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Revisiting Neoliberal Tools

I had the pleasure this morning of being part of an excellent townhall on digital American Studies held by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Amerikastudien. My assignment was to think about the critical concerns that DH has surfaced regarding neoliberalism and the contemporary university, my opening thoughts about which are below.

In recent years, a series of critical and theoretical interventions — perhaps most pointedly the 2016 Los Angeles Review of Books essay by David Allington, Sarah Brouillette, and David Golumbia — connected the perceived technocentrism of the digital humanities to the positivist conservatism of higher education and other related institutions, resulting in the field and its proponents being considered “neoliberal tools.”

I’m not here today to make the case that neoliberalism plays no role in the rise of the digital humanities, or frankly of the rise of anything else on university campuses these days. Honestly, to say that any aspect of our institutions bears some relation to the neoliberal is only to point out the water in which we all swim. All of our work — our programs, our courses, our research — is determined by a set of forces that are today hopelessly beholden to the market, whether that work is digital or not.

In the particular case of the digital humanities, however, it’s important to distinguish between, on the one hand, what an institution’s administrations and governing bodies might assume that the digital can do for the humanities, and the digital humanities might do for the institution, and on the other hand, what the digital humanities actually does, and is for. A university’s administration might see DH as a way of increasing the “marketable skills” delivered as part of humanities degrees, in order to ensure that the credential provided appears to be worth paying for. Or a university’s administration might see the grant programs that support many digital humanities projects and assume that DH is a way to increase external funding for an area on campus that doesn’t bring in the dollars in the way that STEM fields do. Or a university’s administration might see the capacity for digital technologies to produce more quantified metrics about scholarship and its impact and assume that digital humanities will foster uptake of such measurement.

All of these assumptions have some basis in truth. Learning how to manipulate a computer is a valuable skill in today’s economy. In the US context, at least, there are more sizable grants available for large-scale digital projects than there are for writing books. And the impact of work in DH is often more readily quantified than is the impact of work in book-based fields. But all of these assumptions hinge on a critical misunderstanding: that DH is about the technology. This is one of the sources of the critique of DH and its neoliberal tools, after all; as Brian Greenspan has noted, “the very taint of technology is enough to convince some conventional humanists that DH must somehow smack of neoliberal tendencies” (Greenspan). The associations of technology with the technocratic, the managerial, and the kinds of “disruptive innovation” that have overtaken our culture are enough to make any good scholar leery about what those technologies are doing in our literature departments.

But DH is not primarily about tool-building, or even archive-building, even though the technologies we use and produce often draw the lion’s share of attention. In my own institution, Michigan State University, where digital humanities is both an academic program and a research unit, we understand DH as a kind of Venn diagram, bringing together both uses of technology to study the questions and materials that are explored within the humanities, and uses of humanities-based modes of inquiry to technology and its uses. But even here, those two parts of the Venn diagram should not be understood as putting technology on one side and theory on the other, and only bringing them together in the overlap. Every choice we make about our uses of technology in DH brings with it — or should bring with it — a reckoning with the social, communal, and ethical issues the technology surfaces.

What I want to ask at this point is whether the work of humanities fields that don’t explicitly focus on digital technologies have engaged to the same extent in critical considerations of their own systems and methods. Because, honestly, all work in the academy is technological, whether those technologies are foregrounded, as in the digital, or not. It’s in part for this reason that Brian Greenspan argues that, “if anything, DH is guilty of making all too visible the dirty gears that drive the scholarly machine, along with the mechanic’s maintenance bill.” That machine may not be driven by industrially-produced code, but it is industrial all the same: the scholarly machine grinds along whenever our tenure and promotion standards demand the production of a published monograph, or whenever we rank some journals as more prestigious than others. Greenspan continues:

DH doesn’t so much pander to the system (at least not more than any other field) as it scandalously reveals the system’s components, while focusing critical attention on the mechanisms needed to maintain them. And that’s precisely its unique and urgent potential: by providing the possibility of apprehending these mechanisms fully, DH takes the first steps toward a genuinely materialist and radical critique of scholarship in the 21st century.

In fact, much of the “disruption” that DH has sought to create in recent years has had little to do with technology per se, and far more to do with this radical critique of the ways that scholars work, their relationships to their institutions, and more. In this vein, we might explore:

In all of these ways, these projects and others present possibilities for ways of working that not only evade but actively seek to counter the neoliberal university’s tendencies toward the use of quantified metrics for productivity, toward competitive individualism, toward data extraction, and toward market-based notions of research impact. Through projects like these the digital humanities broadly conceived has the potential become not a source of neoliberal tools, but rather a transformative force within the university.


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