A Response to: “A Digital Humanities Manifesto(s)”

I want to acknowledge the reinvigorating nature of the manifestos and that their apparent excitement and sense of purpose is much needed. However, the tone and intent of the piece is self-defeating. It is redolent of Zizek’s defense of radicals. He argues that Mao and Robespierre’s revolutions and the killings associated with them were not only necessary but morally justifiable. Not only is there a pervasively combative tone to the piece, but it proliferates the age-old tendency of (to borrow Presner and Schnapp’s term) ‘Balkanizing’ in literary criticism.

From Plato’s assumption that poetry is dangerous to Samuel Johnson’s assertion that all literature must be mimetic, entertaining, and didactic; the authors of the manifesto are guilty of the same destruction wrought by the “great diminishers” who “reduce anything in digital humanities and preface our work with ‘just.’” Although they are wise to point out that departments are too insular and they are right to support interdepartmental and transdisciplinary discourse, they posit that “the Humanities are contingent formations that have become stabilized and made culturally redundant at the university.” They ask the reader to “imagine different constellations,” a “dedefinition of the contours of the research community once enclosed by university walls,” and  a “dedefinition of the roles of professor and student, expert and non-expert.”  These calls to change appear innocuous (though disturbingly vague), but when they also appeal to the audience to “practice digital anarchy by creatively undermining copyright” and that “there is something utopian at the core of digital humanities…the  no place,” the tone sounds less like Zizek and more like Jim Jones.
The manifesto is correct in asserting that every new genre “looks backwards as it moves forward,” it responds to, reacts to, and often contradicts previous conceptions of criticism, but it is (typically) a purification rather than a purgation. While most new forms of criticism offer new modes or techniques for evaluating or conceiving of literature, it appears as if the manifesto attempts to build an entirely new system from the rubble of previous systems, rather than using existing frameworks. When Cordell, in “On Ignoring Encoding,” says “textual encoding has never been as sexy as text analysis,” it is evident that the manifesto is a response and attempt to make digital sexy and tap into the booming market of trendy scholars with a dash of counter-cultural disillusionment and a heaping tablespoon of social awareness. It is as if the manifesto attempts to annihilate previous estimations of literary research in order to lay fallow the ground of defining the humanities anew, which is an unnecessary bifurcation of methodologies. Porsdam reminds us that, while digital humanities is redefining the field from the top-down and from the inside-out, “we don’t forget the humanities part of DH, don’t get carried away with the digital part and all its possibilities to such an extent that we forget the core strengths of the humanities.”

The old humanities and the new can, and ought, to work simultaneously and in cooperation in order to achieve their similar ends. The manifesto demarcates rather than unifies, it divides in an effort to conquer previous conniptions of academia. The restructuring, rethinking, and un-reification of academia are necessary for its existence in the 21st century, but not at the cost of throwing the ‘old white man’ out with the bath water.

One thought on “A Response to: “A Digital Humanities Manifesto(s)”

  1. Michael Lambert

    I agree with what you say in regard to the manifesto being categorized as self-defeating. I, too, had trouble taking seriously a narrative-driven piece which seems to have been written towards an audience in didactic terms which simultaneously claims to be propelled by a sincere desire to marry two historically opposed fields of study. It seems childish and combative, yes, but also contains ideas of interest for those who must confront the reality of technological advance–which is to say, everyone. I’m also interested in the moral stance of such debates–for example, if the atomic bomb is the epitome of technological development in the twentieth century and fascism, that of the humanities, what is to be said of the field of gymnastics?

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