A few thoughts on the whole DH, neoliberalism, LARB thing

I wasn’t really planning on stepping into the dust-up over DH and the neoliberal university. It seems like most of the folks I know have done a fine job of reading the article critically and responding appropriately (the fine folks at dh+lib have rounded up most of those responses HERE). However, I’ve noticed a few other folks in various comments sections who may not have given DH much thought before now but who have been crucial voices in resisting various neoliberal threats to academia. I’m worried that this article might be more confusing than enlightening so I wanted to propose a couple of alternative ways of thinking through some of the information in the hopes of giving those folks different ways of parsing the article and its arguments.

For starters, while I really (really) don’t want to start up another conversation about what is/what isn’t DH, I would encourage people to consider that the kinds of work discussed in the LARB article are by no means representative of the range of work one might refer to with the name Digital Humanities. Part of what is going on in this article is a perfectly legitimate scholarly debate about methods and interpretation within a relatively specific disciplinary context. However, it is disingenuous to then turn around and say to any newcomers in the room “Hey! This is that DH thing you’ve been hearing about!” My experience differs from that of the authors who claim that the DH they are talking about is “the Digital Humanities that has proved itself so useful to university administrators and to funding bodies.” For one thing, there still seems to be a general sense that digital work of any kind is undervalued (if it’s valued at all) relative to the traditional monograph for things like tenure and promotion. Also, in my experience there is far more interest in digital scholarly communication, public humanities, makerspaces, and digital mapping than there is in digital textual analysis.

Additionally, I want to address a specific point in the article where the authors suggest that DH wants to replace writing with what they dismissively refer to as “technical support.” There are many things to say about this including the fact that most of the scholars the authors point to regularly publish articles and several have published traditional monographs. More distressingly though, this strong desire to draw a sharp line between “scholarship” on one side and “technical support” on the other suggests a surprising degree of elitism given the political terrain the authors attempt to occupy. There are important, deeply academic questions to be considered when designing a database or developing a corpus for text analysis. Sometimes this work is performed by solo-scholars but often it is done by teams of people with a variety of skills between them. Regardless of who is doing the work, it is probably best to be respectful of skills and engage in debates over how best to use them and not what class of worker you are based on what tools are in your toolbox. Besides, the idea of “painstaking individual scholarship” which the authors claim characterizes traditional (non-neoliberal?) humanities work is a myth anyway. As my friend Laurie Allen pointed out, humanities scholarship has always been dependent on “huge amounts of hidden and unpaid or unacknowledged labor” from students, research assistants, contingent faculty, librarians, archivists and others. To the extent that some digital humanities projects actually do acknowledge this reality, they should be rewarded, not criticized, for doing so.

There is another thing that bothers me about this critique of the idea that technical work should be considered scholarship. They write, “[c]arried to its logical conclusion, such a declaration would entail that the workers in IT departments or corporations such as Elsevier and Google are engaged in humanities scholarship.” From my perspective as a librarian who has to deal with both Elsevier and Google in pretty intense ways, I’m disappointed that the authors don’t know that I’m worried about the same things. When we work with scholars to create online access to information, we are not on a slippery slope toward becoming the commercial players but are in a kind of struggle against them or at least what the represent. We want to build alternatives to the corporate, proprietary and socio-politically problematic information landscape that is being peddled by the Googles and the Elseviers of the world. We aren’t always perfect and we don’t usually have the luxury of being ideologically pure but taking a stand is much easier when we can do so in solidarity with our colleagues around campus.

Through the entire article, the authors point to problems within the the digital humanities as if they only exist in the digital humanities. I actually wish this was the case. I wish these problems were contained in one curious corner of the academy. But they aren’t. They are as widespread and they are serious and we need to work on them. If digital humanities becomes the scapegoat, we risk being distracted away from problems in scholarly publishing, academic labor, public engagement, and our general failure to develop and nourish a deeply inclusive academy. Furthermore, we risk alienating people doing valuable and critical digital work like the scholars behind Global Outlook::Digital Humanities, FemTechNet, and the Crunk Feminist Collective to name a few. Each of these projects invite multiple perspectives into a conversation and push us to think more deeply about how we create and understand meaning. They help us imagine better worlds. Isn’t that what we want out of humanities scholarship, regardless of whether it is digital or not?

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