digital humanities

literary studies' digital humanities future

Stanley Fish has a recent NY Times piece addressing this subject. It is one of those annual examine the MLA convention articles, and Fish discovers that DH is the latest trending topic at the convention. Essentially, he compares DH to the trend of postmodernism and speaks fondly of the long-standing traditions of literary studies. To start though, it is probably worth mentioning the caveat that one should be skeptical of any claims made of a discipline that are the product of reviewing conference paper titles and abstracts, but at least there isn't a Wordle image.

Fish notes, "if you like the way literary studies were done in 1950 or even 1930, there will be a department or a journal that allows you to proceed as if nothing had happened in the last 50 or 75 years."  I'm not sure if this is supposed to be good news or a criticism. It's an observation that people will be presenting without any apparent reference to, or methodological reliance upon, postmodernism or even New Criticism. More on this in a moment.

He notes that the quirky and contentious presentations of the postmodern era have seemed to pass, "after an exciting period of turmoil and instability, the alien invader was domesticated and absorbed into the mainstream, forming part of a new orthodoxy that would subsequently be made to tremble by a new insurgency." I suppose this is true, though as William Gibson remarked, the future is unevenly distributed. In the disciplinary hinterlands, there are no doubt still "theory wars" ongoing. I would guess, however, that in phd programs, postmodern theory is well-integrated into the research profiles of all but the most senior faculty and a mundane facet of graduate student life. That is, no one doubts that this is what should be studied. Did postmodernity bring significant upheavals? I would suggest that one look for that answer in the undergraduate curriculum. There is likely some theory woven into courses whose titles and descriptions have not changed in 50 years. And there are a few new courses representing literature beyond the arch-traditional canon, which nevertheless remains 80% of the course offerings at most institutions. Though maybe that is not the place to look. If one looks at graduate curriculum or works cited in dissertations, monographs, or journal articles, then yes, "theory" has had a lasting impact. 

However, this post is about Fish's "new insurgency," the digital humanities. However, there is really no comparison. Where postmodernity was a direct attack on the existing traditions of literary studies, the digital humanities isn't even specifically about literature. It certainly isn't an attack on existing methods. It is more like an alternative set of methods. It doesn't demand literary scholars change their objects of study. Instead, DH carries on studying the conventional literary traditions. It's most strident claim is it's insistence that it be treated as equal in scholarly value, so that DH dissertations can be done and DH publications can earn someone a job and tenure. And I believe progress has been made in these directions. Fish's major complaint about these sessions? He imagines that if one attends, "a new language is confidently and prophetically spoken by those in the know, while those who are not are made to feel ignorant, passed by, left behind, old." I suppose to a degree this is always the case with disciplinary talks: a degree of expertise is expected of the audience. However, this is also a rhetorical failure. This would certainly not be my rhetorical objective. But this is hardly a quality of DH panels alone. I'm sure I would feel similarly alienated in the old-fashioned panels that appeal most to Fish.

And that's where I want to come back to. A review of the MLA convention would not be complete without a discussion of the panels that address the health and future of the profession. Fish puts these in the context of a number of panels that examine literature and religion: "The very fact that so many papers explore the intersection of literature and religion may be evidence that literary studies are attached to a value that will sustain them even in these hard times." He wonders

if there is to be hope, there must be a path it can travel; and if there is to be redemption, there must be a redeemer. Who or what shall it be? Again, according to the program, it can only be one thing — the digital humanities, which does make an appearance in some of the panels that pose the question of the profession’s health and survival. The digital humanities is the name of the new dispensation and its prophets tell us that if we put our faith in it, we shall be saved. But what exactly is it? And how will its miracles be wrought?

There's no doubt that there is a degree of this rhetoric out there. 4humanities makes such connections, though more modestly than this. I don't believe postmodernity ever offered such claims; that was about overturning the discipline, not "saving" it. 

What one can see suggested in Fish's perspective is not that literary studies has an interest in religion. It is a kind of religion itself. Literary studies requires faith. Like all religious discourse, it has a special meaning for the faithful, and for nonbelievers it is little more than a curiosity. With the MLA convention as its central ritual, the faithful can attend and what the repetition of disciplinary performances. As Fish notes, panels remain unchanged from 50 or more years ago. I would not make this same comparision. I would prefer a different kind of ritual performance like sports or theater. Literary studies is like a baseball; it's professional histories roughly co-extensive. Both had their rough patches in the 90s. You go to a baseball game and you basically know what's going to happen. But you go to see the performance, to experience something through the performance. Sure the score at the end matters, but you could learn the score from the internet. You watch the game because of the aesthetic experience and because you can find value and meaning in that peformance/experience (as all the baseball philosophers would tell us). 

I'm not sure if this comparision is comfortable for literary scholars. It suggests the discipline is about performance rather than the discovery/production and communication of knowledge. Perhaps we would be like Deleuze and Guattari and prefer the factory over the theater. Perhaps we can blur the distinction between performance and discovery/production (of course we can). Personally, I would not be comfortable with viewing my scholarly work as solely an "act." I view my own scholarship as producing knowledge that can be of value (and use) to others, sometimes a small group of scholars, sometimes (hopefully) a broader range of people (e.g. students in writing classes). 

Unlike Fish, my suggestion would not be to go to MLA in search of something in which to put one's faith. I would not look for a ritualized performance that restores my belief. Instead, I would go in search of important research questions and methods to investigate those questions. 


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