#MLA13: The Dark Side of Digital Humanities

This panel inspired some intensely heated discussions on Twitter. Knowing that the talks from these great speakers were likely to be complex and dense, I decided to make notes offline rather than try to keep up with what I knew would be a vibrant backchannel. I then spent most of Q&A trying to figure out how and why some digital humanists in the audience had been offended by this interpretation of their dark side, so I don’t have such detailed notes for that part. Here, though, is what the panelists said, as I heard it.

Richard Grusin
Wendy Hui Kyung Chun
Patrick Jagoda
Rita Raley
(Tara McPherson couldn’t make it)

RG: dispensing with introductions. 10 minute talks; the goal is to be provocative, so please be provoked.

Wendy Hui Kyung Chun
Warns us: we were told to be provocative. Using her 8 minutes to provoke, aggravate. agitate, excite and incite.

Proposes: the dark side of the digital humanities is its bright side, its alleged promise to save the humanities by making them relevant, by giving grads technical skills allowing them to thrive in job market.

As a former engineer, this promise strikes me as bull. Knowing basic code is not going to make English majors competitive with engineers and CS geeks.

Her issue is not with DH per se. DH projects have extended and renewed the humanities; close textual analysis has been central to technology and society. Eg: Feminist Dialogues on Technology, open course taught across multiple institutions (http://dmlcentral.net/blog/liz-losh/bodies-classrooms-feminist-dialogues-technology-part-i). Humanists should play a role in big data: because we can see what big data ignores, the way in which so many databases shine a flashlight under a street lamp.

Her critique is not aimed at humanities but at a general euphoria surrounding technology in education — rewriting political problems into technological ones. The idea that MOOCs (massively open online courses) rather than serious commitment to public ed can solve problems of spiralling costs; MOOCs that enroll but do not graduate, that miss the point of what we do. Good lectures work because they incite and ground communities.

Engineers are unemployed too! A huge gap, always a huge gap, between university training and industrial skills; every engineer must be retaught to program.

Main argument: the embrace of the digital is a form of what Lauren Berlant has called cruel optimism: “when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing”. Doubly cruel: the pleasures of being inside a relation have become sustaining regardless of the content of the relation, such that a person or a world finds itself bound to a situation of profound threat that is, at the same time, profoundly comforting. We can believe that all our grad students will get jobs; That the problem facing our students is a lack of technical skills rather than an economic system that undermines their futures.

It is hard to give up cruel optimism because, as it destroys us in the long term, it sustains us in the short. DH allows us to survive, to sustain itself, if not to thrive. To justify our existence in an academy that is increasingly a sinking ship. If the humanities are sinking it is because they capitulated to bureaucratic tech logic, with publishing a matter of quantity over quality (the idea of mimimum publishable units or MPUs), teaching a burden rather than a mission, students and professors at odds, a logic and framing that has divided the profession and made us our own worst enemies, where those with jobs for life deny jobs to others who have done as much as or more than them.

Sinking ship of debt under the cruel optimistic belief that a degree guarantees a job — a belief from another time when most of us could not go to university, when kids with degrees got jobs not because of what they learned but because universities were closed social clubs.
The bright side of DG is the dark side! The side of passion. TransformDH focuses on what all that bright talk has been turning away from: critical theory, critical race studies. We should be taking our biases and creating more meaningful collaborations across engineering and the humanities — more fractious coalitions. Coming together around global climate change. Realising that research in the sciences can be as useless as research in the humanities and that’s a good thing.

What is most interesting about the digital in general is not what has been touted as its promise but what has been abandoned as its trash — the ways in which it compromises our autonomy and involves us with others and other machines in ways we do not understand or control. Quoting Natalia Cecire: DH is best when it takes on the humanities as well as the digital. And maybe by taking on the inhumanities we will transform the digital as well.


Richard Grusin.

Is it only an accident that the emergence of DH coincides with crisis in humanities and higher ed? A connection between the developments?

A feeling has bothered him since MLA11: incommensurate feeling between digital and “crisis” humanities panels. Emerging largely unspoken & ignored at least since 2008. Cf the MOOC bubble’s digital utopian arguments about HE, increasing the sense of precarity that replaces dominance of tenure as affective mood of the humanities (dark side of DH: MOOCS?)

MLA11’s new January scheduled was premediated as a new start for organization; accompanied by a sense of loss, radical funding cuts for edu in Europe, Aus, US; transformation of the professoriate underway for decades. Aftermath of financial crisis, panels on immediacy of crisis accompanied by widespread critique. Urgency of new critical university studies palpable in CA thanks to UC and CSU system cutbacks.

Yet MLA11 DH sessions had affect of optimism, growth, new beginnings; comparatively prosperous IT funding climate very different. Packed panels on future of DH, on social media, filled with laughter, hope, and sense of empowerment; growing investments in DH by universities, corporations, nonprofit foundations. Also addressed challenges of humanities climate, often re: tenure and promotion beyond the monograph/article; ;lack of professional recognition for technical labor performed by academic precariat.

T&P issue: a ‘first world problem’; institutional structure of DH threatens to increase the insecure labor structures of modern capitalism in academy. Act used by DHer to distinguish themselves: “making things.” MLA11 panels discussed much boundary drawing between making and critique. RG learned that he was not a digital humanist because he didn’t code: “keeping a blog doesn’t make you a digital humanist” (Ramsay).

After MLA11, question of “making” becomes central. Slide of Tara McPherson, Cathy Davidson Twitter exchange, where TM says that too much critique tends to be end in itself; CD responds “critique is hard, new ideas are harder, making stuff work is really really hard.”

Academics on the left blame crisis in humanities on neoliberal academy, on instrumentalisation. Precarious labor is justified in terms of bottomline economics: the need to train students for jobs, not to read literature. CD and TM follow instrumentalising logic by criticising critique for being an end in itself, rather than “making stuff work.”* But perhaps, as #transformdh articulates, the distinction between making things and doing other things creates a divide in DH itself — between TT/altac/those in even more precarious positions.

Instrumental value makes DH appealing to administration. Neoliberal reproduction of precaritiaaion of labor that marks the dark side of info capitalism in C21.

*[I (Alexis) just want to add that––individual tweets aside––both Cathy and Tara are, in my experience, huge supporters of the idea that making and critique should not be divided!]

Patrick Jagoda

The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities: Gamification

Games as a Cultural Dominant. Colossal video game industry in US, 183m active gamers in US claiming to play 13 hours/ week; mobile gaming revenues on the rise. Expanding centrality of games exceeds realm of gamers through “gamification”: use of game mechanics and competitive procedures in traditionally non-game activities.

Eg of gamification: Chore Wars “experience points for housework”; Nike+ shoes; taskrabbit; phylo (users participate in pattern recognition patterns to contribute to genome sequencing).
Throughout the overdeveloped world, life in C21 is becoming games. Gamification a problem of/for digital humanities. In education: game based learning, charter schools based on gameplay, McArthur Foundations Badges for Lifelong Learning adopted by digital literacy organizations. Visual portfolio of competences for participating youth and mentors.

Jane McGonigal: “Reality is broken” and can only be saved by games that turn real problems into obstacles that can be overcome. But there is also resistance to the concept and widespread adoption of gamification, often from game designers who find that it reproduces the least interesting aspects of contemporary games. Ian Bogost: “gamification is bullshit”–“exploitationware” a better term.

Gamification and DH. As teachers, researchers, administrators, games will remain a central topic, so worth discussing. PJ tends to respond with scepticism or disgust; repetitive tasks do not promote learning in analytical depth. But he also designs games and makes things in order to think about things. GameChanger.uchicago.com uses game design in working with OB/GYN in Chicago. Serious games can be used to help think through complex problem using text, graphics audio, algorithms — much that exceeds the addictiveness of points.
Pros and cons to badges are worth ongoing discussion, especially when so much money has been put into their development.

Finishing with 3 sets of questions. How shall we think about games in this historical moment? Games are not a local phenomenon but the form that economic and social reality takes in the present. Does it make sense to game the system?

Do the benefits of games, eg badges, outweigh their tendency to operate as reductive behaviourism? Should we adopt this?

How might we imagine serious/art/counter games as complicating the phemonenon of gamification?


Rita Raley

Speaking over backdrop of details, advertisements, descriptions, of various kinds of online education.

The dark side. Not quite the evil side, but not entirely unrelated, evil media studies pursues tactics of manipulation that endeavor to escape the melancholy of critique and the binds of representation. Our objective is not to diagnose so as to pronounce upon the truth, not to uniformly fix on one element of something, but to pause before declaring DH is the only game in town.
We need to examine not just the exploits but also the lines of escape.

References Transform DH and USCB PhDs Amanda Phillips and Anne Cong-Huyen, as well as Alan Liu’s questions about cultural criticism and DH.

Studying promotional materials in our current educational regimen; DH is well positioned to answer administrative and public demands to make knowledge useful. And to exploit the expectation that we should be affectively awed by instrumentation––‘this lab, this app, is so cool’! DHers serve as cashiers, academic service staff providing skills based training. Reinstating the theory/practice distinction that DIY/maker culture sought to challenge.

Agility is more easily attained without burdens of infrastructure: if everything is cloud based, if Amazon Microsoft and Google can provide it all, why invest in hardware? Using cloud services means freeing resources for experimentation in the province of architecture and design. But accepting a service means accepting terms of use. What protocols govern our uses of unversity gmail accounts? We must think about all the criteria that structure our communicative acts.

Daniel Bell: the task of humanitas is to defend against the increasingly powerful armory of intellectual techniques at the disposal of technocracy. How are we to regard the schism between high end tool development as research and undergrad pedagogy that maintains traditional structures?

Are there connections between DH research and contemporary courseware initiatives? How are both participating in technocracy? DH and online learning are said to be radical, open, democratic, because they are making knowledge accessible…

Acknowledging that DH has contributed to traditional lit scholarship, one might ask how it has come to function as the solution to every crisis, every methodological impasse.

Can we understand the exuberance around DH as salvific effort to save our profession? Is DH futurism a cover for belatedness? Should we be jolted out of the cycle of the next grant proposal, in order to speculate for the discipline as a whole, escape the irrational exuberance that too often characterises our expressions?

7 thoughts on “#MLA13: The Dark Side of Digital Humanities

  1. Pingback: Are MOOCs part of the Digital Humanities? | The Transducer

  2. jim english

    glad to get this good recap of the dark side session, Alexis — thanks for mentioning it the other night

  3. Pingback: Discipline and Punish, the DH Edition

  4. Pingback: Scotland’s Collections and the Digital Humanities