As [King Utopus] set a vast number of men to work, he, beyond all men’s expectations, brought it to a speedy conclusion. And his neighbours, who at first laughed at the folly of the undertaking, no sooner saw it brought to perfection than they were struck with admiration and terror.
—Thomas More, Utopia
We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.
—Ursula K. Le Guin
What We Mean When We Say “Utopia”
Articles, blogs, and tweets about the digital humanities turn repeatedly, anxiously, and sometimes hopefully to the topic of utopia. But just what do digital humanists mean when they talk about utopia? The problem in describing any project as “utopian” is that there are always other utopias, an alterity within utopia itself that blurs its contours, making it less an island than an archipelago. Utopias can be systemic or iconoclastic, absolute or relative, abstract or concrete; they can be failed, fictional, ambiguous, or actually existing in the form of communes, phalansteries, or kibbutzim, and embodying a range of politics from anarchism to liberalism to libertarianism. There are femtopias, queer utopias, and Afro-futurist utopias, as well as technological, critical, degenerate, and satiric utopias. They can be heuristic or systemic, eternal or persistent, revolutionary or catastrophic. There are pocket and blueprint utopias, utopias of spatial form, and process utopias, which can be archaeological, ontological, or architectural in mode. So it is not surprising that digital humanists should hold widely variant notions about utopia. More than simply a matter of fuzzy nomenclature, these conflicting understandings of utopia convey differing ideological orientations toward scholarship, technology, and the future.
Digital humanists who invoke utopia often do so to signify a hopeful horizon of expanded possibility and openness; yet, in the same breath, many (mis)label as utopian any projects considered naïve, impractical, or impossible, if not downright dangerous. Ruth Levitas characterizes the fallacies of this pervasive anti-utopian outlook:
The political case against utopia is not new. It argues that where there is vision, the people perish. It imputes to utopia both a claim to perfection, which is then dismissed as impossible, and the imposition of uniformity on utopia’s inhabitants, rejected as immoral. It argues that utopia can be realised only by violence and maintained only by political repression. (“For Utopia,” 31–32)
Some digital humanists rely upon anti-utopian sentiment as a check against the overtly utopian elements of their research, suggesting a fundamental ambivalence or anxiety toward the utopian. For instance, Patrik Svensson accurately describes DH in decidedly utopian terms as a scholarly enterprise characterized by “grand, sweeping statements” and “far-reaching visionary discourse” expressing a “visionary and hopeful” attitude toward technology’s “transformative” potential (“Envisioning,” ¶¶30, 11, 19). Yet, he insists that “what the digital humanities needs is an inclusive and forward-looking (not necessarily utopian) vision” (¶116), and is careful to avoid statements that he considers “all-pervasive, overly utopian or ungrounded” (¶163). Svensson’s apprehension toward grand, “overly utopian” statements reproduces a familiar anti-utopian bias that dates to post–World War II liberals like Karl Popper and Isaiah Berlin, who saw any attempt to depict the social and cultural totality as overly totalizing and potentially totalitarian, a slippery slope of false cognates typically justified with reference to Stalin, Mao, and the evils of state socialism (Jacoby, 42–45; Moylan, Scraps, 121–31). This liberalism is clear in Svensson’s own design parameters for DH, which propose not a “singular vision” but a “visionary space” governed by parameters like “mutual respect” and “disciplinary grounding” (“Envisioning,” ¶¶117, 10). Svensson wants DH to transform not only the humanities and university, but also, “if appropriate and mutually beneficial, . . . industry, cultural institutions and the art world” (¶139), but his suspicion of totality prevents him from proposing a DH that sets out to transform the world at large.
Svensson is not alone in embracing patently utopian ideals while identifying utopianism with the least salutary aspects of digital culture. Elsewhere in this volume (see chapter 38), Richard Grusin notes the future-oriented nature of DH and its affect of “hope,” “growth,” “optimism,” and “new beginnings.” Yet, he also derides the “‘utopian’ vision of a higher education whose future is dominated by MOOCs” (81). For Grusin, “the convergence of neoliberal calculus and digital utopianism” (87) is responsible for exacerbating the divide within the humanities between critical skills and production skills, between yack and hack, creating a new class of precariously employed educational workers. He raises crucial concerns about how the division between critique and production within DH, along with its tendency to value collaborative work more highly than individual scholarly labor, risks exacerbating neoliberal imperatives within higher education (89). In the process, however, he collapses utopianism in general with that determinist strain of mainstream techno-utopianism that grew out of the American hippie counterculture and agrarian communal movement of the 1960s, a history documented by Fred Turner. By so doing, Grusin cuts DH off from the long utopian tradition of pedagogical reform and the utopian mission described by Miguel Abensour as “the education of desire”—that is, teaching “‘desire to desire, to desire better, to desire more, and above all to desire in a different way’” (Thompson, 97).
The positions of both Grusin and Svensson are characteristic of the “double bind of Utopian discourse” that Neil Fraistat observes within the digital humanities, which promises broad transformations to scholarship, but “at a level of abstraction that forces us ultimately either to credit it as meaningful, or dismiss its entire enterprise” (2). Fraistat makes a useful distinction between the recognition of DH’s “Utopian promise” of “inclusivity, openness to critique, self-reflexivity, and the ability to be transformed as well as being transformational,” and the alternate “Dystopian figuration” of DH as the tacit ally of neoliberal capitalism: “For DH is a field whose master discourse includes such keywords as ‘innovation,’ ‘disruption,’ ‘transformation,’ and, yes, ‘entrepreneurship.’ All of these terms contain trap doors to the dark side, . . .” (8–9). I am sympathetic with Fraistat’s critique of creeping neoliberalism, as well as his emphasis on the digital humanities’ “active pursuit of the speculative, the possible, the counter-factual, the conjectural, the alternate reality, and the Utopian” (23). But Fraistat ultimately truncates the critical potential of utopianism by linking it primarily to the Romantic self-reflection of William Godwin and Percy Shelley. He thereby short-circuits the link between digital humanities and the utopianism of post-enlightenment thinkers like Fourier, Saint-Simon, Marx, Engels, and Kropotkin, along with the entire tradition of technological utopias and dystopias that evolved in response to industrial and postindustrial capitalism, from Samuel Butler, Ignatius Donnelly, and H. G. Wells to Octavia Butler, William Gibson, and Ursula K. Le Guin. While it is true that the range of utopian concerns and discursive genres was greatly expanded by Godwin and other eighteenth-century authors (Pohl), it was only in later decades that utopian speculation took up the anti-propertarian elements of More’s Utopia programmatically, and took aim at overcoming the contradictions and alienation of modern life under capitalism.
Far from exacerbating the problems associated with neoliberal capitalism, the speculative disruptions of utopian discourse offer digital humanists a way to think through them. More than just a double-bind between transformative and skeptical thought, utopianism represents a mode of critical thinking that actively engages the “dystopian figuration” of the dark side. Especially in its most abstract and improbable forms, utopian speculation enables precisely the sort of institutional self-critique that Grusin and Fraistat recommend, one that opens outward beyond scholarly disciplines and onto a broader social critique. Whether literary, visual, or cinematic in form, and whether optimistic or apocalyptic in tone, utopian and dystopian texts alike engage in a mode of imaginative construction or “architecture” that is at the same time a form of estrangement and critical thinking (Levitas, Utopia as Method, 197). Utopias offer hopeful models for overcoming capitalism’s contradictions by negotiating the apparent divide between critique and production, as well as the antinomy of individual and collective desires, “that no-man’s-land between the individual actant and the social totality” (Jameson, Archaeologies, 206).
Digital humanists often display an anxious attraction to utopian discourse, but they also tend to distrust the idea of utopia, leading them to misrecognize the utopian impulse driving their own engagement in grand, technologically innovative projects that reshape paradigms of scholarly collaboration and property. The digital humanities would benefit from a more informed and rigorous engagement with the understandings of utopia as advanced within utopian studies—maybe the only field that is more interdisciplinary, community-oriented, and hopeful. Utopian scholars, for their part, have not only been slow to adopt digital humanities perspectives and methodologies, but have barely begun to address the mediality of utopian expression. While utopianists avidly consume SF stories about futuristic technologies, they retain a decided media bias toward fictional narratives in print, which they implicitly position as a universal medium appropriate to the study of universal social progress. This situation has started to change, with a number of mostly younger utopianists (including Jill Belli, Stephanie Boluk, Frank Crocco, Krzysztof Maj, Peter Sands, and Adam Stock) exploring everything from digital pedagogies, dystopian digital games, and “happiness” apps to virtual- and augmented-reality media. Bart Simon and Darren Wershler are studying the utopian dimension of Minecraft, while Michelle Tiedje is using R to map the transnational networks of nineteenth-century utopian reformers and their literature, an entirely new approach to the study of intentional communities. The 2014 Imaginaries of the Future Leverhulme International Network workshop in Montreal featured talks on the utopian dimension of digital architecture, networks, locative media, and wearable devices by Christina Constandriopoulos, Delfina Fantini van Ditmar, Jill Didur, and Isabel Pedersen.1 A number of undertakings by “utopian entrepreneurs” (Laurel) are also helping to build bridges, including the Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) designed by Jane McGonigal to promote social progress, and Kari Krauss’s ARG Dust, which uses a post-apocalyptic scenario to encourage teenagers to think about humanity’s prospects for a distant future. Ed Finn’s Project Hieroglyph offers a digital platform for near-future SF narratives, while Stephen Duncombe’s Kickstarter project (open) Utopia provides “a complete edition of Thomas More’s Utopia that honors the primary precept of Utopia itself: that all property is common property,” published under a Creative Commons license and linked to Social Book and Wikitopia. And both the North American Society for Utopian Studies and the European Utopian Studies Society have begun to implement open online portals to digital collections and other resources for utopian scholars.
The news from the other side of the fence is less promising. That digital humanists have not shown more interest in utopian studies is curious, given that many of the tools they use every day were anticipated over a century ago by the likes of Edward Bellamy, H. G. Wells, and E. M. Forster, whose utopian worlds are replete with anticipations of teleconferencing suites, on-demand libraries, and the Internet of Things, which together constitute a rich archive of imaginary media. Such inventions are what the utopian philosopher Ernst Bloch calls novums, “the unexpectedly new, which pushes humanity out of its present towards the not yet realized” (Moylan, “Locus,” 159). The use of technological novums to connect the past to our collective future also inspires and organizes the lion’s share of DH projects. No one expresses the utopian longings we invest in innovative media better than Jeffrey T. Schnapp and Matthew Battles, whose beautifully designed volume, The Library Beyond the Book, hints through historical snapshots and speculative future scenarios at how real or imaginary archival technologies might fulfill their civic mission by remaining “ever attentive to the voice of a collectivity” (124).
Although often characterized as static blueprints for perfection, utopias in fact tend to be open-ended and provisional: even More’s original Utopia has been described as a narrative experiment in dynamic textualities involving a unique form of “spatial play” that allows many different social and textual configurations to coexist within a single representation (Marin). Ever since, utopias have critiqued the status quo through speculative forms of invention not unlike what Jentery Sayers calls “tinkering,” and which Fredric Jameson describes as a kind of “puttering,” “a hobby-like activity, which anyone can do in their own spare time, at home, in your garage or workshop, that organizes the readership of the Utopian text, a better mousetrap which you also can emulate” (Archaeologies, 34–35). The concept of tinkering is one way that both utopians and digital humanists address the radical unfinalizability of their projects, which are often of a scale or degree of experimentalism that defy closure and completion.
Utopian scholars devote endless energy to recovering, curating, and preserving the partial and fragmented record of this experimental archive, an undertaking that could only benefit from closer engagement with text-encoding standards and protocols for open-access archives. After all, More’s Utopia is less a city than an archive without walls. As Travis DeCook explains, because More’s Utopians live the good life, they do not need to record it: “while Utopia lacks both rhetorical storehouses and archives of specialized knowledge such as legal and religious texts, the Utopian commonwealth itself is a kind of storehouse, an institutional archive in which good action is preserved through time” (DeCook, 11). But if the figure of the universal archive provides the very model of utopian narrative and social organization, it does so only in an allegorical register, as an intimation of a revolutionary social totality that cannot yet be mapped (Wegner, “Here or Nowhere”). That is why the closer we get to actually achieving the archive without walls, the harder it becomes to recognize as classically utopian, and the more we risk misrecognizing its transformational significance. So Matthew Kirschenbaum has argued that Google Books is realizing “what were once utopian dreams of digitizing all of the world’s book-based knowledge” (“Remaking of Reading,” §3), implying that technology is moving us beyond mere dreaming and into the reality of a universal library. Kirschenbaum suggests that we need practical measures like XML standards to save scholarship from what he sees as an impractical utopianism, while downplaying the figurative and socially transformative qualities of a global, universal library. Perhaps we should not be surprised that those who actually invent and adopt new scholarly technologies are often reluctant utopians. Even Marx and Engels felt the “scientific” socialism they advocated in The Manifesto of the Communist Party to be at odds with earlier utopian socialists like Fourier and Saint-Simon, whom they characterized as “a subjective imaginative abstraction from the divisions of class society” (Geoghegan, 29). Still, while studying a million books is no longer impossible, the very scale of such an undertaking estranges conventional scholarly practices and continues to resonate with older utopian dreams of a perfect social order arising from the total archive,2 even if many digital humanists resist that notion.
Digital humanists dream and talk big: big tents, big data, global networks, and “massive addressability” (Witmore) are the stuff of DH,3 intimating new forms of collective belonging brought about by revolutionary technologies—and sometimes by their catastrophic failure. In her keynote for the ADHO 2014 Digital Humanities conference, Bethany Nowviskie invoked the sublime trope of “deep time” and the problem of “communicating across millennia,” popularized by science-fiction author Gregory Benford, to situate the sundry conservation and preservation efforts of digital humanists in relation to the mass extinction that inevitably awaits our planet:
What is a digital humanities practice that grapples constantly with little extinctions and can look clear-eyed on a Big One? Is it socially conscious and activist in tone? Does it reflect the managerial and problem-solving character of our 21st-century institutions? Is it about preservation, conservation, and recovery—or about understanding ephemerality and embracing change? Does our work help us to appreciate, memorialize, and mourn the things we’ve lost? Does it alter, for us and for our audiences, our global frameworks and our sense of scale? Is it about teaching ourselves to live differently? (“Digital Humanities in the Anthropocene,” ¶8)
Amid countless scientific and science-fictional scenarios for our planetary demise, Nowviskie’s moving proleptic elegy carves out spaces of hope rooted in the decay of notions of work, progress, resilience, and individual freedom closely associated with neoliberal capitalism.
Philip E. Wegner has examined the opposition between apocalyptic and science-fictional thinking that structures Nowviskie’s talk. Citing Jameson’s maxim that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism” (Jameson, “Future City,” 76), Wegner argues that post-apocalyptic narratives tend toward a conservative return to history that leaves the status quo intact. However, there has evolved a parallel narrative genre, which he dubs the “critical post-apocalypse,” that “both interrogate[s] the pseudo-event of a supposed apocalypse . . . and then educat[es] the reader’s desire for an authentic event: not the end of the world, but the end of a world, that of the current socio-political or symbolic order we call global or neo-liberal capitalism” (Wegner, Shockwaves, 94). Nowviskie’s narrative can be considered a critical post-apocalypse that emphasizes the close connections between utopian and dystopian thought: not only does she interrogate various representations of global ecological collapse, but the toolkit she proposes comprises temporalities on multiple scales, including both digital recovery projects and more ephemeral experiments, while activating both collective memory and speculative, future-oriented projects that disrupt dominant notions of progress and sustainability. Her address ultimately hesitates between the conservative desire to curate “bits against our ruins” and the more radical desire to anticipate a rupture in the very temporality of the digital humanities. And yet, by connecting time on a geological scale to both an enhanced awareness of the uneven development of global computing resources and the Occupy movement, she underlines the urgency of linking DH to radical dreaming, oppositional politics, and materialist critiques of the status quo.
Admittedly, such apocalyptic utopian scenarios are less common in DH than the practice of speculative world-building in a realist mode. Digital humanists have built impressive historical models and simulations to show how the world was or might have been, such as the Virtual Paul’s Cross Project,4 Dempsey et al.’s stunning Pudding Lane5 recreation, or Kevin Kee’s Niagara 1812.6 Utopians, by contrast, exercise more freedom to speculate about how the world might be otherwise, imagining alternate realities that diverge from the factual record and that typically contain too many self-contradictions to be modeled or implemented with precision: the utopia’s “unabashed and flagrant otherness gives it a power which is lacking in other analytical devices. By playing fast and loose with time and space, logic and morality, and by thinking the unthinkable, a utopia asks the most awkward, the most embarrassing questions” (Geoghegan, 2). Joanna Drucker, for one, has insisted on the importance of reimagining computation through humanistic principles for the purpose of “showing interpretation, modeling it, making a composition space in which ambiguity and contradiction can coexist” (“Humanistic Theory”)—in other words, a space very much like More’s Utopia. With Bethany Nowviskie, she has advocated “speculative computing” practices grounded in “aesthetic provocations” that resist “logical, systematic knowledge representation” and instead “engage subjective and intuitive tools . . . as primary means of interpretation in computational environments” (Drucker, “Speculative Computing,” 431–32). Still, some digital humanists privilege production over speculation. In a 2014 issue of Journal of Digital Humanities devoted to world-building, Noah Wardrip-Fruin falls squarely on the side of achievable design: “Speculating about what the world ‘might’ look like in the future is easy. More challenging, though, is realizing that speculative vision through the design process” (¶3). To claim that speculation is easy runs counter not only to Drucker’s case for humanistically informed computing, but also to Jameson’s well-known argument that we are no longer constitutionally able to imagine a world other than the one we inhabit—that is, to imagine a world beyond capitalism—which is why utopias are always doomed to fail (Jameson, “Progress versus Utopia”). And yet, these failures are productive, since they indicate the barriers and blinds spots that prevent us from imagining another reality entirely.7 For Jameson, utopia is the impulse that leads us to imagine the transition to another world even as it whispers, “not yet” (Archaeologies, 232–33).
The insistence on the value of failure is a mantra that digital humanists share with utopian scholars. Dustin Grue, Teresa M. Dobson, and Monica Brown made this connection in a study of how secondary students break their own interpretive rules while tagging literary fiction in XML. The authors explain this continuous interpretive failure and renewal of rule systems with reference to arguments by Bloch and Theodor Adorno that the inevitable failure of utopian visions does not destroy hope, but rather sustains it through a critique of the status quo (“Reading Practices and Digital Experiences,” 246–47). As important as their findings are for our understanding of reading habits, I am not convinced that interpretive heuristics—the assumptions people make and discard while reading a text—are necessarily utopian in the Blochian sense, which entails anticipation in the present of a future, messianic rupture in history itself that heralds the transition to another society entirely. It is the difference between a radical system failure leading to full-scale revolution, and the kind of iterative failure of hypotheses allowing gradual progress through small tweaks and piecemeal reform that describes the everyday method of most digital humanists. Julia Flanders has even lamented the retreat from the revolutionary discourse of early hypertext studies, which associated digital textuality with
potentially dramatic political consequences. . . . But in more recent years, the language of revolution has not retained its critical bite or its pervasiveness. In its place we can see a softer kind of incremental progressive vision in, for instance, the grant-proposal rhetoric that promises to “broaden access,” improve educational outcomes, and create “new ways of thinking” without upsetting fundamental institutional structures. (Flanders, ¶3)
This incremental approach is the way of the “realistic utopia” that Levitas associates with a specifically American form of pragmatism, “a civic religion,” in Richard Rorty’s phrase, “that substitute[s] utopian striving for claims to theological knowledge,” not worrying “about eternity” or any messianic truth, and focusing instead on achieving a “global egalitarian utopia” modeled ultimately on the American Constitution (Levitas, Utopia as Method, 133–34). Digital humanists retrace the pragmatist’s path from theology to democracy whenever they draw a line of influence from Father Busa’s Index Thomisticus to current text-encoding initiatives.
The secular mission of realistic utopianism proceeds through a far more modest rhetoric than the hopeful, critical, progressive, and broadly transformative sense of utopia that appears in the Manifesto, which proclaims,
Digital Humanities have a utopian core shaped by its genealogical descent from the counterculture‐cyberculture intertwinglings of the 60s and 70s. This is why it affirms the value of the open, the infinite, the expansive, the university/museum/archive/library without walls, the democratization of culture and scholarship, . . . . (The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0, ¶13)
Within the Manifesto, “Utopian” signals an open-access approach to scholarship so liberating that it bears comparison with May/June 1968, one of those rare points in history that could be called a concrete utopia in Bloch’s sense, a moment in which hopes for a radically different future are acted out in the objective reality of the present (Moylan, “Locus of Hope,” 159). Of course, DH is hardly about to trigger general strikes or civil unrest, but the rhetoric of the manifesto genre invites such hyperbole. For the Manifesto’s authors, the utopian core of the digital humanities can be summed up as an ethos of “participation without condition,” a less obviously inflated claim.
Todd Presner, one of the Manifesto’s authors, has elaborated on this notion of a participatory culture that is “open-ended, nonhierarchical, and transmigratory, aimed at reestablishing contact with the nonphilosophical. ‘Participation without condition’ is not a principle that can be willed into place, but rather an ideal to build toward through imaginative speculation and ethically informed engagement, . . .” (60–61). Presner suggests that “speculative making” practices, such as the many compelling geospatial installations built on his HyperCities platform, can provide transformative, material models of possible futures that are more open and participatory. By connecting DH “to the vaguely utopian dimensions” of critical theorists like Bloch, Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Herbert Marcuse, Presner opens the door for a broader consideration of the utopian critical tradition within DH, although doing so risks calling into question his ideal of “participation without condition.” After all, utopias are never truly open access; they always come with conditions for belonging. Even More’s Utopia placed conditions on its citizens: they all had to spend two years working the farms, men could not have premarital sex or marry till the age of twenty-two, and those who grew too old and sick were expected to volunteer to be euthanized. Likewise, as Svensson points out, some feel that digital humanists place conditions on admission to their big tent, whether in the form of text-based research, coding skills, demonstration of some degree of self-reflection on the tools we use, or even attendance at THATCamps or ADHO conferences (Svensson, “Beyond the Big Tent”). Presner himself delineates several conditions of participation in the form of critical principles that underwrite certain DH projects, including “a respect for multiplicity and difference through the creation of trusted social bonds, an approach to historical documentation that builds from the fragments of participatory discourse, and a concept of archivization made possible by the contingent material technologies of communication” (64). Far from throwing open the doors to all comers, a genuinely utopian DH would posit the conditions, codes, and protocols of participation necessary for creating and sustaining the ideal community, even as it acknowledges this community always to be not yet realized.
From Dark Side to Dialectics
If DH is to be truly game-changing in the epochal terms that Nowviskie and the Manifesto frame it, then the difference that DH makes cannot be left at a vaguely open respect for difference that merely reflects the broader liberal-democratic-capitalist context. The ideal of a frictionless “participation without condition” represses another model of organization and inclusion, one in which antagonism is not only accepted but constitutive. I want to suggest that attempts to explain the constitution of the digital humanities repeatedly raise the spectre of utopian communism, only to sublimate it into less overtly antagonistic forms of collaboration and critique.
In the epigraphic disclaimer to his provocative essay on the dark side of DH, “I am not now, nor have I ever been, a digital humanist” (79), Grusin playfully associates DH with crypto-communism in a denial of sympathies that, albeit facetious, is symptomatic of the insistent liberalism masking the digital humanities’ uneasy relation to committed communal thinking. As Jodie Dean contends, this squeamishness to even mention communism reflects the dominant attitude not only of conservatives and liberal anti-utopians, but of the radical Left as well. In Blog Theory, Dean argues from a Lacanian perspective that today’s subjects neither desire nor enjoy digital media, but are merely caught in a repetitive loop of psychic drive. On her view, failure is neither the “useful result” of high-risk experimentation (Spiro, 29) nor allegoric of our inability to imagine a world beyond capitalism (Jameson, “Progress versus Utopia”), but a symptom of the forms of “communicative capitalism” that increasingly dominate our social interactions: “we enjoy failure. Insofar as the aim of the drive is not to reach its goal but to enjoy, we enjoy our endless circulation, our repetitive loop. We cannot know certainly; we cannot know adequately. But we can mobilize this loss, googling, checking Wikipedia, mistrusting it immediately. . . . Failure . . . is functional for communicative capitalism; it’s our ensnarement in the loop of drive” (Dean, Blog Theory, 121–22). Dean has since extended this argument to the macropolitical scale, arguing that the contemporary Left is likewise caught in the loop of drive by the loss of its desired object, the “communist horizon”: “For the Left, democracy is the form the loss of communism takes. Rather than fighting for a collective ideal, engaging in a struggle on behalf of the rest of us, the Left repetitively invokes democracy, calling for what is already there” (Dean, Communist Horizon, 65). Dean contends that, with its insistence on democracy and participation, the Left turns its back on a common commitment to the political project of opposing capitalism—that is, to communism, which names “the sovereignty of the people, and not the people as a whole or a unity but the people as the rest of us” (69). Her argument builds on attempts by Alain Badiou, Slavoj Žižek, Susan Buck-Morss, Bruno Bosteels, and others, in the wake of neoliberalism’s ascendancy and the 2008–2009 global market collapse, to reclaim the idea of communism from its perversion in the state socialist programs of Lenin, Stalin, or Mao, figures that anti-utopians still trot out as evidence of the dangers of visionary thinking.
Following Dean, I suggest that digital humanists’ repeated emphasis on failure, community, collaboration, and images of totality are really partial drives expressing a desire for something else: namely, a social order entirely beyond capitalism and its underpinnings in the academic, scholarly publishing, and high-tech industries. What the digital humanities really want is communism, which Dean defines as “our collective steering of our common future for our common good” (Communist Horizon, 87). Nor will a greater commitment to crowdsourcing and open access alone fix the problem: as Dean notes, “capitalism is a system that constitutively exploits people, not one that constitutively excludes them” (Communist Horizon, 105), and expanding participation in itself only extends the reach of the existing scholarly, educational, publishing, and intellectual property regimes. Digital humanists’ embrace of a participatory ethic intimates our utopian desire for a more inclusive totality, even as it plays into the exploitation of surplus labor that governs the system of proletarianization. Not unlike the contemporary Left, we are willing to engage the idea of the crowd only when it is divested of its unruly character and historical associations with the revolutionary proletariat. The ideology of participation without condition, regulated through crowdsourcing platforms and protocols for accessibility and interoperability, allows digital humanists to indulge in “a fantasy of multiplicity without antagonism, of difference without division” (Communist Horizon, 228).
Admittedly, Dean risks characterizing the Left in monolithic terms, and her critique of communicational capitalism likewise generalizes to the point that all networked communication and social media amount to nothing but participation for its own sake, a form of “whatever being” that grants users a sense of belonging without demanding true commitment (Blog Theory, 67). Nor am I suggesting that digital humanities ought to function in the manner of the party, which Dean takes as essential for organizing our “collective desire for collectivity” (Communist Horizon, 20). DH is not a party (or, for that matter, a discipline, crowd, public sphere, or intentional community) so much as it is an organized network, in Ned Rossiter’s sense of a nonhierarchical institutional form that emerges alongside digital communications media, filling the gap left by the collapse of both civil society and political society into neoliberal markets. “Orgnets” make utopian speculation concrete by helping to organize the unevenly developed topography of the digital networks and immaterial labor that together produce what Rossiter calls, after autonomist Marxism, “the common”—that is, “life as it resides within relations immanent to media of communication” (Rossiter, 195).8
Contemporary theorists of the Left talk incessantly about information and communication networks, but rarely exhibit anything beyond a loosely metaphorical understanding of them. That is where DH comes in: we are uniquely positioned to critique the ways that new media exacerbate the enclosure of immaterial labor both inside and outside of the academy, and to develop, test, and implement the platforms and protocols through which networked communities are identified, engaged, and empowered to contribute to the common. Participatory and crowdsourced projects have the potential to challenge the flexible notions of work that Grusin rightly blames for precarity in the academic workforce, but only if we take participation to mean a great deal more than performing the free labor of deciphering captchas, metatagging HTML, Mechanical Turk piecework, or other forms of “crowdmilking” (Scholz). If DH projects are to be collective in a committed and redemptive sense, rather than merely fetishes of democratic liberalism, then they need to focus on the struggle, antagonism, and violence that attends capitalism everywhere (Dean, Communist Horizon, 61), including our classrooms, scholarly associations, publishing consortia, and other sites of knowledge creation and mobilization. We need to recognize the mechanisms through which intellectual property law constrains digital productivity, how digital collections remediate conventional archival powers and privileges, and the ways in which our projects both produce the common and enable its enclosure. We must ensure that the open-access archives and tools that we build and give away are autonomous from the system of rent—not by merely exploiting information networks or taking our exodus from them, but by adapting these tactics into robust strategies and protocols that foreground, discourage, and resist the expropriation and valorization of the common.
The new models of participation and dissemination that we develop for literary or historical scholarship not only can shed light on movements like Occupy, but in a kind of social tinkering, they can be integrated with older models of organization, whether cooperatives, communes, soviets, or syndicates, as well as those speculative modes of sociality and “visions of alternatives” that comprise the “positive aspects” of utopian expression (Fitting, 14). Above all, we can stop mistrusting the utopianism of our own solutions—a mistrust shared by many detractors of DH—and instead use our expertise working with large datasets to build speculative models that dream large and fail spectacularly, auguring forth transformative images of collectivity, and holding open a place for entirely new paradigms beyond technological progress and the upgrade path that we cannot yet imagine. We can design our tools to be at once user-friendly and estranging, opening up marvelous new worlds that educate our collective desire for something else entirely. Otherwise, even the most progressive DH practices will remain at best a form of speculative leftism, a “purification of the notion of communism” through the “philosophical appropriation of radical emancipatory politics” (Bosteels, Actuality, 24; 33).
We need not accept Dean’s definitions as the last word; after all, her very emphasis on antagonism and division “suggests that we have not yet decided on what the ‘common’ in communism refers to (Martel, 701). We could turn to Bruno Bosteels, who suggests that, “[l]ike democracy when properly understood, communism would name this invariant process whereby the people constitute themselves as people” (“Speculative,” 752). Or we could return to Marx, who called communism “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things”—a statement that Dean (following Peter Hallward) glosses “[n]ot as immediate insurrection or as prefiguration but rather as the expansion of voluntary cooperation” (Dean, “Response,” 828). What we cannot do is continue to ignore what the idea of communism might mean for the digital humanities in particular, and vice versa. Digital humanists have crucial perspectives to bring to the redefinition and redeployment of communist ideals by theorists like Sylvain Firer-Blaess and Christian Fuchs, who observe strong resemblances between Wikipedia’s voluntary self-management and the form of participatory democracy that Marx and Engels envisioned, postulating an “info-communist” mode of production. We can learn from Joss Hands’s “platform communism,” which analyzes “the relationship between the digital as an actually existing realm and the horizon of communist possibility” (14), while bringing to his analysis a closer engagement with platform studies and a more rigorous conception of digital networks. And we can build on the work of Nick Dyer-Witheford in Cyber-Marx and elsewhere, turning his critiques of the exploitation of digital labor to bear on our own practices.
Above all, we can embrace the insights of utopian studies, without which we risk misrecognizing the visionary significance of our own impossibly large projects. If some remain apprehensive about or resistant to DH, let it be not because of our alleged instrumentality or neoliberalism, but because we loudly call for hopeful alternatives to the current state of affairs, even if they are not yet clearly defined. The truly dark side of DH is its fear of radical social change, which prevents us from recognizing emergent scholarly and pedagogical protocols as what they might yet become: raw materials for building another world entirely.
1. I am grateful to many of these scholars for their feedback on earlier versions of this chapter, in particular Jill Belli, Sarah Brouillette, Claire Curtis, and Peter Sands, and to those who provided feedback at Western University’s 2012 Digital Humanities’ Speaker Series, where I originally presented these ideas. I also wish to thank the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Leverhulme Trust Foundation for their generous support.
2. In our panel on “Utopia and the Digital Humanities” at the 2014 annual meeting of the Society for Utopian Studies, Carolyn Lesjak presented a compelling analysis of the extent to which the scale of Franco Moretti’s method of distant reading world literature functions as a utopian allegory of the historical and social totality.
3. As Paul Fyfe pointed out to me, some digital humanists also think small. Global Outlook::Digital Humanities has established a minimal computing working group, and even distant reading has alerted us to the necessity of matching patterns in large textual or visual corpora to local sites of meaning in a “blended approach” that unifies “the macro and micro scales” (Jockers, 26).
7. Ruth Levitas has warned that this concept of utopia as blind spot and failure, as that which has always not yet come into being, runs the risk of “sidestepping the substance of imagined alternatives” (Utopia as Method, 124). She proposes a parallel mode of utopian design, the “Imaginary Reconstitution of Society” (IROS), that I suspect would provide digital humanists with valuable insights into their speculative world-building practices. Jameson himself has appeared to recant his earlier position that imagining utopia is constitutionally impossible, although he might well have simply confirmed it. In his plenary address for the 2013 meeting of the Society for Utopian Studies, he argued that the possibility of a communist utopia today depends on the delineation of a clear utopian program, and posited as his “American Utopia” a version of Lenin’s “dual power,” which describes the coexistence of an official government with unofficial organizations or networks that provide practical services. Jameson puckishly suggested that such an arrangement would require the universal conscription of all Americans into a “citizen army,” in the wake of the Post Office and the Mafia’s failure to fit the bill. The talk triggered much debate among the assembled delegates as to the extent of utopian irony its author was deploying.
8. For an explanation of the common and its relation to autonomist Marxism, see Hardt.
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