Spreading the love: The wrong and the right in digital humanities
[Thanks to my penchant for travel-induced clumsiness, I missed my own panel at the American Studies Association, “Digital Humanities and the Neoliberal University: Complicity and/or Resistance.” I will never know exactly what transpired in detail, and must console myself with the twitter stream I read while on the wrong bus to Washington, DC. My love to those who did make it and rocked the audience, Susan Garfinkel, Frances Abbott, Natalia Cecire, Lauren F. Klein and Miriam Posner. Below is a written rendition of what my comments would have, could have, should have been.]
The jury is still out on the role that the digital humanities can play in redressing some troubling trends in Higher Ed in the United States. I side with those voices that warn against placing too much responsibility on what remains an ill-equipped band of hackers and hucksters, for what remain at the core structural and historical woes that require political, financial and cultural redress at scale. The first question I pose myself then is not what can DH do, but why is DH being called upon?
For those who don’t understand and stand to benefit, the main attractor is the word “digital,” no doubt an empty vortex collecting sound and fury, the eye of a predictable hurricane. To those who begin to know and want to play, our importance derives from the knowledge of institutions, intellectual property, publishing platforms, networks and computation that inevitably accrues the more you spend time doing DH. In other words, the digital humanities seem to generate awareness and can-do that seem absent from business as usual, and perhaps could save the day. This misleads some to believe that we can provide or promise the conditions for full employment. Again, these are problems best addressed at other scales, through other registers.
To those who do know, a couple of hacker-sized efforts seem a better fit: the construction of viable models for scholarly research and learning that move us away from the stranglehold of closed-access, print-centric, vendor-lock on the scholarly record; a revised, humanities-centered curriculum for graduate and undergraduate education, offering added possibilities to participate in the professional and academic middle class; sustainable oversight over the remediation of our material inheritance; a micro-cultural shift in the humanities from representative to participatory democratic collaboration, i.e. the death of the Genius; finally, and perhaps least urgent, a reconciliation between procedural thinking, arts & crafts and the critical enterprise.
The question of our collusion with that nasty neoliberalism comes from some unfortunate consequences of the efforts above—some unforeseen, some avoidable. That said, for the most part, we all find it hard to disentangle the complicit from the resistant; some of us even refuse to use the word neoliberal any more. As Dennis Tenen pointed out to me during the MLA 2013 panel, “The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities,” all panelists were wearing Microsoft Research lanyards while they talked of DH complicity with neoliberalism. Complicit much? If not, what then? Is it crowdsourcing? Is it the use of computers with blood on the production line? Is it our energy consumption? Is it Twitter? Is it unpaid interns? Credential creep? Is it that espresso macchiato we had with the provost? Is it race? Gender? Citizenship? The prevalent euro-centric canons? MOOCs? (that’s not us, by the way). Is it doing while talking?
All these questions are receiving attention as time and talent allows, and as all human endeavor paving roads to hell with their good intentions…
I digress. What I mean to say is that within what is being done in the name of a humanities turned digital much activity can have unintended consequences. Who would disagree with that? Isn’t the answer to remain vigilant and respond with alternatives? I will just use one semi-comic example to illustrate my point: The production of expensive, gargantuan digital humanities projects funded by soft money for the glory of a faculty member who couldn’t open a terminal on their overpriced Mac if their tenure depended on it. Such projects usually tend to hire either a contingent labor force or existing library developers whose role is reemphasized as that of staff, when in reality their contribution shapes the epistemological core of the project. These boutique projects tend to create more problems than they solve, not the least of which are problems of missed opportunity.
I am not opposed to large projects per se, just the ones that are imagined as mono-credit juggernauts. Undoubtedly, several layers of the administration, both in libraries and schools, benefit from such projects, but the knowledge and labor ecologies that we would prefer are sidestepped. Coincidentally, these projects become large burdens to sustain over a period of time, and make us wonder about the return for investment. A large project can, though, serve a more salutary purpose, if for example, instead of having those who can build it, have those who can’t learn how to; If we raise the status and financial well-being of those who can teach the digital in the digital humanities by hiring them permanently and gainfully as integral parts of the university; If the project is built as an addition to an existing community-loved platform, or as a new platform; If we make it well worth the students’ efforts by also paying them to participate. I have seen such models succeed first hand.
These are just some preliminary thoughts considering the question at hand is one of justice, the object of infinite desire. Coming from me, they will always be preliminary. I refuse to address all problems at once, and choose tactics over impotence. Call it an ethics of the Robin Hood in times of greed and subservient reason.