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The Hot Thing

[This is a talk I gave at the Debates in the Digital Humanities Book Launch and Symposium hosted by dm@p at the University of Pittsburgh in April 2012. I was joined on the panel by Matt Gold (cuny Graduate Center), Doug Armato (University of Minnesota Press), Liz Losh (uc San Diego), Jentery Sayers (University of Victoria), and Jamie “Skye” Bianco (Director of dm@p and the organizer for the event).]

We asked the captain what course
of action he proposed to take toward
a beast so large, so terrifying, and
unpredictable. He hesitated to
answer, and then said judiciously:
“I think I shall praise it.”

– Robert Hass Praise

I find the Debates in the Digital Humanities volume terribly upsetting.

Before I go any further with this dour and possibly inappropriate thought, let me say that I find no fault with anything in the collection from a scholarly or intellectual point of view. There are many superb essays in it: provocative, fascinating meditations on digital humanities — defining it, theorizing it, critiquing it, practicing it, teaching it, and envisioning its future. I think it will endure for many years as the best testimony we have to what Matt Gold aptly calls “The Digital Humanities Moment.”

What upsets me is not any of that, but the ways in which the traces of certain deep fears and anxieties emerge from nearly every page. It is by no means confined to those authors who don’t have tenure, or to those who don’t have jobs, or to those who don’t have professorial positions, or to those who do. It underlies, with few exceptions, the words of some of the most famous people in the book as well those you may have never heard of. It is to be found in praise as well as blame, and in the most earnestly dispassionate as well as the most overtly polemical pieces in the volume.

Because behind every utterance — including, for the record, mine — lies the possibility of a terrible, soul-crushing anxiety about peoples’ place in the world.

Digital humanities is the hottest thing in the humanities. Who can deny it? We read about it in the Chronicle and the New York Times. It is “the story” of recent mla and aha conventions. Publishers are falling over themselves trying to create new imprints and series in the Digital Humanities. And there are jobs! Not many, of course, but many more, I would guess, than are available in any other single sub-discipline of venerable giants like English studies or History.

So it is meet and good that we talk about this hot thing. But the question is this: Are you hot?

The answer to that question is “maybe.” If you’ve devoted yourself to media studies, you might be hot. Your work is often solidly focused on the digital, after all. But when people say “digital humanities,” maybe they mean something different? And maybe they mean something that’s not what you do? Maybe you’re a theorist, in any of its ramified forms (including race and gender studies). Surely every form of discourse is capable of being theorized, and there seems to be a dearth of such theorization in digital humanities itself. But what if digital humanities isn’t a fertile, open ground for theorization, but a discipline hostile to it — or worse, the very thing that is slouching forward to supplant theory as a hot thing? Maybe you’re just an ordinary historian or a literary critic or a classicist. You use computers, of course, and you’re interested in what they might mean for the future of humanistic study. But what if this hot thing means that what you do — your work on Paradise Lost, or the French Revolution, or the writings of the late Roman Stoics — is now old fashioned, out of step, or even irrelevant?

The question likewise hangs over people who are, by all accounts, squarely doing digital humanities. You might have devoted yourself to something like data mining, or gis, or tei, or tool building. This, surely, is digital humanities. But then perhaps such things can’t survive the withering, highly articulate attacks of the theorists (or, for that matter, the old-fashions). Maybe this is just a passing thing. Don’t you have your own doubts about it even as you engage in it? Maybe they’re right; maybe the whole thing is subtly retrograde — even reactionary. It’s undoubtedly limited — just one piece, just one form, just one thing, in the overall task of explicating the human record. But maybe it’s not enough? And can it possibly live up to the hype?

Both forms of anxiety cross lines of seniority and position. I hear it in the words old professors as well as those newly minted, from full professors to staff. Graduate students and recent PhDs, it seems to me, feel it in the most profound way. Perhaps you were trained in theory or in some more conventional (and you love hearing that word!) form of humanistic study. You probably spent the better part of a decade learning to write a certain way, engage in certain kinds of conversations, and participate in certain kinds of scholarly activities. It took you years to do this, and it wasn’t easy. Now none of that seems consonant with the hot thing. To be hot, some say, you must now learn statistics, document encoding, and C++. That should take you another ten years. And at the end of it, you’ll be suffering from the same anxieties as the blessed. But not to worry: you won’t have a job anyway, because you’re just too late.

I am aware that by drawing a line between the contents of the Debates volume and peoples’ fears and anxieties I am saying something that can be taken as extremely offensive. One implication of my observations is that whenever anyone is talking about one thing, they’re really talking about another thing — that no matter how dispassionate and scholarly, no matter how concerned with the legitimate claims of probity and justice, scholarly “debates” are really just a reflection of some deeper personal conflict and worry. That’s as likely to be well received as similar observations from one’s parents (or one’s therapist). And what’s worse, these observations come from a professor of digital humanities who has tenure. Easy for him to deliver some avuncular homily about how fearful we all are!

I can only observe that one of the obvious effects of this tension between the scholarly and the personal is good scholarship, provocative discussion, and excellent teaching. I don’t think anyone can deny that, and I think the Debates volume demonstrates it amply. But there’s another effect that we cannot deny: it can also produce bitter, angry people and broken communities. And I’m not talking here about the “dh community” (if that even exists). I’m talking about people in general, communities in general, and the uneasy lines of separation between them.

I entered graduate school (with every intention of becoming a literary theorist, incidentally) in one of the worst years for the academic job market to that point. Within a few years, I had wandered into humanities computing. I knew, almost immediately, that this was where my heart lies. I also knew that I would almost certainly not get a job in it. There weren’t any jobs in it! It wasn’t the hot thing, because it was barely a thing at all. I would love to say that despite all of this, I could clearly see that this was the future of the humanities, and that by memorizing the Java api, I was positioning myself for a promising academic future. I would also like to say that it was through several prescient acts of personal brilliance and productivity that I was able to land a high-profile academic position (with tenure) at a research institution.

The truth, is that I figured that since academia wasn’t going to work out, I might as well follow my bliss. I settled into what we now call an “alt-ac” job — with absolute joy, because that job was every bit as intellectually stimulating and exciting as the one I have now. On a lark, I applied to one of the first explicit jobs in “humanities computing” that, to my knowledge, had ever been offered in the us. And I got it. Within a few years, I was being recruited by another institution that was building an entire program in, of all things, digital humanities.

So yes: Easy for me to say. It all worked out. Yet it didn’t save me from crushing amounts of fear and anxiety throughout the entire process. People have asked me “how I did it.” The answer, as you can see, is not entirely satisfying. And because it is not satisfying, I have found myself asking a question that I’ve been asking for a long time, but now with greater urgency: How do you keep from becoming fearful and anxious — and possibly infecting larger communities with bitterness and anger — while going through this process, whether it works out or not?

Because we have to confront the fact that there are highly successful scholars — those who appear to have ridden the “hot thing” to the highest levels of professional achievement — who are terribly bitter and who live in constant fear that it will be taken away. There are likewise people for whom it didn’t work out at all (at least, not in the way we think of it working out) who seem happy and content. And, of course, there is the reverse of this as well.

One answer might be to be as “nice” as you can and take the world as it is. But I, personally, don’t want the people who, as I said, are arguing on behalf of the legitimate claims of probity and justice to “be nice” about it, and nothing is ever accomplished in this realm by accepting the world as it is. Another answer might be to “follow your bliss,” but it won’t be bliss if you live in a constant state of worry and anxiety that this is precisely the way to end your career.

I don’t have good answers, here, though I’m inclined to think that Levinas was right and that ethics is the first philosophy. Despite some terrible associations, the word “benevolence,” which joins the concept of the “good” with the verb “to will” or “to wish,” encapsulates what I think makes communities healthy, and what facilitates meaningful interaction among people within a community and across different communities. You don’t always have to be “nice” to be benevolent. Nor do you have to suppress the more productive forms of anxiety and frustration (because these do exist) that can lead to good and useful work. The fundamental posture of a benevolent community is that it wishes its own members — and, more importantly, the people who are not members — well. It doesn’t unduly concern itself with its own survival, or even its precise definition. And it doesn’t concern itself at all with the idea that it will one day be supplanted by something else. It wishes the people it is “supplanting” well; it wishes the people that will supplant it well. And it wishes anyone who bids participation well. It might ask that people who want to participate take some time to learn what it’s about, but it doesn’t get overly exercised when this doesn’t happen (and people acting benevolently will want to do that anyway). But most of all, it doesn’t insist that people who are not doing the hot thing do the hot thing. This is the hardest thing of all, but I honestly think that communities cannot survive without this.

I, certainly, have not always acted this way, and yet I continue to think that the will for the good in others — first in thought, but ultimately in action — is both a radical possibility of the human person, and the basis of any coherent call for tolerance, openness, and acceptance. And we all know how to bring this about, because as teachers, we implicitly acknowledge the impossibility of a pedagogy that can proceed without this fundamental disposition. We teach because we wish our students well. Even when they fail. Even when they resist. Especially when they do these things.

So really, I need to qualify my initial statement yet again. I find the Debates in the Digital Humanities volume completely uplifting, not because it shows no signs of the anxieties I’ve mentioned, but because “debate” always holds out the possibility that benevolence will be the result.

I wish it well.

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