What do you call buzz when the buzz is about the fact that there is buzz? That may just be buzz, but it might also be nice to think of in terms of “hum” — when something moves from being an event to a movement.
I use this rather annoying lead in because the buzz at the MLA this year was very much about the Digital Humanities and how it (they?) were generating so much buzz. As with all buzz, it is not always clear that it’s right — the reason for the buzz is that it takes you by surprise (DH, who would have thought!?) Depending on who you talk to, DH’s arrival is either obvious or unpersuasive. Whether its principles have percolated out into the field enough to truly be considered “widespread” might still be up for grabs. What does seem persuasive is that a sizable number of institutions are investing in DH right now. If it has not already arrived, it will likely do so soon.
And this imminent sense of arrival is prompting an interesting new wave of self-reflection, of what it means when a fringe movement goes mainstream.
The buzz (or hum) began when a chronicle blog by William Pannapacker suggested that a new star system had emerged within DH, leading to a variety of seconds and apologias. DH was being likened to Theory (capital T) in the 80s, and this wasn’t meant as a compliment. (There is for the record a remarkable cultural convergence between Ronald Reagan, junk bonds, deconstruction and bad art that should be another post, or a dissertation…)
Rather than address the question of whether academics (digital, analog, or theoretical) work in a celebrity economy (we do), it strikes me as worth pausing over the implications of the institutional rush to establish DH programs. I am currently developing a new DH project on literary topologies and at my university we are going through the initial stages of developing a new program, including new hires. I am therefore coming from a place of personal investment in all this, but also self-questioning.
Matthew Kirschenbaum has a new piece coming out in the ADE Bulletin, in which he gives on overview of what DH is, where it came from, and some of the values it embodies. As always Kirschenbaum puts things in very clear light. For anyone interested in the topic, this is the place to start.
One of the arguments he makes is that DH is important because it embodies a set of values that have not always been part of academic culture and that are particularly important at a time of dwindling resources and ideological support for the academy. According to Kirschenbaum, DH makes academic work more public and resource neutral because it embraces open-source platforms and new social media. It is also far more collaborative than traditional forms of humanistic inquiry, and like the logic of networks on which it is supported, less hierarchical. Finally, it is ultimately about literacy, about making all of us, teachers, citizens and students, more engaged with how the instruments of writing and reading (re)structure our lives.
All of these arguments strike me as persuasive. My concern, however, is when the non-hierarchical aspect within DH acquires hierarchy outside of DH within the university. Pannapacker’s point about the star system is a good reminder — not because there is some part of the humanities that works outside of it, but because the resource allocations to support DH, like stars, is decidedly not egalitarian. Hiring Stanley Fish for too much money is one thing. Plowing millions of dollars into media labs is a whole different order of magnitude in terms of the stakes involved.
As part of its arrival — as part of the hum of digital humanities — I’d like to see some more reflection by those of us involved with digital humanities with the question of the appropriate use of resources in a world of increasingly scarce resources. Committing high levels of resources to one area means there is going to be less in another. Such investment is going to create hierarchies within institutions, very pronounced ones, far more pronounced than currently exist, say, between English and German departments, again, at a time when funding is in short supply and the cost of higher education is beginning to put some serious strain on society.
As Kirschenbaum points out, there are ways that DH can make more sensible use of current resources (open-source publishing is one good example). But I think what is needed is also a more holistic reflection on the place and kinds of technologies in our professional lives, much like the wave of recent work that tries to look at it from a personal level (Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget, for example). What is the appropriate amount of the technological — and in what forms? How can the digital be situated within a more ecological theory of mediation that accounts for a broad array of communicative practices that are not just digital? In promoting the digital or the computational can we avoid the hegemony of having it become the new norm? For the digital humanities to arrive, does that have to mean that they must simply become the humanities? (Overlooking of course how problematic the term “humanities” would be in such a context considering that it is precisely the digital that continues to put such pressure on the stability of the human.)
I think it’s time for those of us who are pushing for more digital technology within the humanities to reflect not just on questions of growth, but of sustainability.