illumination from a manuscript

To Be in DH Is To Be Under Attack

Spontaneous reply to a polemic.

(please note that I am not from the Anglosphere; that might or might not be relevant in this context)

To be in DH is to be under attack. Everyone is, in some way, of course, at least everyone in academia. Some call it discourse. It sometimes ascends to that level.

Now let me revise that first sentence. To be in DH is… something that I cannot quantify or make any educated claims about because there is no one “Digital Humanities” and I only have my very limited experience to draw from, making for a very poor basis for generalized statements. That is not to say that generalizations never have any merit whatsoever. They escalate an argument to the point of poignancy, in the best of cases, and spark an outraged rebuttal, in the worst. Polemics, to that end, achieve a very similar goal. They are useful when they are right and they are useful when they are wrong and that assessment of course entirely depends on a person’s point of view and the strength of the arguments attached to that. So what I will do here is present my point of view and the arguments attached to that, happy to be refuted and learn something in the process.

My point of view is that the now already infamous LA Review of Books article “Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities” by Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette, David Golumbia is wrong – not in its entirety, not in every sentence, maybe not even in its main thrust that is too steeped in North American university policies for me to comment on. But I certainly feel like the article’s execution and thus, arguably, by extension the article itself, is wrong. What is left when a good, perhaps admirable intent is exercised by way of straw man arguments? Nothing good, in my opinion. It is doing its cause a bad turn. (This idiom is a little strange to me and, as you may have guessed, straight out of a dictionary since I could only think of a German one.)

I know that the article must appear right to others, at the very least the authors, so the unease I felt while reading it scarcely suggested to warrant a response in itself. Then it turned into anger somewhere along the way. Airing my grievances in a short Twitter rant seemed like a sufficient way of dealing with it. It never does in retrospect though, does it? Because too much is left unsaid. Because a whole barrage of unfocused thoughts is reduced to a few characters, resulting in, if anything, even greater dissatisfaction. I stand by what I said but I would loathe to be misunderstood. So let me point out why I think that the execution of the article is wrong, alongside some quotes:

1) Americentrism and Questions of Cultural Hegemony

Advocates position Digital Humanities as a corrective to the “traditional” and outmoded approaches to literary study that supposedly plague English departments.

Oh. That first sentence gave me pause. I had actually wanted to read the article because I found the title intriguing as it promised “A Political History of Digital Humanities”. And the Digital Humanities were slashed right down to English departments within a few words (whatever DH is, it’s not just that). Of course no one would expect an article to cover the political history of the whole of DH, not least of all because DH is, though not ill-defined, oft-defined and, as is sometimes forgotten, practiced around the world in a great variety of institutions, languages, cultures and political systems; and yes, long enough to constitute having a history there, too. But would it have been remiss to acknowledge this in the introduction? It would seem proper to me to start from a broad perspective before narrowing that down to a manageable size and explaining, in the process, the reasoning behind it. Starting from the narrow perspective itself suggests an ignorance of the wider spectrum that I – at the risk of sounding accusatory – more often encounter in texts from US Americans or, let’s say, the English-speaking world than in texts from others. That is merely a cautious, anecdotal observation. I’m not firm in statistics but I’m sure the fact that I read more texts from English native speakers than from non-native speakers skews the results significantly. This again, though, potentially speaks for some bias in and of itself.

One look at the latest issue of the journal Digital Humanities Quarterly 2015 9.4 reveals articles exclusively from the USA, Australia and Canada. The preview of the issue 2016 10.1 paints a very similar picture, with some UK instead of Australia and some German co-authorship on an article with colleagues from the USA.

Are the scholars from the English-speaking world just that much more numerous and active? Is their command of their native tongue just so much better that their articles get more readily accepted in the peer review process? Maybe everyone else publishes in their own journals in their own language? Does anyone even care about the quality of writing? Are we not all glad to have a lingua franca in which to communicate our research across borders and languages? And is English not the best choice for this, seeing how a lot of academics world-wide have a basic grasp on it?

All I can say is that although I consider myself proficient in English, I certainly feel trepidation about publishing in a language that is not my own. It’s one of the reasons I haven’t done so yet. Presentations are fine because spoken words are fleeting but to publish something, especially academically, means to be sure of something in a particular expression that will be dissected if anyone cares to read it. I don’t begrudge native English speakers the privilege to publish in their mother tongue because I would certainly do it if I could (and I will do it, should I choose to stay in academia) but as with every privilege, it is invisible to those who hold it. I know that I have other privileges that I take for granted and others that I’m not even aware of.(1)

This is a topic that I could write more about but lest I digress too much, let me just say that Domenico Fiormonte has written extensively about this already.(2) I recommend his article “Towards a Cultural Critique of Digital Humanities” in particular for some food for thought. From what I remember, it is better researched, argued, and, frankly, executed than the poorly conceived article I am focusing on here.

As for the sentence quoted above, I will ignore the rest of it because I cannot comment on how advocates position Digital English Literary Studies and in oppositon to what. Though I will say that this is the kind of claim that anyone could make about anything. Who said what, when? I would like to see citations, proof, more than hearsay. And if it is just hearsay and assumptions and “feelings”, then I would like to see them expressed in a more thoughtful manner. For someone not intimately familiar with the North American inner-academic life and the surrounding discourses, this article made for very stressful rather than enlightening reading.

2) To Be Or Not To Be: Defining DH

What Digital Humanities is not about, despite its explicit claims, is the use of digital or quantitative methodologies to answer research questions in the humanities. It is, instead, about the promotion of project-based learning and lab-based research over reading and writing, the rebranding of insecure campus employment as an empowering “alt-ac” career choice, and the redefinition of technical expertise as a form (indeed, the superior form) of humanist knowledge.

Certainly one of, if not the most divisive part. I’m not sure why anyone would phrase these sentences in such a way if not to incite but I will forego any stylistic criticisms since I don’t feel like I have read enough academic English in my short lifetime to have much of an opinion on it.

Let me instead use a fairly unacademic way of expressing my thoughts at this point of reading:

Any argument against the former definition – though acknowledged as a self-understanding of the field and as such too easily done away with – and any argument for the latter definition notwithstanding, I fail to see how both exclude each other. Can it not be about both? Is this a logic test that I am failing? Or does it indeed have little to do with defining an actual community with actual activities and more to do with shifting the focus towards the perception and political impact of said actual community, movement, discipline, whatever shoe fits because I’m not seeing it expressedly stated here? (The rest of the piece seems to oscillate between looking at Digital Humanities as a “social movement”, or rather, socio-economic movement, and a political movement. It throws everything into the blender to make a seemingly progressive albeit confusing smoothie.)

The title of the article itself said as much, of course, but I wonder why it seems impossible to address the political dimension of something without reducing it to just that political dimension, as if it’s something that could be studied in isolation. Very odd. Indeed, what this seems to tell me is that this is what it should be studied as. Instead of offering an intriguing analysis of the ways DH might or might not be part of “the system” like or unlike other disciplines, these sentences tell me that DH is “the system” and it’s come to destroy the last vestige of the humanities, I’m sorry, English departments that up until now steadfastly resisted the technocratic takeover of an unfeeling and unthinking world, run by evil corporations and serving the rich and the privileged. I’m not trying to ridicule the sentiment because there might be something to it but we won’t know after the perusal of this article because it never specifies what exactly it means when it talks about “neoliberalism”. It’s a bad thing, I can gather as much, but if the assumption is that this is well-established enough as a term to act as a cipher for a myriad of associated issues then I must lament the lack of these clear-cut categories in both the historical portion of the article as well as the assessment of the present-day situation.

Also, given that this was not published in a political science journal, was not written by political scientists and was not written for political scientists, I must wonder about the lack of definitions. It’s not that I don’t have my own associations with the word “neoliberal” and it’s not that the article is devoid of any worthwile thoughts; but they are muddled and buried underneath these rather preposterous suppositions.

3) Inferiority and Superiority

While some scholars affiliated with the Digital Humanities movement became conversant with the intellectual background of the procedures they employed, producing valuable work that could have seen publication in the venues within which the procedures themselves had been developed, the fetishizing of code and data and the relative neglect of critical discourse within Digital Humanities have led to the emergence of an environment in which one is more likely to encounter oddities such as Michael Dalvean’s recent claim that the probability scores yielded by a machine learning algorithm are an “objective” measure of literary value.

In the quote under 2), the text stated that DH is about the “redefinition of technical expertise as a form (indeed, the superior form) of humanist knowledge”. Therein lies one of the great weaknesses of the piece. Instead of presenting several sides of an argument, it presumes the tacit understanding that traditional scholarship is right and superior and that new invading methodologies are actually wrong and inferior and that they seek to prove the opposite, making them dangerous to the established powers at play. (In a slightly paradox twist on what others might see as the establishment, namely neoliberal forces.)

So examples like the cited article are simply treated as obviously ridiculous in their notions. Is it that obvious, though? It should be easily discredited then, as the power of persuasion and a stringent argument still trump any analysis of datasets in every article I have read, unless that analysis employs the same acumen, making the whole indignation moot. Articles are still written by humans. But they are free to discuss the objectivity or lack thereof when it comes to the foundations of their argumentation, be it data accumulated through algorithms or something else. In fact, the debate about objectivity is an old one for a reason, in my opinion, and not one to shy away from or scoff at.

I am also just stumped by the “redefinition of technical expertise as a form […] of humanist knowledge” since the distinguished Digital Humanists that the authors themselves list are humanists first and foremost and, as per their own admission, “openly disclaim any ability to code”. So what technical expertise are we even talking about? Are we not rather talking about cultural techniques? And why should they not have a place in the humanities? They always did. Humanist research was always determined by not just the limitations of the mind but also the limitations of technology by which to augment and express any insights, opening pathways to different questions. The extent to which someone follows these pathways is entirely something individual and dependent on interests and skills but that is true for any research.

And: One swallow does not make a summer. In every discipline you will be able to find examples for any kind of opinion and I fail to see how it is representative for anything other than the researcher’s argument itself. The fact that it is published in a renowned journal is a sign of openness and lack of doctrine, in my opinion, nothing more and nothing less.

4) The Prerogative of Interpretation

While many will be able to say, with some justification, “But that’s not my Digital Humanities!” what we discuss here is the Digital Humanities that is helping to transform the academy, because this is the Digital Humanities that has proved itself so useful to university administrators and to funding bodies.

Well, yes. Conversely, is the article not about the authors’ Digital Humanities? Where is the difference between how they feel and how people feel who practice some form of DH in academia, archives, libraries, museums? Is the difference that they don’t proclaim to speak of experience but rather as outsiders, looking at the system in a personally unaffected way? The frustration that is palatable in every line of the article seems to belie that point. If many can, with justification, say that they don’t recognize the article’s perception of DH to be DH, then really what makes this perception more valid?

I’m sure the reaction to the article would not have been as vitriolic if it had not been so dismissive of, basically, everyone and everything not fitting the argument the authors are trying to make. If something does not fit the argument, it needs to be refuted or incorporated. For it to be refuted, I want to see numbers, graphs, polls, something to make me believe in the purported nefarious purposes, not of individuals of course but “the system” (although the university administrators seem to fulfill quite the villain-y role in this piece of a tragedy). Storytelling is good. Claims without substantiation are not good. Anecdotes are a good start but not enough when talking about systemic issues.

Anyone with the – depending on your point of view – boldness or rudeness to demand a prerogative of interpretation really needs to back it up quite thoroughly or they will leave themselves open to attacks from all sides. And employing an aggressive stance would seem to invite those attacks, naturally. A home-made lose-lose situation.

Exceptions to the general trends of course abound. The problem is that these exceptions too easily function as alibis. “Look, not everyone committed to Digital Humanities is a white man.” “Look, there are Digital Humanities projects committed to politically engaged scholarly methods and questions.” We are not negating the value of these exceptions when we ask: What is the dominant current supported even by the invocation of these exceptions?

But who is to say what the exceptions are and what constitutes the dominant current? These things are best defined in opposition to something but we learn next to nothing about the ways Digital Humanities might not be a neoliberal specter or why these arguments would not suffice to contradict the assumptions so confidently stated as definitive truth here.

5) An Assortment of Quotes

This is just a collection of some random remarks of mine, none of which amount to much but are rather meant to illustrate my constant bewilderment at the way the arguments are presented, stemming either from my own ignorance, admittedly, or a failure on the authors’ part to express themselves eruditely.

But the unparalleled level of material support that Digital Humanities has received suggests that its most significant contribution to academic politics may lie in its (perhaps unintentional) facilitation of the neoliberal takeover of the university.

Perhaps unintentional? So, perhaps intentional? Is this a suggestion of an intentional facilitation of the neoliberal takeover of the university with Digital Humanities acting as a gateway? Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

One recurring question for me while reading this article is: What is a non-neoliberal university? What are its attributes? Are the humanities a bastion against the neoliberal, conservative, technocratic zeitgeist? Do they exist and function separate from time and space? Is the ivory tower the refuge from neoliberalism? But is it not at the same time a remnant of conservative, elitist notions? Is this article concerned with representation and diversity or economics or…?

This is why Digital Humanities is pushed far more strongly by university administrators than it is by scholars and students, who increasingly find themselves pressured to redirect their work toward Digital Humanities.

This just rings absolutely false to me but it might ring true to someone in US academia?

One crucial point of origin, rarely remarked in discussions of the subject, is in the literary studies subfield known as “textual studies.”

Is it rarely remarked on? Clearly I’m running in the right circles because I have heard it remarked upon very often indeed. But that is, of course, neither here nor there.

This is one of the main reasons why the digitization of archives and the development of software tools — conspicuously expensive activities that influential funding bodies have enthusiastically supported — can exert such powerful attraction, effectively enabling scholarship to be reconfigured on the model of the tech startup, with public, private, and charitable funding in place of Silicon Valley venture capital.

I know I have to stop quoting or I will still be here tomorrow but I cannot seem to help myself as almost every sentence leaves me scratching my head. Is the digitization of archives not a step towards a democratization of access to cultural heritage? Not exclusively, maybe, but it is one of the side effects, is it not? Do all these arguments count for nothing in the face of the “neoliberal” takeover? And “conspicuously expensive activities”? These activities are expensive. Does that make them conspicuous? Is it because the authors assume that there must be an expectation of revenue attached to them? What about the digitization of cultural heritage for the purpose of long-term preservation? It does seem to me that there is a cultural value to such activities, more so than a monetary value.

6) Conclusion

I have skipped the whole section about the University of Virginia since I have already seen others respond to this. Given my lack of familiarity, I thought it best to refrain from elaborating how it struck me as very tendentious. I will just say that overall, I found the focus of the article exceedingly narrow, the evidence for the “dominant current” wanting and the terminology obfuscating.

That is not to say that there is no truth whatsoever in any of the allegations and maybe I would have to be socialized in the North American academia to judge that (a strange condition for the comprehension of a scholarly article but, anyway). Thus, the basic premises would be deserving of a better treatment, in my opinion: I do want to read about a lack of diversity, I do want to read about cultural hegemony, I do want to read about the value of scholarship. Though, the more I read, the more I am starting to question the value any scholarship holds, no matter whether its methodologies are traditional, favor technical expertise over humanist knowledge (honestly, what does that even mean?) or are just completely arbitrary.

Certainly, there is a lot more to be said but I forewent a night’s sleep to type this and have no more time to spare. I’m starting to wonder why anyone even paid attention to this article in the first place. It may be well-intentioned, despite its rather scathing tone, but the reasoning left me largely unconvinced. It may express genuine fears of a hostile takeover and I can and will not discredit those feelings. But I would have expected more persuasive scholarship from an article co-authored by three different academics, complaining about the lack of scholarship in DH, no less. Yes, there may be a lack of theoretical, epistemological and methodical underpinnings to DH yet but that in itself is too vague a notion to build a diatribe on.

I will remain highly critical of DH (and everything it may or may not entail) myself, apropos of nothing. But I believe there is something to my first sentence after all: to be in DH is to be under attack. From computer scientists for not knowing enough about computer science, if they even care, and from humanists for not caring enough about scholarship. The position of the humanities might be truly dire in North America but territorial behaviour rarely works towards a solution. And to be attacked in a fragile, unconsolidated position is something very different than to be attacked in a consolidated, established position. Now it’s up to the reader to decide who occupies which position. It can differ. Maybe some positions are consolidated by money, maybe others are by academic acceptance.

Ultimately, I believe that, rather than squabbling on a meta level, everyone would be better off doing research, whether in a political capacity or not, so long as it promises to answer a question, deemed important enough to ask by the researcher him- or herself, without the need to devalue others, only to engage in an effort to further human knowledge, whatever shape or form it may take.

But I am aware that the authors of the LARB article have a thought-terminating argument on their side which would likely render me part of their theory as an unwitting supporter of the neoliberal takeover by not positioning myself against it or by being entirely irrelevant as an individual anyway, neglecting that they are individuals themselves that cannot be erased from the narrative simply because they aim to talk about “the system”.

We are all part of “the system”.

I feel like my brain is now fried.

PS: Yes, there are still ways to go before any field achieves equal representation, simply because it’s a societal issue and academia is not separate from society. But I’m not sure I’m here for all the current contributors to the field of DH that aren’t white men being reduced to tokens.

PPS: “Humanities” is too vaguely and broadly defined for my tastes. I know that it always gets equated with Geisteswissenschaften in these contexts but they are not congruent. Going into more detail would take too much time but I wanted to note it anyway.

PPPS: I’m too tired to erase all the contractions and since it’s just a blog post, no need for formality, right? Right.


(1) The fact that the question whether the language of science even matters popped up on the Humanist mailing list not too long ago speaks for itself, cf. Humanist 29.678 and 29.683, Yes, it matters, more so in the hermeneutical humanities than in the empirical sciences and I’d wager most foreign speakers who have struggled to find equivalents in English for concepts from their own language can attest to this. ()

(2) A selection: Domenico Fiormonte, “The international debate on humanities computing: education, technology and the primacy of languages,” Italian version in Testo & Senso No. 4/5 (2001), pp. 145-156. // Domenico Fiormonte, “Towards a Cultural Critique of Digital Humanities,” in Historical Social Research Vol. 37/3 (2012), Special Issue: Controversies around the Digital Humanities, ed. by Manfred Thaller, pp. 59-76. // Domenico Fiormonte, “Digital Humanities from a global perspective,” in Laboratorio dell’ISPF XI (2014), pp. 1-18. // Domenico Fiormonte, “The Politics of Code: How digital representations and languages shape culture,” extended abstract from IS4IS Summit Vienna (2015), pp. 1-5. ()

Image Sources:

The featured image depicts the stoning of St. Stephan, taken from the Elsässische Legenda Aurea (University of Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 144, Bl. 050v, I thought it was funny because it looks as if he’s throwing a shoe at him.

Citation Recommendation:

Cite this blog post
Tessa Gengnagel (2016, May 5). To Be in DH Is To Be Under Attack. parergon. Retrieved May 21, 2024, from

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Tessa Gengnagel

PhD student from Germany. Background in History / Medieval Latin / European Multimedia Arts & Cultural Heritage Studies. Interest in Digital Humanities.

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