Digital Tools as Critical Theory: Edu-Factory to Digital Humanities
“What once was the factory, is now the university.” This, among other hypotheses, served as a rallying cry and point of departure for the now defunct international Edu-factory Collective. Born online, networked in its organization, and relentless in its criticism of the university’s thorough neoliberalization, the collective’s work is now but a memory, archived on abandoned blogs and in a single edited volume, published in 2009, taken from the collective’s listserv. Featuring writing from major figures in critical university studies, the collective’s hypothesis was equally reliant upon critical theory as it was digital technologies.
I recall the collective’s work in this proposal for two reasons. First, to liken the university to the factory is to better define the prospective character of neoliberalism’s relationship to knowledge production. The claim is not that the university functions exactly as the factory did. It is rather a rhetorical maneuver meant to make exploitation manifest where knowledge is produced. Further, it is to argue that knowledge production, its commodification, and its technologies of dissemination play a specific role in conceptualizing resistance to neoliberal imperatives for education, namely: “to transform the field of tension” comprising our contemporary institutional state “into specific forms of resistance and the organization of escape routes” (1). Digital technologies were the substrate for more complex modes of relation for the collective, including, but not limited to, open-source unionism, the undercommons, and a concept of the global autonomous university.
The second reason I want to reanimate components of the collective’s central hypothesis is to place it in a new context: the rise and continued prominence of digital humanities. Digital Humanities’ rise and the Edu-factory’s fall are coeval. By 2013, the Edu-factory had all but disbanded; coincidently, DH was expanding and hotly debated. The political ideologies guiding both movements do not often overlap. Yet both movements see productive potential in the use and development of digital tools. Where the Edu-factory combined explicitly Marxist and anti-colonial ideologies in its fusion of digital tools and critical theory, DH’s political contours often favor intersectional approaches to computational methods. How the two interface, and further, why DH approaches are favored contemporarily, are questions that may lead to yet unseen prospects for reclaiming knowledge production writ large.
As a result, this paper aligns popular concepts from both DH and Edu-factory discourse through a comparison of keywords common to both: Collaboration / Collective, Inclusion / Differential Inclusion, Digital Commons / the common, Civility / Conflict. This archive of concepts is a provocation, and serves as the basis for thinking DH and Edu-factory political work in concert. What follows is an attempt to prospect on the productive potential for political alignment, even where keywords elicit antagonism and radical difference. This is to think digital tools at play in these disparate movements as conduits for critical theory, perhaps as critical theory itself, actualizing the political ideologies of both academic movements even if the tool’s intention fails.
Collaboration / Collective
Tools: The Lab, the listserv, the book
Collaboration in DH is often concentrated on discipline-specific norms that model themselves after, and concomitantly rethink, academic structures in/from other disciplines. This transformative approach is often focused on the policies of university structures and how those policies might be changed, particularly that of the lab.
Emphasizing collaborative research, Amy Earhart writes of the DH lab that it “train and mentor students and faculty, serving as a pedagogical and outreach or service dedicated to growing work within the field” […] “including the desire to expand the field, support a broad range of projects, and provide training for students and faculty” (“The Digital Humanities as a Laboratory” 392).
Emblematic of DH collaborative methods, Earhart goes on to argue that DH labs are based on “community partnerships” with a “multiple partner participants” (394). The discourse of credit and attribution in DH is certainly also a sign of its emphasis on collaboration.
Divergence: policy and procedure / conflicts of becoming
The Edu-factory, stemming from the Marxist applications of the concept, locate collectivity within various technologies that produce a radical practice of subjectivity.
Collectivity is a process of subjectivation, an act of becoming, that is grounded in preexisting struggle, knowledge production that defies neoliberal imperatives for education, and a radical practice of freedom. Collectivity is thus defined as “conflict over knowledge production and the construction of the common, the struggles of precarious workers, and the organization of autonomous institutions” (2).
“Freedom becomes radical criticism of exploitation only if it is incarnated in the autonomous potency of living knowledge instead of within single power relations” (14).
In the absence of a university-designated space, the listserv and the book, perhaps the two most prominent technologies utilized by Edu-factory, become opportunities to speak with a collective voice and align one’s individual struggle with a collective political ideology. It’s no coincidence, for example, that the edited collection, Toward a Global Autonomous University, was printed under an anti-copyright law, allowing it to be “pirated and quoted for all non-commercial purposes.”
Inclusion / Differential Inclusion
Tools: tents, trading zones, meeting places, unions, networks
Inclusion is historically defined in DH as disciplinary question typically focused on tool-use or skill-based academic work accomplished in a DH lab. In his essay “Beyond the Tent,” Patrik Svenson identifies a common inclusive DH metaphor, the “big tent,” like a “big tent revival,” but also adds his own metaphors for inclusion: the trading zone and meeting place (45). He argues that these metaphors describe “‘places’ where interdisciplinary work occurs and where different traditions are maintained at the same time that intersectional work is carried out” (46). Others like Roopika Risam, have called to “burn the tent down” and “imagine new futures for DH” because the metaphor does not adequately address the material realities of the discipline across a broad spectrum of political concerns (“Burning Down the Tent”). Think of the significant difference between a tenured professor at a prestigious university doing DH (Svenson mentions Stanford and Yale), and an adjunct or independent scholar “doing DH” wherever they can get work. Still a discipline-specific discourse, DH and its metaphors for inclusion address, but rarely antagonize, the financial realities that produce contingency and scarcity.
Divergence: disciplinary expansion / unionization
One interesting approach reimagined by the Edu-factory collective is the concept of open-source unionism. Eileen Schell explores this concept particularly where contingent labor becomes a question of ‘outsourcing’; outsource coursework to adjuncts who typically work at local community colleges, or in the case where I work, high school teachers with masters degrees.
First proposed by Richard B. Freeman and Joel Rogers, open-source unionism refers to a process in which opportunities for unionization are expanded by digital communication technologies. Rather than requiring that a majority of individuals vote to become unionized at a particular workplace, unions would recognize individuals, and support individuals in the process of being included. “Unions would welcome members even before they achieved majority status,” Freem and Rogers write, “and stick with them as they fought for it–maybe for a very long time. These “pre-majority” workers would presumably pay reduced dues in the absence of the benefits of collective bargaining, but would otherwise be normal union members” (https://www.iww.org/about/solidarityunionism/explained/opensource).
Inclusion is thus based on a process of struggle, regardless of discipline, and expanded by our ability to communicate via a network like the Internet. The network, perhaps ideally so, is positioned as democratic tool.
Digital Commons / the common(s)
Tools: the archive/database, the common of common living
Perhaps one of the strongest political positions in DH is its commitment to the production of the digital commons, often as an alternative to corporate influence, but still reliant upon national grant funding bodies, or (not so) robust infrastructures of a scholar’s home institution. Think of projects like Manifold, a joint partnership between the University of Minnesota Press, the GC Digital Scholarship Lab at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and Cast Iron Coding (Portland, OR), that showcases “networked, iterative, media-rich, and interactive monographs on the web” (https://www.upress.umn.edu/about-us/about-manifold). Think also of Bethany Nowviskie’s blog post, “On Capacity and Care” which calls for a national digital platform for cultural heritage and “virtual research environments, filled with integrated, interchangeable toolsets” (http://nowviskie.org/2015/on-capacity-and-care/).
This digital commons is certainly future-oriented, but definitely meant to preserve texts and culture in an accessible way.
Divergence: historical preservation / the common of communism
Technology is central, but not the primary concern of the commons for the Edufactory. It, too, is a subjective process, and relies more on thinking technology as a tool of the present (present modes of thinking and interacting), than a technology of documentation.
“The freedom of the common is partisan” (14).
Education is a commons that confronts “scarcity and create[s] abundance” (155).
The university as commons is situated within a radical situation: the communal structure of student life. Jason Read notes, “Universities uproot students from their homes […] and place them in a context that is halfway between communism (collective living, eating, sleeping) and anarchism (the necessity of creating social order ex nihilo, even if its only the social order of two, between roommates)” (151).
Subjectivity lies at the heart of Stefano Harney and Fred Moton’s “The University as Undercommons.” Where they claim that “there is no distinction between the American University and Professionalization,” they focus on the radical character of ‘being against’: “to be a critical academic in the university is to be against the university, and to be against the university is always to recognize it and be recognized by it” (149).
Civility / Conflict
Tools: Genres of the Human / Laboratory as Ephemeral Politics
In the not so recent past, DH’s self-proclamation of its “niceness” and “civility” seemed to be the standard for interaction within the discipline. Niceness and civility was associated with various DH methods and vaunted over disciplines like critical theory, where contention is common. These ideas have come under criticism. In their essay “Putting the Human Back into the Digital Humanities,” for example, Elizabeth Losh, Jacqueline Wernimont, Laura Wexler, and Hong-An Wu, argue that “asserting an absence of conflict around power relations can undermine claims for diversity, equity, and inclusion.” Their remedy to question of conflict in DH is to center “genres of the human,” showing how “gender, embodiment, and affect are often relegated to the periphery.”
Divergence: The location of conflict
Conflict is not animus, or necessarily limited to a friend/enemy binary for the Edu-factory Collective. It is rather derived from what Edu-factory called “experiences of conflict […] inside and against the transformations of the university” (7). I think this is where Edu-factory work speaks back to DH organizational formation in an interesting way: “Edu-factory was in fact a laboratory for the elaboration of a common lexis that is starting to take shape in various struggles and theoretical practices on a transnational level” (5). If Edu-factory was a laboratory, it was of a conceptual space, fully reliant upon networked technologies to make it a reality. This ephemeral iteration of the lab is born of conflict with the university.
Conflict, and the experience of conflict, ultimately leads to a practice of autonomy for the collective. A global autonomous university, autonomous spaces within the brick and mortar university, the autonomous production of subjectivity, and so forth, that recognize struggle and conflict to be the progenitor of knowledge production. Conflict, then, is inclusive at the same time that it opposes, prospects after, and produces an alternative to the present.
To juxtapose these concepts and tools is to affirm their technological basis in both DH praxis and Edu-factory. It is, on the one hand, to provoke DH and provide context to think DH praxis from a position outside of its own discourse. On the other hand, it is to survey DH praxis and think back to Edu-factory’s political demands. Is it possible to reinvigorate the collective’s politics and projects by utilizing DH tools? Is it possible to rethink our critical discourse and theorize something different, a combination of the two, both/and, toward the prospect of a liberatory future?