More Radical Than We Know: Digital Humanities’ Challenge to the Academy

Over the course of this semester, our digital humanities class has been centrally concerned with the postmodern and the ways in which the internet and digital scholarship reflect a shift in paradigm away from the ideas and infrastructures that shaped it in the twentieth century. In these conversations it’s been instructive for me to recall that the configuration of the twentieth century “pre-digital” academy is actually quite new. Barely more than a century old in its current form, our paradigm of professionalization—of an academy consisting of tenured scholars based at universities with specific disciplinary appointments—is nevertheless fundamental to our understanding of who’s in and who’s out, and what counts as valid academic work. In fact, at a time when job prospects for new humanities Ph.D.’s are historically poor, the need to fit clearly within the increasingly fragile frame of the twenty-first century academy is arguably more important than ever, since the stakes are now so high.

Digital humanists are frequently criticized for contributing to this unfortunate state of affairs, and I sympathize with that critique to the extent that digital humanities projects tend to be more expensive and outcome-oriented than other humanistic projects.  They also produce things readily suited to the contemporary needs of universities—one can easily show off glossy D.H. projects to “shareholders,” whether they be skeptical government officials, granting agencies, alumni or prospective students.  Mainstream perceptions of D.H. as dangerous and malign are reinforced by boosterish articles that extol the “promise”—indeed, necessity—of digital humanities while lamenting its exclusion from the disciplinary mainstream.  Calls to pursue digital humanities scholarship for its own sake, proclaiming, for example, that “the historical monograph no longer seems an appropriate model for for historical understanding in a digital environment,” despite “the continuous vitality of the monographic culture in the humanities” rightly draw more attention to the implicit agenda of the author than the content of the message.[1]  As Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette, and David Golumbia point out in a recent article for the Los Angeles Review of Books, digital humanities projects also tend to require specialized technical knowledge that seems to suggest that humanistic inquiry alone is no longer viable in a S.T.E.M.-centric world.[2]  I mention this not necessarily to endorse Allington et al.’s broader argument that the digital humanities are an active neoliberal plot, but to acknowledge the movement’s historical entanglements.  If digital humanities as a field rose to prominence in a neoliberal, post-Fordist era, it is, I think, to be expected that it reflect that era in its values—disruption, flexibility, interdisciplinarity, and a fundamental optimism about the promise of technology, even if paired with elements of critique.

Since arriving at Michigan State, I’ve had many conversations in seminars about the value of writing in a mode accessible to a general audience, and why doing so is particularly important for scholars working with Africans, who should be able, as one professor told me, to see themselves in the work one produces. At the same time, however, I’ve been warned about the difficulty of writing “out of the box” as a junior scholar. I’ve read books that test the boundaries of what counts as an academic monograph, like Kate Brown’s Plutopia, Jonny Steinberg’s A Man of Good Hope, and Anna Louwenhaupt-Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World (to name just a few), books that are beautifully written, theoretically rich examples of academic storytelling and deeply inspiring to me as a historian.[3]  Yet the very same professor I mentioned above also sternly instructed us to avoid non-academic presses and unique narrative forms at all costs, because failing to publish one’s revamped dissertation with a respected academic press can doom a fledgeling scholarly career. Not unlike digital humanities projects, then, book projects that fall outside the stylistic norms of a given subfield are consigned to the periphery. So junior scholars like me are faced with a Hobson’s choice. If the academy is seen as irrelevant to those outside it, we should seek to engage with a wider audience. However, if we try to do just that, by challenging the boundaries of genre, medium or discipline, we forfeit their chance at a slice of the shrinking academic pie.  What’s the solution?

In a recent article, William G. Thomas III argues that as far as the digital humanities are concerned, the problem is infrastructural. “Many digital humanists,” he writes, “take the position that digital environments demand multimodal, reciprocal, nonlinear modes of scholarship. Scholars in the disciplines perceive an inherent contradiction between that form of scholarship and criticism, review, and evaluation.”[4]  For Thomas, rectifying the marginalization of the digital humanities means actively promoting the development of more standardized genres within the field, genres that would then facilitate the development of critical apparatuses. Maybe so, but what of the “inherent contradiction” that “scholars in the disciplines perceive”?  Genres seem like a fairly prosaic solution to such a radical problem.  If the digital sphere has the potential to reshape the academic world so radically, shouldn’t the ends of academic endeavor also reflect that radical shift?  Perhaps a reassessment of exactly what “criticism, review, and evaluation” are, and why they should be valued, is in order.

Looking through the many innovative projects on the Vectors website, “a space for experimentation in screen languages, open access publishing, and collaborative design” lauded by Tara McPherson in the penultimate chapter of Between Humanities and the Digital, I was drawn to a project by McKenzie Wark on the French Letterist movement called “Totality for Kids.”[5]  I am not a literary scholar and have never studied French intellectual history, so the Letterists were thoroughly new to me. I was struck, however, by the beautiful artwork of Kevin Pyle, juxtaposed with explanatory text and quotations from important Letterists such as Guy DeBord and Raoul Vaneigem. It occurred to me that while a project like “Totality for Kids” certainly possesses, to some extent, a critical voice and important scholarly content, the graphic, nonlinear and interactive way that it is presented fundamentally sets it apart from the usual products of academic history. This is not just because its materiality and method of production are different, but also its objectives are also quite distinct. Steve Anderson, the project editor, compares “Totality for Kids” to Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project in that it “remains an open and arguably unfinishable project, illuminating both past and future through awareness of our situation in the present.”[6] Straddling the line between art and digital history, “Totality for Kids” just isn’t out to accomplish the same goals that academic journal articles and monographs on the Letterist movement seek after.

My basic thought here is that if we are to take digital humanities boosters seriously that the digital realm has the potential to radically transform the academy, we should seriously consider how that might look at every level, right down to the deep epistemological assumptions at the core of our enterprise.  In a postmodern, neoliberal world, why shouldn’t the academy engage the art world more deeply, as McKenzie Wark has done with “Totality for Kids.”  If subjectivities are what many of us mostly deal in, why must our works, the product, in part, of our own subjectivities, reflect a rigorism and conformity that, as we all readily admit, alienates all but the most intrepid generalist from coming in contact with our ideas?  Are we serving the ends of an academy, a historically specific infrastructure, or the proliferation of knowledge itself?

I ask these questions not to be wantonly provocative, but, once again, to stress that thinking the rhetoric of digital humanities through to its logical implications demands a radical transformation of the world as scholars know it, and, indeed, we may not be ready to stare into that abyss.  Such a transformation would necessarily produce winners and losers, new costs and new benefits.  But it’s a conversation I think we should be having, because bold visions of the future are usually what make reform possible.  As my dad used to tell me when he was teaching me to drive, “you won’t have a good time on the interstate if you don’t keep your eye on the horizon.”

  1. [1]Chiel van den Akker, quoted in William G. Thomas III, “The Promise of the Digital Humanities and the Contested Nature of Digital Scholarship,” in A New Companion to Digital Humanities, eds. Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth (New York, N.Y.: John Wiley and Sons, 2016):528; 527
  2. [2]Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette, and David Golumbia, “Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of the Digital Humanities,” Los Angeles Review of Books, May 1st, 2016, accessed November 21st, 2016, <>.
  3. [3]Kate Brown, Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2013); Jonny Steinberg, A Man of Good Hope (New York, N.Y.: Vintage Books, 2015); Anna Louwenhaupt-Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2015).
  4. [4]Thomas, “The Promise of the Digital Humanities,” 534.
  5. [5]Tara McPherson, “Post-Archive: The Humanities, The Archive, and the Database,” in Between Humanities and the Digital, eds. Patrik Svensson and David Theo Goldberg (Cambridge, Mass.: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2015): 492; “Totality for Kids,” last updated October 17th, 2013, accessed November 21st, 2016, <>.
  6. [6]“Editor’s Introduction,” in ibid.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *