U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Digital Humanities and the Neoliberal Takeover of the University: A Response

Digital Humanities and the Neoliberal Takeover of the University: A Response

By Michele Rosen

Articles deploring the Digital Humanities have been common for some time now. But the May 1 article by Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette, and David Golumbia published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities,” provoked a more intense response than most because of the grave nature of the issue at hand – namely, “the neoliberal takeover of the university” (para. 1). Few scholars and advocates of higher education who acknowledge this ongoing takeover, as I do, see it as anything but disastrous. But I strongly object to the authors’ key assertion that the “Digital Humanities has played a leading role in the corporatist restructuring of the humanities” (para. 2), a restructuring that has engendered such distressing trends as the employment of “miserably paid casual laborers.” The hiring of “alt-ac” staff and their quality of pay and position in the Digital Humanities pales in comparison to the growth of adjunct and temporary faculty hiring that plagues all of higher education. To lay the responsibility for the neoliberal takeover of the university, even partially, at the feet of the Digital Humanities is therefore imprecise at best and careless at worst, because it shifts focus away from the broader set of circumstances that are contributing to this neoliberal takeover (circumstances that have been frequently discussed on this blog — see, for example, “Defending My Title” by L.D. Burnett).

The authors reveal their agenda in the article’s first sentence with two rhetorical moves. First, the subject of the sentence (and implicitly, of the whole article) is “advocates” of the Digital Humanities. The identity of these advocates remains distressingly vague throughout the article. At times, the authors blame the entirety of the Digital Humanities community; at others, they restrict their critique to “the Digital Humanities that is helping to transform the academy” (para. 3) – a bit of circular reasoning that obscures more than it clarifies. Second, the authors’ snarky use of the word “supposedly” is a sure sign that they have an agenda to promote rather than a history to present. Despite a few moments of moderation, the authors generally present the Digital Humanities as a whole as promoting technology as a replacement for traditional humanities scholarship, when, in reality, many “advocates” for the Digital Humanities argue for the use of technology to complement and enhance traditional humanities scholarship, not to replace it (a fact the authors acknolwedge, albeit grudgingly, when they quote Alan Liu (para. 34)).

The authors deploy and destroy straw men throughout the article, which is not surprising given the Manichean binary they establish by pitting the “traditional humanities” against the “digital humanities.” As is often the case with binaries, the result is overgeneralization. For example, the authors extensively discuss the history of one of the first centers for Digital Humanities, at the University of Virginia. Among other criticisms, the authors label Virginia as a “bastion of resistance to… French literary theory” (para. 6) in order to establish the university’s conservative bona fides. I do not wish to critique the authors’ description of circumstances at the University of Virginia, particularly since one of the authors taught at the school for several years. However, while important to the history of the Digital Humanities, I object to the authors’ equation of Virginia’s program to the entirety of the Digital Humanities. While the school may have been averse to French theory, that doesn’t mean that French theory – to say nothing of literary theory in general – is inherently incompatible with the Digital Humanities. For example, I managed to ground my “Digital Humanities” dissertation (“Translation in the Digital Age: Reconstructing Montaigne’s ‘Du Repentir’”), in which I both created a digital tool and engaged in critical scholarship concerning a selection from Montaigne’s Essays, in part on Roland Barthes’ approach to literary analysis as described in S/Z and practiced in Sarrasine. I am far from alone in my efforts to use digital tools to complement and enhance, rather than to replace, traditional humanities scholarship.

The authors also criticize Virginia’s “conservative textual scholars” (para. 8) for creating critical editions that the authors tie closely to conservative support for a traditional literary canon (another subject widely discussed on this blog). But is it fair to tar the production of critical editions with this particular brush? And do the authors mean to imply that textual scholars are also to blame for the neoliberal takeover of the university? While I did not produce a complete critical edition of Montaigne’s Essays, my work certainly points in that direction, and one of the project’s key goals was to leverage digital tools to explore the plurality of potential interpretations of Montaigne’s essay, not to establish a canonical interpretation. And again, my dissertation is far from the only Digital Humanities scholarship to set this goal. For example, the authors undermine their argument in their discussion one of the touchstone Digital Humanities projects – The Rossetti Archive (http://www.rossettiarchive.org/), created by University of Virginia professor Jerome McGann, whom the authors describe as “the scholar who would do more than any other to define Digital Humanities” (para. 12). The authors describe the Rossetti Archive as “the construction of the most complete and integrated archive that the literary world had yet seen” (para. 13). I cannot reconcile the authors’ implication that such a project is inherently politically conservative with this description. Furthermore, it seems to me that digital archives are the kind of projects that “traditional” humanists use most enthusiastically, to say nothing of the unsanctified masses who may gain access to humanities materials that would otherwise been unavailable to them. Maybe I’m being naive, but I can’t accept the idea that the digitization of archives has been driven primarily by evil administrators intent on garnering external grants.

All of this is not to say that the authors fail to make valid points. For example, the idea of an “‘objective’ measure of literary value” is clearly ludicrous (para. 22). But it’s also an unfair example, because most Digital Humanities practitioners would not use such hyperbolic language to describe their work. The authors also present Google’s Ngram Viewer (https://books.google.com/ngrams) as a “Digital Humanities-esque project” (para. 25), but this is another extreme example, since few in the Digital Humanities community, if any, would claim that the tool is anything more than an interesting but extremely crude tool. These extreme examples do not provide a fair picture of the work being done in the Digital Humanities. In fact, the only book related to the Digital Humanities mentioned by the authors (Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture, para. 25) was written by two systems biologists!

It’s clear to many, including myself, that academia is in the throes of a neoliberal takeover that is destroying much that is valuable and beloved, particularly in the humanities. I just don’t think it’s fair to lay that destruction at the feet of the Digital Humanities. There are more than enough real villains in this tragedy.


Michele Rosen received her PhD in Humanities from The University of Texas at Dallas in Fall 2015.

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  1. This is an interesting discussion. It seems to me that there are a couple of different things going on here.

    On the one hand, there is bias towards “physical” archival research that appears to imply that one is not a real historian until they have gone to the archives, poured through various boxes, touched (carefully) the documents; you know, really breathed in the dust! I’ve had several professors counsel me and others in our dissertations to make sure we do this at least a couple of times — and to make sure it shows up in our footnotes — even if, say, 90 percent of what we really need is digitized and fully available online. As far as that goes, that is pretty silly, I think.

    On the other hand, there is larger phenomenon of seeing digitization as a shortcut to accessibility; if everything is online, “anyone” can supposedly access it and it is much cheaper (less grants needed to go to archives, yay!) And that is of course just a general problem in the society writ-large; Silicon Valley will save us, no need for a social democratic politics. Insofar as digital humanities may be participating in that, I don’t think the idea is that evil administrators or anyone else using or advocating the admittedly nifty and often very useful tools of digital history are somehow undermining humanities per-se on “purpose” — it’s just that they cannot help but contribute to a larger zeitgeist that gets really excited about such solutions and often takes them as an excuse to overlook much more structural problems. (Indeed, some people claim they will *solve* the structural problems.)

    And it’s not really up to anyone whether or not they contribute to that — they can mitigate it, I guess, by the other things they say and do, and for sure, if the tools are useful and there for you, use them, because it’s absurd to ask say, already strapped graduate students to buy plane tickets and hostel stays when they don’t need to. But at the same time part of the reason they are strapped is perhaps because of this larger societal shift towards technology and away from democracy. So this stuff is just, messy.

    Anyway, thanks for the thought provoking response.

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