DH and Neoliberal Values

For this week’s reflection, we’ve been tasked with answering the following: To what extent do you think the Digital Humanities (inadvertently or not) embraces neoliberal values in higher education? My background in answering this question comes from, “Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities,” Matthew Kirschenbaum’s “Am I a Digital Humanist? Confessions of a Neoliberal Tool,” and Grace Afsari-Mamagani’s “In Defense of DH,” as well as, of course, my own experiences with the digital humanities over the past four weeks.
To begin, I think it’s important to have a definition of neoliberalism in mind. According to Wikipedia, neoliberalism is the 20th-century resurgence of 19th-century ideas associated with laissez-faire economic liberalism and free market capitalism. When first presented with this week’s question, my gut reaction was to reject lumping the digital humanities in with neoliberal tools. After all, the digital humanities allow people with diverse backgrounds and experiences to share knowledge of importance to them, with less of a focus on an elite background. Is this not counter to neoliberalism? I attempted to go into the article with an open mind (understanding the weaknesses and criticisms of your field of interest is vital, after all) but finished the “Political History of Digital Humanities” unconvinced by the authors’ arguments. Moving to Kirschenbaum’s article, a direct response to the former, the author discusses his own path in the Digital Humanities, ultimately arguing that he is a digital humanist due to “the socialization of academia” and is not a tool of neoliberalism. To these points, Kirschenbaum’s article is largely an argument rejecting the idea that the digital humanities embrace neoliberal values in higher education.
Along a similar line, Afsari-Mamagani’s article differentiates between the agenda’s of projects created by corporations like Google Books projects created to promote access by academic departments or libraries. I agree that lumping both together is to misrepresent the diversity of digital humanities projects. I particularly agree with Afsari-Mamagani’s conclusion that the digital humanities foster “a sense of sociopolitical consciousness.” A value which is not consistent with neoliberalism.
Does this mean that the neoliberal criticism of the digital humanities completely without merit? Certainly not. The digital humanities are beholden to outside funding, often with an agenda. Is this a unique, defining factor of the digital humanities warranting the scorn of the “Political History of the Digital Humanities article?” I would say not. It is, however, an existing factor worthy of consideration in analyzing this reflection’s question. Overall, I would argue that the digital humanities is largely a rejection and counter to neoliberal values in higher education, at least, as much as any field of scholarship can be that has its roots in a Western, capitalist society.

– Michaela

One Reply to “DH and Neoliberal Values”

  1. I would say that any outside funding for any academic pursuit often carries an agenda – be it ego (such as names on buildings/endowments) or corporate (such as scientific or medical research). You have to be careful with outside funding period and DH carries the same sort of wariness. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, for example, funds this program. The foundation does a lot of good, but there are additional things that come with that, such as reporting results and staying in line with the parameters of the grant money. Outside funding often limits how flexible you can be with this sort of work.

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