Critiquing the Critique of Digital Humanities

Disclosure: IANADH (I am not a digital humanist), but I did get my PhD from the University of Virginia.

There’s a good deal of buzzing in the DH world about this critique of the field by Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette, David Golumbia — hereafter ABG — whose argument is that DH’s “most significant contribution to academic politics may lie in its (perhaps unintentional) facilitation of the neoliberal takeover of the university.” Let me do a little buzzing of my own, in three bursts.

Burst the First: In the early stages of the essay, ABG claim that the essential problem with DH, the problem that makes it either vulnerable to co-optation by the neoliberal regime or eagerly complicit in it, is its refusal to see interpretation as the essential activity of literary study. This refusal of interpretation, in ABG’s view, is the key enabler of creeping university-based neoliberalism, in literary studies anyway.

And here’s where the argument takes an odd turn. “It is telling that Digital Humanities … has found an institutional home at the University of Virginia.” In ABG’s account, UVA is the academic version of the headquarters of Hydra, an analogy I wish I had not thought of, because now I’m casting the roles: Jerome McGann as Red Skull — that one’s obvious — Bethany Nowviskie as Viper, … but I digress.

Anyway, ABG say that the strong digital-humanities presence at UVA makes sense because of a long institutional history of refusing the centrality of interpretation, starting with Fredson Bowers, the textual scholar who fifty years ago began building UVA’s English department into a world-class one — textual criticism being one of those modes of humanistic scholarship that de-emphasizes interpretation. (Or outright rejects it, if you’re, say, A. E. Housman.) ABG then add to Bowers another problematic figure, E. D. Hirsch — but wait, didn’t Hirsch make his name by writing about hermeneutics, in Validity in Interpretation and The Aims of Interpretation? Yes, say ABG, but Hirsch had a “tightly constrained” model of interpretation, so he doesn’t count. Similarly, though it would seem that the work of Rita Felski is essentially concerned with interpretation, she has suggested that there are limits to a posture of critique so she goes in the anti-interpretation camp also.

It would appear, then, that for ABG, narrow indeed is the path that leads to hermeneutical salvation, and wide is the way that leads to destruction. But an approach that credits scholars for being interested in interpretation only if they follow an extremely strict — and yet unspecified — model of that practice is just silly. ABG really need to go back to the drawing board here and make their conceptual framework more clear.

While they’re at it, they might also ask how UVA ended up hiring people like Rita Dove and Richard Rorty and Jahan Ramazani, and allowing New Literary History — perhaps the most prominent journal of literary interpretation and critique of the past fifty years — to be founded and housed there. Quite an oversight by the supervillains at Hydra.

Burst the Second: ABG write,

While the reading lists and position statements with which the events were launched make formal nods toward the importance of historical, sociological, and philosophical approaches to science and technology, the outcome was the establishment, essentially by fiat, of Digital Humanities as an academic and not a support field, with the accompanying assertion that technical and managerial expertise simply was humanist knowledge.

This notion, they say, “runs counter to the culture not only of English departments but also of Computer Science departments,” is tantamount to “the idea that technical support is the cutting edge of the humanities,” and “carried to its logical conclusion, such a declaration would entail that the workers in IT departments,” including IT departments of Big Corporations, “are engaged in humanities scholarship.”

Quelle horreur! That’s about as overt an act of boundary-policing as I have seen in quite some time. Get back in “technical support” where you people belong! And stop telling me to reboot my computer! I’ll just offer one comment followed by a question. There is a long history, and will be a long future, of major scientific research being done at large corporations: Claude Shannon worked for Bell Labs, to take but one crucial example, and every major American university has been deeply entangled with the military-industrial complex at least since World War II. Think for instance of John von Neumann, who spent several years traveling back and forth between Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study and the Atomic Energy Commission. Do ABG 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 lest you suspect that these entanglements are the product of 20th-century America, please read Chad Wellmon on Big Humanities in 19th-century Germany. The kindest thing one could say about the notion that the “neoliberal takeover of the university” is just happening now — and that it’s being spearheaded by people in the humanities! — is to call it historically uninformed.

Burst the Third: The core of ABG’s argument: “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.” This argument is based on a series of, to put it charitably, logically loose associations: many vast multinational corporations rely on digital technologies and “lab-based practice,” and DH does too, ergo…. But one could employ a very similar argument to say that many vast multinational corporations rely on scholars trained in the interpretation of texts — legal texts, primarily — and therefore it is “reactionary” to continue to produce expertise in these very practices. (Think of how many English majors trained in the intricacies of postcolonial critique have ended up in corporate law.) ABG have basically produced a guilt-by-association argument, but one which works against the scholarly models they prefer at least as well as it works against DH.

In fact: much better than it works against DH. What do we have more of in the humanities today: digital humanists, or people who fancy themselves critics of the neoliberal social order but who rely all day every day on computer hardware and software made by Big Business (Apple, Microsoft, Google, Blackboard, etc.)? Clearly the latter dramatically outnumber the former. There are many ways one might defend DH, but one of my favorite elements of the movement is its DIY character: people trained in the basic disciplines of DH learn how to get beyond the defaults imposed by the big technology companies and make our computing machines work for our purposes rather than those of the giant tech companies.

I am not sure to what extent I want to see neoliberalism vanquished, because I am not sure what neoliberalism is. But if there is any idea that has been conclusively refuted by experience, it is that the reactionary forces of late capitalism can be defeated by humanistic critique and “radical” interpretative strategies. If I shared ABG’s politics, I think I’d want to seek collaboration with DH rather than sneer at it.

students and their Kindles

Via Nick Carr, a really interesting forthcoming paper on how students read using the Kindle DX. Some findings:

• Students did most of the reading in fixed locations: 47 percent of reading was at home, 25 percent at school, 17 percent on a bus and 11 percent in a coffee shop or office. 

• The Kindle DX was more likely to replace students’ paper-based reading than their computer-based reading. 

• Of the students who continued to use the device, some read near a computer so they could look up references or do other tasks that were easier to do on a computer. Others tucked a sheet of paper into the case so they could write notes. 

• With paper, three quarters of students marked up texts as they read. This included highlighting key passages, underlining, drawing pictures and writing notes in margins.

• A drawback of the Kindle DX was the difficulty of switching between reading techniques, such as skimming an article’s illustrations or references just before reading the complete text. Students frequently made such switches as they read course material. 

• The digital text also disrupted a technique called cognitive mapping, in which readers used physical cues such as the location on the page and the position in the book to go back and find a section of text or even to help retain and recall the information they had read.

One of the study’s authors “predicts that over time software will help address some of these issues.” Here’s hoping! — but I have a feeling, based on my own experiences, that this is going to be a tough technological nut to crack.

Crazy U

Let me tell you a few things about Andy Ferguson’s new book Crazy U: it’s well-researched, insightful, thought-provoking, and sometimes hysterically funny. He’s good on everything: college admissions standards, evaluation of candidates, financial aid, you name it. And he links the themes together in sometimes unexpected ways.Consider for example this passage, from a section on how the admissions policies of Ivy League universities have changed over the years:

“In a way you had more human diversity in the old Harvard,” a friend once told me, after a lifetime of doing business with Harvard graduates. His attitude was more analytic than bitter, however. “It used to be the only thing an incoming class shared was blue blood. But bloodlines are a pretty negligible thing. It allows for an amazing variety in human types. You had real jocks and serious dopes, a few geniuses, a few drunks, a few ne’er-do-wells, and a very high percentage of people with completely average intelligence. Harvard really did reflect the country in that way back then. “You still have a lot of blue bloods getting in, multigeneration Harvard families. But now a majority of kids coming into Harvard all share traits that are much more important than blood, race, or class. On a deeper level, in the essentials, they’re very much alike. They’ve all got that same need to achieve, focus, strive, succeed, compete, be the best—or at least be declared the best by someone in authority. And they’ve all figured out how to please important people.” Harvard grads disagree with this, of course. They like to say that the new Harvard represents the triumph of meritocracy. No, my friend said. “It’s the triumph of a certain kind of person.”

Then, some pages farther on, Ferguson is discussing the lamentable “Me essay,” the tell-us-everything-deeply-personal-about-yourself essay most colleges ask their applicants to write, and in that context he asks,

But what qualities does the Me Essay measure? If they were trying to capture the ability to write and reason, this could be accomplished by less melodramatic means. No, the admissions essay rewarded personal qualities beyond mathematical reasoning and verbal facility. Some of the traits were appealing enough, in appropriate doses. Refreshingly effusive kids, admirably enthusiastic kids, the all-American Eddie-attaboys might very well thrive on the essay. But it would also reward other characteristics, like narcissism, exhibitionism, Uriah Heep–ish insincerity, and the unwholesome thrill that some people get from gyrating before strangers. Which of these traits, I wondered, predicted scholarly aptitude or academic success? I saw it at every turn, as my friend had said of Harvard: the system “privileged” a certain kind of kid. And if you weren’t that kind of kid the best course was to figure out how to pretend you were.

Suddenly you see how the whole system of college admissions coalesces around, not just ambition, but a particular kind of ambition — something far more social than intellectual. It’s kind of nauseating, to be honest — though perhaps I feel that way because I’ve just helped to shepherd my son through college applications. But whether you’ve got college-aged kids or not, and even if you don’t have kids and don’t even plan to have them, you ought to read Crazy U. It’s a first-rate piece of popular cultural criticism, and it’s very, very funny.

I want to believe

Returning to the subject of today’s earlier post: The authors of that study write this in summation:

Statistical findings, said Heuser, made us realize that genres are icebergs: with a visible portion floating above the water, and a much larger part hidden below, and extending to unknown depths. Realizing that these depths exist; that they can be systematically explored; and that they may lead to a multi-dimensional reconceptualization of genre: such, we think, are solid findings of our research.

Nothing this vague counts as “solid findings.” What does it mean to say that a genre is like an iceberg? What are those “parts” that are below the surface? What sorts of actions would count as “exploring those depths”? What would be the difference between “systematically” exploring those depths and doing so non-systematically? What would a “reconceptualization” of genre look like? Would that be different than a mere adjustment in our generic definitions? What would be the difference between a “multi-dimensional reconceptualization of genre” and a unidimensional one?
The rhetoric here is very inflated, but if there is substance to the ideas I cannot see it. I would like to be able to see it. Like Agent Mulder, I want to believe — but these guys aren’t making it easy for me.

doing things with computers

This is the kind of thing I just don’t understand the value or use of:

This paper is the report of a study conducted by five people – four at Stanford, and one at the University of Wisconsin — which tried to establish whether computer-generated algorithms could “recognize” literary genres. You take David Copperfield, run it through a program without any human input – “unsupervised”, as the expression goes – and … can the program figure out whether it’s a gothic novel or a Bildungsroman? The answer is, fundamentally, Yes: but a Yes with so many complications that make it necessary to look at the entire process of our study. These are new methods we are using, and with new methods the process is almost as important as the results.

So human beings, over a period of centuries, read many, many books and come up with heuristic schemes to classify them — identify various genres, that is to say, “kinds,” kinship groups. Then those human beings specify the features they see as necessary to the various kinds, write complex programs containing instructions for discerning those features, and run those programs on computers . . . to see how well (or badly) computers can replicate what human beings have already done?

I don’t get it. Shouldn’t we be striving to get computers to do things that human beings can’t do, or can’t do as well? The primary value I see in this project is that it could be a conceptually clarifying thing to be forced to specify the features we see as intrinsic to genres. But in that case the existence of programmable computers becomes just a prompt, and one accidental, not essential, to the enterprise of thinking more clearly and precisely.

posts unwritten, end-of-year edition

Looking at my Pinboard and Instapaper pages — how I love those tools — I see so many stories I want to blog about but will probably not find time to. There’s no strict reason why there should be a statute of limitations on such things, and there remains a chance that I’ll come back to some of these stories later, but the end of the year just feels like a time for closing the books on some options and turning to others. So let me take note of a few worthwhile pursuits that I didn’t manage to . . . pursue:

Robert Darnton offered “Three Jeremiads” about research libraries, concluding with a plea:

Would a Digital Public Library of America solve all the other problems—the inflation of journal prices, the economics of scholarly publishing, the unbalanced budgets of libraries, and the barriers to the careers of young scholars? No. Instead, it would open the way to a general transformation of the landscape in what we now call the information society. Rather than better business plans (not that they don’t matter), we need a new ecology, one based on the public good instead of private gain. This may not be a satisfactory conclusion. It’s not an answer to the problem of sustainability. It’s an appeal to change the system.

Natalie Binder has a really smart series of posts about the powers and limits of Google’s Ngrams. On the same subject, Geoffrey Nunberg is smart, sobering, and sardonic:

It’s unlikely that “the whole field” of literary studies—or any other field—will take up these methods, though the data will probably figure in the literature the way observations about origins and etymology do now. But I think Trumpener is quite right to predict that second-rate scholars will use the Google Books corpus to churn out gigabytes of uninformative graphs and insignificant conclusions. But it isn’t as if those scholars would be doing more valuable work if they were approaching literature from some other point of view.

This should reassure humanists about the immutably nonscientific status of their fields. Theories of what makes science science come and go, but one constant is that it proceeds by the aggregation of increments great and small, so that even the dullards have something to contribute. As William Whewell, who coined the word “scientist,” put it, “Nothing which was done was useless or unessential.” Humanists produce reams of work that is precisely that: useless because it’s merely adequate. And the humanities resist the standardizations of method that make possible the structured collaborations of science, with the inevitable loss of individual voice. Whatever precedents yesterday’s article in Science may establish for the humanities, the 12-author paper won’t be one of them.

I can’t decide how much of Jaron Lanier’s warning against “The Hazards of Nerd Supremacy” I agree with, if any, but as he always does, here Lanier provokes a great deal of thought.

I may list a few more of these stories-I-didn’t-write-about in the coming days.

university presses

After reading yet another story this morning about the problems university presses find themselves in, with all-too-brief suggestions about the ways that digital publishing could help rectify these problems, I thought, “I need to write a post on this. After all, scholarly writing is tailor-made, more than any other kind of writing, for digital publication” — and then I remembered that someone has already said all that I might say on this subject.

education as a public good

In a typically smart column about online education, my friend Reihan Salam quotes Anya Kamenetz:

The only way to restore the concept of higher education as a public good is to reinvent it as a truly public good: not subject to antiquated notions of scarcity and hierarchical expertise, but adapted to the current reality of free, open, and immediate sharing of knowledge.

Reihan says, “That sounds right to me,” but I can’t say that because I have no idea what it means. I see the same problem here that I saw in Kamenetz’s book: enthusiasm misted over by terminal vagueness. To wit:

1) We restore something as a public good by reinventing it as a public good? Seems close to tautological, but beyond that: who is “we”? Who is going to go about the task of reinvention? College presidents working at the institutional level? Faculty reconfiguring their classes and intellectual activities whether they have administrative support or not? Congress passing new laws?

2) About “the current reality of free, open, and immediate sharing of knowledge”: certainly a great deal of knowledge is free, open, and easily shared. On the other hand, a great deal of knowledge is proprietary and controlled by patents, trademarks, copyrights, and various forms of institutional secrecy. Is the proportion of information that is free greater than it used to be? (I have no idea. Free information is more easily accessed than it used to be, but that’s not the same thing.) In any case, how will “reinventing the concept of higher education as a public good” change the current regime of knowledge control and regulation? How could it do so?

3) What does Kamenetz mean by “hierarchical expertise”? Obviously, expertise itself can’t be hierarchical, so she probably (?) means something like, “a system in which people receive official rewards — jobs, promotions, accreditations, certifications, etc. — for demonstrated expertise.” But there’s a lot to be said for such a system. I like being able to choose a doctor by learning, among other things, where she got her medical degree and what board certifications she has earned. Even in Kamenetz’s book the people whom she celebrates for spreading their knowledge are people connected to, drawing funding from, and accredited by elite institutions. Is that a bad thing? Whether it is or not, it ain’t DIY education.

Frankly, I’d love to see a system — or rather (this is the point) a non-system — in which the circulation of knowledge through informal and fluid networks plays a much greater role than it does now. A non-system which circumvents much of the bureaucratic sclerosis of the modern university, perhaps with the help of universities that are willing to reconfigure themselves. (“Reinvention” is too Utopian a term for me.) It all sounds very cool, in the abstract. I’d just like someone to tell me how we’re going to get there.

making connections

One of Tim Burke’s colleagues is a little concerned about the breadth of interests represented by Tim’s syllabi:

My colleague suggested to me that I had to be responsible first (and last) to my discipline and my specialization in my teaching, that there was something unseemly about the heavy admixture of literature and popular culture and journalistic reportage and anthropology that populates some of my syllabi. I’ve heard similar sentiments expressed as an overall view of higher education in some recent meetings. At a small liberal-arts college and maybe even at a large research university, this strikes me as substantially off the mark. Or at least we need some faculty who are irresponsible to their disciplines and responsible first to integrating and connecting knowledge.

Let me repeat that for you: We need some faculty who are irresponsible to their disciplines and responsible first to integrating and connecting knowledge. This is a precise and concise summation of what I’ve tried to do for many years now. There’s a price to be paid for this kind of thing, of course: expanded interests do not yield expanded time. The day’s number of hours remain constant, and then there’s the matter of sleep. So the more I explore topics, themes, books, films — whatever — outside the usual boundaries of my official specialization, the less likely it is that I will read every new article, or even every new book, in “my field.” But, to rephrase Tim’s point as a series of questions, Is the unswerving focus on a specifically bounded area of specialization the sine qua non of scholarship? Is it even intrinsic to scholarship? Is there not another model of scholarship whose primary activity is “integrating and connecting knowledge”?

I think there is such a model, and I think it deserves to be called scholarship, but I’m not going to fight about the point. Call it what you want, it’s what I love to do, and God willing, I’ll be looking for new and interesting connections for the rest of my life. That’s how my mind works, in any event, but it’s also what makes sense given my institutional situation. Tim and I both teach at liberal arts colleges where we are asked to teach a variety of courses, and to try to maintain a narrow specialization in auch an environment is to set one’s teaching at odds with one’s research. I prefer to seek ways to make my teaching and my research feed each other, and since I can’t do that by narrowing the range of courses I teach, I will do it by expanding the range of topics I research and write about.

And I love it this way. Had I ended up at a big research university, I seriously doubt I would have had the luxury of developing some of the major interests that I’ve pursued in the past decade (e.g., the issues pursued on this blog). And from my point of view, that would be a shame.

Rortyan hacking

Cathy Davidson:

A “hack” is a reconfiguration or reprogramming of a system to function in a way different than that built into it but its owner, designer, or administrator. The term can run the gamut from a clever or quick fix to a messy (kludgy) temporary solution that no one’s happy with. It can refer to ingenuity and innovation — or sinister practices that border on the criminal. We hope to avoid the kludge and don’t plan on breaking any laws. But reprograming traditional learning institutions so they function in a different, more original, and more efficient way than is intended by current owners and administrators? Sign me up!When David Theo Goldberg and I came up with our incendiary definition of “institution” as a “mobilizing network,” deconstructing the very solidity and uniformity of “institution” by emphasizing the potential for unruliness among its constituent members, we were hacking the institution.

Cathy Davidson has some good ideas at times, but heavens! — the self-regard is pretty thick. Saying that you’re going to define “institution” as a “mobilizing network” — not actually doing anything, but just choosing in your own conversations with people you already know to redefine a term — is “incendiary”? And is “hacking”?I blame Richard Rorty, because it was Rorty who argued (in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity and elsewhere) that the chief task of philosophy is not to make iron-clad arguments but to redescribe the world. “The method is to redescribe lots and lots of things in new ways, until you have created a pattern of linguistic behavior which will tempt the rising generation to adopt it, thereby causing them to look for appropriate forms of nonlinguistic behavior.”Nice work if you can get it, because this “method” never asks you to change how you live one iota. all you have to do is talk, and leave “appropriate forms of nonlinguistic behavior” to the “rising generation.” So all Cathy Davidson and Theo Goldberg have to do is to say “an institution is a mobilizing network,” and Shazam! — the university is incendiarily hacked.It’s always good in this context to note Umberto Eco’s account, in Kant and the Platypus, of a debate he had with Rorty on these matters:

Rorty also alluded to the right we would have to interpret a screwdriver as something useful to scratch our ears with. . . . A screwdriver can serve also to oen a parcel (given that it is an instrument with a cutting point, easy to use in order to exert force on something resistant); but it is inadvisable to use it for rummaging about in your ear, precisely because it is sharp and too long to allow the hand to control the action requires for such a delicate operation; and so it would be better to use not a screwdriver but a light stick with a wad of cotton at its tip.

Words may not be particularly resistant to redescription, especially if you’re among like-minded people; but screwdrivers and institutions (such as the university) and other things are much more recalcitrant. Genuinely hacking them is harder and riskier, which makes it tempting to follow the safer route of redescription. Leave the hard labor of tangible change for the “rising generation.”
As for me, I’m putting more trust in the alt-ac crew to actually, you know, do things differently.