I’ve just returned from Critical Approaches to Digital Humanities: An MATX Symposium at Virginia Commonwealth University, an event organized and facilitated by David Golumbia, Jennifer Rhee, and Michael Means, among others, which I would describe as very successfully necessary. (Fiona Barnett has created a Storify document preserving the very valuable tweet stream marked with the hashtag #cadh.)
I won’t be providing a copy of my presentation here yet, because the larger part of it was drawn from “The Digital Humanities and National Security,” an essay written for a forthcoming issue of differences on the topic “In the Shadows of the Digital Humanities,” which follows the MLA 2013 session “The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities.”
Below is an introductory passage that I excised in order to meet the preferred limit on presentation length, but which ended up serving as a private source text for my responses to questions and comments afterward (perhaps especially in response to one question in particular posed by an audience member).
What I didn’t (have time to) say
Unlike many of us — and so when I say “us,” I mean also those of us who have been thinking about the Digital Humanities, rather than, or in addition to, just “doing” the Digital Humanities — unlike many of us, I do not think that we need a Digital Humanities at all, or even that most of us sincerely want a Digital Humanities, either as a phrase in the English language or as a mobilizingly overdetermined image and idea. My impression is that many of us have concluded that since the phrase “digital humanities” has stuck, we are stuck with it. I accept such pragmatism (in the colloquial sense) even where I find it tiring, since I remember all too well needing to be pragmatic myself, and I know that for others in this context, pragmatism is a matter of survival, even if only metaphorically. For now, at least, I am someone who is lucky to enjoy the privilege of not being stuck with the Digital Humanities — though to be sure, it has cost me some effort in educating the educators.
Still, I speak as someone who, though without ever actually forfeiting my own very substantial structural privilege, did take a minor, entirely professional risk or two along the way to job security, by rejecting what I would call the translationality of other such equally ungraceful calques as “creative writing,” “new media,” “net art,” and “world literature,” the occasions of what are perhaps generally homologous debates pitting those deeply invested in the authority of a Wissenschaft and its reified objects against those who can’t shake the image of such objects in motion.
And so I do think it would be entirely possible, and possibly quite salutary, for us to drop the phrase “digital humanities” altogether, perhaps following the precedent of the historical Association for Machine Translation and Computational Linguistics, which dropped the phrase “machine translation” from its name in 1968 for reasons that I’m sure some of you know very well.
But for those of you who are more inclined than I am inclined to salvage something still called “DH” from the rise and the fall of DH to date, I am not here to say that you should not want to do that.
Very unfortunately for Digital Humanities enthusiasts — and only partly because to date they have been so exceptionally inadroit in addressing criticism of what we might call their default settings — the multiplication of DH origin stories is now matched by a multiplication of equally valid and vital strains of critique of the Digital Humanities. Some are more frightening to DH enthusiasts than are others, for reasons I need not go into myself here. But I might point out that one of the gentlest critical “attacks” really began as a simple request, made by those of us who have no real use or need for the English-language phrase or the mobilizing image of a “digital humanities” in either our lives or our work, that the Digital Humanities enthusiasts among our colleagues give us a break from what I would describe as shouting in a confined space — that is, the exceptionally confined intellectual space formed by the combined political and economic pressure of the political and economic events following September 2001 and September 2008.
And initially, at least, the reaction of many Digital Humanities enthusiasts among our colleagues was indeed that of the person who talks three times as loud as anyone else in the room, doesn’t notice you cringing, and then picks a fight when you ask him to lower his voice. (I use the masculine pronoun without reservation, here.)
However, over the last year, I think that many such Digital Humanities enthusiasts have found a new “indoor voice.” That, I think, responds to the the cultural swerve marked by exposures of National Security Agency programs and operations, by the implication of Silicon Valley industry in those programs and operations, by the implosion of journalistic hype over Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), by the at least symbolically popular self-defense manifest in the election of Bill de Blasio as a non- or even anti-technocratic mayor of New York City and the theatrical blockading of Google’s shuttle buses on the streets of San Francisco — and of course by intellectual interventions, as well: by unprecedented, if also inevitable, new critical interrogations of university-based scholars’ ideological investments in “open access,” alternative academic labor, and code literacy, to take a few points of special contest.
All that is to say that I think the historical present has made its own case against the Digital Humanities — which is to say that like any number of other mobilizing images to which perfectly good and sensible people have been genuinely attracted, in the past, the Digital Humanities already lives on the wrong side of history. And so what I’m presenting here today is, along with this introductory frame, already an exercise in historicizing the emergence of the Digital Humanities: that is, it is an always already retrospective exercise, but also, in a different sense, I do hope, a kind of proleptic exercise, as well.