Criticizing DH: Response to “Right Reaction and the Digital Humanities”


To a newcomer such as myself, the digital humanities can be an awfully intimidating field. DH is inclusive: you have to be in the club to know who’s who. And DH is constantly evolving as a discipline: today’s hot text may be discarded tomorrow.

I wouldn’t mind the rapid flux and the insularity if it weren’t the case that DH is often presented as being only the best of these things. It isn’t inclusive: it’s communal but equality-challenged; it’s not in flux, but rapidly-paced and multifaceted. A certain positivity covers the surface of DH. What I am sceptical of is jingoism, and DH is certainly on a mission to prove itself a worthy endeavour, one that humanities departments should dabble in. Though, dabblers may find themselves jumping into the deep end of what is actually a discipline, complete with internal feuds and conflicting canons. Personally, I find that too much positivity is a frightening sign. I want to know about the dissent and criticism, to see politics laid out flat. In short, I wish that I could find a primer of who’s in and who’s out, the latest tools and texts, and the state of the discipline

This is a dream, and I know that. DH is a new field, and politics even in well-established disciplines are rarely ever laid out flat. For adventurous souls, not knowing is half the fun. But it was a delight to me, at least, to discover David Golumbia’s blog. He discusses politics and he criticizes DH and its practicioners. He has also identified some of the vitriol that I’ve been looking for beneath DH’s shiny veneer – and confirms some of my worst fears.

In his recent post “Right Reaction and the Digital Humanities” Golumbia talks about some of the very personal attacks that can take place in DH, which he argues are the product of a certain unexamined conservative political leaning. He argues that there is a “brutal incivility” associated with the “politics that persists very near the ‘nice’ surface of DH.” He goes on to tell how after delivering a talk he was attacked with ad hominem barbs by a prominent DHer. He argues that illogical arguments, like those that were thrown at him, are meant as cover up for a “poisonous political agenda” common to some in DH.

Golumbia argues that opposition to his talk was prompted by a difference in politics. His general thesis is that:

“as a politics its function [DH’s] has been to unseat other sites of authority in English departments and to establish alternate sites of power from existing ones, and in no small part to keep what I broadly call ‘cultural studies of the digital’ out of English departments, and generally to work against cultural studies & theoretical approaches, while not labeling itself as such.”

The DHer who was so infuriated with Golumbia denied that DH has inherent power imbalances. Golumbia argues that denying that these exist is an argument that is heard “only from the political right, which is to say, the party that benefits from its alignment with power, an alignment it often tries to downplay even as it benefits.” DH has a “facade of neutrality” that enables this kind of right wing political manoeuvring. When two of the DH speakers present at the talk ignore the angry attacker’s remarks, they are participating in this poisonous neutrality.

I have been studying DH for close to three months now, which is not nearly enough time to know whether Golumbia is closer to the truth than his attacker or not. I am glad that he is able to express his opinions; it seems clear from his interactions with the purported angry DHer that there are those who would prefer that he is silent. Reading over his blog, he makes some excellent points elsewhere, such as here on big data and here on Wikipedia. I find a discussion around power balances in DH to be essential reading. It’s a wonderful palate cleanser between other, more best-face-forward blog posts.

The apprehension that I have towards DH is still with me, however. This is an apprehension that I share with my classmates, who have wrestled to define DH (see here and here), although my fear is that I will be complicit in a neutrality that helps those who would be my enemies. Exactly who is in the right, though, is hard to tell. While I find Golumbia’s points convincing on a quick read through, I might feel differently if I were a committed DHer, for whom even the title of his blog would be untoward – Uncomputing. He himself remarks that he is a black sheep in DH. Is this for a reason?

Like Golumbia, I too believe that “Power and capital in our society are inextricably linked, and in many ways identical.” I also believe that critique holds a strong place in DH and that it deserves a future. I’ll be on the lookout for more political posts like this, and go forward a little more confident that DH can be critiqued and that criticism has a valid purpose within the discipline. It isn’t all sunshine and roses: what a relief.



Image Credit: Ruth Hartnup