From the presentations Tuesday, it seems that a certain variety of skepticism still hangs over the digital humanities. As I said in the presentation, no one wants to be the library that went all-in on laserdisc. At the same time, there’s an incredible pressure on humanists to embrace technology either out of an enthusiastic technophilia or a desperate desire to stay relevant, and both impulses can lead to disastrous consequences. An uncritical embrace of the digital humanities represents for Chun an example of Berlant’s “Cruel Optimism,” a vain hope that digital humanities will rescue us from the institutional crisis facing academia, get phds jobs, get universities funding, that sustains us in the short-term but ultimately dooms us in the long run.
On the other hand, whatever becomes of the digital humanities or academia in general, we are all already digital humanists. As Hayles notes in How We Think, much of what we do as humanists is already digital: we all to some extent read, research, publish, and discuss our work digitally, via databases, social media, email, etc.. As with media in general the future of the humanities will take place at least in part online because life in the early part of the 21st century is lived at least in part online.
It can’t be a coincidence that this tension in many ways mirrors the tension that we see across the board in the “post-industrial” economy. Artists, businesses, and individuals face the same issue, and perhaps we can look at how this conflict plays out in the broader media sphere to inform how it will take place in the humanities. While in some ways the dream of the World Wide Web providing an anarchic, open platform for empowering individuals to create, discover, and share art and knowledge survives, in other ways it has merely digitized the machinery of late capitalism. The most successful platforms for engaging in discourse online are owned by a small number of monolithic, opaque, and totalitarian organization (Google, Facebook), and open spaces are dominated by kyriarchical social dynamics (Wikipedia, Reddit). Successfully or at least satisfactorily navigating the digital economy requires negotiating spaces that remain diametrically opposed to individuals interests whether economic, political, or in many cases both.
What sustains insurgent communities online frequently is not anyone’s capacity to revolutionize how we communicate but utilizing the ways we already communicate in new ways, reaching people already playing video games and showing them how to think about games in new ways, those already using Instagram or twitter to create and attract communities interested in certain political, academic, or artistic interests. Expanding on Raley’s notion of digital humanities for the next five minutes as a tactical exercise, the digital humanities may have to come to terms with the fact that it is essentially reactive rather than proactive. It isn’t the tools that sustain communities but the people. I believe that the tools of big data, of network analysis, of machine reading can contribute greatly to the humanities, but the model of the Silicon Valley start-up cannot. Indeed, the start-up model can hardly be said to sustain start-ups. Instead, the digital humanities can look to the model of the fandom.
And this is a deceptively obvious point. Working on an MA thesis, I am constantly being advised not to lose sight of my “object” and to situate my work in the conversation already taking place around my “object.” Digital humanistic inquiry needs to be able to speak to the people already engaged with the objects these inquiries examine, and in ways already accessible to them. Tumblr and the Wikimedia or Wikia software were not designed for fandoms, but fandoms incorporated them because they were useful, and could contribute to the conversation already taking place. Moreover, once situated in the discourse, fans learn to use these platforms and tweak them to suit their needs. Rita Raley writes that digital humanities needs to be bottom up rather than top down, and the fandom provides an excellent model for how this might work in practice.
Chun, Wendy, and Lisa Marie Rhody. “Working the Digital Humanities: Uncovering Shadows between the Dark and the Light.” Differences: A Journal Of Feminist Cultural Studies 25, no. 1 (Spring2014 2014): 1-25.
Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Think. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.
RALEY, RITA. “Digital Humanities for the Next Five Minutes.” Differences: A Journal Of Feminist Cultural Studies 25, no. 1 (Spring2014 2014): 26-45.