Neoliberal Citations (and Singularities)

A chart showing the use of the word postmodernism over time.
Ever wonder where “postmodernism” went? I suspect “digital humanities” is headed there too. (Both Google Ngrams and COCA show the same pattern. COCA even lets you limit your search to academic prose!)

My first impulse upon reading last week’s essay in the LA Review of Books was to pay no attention. Nobody I know especially likes the name “digital humanities.” Many people are already adopting backlash-avoidant stances against it. “‘Digital Humanities’ means nothing” (Moretti); “I avoid the phrase when I can” (Underwood). As far as I can tell, the main advantage of “digital humanities” has been that it sounds better than “humanities computing.” Is it really worth defending? It’s an umbrella term, and umbrella terms are fairly easy to jettison when they become the targets of umbrella critiques.

Still, we don’t have a replacement for it. I hope we’ll find in a few years that we don’t need one. In the meanwhile we’re stuck in terminological limbo, which is all the more reason to walk away from debates like this. Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette, and David Golumbia (ABG hereafter) have not really written an essay about the digital humanities, because no single essay could ever be about something so broadly defined.

That’s what I told myself last week. But something about the piece has continued to nag at me. To figure out what it was, I did what any self-respecting neoliberal apologist would do: I created a dataset.

A number of responses to the essay have discussed its emphasis on scholars associated with the University of Virginia (Alan Jacobs), on its focus on English departments (Brian Greenspan), and on its strangely dismissive attitude towards collaboration and librarianship (Stewart Varner, Ted Underwood). Building on comments from Schuyler Esprit, Roopika Risam has drawn attention to a range of other occlusions — of scholars of color, scholars outside the US, and scholars at regional institutions — that obscure the very kinds of work that ABG want to see more of. To get an overview of these occlusions, I created a list of all the scholars ABG mention in the course of their essay, along with the scholars’ gender, field, last degree or first academic publication, year of degree or publication, and granting institution or current affiliation.1

The list isn’t long, and you might ask what the point is of creating such a dataset, given that we can all just — you know — read the article. But I found that in addition to supporting all the critiques described above, this list reveals another occlusion: ABG almost entirely ignore early-career humanists. With the welcome exception of Miriam Posner, they do not cite a single humanities scholar who received a PhD after 2004. Instead, they cite three scholars trained in the sciences:

Two, Erez Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel, are biostatisticians who were involved with the “culturomics” paper that — well, let’s just say it has some problems. The other, Michael Dalvean, is a political scientist who seems to claim that when used to train a regression algorithm, the subjective beliefs of anthology editors suddenly become objective facts about poetic value.2 Are these really the most representative examples of DH work by scholars entering the field?

I’m still not entirely certain what to make of this final occlusion. Given the polemical character of their essay, I’m not surprised that ABG emphasize scholars from prestigious universities, and that, given the position of those scholars, most of them wind up being white men. ABG offer a rationale for their exclusions:

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?

I disagree with their strategy, because I don’t think invoking exceptions inevitably supports an exclusionary mainstream. But I see the logic behind it.

When it comes to early-career scholars, I no longer see the logic. Among all the humanities scholars who received a PhD in the last ten years, I would expect there to be representatives of the dominant current. I would also expect them to feature prominently in an essay like this, since they would be likely to play important roles directing that current in the future. The fact that they are almost entirely absent casts some doubt on one of the essay’s central arguments. Where there are only exceptions, no dominant current exists.

I share with ABG the institutional concerns they discuss in their essay. I do not believe that all value can be reduced to monetary value, and I am not interested in the digital humanities because it increases ROI. Universities and colleges are changing in ways that worry me. I just think those changes have little to do with technology in particular — they are fundamentally social and political changes. Reading the essay with that in mind, the absence of early-career humanists looks like a symptom of a more global problem. Let’s provisionally accept the limited genealogy that ABG offer, despite all it leaves out. Should we then assume that the field’s future will follow a linear trajectory determined only by its past? That a field that used to create neoliberal tools will mechanically continue to do so in spite of all efforts to the contrary? That would be a terrible failure of imagination.

In 1993, Vernor Vinge wrote a short paper called “The Coming Technological Singularity,” which argued that the rate of technological change will eventually outstrip our ability to predict or control that change. In it, he offers a quotation from Stanislaw Ulam’s “Tribute to John von Neumann” in which Ulam describes a conversation with von Neuman that

centered on the ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.

Over the last decade, many optimistic technologists have described this concept with an evangelistic fervor that the staunchest Marxist revolutionary could admire. And yet this transformation is always framed as a technological transformation, rather than a social or political one. The governing fantasy of the singularity is the fantasy of an apolitical revolution, a transformation of society that requires no social intervention at all.3 In this fantasy, the realms of technology and politics are separate, and remain so even after all recognizable traces of the preceding social order have been erased. “Neoliberal Tools (and Archives)” seems to work with the same fantasy, transformed into a nightmare. In both versions, to embrace technology is to leave conscious political engagement behind.

But the singularity only looks like a singularity to technologists because they are used to being able to predict the behavior of technology. From the perspective of this humanist, things look very different: the singularity already happened, and we call it human society. When in the last five-hundred years has it ever been possible for human affairs, as known at a given moment, to continue? What have the last five centuries of human history been if not constant, turbulent, unpredictable change? If a technological singularity arrives, it will arrive because our technological lives will have become as complex and unpredictable as our social and political lives already are. If that time comes, the work of technologists and humanists will be the same.

That might be an unsettling prospect. But we can’t resist it by refusing to build tools, or assuming that the politics of tool-building are predetermined from the outset. Instead, we should embrace building and using tools as inherently complex, unpredictable social and political acts. If they aren’t already, they will be soon.

  1. Please let me know if you see any errors in this data. 
  2. This would be like claiming that when carefully measured, an electorate’s subjective beliefs about a candidate become objective truths about that candidate. To be fair, I’m sure Dalvean would recognize the error when framed that way. I actually like the paper otherwise! 
  3. The genius of The 100 (yes, that show on CW) is that it breaks through this mindset to show what a technological singularity looks like when you add the politics of human societies back in. 

5 Responses

  1. I largely agree with your take on Allington et al. It is in many ways an article about last decade; I’m not sure it’s even seriously trying to describe the current state of play.

    But in re: your opening framing about the phrase “digital humanities”: I should maybe acknowledge that my avoidance of the phrase has been systematic for the past two years, and has little to do with external critique. The people who dislike “DH” are mostly going to dislike the phrase I prefer β€” distant reading β€” even more!

    What I’m actually trying to avoid is the internal policing carried out by advocates of DH. I used to call DH an “umbrella term,” but of late I’ve started to feel that it could more accurately be described as a social movement, interwoven with social media in a way that produces strong feelings of identification. The upshot is that people frequently feel the movement can only be saved by purging X or reforming Y, so external critics can be silenced and the world will finally see that DH is a pure-hearted quest for Z.

    I don’t want to be part of a movement. I want freedom to follow ideas wherever they lead β€” including directions that may be unpopular in the humanities. If that’s the goal, I’m starting to feel the concept of DH is more a hindrance than a help: it seems to consistently transform conversation about ideas into conversation about an academic social formation. That would be a necessary evil, if the social formation in question were an actual new discipline, with a curriculum. But I’m not sure that’s what DH really wants to become.

    1. Yes in retrospect that opening paragraph is a bit glib! I like the move from “umbrella term” to “social movement” and all that it implies. That also suggests that the comparison to postmodernism may not be appropriate. I was still using finger-paint when the term was first — um… trending? — but I’ve never gotten the impression that “postmodernism” was attached to something that produced strong feelings of identification. (Just the opposite, I would imagine.)

      The question of whether DH will be its own discipline I find difficult to grapple with. I would really like to hold on to a classic (I won’t say “old-fashioned” yet) version of literary study as a discipline, even if that involves rearticulating some core values within a new methodological vocabulary. Distant reading, for example, feels to me like a completely natural extension of existing methods in the field. DH, then, is a fine name for that process of adjustment, which will be carried out different ways in different fields (History, “Area Studies” and so on). But — just as you say — the boundary wars don’t help that process.

    2. The analogy that often occurs to me is “cultural studies.” A movement that cut across disciplines, had a certain moral/normative intensity, and seemed for a while likely to crystallize into a para-discipline — but was in the end so widely absorbed / accepted that it lost its distinctness. I’m not sure all parts of DH will be assimilated as well as cultural studies was, but the broadest current (what you might call the HASTAC current) does seem to me assimilable.

      1. Oh, yes — that works so nicely! (I wish I could just click “like” on a comment.) Edit: turns out it was just buried in a corner of the UI.

  2. And then there’s cognitive science. It emerged in the same time-frame as cultural studies and, depending on just what you mean by the term, Ted, it may have become a “para-discipline.” There’s a journal and a professional society, and a few degree-granting departments, but not many. At colleges and universities it exists mostly as an interdepartmental program that has faculty in regular departments, has courses associated with it, maybe a budget for speakers, perhaps an administrative assistant, etc. For that matter there’s semiotics, which has its journals and professional associations, but not many degree-granting departments.

    Roughly speaking, cognitive science is what happened when computation as metaphor and model rippled through linguistics, psychology, philosophy, and computer science. Cultural studies is similar in that it arose from a certain conception having, yes, “a certain moral/normative intensity” rippled through literary studies, film and media studies, history, and anthropology? But DH isn’t like that. Distant reading or computational criticism is like that, but that’s only one stream of DH.

    So, we’ve got these different kinds of cross-disciplinary formations. And then we’ve got film studies and media studies and the curious a tortured relationship between composition and rhetoric and lit and, of course, communication.

    The institutional core of the academy is centered on disciplines recognized by the 19th century, but then we’ve got all these newer things, some of which exist within those traditional disciplines, a few others of which have managed to emerge as now disciplines with a full range of institutional formations, and still others which exist across and between disciplines.

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