Digital Humanities or Digital Hemming?

Today, I read a talk on “Digital Humanities and the Erosion of Inquiry” given by Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris yesterday. It’s pretty good. No, it’s better than that. It makes me want to cheer. It includes this from Morris: “Scholarship should be expressive, experimental, and liberatory. And it should land within a community of support rather than a pit of critics.” He goes on to write this:

So much of academic work aims at conformity. Even as we push against the oppression of the academy, we recycle and reuse that oppression in our relationships with others. As we work with one another, we frame relationships with expectations. We install and enforce — even unknowingly, even unwillingly — standards for participation in the community.

This is especially prevalent in the project of the Digital Humanities. Not only does funding require conformity, not only does prestige rely upon it, but we keep the gates of our relationships by those standards. We align ourselves with the “right” people, we collaborate on the “right” projects. We do not spend our sabbaticals breaking molds, but building them up. Risking otherwise leads to criticism at best, excommunication from our communities at worst. We don’t just peer review the work of the field, we peer review its people.

This ties into my own attitudes (as can be seen here).

It also makes me remember an email exchange from the fall of 2011 with someone I knew only slightly but who was, I knew, falling under sway of what was becoming defined as “Digital Humanities.” The position mentioned had been also suggested to me as one I might be interested in–which is why we were corresponding. Here’s my part of the exchange, stripped of his name and comments, of course (and remember that I was trying to be as nice and as low key as possible):

Good luck with the Digital Humanities position.  I decided against it because, like the idea of ‘instructional technology’ that we have discussed before, I think it is a term developed by people hoping to set themselves off as creators of something new–though what they are suggesting is at least half-a-century old (something too few of them have bothered to research) and covered by extant definitions.  How many ‘instructional technologists’ have studied the teaching-machine projects of the 1950s–or have read Skinner’s Technology of Teaching?  How many ‘digital humanists’ have really studied something as simple as the development of the concordance?  How many have explored the possibilities and limitations represented by Benjamin’s Arcades Project?  Not to mention his “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”  How many have seriously studied the development of contemporary ideas of ‘intellectual property’ (can they explain how it came to be considered ‘property’)?  And that’s just for starters.

There’s something going on now, something of a ‘second wave’ of academic consideration of the digital revolution, that seems less concerned with the past and the changes around us than with staking out boundaries–doing the kind of wall-building that resulted in the creation of disciplines in 19th-century universities: one prominent DH person even claimed, last year, that DH ‘deserves a place at the table.’  This type of in-fighting bores me–and is, I think, destructive.  We should be widening things, intellectually, not narrowing them or possessing them.

One of the last things I want to get involved with is creating a field when I hold quite dearly the idea that we should be doing just the opposite, breaking down the barriers between disciplines.  Furthermore, I suspect that both of these phrases, ‘instructional technology’ and ‘digital humanities,’ are already redundant.  All instruction, today, is flavored by technology–just as all of the humanities are embracing the digital.  Focusing on technology, also, has allowed many to establish themselves as experts without doing the work on instruction that would make them truly so.  Just so, focusing on the digital has allowed others to claim expertise without doing the hard work in the humanities.  Because technology and the digital are still unknown, it is easy to claim them without doing the real work even there–for there are few willing and able to challenge such claims.  In some respects, then, both areas are refuges for the bright but intellectually lazy.

All the same, my advice to you is to go for the… position–as you said you are going to do.  You are not intellectually lazy and might be able to be a positive influence.  So, if you want nomination from someone else, I would be more than happy to be one doing so–without discussing my feelings about the field itself.  Just be careful: don’t get too caught up with people who are more careerist than true academics–for I think that’s what most of the ‘digital humanities’ really is.  And what most ‘instructional technology’ is as well.



He responded and then I responded:

Over the past years, I’ve been drawn more and more to the work and career of B. F. Skinner.  One of the reasons for that is the cautionary tale his career brings to light.

In the 1950s, a breed of behaviorist grew, eventually known as “Methodological Behaviorists.”  They had the language down, and the rudiments of an approach, but they stopped too early and did not consider the full impact of the “field” they thought they were creating.  Skinner wanted nothing to do with them, considering them, as I do most DH people, as intellectually lazy and limited in their vision.  They were smart, but they had seen MB as a train heading to Success, and they had bought and paid for their tickets.  They didn’t really care where “Success” was, but simply wanted to get there.  And were unwilling to look anywhere else, for they were now invested in this particular “Success.”

Ignoring them proved a mistake on Skinner’s part.  Because he had developed so much behind what the MB people were doing, he was soon identified with them–and vilified for things that had nothing to do with him but with the narrowness of vision of MB.  Noam Chomsky, in his famous review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior, launched his career by attacking MB.  Skinner ignored the review because it had very little to do with what was actually in his book.  He shouldn’t have done that.  Eventually Behaviorism was set back at least 30 years by the MB movement, and still has not completely recovered–though it is now proving its worth both in the effectiveness of its processes for dealing with autism and as a basis for understanding the impact of the digital environment on learning.

I fear that the DH people, who seem much like the MB folk of 40 years ago, may set back real study of the revolution we are experiencing in ways much the same.  When people, like one DH person at the University of Nebraska, try to separate DH from the rest of the humanities by claiming that DH “makes” things while people in the humanities don’t (conveniently forgetting that writing is making), most of the rest of us just roll our eyes.

DH is the contemporary equivalent of the “Theory” people of the 1980s.  Yes, there’s something to be said for a great deal of what DH produces, but it should not be building walls or claiming its own space.  This creates an insularity that allows the lazy to advance and that drives the really curious away.  This happens over and over again, as it did with Behaviorism and with Theory.  Eventually, DH will be sniffed at in the same way that MB is, that Theory is.  The people who still maintain it will be seen as dinosaurs, as the Theory mavens are, today, in our field.

All I am doing is warning you not to get yourself too identified with something that, really, is no more than the flavor of the month.  Concentrate on what you want to do, but without labels.  If a label is forced on you, as DH will be, certainly, if you get the… position, make sure to diffuse its impact on you and the work you do.

When you say that there are many DHers working hard within the field, you are assuming a legitimacy that is, I think, quite dangerous and unwarranted by output.  Why are they working hard at DH?  What is their point?  They claim what others have done for their field, as the MB people claimed Skinner, but have produced little or real value themselves (though they do love to pat each other on the back).

They aren’t really imagining new possibilities for the humanities, by the way.  That they say they are doesn’t make it so.  Everything they put forth has been put forth before… but they are so focused on the shiny future that they forget to study the past.  They aren’t looking at the real revolution, but are imagining that their “advances” on the old are revolutionary.  They are, to my mind, like people enthralled with the new railroad engines of the 1930s, seeing these as revolutionary rather than evolutionary, and forgetting to look at the airplanes overhead.

The real revolution will not come from DH, but is already stirring elsewhere.

Anyhow, I love this sort of discussion and hope we will be able to continue it!

He responded and then I responded:


Thanks for your response.  And, yes, we may have to agree to disagree.  Yet do be careful–you are already accepting definitions that may never be widely embraced, including calling DH a “field.”  Many of us would see DH, if as anything, as an aspect of almost all fields and not something that should be considered through separation.

As to “intellectually lazy,” well, I have been listening to DH people for five or six years now, and have yet to see really impressive work coming from very many of them.  But that’s really neither here nor there–your own work, from what I have seen, shows no sign of being anything less than impressive.  I just hate seeing you associated with people who I see as more careerist than really intellectual.  In the long run, I don’t think that will serve you well–and I do want to see you make as much of yourself as you can (and that, I believe strongly, will be quite a lot).

Though I have yet to click through your link to Ramsey, I suspect I have already read the second post….

What it comes down to, I guess, is that I think you can do better than you will by associating with this bunch.  There may be a momentary thrill and sense of exploration, but the dead end will be coming.  As you intimate, however, that is your choice.  You will make the best of it, I am sure.

As for me, I can only hope that, one day, you will move on from them.


He responded and that was it.

I guess little, in the world (I still won’t call it a “field”) of Digital Humanities, has changed. Or so Stommel and Morris make it seem. Sad.

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