DH 2017 Presentation: DH as Critical University Studies

I want to take a brief moment to explain the personal and theoretical underpinnings of this project, and state why I want to connect critical DH work with certain aspects of critical university studies (CUS).

At last year’s MLA I organized a panel on Digital Humanities in Secondary Education with excellent panelists doing critical DH work (Roopika Risam, Spencer Keralis, & Jamie Cohen), and I presented on a grant funded project introducing DH methods to underserved high school students with my colleague Jamie Cohen. In that presentation we vocalized our frustration with the glacial pace at which our project was progressing, as well as a number of battles we had to fight with administrators over control of the project. Since that presentation, the project has been co-opted by administration at our institution and dramatically changed without our input. (Without getting into to much detail here, I work at a private commuter college on Long Island, and Governor Cuomo’s plan for state-subsidized education has already negatively impacted the financial outlook of the college. As a result, existing projects, like mine, have been co-opted by administration and transformed into profit-bearing opportunities for the college.)

While the project hasn’t failed holistically, it has failed in concept and intent. We went from creating open access teaching methods and training, course modules, and a collective working model based on WeWorkNYC and The Center for Social Innovation, to a situation where the college is trying to monetize every aspect of the project. The question I’ve had to confront as a result of this failure motivates this paper: What resources, critical traditions, and avenues of action are available to DH scholars whose projects fail as a result of austerity? This is perhaps minor concern among DH scholar-practitioners given the exuberance with which our work is often funded and valorized at the institutional level, but it is nonetheless an intimate one for me, and I’m sure I’m not isolated.

[Slide 2] This paper is modest in its scope. All I want to do here is link political rhetoric endemic to critical DH work with that of CUS and propose three points of connection between both discourses: decolonial tactics, infrastructural incursions, and tools of the general intellect. What this pairing reveals is a redefinition of institutional abundance and scarcity–a definition that moves away from abundance conceived in financial terms and toward definition of abundance that is both collectively oriented and deeply critical our contemporary academic-corporate situation.

[Slide 3] “Scarcity is equivalent, in theological terms, to original sin,” Steven Shaviro writes. “We can never know abundance, because we have been expelled from the Garden of Eden.” Shaviro isn’t speaking literally here, nor does he invoke a biblical utopia in order to lament a lost state of perfection. His invocation is rather meant to describe contemporary logics of financialization–a Darwinian/Malthusian state in which “producers must always battle over limited resources” because “consumers must always decide how to allocate limited means.” The efficacy of this logic is plain in our contemporary world; Shaviro seems to be describing a fact, rather than fomenting a critique. Shaviro is fomenting a critique here, though, and the provocation that follows from his description of contemporary economic life is difficult to actualize. How might we conceptualize the relationship shared between scarcity and abundance otherwise? Can we imagine a condition in which abundance exists wholly separate from financial calculation to our collective benefit?

I begin with Shaviro’s thoughts because they adeptly describe our contemporary corporate-academic milieu, but also because of the context in which DH has risen to prominence in the humanities writ-large. Matthew K. Gold describes this milieu explicitly in his introduction to the 2012 Debates in the Digital Humanities anthology, “The Digital Humanities Moment,” writing:

[Slide 4] At a time when many academic institutions are facing austerity budgets, department closings, and staffing shortages, the digital humanities experienced a banner year that saw cluster hires at multiple universities, the establishment of new digital humanities centers and initiatives across the globe, and multimillion-dollar grants distributed by federal agencies and charitable foundations […] Clearly, this is a significant moment of growth and opportunity for the field, but it has arrived amid larger questions concerning the nature and purpose of the university system.

The fact of Gold’s statement is indisputable. DH’s growth arrived amid a wave of austerity. The abundance of its modes and methods magnifies the scarcity apparent in other disciplines. As Gold alludes, DH must recognize its abundance as a problem of institutional status, and thus influence. The questions that follow his statement are worth paraphrasing. Is DH meant to redefine the nature and purpose of the university system? Is it meant to do so at the exclusion of “traditional” humanistic practice? Any response to these questions is already situated within the material contrast between scarcity and abundance, and thus within a larger political frame.

[Slide 5] CUS, like DH, imagines its work to be that of transforming academic institutions; it imagines itself to be an insurgent disciplinary force positioned against technocratic influence and neoliberal imperatives as it does so. To quote Jeffrey J. Williams, CUS often “focuses on the consequences of corporate methods and goals, like corrupting research and increasing managerial (as opposed to academic) control, cutting labor through reducing regular faculty positions (while increasing adjunct positions), and exploiting students by requiring them to work more and take on more debt.” It does so with abandonment, not from an ideal position, but from a material one, recasting our present academic-corporate situation as a site of abundance and solidarity.

[Slide 6] Of the CUS work that exists in response to this question, Christopher Newfield’s conclusion to his book, Unmaking the Public University, is perhaps the most accessible. After a sustained exegesis of the UC system’s acquiescence to austerity and conservative cultural politics over the 1980s, 90s, and 2000s, Newfield positions CUS as a transformative methodological act at the infrastructural level, advocating for numerous institutional remedies to the cultural and economic interests that undermine higher education. His work is vital because of the concrete rallying points it provides from which to act. Newfield pairs the managerial demand placed on humanistic disciplines in particular with a liberatory politics that refuses the university’s continuous contour toward neoliberal directives. The most pertinent imperatives of the five that Newfield proposes are listed here: “First, racial equality needs to be reaffirmed as a value and as a goal.” “Third, the university needs to be understood as an engagement in forms of individual and collective development that cannot be captured in economic terms.” “Fifth, public universities need to insist on the value of understanding societies beyond their status as commercial markets” (272-274).

[Slide 7] Newfield’s imperatives are, parallel to DH concerns, a realization of transformative critique. His fifth imperative embodies this critique in particular. Conceptualizing universities beyond their status as commercial markets is certainly something DH can assist in, and it is already apparent in movements like #DisruptDH. But Newfield does not do so by ignoring the university’s financial realities, he does so by defining abundance differently. If abundance is located in the scholarly methods we deploy and interdisciplinary alliances we make, rather than in resource accrual and managerial logics, what institutional alternatives might manifest? Imperatives one and three are instantiations of this logic. Racial equality within higher education speaks to the fact that “racial difference is not the only form of unjust stratification in the United States, but it is the primary source of the current illusion that inequality is a natural fact and index of liberty” (Newfield 272). In fact, Moya Bailey argues that DH might have a profound stake in this fight in her 2011 article, “All the Digital Humanists are White, All the Nerds are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave.” There, she states,

[Slide 8] People of color have been engaging in critical university studies long before the 1990s when the field is said to have emerged. By demanding space as students and faculty, in addition to advocating for rights as the laborers that built and maintain these institutions, people of color have organized through concerted effort to bring about changes in institutional culture and structure.

This mode of critique dialogues well with DH interventions at the level of infrastructure. For the sake of time, I’ll look at one here.

[Slide 9] In her article, “Digital Humanities for the Next Five Minutes,” Rita Raley argues that “the digital humanities should not, and cannot, bear the burden of transforming technocracy, the academic-corporate situation in which we are all mired.” What Raley ultimately proposes, however, radically departs from managerial choice in the face of scarce resources. Here, Raley proposes as a kind of dialectical inversion of DH’s protected status. The abundance DH has garnered demands its alignment with critical approaches that also interrogate the material realities of university infrastructure. “Perhaps more than other academic professional communities,” Raley writes,

[Slide 10] digital humanists need continually to work to perceive and negotiate the institutional imaginary of informational technology so as not to fall into the trap of unconsciously adopting its optics. This institutional imaginary informs the conditions of our labor. It shapes intellectual rhythms according to administrative calendars and asks that we adopt the habit of innovating for the next grant cycle […] We ought, in my view, to be marshalling the full critical, philosophical, and rhetorical resources at our disposal in order to think about the very universities in which we are embedded, their organizational structures, instrumentalities, and governing ideas. (35)

The fact that Raley positions DH’s alignment with institutional abundance as a necessary site of CUS intervention demonstrates the tactical application of her politics: embrace the scarcity that surrounds DH’s abundance in order to strengthen disciplinary and institutional bodies holistically.

How might this be accomplished?

[Slide 11] Decolonial Tactics

[Slide 12] In her 2003 book, Feminism Without Borders, Chandra Talpade Mohanty claims, “the moment we tie university-based research to economic development–and describe this research as fundamentally driven by market forces–it becomes possible to locate the university as an important player in capitalist rule” (173). This argument is couched in a decolonial method committed to developing “the urgent political necessity of forming strategic coalitions across class, race, and national boundaries,” but it is also motivated by a commitment to feminist struggle (9). Mohanty affirms arguments like Newfield’s and Jeffries’ cited above while simultaneously challenging their scope and application. It also dovetails with Raley’s argument–abundance can be dialectically inverted in order to address academic infrastructures holistically. Where Mohanty differs from all three thinkers, though, is in her characterization of the university itself.

[Slide 13] Mohanty frames the university as a site of decolonial feminist struggle. She does so in particular because it is a “contradictory place where knowledges are colonized but also contested […] It is one of the few remaining spaces in a rapidly privatized world that offers some semblance of a public arena for dialogue, engagement, and visioning of democracy and justice” (170). This certainly speaks to Newfield’s interest in racial equality, but it moves further than this

[Slide 14] Mohanty identifies feminist literacy as a first step to this end, but only under particular circumstances: “Feminist literacy necessitates learning to see (and theorize) differently” she writes, “to identify and challenge the politics of knowledge that naturalizes global capitalism and business-as-usual in North American higher education” (171). Mohanty demands that feminist approaches to CUS require a strong critique of capitalism, if not an outright anti-capitalist stance, in order to realize its liberatory potential. Part of enacting a decolonial method is opposing Western hegemonic influence at the infrastructural level, allowing alternative forms of knowledge production to develop on their own terms. When imported into a DH context, this argument places a clear demand on how DH scholar-practitioners conceive of their role in university and disciplinary transformation. It demands that DH conceive of its abundance as both an extension of academic-corporate interests and an opportunity to radically transform it, disallowing capital to inform disciplinary formation writ-large.

[Slide 15] Infrastructural Incursions

[Slide 16] This next figure and concept needs little introduction at a DH conference. Alan Liu summarizes his interest in critical infrastructure studies as a “call for digital humanities research and development informed by, and able to influence, the way scholarship, teaching, administration, support services, labor practices, and even development and investment strategies in higher education intersect with society.” The rhetorical shift from “critical university” to “critical infrastructure” is interesting here. Where Liu goes so far to say that most, if not the whole of our lives, are organized through institutional mechanisms formative of a “social-cum-technological milieu,” “the word ‘infrastructure’ give[s] us the same kind of general purchase on social complexity that Stuart Hall, Raymond Williams, and others sought when they reached for their all-purpose word, ‘culture.’”

[Slide 17] This claim is motivated by three logical moments on Liu’s view, paralleling James Smithies’ claim to an “anti-foundationalist” approach to DH praxis. His logical moments proceed as follows: 1) “critique recognizes that the ‘real,’ ‘true,’ or ‘lawful’ groundwork (i.e., infrastructure) for anything, especially the things that matter most to people, such as the allocation of goods or the assignation of identity, is ungrounded.” 2) “critique then goes antifoundationalist to the second degree by criticizing its own standing in the political-economic system–a recursion effect attested in now familiar, post-May-1968 worries that critics themselves are complicit in elitism, ‘embourgeoisment,’ ‘recuperation,’ ‘containment,’ and majoritarian identity, not to mention tenure.” 3) “critique seeks to turn its complicity to advantage–for example, by positioning critics as what Foucault called embedded or ‘specific intellectuals’ acting on a particular institutional scene to steer social forces.”

Elsewhere I’ve connected this work to Roopika Risam’s essay, “Navigating the Global Digital Humanities: Insights from Black Feminism.” But for the sake of time, I think Liu’s work finds a direct correlate in CUS work focused on global academic infrastructures. Writing of their work with CAFA (Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa), George Caffentzis and Silvia Federici comment on institutional formations like those that Liu invokes, but also those that Risam identifies in DH: global educational initiatives organized around common goals. On Caffentzis and Federici’s view, a globalized vision of the university also requires that we see

[Slide 18] the continuity of our struggle through the difference of our places in the international division of labor, and to articulate our demands and strategies in accordance to these differences and the need to overcome them. Assuming that a recomposition of the workforce is already occurring because work is becoming homogenized — through a process that some have defined as the “becoming common of labor” — will not do. We cannot cast the “cognitive” net so widely that almost every kind of work becomes “cognitive” labor, short of making arbitrary social equations and obfuscating our understanding of what is new about “cognitive labor” in the present phase of capitalism. (129)

Caffentzis and Federici address many of the problems that Liu identifies in his infrastructural turn. Focusing on the recomposition of the workforce is one way of turning complicity into advantage, or scarcity into abundance. Imagining what this might look like on a global scale, and further, what it might look like to organize it, can be fleshed out in the DH/CUS pairing.

[Slide 19] Tools of the General Intellect

[Slide 20] Gigi Roggero, one of the Edu-Factory’s primary organizers, argues that “tools of inquiry have to be reinvented at the level of the general intellect’s networks, going beyond the division between the virtual and the real” (520). Compare this to Jentery Sayers’ contingent and processual definition of minimal computing:

[Slide 21] How might minimal computing increase our shared capacities to think or imagine, and not just our individual capacities to work or produce? Such shared capacities are what Marx (1857-58), Nick Dyer-Witheford (1999), and Christian Fuchs (2016) call the “general intellect.” Minimal computing suggests we can engage shared capacities to think or imagine without resorting to theory/practice or yack/hack binaries (e.g., internalized life of the mind vs. externalized products of work).

Here, Sayers’ tacitly relies on a Marxist conception of cooperation to frame his practice of minimal computing, establishing it as a collective act that combines theory and practice. Minimal computing manifests in and through our shared capacities to think and produce in common. Roggero’s invocation of the general intellect pushes this position even further: “tools of inquiry have to be reinvented at the level of the general intellect’s networks, going beyond the division between the virtual and the real,” in order to maximize living labor’s break with capital, opening up a space for co-research to form a “material base for revolution” (520-521).

[Slide 23] For DH, this ideological transformation occurs in physical space via methods of collaboration. For Roggero’s version of CUS in particular, it is realized via co-research. “In co-research,” Roggero argues, “the production of knowledge is simultaneously the production of subjectivity and the construction of organization” (517). This is to say, processes of self-making are both collectivized and focused on underlying frameworks of social organization. Who we are as academics, how we organize ourselves, and how we exercise critical thought is the simultaneous transformation of self and space; “co-research on the one hand translates and implements the discourse into practice, on the other hand it transforms and elaborates political discourse from the starting point of a struggle and the subjective recomposition” (519). It is not a positivistic method, but a material one, not an unconscious ideological exercise, but an active recomposition of subjects, labor, and tools.

[Slide 24] Conclusion

Ultimately, what my argument points to beyond its articulation here cannot be so neatly summarized. CUS challenges DH praxis both politically and methodologically. CUS provides an external view from which to approach DH praxis, and consequently a coeval site of contest and solidarity in the effort to collectivize our response to the university’s inequities. When brought into dialogue with DH, CUS transforms a collaborative vision of the university into a socialized one. Finally, it demands that we rethink the tool’s ontology in order to enact the radical potential inherent to critical race studies and feminist literacies.

Some of the most interesting work in this area is only now emerging. I conclude with two examples. First, consider Cassie Thornton’s multi-media installation, “Mystery Hands,” as a concrete example of how DH tool use might form the basis of thinking DH as critical university studies. In her installation, Thornton

[Slide 25] used her signature technique of collecting hypnotic debt-visualizations from adults associated with or impacted by the crisis (teachers, activists, bankers, parents, principals), but sought to make these visions accessible to children, and asked children to help imagine ways to literally break out of the crisis that has so immobilized and sucked dry the adult imagination.

[Slide 26] Second, in promoting her forthcoming book, The New Education, Cathy N. Davidson has opened a dialogue with Christopher Newfield’s work on HASTAC, sharing his syllabus for “English Majoring After College (Histories and Futures of Higher Education). Projects like these are first resources and robust projects for concerns like mine, and concerns for others as DH continues to redefine institutional abundance in the face of austerity.

Works Cited

Bailey, Moya Z. “All the Digital Humanists are White, All the Nerds are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave” Journal of Digital Humanities. 1.1 (2011). Available at: http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-1/all-the-digital-humanists-are-white-all-the-nerds-are-men-but-some-of-us-are-brave-by-moya-z-bailey/

Caffentzis, George and Silvia Federici. “Notes on the Edu-factory and Cognitive Capitalism.” Toward a Global Autonomous University. Ed. The Edu-factory Collective. New York: Autonomedia. 2009. 125-131.

Gold, Matthew K. “The Digital Humanities Moment.” Debates in the Digital Humanities: 2012. Ed. Matthew K. Gold. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press. 2012. ix-xvi. Print.

Kim, Dorothy, and Jesse Stommel. “Introduction: Disrupting the Digital Humanities.” Disrupting the Digital Humanities. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 June 2017.

Liu, Alan. “Drafts for Against the Singularity (Book in Progress).” Alan Liu. 2 May 2016. Web 3 May 2016. Available at: https://liu.english.ucsb.edu/drafts-for-against-the-cultural-singularity/

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003. Print.

Newfield, Christopher. Unmaking the Public University. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 2008. Print.

Raley, Rita. “Digital Humanities for the Next Five Minutes.” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 1.25 (2014): 26-45. Print.

Risam, Roopika. “Navigating the Global Digital Humanities: Insights from Black Feminism.” Debates in the Digital Humanities: 2016. Eds. Matthew K. Gold and Laura F. Klein. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2016. 359-367. Print.

Roggero, Gigi. “Notes on Framing and Reinventing Co-research.” Ephemera. 14.3 (2014): 515-523.

Sayers, Jentery. “Minimal Definitions” · Minimal Computing: a Working Group of GO::DH, 2 Oct. 2016, go-dh.github.io/mincomp/thoughts/2016/10/02/minimal-definitions/.

Shaviro, Steven. “Scarcity and Abundance.” The Pinocchio Theory. http://www.shaviro.com, June 2005. Web. 11 July 2017.

Cassie, Thornton. “Mystery Hands.” The Feminist Economics Department, 24 Mar. 2016, feministeconomicsdepartment.com/mysteryhands/.

Williams, Jeffrey J. “Deconstructing Academe.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 58.25. http://www.chronicle.com/article/An-Emerging-Field-Deconstructs/130791


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