This new special issue of Differences, “In the Shadows of the Digital Humanities,” is great. David Golumbia’s article “Death of a Discipline,” in particular, is spectacular. It certainly confirms many of my biases so it’s a joy to read. But it is also really a pleasure to read after Matthew Kirschenbaum’s complaint in the same issue that critiques of digital humanities commonly refuse to address the actual works produced by scholars who identify as doing digital humanities. Kirschenbaum goes to some lengths to argue that DH scholars are just doing something different from “traditional” literary scholars, and the terms of its evaluation should be participation and membership in its own networks:
So it is with digital humanities: you are a digital humanist if you are listened to by those who are already listened to as digital humanists, and they themselves got to be digital humanists by being listened to by others. Jobs, grant funding, fellowships, publishing contracts, speaking invitations—these things do not make one a digital humanist, though they clearly have a material impact on the circumstances of the work one does to get listened to. Put more plainly, if my university hires me as a digital humanist and if I receive a federal grant (say) to do such and such a thing that is described as digital humanities and if I am then rewarded by my department with promotion for having done it (not least because outside evaluators whom my department is enlisting to listen to as digital humanists have attested to its value to the digital humanities), then, well, yes, I am a digital humanist. Can you be a digital humanist without doing those things? Yes, if you want to be, though you may find yourself being listened to less unless and until you do some thing that is sufficiently noteworthy that reasonable people who themselves do similar things must account for your work, your thing, as part of the progression of a shared field of interest. (55)
Which is to say that Kirschenbaum effectively defines DH as a separate field from “traditional” literary studies, to argue against ideological critiques of it from outsiders like theory-minded literary scholars. Which is an effective defense as far as it goes, but it is almost completely unresponsive to the concern that DH may be threatening or encroaching on or trying to replace the existing practices and disciplinary formations of literary studies. In fact it seems to bolster those concerns. Kirschenbaum is also just weirdly dismissive of critics focus on the “discursive construct” of DH, as though that “construct” weren’t the thing that is making it possible for these people who apparently have entirely different professional networks and constitutive practices to claim the humanities and literary studies as their own.
The question, as Golumbia puts it, is “why professionals who are not humanists should be engaged in setting standards for professional humanists” (157). If practitioners of a field should be primarily responsible for defining their field and evaluating the work it produces, as Kirschenbaum says, and if DH is really a separate field, as Kirschenbaum says, then the terms of Kirschenbaum’s defense of DH ipso facto justify the skepticism that “traditional” literary scholars might have toward of its encroachment and claim of authority in their disciplinary and institutional settings.
In any event, Golumbia’s essay is fantastic for many more reasons than this.
[update: to be clear the goal here isn't to add to a pissing contest but to point out that the same terms, and even apparently the same analysis, of disciplinarity, professional networks, etc, are being used to support pretty much opposite positions here, and that Kirschenbaum seems to be conceding Golumbia's argument, and I wish he would actually engage with his implication that DH scholars really do represent an entirely separate professional network/discipline.]