#MLA18 Presentation: Three Provocations for Thinking DH as CUS

[Slide 1]
I’d like to begin with three quotes–the first from Christopher Newfield’s Unmaking the Public University: The Forty Year Assault on the Middle Class, the second from Chela Sandoval’s Methodology of the Oppressed, and the third from Digital_Humanities:

[Slide 2] “The United States may have embraced knowledge capitalism, but it has not embraced postcapitalism” (Newfield 127).

[Slide 3] “Social actors committed to egalitarian social relations, who are seeking the basis for a shared vision, an oppositional coalitional politics, and who seek new inner and social technologies that will ensure that resistant activity not simply replicate the political formations that are linked to transnational cultural expansion, must self-consciously recognize, develop, and harness a dissident globalization, a methodology of the oppressed, which is composed of the technologies that make possible differential social movement” (Sandoval 72).

[Slide 4] “Maintaining criticality and experimentation means challenging received traditions, even–perhaps, especially–those that defined the first generations of Digital Humanities work.”
–Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, & Jeffrey Schnapp, Digital_Humanities

In the brief time that I have I want to explore the implications of these claims in the rhetorical overlap between Digital Humanities and Critical University Studies (DH & CUS). This is a project I’ve been working on for awhile, and the further I get the more I realize how mammoth the task is. It has been difficult for me to frame, and difficult for me to present. So today, I want to go back to the foundation of my interest, and situate my argument in the wake of the quotes above.

[Slide 5] This paper forwards three provocations. The first compares Alan’s Liu’s anti-foundationalism in Critical Infrastructure Studies with CUS’s use of the same concept. The second draws out the contrast between both discourses’ invocation of Michel Foucault’s “specific intellectual.” The third demands a conceptual turn where DH and CUS overlap. For all of our focus on critical infrastructures in DH, for all of the radical evocations CUS forwards to combat neoliberal directives, both are still grasping at the collective, coalitional work that would integrate CUS’s postcapitalist propositions with DH’s focus on critical infrastructures. Decolonial, feminist, work from some radical Leftist traditions are missing in this theoretical dialogue, and their inclusion complicates the political imperatives of both.

Provocation One: Antifoundationalist Management?

In a chapter titled “Facing the Knowledge Managers” in the aforementioned Unkmaking the Public University, Newfield details the economic dimensions of “the culture wars” on and at American universities in the 1990s, particularly the relation between knowledge and finance, in the wake of conservative attacks on racial and gender equality. For the university, this inaugurated a ‘run it like a business’ approach to education, subordinating knowledge production to ‘knowledge and innovation management,’ and subordinating knowledge workers to a radically uneven distribution of resources (130). What’s interesting about this brief history is how Newfield characterizes managerial logics that extend structural inequality as coextensive with weak managerial positions taken by humanists in the same period. For instance the first keyword–antifoundationalism–appears in his text only after a sustained critique of Bill Readings 1996 book, The University in Ruins. [Slide 6] There, Newfield writes, “Management in the LCS [literary and cultural studies] context could well have been functioning in accordance with an antifoundationalist theory of ‘governmentality,’ one with a better Heisenberg uncertainty principle for organizations than that found in the average business school. But it was not: LCS scholars were finally more comfortable with losing to market forces than with everyday efforts to manage them” (155). Simply put, Newfield contrasts anti-foundationalism in this text with the absolute refusal to manage. Where academics could have mobilized their skepticism against market standards for educational organization, literary and cultural studies refused. What losing to market forces means is clear in Newfield’s text: it means racial inequity, educational development that is inextricable from market logics, and thus its reduction of value to their status in commercial markets. The refusal to manage was a fatal mistake.

Let’s fast forward to 2016. Critical Infrastructure Studies is presented to the world, but specifically to the DH community, on Alan Liu’s blog in his now infamous post: “Drafts for Against the Cultural Singularity.” There, Liu calls for a “light” anti-foundationalism, predicated on James Smithies’ “post-Foundationalism,” as he introduces his version of “CIS.” His definition of light anti-foundationalism proceeds as follows:

[Slide 7] 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.”

The critical potential of this antifoundationalist tendency can be easily stated: it is precisely the ability to treat infrastructure as a tactical medium that opens the possibility for critical infrastructure studies to act as a mode of cultural studies. Liu’s anti-foundationalism is “light” because it errors on the side or reform–the university is not discarded here, and he holds a fundamental faith in institutional organization. As such, Liu’s CIS would allow digital humanities to fulfill their “final-cause critical function” at the present time–to help adjudicate how academic infrastructure connects higher education to, but also differentiates it from, the workings of other institutions in advanced technological societies.

So, what can we make of this first pairing? It would be reductive to argue that Liu’s CIS is a response to Newfield’s criticism of Readings and LCS management, but it does trace a similar desire to combat managerial logics that extend structural inequities as new modes of management are offered. [Slide 8] Liu’s antifoundationalism is the extension of critique into everyday efforts to manage–an attempt to right the ship where our predecessors failed. The question that remains follows from Newfield above–DH has embraced an antifoundationalist call to manage, but have we embraced postcapitalism?

Provocation Two: The Specific Intellectual

Liu identifies Foucault’s specific intellectual as an example of one who implements anti-foundationalist tactics. Specific intellectuals “act on a particular institutional scene to steer social forces” on Liu’s account because they are embedded within a particular site of social influence. Difficult questions follow: who gets to be a specific intellectual? What power dynamics allow one to steer? What about the rest of us who are just along for the ride? To respond, I want to consider Gerald Raunig’s invocation of the “specific intellectual” from his 2013 text, Factories of Knowledge, Industries of Creativity.

Looking at a nearly identical time period in Europe to Newfield’s text, Raunig argues that beginning in the 1980s, intellectual thought becomes characterized by differing forms of privatization. [Slide 9] Prominent intellectuals in Eastern Europe retreated to thinking in the “private sphere” as a result of political dissidence, on the one hand, while intellectuals in Western Europe sought media attention on the other, forwarding a kind of “radical individualization and monopolization of opinion” (62). He is particularly damning of intellectuals in Western Europe, calling them little more than narcissists with an “almost insatiable desire for media representation” (62). They “believe they are the world” he continues, “and they privatize, popularize, and spectacularize thinking” (63). But all is not lost–in a true dialectical style, Raunig points to a third intellectual figure that undercuts the privatization of knowledge.

[Slide 10] “Beyond both forms of the privatization of thinking, however, new practices of non-excluding, machinic intellectuality are also emerging, tying into Foucault’s figure of the specific intellectual, whose entanglement in local struggles is contrasted with the bird’s-eye-view of the universal intellectual. These new practices transgress the privatist model of intellectuality of solitary thinking, solitary writing and, at the same time, public subject, opening up forms of intellectuality that can be imagined as strictly inclusive and no longer solely available to classic knowledge workers.” (63)

Raunig invokes Foucault and what he calls “machinic intellectuality” in order to envision a postcapitalist present, what he, along with other Autonomist Marxist figures theorize as “the communism of capitalism,” or the tendency for cognition to become common, and subsequently the valorization of cooperation via technological means (63). Concomitantly, Raunig invokes the specific intellectual as a collective figure, and I think it’s an important difference to embrace: Raunig is not talking about specific intellectual(s), a kind of bureaucratic collection of academics endowed with the correct sensibilities to manage. [Slide 11] The collectivizing process he names is not the “diffusion of humanist-bourgeois general knowledge into the whole of society, but rather a tendency for the cognitive to become common, at the same time a tendency towards its all-encompassing valorization” (65). This process demands the kind of public embeddedness that Liu is interested in, but Raunig’s commentary, and I would argue Foucault’s as well, forwards an engagement with intellectual labor that authorizes one to act but does not authorize one to control.

On Raunig’s reading Foucault does not elicit much interest in steering anything–in fact the verb, “to steer,” does actually not appear in Foucault’s original text, “Truth & Power”–the text that Liu refers to. [Slide 12] And if you really want to nerd out, the confusion around this interpretation of Foucault can be traced back to Habermas calling Foucault a “Young Conservative,” and further by Axel Honneth’s misreading of the Habermas/Foucault debate in “Foucault’s Theory of Society: A Systems-Theoretic Dissolution of the Dialectic of Enlightenment.” Rather, Raunig’s Marxist cooptation of the specific intellectual is more concerned with building a political collective that emerges from a transversal exchange between milieus of intellectual production–right, context and social environment–and new technological assemblages, what he calls “a machinic current of thinking that moves athwart the dichotomy of individual and collective, that permeates individuals and collectives, populates the spaces between them” (66).

My final point is that Raunig’s specific intellectual prefigures the need to manage. The collective he describes imagines a type of ontological reconstitution of the subject and institution, one that would undercut both liberal individualism and the socio-economic forces that endow it with social power. I think it would be easy to dismiss Raunig’s work as idealistic here, but I want to give it more credit than that. [Slide 13] Raunig’s invocation of the specific intellectual has embraced postcapitalism, but does it make its own fatal error? Does this version of CUS simply valorize Western subjects, knowledges, and modes of political organization as it outlines its radical vision of intellectual labor? What privatizations and exclusions does it reinscribe?

Provocation Three: Oppositional Coalition

I want to return to Sandoval, but as a means of highlighting work in DH that already answers the call to rethink the fact and function of management.

Sandoval is an interesting decolonial thinker because she engages with many of the debates and literature sets I’ve cited here. For example, she makes an oblique reference to Foucault’s specific intellectual in the same chapter that I pulled her opening quote from, “On Cultural Studies: An Apartheid of Theoretical Domains.” However, she surpasses all of the thinkers I’ve cited thus far at the DH/CUS overlap, particularly by rethinking the terms and conditions of management.

[Slide 14] Beyond Newfield’s invocation of antifoundationalism, Sandoval proposes a “shared theory and method of oppositional consciousness and social movement,” one that she argues is a necessary strategy for resolving “the problematics of the disciplinization and apartheid of academic knowledges in the human and social sciences” (78). Beyond Liu’s recuperation of management, Sandoval argues that differential oppositional consciousness represents a “microphysics of power capable of negotiating this newest phase of economic and cultural globalization” (79). [Slide 15] The coalitional standard Sandoval offers, focused on what she calls the apartheid of academic knowledges, is not so much managerial, but dialogic, “a kinetic motion that maneuvers, poetically transfigures, and orchestrates while demanding alienation, perversion, and reformation in both spectators and practitioners” (Making Face, Making Soul). Sandoval’s approach to the problem of intellectual labor and management lies precisely at this juncture–an ontological position in which collectivization and alienation operate as processual forces, and an organizational position that valorizes orchestration over management. The egalitarian vision Sandoval imagines, her dissident globalization, operates as an ensemble of social actors and relations–a coalition that refuses to reinscribe inequity, individualism, and the economic power that undergirds both.

I am rapidly running out of time. So I want to end with a list of figures and concepts from DH that I think answer Sandoval’s call and thus form the basis of my third provocation. How might we, how are we already, enacting this kind of egalitarian coalitional work in a way that challenges our academic-corporate situation?

[Slide 16]
Think of organizational models like Rita Raley and Geert Lovink’s Temporary Consensus Zones. TCZs are by definition ephemeral, but are also radically diverse at the moment of their inception and implementation. Where Lovink imagines the formation and implementation of TCZs in particular, they are inherently collective and comprised of “hackers, artists, critics, journalists and activists” that maintain the right to disconnect at will (271).
[Slide 17]
Think of #TransformDH, and a provocation Moya Bailey, Anne Cong-Huyen, Alexis Lothian, and Amanda Phillips forward as they also valorize collective figures: “What happens when we shift difference away from a deficit that must be managed and amended (with nods in the direction of diversity) and toward understanding difference as our operating system, our thesis, our inspiration, our goal”?
[Slide 18]
Think of Roopika Risam’s “Navigating the Global Digital Humanities: Insights from Black Feminism,” where she argues that “digital humanities, as a field, can only be inclusive and its diversity can only thrive in an environment in which local specificity—the unique concerns that influence and define digital humanities at regional and national levels—is positioned at its center and its global dimensions are outlined through an assemblage of the local.”
I think I’ll end here with a final statement: [Slide 19] the DH/CUS overlap is vital because it extends the critical focus on infrastructural development as it confronts both institutional and disciplinary inequities. It also accounts for stark disciplinary and institutional limitations in expressly politicized terms, and this is the type of DH work that I think is effective and worth pursuing in our contemporary institutional state.


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