The Cost of Interdisciplinarity: Reflections on the Need for Cultural Criticism in DH

What is the purpose of good teaching? What is the purpose of good scholarship? I have to confess that as I read yet another set of readings focused on the radical promise of digital humanities, I found myself wondering again about the position of “DH” vis a vis other academic institutions, and whether the current state of the discourse is as insular as the readings suggest. What is it about the digital that invites such fetishism, from both critics and allies? To echo Alan Liu and William G. Thomas III in their discussion of digital humanities “centers” at universities, the construction of digital humanities as a discipline outside “traditional” academic departments feels increasingly pernicious to me, otherizing and exoticizing what should be firmly in the main stream of humanities discourse.

This week I began to read a collection of plays by the influential South African actor and playwright Stephen Black. Black is remembered as the first professional actor in South African history, and his plays like Love and the Hyphen (1908), Helena’s Hope, Ltd. (1910), and Van Kalabas Does His Bit (1916) oscillate wildly between low brow comedy, melodrama, and sophisticated exploration of heady political themes in a country still reeling from the South African War (1899-1902), knit together for the first time as a single political unit. From questions of class and status to latent tensions between “Boer” and “Brit” to women’s suffrage and the political rights of black people (some of whom were allowed to vote in the Cape province but not elsewhere), Black’s plays and their wild popularity have a lot to tell us about early twentieth century South Africa, but because he never published them he was largely forgotten after his death in 1931.

I am able to read these plays, of course, because half a century later the literary critic Stephen Gray edited and published the volume I am reading. Working at the University of Witwatersrand in the dark days of the P.W. Botha administration, he introduces the collection by recounting his experience reviving Helena’s Hope, Ltd. at the university’s Performing Arts Centre. Mixed-race theatrical companies had been less than two years before, and Gray recounts vividly the process by which Helena’s Hope, Ltd. forced his actors to reconsider the history they had been taught in apartheid-era South African schools:

Although all of the players were Johannesburg residents, another first was encountering the hard fact that, after generations of education in the Transvaal…almost no information about, for example, the dispossession of the agriculturalists, the advent of taxation, the Battle of Johannesburg between Boer republican and British imperialist, the rise of capital in the city, the enfranchisement of White women and the disenfranchisement of Black men, the Land Acts preceding 1913, etc., etc,—it is a long list and these are all crucial issues in Black’s play, had seeped through to them. For them, coming to an understanding of these issues through the script and in the rehearsal room was tantamount to a re-education in their own immediate past.[1]

Preparing and performing Helena’s Hope Ltd. challenged Gray and his actors to confront a history that had been buried, to resurrect on the stage a world of discourse that had been foreclosed and repressed by apartheid society.  Far from a mere exercise in antiquarian drama, Gray’s troupe at Wits confronted a text that challenged their ideas about the past, present and future, all at the same time.

The readings for this week all stress the need for digital humanities to confront questions of difference.  Whether emphasizing the potential contribution of Asian-American studies, intersectionality, or feminist research ethics, each reading is at pains to save digital humanities from itself (or a stereotype of itself, perhaps).  Yet each of the ideas the readings laid out are each two to three decades old, largely innovations of the 1980’s cultural turn.  What does it mean that even at this late stage scholars in the field of digital humanities are treating such established (if perhaps not predominant) ideas as potential paradigm shifts?  Is digital humanities really so out of touch with current debates in the disciplines out of which it comes?

Certainly valuable work is being done, as the readings describe.  Moya Bailey’s Misogynoir book project is a genuinely cutting edge contribution to our understanding of the online presence of trans women of color, and it provides a useful model for future activist scholarship engaging with online communities.  But the tone of the readings for this week led me to wonder whether the prevalence of digital humanities “centers” outside academic departments contributes to a sense that DH is separate from debates and developments in more traditional disciplines, a disturbing suggestion that the much-vaunted interdisciplinarity of DH is, in some way, holding the field back, kin to the “retro-humanism” Roopika Risam’s article alludes to.

Stephen Gray’s presentation of Helena’s Hope, Ltd.  exemplifies a multi-modal approach to scholarship and pedagogy that does not involve the digital.  It does the things that we ask all great pedagogy (and great digital humanities scholarship to do): to present something not otherwise easily accessible in ways that challenge and illuminate our understanding of a particular context.  Keeping digital humanities outside the mainstream of academic life maintains a unique, innovative culture of DHers across disciplines and departments, but at the cost of keeping DH marginalized, fighting for legitimacy among jealous, insecure university departments led by academics easily disposed to suspicion.  The more readings I do for this class, the more I find the air of exceptionalism surrounding digital humanities to be damaging.  The presence of computers does not necessarily mark a paradigm shift in disciplines that have always engaged in multimodal research and multimodal productions.  Instead, digital humanities should embed itself in established disciplines; after all, it’s not as if DH spaces are the only ones facilitating interdisciplinary projects.  In the long run, the goal must not be the creation of academic space for a sui generis digital humanities, but the full integration of digital methodologies and engagement with various fields in the humanities.  If an entire field, such as women’s studies, needs to move in a more digital direction, that debate should be going on at the central venues of the field, not at the periphery or among an academic subculture.  If digital humanities is valuable, and digital cultural criticism is necessary, there is no virtue in being on the sidelines.  This is especially critical given the considerable expense of digital humanities projects.  Only when great digital humanities scholarship is considered as simply great scholarship, and great digital pedagogy considered great pedagogy, will the fight be won.

  1. [1]Black, Stephen, Three Plays, Stephen Gray, ed. (Craighall, South Africa: Adriaan Donker, 1984): 31.

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