With so many pixels glowing over recent charges by Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette, and David Golumbia that the digital humanities enable neoliberalism, I felt the need to respond to some of their claims.
The authors of the provocative Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB) piece, “Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities,” take pains to explain that they are talking about not all of digital humanities, but a specific variety stemming from a particular tradition of textual studies and humanities computing. As many have already protested, their genealogy of the digital humanities omits a great many areas of inquiry that have contributed to the field’s variegated and contested formation, including history, classics, archaeology, hypertext and hypermedia studies, cybercultural studies, electronic literature studies, critical media studies, maker culture, game studies, and platform studies. Even taken on its own terms, the argument that aligns the digital humanities with neoliberal priorities seems to leave out an awful lot of what digital humanists actually think, say, and do. Neoliberalism accounts in part for the enclosure of common goods by private interests and the subjection of all areas of life to a strictly economic logic. In contrast, much work in the digital humanities involves either detourning commercial tools and products for scholarly purposes or building open-access archives, databases, and platforms that resist the pressure to commercialize, as Alan Liu points out. That is why DH projects (including my own) are so often broken, nonworking, or unfinished (Brown et al.), and far from anything “immediately usable by industry,” as the authors of the LARB piece suggest.
Still, the very taint of technology is enough to convince some readers that DH must somehow smack of neoliberal tendencies. The equation seems to go like this: since both the digital humanities and neoliberal management require funding for technology, they are ideologically aligned, while conventional humanists are by implication nontechnical and thus nonmanagerial. The LARB authors argue that digital humanists themselves position the field as a corrective to traditional humanist scholarship, supplanting radicalism and progressive inquiry with merely “disruptive” innovation, in the sense employed by Clayton Christensen, whose theories of entrepreneurship have driven managerial and pedagogical reforms at postsecondary institutions across North America over the past two decades. These authors would not be the first to conflate disruptive managerial strategies like MOOCs (massive open online courses) and the unbundling of degrees with the goals of DH, which suggests that digital humanists need to do more still to distinguish their own inventive and critical explorations of alternate pedagogies and methodologies from the corporate “innovations” increasingly favored by university administrations (Cordell). It needs to be reiterated that the digital humanities, while perhaps not always and everywhere “radical,” are rarely just “innovative.”
In fact, from a managerial perspective, the kind of computationally expensive uses to which digital humanists typically put technologies—such as running topic models on large corpora for hours or days on end in the hope of discovering new discursive patterns for interpretation—would appear to be an impractical and inefficient tax on resources with no immediate application or return on investment. It might also be objected that neoliberalism has been advancing at least since the abandonment of the gold standard, while the digital humanities have been around only about fifteen years, or even half that time if you consider only the “new Digital Humanities” that Steven E. Jones ties to the rise of social media corporations like Twitter and Google. Nevertheless, while the digital humanities may not be the determining cause of all our woes, the case could still be made that they exacerbate the neoliberal tendencies that already exist within the academy and media culture at large, tendencies which depend increasingly on the same technical systems as DH. I have learned enough over the years from my outstanding colleague and sometime lab mate Sarah Brouillette and her many crucial critiques of capitalist culture to recognize signs of exploitation in the workplace. While our approaches to the digital humanities do not always align, her insights have strongly informed my own writing and practice, and ought to be taken seriously.
The LARB piece encapsulates a large undercurrent of ressentiment within academia that blames the digital humanities and neoliberalism alike for sapping both prestige and resources from the “pure” scholarly pursuits of merely thinking and writing, which allegedly require only books, pens, and paper; and need not involve any newer technologies at all, let alone teamwork, labs, or large operating grants. That attitude is, of course, hugely disingenuous: it perpetuates the monastic myth of the isolated (tenured) scholar as ideal, while ignoring how little anyone could get done today without the computers, email clients, catalogs and databases, e-journals, cloud storage, online book resellers, and social networks that keep us connected to the world of scholarship, not to mention online travel agents for booking passage to conferences and research archives. In today’s academy, we are all already digital.
If the digital humanities seem at times to pander to the neoliberal discourses and tendencies that are undeniably rampant within postsecondary institutions, it is not because they necessarily contribute to exploitive social relations (although they certainly do at times, just like every other academic sector). I rather suspect that it is because digital humanists tend as part of their scholarly practice to foreground self-reflexively the material underpinnings of scholarship that many conventional humanists take for granted. The digital humanities involve a close scrutiny of the affordances and constraints that govern most scholarly work today, whether they are technical (relating to media, networks, platforms, interfaces, codes, and databases), social (involving collaboration, authorial capital, copyright and IP, censorship and firewalls, viral memes, the idea of “the book,” audiences, literacies, and competencies), or labor-related (emphasizing the often-hidden work of students, librarians and archivists, programmers, techies, research and teaching assistants, and alt-ac workers). Far from being “post-interpretative, non-suspicious, technocratic, conservative, [and] managerial” (Allington et al.), the “lab-based practice” that we promote in Carleton’s Hyperlab, at least, involves collaborative and broadly interdisciplinary work that closely scrutinizes the materiality of archival practices, bibliography, and publishing across media, as well as the platforms and networks we all use to read and write texts in the twenty-first century.
If anything, the digital humanities are guilty of making all too visible the dirty gears that drive the scholarly machine, along with the mechanic’s maintenance bill. That many of these themes also happen to be newly targeted areas for funding agencies as they try to compensate for decades of underfunding, deferred maintenance, rising tuition, and falling enrollments on campuses everywhere does not constitute evidence of the field’s inherent neoliberalism. Now, some would argue (and I would agree) that these material costs should ideally be sustained by college and university administrations and not by faculty research grants. But digital humanists are not responsible for either the underfunding of higher education over the last twenty-five years or the resulting mission creep of scholarly grants, which in addition to funding “pure research” are increasingly expected to include student funding packages, as well as overhead for equipment, labs, building maintenance, heat, and power. The fault and burden of the digital humanities is that they reveal all the pieces of this model of institutional funding that seems novel to many humanists, but which has long been taken for granted within the sciences. This model acknowledges that most funding programs are designed not merely to help tenured professors buy books and travel, but also to support our research infrastructure and, above all, our students who justify the mission of scholarship in the first place, and who fill in while we fly off to invade foreign archives like the detritivores we are.
The digital humanities do not pander to the system (at least not more than any other field) so much as they scandalously reveal the system’s components, while focusing critical attention on the mechanisms needed to maintain them. And that is precisely the field’s unique and urgent potential: by providing the possibility of apprehending these mechanisms fully, the digital humanities take the first steps toward a genuinely materialist and radical critique of scholarship in the twenty-first century. To ignore the valuable critical insights of digital humanists and, under the flag of anti-neoliberalism, retreat into an unreconstructed view of humanist scholarship as a detached, isolated, and unmediated expression of critical acumen would be both dishonest and dangerous.
Still, most scholars will find that their DH colleagues present an easier target than their deans, presidents, or funding agencies, against whom any accusations might well be met with professional or financial repercussions. Digital humanists are the convenient enemies within—and ones who have a lot of arcane knowledge about digital codes and protocols at that. Who is to say that the digital humanist who built that Omeka exhibit or installed your school’s learning management system is not also mining Bitcoins for darknet interests, running online surveillance for Amazon, or tweaking high-frequency trade algorithms on the derivatives market? As long as critics elide the distinction between the media corporations that own the code and those who are best qualified to interpret, challenge, and rewrite it, we are not likely to be able to identify—let alone resist—incursions of neoliberal governmentality into academia when they actually occur.
Allington, Daniel, Sarah Brouillette, and David Golumbia. “Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities.” Los Angeles Review of Books, May 1, 2016, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/neoliberal-tools-archives-political-history-digital-humanities.
Brown, Susan, Patricia Clements, Isobel Grundy, Stan Ruecker, Jeffery Antoniuk, and Sharon Balazs. “Published Yet Never Done: The Tension between Projection and Completion in Digital Humanities Research.” DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly 3, no. 2 (2009), http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/3/2/000040/000040.html.
Cordell, Ryan. “How Not to Teach Digital Humanities.” February 1, 2015, http://ryancordell.org/teaching/how-not-to-teach-digital-humanities.
Jones, Steven E. The Emergence of the Digital Humanities. New York: Routledge, 2013.
Liu, Alan. “On Digital Humanities and ‘Critique.’” May 2, 2016, https://storify.com/ayliu/on-digital-humanities-and-critique.