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In Defense of DH

In Defense of DH

An LA Review of Books article on the “Political History of Digital Humanities” has made its rounds today, highlighting in DH a supposed distaste for forms of more “traditional” critical scholarship and a complicity with (particularly financial) structures that perpetuate exclusionary and pro-industry ideologies. 

Admittedly, I haven’t been operating in/around digital humanities for very long, relatively speaking. And I certainly advocate for what I presume must be Allington et al.’s preference: a more open and socially/politically conscious DH without institutions that bend whichever way necessary to receive funding. 

But I think a few points are worth making. 

DH is not a framework pitted against traditional modes of scholarship, at least not in the sense that it is opposed to complex, theoretical criticism. The acts of “building” that are often at the core of digital humanities projects are necessarily theoretical and critical: I’ve had many serious conversations, for example, about the semantic and sociocultural implications of selecting particular regular expressions. The best projects integrate this methodological metacriticism into either their public-facing products or the scholarship that accompanies them.

Suggesting that “the workers in IT departments of corporations such as Elsevier and Google are engaged in humanities scholarship,” then, is particularly problematic. There is a fundamental difference between the “preservation and access” agenda at play with a project like Google Books and the “preservation and access” agenda pursued in an academic library or department: the latter tends to care deeply for the content itself, and to integrate an awareness of a particular object’s needs and potential uses. The production of digital archives and editions becomes itself an act of scholarship, reliant upon criticism about the role of scholarly resources, accessibility across demographics, use cases, and book and media history, all typically supplemented with contextual information and annotations reliant on deep engagement with existing scholarship.

Corporately-funded large-scale digitization projects or catch-all corpus linguistics solutions like Google Ngram Viewer are rightfully met with skepticism by scholars more than they are embraced: in many cases, these technologies create as many holes as they fill. My own work with digital mapping interfaces, and Google Maps in particular, has made it clear that part of the work of DH is to ask questions of the methodologies it employs, and I don’t think I’m alone in adopting this conception of digital humanities. The affordances of, say, ArcGIS and CartoDB are enormous, but their usage does not preclude an acute consciousness of the implications of utilizing proprietary third-party technologies and of the ways in which digital cartography masks, eliminates, and oppresses.

Indeed, DH is — for me — a matter of combatting erasure: how might we criticize and then reappropriate the tools that have become so ubiquitous outside the academy so that they help us do the hard work of situating our texts and our research within discourses of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability, and socioeconomics? 

If a by-product of digital humanities has been the “promotion of project-based learning,” I say there is no need to decry it. As humanists, we must read and write, but we can also tinker and build and collaborate. Perhaps it enables us to detach, occasionally, from the often myopic and obfuscatory monographs that the ivory tower so prizes, no matter how progressive their arguments. Especially from a pedagogical standpoint, project-based learning can be a powerful mechanism for allowing thinkers to engage with one another and with their communities, academic and otherwise. I’m a big believer that digital and public humanities can go hand-in-hand, fostering a sense of sociopolitical consciousness in an industry (and the academy is, after all, an industry) typically considered insular and out-of-touch. Alt-ac careers permit emerging PhDs with a stake in higher education to facilitate important, thoughtful work despite the reality of a crisis produced by the “traditional” humanities.

To argue that “Digital Humanities” has heralded in an era of corporatization of the humanities is to deny that elite higher education already belonged to a certain corporate logic. Undoubtedly, its arguably more direct relationship to industry requires a renewed cognizance of its inscription within corporate and other infrastructures, producing more rather than fewer surfaces for criticism. In this sense, DH can never be “postcritical.” Its mobilizers must embrace the responsibility of conceiving of “Digital Humanities” as a sphere where all of the rhetorics and lexica of “traditional literary scholarship” (many borrowed from other disciplines to begin with) are always already at play. DH-ers are still fundamentally humanists, still attracted inexorably to questions of identity and the human condition. Perhaps I am one of the lucky ones, but I’d like to believe this orientation toward DH — and not the one that scoffs at scholarly interpretation and distances itself from the interrogation of political and social phenomena — represents the future of the “big tent.” 

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