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This is a Blog Post about the Digital Humanities
A response to Stanley Fish, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, and others
January 11, 2012
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For the first time in five years, I attended the Modern Language Association (MLA) conference. This is the main conference for scholars of language and literature, with about 8,000 attendees at this year's event in Seattle.

Among the big things going down this year: the ongoing clash of cultures between the "traditional humanities"—the scholars who read books and write books about the books they read—and the "digital humanities"—the scholars who use computers to do the things they used to do with books. This is a "big debate," big enough that the University of Minnesota Press rushed Matt Gold's edited collection Debates in the Digital Humanities to press in time for a release at this year's MLA (the book reprints my blog post The Turtlenecked Hairshirt).

Now that the conference is over, the debate continues. Not just in Gold's book, which should reach the non-MLA attending rabble forthwith, but via other debates, largely on blogs. The most visible of these came from the deposed duke of theory Stanley Fish, at the New York Times. Fish argues (on a blog) that blogs, with their immediacy and temporariness and interconnectedness, undermine the originality of long-form scholarship, and that digital humanities is yet another in a long line of attempts to govern cultural practice. He gets there partly through critiques of Kathleen Fitzpatrick's book Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy. It's a book she wrote online, on a blog, soliciting feedback through blog comments that were later incorporated into the print book. Fitzpatrick (who also happens to be the acting Director of Scholarly Communication for the MLA) responded to Fish, both in a blog comment on Fish's blog post, and on her own blog, in a blog post that contains the blog comment she posted to Fish's blog post, but which had been subject first to moderation and then to obscurity amidst so many other comments. Fitzpatrick also commented on her own blog post that contains the blog comment she posted to Fish's blog post, noting that she has more to say but that the NY Times has a maximum comment character count. One presumes she'll blog those further comments on her blog, eventually. Meanwhile, lots of folks on Twitter are tweeting comments about all these blog posts and blog comments, as well as links to their own blog post responses. Mark Sample, for example, tweeted that Fish acknowledged the new world order by citing on his blog a blog comment Sample had posted on a graduate student's blog.

Let's go over that again. At the MLA and in a new book, digital humanists debated the role of computer media like blogs in the practice of humanism. In the wake of the MLA, a famous and controversial literary theorist notes that the MLA featured debates about the use of media like blogs in scholarship, and raises concern about the nature of media like blogs in scholarship, largely through discussion of a book by an MLA officer about the ways scholarship is changing when done on blogs, which was first a blog and then became a book. Digital humanities advocates respond in blogs and blog comments about blogging, arguing, among other things, that digital humanities are not really postmodernist. Ahem.

When I lived in Los Angeles and worked in the entertainment industry, I remember coming to a realization: a great deal of Hollywood entertainment is about the entertainment industry. Think about it. Fame, Barton Fink, Super 8, Tropic Thunder, Party Down, Adaptation, Full Frontal, Peeping Tom, Ed Wood, The Truman Show, Sunset Blvd., The Barefoot Contessa, Somewhere, Hollywood Ending, Seinfeld. I guess it makes sense. Write what you know, the aphorism goes. At first, that means heartbreak or black heartedness, but eventually, with success, what one knows is what one does. And currently, what one does in the humanities is talk about the humanities. This is particularly true of the digital humanities, some of whose proponents are actually using computers to do new kinds of humanistic scholarly work in breaks between debates about the potential to use computers for new kinds of humanistic scholarly work.

And now I've written a blog post about it.

Comments (29)
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It's turtles all the way down...

Solipsistic and self-referential? The humanities (not to mention academics)? I am shocked, SHOCKED to hear this.

This is precisely why I decided not to write yet another blog post about the nature of digital humanities.

Or comment on yet another blog post about the nature of digital humanities.

Uh oh.

Somehow reminds me of this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LQqq3e03EBQ

— "You are all individuals"

— "I'm not"

The whole conversation renders his point moot. Like you pointed out well.

There's a different takeaway here. In many ways, DH is a historiography of contemporary humanities knowledge work. The digital humanities gets foregrounded at MLA because this is a conversation everyone can and should have. In other words, while big multi-field conventions like the MLA offer organizing themes (this year’s was “Language, Literature, and Learning”), in the mass it seems these rarely challenge the specializations which can segregate literary professionals by field -- and which produce hyperextensions (e.g. panel/paper titles) that draw sarcastic fire from certain annual reviews of the convention. (The eye-openingest one I saw: “Can we have sex in the archive?”) It is unfortunate and ironic that even the more capacious kind of conversation at #MLA12 gets criticized as solipsistic or faddish. It seems like the opposite: everyone gets together and talks about a subject that makes sense for everyone to talk about. DH has flourished at MLA (and in responses to it) for exactly this reason. The profession is changing; it’s happening to everyone; let’s figure it out. While DH’s conspicuousness invites boundary problems and unfriendly reactions, it may also ameliorate some of the boundaries within MLA, in all sorts of contexts: fields, disciplinary distinctions, professional status, and communication circuits. If the MLA has not always been great for DH, DH has been great for the MLA convention, making it work better for what it is: a huge assembly of disparate people who want to talk and share, to constitute the profession in its commitments to intellectual and collegial exchange.

Simply hysterical.

@pfyfe
I didn't really mean for the MLA convention to be the subject of this tiny commentary. It was just a lede, and a context.

@pfyfe
I guess I should offer more response than just that dodge.

I think there's a place for talking about what one does in a field. Conferences are a good place to do that. This is true of industrial conferences as much as academic ones. We step back and take stock of successes and failures and share ideas for how to do things better.

But we're now at the point of talking about ourselves talking about how we work. This does seem solipsistic at least (it's faddish too, but never mind that for now). And I don't think it's any accident that those of us who have been "figuring out" how to do humanistic scholarship and creation with digital artifacts and in a digital age have grown weary of the self-referentialism.

Every piece I've written about the digital humanities has said essentially the same thing: computers are contemporary tools with great power and promise. That's not surprising. Now go do stuff.

I felt exactly this way at the MLA, and I'm personally trying to shift gears back toward "actually doing whatever it is I'm doing," instead of talking about it.

But I'm also happy to cut the field at large a little slack. There are a lot of big changes taking place right now -- new objects of study, new methods that seem very alien to many scholars. And humanists are in the habit of extensively debating even tiny changes in the field, or non-changes!

As the implications of DH sink in to the broader profession, we may find there's sort of a concentric structure to intellectual life for a while. Some of us are going to be "doing stuff" while a larger (and overlapping) group of people argue about what we're doing and whether we ought to be doing it. 'Sokay with me. There's no other way for the field to process this. Different strokes to move the world.

@Ted
Sure, ... but to a point.The habits you mention are real, of course, but they may not be good ones just because they are familiar.

I just drop in every now and then to poke at things.

Ian,

Besides being very comical, I think your post is saying something very important. Like you say yourself in the comment above:

"Every piece I've written about the digital humanities has said essentially the same thing: computers are contemporary tools with great power and promise. That's not surprising. Now go do stuff."

But while I agree wholeheartedly with the crux--that people should set aside the self-referentiality and, if possible, produce stuff--some degree of self-reflection, and above all self-justification, is to be expected. After all, Stanley Fish is not just a powerful figure in the humanities, his pronouncements are also symptomatic for what a LOT of people in the field (people on search committees, tenure committees, etc) think about DH. That has to be countered if people want to start making stuff instead of just talking about methods and the rest, but the work of countering these sentiments prevents people from making stuff, so that the self-referentiality is in some degree pre-programmed, no?

Hmmm...I wonder (sincerely) if there's an affect to 'actually doing' that is in play here? I mean, you mention Hollywood's making films about itself, but there's also a sense in which the making of any Hollywood film is solipsistic: I get paid to work on a film (or game, or ad, or widget) so that it can be entertaining so that it will make money so that I can get paid to work on a film. Obviously, there is more to film to this, a lot of which lies in the multiple things included in the word 'entertainment' that issues from the product, but maybe one could say the same about the output of the DH debate's process? I'm not sold on this myself, I'm just stuck on the fact that my grandfather never considered working in advertising to be 'actual work'...
(I know this is a confused comment I know, but maybe getting at something?)

@Shane
For starters, I'm not sure if Stanley Fish is a powerful figure or not. I think many see him as a blowhard, especially these days. But that's beside the point, really, since as you point out a lot of people feel the same, and those folks will align themselves with a blowhard when it serves their interests.

All that said, I am not entirely convinced that these attitudes need to be countered, exactly. Taken into account, certainly. Approached tactically, sure. But I am not sure that the work of countering sentiments does any more prevention than the work of supporting them.

As much as I gripe about all this, if you talk to the NEH DH office folks, then that conversation will very quickly turn into one about doing things instead of talking about how to set up a situation in which an environment might emerge in which things could get done. And zeroing the scales at the NEH is hardly an aggressive position to take.

So, in short, no, I don't think the self-referentiality is pre-programmed. It's just a bad habit.

@Ian:
Maybe you're right. Certainly there are a lot of people who are not part of the core of DH who are doing interesting humanities work in digital form and not going on about how that's special, new, etc: people doing videographic film studies, for example, or (like Jason Mittell) writing their books out in the open, in online spaces like MediaCommons. On the other hand, a lot of that work still doesn't get counted towards tenure and the like. So I'm just not sure. DH (of the self-referential type) does seem to address real concerns, but I agree that there are limits to the productivity of self-referentiality (even if it might be unavoidable in some respects).

I share your weariness, particularly regarding our tendency to jump to judgment: live tweeting is rude, DH is another fad, blogging is ______. I can't even be bothered to fill in the blank. Part of the doing of DH is having reflective conversations on what works. For example, could we figure out better ways to use Twitter at conferences? Could we study the use of Twitter at our conferences, perhaps comparing those uses to other fields/professions, and produce valuable scholarship? I would say yes, that such scholarly work could be as useful (say for someone studying technical communication or digital rhetoric) as any more traditional scholarly work undertaken in the humanities.

But all of that's quite different from what you refer to here. It's more about making something happen than giving thumbs up or down.

I remarked on twitter that it's fun to see the maker of Cow Clicker ("I made a Facebook game about Facebook games") critique DHers for going meta. But there's an instructive difference between a game designer building a game to critique a genre of games, on the one hand, and DHers using social media to explain the ways in which social media is altering scholarly communication, on the other. You're right to point out that a field ostensibly devoted to building should be making more of its arguments through its tools.

Some would say that we do in fact do that, and in that connection, I'd highly recommend Steve Ramsay and Geoffrey Rockwell's essay in the Debates book ("Developing Things: Notes toward an Epistemology of Building in the Digital Humanities"), not to mention your "Turtlenecked Hairshirt" post. But it strikes me that the project that comes closest to a Cow-Clicker-esque project is Mark Sample's "Hacking the Accident" - a nice example of a DH project that embeds its parodical critique in its code, and one that is fun to play with, to boot.

@David
I suppose mere continuance can be oppressive and Sisyphean, or it can be modest and earnest. Perhaps you're right, perhaps DH is stuck in the Sisyphean mode, and I'm just trying to remind them that they can go swimming instead of pushing rocks.

@Matt
I appreciated the prod, as it were. But as I pointed out on Twitter, I've been pretty open about the downsides of Cow Clicker, among them the weird sorrow that comes along with the infinite regress of self-reference. Put differently, I'm the canary in the coal mine. Don't follow me down here.

You had me at "deposed Duke of theory."

Mark, that's a pun I may never get to use again. Small victories.

Here's a short response from Matthew Battles.

I'd add journalism to the recursive fields list. Lots of coverage of the coverage of the coverage. In this case similarly filled with handwringing on the future of the profession.

So, this is funny. And I wouldn't deny that there's a lot of talk and blather in the digital humanities, though as Matthew Battles points out, that's true of pretty much all academic disciplines. I also agree that much of DH, even too much, is about the academy, although it tends to be about changing the academy rather than celebrating it, which makes it not the same as the plethora of rock songs celebrating the rock lifestyle and the panoply of Hollywood movies telling you be brave and follow your showbiz dreams.

But I want to make two points:

1) Um, Kathleen builds stuff. MediaCommons, hello? CommentPress, hello? And the broader point is that commentary and building are not mutually exclusive. You can be building at 11am and blathering at 3pm, and both activities will inform one another. Gary Hall's *Digitize This Book* is a bit of a slog, but he does make that point very well: in the best language of blather ever, building | critiquing is a binary opposition that can and should be easily deconstructed. Other people who've been cheerily blogging and commenting and blogging comments and so on also build. They don't need to be told to go build stuff.

2) And even if Kathleen didn't build stuff, which she does, she's originally and still a Media Studies scholar -- I always feel grateful that she lets us count her as Digital Humanities, though, again, it makes sense that she does if you define DH by tool-building. (There was a panel at MLA that I didn't get to go to titled something like "Media Studies vs. DH," by the way.) In other words, her *field of study* is communication, specifically, scholarly communication. It would be silly if that *didn't* affect how she, you know, communicates. Scholarlyly.

I'm done writing my blog post comment.

@Amanda
Thanks for taking the time to make these points. To begin, I should point out that building stuff or not building stuff isn't necessarily germane to my prod. When the stuff we build is always or primarily for us, then it's still just another ouroboros. And that's the only observation this little ditty makes. And yes, while other disciplines also talk about themselves a lot, I stand by my position that the humanities do it worse. Part of the reason for this is because so many humanists believe what they do is "useless" (to use Fish's own words). Is there a differnce between "useless" and "useful only to itself?"

But that said, my further response to your two points depends on what you mean by "build stuff." I'm curious: what do you mean, exactly?

MediaCommons is a blog. Making a blog shouldn't impress anyone. Digital humanists seem to get very excited when they successfully deploy other people's packaged software, like Wordpress or Drupal. That's nice, but so what?

I'm not aware of Kathleen's involvement in CommentPress, beyond using it for her Planned Obsolescence project. My understanding is that it was created by Eddie Tejeda, Christian Wach, and others at Institute for the Future of the Book. It's my further understanding that Kathleen was involved with Institute for the Future of the Book for some of this time, but in what capacity, I am not sure. I just re-read the CommentPress section of Kathleen's book, and I understand once more that she is a user of the technology, not a primary creator of it. It is entirely possible I am wrong about this, but I feel like I've done my research. In any case, no matter her involvement, certainly any involvement is greater than the average humanist has in constructing new media. But how much praise shall we lavish on such modest exceptionalism?

No matter the case, even if Kathleen she's an original and interesting scholar (she is), she's still a scholar of scholarship. And there's a place for that, as I admit in some of the comments above. But we have so much of it, so much talk about ourselves, so much self-reference and self-refection and self-love, and so little engagement, relatively speaking, with the broader world. It's the worldliness that I want; the digital tools and methods are just a happy accident of our present historical moment. For more on this, I invite you to read my other two pieces on this subject, The Turtlenecked Hairshirt and Beyond the Elbow Patched Playground.

One last thought: I like Kathleen and her work, and I'm not trying to pick on her. She just happened to have been picked up by Stanley Fish, and to be involved with the MLA, and to have written this book, and thus to contribute to such a perfect little truffle that was this blog post.

@Kathleen
You're right. If I had to summarize, guess I'd say it's more like a magazine with a community surrounding it. I don't think that detail changes my overall position, but the details are worth getting right.

I'm the weekend receptionist at an art museum in Augusta, Georgia. I just found out that Ian Bogost is coming here, and I can't express the overwhelming joy I'm feeling right now in words! To see that someone is taking a medium like video games, whose conventions includes strategy and conquering and create the desire in the youth to desire THINGS and to want to essentially conquer the world, is very comforting. Creating video game poetry and video game meditations is the alternative to the war based video games that pervade American "warrior" culture. I've found that much of our youth becomes rather upset when they get older when they find what they were promised in beating video games---access to unlimited amounts of wealth, power, and prestige--- is not given freely.

Jason Walter on January 14, 2012 1:38 PM

If only there were a bit more of the ouroboric in all this metaness. I think your earlier post about the self loathing quality was spot on. Also, there is studied uncertainty. A bit more self love would liberate one from being so self regarding.

Dear Mr. Bogost,

I write to thank you for this very helpful expression of a tension I have sensed as I acquaint myself with the new insurgency of the so-called "digital humanities."

As you share with your readers here, I've embarked on an extended analysis of the movement in my New York Times column (not to say, blog). The fourth essay in the series -- http://bit.ly/H4Suf4 -- takes up your writings on self-referentiality in the field. It offers, I'm afraid, a bit of a challenge to the facile conclusions you draw.

Sincerely,
Stanley Fish

Hmmm...I wonder (sincerely) if there's an affect to 'actually doing' that is in play here? I mean, you mention Hollywood's making films about itself, but there's also a sense in which the making of any Hollywood film is solipsistic: I get paid to work on a film (or game, or ad, or widget) so that it can be entertaining so that it will make money so that I can get paid to work on a film. Obviously, there is more to film to this, a lot of which lies in the multiple things included in the word 'entertainment' that issues from the product, but maybe one could say the same about the output of the DH debate's process? I'm not sold on this myself, I'm just stuck on the fact that my grandfather never considered working in advertising to be 'actual work'...
(I know this is a confused comment I know, but maybe getting at something?)

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