It is easy, in the context of our program, to lose sight of the larger trends in Digital Humanities. For these few weeks over the summer I am focused on producing good scholarship and researching well. The issues of the larger world of DH do not seem so important when I have tools to learn and books to comb through.
However, the purpose of this program is not to simply create a work of DH. It is meant to educate fellows about DH and give them tools to debate and engage with the community. I have sadly neglected that in my work this summer.
Reading “Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities” forced me to consider our program and the future of DH. The article argues that DH is essentially killing creativity in favor of tangible results and technological innovators. Digital Humanities has favored the digital over the humanities in its attempt to restructure academic circles. It paints “Digital Humanities as social and institutional movement is a reactionary force in literary studies, pushing the discipline toward post-interpretative, non-suspicious, technocratic, conservative, managerial, lab-based practice.”
While those skills are important, they are not the heart of DH that I have come to know. I am lucky, as I am involved in DH on a small campus where we are encouraged to think critically in our projects and produce transformative work. This program has produced projects that deal with political action on campus, women’s history at the college, and has encouraged us to examine our own biases. During the first weeks last year, we delayed a lesson to discuss the idea of digital imperialism and whether or not we were contributors. This program has expanded thinking, not narrowed it.
The authors of the article acknowledge that the DH they are talking about may not be the DH all people experience. Yet they argue that their view is not one of outsiders, that they themselves have experience as digital researchers, and that the DH community itself shares in their critiques. I cannot disagree with that statement, as critique is a key component of this very program. Their warnings that DH avoid the model of Silicon Valley, which prizes disruption and success over diversity and critique, are valid and need to be addressed.
My issue with this article is that it seems to regard these issues as irreparable. The article gives example after example of the failings of DH. While the last few paragraphs somewhat advocate for the transformation of DH into what it was promised to be, it has a pessimistic tone, doubtful that any transformative proposals could be truly implemented.
While I do not refute that the issues laid out in the article have an impact on DH, I will argue that they are not representative of DH. Programs like ours give agency to students to create critical works and engage with the issues facing the community. We have not sold our soul or sacrificed our integrity. Other digital humanists have criticized this article for being pessimistic and focusing on the problems with DH instead of striving for improvement.
It is easy to look at the negatives and feel useless. I do not know if I can do anything that will increase diversity in DH or encourage transformative work. But that does not mean that DH is beyond hope. The article is reductive and casts all DH as irreparably flawed. I contest that DH is still being formed and will continue to change as new scholars, technologies, and ideologies gain support. DH is not dead yet, and our program is proof that it can change for the better.