Be Online or Be Irrelevant

David Parry bio photo By David Parry

“For [the theoreticians of photography] undertook nothing less than to legitimize the photographer before the very tribunal he was in the process of overturning.” -Benjamin, Little History of Photography

I want to explicate some of the issues I raised in the last post, address some of the comments, walk back my position on at least one point (yes you are all right the word “bad” was not a fair characterization), and dig in on a few others.To keep these posts stylistically similar let me again start with two observations.

  1. One of the essays I most enjoy teaching in my media studies classes is Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. When teaching this essay I often begin the class by saying Benjamin understood why Ebert was wrong. That is Ebert, rather famously claimed that while video games might demonstrate a high level of craft, they will never rise to the level of art. Of course what Benjamin argued in The Work of Art, at the time in relation to photography, was that the question should not be “Is Photography Art?” but rather the more important question: “What does having photography do to our concept of art?” (By extension the question of video games should be what does having video games do to our concept of art.)
    This is similar to how I think about the concept of digital humanities. I think we should not be asking, can the humanities be digital, or how does the digital allow or not allow us to do humanities, but rather, what does having the digital do to our idea of the humanities (and by extension what it means to be human). Anything short of this strikes me as less than interesting, but more importantly a missed opportunity.

  2. Okay, I can tell I am really going to get in trouble for this one but . . .

The following is not originally my observation, I wish I could take credit for it as I generally agree and think it is really astute, but it’s not mine. (But I will let the original source remain anonymous as it was an “off the record conversation,” but if said person wants to claim it, I will note credit here.)
Generally speaking (painting really broad but accurate brush strokes here) Digital Historians, and Digital Literary Scholars have had significantly different approaches to incorporating “the digital” into their respective scholarship. Digital Historians have leveraged the digital to expand and engage a wider public in the work of history. As examples of this think of Omeka, or leveraging social media to engage in crowd sourced projects. That is, Digital Historians have often begun by asking “how does the digital allow us to reach a larger/public audience?” Now this could be because many of the folks working in Digital History come from a public history background . . . But in the case of literary studies the “digital” projects have not, as much, changed the scope of the audience. So that if you look at digital literary projects they often look remarkably similar to projects in the pre-digital era, just ones which have been put on steroids and run thru a computational process. Seems to me that the Digital Historian model is a better one.

Okay so onto the post. . .

I can’t help but notice that most of the talk, or at least critique, in the comments centers around the last paragraph, largely ignoring the analysis which led me to that paragraph. (To be fair I sort of invite this, saving my central and controversial claims for that section, but still . . .) That is, the early part of the post has as its supposition that “Universities are still valuing the wrong stuff,” and by Universities I mostly arguing about humanities scholars, but that’s only because the context was the MLA. When I look at what type of digital scholarship in the humanities is being recognized and valued by the institutions within which we operate it seems that that scholarship is mostly conservative, does little to question, upset, or threaten the dominant paradigms. And, that what I see to be as truly important work has yet to receive recognition. The fact that someone like Brian can be without a job and largely a “real nobody” while he is such a significant “virtual somebody” is just one example of this.

In his comment on the original post Tim Lepczyk suggests that a large part of the problem here is in defining what I, or anyone, means by the digital humanities, or humanities 2.0. I think this is spot on, and this is probably one of the most slippery parts of my argument, one I haven’t entirely worked out. As he points out there has been a certain amount of baggage from prior text analysis that is ported over in the upgrade to digital humanities. I definitely see humanities scholars as collaborating with computer scholars, IT folks, and people from a range of places within the academy and outside the academy. (Indeed one of my favorite presentations at the MLA addressed one particularly thorny aspect of this issue, @nowviskie’stake on intellectual property and labor in the age of collaboration.) **But I think if what the digital does is just take the old disciplines and make them digital, leaving disciplinarity and the silo structure of the University in tact, it will have failed. **I want to see the digital transform not just the content or practice of the disciplines, but the very idea of disciplinarity.

But, it is not entirely true as Brian Breman argues that I am advocating a “this changes everything,” approach to the digital humanities. In fact my major fear, the thing that keeps me up at night, is the idea that “this changes nothing.” Indeed that was the impetuous for the original post, despite the digital, nothing changes. It seems to me that the digital affords us (both as academics and as a wider members of a society) to do something really different, to re-organize many of the founding assumptions we have about how to organize knowledge, how to organize people, and even the nature of what it means to be human. But, I see us not necessarily taking advantage of this opportunity. In fact I see this as a fading opportunity, as our culture makes the “change over” from one intellectual substructure (dead tree) to another (digital network) it seems that we are porting over a host of prejudices about knowledge production and dissemination that are worth rethinking. (As just one example of this I think about intellectual property and knowledge ownership.) So, I would love if “this changes everything,” but unfortunately I think (as my original post claimed) that this has changed little, especially within the walls of academia. This is not to suggest that there are not some significant revolutions/projects taking place both within and outside of academia, but that a lot of what is being done/counting as digital scholarship does little to question the founding principles of academic knowledge production, especially within the field of “literary studies” (principles which we can at this moment, perhaps, but for a very short time re-negotiate).

On the most radical I’ll raise the question this way: The rate at which some of the digital scholarship has been so smoothly/effortlessly incorporated into the walls of the academia should perhaps give us pause to question whether or not it actually signals any change at all. Again to paint broad brushstrokes, but ones which I think are relatively accurate, scholarship tends to fall into two categories: 1. That which does little to call into question the walls of the ivory tower, or what is worse strengthens those walls, a digital humanism which would build an ivory tower of bricks and mortar and supercomputers crunching large amounts of textual data producing more and more textual analysis that seems even more and more removed from the public which the academy says it serves re-inscribing and re-enforcing a very conservative form of humanities scholarship. 2. A digital humanism which takes down those walls and claims a new space for scholarship and public intellectualism. Now while these two positions are not as mutually exclusive as I am painting them here I am more than willing to sacrifice the first for the sake of the later.

In the longest comment on the last post, @mkirschenbaum, suggests that when we think about the internet we need to think not about the Derrida of The Postcard or Of Grammatology, but rather the Derrida of Given Time. This is perhaps the most succinct phrasing I have heard of the problem. We spend too much time thinking about the structure of the link or data and not enough time thinking about the social relations and ethical questions opened up by this space.

And in this regard I agree with in part @sramsay’s comment that “new tools can facilitate a new type of public intellectualism.” The printing press was not just a faster version of the scriptorium, it was the “gadgets of the early modern period and the networks of communication in which they flourished” that changed the intellectual and wider cultural landscape. The printing press was not a mere tool by any means. But, it was precisely at the level beyond the printing press as gadget that I want to look, and to which I think we need to focus our efforts. On one level the printing press was just a gadget and the real, the important change, came at the level of the social negotiation about how that gadget would be deployed. Authorship, intellectual property, authority, piracy, etc. were all social/legal/cultural negotiations that occurred and were not decided at the level of the gadget, even if the gadget did speed up the rate of connectivity. If academic scholarship, just to take one example, says “what can I author now on the web,” without first calling into question the notion of “authorship” and recognizing the degree to which it might be heterogenous to the way knowledge can be organized on the web we will have missed a golden opportunity.

I think I should have been perhaps clearer, or not so glib in my paraphrasing of the question from my panel. I think to say that it was a “bad” question was wrong. What I should have said was that I think to answer the question straight up is not the most productive way to look at the problem. Instead by answering the question backwards, saying what if we thought about the “digital” as not merely an adjective (gadget to be applied to the humanities) but something much more, what does having the digital do to our conception of the humanities, seems to me the place we should place our focus.

And so this is where I am really going to dig in. @tanyaclement, correctly so, calls my analysis out, saying that like the MLA I am perhaps focusing too much on social media, “Clearly, there has been a lot of focus on “Digital Humanities” this year because of the rise of twitter and, as such, DH has now been associated with social media almost exclusively. This is unfortunate.” Where I am going to disagree with this is at the level of “unfortunate.” I think this is a fortunate thing (if only it were the case). The more digital humanities associates itself with social media the better off it will be. Not because social media is the only way to do digital scholarship, but because I think social media is the only way to do scholarship period. Yes it is true that there are hosts of scholars having scholarly discussions who are not on Twitter, but you know what, they better be, or they risk being made irrelevant. No this doesn’t mean that every scholar has to have a Twitter account, but it probably wouldn’t hurt, but it does mean that every scholar better be having their discussions in public on the web in these digital spaces for all to participate in.

I realize that this stance displays a certain amount of irreverence to the very people on whose shoulders which I stand in order to make this argument, but on the same time it displays a hyper-fidelity to their work, thinking about how it can be carried into this new digital substructure, used to shape this (perhaps) new way or organizing knowledge.

Yesterday this argument took a different sort of turn when Ian Bogost published The Turtlenecked Hairshirt: Fetid and Fragrant Futures for the Humanities. In part Bogost was weighing in on the question of Digital Humanities and its arrival, non-arrival, but was actually, it seems to me, making a much broader critique. Regardless, as he observes in the comments on the post, much of the discussion centers around a conflict between digital humanities and new media. Along these lines Matt asked if this is not just a debate over semantics, and perhaps less generously, a territorial pissing match. Throwing around the term “digital humanities” as an empty signifier, backlash against the digital humanities.

Let me be clear, I have no desire to engage in an academic territorialization argument. Honestly I couldn’t care less, having left an English department I am quite happy to not have to engage in those discussions. My position was a much larger one, addressing the question of whether or not “digital humanities” has arrived, and in a connected manner what this means for the future of the humanities. It appeared to me that much of the discussion at MLA was about the arrival of the “digital humanities” and in a related theme the extent to which this can serve as a “cure” (as Ian puts it) for what ails the humanities.

So let me put it a different way, maybe the digital humanities has arrived, maybe it is becoming central and important in the way that humanities scholars do their work, but the digital humanities that has arrived (the slow work that @tanyaclement mentions) is the kind of arrival that changes nothing, a non-event. The only type of digital humanities that is allowed to arrive it the type that leaves the work of humanities scholars unchanged. Seriously, don’t tell me your project on using computers to “tag up Milton” is the new bold cutting edge future of humanities, or if it is the future of the humanities it is a future in which the humanities becomes increasingly irrelevant and faculty continue to complain at boorish parties how society marginalizes them, all the while reveling in said marginalization, wearing it as a badge of honor which purportedly proves their superiority on all matters cultural.

As Ian observes, “It’s not “the digital” that marks the future of the humanities, it’s what things digital point to: a great outdoors. A real world. A world of humans, things, and ideas.” That is what I was after in my original post, the idea that the digital that I am hoping for, hoping will challenge and change scholarship hasn’t arrived yet, for all the self congratulation about the rise of the digital, little if anything has changed. Humanists are still largely irrelevant in the broader culture discussions, and it seems to me purposely chose to remain so.(Actually I am not certain the degree to which this is really about “literary” humanists, as it seems this issue plays out differently in history. But that might just be the perspective of an outsider.)

And this is the brilliance of Brian’s paper (content not withstanding) he made his material more relevant than all the other papers that weren’t published, he engaged the outside (even if it was a paper that was a lot of inside baseball on the workings of the academy) because he opened his analysis and thinking to a wider audience (and as @amandafrench and @bitchphd remark did it with a real-time spin that enhanced at both the level of content and delivery). Again **The real influence should be measured by how many people read his paper, who didn’t attend the MLA. Or maybe, the real influence of his paper should be measured by how many non-academics read his paper. ** Scholars need to be online or be irrelevant, because our future depends upon it, but more importantly the future of how knowledge production dissemination takes place in the broader culture will be determined by it.