Just Because You’re Paranoid

Last month, I had a really interesting opportunity to participate in an open peer review for the project Writing History in a Digital Age. Somewhat to my dismay, I found myself falling into old-fartism in various ways as I made my comments.

One of the responses I had at various points, though, isn’t just limited to that project. Thomas Malaby and I wrote an introductory essay for Game Studies a while back that got an interesting reading from Alex Golub over at Savage Minds. One of the things that we suggested is that disciplinary enclosure of most areas of conceivable study will happen sooner or later, with an accompanying loss of generative, imaginative ways to think about that subject matter.

There are signs of that at times in work that self-identifies as digital humanities, and it’s something of the same split move we saw in game studies, between those that would like to create a new, separate disciplinary project and those that would like to safely domesticate “frontier” subject matter for incorporation into the safe metropole of an existing discipline. Digital humanists, however, are both consciously fretful about those possibilities and in many cases ideologically committed to avoiding them. This is one of the main sources of the “meta-ness” and self-referentiality of much DH discussion, which sparked a good deal of tweeting and blogging in the last week, of how to avoid, disrupt or defer moves towards enclosure by disciplines or towards splitting digital humanities off as its own discipline and keeping alive an insurgent challenge to business as usual.

One of the dangers to that commitment is a tendency to invest too much in an abstract imagining of the Other of digital humanism, a sort of pervasive tormenter and antagonist who is everywhere and nowhere at once in the academy, a sort of superset of all academics who are not expressly committed to the use and exploration of digital culture, information technology, open access, and so on.

Some of the practices and structures in academia which are most inimical to the professed goals of many digital humanists are supported largely by inertia rather than strongly felt commitments. That’s actually harder to overcome, but it’s important not to personify inertia or give it more intentionality than it has.

This is not to say that there are not opponents to digital technologies, open access publishing, blogging and so on within the academy. There are. Some opposition is passive or snarky, largely about the comforts of that inertia. Some is much more active, passionate and articulate. I’d rather deal with the latter, because that’s a conversation that can take place largely within the idealized norms of scholarly debate and process. It’s mostly the former, however. That’s where the danger of overimagining an opposition comes into sharpest focus.

The peril is threefold. First, that digital humanists come to anticipate too much that they will be uniquely the target of passive-aggressive opposition, which is bad for both the future development of an institutional project and for the individual careers of scholars, particularly junior scholars. I happened to be reading in the last few weeks within several different strands of the history of various scientific and technological research projects and with stunning regularity the individuals whose work has eventually become foundational orthodoxy were treated with disdain or bemused condescension at the outset of their careers. To some extent, casual and thoughtless snark and condescension are famously everywhere and anywhere in academic life that you care to look for them. If you’re a junior academic, you can pretty much count on the fact that at least some of your senior colleagues think (based on no real engagement or knowledge) that your work is trivial and that you’re a lightweight. Most of the people who think that way won’t have the malice or energy to act on it. But some of them might if they sense a vulnerability, and one of the ways to communicate that is to seem overly anxious about whether there will be opposition to your work or ideas. This kind of passive-aggressiveness is like the old saw about dogs only biting if they sense fear: the best way to keep it at bay is to act as if it doesn’t exist at all, to be as serenely and matter-of-factly confident about what you’re doing as you possibly can be.

The second problem is that arguing in favor of a project or idea through a repeated recounting of its marginalization relies on a construction that has become ubiquitious in almost all struggles for resources or power. E.g., so much advocacy for any program, project or policy seems to require situating it as the victim of some dominant program, as the periphery of a center, as the underdog. Part of the danger of that construction is that it relieves a pressure to make fully conceptualized arguments on behalf of such a program, resting instead on a moral appeal against persecution. But more pertinently in this case the problem is this strategy is now often the prelude to becoming a disciplinary orthodoxy in academia, the way we make a place for ourselves and then settle in to hold the line against the generation behind us. For digital humanists, that strategy is far more inimical to the substance of their ideas and commitments than it would be for, say, rational-choice analysts or social historians.

The third problem, and the one I think is most pertinent to Writing History in a Digital Age, is that stressing out too much about opposition often leads you to miss out on allies who substantively agree with everything you have to say but who work on a completely different subject, in a different medium, or in a different context. So, for example, the digital humanists who believe strongly in the potential of information technology to commingle public, ‘amateur’ and scholarly productions of history, or to circulate scholarly knowledge in new ways, shouldn’t overlook other clusters of scholars who’ve been laboring to accomplish the same things without digital technologies.

I don’t want to be pollyanna about these issues. Junior scholars do need to watch for serious antagonists, and do need institutional protection. Some changes only happen because they’re argued for forcefully, and some forceful argument requires calling out unjustified or irrational opponents in precisely those terms. However, a lot of change in institutions that have long memories and that plan for their long-term survival happens a bit magically, as a critical mass comes together. A theory or a project or a methodology can seem isolated, lonely, persecuted and then hey presto! everyone’s doing it and it’s hard to remember the days when they weren’t. I think the road to that moment is smoother when there’s less angst about opposition along the way.

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2 Responses to Just Because You’re Paranoid

  1. Kimon Keramidas says:

    Great post! One of the things I find most disconcerting about the most aggressive side of DH that wishes to isolate and create a new field is just this lack of understanding that you don’t necessarily stand against a movement if you aren’t visibly for it. My job is all about slowly convincing the ambivalent about the possibilities that digital media make available. I usually sell digital work as providing new tools to answer the same questions, with the added possibility that those technologies may also allow people to ask new questions than they could before. This aligns that tech with a continuum of change in humanities practice and the growth of the academy that predates the digital rather than as an alternative oppositional discipline.

    This approach allows even the most entrenched cautious individual the ability to enter the digital realm on their terms, at their pace, and with their own set of expectations. Growth may be slower and less noisy, but it is more organically related to our program’s development and allows for individuals to take more ownership over their involvement in progress and innovation. Over time this increases the chances of them developing into grassroots champions of the move towards digital work across the curriculum and more likely to be supportive and participant when larger more edgy projects come along.

    As to your point about overstating opposition, the times I do feel resistance is when I slip into evangelism or when I push too much change too quickly without deliberate conversations about the benefits of new practice. If someone wants to approach digital change more cautiously they have that right and most academics don’t take too kindly when they are made to feel like they don’t know something. I am slowly learning that ranting and raving about what you think are certainties is a much less effective motivator for change than slowly and deliberately doing quality work and then having constructive conversations about how that work might translate into someone else’s practice, making their work not only easier but also possibly more interesting and more enjoyable.

    A mentor once told me that institutional change is more like turning a cruise ship and less like turning a speedboat, it happens slowly and with patience rather than rapidly and with immediate satisfaction. Right now digital humanities is probably happening at a pace that is even faster than should be expected and constantly promoting difference and superiority is less likely to expedite that process than many would think.

  2. Sherman Dorn says:

    Neither you nor I are sufficiently graybearded to be old farts (yet), though my 16-year-old son may claim otherwise. Vulnerable to old-fartism or not, I very much appreciated the comments made by you and others on the Writing History in the Digital Age web version. Having just submitted the revision of my chapter, I can assure you that the comments pushed me in several productive directions, and I expect the same to be true for other authors.

    As I hope I made clear in the revised version, there are some parts of DH with parallels to fields currently on the margins of history and similarly-aged disciplines: archivists, public history/museum professionals, archaeologists, etc. Pieces of digital humanities projects that old farts can map onto their existing categories will be … well, if not fine, at least within status dynamics that ally DH professionals with those in like positions. After writing the chapter, what worries me most is the difficulty in evaluating collaborative infrastructure work. The IHE piece written after MLA this year was consistent with that tentative conclusion, and the MLA guidelines on evaluating DH work are great on procedure but maddeningly vague on substance.

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