Scattered Thoughts in Response to Charge that DH Collaborates with Neoliberalism

Reading through my Facebook feed today, I came across an article that not only interested me but was in many ways related to comments about digital scholarship I posted a few days ago. This piece, written by Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette, and David Golumbia,

  1. claimed that Digital Humanities are currently complicit in a (perhaps unintentional) facilitation of a “neoliberal takeover of the university,”
  2. charged the (sub?)discipline with abandoning critical practices and political engagement, and
  3. levied concerns regarding the representation of non-white males in DH conversations.

After reading through the article, I began to type out a response these ideas, both to get some of my own thoughts straight and also to respond to (and, to be honest, to critique) the arguments presented.

I decided, however, to delete those notes.

As I thought about it more, I realized that part of the reason these arguments rubbed me the wrong way was the “you’re either with us or against us” mentality that seemed to undergird them.1 If Digital Humanists refuse to become critical or politically engaged (which in the article carries the undertone of being in agreement with the authors’ critiques and politics), they are contributing to the corporatization of higher education.

I think it’s problematic to play this either/or, correct/false game, even with the arguments discussed here. The authors do, in fact, make some persuasive points, especially in regards to the representational issues of DH. I want instead to use one longer quotation from the article as a heuristic; not a comment with which to agree or disagree, but one to consider as a jumping off point. The authors write:

being taken seriously as a Digital Humanities scholar seems to require that one stake one’s claim as a builder and maker, become adept at the management and visualization of data, and conceive of the study of literature as now fundamentally about the promotion of new technologies. We have presented these tendencies as signs that the Digital Humanities as social and institutional movement is a reactionary force in literary studies, pushing the discipline toward post-interpretative, non-suspicious, technocratic, conservative, managerial, lab-based practice.

There is, as I think the authors would be happy to hear, much to interpret within this short passage. I want to (generously, I hope) tease out three arguments built into this short quote and respond to them, not to definitely decide whether they are correct or incorrect, but to consider what they can tell us about both DH and arguments about the state of humanities generally.

1. “Building and making are both fundamentally different and counterposed to the work of traditional humanities scholarship.”

As is clear, Allington, Brouillette, and Golumbia see, for lack of a better word, “cred” to be something of an issue in the emergence of DH in university structures. Central to this seems to be that political/social/cultural criticism is being left on the backburner in favor an attention, again lacking a more appropriate term, to “making stuff.”

I absolutely understand this concern; it is of paramount importance, I think, that academics retain their critical faculties. This is actually one of the reasons that I often frame myself as interested in digital scholarship and media theory rather than digital humanities. Sometimes it does seem necessary to turn to the work of more. . . eccentric, if you will, media theorists such as Siegfried Zielinski, Friedrich Kittler, and Vilém Flusser for a more critical perspective. Jussi Parikka, also, has called attention to the ways that digital production has deleterious effects on both labor practices and the environment.

On the other hand, to draw an easy binary between critical work and building/making seems unnecessary. First, building/making can provide fresh insights for scholars as they seek to understand (and, of course, to critique) the technologies and apparatuses that are exponentially coming into existence around us. Kittler, for example, did not simply sit back and criticize the advent of computers with no understanding of them; he learned how to build and operate them in order to understand their effects on human beings. As anyone who has read Kittler knows, this did not make him any less critical.2

2. “DH is problematic insofar as it pursues technologies as ends”

This, to me, is spot on. Scholars of the humanities can’t simply chase after technologies. They must understand technologies critically, consider them within networks of actors that affect action (see Latour, Reassembling the Social), and, perhaps most importantly, maintain a responsible focus on how technologies affect human beings in the world (though not with a myopia that prevents them from seeing the workings of non-human actors). Furthermore, to see technologies as ends can dissuade scholars from conceiving of issues of access that are incredibly important to consider.

That being said, I’m skeptical of the claim that this is not the case in DH work, though I can see the authors’ fear that funding opportunities might push scholars along that path.

3. “Postcritical stances necessarily lead to conservative, managerial, and technocratic tendences in humanities scholarship”

This, I think, is the weakest argument the authors make. Speaking as someone who is thoroughly persuaded of the necessity for critique, I am still confused about why these authors demand all critique, all the time.

This demand actually reminds me of the pedagogical imperative discussed in my discipline. In both cases, a demand that everyone carry out the same type of work in a field beckons bad scholarship, and worse yet it forecloses on knowledge that may be gleaned through conceptual exploration.

  1. To be fair, I have heard that this tendency can also be prevalent in DH communities, and this is something the authors themselves point out. 

  2. Of course, practices of making can themselves be critical. For evidence of this, see Garnett Hertz’s recent project regarding “Critical Making,” where scholars have come together to explore this potentials of making as critical activity.