Sunday, January 8, 2012

In defense of transforming DH

This is a reply to my Emory colleague and THATCamp Theory collaborator Roger Whitson's post "Does DH really need to be transformed? My Reflections on #mla12." Roger's post registers some thoughtful reservations about the aims and rhetoric of the #transformDH group, to which I'm sympathetic. I detect in the oppositional rhetoric of #transformDH, however, a history that makes me appreciate the kind of transformation for which they are calling. I hope that by briefly discussing that history, I will be able to elucidate what it is that I appreciate about #transformDH's efforts and, yes, their rhetoric too.

Roger writes,
Do we really need guerrilla movements? Are war metaphors, or concepts of overturning and redefining, truly the right kind of metaphors to use when talking about change in the digital humanities? It seems to me that the word “guerilla” reappropriates the collaborative good will of the digital humanities, making it safe for traditional academic consumption and inserting it into the scheme Stanley Fish and William Pannapacker highlight. Yeah, we see the cool kids at the theory table, but we want to be the cool kids, so we’re going to fight them until we can be the cool kids. But if my experience with the MLA is any indication, the digital humanities doesn’t need to be changed. I can already see it changing the atmosphere of the MLA, making it easier for people to connect with each other, enjoy their time together, and conceptualize new and exciting work. It’s not perfect – as the job crisis still lingers, humanities programs are still threatened with cuts, and too many adjunct teachers suffer from job insecurity, a lack of benefits, and too much work for too little pay. But, the MLA I saw this year gave me hope that more people were interested in working together to deal with these issues in a productive way – rather than worry what table they were sitting at.

This is an instance in which vocabularies collide.

The valuation of the guerilla, the oppositional, the maroon, and the fugitive that characterizes #transformDH is, as I see it, clearly indebted to the legacies of queer theory and critical race studies (I'll focus on the former for now). Bill Germano, in his recent retrospective of Duke UP's Series Q, usefully quotes the introduction to the landmark Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader (1993): "Like women's studies, lesbian/gay studies has an oppositional design." Michael Warner's piece on Series Q similarly notes the insistence on self-difference that has characterized queer studies, observing that in 1990, the very term "queer" was "manifestly provocative."

This language, then, has a history that draws not only on the sometimes aggressive affects of the much-deprecated Theory but also the activist dimensions of the little-t theories (gender, queer, critical race, disability) that have emerged from it, and which have been associated with personal and professional risk and often literal bodily harm.

It's true: this is not a language that comports very well with the dominant rhetorics of digital humanities, which emphasize openness, collaboration, and inclusiveness—which are, in short, liberal. But as I understand it, that's really the point of #transformDH. A liberal, inclusive, always-collaborative, never-oppositional digital humanities is a digital humanities that can afford to be above the fray, a digital humanities for which theory is, well, theoretical, mere yack, and not a tool for activism or indeed survival. Such a digital humanities can imagine that the stakes of cultural criticism are really as low as getting to sit with the cool kids at lunch in a high school; or rather, it does not acknowledge (despite the shocking mortality rate among queer adolescents) that not getting to sit with the cool kids is ever anything but a metaphor, that its stakes are ever other than trivial. And that is "the (raceless, sexless, genderless) technological" that the #transformDH ASA roundtable quite rightly set out to critique.

Despite the liberal rhetoric of digital humanities that currently circulates most widely—a rhetoric, I might add, that has the qualified virtue of making digital work seem congenial and unthreatening to corporate and government funders—I don't think digital work does necessarily think of itself as above the fray. "The Real Face of White Australia" is just one example of important digital projects that aim to actively transform perceptions in the social sphere. Lauren Klein's wonderful work on what social network analysis can tell us about otherwise invisible ghosts in the archive likewise engages in a powerful form of recovery.*

In that sense, I agree with Roger. Digital humanities doesn't need to stop doing the critical work it's already doing. But #transformDH suggests, to my mind rightly, that the jolt of the oppositional can be powerful, when it is rooted in a critical activism that builds on the little-t theories that have preceded and exist alongside it, rather than manifesting as nerdy beleagueredness.** Germano reflects that "[s]omeone once remarked to me that scholarly publishing in gay studies was a conflict between the nerdy and the naughty." This conflict seems to me to have re-emerged in #transformDH's invocation of oppositional rhetorics, in a way that I believe to be productive. Sometimes we need collaboration, and sometimes we need solidarity. And perhaps even such fine adjustments require some transformation in the way we understand our work.


*The version of this work that Lauren presented at MLA this year explicitly engaged Alan Liu's MLA 2011 call for a renewed commitment to cultural criticism in digital humanities.

**"Nerdy beleagueredness" alludes to an argument I have made previously, that digital humanities occasionally appropriates the rhetorics of oppressed groups by self-identifying as "nerdy." I have never fully fleshed out my thoughts on nerdiness, but it is an ambivalent formation, to say the least. After all, as C. J. Pascoe has shown, it is a thin line between "nerd" and "fag." But this brings us again to the issue of lunch tables, which are not always metaphorical.

Germano, William. “The Q Factor.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 1 Jan. 2012. Web. 8 Jan. 2012.

Liu, Alan. “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?” 7 Jan. 2011. Web. 8 Jan. 2012.

Pascoe, C. J. Dude, You’re a Fag : Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. Print.

Warner, Michael. “Queer and Then?” The Chronicle of Higher Education 1 Jan. 2012. Web. 8 Jan. 2012.

1 comment:

Brian Lennon said...

This is a very insightful response to a piece of writing whose author declares himself "baffled" by the fact that his impressions of MLA 2012 might not be shared. Thank you for writing it. Work in what is now called "DH" has effectively routed itself around critique for a long time, now (in part by suggesting that the projection of social conscience is impolite), and it is encouraging to find emerging scholars who are unintimidated by unsubstantiated assertions of (or demands for) consensus.