The Digital in the Humanities: An Interview with David Golumbia

Part 8 of a new series exploring the role of the digital humanities, as well as the digital in the humanities as it currently exists in the US academy.

The Digital in the Humanities: An Interview with David Golumbia

Click here for the complete series of “The Digital in the Humanities.”

FOR AT LEAST THE PAST DECADE, the term “digital humanities” (DH) has captured the imagination and the ire of scholars across American universities. Supporters of the field, which melds computer science with hermeneutics, champion it as the much needed means to shake up and expand methods of traditional literary interpretation; for most outspoken critics, it is a new fad that symbolizes the neoliberal bean counting destroying American higher education. Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes lies a vast and varied body of work that utilizes and critically examines digital tools in the pursuit of humanistic study. This field is large and increasingly indefinable even by those in its midst. In fact, “digital humanities” seems astoundingly inappropriate for an area of study that includes, on one hand, computational research, digital reading and writing platforms, digital pedagogy, open-access publishing, augmented texts, and literary databases, and on the other, media archaeology and theories of networks, gaming, and wares both hard and soft. As Franco Moretti said to me in the first of these interviews: “‘digital humanities’ means nothing.”

After speaking with David Golumbia, associate professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, the truth of Moretti’s statement rings a little less true, in that the “digital humanities” — despite its continued indefinability as a field — means a great deal to the people within and without the community, as well as the academy as a whole. The digital humanities has, as Golumbia says throughout this interview, deep political and institutional ramifications. I spoke with Golumbia back in February of this year, before his co-authored “Neoliberal Tools (and Archives)” essay was published. There are certainly echoes of that essay in this interview. But throughout our discussion, Golumbia broadens his critiques of DH and the larger tech field in a way that resonates with what others in this series have also said. Golumbia’s political perspective fits in perfectly with this series, which aims to explore the surprising lines of overlap, as well as outright disagreement, in DH and beyond.

Like Alex Galloway, David Golumbia approaches each of these topics through a deeply critical lens that stems from years working both within the academy and as a programmer. Of all the people I have had the opportunity to interview, Golumbia’s insider/outsider dichotomy is the most pronounced (at least vocally). His years of working on Wall Street in software development are countered by high profile academic publications such as The Cultural of Logic of Computation (2009), the forthcoming The Politics of Bitcoin (2016), as well as numerous articles on topics such as digital culture, language, and literary theory. His opinion on everything from hacking to privacy, digital revolution to the Orwellian “big brother” of our present-day cyber world can be found in his blog uncomputing, which in name and subtitle proudly articulate the need for dissent within and at times against “the digital.” In the blog and throughout this interview, Golumbia questions the heavy presence of digital technology in the academy and implores us to critically evaluate the impact the digital and computerization is having on the humanities.


MELISSA DINSMAN: How did you first come to enter what I am broadly going to call the “digital” field?

DAVID GOLUMBIA: I went to the University of Pennsylvania for graduate school in English in the late 1980s and early 1990s and was very interested in analytic philosophy, which was not a hot critical field at the time. A lot of what was happening in analytic philosophy had to do with making computational models of things, especially the brain. As I was finishing graduate school, I went to work on Wall Street in a financial software firm. After several years of working there in a variety of product management and software development roles, I started to read a little more deeply into computer science. This was taking place during the first internet bubble, so seeing the mania that developed around the internet was really fundamental for me. All of this together led to my writing about the digital while still working on Wall Street. In 2003 I got my first academic job in the departments of English and Media Studies at the University of Virginia. As far as I know, I was one of the first two people hired in the world as a “digital humanist.” I was deeply invested in cultural studies — especially the politics of race, class, and gender — and I wanted to take this knowledge and apply it to the world of computers.

So how then would you classify the role of the digital in your humanities work? Do you think it qualifies as “digital humanities”? Do you care?

When I was hired at UVA, I was told by the Dean who oversaw the job search — and who is himself a practicing digital humanist — that because of my expertise in computers and my education in the humanities I shouldn’t worry about what “digital humanities” is — which at the time the term was so new as a name that I quite frankly didn’t really know what it meant — and that whatever it is that I did would be “digital humanities.” So I did just what I’d been hired to do and what I’d already been doing for years — writing cultural criticism about many topics in the digital world. It was only as the years progressed that I realized the field had gone in a different direction from my work. So on the one hand I don’t really care if my work qualifies as DH. The DH movement was built out of antagonism for political and cultural studies. So people like Alex Galloway, Brian Lennon, and myself, despite having extensive computer skills, are not considered part of the DH field because we primarily do that kind of work. From my perspective the digital humanities is about keeping out the type of work that we do — about creating a space that is what the early, dissident feminist digital humanist Martha Nell Smith has called a “refuge” from the messy political issues many of us care most about.

It seems you are describing a pretty stark division between media studies and the digital humanities.

Yes, and we don’t see this division with regard to other media. Media studies professors tend to teach digital media the same way they teach other media. English professors fluidly teach film, television, and so on. It is only when we get to the digital that some — in English in particular — have started to claim that its methods are no longer acceptable. But the digital, like film and television, is a part of culture. It’s all culture. Even if it is very technical and scientific, it is still culture.

Despite this division, do you think there are any digital or media subfields in particular that yield the most benefit to the humanities?

One of the reasons DH concerns me so much is because the name itself suggests that other humanists are not engaged with the digital. This is false. Most of the professors I know are engaged to at least some extent with digital technology, especially in teaching, but it has become very hard to get administrators to hear this: you are either “in” DH or you’re prehistoric. In some DH courses you have a very skills-based focus, like how to mark up a text. But when you talk to students about what the digital means, they have a broader understanding. They want to talk about games, online dating, trolling, racism, etc. The idea that markup and programming are the digital but these other things are not just seems very strange and disturbing. If you go to something like the SLSA [Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts] conventions, you will see an approximation of what I had always imagined would happen in English departments: people talking very deeply about every aspect of technical developments in relation to the production of culture. Lately I have been teaching classes in English departments using the phrase “digital studies,” which just means studying whatever is in the digital from a cultural studies perspective. It is interesting when you look at the curricula of many universities, there do seem to be courses popping up in this area. These are often not taught by the digital humanities faculties — although, to be fair, sometimes they are. I think these digital studies courses benefit the humanities a lot, and a number of my colleagues, who are not technically digital humanists, teach in this area.

You have started to anticipate my next question, which is that people often speak of digital work (and more frequently the digital humanities) as a means of making the humanities relevant in the 21st-century university. Do you think this statement is a fair assessment of digital work and its purpose? Do you think it is fair to the humanities?

No, and this whole formulation really disturbs me. The humanities continue to be relevant. Most of the professors I know are deeply engaged with all kinds of new media forms, often without even realizing it, which is partly due to the rhetoric surrounding DH. The idea that administrators are being told that there is this new field that is engaged and relevant to the study of the digital implies that the other work being done isn’t. I think this is deeply untrue. Whether or not it makes sense to start some new fields of study based on new technologies, which it often does, of all the disciplines in the university to say “well, this needs to radically change,” more than the people practicing it want to change it, the humanities is the oddest. Yes, maybe spending a whole semester reading Plato is traditional and boring to some students and faculty, but a lot of the ideas students are dealing with come out of these texts, and if they read them they will find it remarkably relevant to what they are doing. It is my job to get students interested in these texts and ideas and histories. This gets back to your last question, because one of the things English departments do in particular, more so than Media Studies, is we tend to go back pretty far in history, at least in English to the early modern period, in terms of thinking about media objects. There is a lot to say about the relationship between all sorts of historical forms and the current digital form, and English departments can and do contribute to this study of media history. Had digital humanities never happened, I think we would see a much more robust engagement with this media work across English, including the type of work that is supposedly the “real” digital humanities. There would be much more continuity rather than a sense of rupture, which is what we have now.

We are now going to turn to think about what we might consider the “real” digital humanities. In a C21 post titled “The Dark Side of Digital Humanities,” media scholar Richard Grusin draws connections between the emergence of DH and the increased “neoliberalism and corporatization of higher education.” Do you think such a comparison has merit? Is there something about the digital humanities’ desire to produce that creates an alignment with neoliberal thinking?

I know Richard well and I strongly agree with what he says in that piece. One of the things I’d want to emphasize — keeping in mind that neoliberalism is a complicated term of which there is a lot to say from a scholarly perspective — is that one of the ways neoliberalism can be understood is as a sort of marketization of everything in the world that was not previously marketized. The university was for a long time not marketized, but became so, in part through the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 that allowed commercialization of all kinds of academic research. The political-literary studies that I liked so much was a strong target of attack by the political right in the United States and United Kingdom in part because it was not very marketizable and often explicitly critical of marketization. Even though the politics of this work looked leftist on the surface, and although there were certainly some who could be very doctrinaire leftists in the classroom — which worried me personally — what the right really hated was not the doctrinaire leftists, it was instead this advocating of deep thought and attention to history. If you look at the way the right operates in the country today, it requires that we not look closely into ideas and their histories. They need people to stop thinking. Thought itself has become dangerous. That is where I see a worrisome alignment between neoliberalism and DH, because DH is not interested in reading closely. It is not accidental that the database searching techniques tendentiously called “distant reading” have been a touchstone for DH. DH is interested in doing a lot of different things, but reading and writing, which I continue to think are very important skills, are not the things that DH wants to do, at least in my interaction with it. Responsibly knowing texts (and histories) is exactly what DH consistently pushes aside as intellectual practice.

Another question that comes up when talking about neoliberalism and the academy has to do with funding, and to put together a solid digital humanities research group, a fair amount of funding is needed. How is this funding typically achieved? Are universities willing to pay for DH projects despite massive cutbacks elsewhere, or is funding most likely to be found from external sources?

There is money available in the digital humanities in a way that there has never been money in English departments, ever. With very limited exceptions, the idea that one could get a six-figure grant for doing something in English is just unheard of. The only types of grants people typically got — with the exception of major career-capping grants like Guggenheims — were salary replacement for a year to write a book. That was the best we could hope for. So the idea that all of a sudden there was some part of English where someone could get $300,000 to $400,000 grants was both politically striking and disturbing. It wasn’t like the leading figures in English were saying we have to have this large pot of money for DH. It was external people, especially Mellon and the NEH — under the influence of some of the big DH people, whose animus for the rest of English was palpable and explicit — who decided to do this. This has had a tremendously deforming effect. As we know, the university has become so oriented toward funding, especially external funding of research, that there is no doubt that administrators simply heard: “Oh, there is funding available for English now as long as you do it this way.” All of sudden there arose this emphasis on reorienting English departments to some extent around the fact that there was this funding available, without any discussion of what this meant to English as a discipline. From what I can tell it would not be fair to say that the money that has been put in DH labs — whether from the universities or external funding sources — has been diverted from English professors doing other things. As far as I know the NEH individual salary replacement fellowships continue the way they always have. The money has tended to come out of other pots. But one can’t help but wonder what might happen if that money was instead spent hiring more English professors. And without this influx of money into DH, I’m not sure the field would have grown or have been as attractive as it has been.

In the past there has been a line drawn in the digital humanities between those who code and those who don’t. Do you think full engagement with the digital humanities requires programming skills, and if so, should programming become a requirement for humanities students?

This is a question I think about a lot and it really rankles me. There is nothing wrong with humanists learning how to code, but to be very honest, Galloway, Lennon, and I know how to code better than many people in the digital humanities, including people like Franco Moretti who doesn’t even pretend to know how to code.

And Moretti is very honest about this in his interview with me.

Absolutely! And so the fact that this could even get thrown around as an ideal is absurd. Having worked as a professional programmer, the idea of knowing how to code that is promulgated among DHers is worrying to me. It isn’t really knowing how to code as programmers do; it is not a university and especially not a doctoral-level skill. In the late 1990s you had to know how to code (a little) to create a blog, so creating a blog was considered digital humanities. But as soon as that became easy, that stopped being DH. So advances in technology mean DH becomes a shifting target. If knowing how to code is a requirement for the digital humanities, then that means a big part of DH consists of whatever today requires coding to do. So if things become possible without coding, as they continually do, then they drop out of DH. How can a field be constituted in this way? Heavily computational fields like computational linguistics do not have a requirement like this. If I want to do computational analysis of huge corpora of language, it doesn’t matter whether I write the script myself. Linguists care about the methods and the results. It’s called computational whether I wrote the program or not. To me the “knowing how to code” requirement reveals the desire on the part of DH to create a political distinction between an in-group (those who supposedly code) and an out-group (those who supposedly don’t). It is one of the more offensive things to me about the digital humanities, because it is so transparently false on the surface. It isn’t really the criterion they use — which is why scholars like Moretti and Alan Liu can be considered to be digital humanists despite overtly saying they don’t know how to code — but it allows DH to erect walls as needed.

Programming is great. The university has great resources for people to learn programming. Why English should become a place where one learns how to do that is beyond me. You can’t learn coding in a couple of workshops or classes. If you want to learn how to code, the university has huge resources available to help you do this. I don’t think Computer Science departments should teach how to read novels, and I don’t think that English should teach how to program.

We also hear quite a bit about the significant underrepresentation of women and minorities across digital fields, including the digital humanities. I know your own work touches upon this disparity in both those who practice and those who are the subject of digital humanities research. Is there a remedy to this? How has your own work tried to challenge this lack?

I could speak for an hour on this question alone. I am at the very least willing to entertain and probably even endorse the view that even the emphasis on STEM education — in certain ways — is about race and gender. It is about telling people they don’t need to take people’s race and gender seriously because we live in a post-racial, purely meritocratic society. This, along with the deeply binary thinking that is encouraged in the computer world in particular, which is something I saw a lot when I worked in it, suggests that the social world is messy and dirty and flawed and so people who try to raise questions about the social world are flawed. This is part of why there is such tremendous racism and sexism in the computer industry today. I think it breeds it. I think it is endemic to it. Trying to put more women and minorities into STEM education is a flawed idea because there is — to be extreme about it — a kind of white supremacy built into STEM. You said in your question that there is a lack of women and minorities in DH. I actually think there isn’t a lack of women — there is a lack of minorities — but the fact is that women’s voices in DH are much more muted, and women experience much more toxicity in DH than they do in the rest of English. And this is because DH is a beacon attracting people who have become convinced of this unbelievable worldview that has become particularly endemic in computer culture. Showcasing the few minorities who participate in DH — as if their presence shows that the field isn’t sexist and racist — or that there have been digital projects that focus on minorities, is a misguided effort. Part of what disturbs me so much about this approach is that it misses the critique coming from the heart of the humanities. We are not talking about whether or not there are a few minority-based DH projects, just like we are not talking about whether or not there are a few black Republicans. There are. But that doesn’t mean that the heart of the field is not legible as a discourse on race, gender, and class. It is not only about the numbers of women and minorities in DH, it is about how racism and sexism and classism permeate through society at deep structural levels. If you are going to fight them, you have to fight them on those levels. At its best, that’s what English studies do, and what one sees entirely sidelined in most DH work.

Another question that has come up recently has to do with the physical location of digital research — namely does the future of digital work lie in individual departments or libraries? Do you have an opinion on the best physical place for digital scholarship and what does this say about its future role in the university?

This is partially about physical location and partially about institutional location. One of the other things that troubles me about the digital humanities is its use of the word “humanities,” because this implies that the humanities is not divided into disciplines, when it absolutely is. Across the university, except in the humanities, disciplines that use computers a lot have computing subfields. If DH had been called computational literary studies — if what they wanted to do was study large corpuses and databases of literature — I don’t think we would be having this discussion. Digital humanists have created this problem for themselves — do they fit into a department or don’t they? I would really like to see DH move away from the idea that it covers all of the humanities — which I think is false — and parcel itself out into disciplinary studies. How the library fits in is a whole other question. One thing I will say about libraries is that it does seem to me that DH has had a real impact on their funding, maybe even more than it has had in academic departments. I don’t know the library world that well, but I have heard some librarians say: “the last thing we need is more books.” While they may be talking about physical rather than online books, these statements also suggest a very dark and marketized view of the university, in which the place that is supposed to be literally the repository of knowledge is saying that that is the last thing we want to be.

I’d like to turn now to some questions about public engagement. How do you think the general public understands the term “digital humanities” or, more broadly, the digital work being done in the humanities (if at all)?

For the most part they don’t understand it. But, there has been a very interesting set of pro-DH and anti-DH pieces that have appeared in the popular press. In both cases DH is typically advertised as the replacement for the kind of political and theoretical work that is to me the heart of the humanities. Some of the criticisms are not that strong, in my opinion, because they themselves promote a very traditionalist view of the humanities, which I think is not reflective of what really goes on in English and other humanities departments. Pro-DH pieces capitalize on this, suggesting that traditionalism is the only position opposed to DH. In my view, if anything, this gets it backward: DH has a very retrograde understanding of cultural politics and the role of the university, compared to the rest of English.

It sounds like you are moving on to my next question about public intellectualism, which many scholars and journalists alike have described as being in decline (for example, Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times essay). What role, if any, do you think digital work plays? Could the digital humanities (or the digital in the humanities) be a much needed bridge between the academy and the public, or is this perhaps expecting too much of a discipline?

One of the sub-threads in digital humanities discussions centers on the phrase “public humanities.” Like the coding issue, this is one of the things that lights my hair on fire. DHers like to say, “now, it’s finally time for humanities scholars to get involved with the public.” And the way to do this is through open-access digital database projects. To me, this way of thinking entails a huge disparagement of what humanists do. Digital humanists seem unaware of how many humanities scholars there are who have public profiles, who write books that everybody reads, who are on radio and TV, and whose public work is incredibly valuable and accessible. In fact, to be quite honest, the type of work that is called in capital letters “Digital Humanities” is often much less interesting to the public than many new books on major cultural and historical topics. So the idea that there was a problem with that kind of work, and now databases are going to make the public interested, seems very anti-intellectual and contrary to fact. The entire 20th century is filled with English and history professors (among others) who are very well known by the public, and what the public expects from these scholars is deep synthetic thought about the history of the world.

I’d like to conclude, as I always do, with a question posed to me by Franco Moretti in the first interview for this series. Moretti pointed out that all my questions focus on the future of the digital in the humanities. Perhaps it’s a sign of my own optimism or perhaps it reflects a certain anticipatory tone that is used in media and DH circles, but I want to ask that you look back and speak to what you think the digital in the humanities has accomplished so far.

I really do think that what DH has accomplished is to have changed the way English looks at itself and making it appear to be a much less politicized — much less engaged with cultural politics — discipline than it used to be. DH has made English appear to be a much more quiescent field. This isn’t to say that most of my colleagues aren’t doing work very similar to what they used to do, but the cutting edge is now completely different. Database analysis on the history of literature has replaced encouraging students to defuse their deepest political hatreds. That kind of political focus seems to have gone away. There was optimism in English before DH came along and the optimism was not a Silicon Valley vision of computers solving the world’s problems. It was instead a work ethic that drew student and faculty awareness to the history and culture around them in order to help raise people out of a cloud of ignorance. Instead, we now have students choosing to, through DH, stay in the cloud of ignorance, which is fundamentally antithetical to what English has in the past worked to do.


Melissa Dinsman is the CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow in Data Curation for Visual Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and the author of Modernism at the Microphone: Radio, Propaganda, and Literary Aesthetics During World War II (2015).

LARB Contributor

Melissa Dinsman is the CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow in Data Curation for Visual Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and the author of Modernism at the Microphone: Radio, Propaganda, and Literary Aesthetics During World War II (2015). Dinsman’s research focuses on the intersection of modernist literature and media aesthetics, and her first book brings together her interest in late-modernist radio broadcasting, archival recovery, information networks, and the Frankfurt School. Dinsman is currently working on a new book project, America’s Blitz, which looks at the ways in which British and U.S. writers, directors, and broadcasters translated British wartime experiences for American audiences during World War II, and how these translations often resulted in a melodramatic genre-framing of Britain’s struggle. Her work can be found in journals such as Contemporary Women’s Writing, The Space Between, and Literature Interpretation Theory.


Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!