin Humrickhouse

    My contribution this week is a review essay on a few different works by Tanya E. Clement titled “Half-Baked: The State of Evaluation in the Digital Humanities.” I found her arguments to be really relevant to the works up for discussion this week.

    Clements contends:

    The intellectual, technical, and theoretical motivations behind the projects discused in The American Literature Scholar in the Digital Age and Switching Codes mirror the most productive (and unique) motivations behind current scholarship and practice in DH in general – that is, to critique and change scholarly information infrastructure. Thus, these books’ real contributions are the responses they offer to critiques of DH;

    The article is comprised of her review of those books listed above, and she comes to the conclusion that they are “important books because they help us mark and reflect on how evaluating scholarship…is evolving.”
    What these two books do is stress the importance of measuring contributions in the field of digital humanities.

    This article does a good job at summing up a major role of DHers – the role of critique. It is important, for the field to grow and evolve, to critique each other’s work.

    Matt Younglove

    Hey guys, I know I’m late to the party in this discussion, but I want to start by addressing this question raised by Daniel’s discussion with a colleague: “And, most importantly, how can we use DH to interrogate issues of race, class, and gender in modern academic work?” Is this really most important? It seems like these are today’s buzzwords, but I’m not sure “most important” is accurate in humanities work. There are lots of questions that can be answered, and to limit what DH is capable of to issues of race, class, and gender as being the most important seems rather reductive. Additionally, what better place to find the answers to these questions, than in the digital sphere, where the vast majority of our communication as a species is currently happening? All we need are the right data mining algorithms and we can answer the gamut of questions regarding race, class, and gender in regards to how we as a nation of English-speaking internet-users see fit (I make this specification because text based algorithms are language specific).

    In reaction to McPherson’s question about the Digital Humanities being so white, I state that the digital humanities started in the most logical place, the digital world. This lends itself to programmers video gamers, of which McPherson stated was the subject of some of the first research. This means the scholarship was started by people affluent enough to gain a high level of education while simultaneously having enough time to play a large number of video games. I don’t have the statistics, but this points to suburban, white America. I’m not saying this is where the scholarship should be, but it is evidently where it is rooted. As the field grows, it is important to think about bigger, more important questions than video games, but we shouldn’t shun the video game researchers for not being ethnic enough. Hopefully the field will become more inclusive, and maybe this should be the new challenge for the field. The more diverse the players of the game are, the more diverse the wide array of research interests will become. Issues of demographic and race aren’t quite the same as issues of sports fandom, but they stem from issues related to identity, which can be observed via the digital realm in facebook. Take this map of baseball fandom in the US by county, as evidenced by people’s ‘likes’ on facebook ( I do think McPherson’s concluding suggestions about the direction that digital humanities can go is particularly spot on, and I find the potential in studying how computational systems developed and operate through various lenses like new media theory and linguistic theories could be potentially enlightening. I especially like her call for needing hybrid practitioners, as I see myself as an ‘artist-scholar.’

    On another, perhaps more comical note, Pannapacker’s justification of existence that the Digital Humanities is a real thing by citing it’s Wikipedia article isn’t very convincing. The reason I say this is because those who are familiar with DH are already using Wikipedia daily and already know its value, and those that don’t know what DH is or argue against it as a means of scholarship are the same people who would argue against using Wikipedia for any academic function. I do agree with his point however, that soon DH will just be, ‘the humanities,’ which will happen when the generation of digital natives becomes the generation of researchers in academia.

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