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.]


6 responses to “

  1. mkirschenbaum

    Hi Tyler,

    Just a quick note/clarification: I am manifestly not making the argument that “DH” is a “separate field,” at least not in any sense that is materially different from, say, the practice of Victorian cultural studies as a field “separate” from literary studies (the example I offer in the latter part of the passage you excerpt). Indeed, the “separatism” of DH is itself an artifact of what I term the construct, and its relentless reification of “DH.” See also my comments on Matt Jockers’ scholarship, and the manner in which I perceive its interaction with current discussions around various modes of reading, throughout literary fields.

    • That’s fair, and I probably overemphasize the word “field” specifically. Nonetheless you do strongly emphasize the separateness of professional networks, practices, etc in the passages I excerpt, which seems to be an emphasis shared by Golumbia, and that’s what I’m trying to highlight. I’m not sure I understand how that entirely separate social network that you so clearly identify can simply be an artifact of the discursive construct. Aren’t you saying in the quoted passage that it is a real and distinct sociological entity?

      To be honest I read your discussion of different modifiers for “reading” as making almost the opposite point, since really people who practice all of the other forms of reading you name could reasonably be expected to understand and evaluate and comment on and respond to one another’s work (that is, they listen to one anther in the way you say DH people do in the quoted passage because they’re engaged in basically the same project and participate in largely similar networks/communities), while you clearly say that if you don’t participate in DH disciplinary circles you can’t really meaningfully evaluate its practice.

  2. mkirschenbaum

    Not to be pugnacious, but could you please point me to exactly where I say that? Not in the passage excerpted above I trust, which is instead suggesting that one evaluates a “digital humanist” who is up for promotion (if that is indeed the issue at hand) in the same way one evaluates a medievalist who is up for promotion–by enlisting letters of support from other medievalists, who themselves rose to the positions of influence required to write those letters by like mechanisms at some point in the past.

  3. could you please point me to exactly where I say that?

    If “that” refers to “Aren’t you saying in the quoted passage that it is a real and distinct sociological entity?” then I’m referring to your language about people who listen to other people. One can *call* oneself a digital humanist, you say, but the real mark of it is listening and being listened to by other members of a community who identify one another as participating in a shared field of interest. Isn’t “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” a real and distinct sociological entity that is not simply defined by the discursive construct? Your point about tenure and promotion seems totally fair and I understand and appreciate your comparison to other subfields, which also seems fair.

    I think on this point we’re talking past each other? I am (I think reasonably) reading this passage as emphasizing the independence of the professional networks that define digital humanists, while as I understand it you are emphasizing how parallel this is to other subfields of literary studies, which again seems fair. I’m not sure I understand what argument we’re having about tenure and promotion, or what I am understood to have said about tenure and promotion. I’m focused on the first sentence and the last sentence of the quoted passage, not the parenthetical in the third sentence.

  4. mkirschenbaum

    You’re right that we may not be speaking to quite the same thing . . . the full framing of the passage is in fact the “who’s in/who’s out” dynamic, which I refer to as the other great agon of the “DH” construct, alongside of questions of definition. At this point though I would simply refer readers to the entirety of the passage in question, and indeed (given world enough and time) the entirety of my essay and the entirety of the special issue. Thanks for commenting and engaging.

  5. Paul A. Bové

    My point would be this: I am not prepared to concede that for tenure decisions and in other acts of judgment, only members of a discourse community, expert sub-field, or tribe should be allowed acts of judgment. The cui bono of a case often requires acts of judgment that might not come from a tribe aspiring to its own share of institutional and social resources. But then again, critical judgment is something worth defending against “expert” encroachment. (This last structure is too complex for a passing remark.)