The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities – Part 1

By Wendy Hui Kyong Chun

***This talk was given on 1.4.2013 at the MLA.  It focuses on a paradox surrounding DH: the disparity between the hype surrounding DH and the material work conditions surrounding much DH (adjunct/ soft money positions, the constant drive to raise funds, the lack of scholarly recognition of DH work for promotions).  In it, I call for us to work together—across the various fields and divisions—to create a university that is fair and just for all (teachers, students, researchers).  I also call for us to find value in what is often discarded as “useless” in order to take on the really hard problems that face us.***   

I want to start by thanking Richard for organizing this workshop–I’m excited to be a part of it.  I also want to start by warning you that we’ve been asked to be provocative, so I’ll use my 8 minutes here today to provoke: to agitate and perhaps aggravate, excite and perhaps incite. For today, I want to propose that the dark side of the digital humanities is its bright side, its alleged promise: its alleged promise to save the humanities by making them and their graduates relevant, by giving their graduates technical skills that will allow them to thrive in a difficult and precarious job market. Speaking partly as a former engineer, this promise strikes me as bull: knowing GIS or basic statistics or basic scripting (or even server side scripting) is not going to make English majors competitive with engineers or CS geeks trained here or increasingly abroad (***straight up programming jobs are becoming increasingly less lucrative***).

But let me be clear, my critique is not directed at DH per se.  DH projects have extended and renewed the humanities and revealed that the kinds of critical thinking (close textual analysis) that the humanities have always been engaged in is and has always been central to crafting technology and society.  DH projects such as “Feminist Dialogues in Technology” a Distributed Online Cooperative Course that will be taught in 15 universities across the globe: courses that use technology not simply to disseminate but also to rethink and regenerate cooperatively education at a global scale—these projects are central.  As well, the humanities should play a big role in “big data” not simply because we’re good at pattern recognition (because we can read narratives embedded in data), but also and more importantly, because can see what big data ignores.  We can see the ways in which so many big data projects, by restricting themselves to certain databases and terms, shine a flashlight under a streetlamp. 

I also want to stress that my sympathetic critique is not aimed at the humanities, but at the general euphoria surrounding technology and education.  That is, it takes aim at the larger project of rewriting political and pedagogical problems into technological ones, into problems that technology can fix. This rewriting ranges from the idea that MOOCs, rather than a serious public commitment to education, can solve the problem of the spiraling cost of education (MOOCs that enroll, but don’t graduate; MOOCs that miss the point of what we do, for when lectures work, they work because they create communities, because they are, to use Benedict Anderson’s phrase, “extraordinary mass ceremonies”) to the blind embrace of technical skills. To put it as plainly as possible: there are a lot of unemployed engineers out there, from forty-something assembly programmers in Silicon Valley to young kids graduating from community colleges with CS degrees and no jobs.  Also, there’s a huge gap between industrial skills and university training. Every good engineer has to be re-taught how to program; every film graduate re-taught how to make films.

My main argument is this: the vapid embrace of the digital is a form of what Lauren Berlant has called “cruel optimism.”

So, the blind embrace of DH (***think here of “The Old Order Changeth***) allows us to believe that this time (once again) graduate students will get jobs.  It allows us to believe that the problem facing our students and our profession is a lack of technical savvy rather than an economic system that undermines the future of our students.

As Lauren Berlant points out, the hardest thing about cruel optimism is that, even as it destroys us in the long term, it sustains us in the short term.  DH allows us to tread water: to survive, if not thrive (***think here of the ways in which so many DH projects and jobs depend on soft money and the ways in which DH projects are often—and very unfairly—not counted towards tenure or promotion***).  It allows us to sustain ourselves and to justify our existence in an academy that is increasingly a sinking ship.

The humanities are sinking—if they are—not because of their earlier embrace of theory or multiculturalism, but because they have capitulated to a bureaucratic technocratic logic.  They have conceded to a logic, an enframing (***to use Heidegger’s term***) that has made publishing a question of quantity rather than quality, so that we spew forth MPUs or minimum publishable units.  A logic, an enframing that can make teaching a burden rather than a mission, so that professors and students are increasingly at odds.  A logic, an enframing that has divided the profession and made us our own worst enemies so that those who have jobs for life, deny jobs to others—others who have often accomplished more than they (than we)—have.

The academy is a sinking ship—if it is—because it sinks our students into debt, and this debt, generated by this optimistic belief that a university degree automatically guarantees a job, is what both sustains and kills us.  This residual belief/hope stems from another time when most of us couldn’t go to university—another time when young adults with degrees received good jobs, not necessarily because of what they learned, but because of the society in which they lived.

Now, if the bright side of the digital humanities is the dark side, let me suggest that the dark side—what is now considered to be the dark side—may be where we need to be.  The dark side, after all, is the side of passion.  The dark side, or what has been made dark, is what all that bright talk has been turning away from (critical theory, critical race studies—all that fabulous work that transformDH is doing).

This dark side also entails taking on our fears and biases to create deeper collaborations with the sciences and engineering.  It entails forging joint (frictional and sometimes fractious) coalitions to take on problems such as education, global change etc..  It means realizing that the humanities don’t have a lock on creative or critical thinking and realizing that research in the sciences can be as useless as research in the humanities—and that this is a good thing.  It’s called basic research.

It also entails realizing that what’s most interesting about the digital in general is perhaps not what has been touted as its promise, but rather what’s been discarded or decried as its trash (***think here of all those failed DH tools, which have still opened up new directions***).  It entails realizing that what’s most interesting is what has been discarded or decried as inhuman: rampant publicity, anonymity, the ways in which the Internet vexes the relationship between public and private, the ways it compromises our autonomy and involves us with others and other machines in ways we don’t entirely know and control. (***think here of the constant and promiscuous exchange of information that drives the Internet, something that is usually hidden from us***).

As Natalia Cecire has argued DH is best when it takes on the humanities, as well as the digital. Maybe, just maybe, by taking on the inhumanities, we’ll transform the digital as well.

Thank you.

***the sections in asterisks were either points implied in my visuals or in the talk, which I have elaborated upon in this written version.  For an almost word for word transcription of this paper, see Alexis Lothian’s excellent notes: <>***

[Wendy Hui Kyong Chun is Professor of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University. She has studied both Systems Design Engineering and English Literature, which she combines and mutates in her current work on digital media. She is author of Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics,Programmed Visions: Software and Memory, and co-editor (with Thomas Keenan) of New Media, Old Media: A History and Theory Reader. She is currently working on a monograph entitled Imagined Networks. She was a plenary speaker at C21’s Nonhuman Turn Conference in 2012.]

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