Genealogies of the humanities

The controversy in the digital humanities over David Allington’s, Sarah Brouillette’s, and David Golumbia’s recent article, “Neoliberal Tools (And Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities” led to mostly predictable responses from humanities scholars, digital and otherwise. While the authors of this article offer a somewhat compelling account of the rise of the digital humanities — or at least one take on it — their arguments are not particularly novel nor unexpected. Indeed, anyone who has presented digital humanities work at a non-DH conference has likely witnessed a similar brow furrowing from senior colleagues. Furthermore, this criticism of DH work has a long history: Tom Eyers previously made a similar argument and Stanley Fish famously offered his hermeneutic critique of DH (to name only a few).

The authors’ claim, that Digital Humanities embodies a form of neoliberalism that is transforming the humanities into a skills and deliverables-based training ground for the tech sector, is a relatively unsurprising critique. Similarly, the response of DH scholars to this critique, to demonstrate the manner in which DH challenges hegemonic notions of research, knowledge, historicism, and interpretation are all well-rehearsed. I suggest here that both are right and that we should think of the digital humanities genealogically in order to recognize that yes, the digital humanities is a trojan horse, transforming our departments and our knowledge work from within, but that the content of that work and its implications for broader notions of the humanities and humanism more generally remains open to definition. DH work may in fact be a form of creeping neoliberalism as Allington, Brouillette, and Columbia suggest, but it need not be.

All your books are belong to us

Argumentative Game Genie: Rhetoric in the digital humanities

I find that a central challenge of presenting digital humanities work is the need to speak across multiple languages: technical, humanistic, visual, algorithmic. To borrow Susan Brown’s phrase, DH work usually involves working in the gaps between disciplines and these gaps come with all kinds of linguistic and communication difficulties. How do we communicate concepts that we know are important to humanistic inquiry when those concepts rely on analyses of algorithms, data visualizations, geographic information systems and similar obtuse technical concepts and tools? Most DH’ers are familiar with the furrowed brows of our colleagues when we explain that their field of study could be aided with some bizarre and opaque computational apparatus. “Machine learning!?!?!” they say in the  drawn out, pained tone usually reserved for doctor’s describing incurable diseases.

Given this need to speak across the gap of hermeneutics & technical forms of knowledge (setting aside the fact that the two are not really all that separate) communication becomes a critical tool in digital humanities work. Indeed, communicating across disciplines and disourses is no small feat. If we have enough trouble communicating with one another in our ‘home’ disciplines, one need not work hard to imagine the difficulty of trying to communicate in a language that is intellectually rigorous,  technically savvy, and even the slightest bit compelling and engaging.

The excellent work of the Stanford Literary Lab has demonstrated the need to adapt scholarly forms of communication to suit digital humanities research. Their work is both compelling in its content — as it pushes DH work in new directions and poses timely questions that challenge the tenets of the ‘discipline’ — and also in its form, using the ‘pamphlet’ as an appropriate genre for communicating this research. Not a peer-reviewed article in the traditional sense, the pamphlet enables the researchers to be more casual, more compelling, more polemic. All in all, a cooler form.

Where the gorblummuh is here? CanLit, Clarke, and Algorithmic Criticism

One of the questions that haunts my research is why is Austin Clarke’s writing so marginal within Canadian Literature? Clarke is not only a foundational Canadian author but also one of Canada’s most prolific. His first book, The Survivors of the Crossing, is contemporary with The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and The Double Hook and predates Northrop Frye’s infamous conclusion to Klinck’s Literary History of CanadaClarke has, therefore, been concerned with the question of “Where is Here,” from a diasporic perspective, well before CanLit ever articulated that as the (supposedly) defining question. Yet despite being so prolific and engaged with the themes that centrally concern Canadian literature, there is very little critical writing on Clarke’s work.

A quick search of Google Scholar for Clarke reveals approximately 2100 results, many of which are completely irrelevant or only marginally related to Clarke’s work. Contrast this with the nearly 2000 results generated by searching for “Sheila Watson Double Hook.” Similar searches for Mordecai Richler and  Hugh MacLennan reveal 3,000 and 4,360 results respectively. Searching for Margaret Atwood breaks the internet.

Objectivity & Digital Humanities

I find Glen Worthey’s post about the relationship between Digital Humanities & Russian Formalism really compelling. He gives a useful  overview of russain formalist criticism and then suggests:“I’m here to proclaim that the digital humanities are a 21st-century version of…

Clarke’s Narrative Realism, Data Visualization & GIS

One of the central tensions in Austin Clarke’s work is between his depiction of very real, accurate movement & imagined movement. The places characters go & the places they imagine they might go.

Clarke’s attention to movement is at the heart of his diasporic poetics: he captures the black Atlantic ethos of movement across borders alongside the regulation of the movement of black people by the state and the police. Clarke’s most recent novel, More, for instance, begins with a sentence that extends four pages where the main character describes moving through her Toronto neighbourhood. As the sentence ends we learn that all of her movement has been imagined and she is actually lying still & silent in her dark basement apartment.

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Part of my postdoctoral project has been to map out these numerous depictions of movement throughout Clarke’s work. This is partially to examine the ways in which he borrows from the (under-examined) themes of movement that structure Fanon’s representation of the colony. But its also to provide a visual representation of Clarke’s movement, what Rinaldo Walcott has called a ‘blackening’ of Canada. Where do Clarke’s characters go? What routes do they take? How does their movement transform their relationship to the city & the nation?

A few interesting recurring questions and problems have emerged from this mapping. First there is the constant theme of circuitous routes. Clarke’s characters regularly go in circles: starting out somewhere, trying to get somewhere else & ending up where they started. Often it is the police, their own anxiety, the transit, or their failings that lead them back to where they began.

Creolization and Chimera Topics

Over the past year I’ve been working on a number of things. One exciting piece of news is that my book is finally coming out (yay!), another is that I’ve been working as a Postdoc at McMaster on a Digital Humanities project focused on Austin Clarke. I’ve been treating this postdoc as an opportunity to stumble around,  think about, and experiment in digital humanities. From both technical & hermeneutic perspectives, in what ways does DH transform our notions of reading, writing and canonicity? Big questions…

Clarke provides a useful test case for thinking about DH not only because his archives are so extensive but also because he writes about humanities, humanism and who gets to count as human in a broad sense. Clarke writes the slave past within the multicultural present – he shows how the social constructs of the colony and the plantation continue to structure life for black people even in post-colonial (post-national?) Canada. In this sense his work brings to bear the postcolonial critique of the black Atlantic onto the discourse of digital humanities. Whose humanities? Whose humanism? This topic – of the latent forms of humanism that lie at the heart of DH – has been raised by Tara McPherson but requires far more discussion and I’m hoping that Clarke’s work will open new ways of thinking about the category of the human within DH.

Where is the Nation in Digital Humanities?

*Image credit: Editing Modernism in Canada The organizers of “Decolonizing DH: Theories and Practices of Postcolonial Digital Humanities” at the most recent MLA have raised critically important questions about the intersection between postcolonial research and digital humanities work. In what…

Expanding Human Factors

I’ve recently landed in a position teaching Engineering and technical Communication to Engineering and Science students. This is a really enjoyable position and has allowed me to uniquely combine my background in Computer Science with my English research. Furthermore, there are a number of unique and effective pedagogical methods that I’ve learned in Engineering Communication that seem to really resonate with students. I’m convinced that English Departments, particularly the more traditional ones, could gain a lot from seeing how Engineering is developing language and critical thinking education.

In our program we teach from the perspective that the design process — the way in which Engineers turn a problem or challenge into a science or math-based solution — shares a number of parallels with the critical thinking process. So as we teach the design process, and the writing and communication that goes with it, we are also teaching elements of critical thinking: the ability to understand a problem from multiple perspectives, to write using neutral and bias-free language, to generate multiple possible solutions, to form arguments to defend one’s solution, and to assess the relative strengths and weaknesses of those solutions.

As I continue to teach in this department I am trying to assess what forms of critical thinking students are being taught and what some of the challenges are to teaching critical thinking in an Engineering environment. My thinking is largely influenced by theories of critical pedagogy developed by Paolo Freire and Henry A. Giroux. Freire’s work is especially relevant to Engineering education, particularly as his notion of pedagogy requires that we critique ‘instrumental and technical rationality.’ In what ways does Engineering education, particularly with its heavy emphasis on technical knowledge, insist on a kind of ‘technical rationality’? In what ways can Engineering education imbue students with a sense of critical thinking and critique that challenges this instrumental form of rationality?