critiquing the digital humanities #dhdebates

Part three of Debates in the Digital Humanities is titled "Critiquing the Digital Humanities." I will admit to an immediate negative reaction to the word "critique," as I think is evidenced on this blog. It's just rhetorically played out for me, and I am rarely surprised by where critique takes me (spoiler alert: it takes you back to where it started). Still, I don't want to hold that against the contributors to this section of the book. I enjoyed Mark Sample's take on the limits of what DH can offer for contemporary literature (i.e. that which falls under copyright restrictions). While Mark is clearly invested in DH, I appreciated his argument that "we may be surrounded by the digital in our reading, writing, teaching, and scholarship, but we must not be circumscribed by it." Even more provocatively Liz Losh asks "what incentives to hacktivists have to join the ranks of the digital humanities and take part in their frequently arcane and soporific journals and conferences?" Losh points, as I have in the past, to game studies, media studies, and digital rhetoric scholars who feel ambivalent at best about the DH nomenclature.

The other contributions to this section each point in their own way to questions of access, representation, and participation in terms of race, gender, disability, and so on. I don't want to get into the specifics of their arguments (i.e. I'm not going to critique the critiques). I am sympathetic to those long term humanities computing scholars whose small, historically overlooked, area of specialization has exploded through its reinvention as DH. Of course this has more to do with the technological changes of the last decade (and perhaps something to do with the "crisis" in the humanities) than anything else. The result of this, which I find unique in the humanities, is the presumed expectation of DH's obligation to an audience/user-community beyond specialists. Is anyone asking why medieval studies is so white as Tara McPherson does of DH (btw, I don't know if medieval studies is particularly white in relation to other fields… or even if DH is for that matter). Does anyone ask modernists about accessibility or the usability of their scholarship for an audience beyond themselves? In rhetoric and composition there is some conversation about connecting our scholarly work to instructors in FYC classrooms, and maybe to students, but nothing on the scale of DH. That's not to say that we can't ask those questions, but I do think it suggests that DH is playing a different role in the humanities than other fields. 

Actually, allow me to make a bolder claim. I think the issue lies with our conceptualization of DH if not the notion of specialization in the humanities. There's an odd double move here that generalizes what DH is (in these cases around code and tool building) and then critiques DH for those generalizations. Even if we keep a narrow definition of DHers as tool builders, I don't think there's much commonality as a field. I suppose all DH tool builders share a common interest in code. However, there are a lot of non-humanities folks who also have an interest in code. Why would we assume that the modernist tool builder and the Asian studies tool builder would share more interests with one another, in terms of coding or tool building, than they would with someone in a business school or social sciences or working for an edTech company or mobile gaming start-up? So I suppose my point is that while all humanities coders/tool builders will share some common interests, I don't know that it's a powerful enough methodological bond to form a disciplinary center.

And it was the theme of centrality that was most prevalent in my grad class discussion of these readings. As we might expect, the critique-al position is "always already" suspicious of the center; it is designed to speak for and from the margins, demanding recognition from the center, but never really wanting to occupy that space. On the other hand, several of the readings spoke for the need for greater centrality: designing for universal access and appealing to a wider range of users. Losh's discussion of academic hacktivism and Bogost's "turtleneck hairshirt" blog post (reprinted in the book) also articulate a reorientation of humanists. One is left wondering whether centrality and cultural relevance is something that the humanities really desires. Overall I would say that it isn't. Instead I think humanists wish to pursue their individual, specialized interests and speak to others who share those interests. Would they like to have more resources? Would they like to be valued for their work? Of course, but not at the cost of shifting their work. I think this is as probably true for DH as it is for any humanities field, though since DH is more dependent on grant money, it is probably under more pressure to respond to a wider audience.

Clearly I am of the mind that the humanists ought to reorient itself; not necessarily (and certainly not exclusively) toward the digital but the digital does offer us an opportunity to recognize that our legacy orientation is not an essential one. Speaking to the digital might also give us a chance to have more currency in the academy. I am not suggesting anything as radical as the decision to eject speech from English departments a century ago, but the decision then to focus on print literacy did lead to the central role of literary studies. No doubt, any move toward centrality will only foster more critique. However, perhaps one can measure one's success by the critique one fosters, and as a bonus for our field, one can also happily keep the unhappy critiquers in business. 


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