A little over two weeks ago, Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette and David Golumbia published a long, fascinating indictment of the digital humanities (DH) as a tool for the “neoliberal takeover of the university” in the LA Review of Books. The authors argue that the success of DH over the last decade can be “explained in large part by its designed-in potential to drive social, cultural and political critique from the humanities as a whole.” They suggest that this should be contrasted with a “politically progressive” approach to literary studies, which they associate with humanistic “scholarship and activism.”
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. It is, as Allington et al. say, entirely in tune with the neoliberal approach to labor, which sees “flexibility”—synonymous with insecure working conditions and the denial of tenure—as a great good given to workers. DH is also attractive because it can produce immediate outcomes. Graduate students working in labs can compile databases or write a computer program in a semester or less—and that can be understood by those who can’t understand why it takes over a decade to learn enough to say something interesting or new about literature. This imbalance distorts funding: scholars doing interpretive work are less likely to get funding, because their research has no immediate outputs, so they’re less likely to do that work; scholars writing computer programs are more likely to get funding, and so those programs proliferate. Even before funding comes into the picture, humanities scholars have to face the fact that administrators and politicians are more at home with the rhetoric of the digital humanities (innovation, disruption, outcomes and so on), which matters for intra-university questions: Who gets what offices? Who gets how much publicity?
Most importantly, Allington et al. argue, DH has “tended to be anti-interpretive.” In place of the interpretation of literary texts, digital humanists “archive materials, produce data and develop software.” These are the entirely legitimate tasks of historians, computer scientists and social scientists, but they make DH an odd fit for a scholarly endeavor which, almost all teachers and students would agree, is focused on interpretation. Why should humanists be asked to do what can be done better by others? And why should they be asked to stop doing what they do so well? How, in short, did digital humanities come to be seen as the humanities at all?
In part by historical accident. Allington et al. find the roots of DH in literary scholars’ use of computer technology to help edit or compile texts. This makes perfect sense; the editing of texts brings together the interpretive skills of the humanist and the archival skills of the historian, and work in archives has been made far easier with digital tools. It’s no coincidence that DH came out of the University of Virginia’s English department, where a well-established “humanities computing” service made it possible to compile and edit texts more completely than anyone had managed before. The idea of DH took off when UVA held a seminar from 2001 to 2002, the Digital Humanities Curriculum Seminar, and has grown ever since. Today, DH embodies the anti-interpretive idea that “building computational tools should qualify as a replacement for scholarly writing.”
Allington et al. argue that this history shows DH to be entirely reactionary; what we know as DH today is primarily opposed to “the insistence that academic work should be critical, and that there is, after all, no work and no way to be in the world that is not political.” On the other hand, Allington et al. see the study of literature as inherently progressive, because it works through interpretation. Literary critique works through interpretation, which historicizes “claims to superior cultural status, especially for the favored texts and artifacts of privileged groups”—and this is clearly a radical activity.
The ideal of what might be called the politically progressive humanities (PPH) has held sway in English departments for the last thirty or forty years, since it supplanted New Criticism as the dominant paradigm. New Criticism focused on the form of literary texts and famously ignored the author’s biography; this formalism was congenial to the study of modernist writing, and it proved to be incredibly useful for high-school and university teaching. But as with most institutional forms of thought, it ultimately degenerated into a lifeless, textbook method of reading and judging literature, worthy of mockery from Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society. Most significantly, it seemed detached from the political and social movements that were so important to students and faculty in the Sixties and Seventies, when English departments played their part in America’s culture wars by arguing about the literary canon: Should it be destroyed, reformed or celebrated? Should it be expanded to take into account the works of oppressed classes, races and genders, or should the identity of authors not figure in judgments of literary worth?
Many of the tools used in these arguments came from French, German and Italian philosophies, and English departments became the place to go to for those interested in thinkers like Gramsci, Baudrillard and Derrida. The work of these theorists was seen as emancipatory, revolutionary, sophisticated, and much better suited to the study of more political modernist and postmodern texts—New Criticism looked simplistic by comparison. This was the advent of Theory.
From the Seventies to the present, English departments have been fascinated by theory after theory, including varieties of structuralism (Lacanian, Althusserian, Foucauldian, post-) and identity-political criticism (beginning with feminist critiques, then critical race theories, queer theories, and culminating, for now, in disability studies). Each of these theories is worthwhile on its own terms, but cumulatively they raise questions about the task of the English department: Should it really just be the analysis of texts through theoretical frameworks borrowed from philosophy, linguistics, political theory, history and so on?
There are approaches to literature that don’t fit this theoretical-framework pattern, but they’ve been marginalized in the PPH English department, often on political grounds. We can see this in Allington et al.’s description of textual scholarship as reactionary. This rejection might make sense to scholars who work entirely with contemporary texts (or, indeed, no texts at all), but textual scholarship has always been crucial for any form of literary history. The first thing you learn about medieval literature, for instance, is that it was not produced for, or read in, a black Penguin Classic edition. We can buy those paperbacks—often with broadly progressive introductions and annotations—thanks to centuries of textual scholarship. Pace Allington et al., there’s no reason to think of textual scholarship as politically conservative: it is a tool; any political slant comes from the nature of the text being studied. The real problem with textual scholarship in relation to the contemporary English department is that it doesn’t fit any of the theoretical models that have become synonymous with the politically progressive humanities.
In recent years scholars have started leaping from theory to theory ever more quickly, which is easy to understand. Once one has made the entirely legitimate point that, for instance, If author x is ever racist, don’t be sucked in by his racism, it’s fairly easy to see that the general rule applies to all authors. Then another theory is needed to keep the work of scholarship going, even if the next theory seems to have little to do with the interpretive work that Allington et al. place at the center of literary studies. Recently, scholars have started looking at theories from the harder sciences: ecocriticism, cognitive theory and evolutionary criticism, to name three. Like critical race theories and the structuralisms, these ideas are influential in their own field, but their value to the English department remains questionable. This is true for the current “next big theory,” too: the digital humanities.
Although Allington et al.’s argument about the dangers of DH is convincing, their essay fails to explain why DH is finding it so easy to displace scholarship in English departments, in particular, rather than, for instance, in philosophy—why, that is, the English department has proven such a perfect target for neoliberal takeover.
From a perspective popular with adherents of politically progressive humanities, it makes sense to say that the English professoriate’s radicalism makes their department a target: English, after all, has insistently led the call for a more inclusive academy, the criticism of power elites and the analysis of privilege (a conversation that’s notoriously feeble in philosophy). On this understanding, English is a threat to neoliberal elites, who react by taking over the English department.
It’s implausible, however, to think that neoliberal elites are scared by the effectiveness of the English department. The politically progressive humanities did help New Left ideas gain ground in the academy, and universities have been important sites for the organization of protest and opposition from the Seventies to the present. But the English department was not unique in its students’ political involvement, and throughout the Eighties and Nineties the department focused largely on internal politics: discussions of university institutions, or the politics of other literary scholars or writers or the canon as a whole. Though morally admirable, such intradepartmental politics rarely poses much of a threat to the powerful, in the university or outside of it. And in fact the era of politically progressive humanities was also the era of center-right governments (from Reagan to Obama), and coincided with the actually existing neoliberal takeover of the university as a whole, which has undermined scholarship, funding and the student experience.
Nonetheless, maybe the simple existence of political progressives on campus intimidates neoliberal elites—and perhaps the English department has been targeted because it dares to discuss diversity. Allington et al. would seem to favor this explanation for the digital humanities’ strength in English departments, since they structure their argument against digital humanities as a political one, with two main thrusts: DH is congenial to neoliberal projects, and it is dominated by white men.
But those two points are unconnected: there is nothing in theory about neoliberalism that damages diversity. If we know nothing else about what neoliberalism actually is, the name itself shows that it’s a form of liberalism, and therefore interested in defending the rights of individuals. Many conservatives would support Allington et al.’s attack against neoliberalism and DH, while rejecting demands for representative gender and racial diversity in the academy—not because they are inconsistent conservatives, but because opposition to diversity goes together very well with opposition to neoliberalism. (You can, in the end, be a consistent feminist while voting for Hillary Clinton.) Even if politically progressive humanities were effective outside the university, neoliberals would have no reason to target English departments for their defense of diversity, because neoliberals have no interest in keeping minorities down.
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 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, and most crucially, 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. 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.