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Why I'm In It

observers of my work (and if you are, then thank you) will notice that I don’t have a “project.” That is to say, for all my vaunted talk of building and making, I haven’t really built or made anything.

I have been involved in a number of very techie infrastructure projects over the years (of the sort that are only of interest to people in the deep waters of data extraction, document transformation, and so forth), but often, it doesn’t have any direct or obvious relationship to the humanities at all. When I’m working on that sort of thing, I don’t feel like a “digital humanist,” so much as an extra hand – someone who happens to know how to program working on a project that needs coders.

To me, the core products of digital humanities are things like thematic research archives (as opposed to the kind of advert-scrapbooking we see on Pinterest); articles (digital or otherwise) that avail themselves of digital methods; attempts to design metadata protocols that work with humanities materials (as opposed to, say, part manifests for jetliners); efforts at specifically humanistic maps and visualizations (as opposed to what science hands down to us). There are many more things I could mention; I don’t mean to exclude any particular activity. What’s clear, though, is that I don’t do much of that.

What I do instead is philosophize (maybe “theorize,” though some would say I do that poorly) about digital humanities: what it means, where it’s going, and how we connect that activity to the wider study of the human record.

It’s this, though, from Alan Liu’s provocative article in the Debates in the Digital Humanities volume, that I can’t get out my mind:

It is as if, when the order comes down from the funding agencies, university administrations, and other bodies mediating today’s dominant socioeconomic and political beliefs, digital humanists just concentrate on pushing the “execute” button on projects that amass the most data for the greatest number, process that data most efficiently and flexibly (flexible efficiency being the hallmark of postindustrialism), and manage the whole through ever “smarter” standards, protocols, schema, templates, and databases uplifting Frederick Winslow Taylor’s original scientific industrialism into ultraflexible postindustrial content management systems camouflaged as digital editions, libraries, and archives – all without pausing to reflect on the relation of the whole digital juggernaut to the new world order. (491)


How the digital humanities advances, channels, or resists today’s great postindustrial, neoliberal, corporate, and global flows of information-cum-capital is thus a question rarely heard . . .” (491) “To be an equal partner,” digital humanists will need to show that “thinking critically about metadata, for instance, scales into thinking critically about the power, finance, and other governance protocols of the world.” (495)

Alan’s essay is more nuanced than this, and his essential outlook on the future of digital humanities more hopeful, but after reading it, I wondered if we were still friends. What could be more distressing than the idea that one is doing nothing more than advancing the cause of Taylorism (a trend we see everywhere in the “totally administered” structures of the university itself)?

All of this deserves a response. In the very drafty book, I say (of both paragraphs): “[A]nyone involved with digital humanities might suppose that their own superego – that voice that is quieted only by complete absorption in the gory details of implementation – had written that.”

I had, of course, thought about what Alan is saying long before Alan said it (as I assume others have). At the most basic level, we wonder what it means to use the tools handed down to us by corporations (Twitter, Facebook, mobile devices, etc.) to do something that is supposedly (to quote Google) “not evil.” We might just want a cup of coffee, but we are walking into Starbucks to get it. We also, I think, tend to “track” corporate trends. They get into mobile, we get into mobile. They get into data mining, we get into data mining. So asking whether we “channel, advance, or resist” is a good question. A serious question. A book-length question.

So, I’m writing a book. I suppose some of it will amount to a defense, but I’m more interested in exactly what Alan proposes: reflection on the way digital humanities does or does not engage with cultural criticism (which I take to mean the set of ideas that starts with the Frankfurt School, continues on through the Birmingham School, and takes us today to more contemporary versions of cultural studies).

When I pause and reflect on where I am in relationship to these questions, though, I encounter something else that I can’t get out of my mind. Paraphrasing my dissertation director (Jerome McGann) from years ago: “The entire human record will be digitized over the course of the next century. The question, therefore, is whether we humanists – who have devoted our lives to the study of the human record – want to be involved with this or not. Because if we’re not involved, it will be done without us by engineers and librarians.” (He quickly added, by the way, that it has to be done by librarians and engineers. It’s not a question of us doing it “instead,” but rather in some sort of collaboration with them).

This is what began my obsession with building and making (and teaching others to do so). Over time, I’ve come to see this matter as even more urgent. The medium is still the message (in ways that McLuhan could scarcely have imagined). To create interfaces, protocols, and tools is to create not just the means, but the genre of communication, and every time we do it we are (to quote McLuhan again), introducing a “change of scale or pace . . . into human affairs” (a value-laden, heavily ideological enterprise). Given the stakes, why are we accepting what is given? Shouldn’t we design our own tools, metadata protocols, archive frameworks, languages, and “content management systems” (if only, in the last case, to protest this godless triplet of terms that is, in the end, openly hostile to humanistic inquiry)?

Whether this amounts to “resistance” is a complicated question. Cultural studies, after all, has taught me to view the rhetoric I advance above as yet another form of reification – yet another instance in which large, hegemonic institutions define the regime of what is possible while convincing us that it is “freedom.”

I suppose, though, that my problem with cultural criticism (pithily stated) is that this depressing calculus leaves us beached and blocked – left only, in various cases, with “consciousness” or “self-awareness.” Marx (and the early members of the Frankfurt School) were activists and revolutionaries. By the time we hit the mid-sixties (and indeed, long before), all of this has been reduced to a “reading strategy” (read the first cultural studies Reader for proof of that transformation). We are left with academics talking to other academics. I think about someone like Karl Korsch going and back-and-forth between the seminar and the workers’ councils. I’m not an orthodox Marxist (so few of us are), but I will say, tentatively, that dh might represent (or represents in nascent form) an attempt by humanists to actually do something in the face of this nihilism. That’s one thing that seems to me to collapse the distinction between “traditional” dh and #transformDH – between #dhpoco and #dhwhitman. Gaps in the archive? Let’s fill them. Co-opted by Apple and Google? Let’s find ways to get out. Frustrated with business-as-usual in university press publishing? Let’s create new ways to do it. Big tent? Better be.

Writing a book contra cultural studies seems to me to be the wrong direction entirely. I would like to make positive statements about what we’re doing, about why it’s different, and about the ethical problems it raises. The insights of cultural criticism are not so easily dismissed. But I also think that Liu’s question, “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?” assumes that cultural critique can only take a fairly narrow set of forms. I wonder what other forms it can take (especially forms that go beyond now platitudinous concepts like “open access” and “open source” – as if these things render us revolutionaries or absolve us of other responsibilities). But then “software as critique” is a tough one. I’ve seen art that does that, but every time I do, I wonder if that’s just another case of being beached and blocked – a case of being left, like so many members of the Frankfurt School at the very end, with only a few options (art, critique, art-as-critique).

I love dh Manifesto 2.0. I really do (and I know others really don’t). But I think why we build (or should build) is, if I may say so, “undetheorized” even there. We’re way too concerned about making sure dh is consistent with the past (read Reading Machines if you want to see an instance of that). I want a break with the past. I want a new, revivified humanities that resists current attempts at its destruction. I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water, but I also don’t care if this new humanities looks like some kind of mashup between computer science and English. I don’t see why protecting the humanities means protecting the Department of French Literature as it has been since the Second World War. I don’t see why History must “remain a book-based discipline.” I don’t see why the classroom has to be what the German Pietists said it should be three hundred years ago. Big theory was a grenade (that completely altered my intellectual universe), but I want a new blast pattern. Theology (as Stanley Fish alleged)? Whatever.

So maybe I shouldn’t write a book. Or a manifesto. Or a blog post. Maybe I should do what so many others are doing and go make something new.

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