Thursday, May 19, 2016

Yet another response to LARB on DH: A plague on all your houses!

Allington, Brouillette, and Golumbia (ABG) on digital humanities continues reverberating through the online hive mind. It's not clear to me that Justin Evans, System Reboot, knows much, if anything about DH, beyond what ABG mention in their article. He's focused entirely on literary studies:
Anyone who cares about the humanities needs to pay close attention to this argument, because DH undeniably harms the study of literature in the university.
However, after that note of agreement, he goes a step further and ends up here:
If English department politics isn’t a target for neoliberal elites, why has English been so vulnerable to the digital humanities? Perhaps it is because, since English scholars turned their attention to political progressive humanities, the English department has lacked a subject matter of its own. It has become the home of ersatz social science, ersatz science, ersatz philosophy—and now, ersatz computer science. The English department is not a victim of some kind of neoliberal conspiracy. It is just looking for something to talk about.

From this perspective, the digital and the politically progressive humanities [aka PPH] are more like squabbling cousins than opposing forces. Allington et al. write that DH “was born from disdain and at times outright contempt, not just for humanities scholarship, but for the standards, procedures and claims of leading literary scholars”—just as the politically progressive humanities were born from the rejection of New Criticism. DH tries to “redefine what had formerly been classified as support functions for the humanities as the very model of good humanities scholarship”; similarly, PPH redefined the literary scholar’s legitimate helpmates (philosophy, history, science) as “the very model” of literary scholarship. And finally, most importantly, neither DH nor PPH can give students a reason to study literature rather than, say, linguistics or sociology or neuroscience.

Scholars who are serious about saving the English department from the digital humanities need to acknowledge that it needs to be saved from the politically progressive humanities, too.
Whoops! So much for ABG! This puts me in mind of Alex Reid's post, Otters' Noses, Digital Humanities, Political Progress, and Splitters, which invokes a scene from Life of Brian:

Here's his gloss on the scene:
Of course the whole point of it is to satirize the divisive nature of political progressivism. Apparently it pointed specifically at the leftist politics of England at the time, but really this kind of stuff has a timeless quality to it.
It's about purity. ABG want to purify (mostly) literary studies (it would seem) from neoliberalism and Evans wants to purify literary studies of politically progressive humanities. So what's left? Here's Evans again:
I would argue that the purpose of literary scholarship is the conservation, transmission and study of the literary tradition, based on the assumption that it’s worth arguing about what constitutes a good book, and that good books are worth reading because we can learn something from them (including some political lessons). This means separating interpretation from the endless exchange of theories that the politically progressive humanities have brought us, and giving English a subject matter again. It means explaining clearly, carefully and passionately why anyone should give a shit about books. Other goals can come and go, but this must remain the core of the enterprise. If it were, the digital humanities would be where they belong, in the computer science department, providing helpful tools to readers across the university.
As a mission statement for literary studies that sounds high-minded, if rather plainly put, but I fear that it doesn't elaborate into much of an intellectual program. How many defenses of poetry do we need? And just where does Evans think that "endless exchange of theories" came from, if not from interpretation? As used in literary studies, those theories are interpretive theories. To be sure, you don't need those theories to do interpretation – a central tenet of the "minimal interpretation" recently explored by Derek Attridge and Henry Staten – but it's not clear to me just what sort of discipline can be built on "pure" – is that really what Evans means? – interpretation. Just what would that be? Is Evans asking us to erase just about everything that's happened in literary studies since the Korean war?

I'm afraid the kind of purification he's calling for is empty. But then the last line of his article, the one about "providing helpful tools", makes it clear that he hasn't got the foggiest idea about what's actually being done in digital humanities. His conception of knowledge is thin and unimaginative. Mostly sound and fury – just a bit – signifying very little.

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