At HASTAC: My Discipline is Bigger than Yours: Digital Humanities and the Conflict of the Faculties

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I have posted a response to Stephen Marche’s LA Review of Books article “Against Digital Humanities” on my HASTAC blog.

Wrens operating the Colossus computer, 1943. Photo: Bletchley Park Trust/Science and Society Picture Library, via BBC
Wrens operating the Colossus computer, 1943. Bletchley Park Trust/Science and Society Picture Library, via BBC

“We do not wish to penalise the machine for its inability to shine in beauty competitions, nor to penalise a man for losing in a race against an aeroplane. The conditions of our game make these disabilities irrelevant.”

-Alan Turing, 1950

Stephen Marche was born a year before after me. I was unaware of his work until a couple of days ago when via Twitter and my Google Reader I came across his LA Review of Books essay “Literature is not Data: Against Digital Humanities” (28 October 2012).

Needless to say, with such a title, his article became very popular amongst digital humanities circles, and of course amongst those who feel excluded from such circles or who might have had no idea those circles existed in the first place. As far as I know Marche does not define himself as an academic (though “in 2005, he received a doctorate in early modern English drama from the University of Toronto”, his Wikipedia entry says) but as a novelist and regular contributor to Esquire magazine.

I do not mention this with any snobbish or elitist intention, as some kind of expression of academia’s well-known reputation to exclude and discriminate, but as a fact that might help us understand where his article and his clearly-defined position “against digital humanities” is coming from. His article wasn’t published on an academic journal either, appearing, indeed, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, and it was accessed by most of us I guess in its openly-available online version (I ignore if it appeared on print as well). It has to be said that had Marche’s article not been published online in such a way (and widely distributed by readers on Twitter and the like) it is very possible I would have never come across it, certainly not so quickly. In brief, noting the context in which the article appeared informs us as readers about what we can and cannot expect form it.

Unlike Marche, who presumably got paid to write his article, I am not getting paid to write this piece, something I find myself saying out loud more frequently. This is something that is often kept quiet out of politeness or pride, but the explicit declaration of this particular context, the situation in which one sets out to write something, defines in an important way what is produced. Needless to say this is what Marx would have called the material conditions of our existence, so often equated with the material conditions of production. This blog post is a blog post, and I am stealing time from other more productive endeavours (in this case, precious sleep, since I woke up at 4:00 am to write it) so I will not go into the detail I wish I could go into. This context, this setting, enables me to make this declaration of a particular positioning, and I have no doubts in my mind that the ability to declare this positioning is enhanced by the access to certain technologies, information and social networks.

Having said that what concerns me the most about Marche’s article is the malicious misrepresentation of what the digital humanities are about.  And indeed, I’m not the first one to suggest that one of the things missing from his rant (if Marche’s essay hadn’t been posted on the LA Review of Books web site, it would have been just another blog rant) is precisely context (see “A Quick Reply to Marche, 29 October). “Literature is not Data: Against Digital Humanities” is a title carefully chosen to create controversy and bring online traffic to the site. It’s called link-baiting. Journalistically speaking it comes very late to the academic debate but its appearance is timely because in late 2012 the mainstream digital humanities have received enough money to create resentment amongst those coming late to the party (those recently discovering a field that can be dated to 1949). So Marche’s article touches on a sensitive disciplinary and cultural spot, because he seems somewhat aware that “digital humanities” is “a phrase with a wide array of meanings”, as he puts it, even if the examples he gives are eminently parodic:

“It can mean nothing more than being vaguely in touch with technological reality — being an English professor who is aware of the existence of Twitter, for example — or understanding that there are better ways of disseminating academic studies than bound academic journals languishing on unvisited shelves.”

Other crass misrepresentations and false assumptions in the article (“Google… ends the relationship to the codex which began much earlier….”) can only be attributed to ignorance or an ill-intended political (disciplinary, financial) agenda. Marche equates the digital humanities with “the conversion of literature into data” (which is false) and fails at all times to explain what data is. He seems to assume that there is someone somewhere that takes data as a given (datumdare, to give), as an end in itself and not as a means to an end. Moreover, he takes for granted (as a given) that data is not always-already the result of interpretive processes and specific material and cultural conditions.

Indeed, Marche’s most obviously hilarious claim is that algorithms “are inherently fascistic, because they give the comforting illusion of an alterity to human affairs.” Alan Turing, who suffered himself the painful and irrevocable consequences of State intolerance and, it could be argued, developed technologies and methods that contributed to the defeat of Nazism, must be rolling in his grave. At best, as British Library curator Matthew Shaw pointed out, Marche’s laughable if not offensive hypothesis seems to only prove Goodwin’s Law.

What is most profoundly worrying about Marche’s article is his conservative agenda. He’s only one year younger than I but he seems to clearly and fondly remember those apparently idyllic days “[b]efore EEBO arrived”, when

“every English scholar of the Renaissance had to spend time at the Bodleian library in Oxford; that’s where one found one’s material. But actually finding the material was only a part of the process of attending the Bodleian, where connections were made at the mother university in the land of the mother tongue. Professors were relics; they had snuffboxes and passed them to the right after dinner, because port is passed left. EEBO ended all that, because the merely practical reason for attending the Bodleian was no longer justifiable when the texts were all available online.”

In a nutshell, what Marche is against is not digital humanities, but a false notion of what the digital humanities are as equated with some kind of fictional, unmediated (oh, the irony!), uninterpreted “conversion of literature into data”. The digital humanities do other things apart from the creation of digital tools that enable the physical and digital preservation and online access of texts, but Marche gives us digitisation and the rise of the online availability of texts as a prime example of this “conversion” he dreads. What Marche is against is not digital humanities, but more democratic, fluid forms of access, where people who can’t necessarily afford or have the physical ability to come to Oxford can still experience “the mystery of language […] the original literary sensation.”

Between paragraph tags, Marche finishes his essay with what he and the editors must have thought a master final blow: “Insight remains handmade.” The implication is that what is done through machines or algorithms is not “handmade”, and perpetuates the old opposition between the natural and the artificial, which his Lyotard epigraph anticipated. As someone from my generation, Marche must have heard that we have somewhat surpassed that “Postmodern Condition”.

Had I had to choose a postmodern thinker to kickstart things I would have rather quoted Derrida (I know he’s not as fashionable in the US as he once was) from his essay on Kant’s Conflict of the Faculties: “it is the publication of knowledge, rather than knowledge itself, which is submitted to authority” (1992). It is this authority of the publication format that Marche’s piece enjoys, and in a way it is that authority that some digital humanities work is gradually dismantling. What is missing from the article is any kind of self-awareness as a text that will be read online (apart from some hyperlinks, which I suppose were placed there by an editor and not by Marche himself), and, more importantly, about the material conditions of production of the article itself. I wonder if he would get a Borgesian sense of the uncanny (1972) if he looked at the source code of his own article on the online version of the LA Review of Books.

Marche’s article is a fine example of the anxieties of our age, but it is not what it purposes to be. It wants us to believe that literature and scholarly or interpretive activity is “mushy” (soft) and that its opposite is data (hard). For him literature is some kind of mystical, “mysterious” experience, but not in the way Walter Benjamin (1916) discussed it, which was always-already from a perspective that recognised the material and technical conditions of the production and transmission of information (literary or not). Marche draws a politically dangerous opposition between the study of literature and the scholarly work of the digital humanities, which seeks to develop and employ digital tools for the scholarly practice of the humanities and akin fields. Precisely, one of the positive consequences of digital humanities work is what seems to annoy Marche the most: the creation of greater awareness about the material conditions of texts, and of the structures of privilege that have allowed the access to knowledge to some but not others, in some forms and not others.

Marche denies the digital humanities (and self-defined digital humanists by extension) their legitimate belonging to the field of literary studies, building a tired, parodic straw man. His essay reads like a nerdy “my discipline is bigger than yours” rant. Like its title, its ill-founded critique of digitisation, data mining and algorithmic processes is intentionally sensationalistic and it responds consciously or unconsciously to a political agenda that seeks to create a renewed “conflict of the faculties”.

Marchen’s manichean opposition to his own fictional version of the digital humanities will resound in many who feel disenfranchised and threatened by what they perceive as a new fashionable discipline that might “replace” their own tasks and therefore endanger their positions. His article should be an alarm call for those of us engaged in digital humanities communities to work harder at communicating better and more widely what it is that the digital humanities do. We should also ask ourselves who exactly benefits from deligitimising the digital humanities and what kind of consequences such strategy could have.

To be fair, Marche’s article does have a redeeming passage where some self-awareness of his positioning is made clear. “In the popular imagination,” he writes,  “writers and professors are liberals, hedonists, bohemians. Nothing could be further from the truth. They are, in fact, profoundly, deeply, organically conservative.”