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Bulldozing the Humanities

By now, denizens of Facebookistan are familiar with its ever-proliferating “You know you’re from…” groups. Reuniting people dispersed by the winds of commerce and time, these hometown pages are drenched in shared nostalgia for local businesses, buildings, and whole neighborhoods that have been bulldozed out of existence by mid-20th century “master builders” like Robert Moses. Throw out a non-active, affectless line like “The bakery at four corners,” and you can expect to reel in a frenzy of anecdotes about the owners, the cookies, the fragrance, the neighborhood, the juvenile feats of thieving, the Thai nail salon that replaced it. Creating a cyber niche where the rootless can take up stable residence in a now-dismantled past is one of the more ironic tricks played by social media.

As city-living continues to grip the fancy of suburban empty nesters and millennials alike, these hometown sites serve as platforms for (among other things) sharing historic photographs of long-gone buildings and crowded, trolley-bestrewn streetscapes. From there it is but a short step—long in moral reproach—to post before-and-after photos, some at street level, some aerial, illustrating how urban renewal, blocky modernist buildings, car-friendly street widening, and parking lots stripped out the urban fabric so many now pine for. I have no “metrics” for this claim, but I’ll venture that nearly all of these Facebook groups regularly post comparative shots of the type professional urbanists have long deployed at conferences and planning meetings, in a sort of democratization of regret.

Meanwhile, as cities and towns undertake the painstaking work of urban reconstruction, it’s the ’50s and ’60s all over again for the republic of letters. Just as postwar master builders stripped cities of compact, pedestrian-centered street life, so today’s doyens of so-called digital humanities are gutting what lies at the heart of the liberal arts: language and the narrative sensibilites that shape meaningful human endeavor.

Fig. 5 from Alan Liu’s essay “From Reading to Social Computing,” published on MLA Commons.
Fig. 5 from Alan Liu’s essay “From Reading to Social Computing,” published on the MLA Commons website.

In the nascent “field” of digital humanities, “The very idea of language as the basis of a human education—even of human identity—seems to give way to a post- or pre-verbal discourse of pictures and objects,” writes Adam Kirsch in a recent review essay of books on digital humanities for The New Republic. “As the authors of Digital Humanities write, with perfect confidence in the inexorability—and the desirability—of their goals, ‘the 8-page essay and the 25-page research paper will have to make room for the game design, the multi-player narrative, the video mash-up, the online exhibit and other new forms and formats as pedagogical exercises.’”

Digital humanities’ “spirit of salesmanship” and “high language of inevitability,” as Kirsch describes it, puts one in mind of General Motors’s Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, which celebrated with serene technocratic self-assurance the suburban living and tangle of “automated highways” invariably to come.

Digital humanities began attracting serious funding from the likes of the Mellon Foundation and the NEH in 2008 and, in the blink of an eye, leapt to the stage at the 2009 Modern Language Association conference as “the next big thing.” Yet digital humanities, or “DH”—note the smart efficiency of that acronym—is still not quite sure of its identity.

Amid the confusion, Kirsch helpfully distinguishes between its “minimalist” and “maximalist” varieties. Leaving aside all the library and archives jobs that were deskilled by automated databasing, minimal computer-assisted advances in certain projects (like documentary editions of, say, the papers and images of artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, or the online records of London’s central criminal court) serve democratic purposes in both access and subject. Rather, it is digital humanities’ “maximalist” ambitions that raise Kirsch’s alarm, for it “represents a paradigm shift in the way we think about culture itself, spurring a change not just in the medium of humanistic work but also its very substance.”

As Kirsch reminds us, humanistic thinking is mediated through solitary reading and writing “provoked by works of art and history that expand the range of one’s understanding and sympathy”—and, I would add, capacity for reasoned moral, esthetic, and civic judgment. Digital humanists say they care about humanist scholarship, too, and just want to widen the field beyond the usual canonical points of entry. So let’s take a brief look at what they mean by this, shall we?

From the six books he covers, Kirsch does not cherry pick; he plucks work by leading theorists in the field. In an essay titled “What’s Wrong with Writing Essays?” Mark L. Sample asks, “Why must writing, especially writing that captures critical thinking [emphasis mine], be composed of words? Why not sound? Why not objects?” Why not, when you can applaud a student who maps an iconic video game onto a piece of driftwood? Well, “the wood says what the words cannot,” that’s why.

To that end, Stanford endowed-chair professor Franco Moretti declares in his essay collection Distant Reading, “We know how to read texts, now let’s learn how not to read them.” Such computer-assisted “distance” involves, for example, aggregating 7,000 English-novel titles between 1740 and 1850—far more than any one person could read fruitfully—and discovering through data-driven metrics what any college student of cultural history could tell you: that (a) literary title lengths shortened over time because (b) shifts in the commercial publishing marketplace forced titles to become advertisements of themselves.

Then there’s Stephen Ramsay, who caused a ruckus at the 2011 MLA convention when he bravely owned old-school language-loving humanists’ worst fear about this “next big thing”: “Do you have to know how to code? I’m a tenured professor of digital humanities and I say ‘yes.’”

If you don’t trust Kirsch, whom we can thank for reading these books so we don’t have to, take a look at “Literary Commons in the Digital Age: An Evolving Anthology,” posted on the MLA Commons website. Here you will be treated to discourses on the limitations of the “analog scholar,” the superiority of “information nebula” to the “single text,” the meaningful patterns to be discerned in the “vast corpora” of data points, and to the kind of interactive visualization that makes possible, say, tracking where the words “love” and “death” appear in Romeo and Juliet.

In one essay, Northeastern University’s Julia Flanders makes DH’s inherent shift in humanistic consciousness arrestingly clear:

Digital literary study must thus consider, as a central problem, the empowerments and disempowerments contingent on its use of tools, not because they are tools, but rather because of the questions they raise about how we are situated in relation to our objects and methods of study. The human scholar of literary studies must be present in the inquiry at its end points—as the initiator of questions and consumer of answers—and also inside the process, inside the tools, as they mediate between us and the field we are seeking to grasp.

Inhabiting the “process,” the “tools” in the production-to-consumption “logic of industrial technology” apparently preserves something of the “human scholar’s” agency. Even here, though, the individual is “subordinate” to another imperative: “collaboration” in the building of said tools—as suggested by the title of another Stephen Ramsay essay: “Developing Things: Notes Toward an Epistemology of Building in the Humanities,” and plumbed with exquisite care in innumerable other DH treatises.

As Kirsch points out, this contrast between knowledge derived from “solitary genius” and knowledge found in collaborative “making” is false. Humanists have always conversed with one another across time and place through their work, which has in turn enriched their solitary reflections and observations of the broader world. Besides, Kirsch notes, to suggest that building digital infrastructure collaboratively is “of course” less elitist and more democratic “signals that we are in the realm of ideology.” Clay Christensen, father of disruptive innovation—itself a new ideology—would no doubt hail digital humanists as “solutionaries.”

If all this talk of “disaggregation,” statistical “distancing,” and “intertextualities” sounds familiar, that’s because in the 1970s and ’80s poststructuralist literary theory did digital humanities’ intellectual spade work. It was but a short technical step from “deconstructing the text” and larding up critical analysis with hyper-abstract semiotic jargon, to reducing art, history, and literature to data. Digital humanists claim to be addressing the “the crisis of the humanities,” but they are doing so on the same trajectory—now tarted up with non-verbal tech effluvia—that led to the humanities’ deterioration and public disaffection in the first place.

As comfortably funded digital humanists strip out the essence of humanism—its love of language, its public institutions, what might be called the humanist disposition to see particular things in relation to wholes—it’s pretty rich that they speak of “making” and “building” anew. This, at the very moment when citizens of older, so-called postindustrial cities are rebuilding what years of urban renewal stripped out and replaced with suburban form. The New Urbanists have a term for such inappropriate mixing: they call the imposition of parking lots, malls, and street-widening on cities a “transect violation.” One thing does not belong with the other without fundamentally altering urbanism’s aesthetic, social, and functional integrity..

In its maximalist designs on culture, digital humanities commits the equivalent of a transect violation, and one day, our narrative sensilities blunted, our sensitivity to beauty diminished, we will have to go back and restore much of what’s being ripped out now. As New Urbanist co-founder Andrès Duany has said, “You can experiment with a building, but you do not experiment with urbanism.”

Digital experimentation is fine, as long as it is durably framed by the human search for meaning—and not the other way around. Mow that down, and we’ll be left staring blankly at Facebook, without any sense of regret.