digital humanities digital rhetoric

regarding "invidious distinctions between critique and production"

I’m working at a tangent from my book manuscript today, preparing a presentation for a local conference on “Structures of Digital Feeling.” If you have the (mis)fortune to be in Buffalo in March, I invite you to come by. Anyway, my 15 minutes of fame here involve wresting Williams’ “structure of feeling” concept from its idealist ontological anchors, imagining what real structures of feeling might be, and then putting that to work in discussing “debates” around the digital humanities.

Fortunately, Richard Grusin offers the perfect opening for this conversation as he is already discussing “structures of academic feeling” at the MLA conference in his juxtaposition of panels about the “crisis” in the humanities with the more positive outlook of DH panels. (I haven’t been to MLA in a few years so I wonder if this distinction still holds.) The quoted phrase in the title of this post comes from his Differences article on the “Dark Side of the Digital Humanities” (a reformulation of the panel presentation of the same title). It’s a response to the familiar DH refrain of “less yack, more hack.”

As he argues:

Specifically, because digital humanities can teach students how to design, develop, and produce digital artifacts that are of value to society, they are seen to offer students marketable skills quite different from those gained by analyzing literature or developing critiques of culture. This divide between teachers and scholars interested in critique and those interested in production has been central to the selling of digital humanities. My concern is that this divide threatens both to increase tensions within the mla community and to intensify the precarity running through the academic humanities writ large.

His objection to this is twofold. First, he objects to the suggestion that he doesn’t make things too (“tell that to anyone who has labored for an hour or more over a single sentence”). And second is to suggest that making things, in the absence of “critique” echoes “the instrumentalism of neoliberal administrators and politicians in devaluing critique (or by extension any other humanistic inquiry that doesn’t make things) for being an end in itself as opposed to the more valuable and useful act ‘of making stuff work.’” So the net is something along the lines of all humanists make things, but in case we don’t making things is bad. So while Grusin wants DHers to stop making the “invidious distinction between critique and production,” he still wants to make it himself in order to critique DH.

In my view, this is an argument between methods and argument for the primacy and necessity of “critique.” It is an argument that says the humanities are essentially defined by critique.  What else can critique be expected to argue? I am reminded of Vitanza’s “Three Countertheses” essay where he playfully asks if we can imagine CCCC having as its conference theme the question “Should Writing Be Taught?” We might similarly ask MLA to have as its conference them “Should We Be Doing Critique?”

Given this connection (in my head, at least) when I read about “invidious distinctions between critique and production,” I don’t think about DH. I think about rhetoric. I think about how literary studies established these distinctions in order to make critique a master term and devalue production as “skills.” I guess it’s not so funny now that the shoe is on the other foot.

What is funny though is the sudden concern with the precarity of labor. Here Grusin is rehearsing his earlier argument about the role that DH plays in creating alt-ac, non-tenure academic work. It’s a legitimate concern, but it’s a little like focusing on recycling your beer cans while driving a Hummer. If there’s a responsible party for adjunctification in English Studies, it’s got to be the literary critics who turned composition into a mill for graduate student TAs who then turn into adjuncts. I will not ignore rhet/comp’s complicity in this, but it is the “invidious distinctions between critique and production” that allowed writing instruction to become a place where this kind of labor practice could evolve.

But let me end on a point where I agree with Grusin because really I find much of his work valuable even though I disagree with him here. Near the end he writes:

Digital media can help to transform our understanding of the canon and history of the humanities by foregrounding and investigating the complex entanglements of humans and nonhumans, of humanities and technology, which have too often been minimized or ignored in conventional narratives of the Western humanistic tradition.

Grusin may not think of himself as a digital humanist, and by some narrow definition of the term he isn’t. But he’s as much a digital humanist as I am. This is at least partly the way he sees his own work, and it’s a fair description of my approach to digital media as well. And I suppose that given my deep investment in the “theory” of DeLanda, Latour, Deleuze, and so on, one might think I’m hip deep if not neck deep in critique as well. But I don’t look at it that way. I don’t look at it that way because, as I see it, critique only exists by invidiously distinguishing itself from production. However that distinction is unstable.  Production can be uncritical, but criticism cannot exist without being produced. It’s the idealism of critique that prevents it from seeing this, that prevents it from seeing that being tied to books, articles, genres, word processors, offices, tenure, etc., etc. instrumentalizes critique as much as computers and networks instrumentalizes DH. The project Grusin describes addresses the division between critique and production, but critique doesn’t really survive that. Critique needs to be the pure private thought of the critic in order to be what it claims to be. Once critique becomes a kind of production, a kind of rhetoric and composition, it looses its hold as the master discourse of the humanities.

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