In The Digital Humanities Bust, Timothy Brennan argues that despite lofty claims supported by heavy financial and academic investment, the Digital Humanities (DH) have hardly any meaningful results to show. The vociferous (and justified) reaction to his statement has obscured another important claim he makes and that needs to be discussed: DH is an insurgency. I won’t belabour the point that DH approaches have actually made significant contributions. A quick read through #DHImpact on Twitter is enough of a reply. I’ve argued elsewhere that for me, DH is more a useful toolkit than a new approach to knowledge. That doesn’t mean I think DH isn’t revolutionary.
DH as insurgency
Brennan is worried about DH’s appeal as a tool to “circumvent professorial authority” and highlights the “dark side” of that promise, which threatens to “weaponized an already potent techno-discourse”. This comes toward the end of the article, but I think it is at the heart of much of the discomfort and skepticism about DH. He is right to be worried. DH tools not only allow us to circumvent professorial authority as it once existed, it has made it obsolete, and I think for the better.
Professors are empowered to profess. They are given rank insignia that signify their privilege to do so. This privilege is based on their access to information and on institutionally enshrined mastery of that information. They are the ones who know the material and have a right to interpret it. University education used to be about transfer of information by those who had a right to profess, to those who had an obligation to listen. Professors were symbolically marked as reliable and authoritative sources of information and advice for government and the public.
DH is revolutionary in the sense that it gives everyone the tools to access and analyze information. Very large quantities of information about anything at all, whether one has acquired the necessary symbolic license or not. It gives us the tools to disseminate our conclusions, our thoughts, our speculations, whether or not we have access to the traditional publication channels controlled by the academy, and which are the metabolism of its prestige economy. This can be terrifying to representatives of the established academic order.
No one else notices much as long as we’re talking molecules, crystal structures, and gene banks (but they should). People start to notice when these kinds of tools are applied to the evolution of social inequality or to evaluating the historical effectiveness of protest tactics.
Many of us have realized that university education is now about preparing our students to evaluate the multiple competing claims with which they are daily bombarded, and to use the information available to them to reach good conclusions. Many of us have realized that much, and I would think most, sound academic work is being done outside the privileged confines of tenure-track slots in elite Western institutions and on the very outer margins of the institutional university world.
DH doesn’t so much attract academic insurgents, as Brennan complains, it makes academic insurgency possible, and in a sense it makes academic insurgency necessary. The fact of this radical redistribution of the capacity to know, to investigate, to analyze and to communicate, gives us a responsibility to use it as we haven’t in the past. The dark side of this development is not that the academically minded are using it to overthrow the Academy, it is that others are using it for profit, for exploitation, and for subjugation.
The Academy will stand or fall on how it uses DH tools. Professors can no longer be keepers of knowledge because knowledge is not kept, it is distributed. They can’t be professors, because anyone can profess, and anyone can make their professions known. What does a DH era professor look like? A DH era professor, in whatever field, must be a guide in a bewildering world of information. A DH era professor must be a clear voice in a world of confused pronouncements. They must use the tools available to develop compelling evidence and argument where there are only claims and statements. The DH insurgency is not a threat, it is a responsibility.