The Political Dimension of Scholarship in Times of Great Upheaval


Even from the abyss of horror in which we try to feel our way today, half-blind, our hearts distraught and shattered, I look up again and again to the ancient constellations that shone on my childhood, comforting myself with the inherited confidence that, some day, this relapse will appear only an interval in the eternal rhythm of progress onward and upward.

― Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday(1)

Reading those words now, words that Stefan Zweig wrote in his memoir, a memoir he send to his publisher one day before taking his own life in 1942, is strangely eerie. He, the Jewish intellectual who fled the Nazis in 1934 and spend the last decade of his life in exile; who reminisced about the “golden age of security”(2) in Europe before World War I; who sought to oppose the nationalism of his time with a “consciously apolitical Europeanness”(3) – he could not hold onto his optimism long enough to see the “dawn after the long night”(4). He bequeathed that hope to his friends, in his farewell letter, and told them that he, all too impatient, would go ahead.(5)

Objects in the rearview mirror may appear closer than they are. And everything is clearer in hindsight. But there is a sense of familiarity to the sunken world Zweig described. That sense is the sense of something irretrievably lost. There is something else there, too: about the cyclical nature of a history that doesn’t repeat itself but never feels alien either; about a sense of security that must always appear false because it is finite; and about the dazed confusion of the intelligentsia in the face of a different kind of persuasion – not that of logic and reason but of ironbound boots thundering through the streets.

The knowledge of history can paralyze us because it suggests that everything was once worse, at some point in time. It always was. It always is, in some other corner of the world. The knowledge of history does not beget informed action, it begets informed inaction. What action could there be? There is seldom a blueprint for how it went right. Only for how it went wrong.(6) And doing things differently might not yield the desired result because there is not just one alternative path to tread. What are we to do as individuals, awash in the tide of greater forces than ourselves? But to think like that is to have already admitted defeat. Any action might be better than inaction. And no force can be greater than ourselves because it is ourselves. It might be possible to grant an exception for natural catastrophes but seeing as humankind might be classed as a natural catastrophe all in itself, such an exception might also be useless.

Of course, there is already a lot to unpack here. What is right? What is wrong? What is, as Zweig so eloquently put it, the “eternal rhythm of progress”? And what are the obstacles to that progress? These questions are a lot easier to answer for an ordinary citizen than a scholar, or so it appears to me. The next complication, then, is that scholars are not just scholars but citizens as well and they have, I presume, a heart that beats in one direction or another. Writing about the world as if they are not a part of it might be all fun and games until that world is no longer there; then they may realize that perchance they might have done better by doing something other than writing.

But enough of the imagined. We are in the here and now. And the here and now demands some answers. It may not even matter whether we are living in a time of great upheaval or not. That will be for future historians to decide. But let’s pretend that we might. Let’s pretend that our choices matter, and that they matter even more so because of the times that we are living in. If that’s a delusion, then it’s a good one to have.

Responsibility

The first question seems to be: What is our responsibility as researchers and scholars? And to whom? Society? Posterity?

It came to me the Friday before last, as I was visiting a conference organized by my graduate school that focused on the topic of “Societies and Social Practices: Between Theory and Responsibility”(7) that this question is still unaccounted for. It may be that there is a lot of literature about this out there but it didn’t come up (I feel like only Foucault came up, time and time again, but that’s a topic for another day).(8)

The way I see it, there are different responsibilities and they are contingent on the different functions of the multiple social and societal roles that every person inhabits (any similarity to Luhmann’s vocabulary is entirely coincidental; I’m just freewheeling).

A scholar has the responsibility to work diligently; to correctly cite and reference; to increase or enhance knowledge; to argue in good faith; to disseminate his or her findings; to provide access to the thought process or empirical evidence underlying them; to treat the subject of study ethically correct (by seeking permission, protecting sensitive personal information, and so on). The last point is mostly relevant for those working with people, and living people at that. Which, I would wager, does not particularly pertain to the humanities but I will get back to that.

Those responsibilities should not be in conflict with each other. But they can be in conflict with the responsibilities of those other roles. Responsibilities as a scholar may collide with the responsibilities the same person has as a parent. They may collide with the responsibilities that person has as a citizen. Or they may collide with the responsibilities the person has to themself. Such a conflict might best be solved by way of prioritizing. It should not be solved by way of compromising (in the negative meaning of the word, i.e. where something becomes compromised).

Detachment

What was repeatedly discussed at the conference was the idea of detachment. That a scholar should be detached. That being detached is what allows a scholar to do scholarly work in a space that is somewhat separate, somewhat spirited away, a kind of outside from where to look inside. A place where the clocks are ticking more slowly. Where the great unknown is a formation of rocks, sanded down by the ever rising ocean of epistēmē. The notion of detachment is an interesting one and must not be confused with a claim to objectivity. While we presumably cannot be objective, acknowledging and reflecting and, most importantly, balancing that by employing an evidence-oriented methodology that externalizes our conclusions is different to actively indulging in our own biases because we know that we cannot exclude them. Detachment is at the very least the attempt of a kind of alienation from self. Activism must, by definition, be the very opposite. It requires the innermost connection to self. Not least of all because that which we are fighting for usually concerns ourselves and the groups we feel we belong to. It is a sad truth of life that people only truly care about something if they are the ones affected by it. Empathy goes some way towards mitigating this fundamental egocentrism but it doesn’t go all the way and more often than not, it seems to me that its reserves are quickly depleted. Sometimes it’s not even a question of being feeling or unfeeling: It’s a question of blindness; of the invisibility of issues. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t there. Just that not enough people – or maybe not the right kind of people – care. (The right kind of people would be those with the power to garner public support or effect political change, I suppose.)

In fact, the night is always longer for some than for others. There must be quite a number of people for whom these moments in time are not moments of a harsh awakening but rather moments of welcoming others to their reality.

Progress

I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

― Theodore Parker, Of Justice and the Conscience(9)

Would that it were so.

What I find most striking in conversations with others is the question whether there is a moral imperative to act, and not just that; the question whether there is a special kind of moral imperative for scholars. Far be it from me to disennoble the profession but I wonder where that sentiment comes from. As I said, a significant trait of scholarship seems to be its particular lack of alliance to any particular cause. If scholarship is apolitical in nature – as apolitical as something can be, and I suspect many would doubt that something bound up in institutions and money and so forth can be apolitical to begin with -, then political activities will not come into conflict with scholarly activities, so long as they are kept separate. The question is not so much whether they can be kept separate but why there seems to be an expectation of scholars to propagate progress in their work or through their work.

I think it may have something to do with the idea that knowledge in itself is not enough; that it has to serve a specific purpose – that purpose being the betterment of that which it describes. Although not everything in the natural sciences is application-driven, those disciplines have contributed to the technical progress of humankind. And while technical progress might not be their raison d’être, innovation and invention are more than just mere side effects. Technical progress is generally perceived to be beneficial to society and its accumulation of wealth and comfort. (I say “generally” because there are topics that test this view, as for example the conversation surrounding industrial automation.)(10)

Following this line of thought, it stands to reason that the disciplines concerned with society and social phenomena must further social progress, right? Description turned into prescription. Analysis giving way to acts of enlightenment. I have a few issues with this. One issue that I have is that this is laid at the doorstep of not only the social sciences but also the humanities; but that is a very particular issue of mine that mostly has to do with the definition of the humanities in the English-speaking world as a generous umbrella term for every non-“hard” discipline dealing with “something human” (I apologize if this sounds glib but that is genuinely – and perhaps falsely – the impression that I have).(11) Since the humanities, in my book, are much more narrowly defined in a historical-cultural sense, that’s just something that I have to accept. Nobody clamors for cultural progress, do they? At least nobody expects scholars to advocate for such. Maybe the social and the cultural are too entwined in these contexts to disconnect.

Writing this, it comes to me that the Digital Humanities might be perceived as especially potent because they marry technical progress with social progress, or at the very least seem to hold such a promise. (If I wanted to write about the political dimension of the Digital Humanities – as a field and profession – specifically, that would have to be another blog post, but I will not forcefully ignore my own disciplinary framework here either.)

Justice

In the discourse, especially online, social progress is often framed in terms of social justice. And in a DH-specific context, this became quite explicit during the recent DH 2018 conference, held in Mexico, with a panel on “Justice-Based DH, Practice, and Communities”.(12) In reference to literature on the topic, the organizers defined justice-based research “as research that aims to benefit not only its audience but also its subjects, and is conducted from an intersectional awareness of compounding oppressions”(13). This begs many questions: Is there research that cannot be justice-based because it cannot benefit its subjects? Is there research that is injustice-based? Is there a hierarchy that ranks the moral aptitude of research causes and consequences?

The answer to all three is probably yes. Whether all research that is not implicitly or explicitly justice-based must be injustice-based is more difficult to answer but I will forego any deeper exploration of this for now. What is of greater interest to me is that it brings the institutional aspect of cultural heritage preservation and presentation into sharper relief. Therein seems to lie another reason for the moral imperative placed on humanities scholars: their ability to gatekeep, to select and deselect what documents and artifacts of marginalized communities survive, their power to create narratives that have long-lasting effects on cultural memory; all because they are the ones typically employed by archives, libraries and museums. It is no wonder, then, that the Digital Humanities are perceived to have a liberating and democratizing potential by opening up new possibilities of accessibility, citizen science and public engagement.(14) That the Digital Humanities are also, by others, seen as a product-oriented harbinger of a neo-liberal techno-triumphal takeover of universities, furnished by a decline in intellectual prowess, merely adds to the tension of this highly politicized environment.(15)

Is it even possible to conduct a detached kind of research under these conditions? I won’t ask whether it’s desirable because that is not a question I would contend with, on the basis that attachment to a cause is not something that can be commanded, making the question whether it should be moot.

Jessica Marie Johnson, a digital humanist and assistant professor of Africana Studies and History at Johns Hopkins University, had this to say when asked about the purpose of the Digital Humanities and their role in elevating the relevance of the humanities in the 21st century:

I think that what the humanities is grappling with is how to be relevant to a changing demographic and changing communities, both at the university level and within the communities in which universities are situated. I don’t think digital work is or is not going to be the key to answering these questions. I think the humanities has a justice imperative that it has not quite fulfilled as a mission (even as individuals continue to work and push that).(16)

According to this view, as well as others in the Digital Humanities,(17) serving a just cause is not merely a scholarly responsibility but a duty. I would like to read something about how this can gel with the necessity of a certain degree of detachment for scholarly work – whether there is such a necessity, whether the notion should be rejected, and what it would mean if those who rejected it did not share the overwhelming political leaning of academia (which seems to skew center-left, if I may extrapolate from myself and those I know; which, to be fair, is a fairly small sample in the grand scheme of things; but there is also some research out there to support this claim, even if it should not be overstated).(18)

Diversity

Although I have not probed any of the questions I have posed thus far in great detail, I would not want to write such a post without a proposal for actions one might take, even if that proposal is rather basic in nature. It seems to me that what a lot of the current discourse boils down to is the matter of diversity.(19) If the history of social progress is the history of an increasing right to participation, political or otherwise, for an increasing part of society – by extending citizenship, by extending the right to vote, by extending the range of who is to be treated as equal before the law -, then the next step must be to make all people equal in practice. I know that there are those in academia who struggle with this idea because I have had conversations with them. They will only accept that which can be “codified” and deny (1) that there are power imbalances on a more nuanced level that may not just be felt and described as personal sensitivities but as systemic phenomena, regardless of their subtle appearance; (2) that the struggle of the disadvantaged to even so much as voice their discomfort in situations where they are being disadvantaged (due to their gender, sexuality, race, religion) is not just a symptom of self-victimization; and (3) that they are uncomfortable themselves because they belong to a previously privileged group to whom the equalization of others must feel like a loss of power and privilege because it is a loss, a loss of something they maybe never even realized they had and subconsciously don’t want to part with; that is, the loss of an advantage, which is not the same as the creation of a disadvantage.

In this regard, the actions humanities scholars can take appear clear to me. If they do believe in the value of social progress, they must aid the diversification of their field and profession on two levels: They must diversify their research subjects and they must diversify their workforce. They must make visible those who have been invisible, make heard those who have been unheard, and most importantly enable those who are invisible to be visible and those who are unheard to be heard, so they may tell the histories and intricacies of their own communities with their own voices. Think of it as you would when it comes to the film industry or other producers of cultural entertainment: It is progress to diversify the stories that are being portrayed and this diversification is important in terms of representation which in turn is important for the self-conception of those who see themselves represented; but it’s not enough to center a story around a group of women when all the talent behind the camera is still all-male; or to include LGBT content but not a member of the community in the creative force driving the project; and so on. Practice what you preach and seek to make a difference where you can, in the so-called “real life”.

This mostly applies to those involved in funding proposals, conference organizations and personnel decisions but given how academia is wired, at least here in Germany, there are many more people involved in those decisions in academia than there would be in a company, so chances are you will be involved in those decisions if you stay in academia long enough.

Research

The diversification of research subjects would seem to be a more difficult issue but it does not require anything other than an effort to look beyond the known, the traditional and the simple; in short: it mostly means to be innovative and that’s what any good research should be. Shining a flashlight into blind spots does not have to be mandated by an agenda, it should come naturally once the pretense of omniscience falls away. Of course, one might not like what they find there but that is a part of the equation and the reason why I don’t see any conflicts with the scholarly responsibilities I have hitherto extolled: So long as personal feelings only influence the research interest rather than its outcome, there is nothing objectionable about it. Similarly, so long as different roles – let’s say, as a scholar and as a political activist – merely inform each other, that is hardly questionable (never mind that I find the notion that anyone could even be so much as able to keep different parts of themselves from informing each other quite funny). If anything, they should inform each other.

What I struggle with is the idea of streamlining this process into a pipeline: In goes social concern, out comes research that supports claims surrounding that concern, and it goes back in as political argumentation. Mind you, I am not saying that it’s not possible to have a political stance that is supported by research and reason (also: common sense) because, if anything, it really should be. But on the level of the individual, a scholar should not conduct research in service of any cause other than trying to ascertain a truth. If they trusted in their convictions, they would not have to. And it may well happen that their findings do support their leanings on political issues or that these leanings even emerge organically from the findings of their research. The difference is that the cart must not be put before the horse.

Knowledge

There are a lot more aspects to the topic but I won’t be able to touch on them all. One aspect is the question of public engagement of scholars – the dissemination of their findings – and it is again one area where I think scholars can be or perhaps even should be politically engaged, especially if their research findings are misused by political actors or misrepresented in the media.(20) Another aspect is the fact that scholars and intellectuals who do speak out on political topics or write about their research with a somewhat controversial leaning (that may not even be as controversial in academia as it is among the general public or vice versa) will sometimes trigger a massive backlash which is a lot harder to navigate than scholarly engagements and turns very ugly, very quickly.(21) Surprisingly, this backlash may not just be restricted to vicious attacks from rightwing extremists, for example, but also include silencing and shaming from other corners of the political spectrum. As noted feminist writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie put it after causing a controversy with her comments about trans women:

What’s interesting to me is this is in many ways about language and I think it also illustrates the less pleasant aspects of the American left, that there sometimes is a kind of language orthodoxy that you’re supposed to participate in, and when you don’t there’s a kind of backlash that gets very personal and very hostile and very closed to debate.(22)

I will not get into this but it really is another topic onto itself, especially when viewed through a non-American lens. Another aspect would be the socio-economic reality of “knowledge production” (a phrase I normally abhor but find quite apt in the context of short-term contracts, publish or perish, and so on). That aspect could be expanded to look at universities as structural political players themselves. There is a lot to consider when talking about the entanglement of politics and academia.

But I think I will close on a different note. I have been wondering what it is about the current political climate in Europe and the US that is so particularly irksome, although I cannot speak to how irksome scholars have found the climate in decades past. For me, it all circles back to the issue of knowledge and education.

There is a well-known quote from Isaac Asimov and although it pertains to anti-intellectualism in the US, I think it speaks to a sentiment felt by many in other countries as well:

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”(23)

It is often said that knowledge is power but if anything, recent political events have belied that adage once and for all. Rare must be the scholar or otherwise intellectually inclined person that is left unmoved by the imbecilic mockery of human brainpower that has been on display in the news for the last months. There may have been worse situations in the past as far as the overall welfare of the people is concerned and some of the hysteria may well be hyperbolic but there is also something that feels quite unprecedented about the infantile antics currently paraded around. Barely a modicum of sanity in sight.

When a referendum is won with demonstrably false claims and a president constantly contradicts himself and lies with orange-faced abandon, there may come a time when scholars have to say: “My knowledge is better than your ignorance. You may not listen to me but here’s what I have to say anyway.”

But, alas. That would be exactly the type of arrogance the bourgeois elite is typically accused of and it serves to drive any discourse into the ground. When one side is unreceptive and the other cannibalistic, the only ones left standing will be those without any inclination to an opinion other than the one that benefits them most. On top of that, the language of scholars is often inaccessible which may contribute to their lack of outreach and make them susceptible to the ridicule of laypeople, some of which may well be deserved. But in my experience, scholars are, by and large, sensible and observant and they have sensible and observant things to say. They may not want to squabble with the riff-raff or broker with the rich and powerful and they do need to maintain a professional independence. But what is it all good for if they neglect the other sides in their lives, the sides in which their engagement can and must be more pronounced, aided by their authority as experts so long as it pertains to topics they are familiar with and have performed research on?

Speaking out may start in a small circle, in everyday life, and it may not be pretty. As Bertold Brecht so poignantly wrote in his poem An die Nachgeborenen (“To Those Who Follow in Our Wake”):

And yet we knew:
Even the hatred of squalor
Distorts one’s features.
Even anger against injustice
Makes the voice grow hoarse. We
Who wished to lay the foundation for gentleness
Could not ourselves be gentle.(24)

Brecht faced a different kind of barbarity when he wrote those lines. But perhaps it wasn’t so different in essence. Perhaps it wasn’t so different at all.



Footnotes

(1) Translation taken from <https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/242824-even-from-the-abyss-of-horror-in-which-we-try>. The original reads: “Selbst aus dem Abgrund des Grauens, in dem wir heute halb blind herumtasten mit verstörter und zerbrochener Seele, blicke ich immer wieder auf zu jenen alten Sternbildern, die über meiner Kindheit glänzten, und tröste mich mit dem ererbten Vertrauen, daß dieser Rückfall dereinst nur als ein Intervall erscheinen wird in dem ewigen Rhythmus des Voran und Voran.” (Stefan Zweig, Die Welt von Gestern: Erinnerungen eines Europäers, 1942, Kapitel 3, <http://gutenberg.spiegel.de/buch/die-welt-von-gestern-6858/3>) ()

(2) Ibid.: “Wenn ich versuche, für die Zeit vor dem Ersten Weltkriege, in der ich aufgewachsen bin, eine handliche Formel zu finden, so hoffe ich am prägnantesten zu sein, wenn ich sage: es war das goldene Zeitalter der Sicherheit.” ()

(3) “Früh schon erkannte er im Nationalismus den Fluch seines Jahrhunderts. Gegen ihn setzte er ein bewusst apolitisches Europäertum, eine optimistische Vorstellung von Kultur, die die ‘Sternstunden der Menschheit’ nicht in gewonnenen Schlachten, sondern in geistigen Leistungen und inneren Überzeugungen sah.” (Ruth Fühner, “Überall Fremder und bestenfalls Gast,” in: Deutschlandfunk (23 February 2012), <https://www.deutschlandfunk.de/ueberall-fremder-und-bestenfalls-gast.871.de.html?dram:article_id=127618>) ()

(4) “Ich grüsse alle meine Freunde! Mögen sie die Morgenröte noch sehen nach der langen Nacht! Ich, allzu Ungeduldiger, gehe ihnen voraus.” (Stefan Zweig, [Suicide Note], 22 February 1942, <https://de.wikisource.org/wiki/Abschiedsbrief_Stefan_Zweigs>; a scan of the original letter as well as an English translation can be found on the website of The National Library of Israel: <http://web.nli.org.il/sites/NLI/English/collections/personalsites/archive_treasures/Pages/stefan-zweig.aspx>) ()

(5) Ibid. ()

(6) I’m not saying that more things in history went wrong than right – such a statement would be very silly. And I’m not speaking from a substantiated historian’s point of view when I say: The things that went right might have more often than not gone right because they first went wrong, whereas the things that went wrong might have more often than not gone wrong because they had very similarly gone wrong before. ()

(7) The a.r.t.e.s. forum is an annual conference organized by PhD students at my graduate school in Cologne and was held this year on 6 July 2018. See for the programme <http://artes.phil-fak.uni-koeln.de/37655.html>. ()

(8) On a very fundamental level, one might look into the literature on Wissenschaftlichkeit and gute wissenschaftliche Praxis (good scientific practice; see the guidelines of the German funding body DFG <http://www.dfg.de/foerderung/grundlagen_rahmenbedingungen/gwp/> or the equivalent from other countries and languages). On a more contentious level, one might look into Methodenstreite in the history of science, the most prominent of which are – in the English-speaking world – the so-called “science wars” of the 1990s (cf. Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, 1994, and Ullica Segerstråle (Ed.), Beyond the Science Wars: The Missing Discourse about Science and Society, 2000). Of even more interest are probably theoreticians of science and philosophers like Feyerabend, Kuhn, Popper, Habermas or Gadamer. Surely somewhere among these writings, there is something relevant to the question at hand, even if you might have to read between the lines. But, as the famous quote from Theodore Fontane’s Effi Briest goes: “das ist ein zu weites Feld” (“that is too wide a field”), especially for my modest ambitions in this blog post. ()

(9) Theodore Parker, Ten Sermons of Religion, 1853, 84-85. The saying “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” is often attributed to Martin Luther King who used it in several speeches. It likely originated in this particular quote from Theodore Parker, however, cf. <https://quoteinvestigator.com/2012/11/15/arc-of-universe/>. ()

(10) See David Rothman, “The Relentless Pace of Automation,” in: MIT Technology Review (13 February 2017), <https://www.technologyreview.com/s/603465/the-relentless-pace-of-automation/>. ()

(11) I will simply refer to an older blog post of mine, although it was written two years ago and does not reflect my current thoughts on the subject, just the starting point: <https://parergon.hypotheses.org/107>. ()

(12) The Digital Humanities Conference 2018 was held in Mexico City, 26-28 June, under the title “Puentes/Bridges”. It marked the first time that this event was hosted in the Global South. The abstract of the panel I have referenced can be found here: <https://dh2018.adho.org/en/justice-based-dh-practice-and-communities/>. It was organized by Vika Zafrin, Purdom Lindblad, Roopika Risam, Gabriela Baeza Ventura and Carolina Villarroel. ()

(13) Ibid. ()

(14) A recent example of public engagement and the merging of DH and activism is the project Torn Apart/Separados that maps the locations where immigrant children are being detained in the US. The project was also present during the DH 2018 conference for a design sprint and hackathon and reported on in the media, see Emily Dreyfuss, “‘ICE Is Everywhere’: Using Library Science to Map the Separation Crisis,” in: Wired (25 June 2018), <https://www.wired.com/story/ice-is-everywhere-using-library-science-to-map-child-separation/> and Lindsay McKenzie, “Digital Humanities for Social Good,” in: Inside Higher Ed (9 July 2018), <https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/07/09/when-digital-humanities-meets-activism>. More traditionally cited examples are crowdsourcing efforts like the Transcribe Bentham project or the Old Weather project. Other topics include proposals for open access dissemination and social editing, as well as the digital reconstruction of scattered archival collections or the curation of special collections. Examples for this are the German Virtual Migration Museum and the digital collections concerned with African-American history. Further literature on these topics (just a very small selection): Ray Siemens et al., “Toward Modeling the Social Edition: An Approach to Understanding the Electronic Scholarly Edition in the Context of New and Emerging Social Media,” in: Literary and Linguistic Computing 27/4 (2012), 445-461 <https://doi.org/10.1093/llc/fqs013>, Christina Manzo et al., “‘By the People, For the People’: Assessing the Value of Crowdsourced, User-Generated Metadata,” in: Digital Humanities Quarterly 9/1 (2015), <http://digitalhumanities.org:8081/dhq/vol/9/1/000204/000204.html> and Nadia Yaqub, “Working with Grassroots Digital Humanities Projects: The Case of the Tall al-Za’tar Facebook Groups,” in: The Digital Humanities and Islamic & Middle Eastern Studies, ed. by Elias Muhanna, 2016, 103-116, <https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110376517-006>. ()

(15) Strong criticism has been voiced by Stanley Fish. His most recent critique can be found in Stanley Fish, “Stop Trying to Sell the Humanities,” in: The Chronicle Review (17 June 2018), <https://www.chronicle.com/article/Stop-Trying-to-Sell-the/243643>. Older publications in a similar vein include Stanley Fish, “The Digital Humanities and the Transcending of Mortality,” in: The New York Times (9 January 2012), <https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/09/the-digital-humanities-and-the-transcending-of-mortality/> and the follow-up piece Stanley Fish, “Mind Your P’s and B’s: The Digital Humanities and Interpretation,” in: The New York Times (23 January 2012), <https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/23/mind-your-ps-and-bs-the-digital-humanities-and-interpretation/>. (On a somewhat unrelated but relevant note, considering the topic of this post, see Stanley Fish, “Scholarship and Politics: The Case of Noam Chomsky,” in: The New York Times (9 December 2013), <https://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/10/opinion/fish-scholarship-and-politics-the-case-of-noam-chomsky.html>.) Criticism was also voiced at the 2013 convention of the Modern Language Association (MLA) during the panel The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities, aimed directly at the “neoliberal transformation of higher education”, cf. William Pannapacker, “On ‘The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities’,” in: The Chronicle of Higher Education (5 January 2013), <https://www.chronicle.com/blogs/conversation/2013/01/05/on-the-dark-side-of-the-digital-humanities/>. A recapitulation of this event can be found in the special issue In the Shadows of the Digital Humanities of the journal differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, edited by Ellen Rooney and Elizabeth Weed; see Richard Grusin, “The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities: Dispatches from Two Recent MLA Conventions,” in: differences 25/1 (2014), 79-92, <https://doi.org/10.1215/10407391-2420009> (see also the rest of the special issue for more criticism). An outright polemic that sparked some debate was Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette and David Golumbia, “Neoliberal Tools (And Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities,” in: Los Angeles Review of Books (1 May 2016), <https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/neoliberal-tools-archives-political-history-digital-humanities/>. This list is by far not comprehensive, not least of all because there are many self-critical voices in the field. ()

(16) Melissa Dinsman, “The Digital in the Humanities: An Interview with Jessica Marie Johnson,” in: Los Angeles Review of Books (23 July 2016), <https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/digital-humanities-interview-jessica-marie-johnson/>. ()

(17) See, for example, Lisa Spiro, “‘This Is Why We Fight’: Defining the Values of the Digital Humanities,” in: Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. by Matthew K. Gold, 2012, 16-35, <http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/13>. See also footnote 19. ()

(18) Cf. Scott Jaschik, “Professors and Politics: What the Research Says,” in: Inside Higher Ed (27 February 2017), <https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/02/27/research-confirms-professors-lean-left-questions-assumptions-about-what-means>. ()

(19) First, I have to mention a conference organized by colleagues of mine last year in Cologne about “Questioning Models: Intersectionality in Digital Humanities”, <http://questioningmodels.uni-koeln.de>. For the relevant discourse in DH literature, see, for example, Moya Bailey, “All the Digital Humanists Are White, All the Nerds are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave,” in: Journal of Digital Humanities 1/1 (2011), <http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-1/all-the-digital-humanists-are-white-all-the-nerds-are-men-but-some-of-us-are-brave-by-moya-z-bailey/>, Moya Bailey, “#transform(ing)DH Writing and Research: An Autoethnography of Digital Humanities and Feminist Ethics,” in: Digital Humanities Quarterly 9/2 (2015), <http://digitalhumanities.org:8081/dhq/vol/9/2/000209/000209.html>, Tara McPherson, “Why are the Digital Humanities So White? or Thinking the Histories of Race and Computation,” in: Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. by Matthew K. Gold, 2012, 139-160, <http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/29>, Roopika Risam, “Beyond the Margins: Intersectionality and the Digital Humanities,” in: Digital Humanities Quarterly 9/2 (2015), <http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/9/2/000208/000208.html> and Roopika Risam, “Decolonizing Digital Humanities in Theory and Practice,” in: The Routledge Companion to Media Studies and Digital Humanities, ed. by Jentery Sayers, 2018, 78-86. For a reading list about DH and social justice that is rooted in postcolonial studies, see <http://criticaldh.roopikarisam.com/reading-list-for-digital-humanities-and-social-justice/>. (As an aside: An interesting historical document is a BBC programme from 1985 that was part of The Computer Literacy Project and examined “The Gender Gap” in the teaching of computing, see <https://computer-literacy-project.pilots.bbcconnectedstudio.co.uk/d701346e0e162809e03243bb93dcfdd1> (from The Learning Machine, BBC1 series 1 episode 3, first broadcast 9 May 1985).) From the field of medieval studies, the controversy surrounding last year’s International Medieval Congress in Leeds comes to mind, see J. Clara Chan, “Medievalists, Recoiling From White Supremacy, Try to Diversify the Field,” in: The Chronicle of Higher Education (16 July 2017), <https://www.chronicle.com/article/Medievalists-Recoiling-From/240666>, Nick Roll, “A Schism in Medieval Studies, for All to See,” in: Inside Higher Ed (19 September 2017), <https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/09/19/one-professors-critique-another-divides-medieval-studies> and – for an opposing viewpoint on the same issue – Jonathan Marks, “Apparently, There is an Academic Medievalist Far Left,” in: Commentary (18 July 2017), <https://www.commentarymagazine.com/politics-ideas/apparently-there-is-an-academic-medievalist-far-left/>. ()

(20) I can’t remember a specific example for such a case right now, referring to the political misuse of research, possibly because data from sociology or other fields that are not my own might be more prone to this. As far as media misrepresentation is concerned, the recent reporting on the alleged Voynich manuscript deciphering breakthrough comes to mind, see James Vincent, “AI Didn’t Decode the Cryptic Voynich Manuscript – It Just Added to the Mystery,” in: The Verge (1 February 2018), <https://www.theverge.com/2018/2/1/16959454/voynich-manuscript-mystery-ai-decoded-debunked>. But I realize that this is not a case with political implications. ()

(21) See, for example, the controversy surrounding an article the art historian Sarah Bond wrote last year, connecting Ancient marble statues and 19th century scholarship about them to present-day white supremacism, cf. Sarah Bond, “Why We Need to Start Seeing the Classical World in Color,” in: Hyperallergic (7 June 2017), <https://hyperallergic.com/383776/why-we-need-to-start-seeing-the-classical-world-in-color/>. For articles on the backlash see Colleen Flaherty, “Threats for What She Didn’t Say,” in: Inside Higher Ed (19 June 2017), <https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/06/19/classicist-finds-herself-target-online-threats-after-article-ancient-statues> and Chris Quintana, “For One Scholar, An Online Stoning Tests the Limits of Public Scholarship,” in: The Chronicle of Higher Education (16 June 2017), <https://www.chronicle.com/article/For-One-Scholar-an-Online/240384>. See also Sarah Bond, “Whitewashing Ancient Statues: Whiteness, Racism and Color in the Ancient World,” in: Forbes (27 April 2017), <https://www.forbes.com/sites/drsarahbond/2017/04/27/whitewashing-ancient-statues-whiteness-racism-and-color-in-the-ancient-world/> and the VICE News video report “Marble Helped Scholars Whitewash Ancient History” (18 July 2017), <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=86PD8o6xe_4>. See, for a different kind of controversy that a different kind of article from the field of philosophy sparked, proving that debates that were initially supposed to be carried out among scholars can also turn very ugly, Rebecca Tuvel, “In Defense of Transracialism,” in: Hypatia 32/2 (2017), 263-278, <https://doi.org/10.1111/hypa.12327>. See for an article on the backlash that ensued Jesse Singal, “This Is What a Modern-Day Witch Hunt Looks Like,” in: New York (2 May 2017), <http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/05/transracialism-article-controversy.html>. ()

(22) David Smith, “Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on Transgender Row: ‘I have Nothing to Apologise For’,” in: The Guardian (21 March 2017), <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/21/chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-nothing-to-apologise-for-transgender-women>. See also Emily Crockett, “The Controversy Over Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Trans Women, Explained,” in: Vox (15 March 2017), <https://www.vox.com/identities/2017/3/15/14910900/chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-transgender-women-comments-apology> and Claire Fallon, “Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Says the American Left ‘is Creating its Own Decline’,” in: The Huffington Post (9 October 2017), <https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-says-the-american-left-is-creating-its-own-decline_us_59db6dbae4b072637c454c4d>. ()

(23) Isaac Asimov, “A Cult of Ignorance,” in: Newsweek (21 January 1980), 19. A digital facsimile can be found here: <https://aphelis.net/cult-ignorance-isaac-asimov-1980/>. ()

(24) Translation taken from Scott Horton, “Brecht ‘To Those Who Follow in Our Wake’,” in: Browings: The Harper’s Blog (15 January 2008), <https://harpers.org/blog/2008/01/brecht-to-those-who-follow-in-our-wake/>. The original reads: “Dabei wissen wir doch: / Auch der Hass gegen die Niedrigkeit / Verzerrt die Züge. / Auch der Zorn über das Unrecht / Macht die Stimme heiser. Ach, wir / Die wir den Boden bereiten wollten für Freundlichkeit / Konnten selber nicht freundlich sein.” (Bertold Brecht, “An die Nachgeborenen,” originally published in: Die neue Weltbühne (15 June 1939); a recording of Brecht himself reading the poem can be listened to here: <https://www.lyrikline.org/de/gedichte/die-nachgeborenen-740>) ()


Additional Notes

#1 I didn’t really perform any research for this post, figuring that it was going to be “just” a regular blog post but it grew slightly from there. Since writing it, I’ve come across at least one quote that I want to provide, even if out of context, because it seems relevant and might provide a starting point for delving further into the topic:

Scholarship requires indeed detachment, but detachment is not easily won and easily preserved—scholarship requires attachment to detachment. Yet the attachment to detachment necessarily leads to attachment to the indispensable conditions of detachment and therewith also to firm rejections. In other words, the commitment to scholarship is bound to have political consequences.

― Leo Strauss, “Replies to Schaar and Wolin: II,” in: The American Political Science Review 57/1 (1963), 152-155, here 155, <https://www.jstor.org/stable/1952725>

#2 For the German context, this might be interesting: Hendrikje Schauer and Marcel Lepper (Eds.), Distanzierung und Engagement: Wie politisch sind die Geisteswissenschaften?, Stuttgart / Weimar: Works & Nights, 2018.


Current Articles

Jason Farago, “A New Type of Museum for an Age of Migration,” in: The New York Times (11 July 2018), <https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/11/arts/design/germany-mobile-worlds-mkg-museum.html>.

Christiane Hoffmann, “Interview mit Historiker Garton Ash: ‘Ich habe nicht den Eindruck, dass Deutschland den Ernst der Stunde begriffen hat’,” in: Der Spiegel (13 July 2018), <http://www.spiegel.de/plus/historiker-deutschland-hat-den-ernst-der-stunde-nicht-begriffen-a-00000000-0002-0001-0000-000158383058>.

Michiko Kakutani, “The Death of Truth: How We Gave up on Facts and Ended up with Trump,” in: The Guardian (14 July 2018), <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jul/14/the-death-of-truth-how-we-gave-up-on-facts-and-ended-up-with-trump>.


Featured Image: Still from the film Vor der Morgenröte (2016, <https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3397160/>) that portrays Stefan Zweig in his last years in exile in South America and New York. Highly recommended! A trailer with English subtitles can be found here: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jPxz2OQeDh0>.


Citation Recommendation

Tessa Gengnagel, "The Political Dimension of Scholarship in Times of Great Upheaval," in: parergon, 17/07/2018, https://parergon.hypotheses.org/707.

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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