Alan Liu, cultural criticism, the digital humanities, and problem solving?

Alan Liu provides the text of his MLA presentation on the history and future of the digital humanities, titled "Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?." I picked up on this from Derek's blog. Liu's paper is an extension of the 4humanities movement, and there's a lot that I agree with there, not only regarding the general value of the humanities but also the potential role that the digital humanities can play in advocating for the humanities in general. However, I take some issue with the central argument Liu presents:

In the digital humanities, cultural criticism–in both its interpretive and advocacy modes–has been noticeably absent by comparison with the mainstream humanities or, even more strikingly, with “new media studies” (populated as the latter is by net critics, tactical media critics, hacktivists, and so on). We digital humanists develop tools, data, metadata, and archives critically; and we have also developed critical positions on the nature of such resources (e.g., disputing whether computational methods are best used for truth-finding or, as Lisa Samuels and Jerome McGann put it, “deformation”). But rarely do we extend the issues involved into the register of society, economics, politics, or culture 

Liu concedes that "cultural criticism in the humanities is not without its problems." Despite this, he see two main reasons why the digital humanities require cultural criticism. First, methodologically, it is the cultural move that is most valued in scholarship. (Lie cites Moretti as an example of doing this in the digital humanities). Essentially, the argument here is that digital humanists need to move away from strictly textual analysis (distant or otherwise) to making claims of broader cultural significance. The second reason, which seems to me to be an extension of the first, is that for DH to serve a leadership role for the humanities, it will need to communicate its cultural-critical function across disciplines into STEM projects where humanistic perspectives can be valuable.

Derek writes "A cynical reading of this argument finds the presumed naturalness of critical thinking and hermeneutics in the humanities overstated, and, likewise, it appears to minimize (or altogether overlook) the heuretic-inventive edge of distant reading." I agree, and I don't find it that cynical. In fact I want to expand on that point in several ways.

1. I don't think it is unreasonable to argue that cultural critique as it has developed over the past 30-40 years has been a contributing factor to the general cultural decline of the humanities. At the very least, with historical hindsight, it was not the change that we needed if our intention was to remain culturally relevant. Honestly, I don't think the prior generation of humanists gave any thought to that intention; they probably couldn't imagine being written out of higher education, and yet here we are. Cultural critique has led us to be overspecialized, largely irrelevant, and barely intelligible, even to one another, let alone to the broader society. Yes, digital humanities can help us address that by providing new means to reach new audiences, but that won't help unless we are prepared to shift our discourse.

2. As I think Derek is suggesting, we need to recognize that cultural critique, as we have practiced it, is embedded in print culture in a way that one cannot simply unplug it. I'm trying to find the appropriate analogy here. Let's say you grew up playing card games and board games. There's a lot of variation there, but from a broader perspective there are clear limits to what occurs. Experience in card games translates fairly well across different card games.  On the other had, while video games have their own commonalities–screens, controllers, consoles–they are quite different from card games (otherwise your canasta-playing grandma would be kicking your butt on xbox live). 

We need to think about this in two ways. First, the culture under analysis is changing in dramatic ways that may not be captured by legacy methods. Second, as we employ new technologies to conduct analysis, our methods necessarily change. Otherwise, what would be the point of employing new technologies? What would be the point of the microscope if it didn't let you see and do new things?

3. And this is certainly more polemical: I agree with Latour that critique has run out of steam. I have made this argument here many times. It connects with the object-oriented critique of correlationism. I believe Derek is with me here as well, though more even-handed, in suggesting that DH "should be as much concerned with the heuretic and inventive aspects of their work as they are with the critical and hermeneutic aspects."  I can go with balance, but I think that a reworking of critical-hermeneutic methods will be necessary.

In fact, if I was writing the 4humanities mission, I would say this is an opportunity not to resuscitate "cultural criticism" but to supplant it with something better. In doing so, we would not abandon our concern for culture. I absolutely agree with Liu that DH can be a means for reconnecting the humanities with, um, humans (though perhaps it is ironic that we might do so, in OOO-fashion, by making the humanities less humano-centric). Ultimately this means that the digital humanities' intellectual and rhetorical challenge is far greater than what Liu imagines it to be. It will not be enough to try to gain acceptance into the humanities club by demonstrating that DH can do cultural criticism too. DH needs to develop its own methods. It needs to question the humanities' fundamental paradigms rather than trying to fit into them. 

In the end, I think Liu must know this. He concludes by saying "there is not a single grand challenge announced by the Obama administration, the National Academy of Engineering, the Gates Foundation, and other agencies or foundations in the areas of energy, environment, biomedicine, food, water, education, and so on that does not require humanistic–and digital humanistic–involvement. All these issues have a necessary cultural dimension, whether as cause or effect, and all, therefore, need humanities and, increasingly, digital-humanities participants." Let's accept that claim. If you are a humanities professor or graduate student, think about your current research project, think about the research projects of your colleagues, and ask this question: how closely do you think the research you are doing would meet the need for humanistic or digital-humanistic participation in one of these grants? And if you do think your research would be relevant, do you think you could speak across disciplines to convince your STEM colleagues? In any case, if this is the direction Liu is going, then I think he is clearly calling for a dramatic turn away from current humanities research practices, especially in turn of cultural critique

After all, the kinds of projects Liu is listing here are focused on solving problems, when has cultural critique ever done that? Forget the digital revolution, the real revolution here would be for the humanities to claim that it was capable of solving a problem that it posed. 


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