Drucker, digital scholarship, and humanities research

There was a fair amount of uproar (at least on my Facebook stream) over Johanna Drucker’s LA Review, “Pixel Dust: Illusions of Innovation in Scholarly Publishing.” The uproar was around Drucker’s surprising skepticism regarding digital-scholarly innovations, surprising given her position in digital humanities, and her apparent misunderstanding of some technical concepts, or in the case of bit rot, nontechnical concepts. Here is where I agree with Drucker: developing a digital solution to replace the role of print publication in academia will neither be cheap or easy. What I think makes her argument difficult to follow though is the way she interweaves a defense of the humanities into her claims. In fact she concludes by writing “we can’t design ourselves out of the responsibility for supporting the humanities, or for making clear the importance of their forms of knowledge to our evolving culture.” So is this an argument about digital publishing or is it about the humanities? Yes.

As she acknowledges, the challenges of digital scholarship are not limited to the humanities. In fact, one might say that the humanities are a minor concern here. It’s scientific publishing and the high price (some would say extortion) paid by academic libraries to Elsevier and such for digital journals that are likely the first area of concern. Indeed one might argue that if academic libraries weren’t devoting so much of their budget to these journals then there wouldn’t be a monograph publishing crisis in the humanities. Either way, I suppose Drucker’s point is that this conflation of the humanities and digital publishing is not of her own making, that, to the contrary, she is responding to the claim that digital publishing can save the humanities and absolve others of the responsibility for investing more resources to support humanities research.

With this in mind, here is a key paragraph from her essay:

Lists that focus on literary studies, philosophy, foreign language studies, poetry and poetics have been cut, slaughtered in full public view, sacrificial lambs in the scholarly publishing market, as if they might make clear the dramatic sacrifice required to keep university presses going. Going for what? And how? To what end and for what audiences? As with other discussions of the costs of higher education in current Euro-American culture, the complexities of publishing need to be seen as an ecological system, not a set of discrete decisions about specific practices divorced from the greater political, ideological, and economically justified (at least on the surface) conditions of which they are a part. Or, to put it very simply, cutting humanities lists is like keeping dessert from a stepchild at the family table — it saves very little money and causes lots of distress. But humanities are not a luxury, and to show that they have a substantive contribution to make to the world we live in, we need to demonstrate their relevance to policy, politics, daily life, and business, not just rehash the same old bromides about critical thinking and imaginative life. The vitality of humanities is the lifeblood of culture, its resounding connection to all that is human makes us who and what we are. The preservation of cultural ecologies is akin to preserving ecologies in the natural world, it is, in fact, the human part of them. The humanities are us. Their survival is our survival.

Ok. One might quibble with the analogy here. If desserts were like humanities lists, then America wouldn’t have an obesity problem. Humanities lists are more like deserts than desserts. In this respect it is true that the humanities are not a luxury. Luxuries are desired, even if they are not practical or necessary. The problem with the humanities is not that they are viewed as luxuries; it’s that they are viewed as outmoded and irrelevant. The humanities aren’t viewed as the Lexus of academia; they’re the carriages of academia. They aren’t considered desserts; they are those horrid 1950s dinner recipes involving Jello and Spam. That said, I agree with Drucker about the need to demonstrate relevance, but then I think she goes too far. The humanities are not us. They are a historical-disciplinary paradigm (or set of paradigms if you prefer). Humans existed before the humanities, and they can survive without them. Presumably Drucker is not suggesting that the current methods, forms, and genres of humanities scholarship must remain with us forever, that our “survival” depends upon them. I would not deny that one can boil the humanities down to some basic questions that generate ongoing inquiry: why do we have the values that we have? how did our cultures and communities develop over time? how can we understand individual experience in the context of others? what role do our cultural practices, including artistic practices, have in our lives? how do we communicate with each other in order to resolve disputes, create new ideas, etc? But the methods for investigating these questions do not have to stay the same. In fact, they might change so much over time that we no longer call these investigations “humanities.” The development of the social sciences is a clear example of this.

So how should this conversation intersect with the development of digital publishing. It might seem like the tail wagging the dog for new publishing methods to shape scholarly practices. It would if our current scholarship was not shaped by the media ecologies of the 20th century. Drucker raises a number of good points about the labor and costs associated with digital publishing: “Every aspect of the old-school publishing work cycle — acquisition (highly skilled and highly valued/paid labor), editing (ditto), reviewing, fact-checking, design, production, promotion, and distribution (all ditto) — remains in place in the digital environment. The only change is in the form of the final production.” And then, of course, maintaing digital information (or making it accessible) isn’t free, even if there isn’t such a thing as bit rot.

However I think of it this way. A car makes a lousy horse. In hindsight we might say that the automobile was a mistake. Pollution, wars over oil and gas, accidents, drunk driving, the suburbs: there are a lot of reasons to complain about cars. But there’s no way we could go back to horse-drawn carriages, not without unmaking our society in fundamental ways (as in some post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie). If we used cars the same way we used horses, then there would be no point in having cars. Or here’s another example: calculators. If we only used calculators to perform the same calculations that we used to do with pencil and paper, there wouldn’t be much purpose to them. Indeed few people would carry a calculator around them because the need for making calculations in daily life is not worth the bother. Of course computers allow us to make calculations not possible by humans and open new avenues of knowledge and investigation.

In the same vein, e-books are of limited utility. I have a Kindle and find ebooks convenient for many purposes, primarily the speed of access. PDFs of journal articles are more useful than scholarly ebooks. In the 90s, I had binders full of photocopied articles. Now I have a folder on my cloud. I think these are significant shifts in scholarly practice that we might tend to ignore. However, they are likely minor compared to the shifts we will see, shifts that will shape our methods and the questions we ask as scholars. I agree with Drucker that we should have some reservations about the claims that are sometimes made about the “digital revolution.” However, in the larger picture, my skepticism is more focused on the other end of the technology-adoption spectrum. In the end, I suppose Drucker and I agree that the future of the humanities is interwoven with developments in digital media in much the same way as the humanities past has been interwoven with print media. We just seem to disagree about what that means and what we need to do.

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