When Digital Humanities Was in Vogue

“More hack, less yack,” they say. I understand the impulse, and to some degree admire the rough-and-tumble attitude of those in digital humanities whose first priority is getting things done. Hell, I like getting things done. But I cannot agree with the distinction between theory (little-t) and practice that this sets up, nor the zero-sum logic that it implies—i.e., that in order to do more we must speak less. “More hack, less yack” is, of course, just a slogan, a “spontaneous philosophy,” a stopgap. But stopgaps won’t do now that digital humanities is in vogue.

I mean for the title of this essay to refer to a line that Langston Hughes used to title a chapter of his memoir The Big Sea (1940), “When the Negro Was In Vogue.”[1] Hughes’s ironic title frames an enduring and persistent philosophical and social question—race—as a matter of fads and fashions, “vogue.” In this, Hughes critiques the unintended consequences of the efforts of “race leaders” like W.E.B. DuBois and Jessie Fauset. Despite the real merit of black artists working in the period, Hughes suggests, the Harlem “vogue” seemed to get them into the spotlight on the wrong terms, laying the ground for a deeply problematic reception by the mainstream, whether through constant comparisons to a bourgeois “white” artistic idiom or in a celebratory but ultimately dehumanizing primitivism.

So when I say that digital humanities is “in vogue,” I am talking about a new institutional prominence (i.e. in the last few years) that is only partially under the control of practicing digital humanists.[2] This is what Bethany Nowviskie has guardedly described as the “eternal September” of the digital humanities:[3] a new critical mass of digital work represented at major conferences like the Modern Language Association and the American Historical Association; new recognition of the need for standards for evaluating digital work for tenure and promotion; new digital humanities centers cropping up like mushrooms, with concomitant digital humanities cluster hires; the words “and digital humanities” suddenly ubiquitously tacked onto job ads; new grant opportunities; a proliferation of THATCamps. Consequent upon all of these are new burdens on the experienced digital humanists who have built the field. And one of those burdens—or perhaps I should say, responsibilities—is theoretical.

Given that digital humanists are now tasked with initiating much broader numbers of colleagues and graduate students into the field, how is that field to be represented? And what are the limits of a slogan in that pedagogy? Often, the new digital humanist is imagined as a fully formed humanities scholar who must now add some technical skills; thus, THATCamp workshops are usually dominated by computer-science-based technical skills or tools. The working assumption underlying this pedagogy seems to be that the “humanities” part of digital humanities is stable and more or less squared away, while the technical skills are what one needs to gain.

And again I turn to Hughes for a metaphor for teasing out the implications of that move. In The Big Sea, Hughes retrospectively satirizes those at the center of the Harlem Renaissance who “thought the race problem had at last been solved through Art plus Gladys Bentley.” In the same way, now that digital humanities is in vogue, there is an overwhelming temptation to believe that the academia problem has at last been solved through the New Criticism plus code.[4] It’s the “plus” that makes Hughes’s comment so devastating: he puts his finger on a merely paratactic, additive concatenation that is the impoverished version of what can and should be a much more paradigmatic change. In other words, it should not be possible to have the “plus” without the two terms—“digital” and “humanities”—themselves changing.

Pedagogy is a place where we often oversimplify for the sake of clarity, even against our firmly held beliefs; this isn’t selling out—it’s good teaching. So perhaps it is natural that in the moment of the mainstreaming of digital humanities, much discussion of digital humanities remains characterized by that paratactic “plus.” The pedagogical emphasis on quick entry into the field—and the incredible success with which THATCamps, the Digital Humanities Summer Institute, and other initiatives have brought huge numbers of humanities scholars meaningfully into the orbit of digital humanities—is admirable. It also, however, comes with some costs. Theoretical keywords start to slide around in woefully unrigorous ways—words like “archive,” “labor,” “biopower,” “narrative,” “author.” You show up at a THATCamp and suddenly it seems that people are talking about separating form and content as if it were not only possible but unproblematic. The whole notion of “best practices,” pervasive in tech and industry, lives uneasily with theoretical critique. In taking up digital tools, it sometimes seems, we are asked to lay down our theoretical tools: more hack, less yack.

To be clear, I do not mean to caricature, much less insult, digital scholarship as it is currently practiced. The best digital humanities work is already implicitly or explicitly theoretical, and in any case, there are times when you have to let a concept remain a black box if you are to do anything with it. Matthew Kirschenbaum has made the case for black boxes by proposing that  “digital humanities” be understood as a “tactical” term, “to insist on the reality of circumstances in which it is unabashedly deployed to get things done—‘things’ that might include getting a faculty line or funding a staff position, establishing a curriculum, revamping a lab, or launching a center.”[5] Yet I want to press a bit on when those black boxes warrant opening, for the appeal to “get[ting] things done” (as opposed to theorizing) again reinscribes the particular black box I am here attempting to open. Is it not precisely in those moments of institutional incarnation that theory matters the most? As Kirschenbaum also reflects, “[o]nce a center is named, names are hard to change—who wants to have to redo the letterhead and the stenciling on the wall?” Strategic pedagogical oversimplifications take on new meaning in this institutionalizing moment, because they ramify, propagating and codifying themselves in new institutional structures.

Eternal September means that the theoretical commitments of digital humanities are more consequential than ever. And what are those commitments? “More hack, less yack” functions as a pedagogical shorthand because it really does capture something about the epistemological and ethical underpinnings of digital humanities. So what is that “something”? Or, to put it more bluntly, can such a representation ever be other than anti-intellectual?

To my mind, the best articulations of a digital humanities epistemology that rises above the shorthand have been offered by Stephen Ramsay, Geoffrey Rockwell, and Tom Scheinfeldt.[6] They have proposed that digital humanities is defined by immanent, nondiscursive modes of knowledge, which should be valued precisely in their nondiscursivity, in ways analogous to performance or art practice or, in Rockwell’s term, “craft disciplines.”[7] Haptic knowledge, intuition, know-how: these are real, if difficult and elusive, as anyone who has taught first-year composition (a form of so-called “yack”) knows.[8]

These critics have sought to elaborate the ways in which digital tools are theoretical tools. Rightly noting that writing is a practice that makes certain kinds of thinking possible, they propose an analogy with other constructive acts, notably the kinds of “building” characteristic of digital humanities research, which, they argue, demonstrates why digital building should be as recognizable as “scholarship” as writing is. This is persuasive, and fair enough as far as it goes. Yet Ramsay and Rockwell in particular go out of their way to defend against any contamination of the category of “building” (their translation of the informal “hack”) by discourse.[9] Ramsay, Rockwell, and Scheinfeldt give good accounts of why an epistemology of building need not be anti-intellectual—so long as that intellectualism is not overly given to discourse. And indeed, it entirely makes sense that these critics should attempt to isolate a form of knowledge that is not reducible to discourse, in order to investigate its status. But to then insist on its untranslatability seems to me to to confuse the issue. Is it indeed necessary to strictly demarcate the construction of knowledge through writing (i.e. discursively) as different in kind from the construction of knowledge through (for instance) building a database? Especially if the latter’s legitimacy as scholarship is being justified by the former’s legitimacy as praxis?

These questions are prompted in part by a roundtable that took place at the 2011 meeting of the American Studies Association in Baltimore, which, to borrow Tara McPherson’s pointed phrasing, asked why digital humanities are so white.[10] I was particularly struck by part of the ASA roundtable description, which, without accusing anyone of bad faith (and I agree; I don’t think there is any), asks why the digital suddenly seems so congenial to the humanities just when ethnic studies departments and on-campus women’s centers are getting axed (not to mention philosophy departments). The questions that the roundtable poses get at what we stand to lose when we fail to theorize practice, or when we insist on the tacitness of our theorizing:

In an era of widespread budget cuts at universities across the United States, scholars in the digital humanities are gaining recognition in the institution through significant grants, awards, new departments and cluster hires. At the same time, ethnic studies departments are losing ground, facing deep cuts and even disbandment. Though the apparent rise of one and retrenchment of the other may be the result of anti-affirmative action, post-racial, and neoliberal rhetoric of recent decades and not related to any effect of one field on the other, digital humanities discussions do often elide the difficult and complex work of talking about racial, gendered, and economic materialities, which are at the forefront of ethnic and gender studies. Suddenly, the (raceless, sexless, genderless) technological seems the only aspect of the humanities that has a viable future.[11]

It is not so much that digital humanities is gaining at the expense of these programs (there’s no direct correlation) as that something is making it easier to fund digital humanities just as it’s getting harder to fund ethnic studies and queer studies. And so far, despite the best of intentions, digital humanities has not done a good job of theorizing either that disciplinary shift or its political implications. That’s why I think we should probably get over that aversion to “yack.” It doesn’t have to replace “hack”; the two are not antithetical.

This brings me back to the Harlem Renaissance as a metaphor for digital humanities in the moment of institutional “vogue.” Institutionalization seems to have prompted in the field the same sorts of identity crises that the Harlem Renaissance underwent. Despite numerous essays on the subject, “What is digital humanities?” is the question we still constantly ask ourselves—not in the “I know it when I see it” way that we ask “what is modernism?,” but sincerely.[12] As Matthew Gold puts it, “[t]hese recent, definitional conversations bear the mark of a field in the midst of growing pains.”[13] Similar to the Harlem Renaissance, too, is the compulsive self-listing, self-mapping, self-visualizing, and general boosterism of (e.g.) totting up the number of digital humanities panels at this year’s MSA, MLA, ASA, AHA, etc., comparing this year’s number of digital humanities panels to last year’s, comparing the MLA to the AHA, und so weiter. It reminds me of the lists of black writers in The New Negro and The Crisis—look how many we have! Have we not arrived?

And apart from Hughes and a few others, we see in the Harlem Renaissance a good deal of the target of Hughes’s satire, Art plus Gladys Bentley—painfully derivative capital-A Art, glued to some of that Harlem vogue. In this volume, Fred Gibbs points out a good example of this in the phenomenon of “intriguing, if not jaw-dropping, visualizations that ma[k]e virtually no sense.”[14]

The comparison breaks down, of course. Digital humanities is not historically or substantively similar to the Harlem Renaissance, and in particular lacks the moral and political force of the Harlem Renaissance’s sometimes misguided but deeply consequential efforts. But the way that the comparison breaks down is perhaps as important as the ways in which it holds. For one thing, it makes it all the more surprising when “the (raceless, sexless, genderless) technological” is rather unselfconsciously represented as somehow beleaguered in just the same way that women, the working class, and minorities have been. This is sometimes implicit in discussions of the difficulty of getting credit for digital work within humanities departments, which often bypass the ways in which it is significantly easier to get credit for such work in mainstream culture (for instance, in the New York Times—I await breathless coverage of the latest in modernist studies) and, a fortiori, in the university as a whole, than it is to get credit for “traditional” humanities scholarship.

But the comparison occasionally even emerges explicitly, for example, in Mark Sample’s borrowing of Milton J. Bennet’s model of intercultural sensitivity as a metaphor for the stages toward acceptance of electronic literature, or in Nowviskie’s suggestion that software development constitutes a “subaltern intellectual tradition.”[15] This is, I would argue, much too quick a shorthand for the real significance (ethical and otherwise) of the digital within humanities scholarship.

To note the internal tensions that the Harlem Renaissance and digital humanities share is to raise the question: why does digital humanities as a disciplinary formation—incongruously—seem to have so many tics in common with the Harlem Renaissance? What is the moral and political force of digital humanities—what are its cultural and institutional consequences? Are we content to suppose that it has no such force, or ought we not inquire?

Langston Hughes is right. Art plus Gladys Bentley is not going to get us where we’re going, and the problem isn’t Art, and it isn’t Gladys Bentley—it’s the plus.


Originally published by Natalia Cecire on October 11, 2011. Revised March 2012.

This essay was originally published in a slightly different form as “When DH Was In Vogue; or, THATCamp Theory” on the blog Works Cited on October 19, 2011, and remains available at http://nataliacecire.blogspot.com/2011/10/when-dh-was-in-vogue-or-thatcamp-theory.html. Many thanks to Maria Cecire, Aaron Bady, and the staff at JDH for comments on earlier drafts of this essay. I am also grateful to Ted Underwood and Sarah Melton for thoughtful comments on the blog post where this essay first appeared. I am indebted to the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry at Emory University for research support.

  1. [1] David Levering Lewis adapted the phrase for his 1989 history of the Harlem Renaissance, When Harlem Was In Vogue. See Hughes, The Big Sea, introd. Arnold Rampersad (1940; New York: Hill and Wang, 1993), 223; Lewis, When Harlem Was In Vogue (New York: Penguin, 1989).
  2. [2] See Cecire, “It’s Not ‘the Job Market,’ It’s the Profession (And It’s Your Problem Too),” Works Cited, September 25, 2011, accessed February 29, 2012, http://nataliacecire.blogspot.com/2011/09/its-not-job-market-its-profession-and.html.
  3. [3] Bethany Nowviskie, “Eternal September of the Digital Humanities,” nowviskie.org, accessed February 10 2012, http://nowviskie.org/2010/eternal-september-of-the-digital-humanities/.
  4. [4] By “the academia problem,” I mean the long-term phenomenon that usually goes by the name “the crisis in higher education,” which has recently seemed to face accelerated rationalization, casualization, credential-inflation, and defunding. See “It’s Not ‘the Job Market,’ It’s the Profession (And It’s Your Problem Too).”
  5. [5] Matthew Kirschenbaum, “Digital Humanities As/Is a Tactical Term,” in Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew K. Gold (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 415.
  6. [6] Stephen Ramsay, “Who’s In and Who’s Out,” accessed February 12, 2011, http://lenz.unl.edu/papers/2011/01/08/whos-in-and-whos-out.html; Ramsay, “On Building,” accessed February 12, 2011, http://lenz.unl.edu/papers/2011/01/11/on-building.html; Ramsay and Geoffrey Rockwell, “Developing Things: Notes toward an Epistemology of Building in the Digital Humanities,” in Debates in the Digital Humanities, 75-84; Tom Scheinfeldt, “Where’s the Beef? Does Digital Humanities Have to Answer Questions?,” in Debates in the Digital Humanities, 56-8.
  7. [7] Ramsay, “On Building.”
  8. [8] Lorraine Daston suggests another version of this kind of knowledge: “experience,” of the kind that allows a bird-watcher to identify a bird by its overall look and behavior at a glance. However, Daston argues, “[s]uch learned abilities are not in principle ‘tacit’; nor are they simply another expression of bodily skill, though they are also that.” See Daston, “On Scientific Observation,” Isis 99:1 (March 2008), 101.
  9. [9] Ramsay and Rockwell, “Developing Things,” 78, 81-3.
  10. [10] Tara McPherson, “Why are the Digital Humanities So White? or Thinking the Histories of Race and Computation,” in Debates in the Digital Humanities, 139-60.
  11. [11] Quoted in Alexis Lothian, “Conference Thoughts: Queer Studies and the Digital Humanities,” Queer Geek Theory, October 18, 2011, accessed March 15, 2012, http://www.queergeektheory.org/2011/10/conference-thoughts-queer-studies-and-the-digital-humanities/.
  12. [12] Matthew Kirschenbaum’s contribution to this genre remains invaluable, in my opinion. See Kirschenbaum, “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?,” in Debates in the Digital Humanities, 3-11.
  13. [13] Matthew K. Gold, “The Digital Humanities Moment,” in Debates in the Digital Humanities, x.
  14. [14] Fred Gibbs, “Critical Discourse in Digital Humanities.” Journal of Digital Humanities 1.1 Winter 2011.
  15. [15] Mark Sample, “Electronic Literature Is a Foreign Land,” Sample Reality, July 21, 2009, accessed March 4 2012, http://www.samplereality.com/2009/07/21/electronic-literature-is-a-foreign-land/. Bethany Nowviskie, comment on “Things We Share,” miriamposner.com, March 5, 2012, accessed March 15, 2012, http://miriamposner.com/blog/?p=1141&cpage=1#comment-31360. The parallel here to what Timothy Yu has called “the ethnicization of the avant-garde” in the writing of Ron Silliman is striking. Yu documents how Silliman positioned Language writing as “marginalized” on same terms as women and racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities. Notably, as with the arguments made for digital humanities, this marginalization is understood as a matter of linguistic particularity. See Yu, Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry since 1965 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 38-72.

About Natalia Cecire

Natalia Cecire is a postdoctoral fellow at the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry at Emory University, and a managing editor at Arcade.