top of page
  • Gabi Kirilloff and Jonathan Cheng

Reframing the "DH Bust"

In October of 2017, The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article, “The Digital-Humanities Bust”, by Timothy Brennan, a professor of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota. Brennan expresses skepticism that the Digital Humanities (DH) are producing valuable scholarship. Though Brennan does allow that there is value in some digital work, particularly archival work, his article strongly critiques text analysis (the study of broad patterns, often lexical, across large corpora). Other scholars (including Sarah E. Bond, Hoyt Long, and Ted Underwood) have responded critically to Brennan’s views, in part by drawing attention to interesting text analysis work. The following post takes a different approach to Brennan’s article, examining some of the implicit assumptions at the core of his argument.

1) In his article, Brennan states that “To ask about the field is really to ask how or what DH knows, and what it allows us to know. The answer, it turns out, is not much…For all its resources, the digital humanities makes a rookie mistake: It confuses more information for more knowledge.”

GK: I have to confess, I bristled a bit on reading this statement. In general, most “debates” within literary studies do not look like Brennan’s critique. A scholar may argue that an approach (or an entire methodological lens) is incorrect (a misreading) or not comprehensive (an incomplete reading), but Brennan’s move is different: the work DH scholarship is producing isn’t wrong, it just isn’t valuable. The distinction here seems poignant, as does his distinction between information and knowledge. It’s easy to say that this disjuncture comes from a rift between the sciences and the humanities (the sciences value facts, even when divorced from interpretation, whereas we perceive of humanities work as interpretation driven), but this isn’t really true. Many well respected pieces of “traditional” humanities scholarship, like Robyn Warhol’s Gendered Interventions, aim to flesh out a historical trend that others can then interpret. In addition, recovery work, archival work, and editorial work seek to make information available to others (interestingly, these forms of work are often devalued as well).

It seems more likely that Brennan’s dismissal of digital methodologies stems from the fact that he does not find DH scholarship to be relevant to the scholarly community. To me, this opens up a much trickier, and more interesting, set of problems. How “interesting” or “relevant” does a piece of scholarship need to be? While I agree with Brennan that counting the number of times the word “whale” appears in Moby Dick isn’t the best use of one's time, I am sure my students would say the same about much of the research they come across on JSTOR. While I agree that digital scholarship should work towards increased accessibility and towards fostering connections with non-DH scholarship, this could be equally said of many subfields within English. Which raises the question: if “interesting” is one of our goals, how many people, and what types of people (scholars, students, the general public) need to find a piece of scholarship interesting in order for us (as a scholarly community) to label it as successful? Further, should we foster an expectation that scholarship engage with real issues and communities?

JC: As you’ve discussed above, Brennan’s critique of DH’s academic “significance” has less to do with methodological oversight and instead portrays DH projects as unavoidably external to what the humanities find “valuable.” That’s a fraught place to start, to say the least, and a persuasive argument would then have to: define who the humanities are, demonstrate that they share a coherent set of values, and then articulate how text analysis necessarily operates outside those values. That’s a tall order, and I did not get the sense that Brennan was particularly invested in having that conversation. Instead, his critique seemed more invested in rallying readers around popular fears and motifs about computational work.

Which, in this quote, causes Brennan to double-down on a puzzling distinction between “more information” and “more knowledge.” This distinction is, by this point, a recognizable maneuver, but I was a bit surprised that someone from cultural studies would reaffirm this binary. It is a categorization that hinges upon and privileges a very particular definition of “significance.” In literary studies, for example, there is a foundational idea that texts gain significance when a clever individual can discern how a set of literary devices configures a profound narrative effect. Until that point, a story is just “more information” and one’s cursory reading of it does not yield “more knowledge.” Knowledge gets privileged because it carries a sense of individual cultivation, refinement, and learnedness.

Yet, I would like to think that one of cultural studies’ most profound interventions was to break up this binary between information and knowledge. When the Birmingham School, Cultural Studies, and various 1970s groups moved to reclaim overlooked texts, there was a similar backlash (still felt today) that cultural studies were not bringing forth new knowledge. Instead, there was a sense that these sub-disciplines were merely accumulating other (insignificant) textual materials (objects that purportedly would not contribute to literary knowledge). Charged with merely providing “more information," these groups would go on to argue that the very existence of these overlooked texts might redefine what the field considered significant. More information, for cultural studies, could not be so easily separated from developing significant perspective, so it strikes me as odd that Brennan would dredge this binary to indict DH.

Brennan’s assumption that the humanities should necessarily operate on this binary provides us with an opportunity to rethink how we evaluate scholarship. If the humanities are to evaluate scholarship in terms of “significance,” we should probably ask ourselves a few questions: Does each member of the humanities operate on the same definition of significance? Do they have to? What personal assumptions do we mobilize when evaluating a scholarly work’s significance? Do those assumptions reflect and privilege particular institutions? And how can we rethink and redeploy our scholarship as both meaningful and inclusive?

2) Brennan then escalates his critique of DH and claims that “DH is at least partly a revolt of the academically disenfranchised. With shrunken hopes for a tenure-track job, younger scholars set out to make necessity a virtue, and instead of protesting their disenfranchisement by attacking the neoliberal logic of the university, they join the corporate attack on a professoriate that has what they want.”

JC: Time for my confession- I don’t think I could have rolled my eyes harder upon reading this, but I certainly tried. Partially because the argument seems misinformed, but mostly because there are so many missed opportunities for an actual conversation about the relationship between scholarly work and scholarly institutions.

On the one hand, there seems to be a bit of friendly-fire. Brennan’s commitment to a critique of the university’s neoliberal power-structures somehow locates young scholars as a prime culprit. More specifically, he accuses young DH scholars of producing something radically different from what the humanities tends to value, yet he simultaneously accuses them of wanting precisely what the professoriates have. If we accept Brennan’s theory that young DH scholars are operating so radically outside of traditional humanities values, then one might entertain the possibility that they do not intensely crave the same things as their predecessors. This is largely to say that, while critiques of the university institution are necessary and valuable, targeting young scholars and presuming their motivations seems a touch misguided.

More importantly, and discussed above, if the goal is to critique the neoliberal logic of university power-structures, then shouldn’t we address how preserving arbitrary standards of significant knowledge plays into those structures? Large universities almost exclusively run on the idea that there is a strict standard of knowledge and that its employees are the gatekeepers of said knowledge.

GK: I think though, that this is the fundamental irony for me in Brennan’s piece. He associates DH with a type of neoliberal, positivistic trend that could destroy the humanities, but he also makes value judgements that depend on a vague notion of scholarly usefulness. These two moves strike me as paradoxical. When Brennan observes that there is a tension between DH’s “promise and product” the use of the word “product” seems indicative of the mindset that Brennan is trying to dismantle. This isn’t a critique of Brennan per se, so much as an observation that these concepts have become deeply embedded in the humanities. It is difficult to disentangle ourselves from the neoliberal trajectory we criticize (or rather, to examine these concepts on a more fundamental level).

In addition, the line between bowing to negative pressure and engaging the general public is often blurred by arguments about the “state of the humanities.” Brennan argues that DH “has a dark side — weaponizing an already potent techno-discourse in the general culture…” He then remarks that “The scattered aggregate of atomized individual contributions in supposedly 'collaborative work' inevitably migrates to the safety of social norms.” The first statement (irrespective of its validity) speaks to a concern about the cultural valuation of the sciences as more significant than the humanities. The second part however, is more difficult to parse. Is Brennan criticizing DH work for an undercurrent of intellectual conservatism, or, is the problem that digital scholarship has gained a status of popularity in non-academic venues? Further, is the later dependent on the former? Are we skeptical of scholarship that reaches a general audience, and if so, is this a productive form of skepticism? These questions, like those raised earlier, are certainly challenging, but addressing our conception of "value" (rather than simply making value judgements) might help us to better understand how our research can serve broader scholarly and public communities.

Brennan, Timothy. "The Digital-Humanities Bust." Chronicle of Higher Education, October 15, 2017.

Bond, Sarah E., Hoyt Long, and Ted Underwood. "‘Digital’ Is Not the Opposite of ‘Humanities’." Chronicle of Higher Education, November 01, 2017.

#gabikirilloff #digitalhumanities

bottom of page