Historian of the Left

Resistance to Digital Humanities, Rightly Understood

A debate over the politics of digital humanities has broken out in the pages of the Los Angeles Review of Books. The first salvo came on May 1 from Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette, and David Golumbia in their co-written article “Neoliberal Tools (and Archives).” The authors charged the emergent field of digital humanities scholarship with complacency and complicity with the privatization of the university. Obsessed with technological wizardry, DH scholars have allegedly abandoned the task of producing scholarship critical of existing social and cultural norms. Digital tools only enable quantitative analysis, the authors claimed, which cannot replace qualitative arguments based on synthetic judgments. By following the money and political affiliations of DH projects over the past two decades, Allington et al. concluded that DH as a research method must be resisted — and progressive, non-DH scholarship must be defended.

Now, on May 11, another trio of scholars has launched a counterattack. Juliana Spahr, Richard So, and Andrew Piper assert in “Beyond Resistance” that DH in fact enables a broad range of critical scholarship, such as “an analysis of the economics of creative writing programs and their demographics or the institutional elitism and gender disparities of academic publishing.” Spahr et al. acknowledge the value of Allington et al.’s critique but worry that in resisting DH we might throw the baby out with the bathwater. Some research questions “cannot be fully answered using the critical toolbox of current humanistic scholarship.” They believe that “it is too early to reject in toto the use of digital methods for the humanities.”

So, as it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore DH, humanities scholars are faced with three options:

1. embrace DH as the wave of the future;

2. reject DH as a Trojan horse of neoliberal politics and economic restructuring (Allington et al.);

3. or, move “beyond resistance” to a cautious position of compromise (Spahr et al.).

Option #1 seems most dangerous for the continued survival of the humanities as an autonomous sector of university-based research. As I have argued elsewhere in the context of online “practical” education, misplaced scientific optimism, and digital history triumphalism, our use of digital tools and methods must always serve predetermined and (hopefully) critical ends. Science and technology tend to operate according to an instrumental rationality that leaves prior assumptions, norms, and goals largely unexamined. Humanities scholarship and society at large will not benefit from adopting the logic of STEM, because then no discipline will exist with the express purpose of debating substantively rational claims (or, “ends”). To paraphrase Nietzsche, the will to science needs a critique; the value of science must be called into question.

If Option #1 is undesirable, then we’re left to choose between Options #2 and 3. This alternative inspired the current debate in LARB, but I think it’s actually a false alternative based on a misunderstanding of resistance.

We often associate resistance with the practice of subversion, literally a “turning under.” Subversion begins with an imitation of the object to be overturned — a mimesis of bad reality. One cannot stand completely outside a system of oppression. In fact, any attempt to define an act of resistance as wholly independent of its object risks drifting into a utopia of abstract negation and even personal hypocrisy. A dialectical understanding of resistance recognizes that to resist means to manipulate a regime of oppression, to transform it immanently, but never entirely to escape it.

All the examples of critical DH research mentioned by Spahr et al. were possible, as they claim, because scholars did not totally reject digital tools and methods. But Spahr et al. should drop the rhetoric of “beyond resistance.” Precisely what they are trying to do is a form of resistance, rightly understood. Humanities scholars must use whatever tools available to us to advance critical scholarship; we must always strive to be on the cutting edge and never leave technology to the technicians.

Furthermore, this dialectical understanding of resistance enables scholars to deconstruct the methods of DH itself. Deconstruction involves first inhabiting a dominant social construct — such as an oppressive government or hegemonic discourse — and then critiquing that construct’s inconsistencies, ambiguities, and false assumptions in order to destabilize it from within. In this way and this way only will digital humanities produce its own gravediggers.