With Friends Like This . . . ? Digital Humanities and the Right

Like most people, I am probably at my happiest when my own cherished assumptions about things about which I care are reinforced by others, or at least left unchallenged. It is not that I am a conscious quietist, or smugly complacent — I just prefer to think, most of the time, that I am “right.” But I also recognize the value of being made uncomfortable on occasion. To my own surprise, a brief and (I’ll readily admit) relatively unimportant short article in the right-wing Intercollegiate Review on the subject of the Digital Humanities has done just this.

Why Conservatives Should Embrace the Digital Humanities,” is by Danielle Charette, a Junior at Swarthmore College studying English and philosophy. Her post is articulate and well-written. And, although it seems clear that she is not herself studying Digital Humanities, she is better informed about it than the vast majority of undergraduates with whom I generally interact. Here is her thumbnail description of the discipline:

In a nutshell, DH is a way of thinking about interdisciplinary research and teaching, specifically as traditional disciplines–like history, philosophy, literature and art–take on a larger and more cohesive online presence. Through technology, professional curators can organize vast digital archives of famous and not-so-famous historical materials. And because these archives are searchable, curators  also “data-mine” the contemporary ways in which people search, read and interact with classic texts.

That there is, of course, a great deal missing from this account needs hardly be said, but it’s not a terrible description of some of the main contexts and themes at work in the field. Much more interesting, and for me unsettling, however, is her characterization of Digital Humanities as an essentially untheoretical enterprise, and a means of escaping from the “more corrosive academic trends that plowed through America’s college campuses after the 1960′s”:

the great thing about DH is that, though it is theoretical about the way we interact with physical and virtual books and streamline information, it is also profoundly textual.  Perhaps we’ve finally replaced the notorious 1980′s and 90′s heyday of highbrow postructuralist [sic] and postmodern theory [. . .] with a return to the actual text.

No one with any real familiarity with the ongoing debates within DH requires an explanation of how this characterization reinforces existing anxieties about our field: Digital Humanities has been criticized from within for its failure to nurture a native cultural criticism, and from without for its putative theoretical naïveté.

Of course, it is not true that Digital Humanities is really untheorized. Recent collections of essays  — Debates in Digital Humanities (2012), Digital_Humanities (2012), and Understanding Digital Humanities (2012) are all very much about the field’s engagement with a theoretical approach to, and understanding of, the intersections between digital technology and what we “do” as scholars in the arts and humanities. So too are countless essays, articles, interviews, blog posts, and even tweets.

Nor is it really the case that DH is not “political.” Tellingly, many of the elements left out of Charette’s description — the field’s ideological preference for open access and open source, its generally copyleft leanings, for instance — are precisely those which might undercut her argument that DH is a congenial home for conservatism. Her understanding of the nature of the texts that we work on is also, as Ted Underwood noted, out-of-date and misrepresents many of the projects with which the field is engaged:

A salient example, and a very well-established project that I suspect Charette would find less conformable to her view of the representation of the traditional canon in DH is, of course, Brown University’s Women Writers Project, which dates from the 80s, the very “heyday,” as Charette puts it, of “highbrow postructuralist and postmodern theory.” How well does a project that seeks to contribute to “the growing field of early modern women’s studies, whose project was to reclaim the cultural importance of early women’s writing and bring it back into our modern field of vision” really fit with a small-c conservative political agenda?

And then of course there are the vital strains of progressive ideology and theory represented by #TransformDH, and THATCamp Feminism East and West that are interogating not merely the larger cultural context, but Digital Humanities itself.  Charette misses these, and much else. At one point, for instance, she enthuses about the Digital Thoreau archive, and asserts that

DH is respectful of the author, the historical era, and the words on the page. Moreover, DH insists on context, or what Gerard Genett [sic] calls “pretext,” referring to the way the main text appears on the page in relation to introductions, prefaces, epigraphs, etc.

One wonders what she would make of distant reading.

It seems almost churlish to bring all of this up, not merely because this article is the work of an undergraduate, but also in the sense that Charette’s piece is not a critique, but a recommendation of Digital Humanities. It would appear that a vague, uncritical and untheorized processing of texts — the older, it would seem, the better — is exactly what “conservatives” are most likely to enjoy. To what end, one wonders? Or does that question seem too theoretical?

I don’t want to seem to be making too much of what is, after all, little more than an undergraduate essay with a particular and rather naive political agenda. Probably Ted Underwood is right, and I should be more wary of “drawing any lesson from the ISI piece.” And I also especially don’t want to seem to be “bullying” or “mocking” Charette: as much as I dislike her political perspective, I am impressed by her resourcefulness and her facility with the language, and, yes, pleased by her interest in the field. Most DHers are, after all, proselytizers, and Charette seems interested in engaging in some recruiting on our behalf.

And perhaps this is what most disturbs me about the article. It doesn’t “worry” me as a serious critique, even an implicit one, but it has unsettled me, not because it offers a trenchant attack upon DH, but precisely because it doesn’t. It frankly disturbs me that a conservative, even a relatively uninformed one, should find anything about DH congenial. How likely is it that she could make the same argument about, say, Feminist criticism, or Queer Theory, Ecocriticism or Postcolonialism? The central ideological assumptions of those fields would preclude any such attempt: they are too insistent upon their otherness to be suborned by the Right.

Much of what worries me has, of course, been expressed at greater length and more eloquently elsewhere, most notably in Alan Liu’s “Where Is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities,” an essay that I think one of the most important reflections upon the field to be produced in the last two or three years.

How the digital humanities advances, channels, or resists today’s great postindustrial, neoliberal, corporate, and global flows of information-cum-capital is thus a question rarely heard in the digital humanities associations, conferences, journals, and projects with which I am familiar. Not even the clichéd forms of such issues—for example, “the digital divide,” “surveillance,” “privacy,” “copyright,” and so on—get much play.

Liu’s lament that DH has not evolved its own form of cultural critique, nor joined to work with fields (such as media studies) that have, represents only half of the problem, for our failure to do so has made it all the easier for the rhetoric of digital humanities to be co-opted. As Richard Grusin noted in his paper “The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities Pt. II,” part of a panel which caused a great deal of stir at MLA 2013, this has been particularly evident in the field of instructional technology and “digital pedagogy”:

I worry that digital humanities projects might serve as something like gateway drugs for administrators addicted to quick fixes and bottom-line approaches to the structural problems facing higher education today, providing them with the urge to experiment with MOOCs and other online forms of “content delivery,” which is how college courses are being increasingly defined by university administrators, government officials, and techno-utopians alike.

It is not, I think, that digital humanists are, as a breed, in any way sympathetic to those on the Right who see technology as a way of gutting (or “disrupting,” as the current rhetoric of the MOOC would have it) the Humanities. But in neglecting to be noisier or more insistent about the ideological assumptions of the field, we have allowed ourselves to become, perhaps, silent partners in their endeavour. Take, for instance, Cathy Davidson’s opinion piece in HASTAC, “If We (Profs, Teachers) Can Be Replaced by a Computer Screen, We Should Be!.” Davidson’s point is that the growing sophistication and potential offered by MOOCs and other online teaching technologies should serve as a wake-up call, and prompt us all to become better teachers. Fair enough. But Davidson consciously, and somewhat uncritically, deploys the language of the “disruptors” whose real agenda is, one suspects, not improving pedagogy, but rather making it cheaper:

In a world where lots of learning can be taught online, we better think seriously and carefully about our particular role in the classroom or we will be put out of business and perhaps we should be.   I’ve learned how to Moonwalk from an online tutorial.  I’m learning how to draw from online courses.   I’m learning Java Script on line.  I have a list of other things I’d like to learn.   Millions of others share my desire to learn when we can, in airports, on runways, on weekends, fit to my schedule.

Davidson, I am reasonably confident, does not support the gutting of Humanities departments and the replacement of teaching faculty with MOOCs. Indeed, she explicitly says as much. But her adoption of the language of the techno-enthusiasts is not nearly nuanced or critical enough to avoid giving aid and comfort to The Enemy.

Davidson is an influential advocate, within DH and without, for innovation in online teaching and instructional technologies, and I think her enthusiasm for these things has at the least hobbled the critical analysis and ideological awareness that should accompany such assertions. I think that she is not alone in this: DHers are often, in my view, far too busy being enthusiastic to take the time out to examine the larger political implications of the technology that so enthralls us, and that we are absolutely certain should enthrall everyone else as well.  At the same time, there is possibly a fear of biting the hand that feeds us: as what little funding remains to the Humanities is increasingly channelled in the direction of DH hires and digital projects, we are perhaps too happy, or simply too surprised, by the largesse to examine too closely the ideological strings that may be attached to the cheques.

And this is why I am unsettled by Charette’s short article. Not because it is particularly well-informed, nor because it represents an accurate account of the ideological and theoretical leanings of the Digital Humanities; as I’ve tried to suggest, I don’t think it does. But it is yet another instance of DH being co-opted by the Right, a rhetorical manoeuvre that is possible largely because our field is not insistent enough about its own assumptions.

We need to become noisier about the ideological underpinnings of the premises of our field. We need to start turning our critiques outward, and address them less to ourselves, and more to the broader disciplinary structures to which we belong. We need to insert our caveats about the technology as well as our enthusiasms into public discourse. We need to do what we in the Humanities are supposed to be especially good at: applying critical thinking and analysis to reveal and dissect the ideological agendas of those who would quietly recruit us as “fellow travellers.”

And, while we should always welcome critiques of what we do, whether from the Right, the Centre, or the Left, we need to make it clear that the subtle appropriation of our field by the Right represents (to use an apposite metaphor) a hostile take-over bid.



Berry, David M., ed. Understanding Digital Humanities. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Charette, Danielle. “Why Conservatives Should Embrace the Digital Humanities.” Intercollegiate Review. Intercollegiate Studies Institute. 28 March, 2013. Web. 28 March, 2013.

Davidson, Cathy. “If We (Profs, Teachers) Can Be Replaced by a Computer Screen, We Should Be!” HASTAC. 14 February, 2013. Web. 29 March, 2013.

Digital Thoreau. WordPress Blog. Web. 1 April, 2013.

Matthew K. Gold, ed. Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. Web. 1 April, 2013.

Grusin, Richard. “The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities Pt. II.” Center for 21st Century Studies. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. 9 January, 2013. Web. 1 April, 2013.

Liu, Alan. “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?” Ed. Matthew K. Gold. Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. 490-509.

Lunenfeld, Peter, Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Todd Presner and Jeffrey Schnapp. Digital_Humanities. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013. Web. 30 March, 2013.

Women Writers Project. Women Writers Project, Brown University. Web. 1 April, 2013.