Discipline and Punish, the DH Edition

Since the MLA and the conversations about the digital humanities it has inspired on Twitter, I have been thinking a great deal about the formation of academic fields, how they work, who they include and who they leave out.  Others have weighed in on this issue of “defining” DH and provided salient critiques, most recently David Golumbia, and there were others before him at MLA (the now infamous “Dark Side” panel is one example, and Alexis Lothian has kindly compiled very good notes), in the Twitterverse (Adeline Koh’s Storify illustrates some of these conflicts), and in blog posts (see Ted Underwood and Alan Liu), all of which sought to analyze the institutional framing of the digital humanities as it currently stands.  The problem of definition, it seems to me, is inspired by the formation of a field that doesn’t very much want to be defined.

An analogous academic instance, I think, is the advent of “Queer Theory” or “Queer Studies” as an academic discipline.  On the one hand, people doing the work of queer studies needed to be given credit for their scholarship in the tenure and promotion process, departments needed money to hire new faculty, and scholars needed funds to go to conferences, finish book contracts, and complete academic labor of the kind we do every day.  On the other hand, the impulse of much of queer theory was anti-institutional and in fact rightly read institutionalization as an oppressive disciplinary category that had the potential to close down productive avenues of inquiry by relying upon a singular definition of queer studies.  Moreover, since queer studies is also bound up in many cases with the self-identity of its scholars, the question became not so much, “Is my work an example of queer studies?” or “What is the object of queer studies?”, but “What is queer?” “Am I sufficiently ‘queer’?”, and “Is queer me?”  These questions continue to productively haunt the field of queer studies and can be seen in work that positions itself as a critique of the proper object of Queer Studies (Susan Fraiman’s book Cool Men and the Second Sex is a good example, as was the panel at MLA with Robyn Wiegman, Annemarie Jagose, and Elizabeth Wilson).  This work argues, if implicitly, that an unintentional consequence of the institutionalization of queer theory/studies has been the creation of hierarchies and the normalization of the category of queerness itself.

The Digital Humanities appears to be suffering from a similar crisis of institutionalization.  DH wants to be, at its core, a transdisciplinary project that resists traditional academic structures.  However, as with queer studies, the need for funding and recognition for one’s work has required institutionalization within an existing disciplinary model with the same definitional needs that accompany every other field.  These definitional moves, even when undertaken tactically as Matthew Kirschenbaum has argued in Debates in DH they should be, produce institutional exclusions and hierarchies.  Further, the same questions that plagued the rise of Queer Studies in the academy also seem to plague DH–not “What is or can be objects of study for the digital humanities?”, but “Am I sufficiently DH?”  These questions–perhaps most often heard by graduate students and scholars at non-R1 institutions–should be taken seriously by those within the field.

The critique of the ways in which digital humanities has been institutionalized appears to be born out of anxiety about exclusions that may be unintentional, but nonetheless feel very real.  For example, at the MLA panel on Literary Labs, someone asked the question “How do I know if I am DH?” and Laura Mandell (Texas A&M, IDHMC) replied that in her estimation, to call oneself DH, you have to have worked on a project.  This comment was unrehearsed and off-the-cuff and I know comes from a place that intends inclusion–Laura thinks everyone should be able to work on a project!–but it is also embedded in an emerging field that, as Katherine Harris has regularly pointed out, requires financial and temporal capital in ways that other “traditional” fields do not.  Even the “DIY” scholar needs server space, and this is not always readily available at smaller institutions.  Coding has been another sticking point in the definition of DH because of the gendered and racialized dimensions of “code culture” and the sometimes open hostility of undergraduate CS classrooms. (Miriam Posner wrote an excellent blog post on the subject awhile back that engendered a number of conversations and controversies.)  Thus, when these critiques are made, it is not to tear down DH or particular projects, but to open things up and make space for people who might feel and thus internalize these exclusions based on economics, gender, race, and/or academic position.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, critique is a form of love.  Those of us who are critiquing the current institutional formation of DH are in it because we want to be included and because we care how all of this turns out.  I hope that practitioners of DH, like scholars of queer studies and women’s studies before it, will see this as an opportunity to rigorously examine institutional practices and their intended and unintended effects.  If queer studies is any indication, the work we’re doing will only get better and more exciting by embracing critique as form of love and doing our level best to respond to those critiques and open up the discourse to those who may feel outside of it.

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