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

One central tenet of the authors’ arguments is that the institutional location of the digital humanities at the University of Virginia. They write:

It is telling that Digital Humanities, like Hirsch, and like Bowers, has found an institutional home at the University of Virginia. We argue that, like Hirsch’s tightly constrained approach to literary criticism, and like Bowers’s similarly constrained approach to textual scholarship, Digital Humanities has often tended to be anti-interpretive, especially when interpretation is understood as a political activity. Digital Humanities instead aims to archive materials, produce data, and develop software, while bracketing off the work of interpretation to a later moment

The authors argue that DH work is simultaneously conservative and insurgent, at once aligned with Hirsch’s ‘traditionalist’ approach to literary criticism while also aiming to displace literary criticism itself in favour of project-based lab work. It will come as news to many DH scholars to learn not only that DH work is anti-interpretive but that it finds an institutional origin at the University of Virginia.

To make this claim, the authors imagine that DH’s “disdain and at times outright contempt, not just for humanities scholarship, but for the standards, procedures, and claims of leading literary scholars” were “crystalized at two events held at and coordinated by the University of Virginia English Department, the “Is Humanities Computing an Academic Discipline?” conference in 1999 and the publicly funded “Digital Humanities Curriculum Seminar” that ran from 2001 to 2002.” The authors then proceed to argue that these conferences constituted an institutional, and disciplinary, shift for digital humanities, setting it in opposition to traditional forms of humanities scholarship and establishing “textual scholarship as the discipline’s core concern.” They also make some bizarre comments about Johanna Drucker’s relation to humanities research, but that’s for another time…

Phear Digital Humaniteeez!
Phear Digital Humaniteeez!


While I don’t want to sound like too much of a jet-setting, goldfish-memory, neoliberal DH’er, it must be noted that these conferences occurred roughly 15 years ago. In the world of the digital humanities, this is an aeon. Furthermore, while the authors are correct to draw our attention to these import of these conferences, we can’t extrapolate, from these allegedly-foundational moments, either a foundational ethos nor methodology for all of DH. Indeed, one obvious objection to this foundational thesis is that conferences are often places of discord, where organizing problematics are further complicated. Even if official statements  of understanding and agreement suggest a settled consensus, one should never ignore the eye-rolling and snorts of unimpressed attendees. Yesterday’s eye-roll of a silent grad student is today’s trenchant critique of a discipline. In other words, the views of conference attendees rarely reflect those of the organizers.

At the heart of Allington’s, Brouillette’s, and Golumbia’s argument is the belief that these conferences, as part of the intellectual milieu of the University of Virginia, spawned the field of digital humanities, particularly as it substituted the support field of “humanities computing” for humanities work itself. As such, digital humanities work is marked by the “assertion that technical and managerial expertise simply was humanist knowledge” as well as the apparently characteristic claim “that building computational tools should qualify as a replacement for scholarly writing”.1

The authors offer a historicist argument that locates the perceived conservative roots of DH in these conferences, in the cultural climate of the University of Virginia, and in the assertions of a few ‘big names’ in contemporary DH. What I think the authors and some of their respondents miss is the manner in which historicism conceals its construction of totalities, particularly as it brandishes a metonym of historical coherence and completeness in place of the muddled, confused, and mixed-bag of semi-related events, false-starts, parallel movements, and failures — Nietsczche’s “mobile army of metaphors and metonyms,” that provides our only window into history.

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In place of this historicist perspective, we’d be better served to remember our Foucault and take a genealogical perspective on the emergence of the digital humanities. Foucault insists that genealogy “demands relentless erudition. Genealogy does not oppose itself to history … on the contrary, it rejects the metahistorical deployment of ideal significations and indefinite teleologies. It opposes itself to the search for ‘origins.'” Taking Foucault’s lessons seriously in this regard means that we should keep in mind his metaphorical vocabulary of the shifting tectonic plates of historical pressure and the competing voices and languages of a palimpsestic historical text. Thus the search for origins for the digital humanities cannot end with the University of Virginia, with the history of Bell Labs, with the digital textual initiatives of Roberto Busa or any other such originary point. Rather, we must remember with Foucault that “What is found at the historical beginning of things is not the inviolable identity of their origin; it is the dissension of other things. It is disparity” (79).

Thinking of our DH history in a genealogical sense has implications for whether or not DH work really is a neoliberal tool, or whether, as Matthew Kirschenbaum puts it, its practitioners are just a bunch of neoliberal tools. The answer is yes and no. For an excellent Canadian supplement to this debate, see Julia M’s Wright’s Tooling Around the Neoliberal Elephant. Yes, there are neoliberal tendencies in DH work and research. Yes, its elevation within the academy is a product of the shifting priorities of the humanities to deliver tangible results and produce “impact.” Yes, some DH practitioners substitute technological fireworks (usually in the form of data visualization) for critical and meaningful critical work.

While these are some tendencies within DH, they are by no means dominant nor are they singular. There are DH’ers who employ a hermeneutics of suspicion towards both the tools they use and the arguments that emerge from the use of those tools. There are DH’ers who locate seemingly neutral and banal computational tools within networks of power, biopolitics, and race. There are DH’ers who critique both the revised notions of humanities and humanism which DH appears to usher in. It is only by taking a genealogical approach to our understanding of DH as a field of scholarly work that we can abandon a search for origins and instead grapple with the competing and contradictory threads of the discipline.

Yet my point is not merely to disagree with the authors by asserting that there are many flavours of digital humanities and that to describe DH as a neoliberal tool is to ignore the many scenes of difference within the practice. Instead, I think the authors of this piece offer us an opportunity for a much more interesting reflection on the humanities in general.

In my mind, if the digital humanities have made one crucial contribution to contemporary scholarship it is to raise the question of the import, difficulties, and dominant problematics of received forms of humanism and notions of the human in the face of neoliberal politics and ideology. In place of a retreat into staid and cloistered ideas of hermeneutics, critical reading, theory, and the humanities more general, we ought to use this crisis of the humanities (when isn’t there a crisis of the humanities?) as the motivation for a new defense of humanistic work, as a means for getting towards Sylvia Wynter’s grappling with the relations between humanism, dehumanization, and the humanities. In other words, let our genealogies of the digital humanities extend into new genealogies of the humanities that provide us with invigorated vocabularies for resisting the undeniable neoliberal assault on our scholarship (both in terms of the work we do and the labour arrangements under which we do it).

Edward Said’s grappling with the concepts of humanism and the humanities, as a problematic that is continually confronted with the limits of what it can think, seems to me a useful model for beginning to think about the manner in which DH is transforming, just as it depends upon, more familiar forms of humanism and the humanities.   Said argues that “Only acts of reading done more and more carefully, … more and more attentively, more and more receptively and resistantly … can provide humanism with an adequate exercise of its essential worth.” DH calls into question both that essential worth as well as what we mean when we talk about “reading. We should therefore follow Said’s lead (and Wynter’s, and Brydon’s, and…) by reading against the grain of the humanities in order to revise our own notions of why we do our humanities work, digital or otherwise.


1. It must be stated that this final point is neither demonstrated by the cited example (whose authors carefully state that it would still fall to the builders to present their own activities as capable of providing affordances as rich and provocative as that of writing. We believe that is a challenge that the digital humanities community (in all its many and varied forms) should accept and welcome.