The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities – Part 4

By Rita Raley

For “The Dark Side of Digital Humanities” (#s307), we were charged with producing 8-minute statements designed to stimulate wide-ranging discussion of the unsaid, understated, or under-theorized economic and political issues that are associated with, attend upon, or otherwise follow from the digital humanities as an institutional entity. In our respective prefatory statements we noted that we had been asked to provoke, but stimulate is closer to the thinking behind the roundtable. The formulation of the title of the roundtable is itself a provocation, however, and an exemplary instance of “behavioral priming,” to borrow a phrase from Katherine Hayles’ paper the following day. One imagines that even the addition of a question mark in the program copy might have produced a different affective response from the audience, among which there still seems to be a fair bit of indignation, at least insofar as one can glean the mood from Twitter and blog postings. That the indignant audience should now include many who were not even at the conference, much less at the session, can only confirm Teresa Brennan’s thesis on the “transmission of affect”— it was not simply biochemical response but also suggestion that produced the (contagious) affects of #s307.[i]

The upset seems in part to derive from a misunderstanding about our critical object: though our roundtable referred in passing to actually existing projects, collectives, and games that we take to be affirmative and inspiring, the “digital humanities” under analysis was a discursive construction and, I should add, clearly noted as such throughout. That audience members should have professed not to recognize themselves in our presentations is thus to my mind all to the good, even if it somewhat misses the mark. Indeed I would say that humanists above all else need continually to work to perceive and negotiate the institutional imaginary of informational technology so as not to fall into the trap of unconsciously adopting its optics. (My own cynicism about that institutional imaginary deepens with every administrative inquiry: I teach and write about digital media, so clearly I should want to participate in working groups and pilot programs for online education.)

// Begin presented text

Our topic today is the dark side of the digital humanities. Not quite the evil side, as Matthew Fuller and Andrew Goffey term it, but, one hopes, not entirely unrelated. Evil media studies pursues “practices of trickery, deception and manipulation”—one might even say tactics here—practices or tactics that endeavor “to escape [both] the order of critique” with all of its melancholic negativity, as well as “the postulates of representation,” with their moralizing insistence upon substance, essence, truth.[ii] The dark side might on the face of it seem to suggest precisely that “order of critique,” but our objective today is not to diagnose so as to circumscribe and pronounce upon the truth of things—not to uniformly fix what is after all a diverse set of techniques and activities within a singular frame and to seek out the hidden ideological core buried deep within it; not then to bring to light “the” dark side of “the” digital humanities. But it is to suggest that there are critical blind spots and assumptions that ought to be discussed before we triumphantly embrace the notion that the digital humanities is the only game in town worth playing or, even, the only conference sessions worth attending, not simply the ‘next big thing’ but the only thing. If, as sometimes seems to be the case, the digital humanities is the hill on which the humanities has chosen to stake its last claim for relevance, to fight its last battle for recognition, then we would do well to examine the field and identify not just the exploits but perhaps also the lines of escape.

This is not new thinking of course and indeed the cultural politics of the digital humanities—its lacunae, protocols, and technocratic function—are central research problems for many of my colleagues in the Transcriptions Center at UC Santa Barbara. For example, two of our graduate students, Amanda Phillips and Anne Cong-Huyen, have been active in a #transformDH initiative that explores the intersections of the digital humanities and race, gender, and sexuality.[iii] And at the MLA convention two years ago, Alan Liu succinctly formulated the as-yet unanswered question that continues to serve as a critical challenge for all of us today: How, he asked, do “the digital humanities advance, channel, or resist the great postindustrial, neoliberal, corporatist, and globalist flows of information-cum-capital”?[iv] To answer the question of how the digital humanities “advance and channel” such flows, one simply needs to track monetary circulation and study the attendant promotional materials. In our current mercantile knowledge regime, with its rational calculus of academic value—seats occupied, publications counted, funds procured—the digital humanities are particularly well positioned to answer administrative and public demands to make knowledge useful: after all, research based on quantification is itself readily available to quantification. Cynically, in an institutional context in which a corporate administrative class is already mystified by humanities research that it cannot assess in terms of the amorphous metrics of “excellence” and “innovation,” one might say that the digital humanities are also particularly well positioned to exploit the expectation that we should be affectively awed by instrumentation (‘oh my god, this lab, this application, is so cool’). In the “new world of brain-currency” shaped by engineers and economists, as Richard Hoggart once described it, it is the digital humanists that serve as cashiers, no longer ordinary school-masters peddling language as symbolic capital but academic service staff providing skills-based training— visual literacies, communicative competence, technological proficiency, data management—reinstantiating in the process the very categorical distinctions between theory and practice that DIY and maker culture have long sought to challenge.[v]

Advancing and channeling the great flows of information-cum-capital requires a certain elasticity, more specifically, the capacity to become more agile so as to achieve operability and move to market more quickly. Agility is more easily attained without the practical and financial burdens of infrastructure; if networking, storage, and computing are automated, if they are virtualized, redundancy is eliminated and companies (universities, labs, centers) are not left with legacy hardware that can only be repurposed as art and furniture. Why invest in servers, then, if Amazon, Microsoft, and Google can offer IT as a service. Contemporary doxa holds that treating infrastructure and platform as services makes it possible to free up resources for innovation and experimentation, for the symbolic work claimed as the particularly province of the human: architecture and design. But accepting IT as a service also means accepting terms of use and if the digital humanities has had very little to say about protocols of finance and governance, it has arguably had even less to say about the very protocols that govern our everyday use of university gmail accounts (or indeed the whole of Google Education).[vi] As many have suggested but fewer have done, we ought to be marshalling the full critical, philosophical, and rhetorical resources at our disposal in order to think about all of the criteria that structure our communicative acts, from RFC standards and interface design, to privacy policies and terms of service.

// Discussion questions

(1) Daniel Bell argued in The Intellectual and the University (1966) that the principle task of humanitas was to defend against the “increasingly powerful armory of intellectual techniques” (game theory, cybernetics, simulation) at the disposal of technocracy.[vii] How are we now to regard the embrace of these very techniques, particularly when the actual work is outsourced to technical staff or when putatively interdisciplinary collaborations between humanists and computer scientists rely upon a textbook division of labor? How, moreover, are we to regard the schism between high-end tool development as research and undergraduate pedagogy that maintains traditional disciplinary structures?

(2) What are the connections between the production of the aesthetic as techne in digital humanities research and contemporary courseware initiatives and in what sense is each oriented toward technocratic knowledge production? What are the relations between new reading techniques (text mining, distant reading) and new modes of content delivery? We might also ask what we can make of the links between the political claims made for online learning platforms and the digital humanities: each is said to be radical, open, and democratic because of the varying efforts to make scholarly materials available to populations that have not previously had such access. Put another way, is it possible to have “distant reading” without somehow also contributing to the project of distant education?

(3) It is universally acknowledged that the Digital Humanities have made important contributions to traditional scholarship in literary studies, in particular introducing provocative questions about scale, multimodal scholarship, and changing reading and writing practices. Still one might ask why and how it is that it has come to function as the solution to every crisis of disciplinary legitimacy and every methodological impasse. For example, the project of symptomatic reading is said to be exhausted, thus necessitating the turn toward surface reading, of which “digital modes” of reading serve as the preferred instance.[viii] But we might also ask if is there a sense in which our institutions have been caught flat-footed by the forces of disruptive innovation and by the disaggregation of higher education: university education conceived as piecework is apportioned to tutors and lecturers; tutoring centers develop on the model of the call center; online study groups develop and gradually morph into online universities such as P2P.[ix] Can we then understand the exuberance that surrounds the digital humanities to be less of an attempt to shape a future than a salvific attempt to develop a sustainable organizational model for our profession that would include evaluative criteria and pedagogical practices particular to our current socio-technological milieu? Are we still playing catch-up and is the enthusiastic, trans-medial promotion cover for our belatedness?[x] (Administrator: you can have any faculty position you like, as long as it is digital.)

The lesson one would like to think that the UC Office of the President had to learn with its attempt to modernize its logo is that interfaces and corporations alike have short life spans. Perhaps we too have to be jolted out of the cycle of innovating for the next grant cycle so that we might collaboratively speculate upon a less-instrumental future for the humanities as a whole, one that brings into play the affordances of digital media but does so with a measured skepticism that might serve as a buffer against the irrational exuberance that too-often characterizes the framing of our projects, initiatives, and entrepreneurial efforts.

[Rita Raley is Associate Professor of English, with courtesy appointments in Film and Media Studies, Comparative Literature, and Global Studies at UC-Santa Barbara. Her primary research interests lie at the intersection of digital media and humanist inquiry, with a particular emphasis on cultural critique, artistic practices, language, and textuality. She is the author of Tactical Media (Electronic Mediations) (University of Minnesota, 2009) and the co-editor of the Electronic Literature Collection.  She will be a plenary speaker at the upcoming C21 Dark Side of the Digital Conference this spring.]


[i] Steven Pile succinctly outlines the spatial transfer of affect in “Distant Feelings,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 37: 1 (January 2012): 44-59.

[ii] http://www.spc.org/fuller/texts/towardsevil/

[iii] See Amanda Phillips, #transformDH – A Call to Action Following ASA 2011,” HASTAC (October 26, 2011), http://hastac.org/blogs/amanda-phillips/2011/10/26/transformdh-call-action-following-asa-2011

[iv] Alan Liu, “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities” (January 7, 2011), revised and expanded for Debates in the Digital Humanities. Conference version available from http://liu.english.ucsb.edu/where-is-cultural-criticism-in-the-digital-humanities.

[v] Richart Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1998), 229.

[vi] http://www.google.com/edu/

[vii] Daniel Bell, The Intellectual and the University (New York: The City College, 1966), 4-6).

[viii] See Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” Representations 108:1 (Fall 2009), 1-21.

[ix] “P2PU helps you navigate the wealth of open education materials that are out there, creates small groups of motivated learners, and supports the design and facilitation of courses.” http://archive.p2pu.org/

[x] Strenuous individual efforts aside, e.g. Katherine Hayles showcasing media studies at the MLA during her tenure as chair of the Division on Literary Criticism (Washington D.C., 2005), it is I hope not controversial to suggest that the MLA as an organization was slow to make structural adjustments that would reflect the profound transformations in our medial environments and practices and that, from one angle, it is possible to read the exuberant embrace of, e.g. Twitter, as compensatory.

4 thoughts on “The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities – Part 4

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