Beyond Resistance: Towards a Future History of Digital Humanities

IN “Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities,” Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette, and David Golumbia have produced a timely and trenchant critique of the Digital Humanities: a new field of humanistic research and scholarly production that they associate with the increasing corporatization of the university. Many of their core assertions carry a good deal of truth. The Digital Humanities promotes, largely though not exclusively, a research model that aligns closely with the commercial workplace in its emphasis on “deliverables” and technological literacy. The Digital Humanities also generally relies upon a funding structure that derives heavily from the sciences, and is closely tied to industry giants, such as Google.

Over the past week, numerous colleagues who work in the field of Digital Humanities have reacted negatively to this polemic. We agree with those who wished for more nuance in Allington et al’s portrait of a diverse field. And yet we also do not want the usual scholarly demand for nuance to cloud the piece’s ideological commitments or its desire to critique our current state of affairs. Indeed, the essay’s central argument — that the Digital Humanities valorizes and rewards a non-critical form of research — has resonated with countless colleagues, both within and beyond DH.

We are three scholars who are involved in the Digital Humanities, broadly defined. Like its three authors, we are literary scholars who trained in academic fields rich in critical capacity (poetics, comparative literature, the history of the book). We too have often found ourselves highly resistant to DH. Like Allington et al, we frequently find DH to be an unpalatable brew of technological boosterism. And yet we have repeatedly found ourselves in situations where the use of computation and quantitative analysis was the most effective means for challenging apolitical claims about cultural practices — to advocate, in other words, for the “politically progressive” type of scholarship that the authors wish to see more of in the humanities. Whether it has been an analysis of the economics of creative writing programs and their demographics or the institutional elitism and gender disparities of academic publishing, we have come to appreciate the ways that data has often forced us to rethink our original assumptions. It is in this context that we offer the following concerns over what Allington et al’s approach to the problems of DH forecloses.

The first is the origin story of DH. The authors tell a strangely idiosyncratic history that invests a single institution (UVA) and a narrow cohort of scholars with the apparent power to invent and direct the substance of an entire field of knowledge. They overlook the much longer history of institutional conflicts over knowledge and infrastructure in the humanities that dates back, as Chad Wellmon has documented, at least to the nineteenth century. The history the authors provide also risks effacing contributions from individuals in the present – particularly women and persons of color – who work outside of this institutional framework. There is a tremendous amount of new scholarship being produced in DH that seeks to answer significant research questions, and a great deal of this work directly addresses issues related to race, gender, class, and power. A number of scholars, such as Roopika Risam and Schyuler Esprit, have insisted upon the existence of this subaltern history; they are the living proof that it exists.

A significant part of this work resides outside of English departments and so it remains invisible in this account. We have learned a great deal from Tanya Clement on the relationship between information science and feminism; Tara McPherson on the politics of code and interface design; Hoyt Long on modern Japanese literature and translation networks; Ted Underwood on gender difference, language, and the Anglophone novel; Lauren Klein on American slavery and the critical use of archival analysis and data visualization; Franco Moretti on the rhetoric of the World Bank; Marit Macarthur on using audio databases to study poetry; Cameron Blevins on the production of space in 19th-century U.S. history; or James Evans’ work on network models of scientific research.This list is by no means exhaustive, but it would be unfair to label any of it uncritical or disinterested in research questions.

Nor is it fair to paint all digital archives with the broad brush of “neoliberalism.” The curation and preservation of information has been a core mission of the humanities since its inception. Digital initiatives such as the Orlando Women’s Writing Project, the Post-Classical Islamic Philosophy Database, or the Project on the History of Black Writing represent just a few of the databases that seek to preserve and promote the voices of social groups otherwise under-represented or erased in scholarship. Although the existence of this work does not disqualify many of the larger structural complaints made by Allington et al., it feels crucial to at least acknowledge its existence. This is the Digital Humanities we want to see more of.

But there is a second more general problem embedded in Allington et al.’s assertion that DH’s “institutional success has for the most part involved the displacement of politically progressive humanities scholarship and activism.” This claim suggests that there has been a dominant politically progressive humanities scholarship to be displaced. But the close and critical study of literature has often been implicated in and promoted by corporate and state projects. Many scholars, for instance, have traced New Criticism’s emphasis on close reading at the expense of more historical and contextual modes of reading to its segregationist roots. We are hesitant to assert that any method can be a priori politically determined. Its use is determined by the user (and their content), for ill or good. To suggest that one approach, in either direction, is either critically or politically more progressive is too reductive. And the current binaries under which much of the debates surrounding DH transpire — close vs. distant reading, surface vs. depth, macro vs. micro, even critical vs. uncritical — are overly simplistic and untenable.

And yet, again, we are sympathetic to the observations that provoked this essay. Even while some of us have benefited from DH funding, we have had similar worries that DH receives a disproportionate amount of governmental funding; that it has more industry ties; that in aggregate it produces less politically progressive scholarship than humanities scholarship at large; that it often seems more concerned with placing students in jobs in the technology industry than it is with the critical study of culture and history. These are serious claims and it would be intellectually disingenuous to mask them with a defense of DH or to argue that the existence of a few astute projects provides a counter-narrative. At this point we need more evidence.

Ultimately what has most troubled us about Allington et al’s essay is its final line, which is its core assertion: they call on colleagues in the humanities to resist the rise of the digital humanities. They have carefully studied the field of the digital humanities and declare that it must be shut down; nothing good can come from it.  We worry about this foreclosing of possibility. Other academic disciplines, such as sociology, have benefited greatly from the merging of critical and computational modes of analysis, particularly in overturning entrenched notions of gender or racial difference based on subjective bias. We find it is too early to reject in toto the use of digital methods for the humanities.

The urgent questions articulated by “Neoliberal Tools” thus present a rich opportunity to think about the field’s methodological potential. Questions about the over-representation of white men or the disproportionate lack of politically progressive scholarship in the digital humanities regard inequality and have a strong empirical basis. As such, they cannot be fully answered using the critical toolbox of current humanistic scholarship. These concerns are potentially measurable, and in measuring them, the full immensity of their impact becomes increasingly discernable, and thus, answerable. The informed and critical use of quantitative and computational analysis would thus be one way to add to the disciplinary critique that the authors themselves wish to see.


Juliana Spahr’s most recent book is That Winter the Wolf Came from Commune Editions.

Richard Jean So teaches American culture and computational methods at the University of Chicago.  His book Transpacific Community is forthcoming from Columbia UP.  With Hoyt Long, he co-directs the Chicago Text Lab, and with Andrew Piper, he has written a series of popular essays for The New Republic and The Atlantic as part of their Culture After Computation project.

Andrew Piper is an associate professor of German and European literature at McGill University.