Am I a Digital Humanist? Confessions of a Neoliberal Tool
5.15.16: Since this is now attracting readers beyond its original context: it is occasioned by, but is not primarily intended as a response to, a recent essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB) entitled “Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities,” authored by Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette, and David Golumbia.
On the face of it the question is absurd. Of course I’m a digital humanist.
I am heavily, publicly, and consistently identified with the digital humanities. I’ve written a trio of widely circulated essays on various permutations of the question “what is digital humanities.” I had a chapter in the formative 2004 Blackwell’s Companion volume, and I’ve contributed chapters and essays to many of the most important collections and journals since, from Debates to the differences “Shadows of” issue. I’ve publicly advocated that humanists should learn to program (though what this means turns out to be nuanced), and even suggested, within limits, that programming languages could be allowed to sub in for the doctorate’s foreign language requirement. I’ve worked on externally sponsored research at several different institutions, typically in the service of building “tools and archives.” I have a footprint in the library and archives world, alongside of literary studies. And, of course, I was trained in the University of Virginia’s English department, where I also worked first in UVA’s Electronic Text Center and then its Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH).
My mentors at UVA were John Unsworth and Jerome McGann. (Johanna Drucker arrived as I was leaving, but she too was an early and important professional friend.) And for the last decade I’ve served as an Associate Director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH), a self-identified digital humanities center that was founded very much on the IATH model. So yeah, I guess I’m a digital humanist. I’ve also advised more than a few doctoral students who have gone on to careers as self-identifying digital humanists themselves. But there are lots of ways in which I don’t fit the mold. I can program, in some limited sense, but I don’t identify as a programmer or developer or even really as a builder or maker. My coding chops are okay for some parlor tricks or personal messing around, but I couldn’t implement software for real. My limited sojourn in big data research, meanwhile, was easily the weakest work of my career. I’ve never reviewed for the NEH’s ODH, and I’ve received exactly one NEH ODH grant myself, which may still hold the record for the smallest amount ever awarded by that office. My first book had “new media” in its subtitle, not digital humanities, and the most frequently asked question about my new book, on the literary history of word processing, is why it doesn’t contain any data mining or text analysis.
My aim in what follows isn’t (heaven forbid) to justify or defend or adjudicate or historicize the digital humanities one more time. It’s also (spoiler alert) not the recantation or mea culpa that apparently some have been salivating for, and so anyone anticipating that should just continue on in hate-read mode if at all. Instead I want to talk about the trajectory of a single career — my own. Not because my work and career is exceptional or so worthy of notice, but rather because I believe it is typical — notwithstanding certain key advantages and privileges, both structural and accidental, that I have been the beneficiary of. (You’ll hear more about those.) But “typical” in the sense that, at the end of the day, a career is just a career and the work is just the work. We all operate and identify on variety of local and global levels. That’s what typical. What we do, what we choose to work on and who we choose to work with emerges out of a complex skein of personal history, personally held values, circumstances, encounters, and all the other agents of chance, privilege, and socialization.
Which is why I’ve advocated an STS approach — focusing on microhistories of individuals, grants, centers, projects — as the most promising valance for a robust critique of digital humanities research. It’s the tack I took in my own documentation of what happened at UVA in “Digital Humanities as/is a Tactical Term,” not cited in the recent account that offers up an institutional history of DH as though it were a revelation. Here, though, I want to go deeper, as someone who was there and lived some of that history. (Others were there too and likewise lived it, and so this is not meant to invalidate or replace those experiences, but it is meant to co-exist with them; aspects of that history have also been the focus of at least one book written by someone from someplace else, so you might look there for an external perspective.)
This gets personal at times, and it gets a little messy. It’s not always self-consistent or safe. But it’s what I’ve got.
Midway through my undergraduate years at SUNY Albany (the first of four public state institutions in which I have spent my academic career) I decided I wanted to go to graduate school in English. Yes, I had read that piece in the New York Times, the one heralding a massive shortfall in humanities professors. (In fact I read it, as some of you may have, taped to one of my undergraduate mentors’ doors.)
I got in to UVA, and they offered me money. When I first arrived on Grounds, as they say there, I knew nothing of textual studies or humanities computing. My experience instead was quickly and totally defined by the oppressive culture of Permission that held sway among the first-years. No one at the time was admitted directly to the doctoral program. Permission (which was how we mentally pronounced it) thus meant permission to proceed, a decision that would be made for you based on your first two or three semesters of coursework and the advocacy of rabbi figure on the faculty. (You found out from a slip placed in your mailbox.) The first paper I wrote at UVA was a deconstruction of Frederick Douglass’s Narrative, revolving around scenes of public reading. It got an A-. I was thrilled: room for improvement to be sure, but not bad for my first piece of graduate-level scholarship, right? Then I learned that there were really only two grades, A and A-, and no one could hope to receive Permission without straight As.
I got Permission. Gradually, however, I came to the understanding that there was no one on the faculty with whom the dissertation I had thought I wanted to write on early American literature would really work. I also came to the realization that I didn’t want to write such a dissertation. So I took seminars with Deborah McDowell and Eric Lott. I also thought more about the person who had been my most influential undergraduate teacher, Don Byrd. Don was one of those magic trickster figures that you could still find in English departments at the time. He worked on alternative American poetry, was a student of Charles Olsen and Robert Duncan. He also had some contacts with John Perry Barlow and the West Coast virtual reality crowd. He had us reading Neuromancer around 1990 or so, and we logged on to the nascent internet for collaborative writing jams in what I now know was a MOO (not MOOC). We read Lipstick Traces and Derrida. I was twenty years old and it was intoxicating. When I had told him I was going to UVA, Don had left me with the advice to take a class with someone named Jerome McGann.
My third year in the program, the opportunity came up. I was done with coursework, but got McGann’s approval to audit a seminar on the Pre-Ralphaelites, about whom I knew little. McGann was working on something he called “hyper-editing,” and it was to be a central feature of the course. I had seen him demonstrate what would become the Rossetti Archive in the Bowers Library (yes) in old Wilson hall, on a Unix-based terminal running the Web’s first browser, Mosaic. The Blessed Damozel leaned out from the gunmetal grey navbar and dribbled down the screen in 24-bit color splendor. I was transfixed. The Lingua Franca article on McGann and IATH (written by a recent Columbia grad student named Steven Johnson) came out at about the same time. This was what I wanted to do, even though I didn’t really understand what “this” was or how to go about doing it. I was responding to the technology, yes, but also to textuality, manifest as palpably in that moment in front of the Unix terminal as any encounter with a special collections manuscript.
The night before the seminar McGann emailed (we had all been told to sign up for something called “e-mail”) that there would be no auditors admitted. Crushed, I fired a missive back, pleading my case. He relented. The seminar was transformative.
The people most drawn to the early humanities computing centers at UVA were the book nerds. Far from seeing computers as an abandonment or repudiation of books, archives, and the material remains of culture and society, the new technologies were understood to be extensions of those preoccupations. This may have had something to do with temperament: the same person who was willing to sweat over collation formulae was probably also suited to tagging texts and parsing lines of code. But it also had a lot to do with the ways in which computing surfaces the barely subterranean machinery of scholarship. Both of UVA’s original humanities computing centers were physically embedded in the library, as was the subsequent NINES and the Scholar’s Lab today, and as MITH is at the University of Maryland.
Academics are well acquainted with libraries of course, but that acquaintance often stops at the stacks or perhaps the special collections reading room. UVA’s humanities computing centers took me into the world on the side of the wall. As one commentator put it recently, “Digital humanists tend as part of their scholarly practice to foreground self-reflexively the material underpinnings of scholarship that many conventional humanists take for granted. . . . If anything, DH is guilty of making all too visible the dirty gears that drive the scholarly machine, along with the mechanic’s maintenance bill.”
So sometime in 1995 I went behind the wall. I learned text encoding and some Perl scripting. I learned my way around the UNIX command line and Photoshop. Two things stand out to me about the acquisition of those “skills”: first, I never considered myself a “programmer.” Programming (or “coding”) is often reified in discussions of digital humanities, as in do you have to learn to code? Code and coding is not one single homogenous thing. It takes different forms depending on what you want to do. That I could write some batch scripts to facilitate processing a bunch of texts in a Unix directory in no way meant I was a software engineer. Or a systems administrator. Or an interface designer. I was just learning what I needed to do to do the things I wanted to do. Before long I initiated and completed my first digital project.
The other thing that stands out to me now is how those skills related to my scholarship. I thought what I was doing was important, but I didn’t think of it as scholarship. (I think brushing my teeth is important too, but it’s not my scholarship.) My scholarship, such as it was, was what I was doing in the dissertation I had begun to write, a Web-based hypertext (all flat HTML pages and hard-coded links) about what we nowadays call electronic literature and the aesthetics of information. Yes, I “used” Perl for one of the two foreign language reading requirements, an ad hoc request granted by Eric Lott, then DGS. The motive was pure practicality: I knew Perl and had the requirement to fulfill. I was able to make a reasonable argument that functionally it afforded me a kind of self-reliance that accorded with the rationale behind the language exam. For his part, I doubt Lott spent much time agonizing over the metaphysical stakes of the decision: it must have seemed to make sense, it was even probably something he saw as a small kindness.
By the mid-1990s, it was clear that the professor jobs promised by the New York Times weren’t going to materialize. Some of my peers had already left, often with more rudimentary “skills” than I had, to take (at the time) what seemed like lucrative and glamorous positions as “Webmasters.” Meanwhile the atmosphere in Wilson Hall (the English department’s home at the time) was increasingly toxic, a major flashpoint being the meagerness of graduate student stipends. And it wasn’t just UVA: 1996 was the year dining hall workers went on strike at Yale, where they were joined in solidarity by graduate teaching assistants, many of whom faced repercussions from faculty mentors. A Yale dean lambasted them for their actions, proclaiming them “the blessed of the earth.” One of those Yale faculty who had garnered a reputation for punitive behavior was coming to speak at UVA, at the personal invite of the department chair. The graduate students turned the occasion into a forum on labor inequities in the academy, with one of the Yale doctoral students flown down and secreted in the audience to act as respondent.
Our own graduate student organization, led, as it happens, by a longtime member of the Etext Center staff, threatened similar action but local grievances were redressed (more or less) short of organized action. A department summit meeting was held. The chair did not seek another term. For my part, I began working with members of the MLA’s Graduate Student Caucus, organizing national pushback against what at the time was widely perceived as the organization’s disinterest in its graduate student and adjunct members. These actions eventually earned me a letter of “concern” from the then-Executive Director, which was copied to my department chair.
Life at UVA was complex. Many faculty, including the ones who became my mentors, were wonderful and supportive. Others distanced themselves from their graduate students, a stance made easy to adopt by the lingering culture of Permission. Grad students themselves, as was natural, dispersed into their own circles and networks. Over everything hung anxiety about the job market: the golden age had ended long before I and my cohort arrived in Wilson Hall. I did my work by day, acquiring some “skills” I thought prudent; I wrote my dissertation in the evenings, trying my best to do something I thought might matter. That I was more fortunate than many in the one kind of work informing the other was not lost on me.
Through all this, the English department was not in lockstep with what was happening in the library’s digital centers. Far from it. Out of a faculty of fifty-something, there were perhaps 4–5 professors who were interested in humanities computing. Out of the hundreds of grad students — because UVA was still admitting grotesquely bloated cohorts — the interest was more widespread but also more diffuse, with a core community of between one and two dozen. Out of that community came many people you probably know: myself, Steve Ramsay, and Bethany Nowviskie, yes, but also Amanda French, Lisa Spiro, Mike Furlough, David Gants, Matt Gold (who ended up doing his PhD at CUNY), and Andy Stauffer. (Still others, like Ryan Cordell and Wesley Raabe, were a little behind us.) There was an almost equally robust cohort in History there at the time, largely as a function of Ed Ayers and the Valley of the Shadow project. Not all of us were necessarily close friends — it wasn’t some Borg entity. (I barely knew Matt Gold during his time there, for example.) I also met cool folks from elsewhere who were networked into IATH via their own early projects, or those of their mentors, including George Williams, Lara Vetter, Lisa Antonille Rhody, Jason Rhody, Rita Raley, Carl Stahmer, and Kari Kraus. There were also a lot of people whose names you won’t know, because despite being smart and talented they eventually decided — or were forced by circumstance — to do something else instead.
I hope I’m not embarrassing anyone. It’s hard to avoid naming names in these paragraphs since the individuals were so much a part of what was happening. And in addition to graduate students, IATH and Etext were both spaces heavily trafficked by visitors from elsewhere. Sitting in front of your keyboard, doing your work, you could eavesdrop on conversations with Famous People. I met Martha Nell Smith that way, and Alan Liu, and others. And sometimes you could do more than eavesdrop: that was the real appeal of the work for many of us. Not that it transcended what used to be parochially referred to as the apprenticeship model, but because it offered the rare vector for fulfilling it. You could talk to faculty, even mirabile dictu go out for lunch, because you knew things that they didn’t. Not just instrumental things (skills), but things about books and texts that you had learned because no one else had had occasion to scrutinize them at the level tagging, scanning, and coding demanded. We could be grownups, or if not exactly grownups we could at least have the kind of experience we had naively imagined graduate school to be. That all of this was happening at Virginia, with its baked in culture of Permission seemed all the more remarkable. (The Blake Archive was the primary project I was associated with at IATH, but I think what I say speaks to a certain level of generalized experience.)
In this climate, the centers at IATH and Etext functioned as the proverbial third place for many of us, just as Rare Book School and the Writing Center did for others: not home (where the dissertation was), not Wilson Hall (where the Real World was, in the form of anxiety, rivalries, and structural insecurities), but a communal and collaborative place to exist. What some brand as “neoliberalism” was my personal affect, lived every day, for a period of years, at my most vulnerable professional moment.
I briefly considered leaving for what we would nowadays call an alt-ac job. John Unsworth convinced me to stay, and finish, which I did, just as Johanna Drucker was arriving in 1999. My first tenure-track job was at the University of Kentucky in response to an ad for “humanities computing.” Kentucky was a pretty interesting place to be at the time: Dana Nelson was there, and Susan Bordo, and Gordon Hutner and Dale Bauer had just arrived. Mike Uebel was there too, someone I had not exactly been friends with in Charlottesville but who was welcoming and kind to me in every way. Other great people too. But it was obvious from the get-go I had been brought in as Kevin Kiernan’s hire. Kevin was a medievalist who was doing far out stuff imaging the Beowulf manuscript, something which had attracted its share of NSF dollars. The idea was to bring in a junior colleague who could collaborate with computer scientists. (I learned later on that I almost didn’t get the job because my job talk had been all “theory” and Kevin had balked at that.) I went, still under-ripe, the dissertation hastily concluded and defended, and without any clear sense of what I was really getting into, professionally speaking.
Lexington turned out to be a long way from Charlottesville. I did some writing there, but did nothing as far as turning the dissertation into a book, something it would have been unsuited to anyway. The project on which I spent the most time, the Virtual Lightbox, was a classic tool-building enterprise; it was half-baked and had but modest uptake. I left Kentucky in 2001 after two years, largely because I was unhappy living there.
There were two tenure-track jobs I was really interested in: Digital Studies at the University of Maryland, and Digital Humanities at UCSB, both based in the English departments. I ended up at Maryland and Rita Raley went to UCSB. (Ironically, Rita is surely identified as a “digital studies” person these days, whereas I read out as a “digital humanist.” I suspect we’d say we both embrace elements of both, a symptom of how arbitrary these labels can be. Additional fun fact: For a time I even gave out my title as “Assistant Professor of English and Digital Studies,” until my department chair told me to stop. This too is how identities are created and managed.) What brought me to Maryland was Martha Nell Smith and Neil Fraistat, as well as MITH, which had gotten underway just when I had first gotten to Kentucky.
The expectations at Maryland were made clear from the outset: a book for tenure. So I got cracking on what became Mechanisms, which was not the dissertation except for some of the chapter on Joyce’s Afternoon and a couple of other bits and pieces. I wrote the book happily, which is not to say easily or without stress and duress: but happily in that it was work I genuinely wanted to be doing. I got the contract for it in my second or third year at UMD (can’t remember), and the book was in press by the time I came up for tenure. The tenure process itself was uncontested and unremarkable, at least in so far as I know.
While writing Mechanisms, I identified professionally with two areas: humanities computing and new media. Digital studies seemed vague, amorphous; as a term, digital humanities was still just taking hold at the time, though of course I had started to use it. I had no ambiguity that I wanted to publish the book with the MIT Press, which was then the go-to press for work in new media, also publishing, at about the same time, Nick Montfort, Wendy Chun, Lisa Gitelman, Noah Wardrip-Fruin, and many others. (Minnesota’s Electronic Mediations series would also have been a desirable placement, but it was only just beginning to take off.) If asked whether it was humanities computing or new media, I would have branded Mechanisms “new media,” the term that appears in its subtitle; but it was also unmistakably informed by the kind of praxis I had absorbed in my work at the Etext Center and IATH. I did software studies, platform studies, and critical codes studies in the book, all avant-la-lettre, and all as a consequence of my training (or if you prefer, my skills, though I note how unselfconsciously we say “training” in relation to our own professionalization). Mechanisms’ forensic readings of individual software objects were deeply informed by my exposure to archival and bibliographical practices at UVA, a connection I sought to make explicit in its pages.
I did not rush to begin a second book as many newly-minted Associate Professors do, or at least attempt to do. Instead I spent several years on a series of funded research projects in conjunction with MITH, where I was also now an Associate Director. These projects resulted in a lot of writing, a couple of hundred thousand words of collaboratively written prose in the form of white papers and reports, several of which have become standard citations in the literature. Almost all of this work revolved around the preservation and dissemination of born-digital materials, including literary manuscripts, interactive fiction and electronic literature, computer games, and virtual reality environments like Second Life. Once again I understood what I was doing to be very much in line with the ethos informing textual studies, bibliography, and the Rare Book School: unflattening (to borrow a term) the material and historical forms of transmission across media, platforms, and environments.
In the course of working and writing with them, I learned that archivists don’t in fact need English professors — or digital humanists — to tell them about the political stakes of their jobs. I’ve had this conversation with them: “Yes, I love it when someone comes to me with a certain gleam in their eye, telling me they’re going to problematize what I do,” said one, the winner, as it happens, of a major award from the SAA not long ago. Archivists don’t need us to tell them that archives are incomplete and arbitrary, that there are gaps and “archival silences.” They deal with this brute reality every day, as a condition of their working lives. Archivists (and archives) are what stand between remembering and oblivion. The notion that archival work might somehow be considered ideologically suspect or a betrayal of some more authentic version of the humanities strikes me as one of the sorriest features of the recent spate of attacks on DH, and one wonders what markers of privilege are embedded therein.
By 2011 I had begun work on the book that would become Track Changes, deeply informed by the contacts I had made in the professional archives community. And I was also working on the BitCurator project, a tool-building initiative undertaken with colleagues in the School of Library and Information Science at UNC Chapel Hill. Whereas the Virtual Lightbox had had only some very modest uptake, and whereas my contributions to two early distant reading projects, nora and MONK, are best forgotten — at least by me — I remain proud of what we accomplished with BitCurator. So let me tell you what building a tool means to me, and you can decide if I’m, well, a tool. (Urban Dictionary: tool: “One who lacks the mental capacity to know he is being used. A fool. A cretin. Characterized by low intelligence and/or self-esteem.”)
BitCurator is a tool — really a set of tools, open source and many originally built by other people — that allows archivists to process what we call born-digital materials: Floppy disks and hard drives and the stuff that has helped make up our collective cultural heritage since personal computers became a part of life in the early 1980s. That writer or singer or politician you’re interested in? Chances are he or she has used a computer at some point in their career, and if their born-digital materials are included with their personal papers eventually collected by some institution or repository you are going to want to be able to read them along with everything else.
I can’t remember when or where he said it, but Jerome McGann once characterized scholarship as a commitment to the arts of memory. He elaborates on the premise in a book called The Scholar’s Art: “Not only are Sappho and Shakespeare primary, irreducible concerns for the scholar, so is any least part of our cultural inheritance that might call for attention,” asserts McGann. “And to the scholarly mind, every smallest datum of that inheritance has a right to make its call. When the call is heard, the scholar is obliged to answer it accurately, meticulously, candidly, thoroughly.” BitCurator helps you answer that call, or more precisely it helps the archivist who is processing the collection create the conditions that allow you to do so.
“To the scholarly mind, every smallest datum of that inheritance has a right to make its call.” In this McGann seems to follow Edward Said, who in Humanism and Democratic Criticism glosses Giambattista Vico’s famous verum factum principle — Vico is a touchstone for McGann too— as something like “We can really only know what we make” and “To know is to know how a thing is made, to see it from the point of view of its human maker.” This ethos — and the commitment to the arts of memory — has become, as UVA’s Richard Rorty was wont to say, a part of my final vocabulary. I believe it is true, in so far as anything in this world is true, whatever epistemic frames might be thrown around it notwithstanding. It’s not that either the scholar’s art or the verum factum are sufficient on their own — there are all sorts of considerations and contexts we want and need to bring bear — but this is where I start from. If it falls suspect to an ideological litmus test, if the space it opens for resistance or critique is insufficiently pure, then that’s it; I’ve got nothing left; I’m out of “moves.” Better scholars and better players of the game than I have left it all on the field at that point. I’m off to go take a shower.
Or else I could just tell you a story.
On a rainy morning a couple of years back a colleague and I slipped into the Houghton Library at Harvard. I had been there before to do research for Track Changes, but this time I was going behind the wall. We were in a small basement room, packed with curators and archivists (they’re not the same thing you know), and other Houghton staff to introduce them to BitCurator. I sat and watched as the small red LED lamp on an external 3.5-inch floppy drive flickered, the decades-old bits from what Jason Scott once called “poor black squares” passing through the sensors in its read/write head, interpolated by firmware, sifted through a WriteBlocker (to ensure no cross-contamination between the two systems), and reconstituted in the form of a disk image, a perfect virtual surrogate.
(Wolfgang Ernst writes of a similar flickering lamp, the magnetic recording light that pulsed as Milman Parry recorded the folk songs of the Serbian guslari singers: Archaeography, or the archive writing itself was how Ernst glossed the moment. The lamp flickered on and off. Something, nothing, memory, oblivion.)
We found no smoking gun, no “LostNovel.doc.” But the canon of collective memory swelled just a little bit more. It was a good morning’s work, done with a good tool.
Am I a digital humanist? The question feels less and less relevant, to be honest. There are other names I think of as more descriptive of what I actually do, including digital studies (the moniker under which I was hired), book history, and media archaeology. My favorite formulation is one from Jessica Pressman and Kate Hayles: comparative textual media. That one seems to get at most everything I’d want to associate myself with now. But am I a digital humanist? Of course I am. Not because my career profile matches a prescribed template, not because I can (or can’t) code, but because of the socialization of academia. In other words, I am a digital humanist because of the people I came up with and the people I run with. In that sense, as one of its three original authors acknowledged in an importantly candid moment deep within one of the innumerable Facebook threads it spawned, the LARB piece was indeed, and specifically, aimed as an attack upon “a group of tightly networked scholars on the East coast, many of whom are referred to by name.”
What would motivate such an attack? It’s not about technology per se or “the digital.” The feuds and acrimonies within and around digital humanities have their roots in all the material minutiae of institutions: jobs, promotions, resources, money, as well as less tangible but even more visible economies of prestige, prizes, and academic celebrity. It’s no speculation or commentary on anyone’s “bad faith” (a phrase that was circulating) to suggest that all of these are a symptom of the ways in which digital humanities is controlled by, rather than complicit in, the “neoliberal” forces we’ve been hearing so much about.
Neoliberal tools and forces . . . those are dark and ominous words. Let me try to make them into something humanly legible.
In my English department I currently serve on our coordinating and personnel committees, both of which have been busy this cold, wet spring. These committees do all the little things that are the levers by which “DH” would presumably seeks to orchestrate its neoliberal take-over. We propose language for position descriptions. We edit and revise (heaven help us) the department’s mission statement. We provide input to the dean when the College does the same. We make recommendations to address the department’s enrollment shortfall (yes, my department has an enrollment shortfall in its major; does yours?) If ever there was a fox in the henhouse scenario, this is it. And if I were a Silicon Sith Lord (or even just the tool of one) I would seek to use these occasions to revise our mission statement to something more to my cryptofascist taste; I would seek to ensure we hired only those whom I could coerce into adherence with my corporatist agenda; my single-minded solution to enrollment woes would be: coding über alles.
You’d have to ask them I guess, but there’s really no aura of hostile takeover as I and my colleagues go about our business. Disagreements and discussion, sure, but not the Manichean dualism that the LARB authors are so concerned to insist upon. I sit at the same table, purchased from the same institutional catalog (the furnishings obtained from prison shops), as the person doing poco next to me and the medievalist across the way. DH is not about killing the humanities and it’s not about saving the humanities; it’s about colleagues sitting around a prefab table doing business, and working for what everyone genuinely believes, more or less, to be the greater good: Keeping the major healthy, sustaining the size and strength of the faculty, and generally making the department a place that people want to inhabit to pursue the things that matter to them.
I read the LARB article when it came out — rife with the barely concealed classism, weirdly retrograde technological determinism, and moral absolutism others have remarked upon — and I spent a day or two turning it over in my mind, reflecting on the various backstories and backchannel histories acknowledged, if only just, by a pair of dates lodged in one of the authors’ bios. People wrote to me asking me for my reaction. I demurred, but I was clearly moved enough to draft this piece, and for that I guess I owe it something. This is my backchannel.
I owe it something else besides: After reading the LARB essay and scanning the fallout on social media I came to the realization that I’d much rather use my days to work on the things I love than the things I hate. And that, let me confess, has nothing to do with being a digital humanist. It has everything to do with being me.