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In a reflection on all the recent hubbub about the sordid state of the humanities and the recently proposed possibility of a cure in the form of the “digital humanities,” Cathy Davidson offers the following lament:

When I think of what the humanties offer…it is astonishing to me (and tragic) that we are not central. We are very, very good at blaming others for our marginalization. I truly believe that most universities would be entirely grateful for a visionary humanities program that addressed the critical needs of literacies for the twenty-first century. That would not have to be all we need to do, but why we aren’t making that our mission, staking that as our invaluable inestimable value in a radically changing world, is beyond my comprehension.

The only possible answer is that it’s us.

The problem is not the humanities as a discipline (who can blame a discipline?), the problem is its members. We are insufferable. We do not want change. We do not want centrality. We do not want to speak to nor interact with the world. We mistake the tiny pastures of private ideals with the megalopolis of real lives. We spin from our mouths retrograde dreams of the second coming of the nineteenth century whilst simultaneously dismissing out of our sphincters the far more earnest ambitions of the public at large—religion, economy, family, craft, science.

Humanists work hard, but at all the wrong things, the commonest of which is the fetid fester of a hypothetical socialist dreamworld, one that has become far more disconnected with labor and material than the neoliberalism it claims to replace.

Humanism does not deserve to carry the standard for humans, for frankly it despises them.

We don’t reform our mission because we secretly hate the idea of partaking of and in the greater world, even as we purport to give it voice, to speak of its ills through critical esoterics no public ear could ever grasp. Instead we colonize that world—all in the name of liberation, of course—in order to return its spoils to our fetid den of Lacanian self-denial. We masticate on culture for the pleasure of praising our own steaming shit.

We are not central because we have chosen to be marginal, for to be central would be to violate the necessity of marginality. We practice the monastic worship of a secular God we divined in order to kill again, mistaking ourselves for the madmen of our fantasies. We are masochists in hedonists’ clothing. We are tweed demolitionists.

If there is one reason things “digital” might release humanism from its turtlenecked hairshirt, it is precisely because computing has revealed a world full of things: hairdressers, recipes, pornographers, typefaces, Bible studies, scandals, magnetic disks, rugby players, dereferenced pointers, cardboard void fill, pro-lifers, snowstorms. The digital world is replete. It resists any efforts to be colonized by the post-colonialists. We cannot escape it by holing up in Berkeley waiting for the taurus of time to roll around to 1968. It will find us and it will videotape our kittens.

It’s not “the digital” that marks the future of the humanities, it’s what things digital point to: a great outdoors. A real world. A world of humans, things, and ideas. A world of the commonplace. A world that prepares jello salads. A world that litigates, that chews gum, that mixes cement. A world that rusts, that photosynthesizes, that ebbs. The philosophy of tomorrow should not be digital democracy but a democracy of objects.

If we want the humanities to become central, it is not the humanities that must change, but its members. We must want to be of the world, rather hidden from it. We must be brutal. We must invoke wrath instead of liberation. We must cull. We must burn away the dead wood to let new growth flourish. If we don’t, we will suffocate under the noxious rot of our own decay.

published January 9, 2010

Comments

  1. Lisa Nakamura

    I agree. This sounds apocalyptic, intentionally so I realize. Was it St. Paul that said “it is better to marry than to burn?” I know colleagues who will sooner burn that marry digital media, and given the way that the so-called “digital humanities” is going, I don’t blame them. A lot of digital humanities is no better than what is it replacing.

  2. Chris DeLeon

    At least part of the “outside world” that digital may force disciplines to face is that what appears to be new territory within one subject has a ripe history hidden in what was previously an unrelated field.

    This has already happened in the sciences. Advances in chemistry led to a partial merger of chemistry of biology, and advances in physics led to a partial merger between chemistry and physics.

    At one of the GDC’s, I opted to attend the Education Summit/Tutorials instead of my usual crowd. The main complaint that I heard from faculty (this was years ago, but I’m not sure it has changed much) was the challenge of humanities and technical disciplines having mostly distinct professors, classes, students, and administration. This is despite the intersection inherent to digital humanities.

    But to faculty and students across the quad, there’s no such thing as digital humanities, but they’re instead seeing a dawn of humanized software engineering.

    In much the same way that digital may force humanities to exit from ivory towers, the explosion of opportunities for software engineers to create something everyday people will experience has been forcing technical fields out from underground bunkers.

    I’ve sat in plenty of classes packed with people developing software engineering skills, aspiring to find a humanities use for them, whether web, videogame, or (the human side of) business.

    There’s demand for engineers that know how to develop something that speaks to its users, anticipates their assumptions, and uses data as a means to a human end instead of the converse.

    I can only assume that humanities programs of all sorts are increasingly finding students developing narrative, communication, and cultural understanding with hope to find a partly digital outlet for these competencies.

    > We do not want to speak to nor interact with the world.

    Might some the first people to speak and interact with in the greater world be just next door on the same campus, in another department?

  3. PaleFire

    Wow… This is probably one of the most provocative pieces I have read lately and it forces us to think… like very hard. I am a recent Ph.D graduate who is out in the job market this year. Although I came from a strong humanities background, I wrote my dissertation in new media… and by that I mean I looked at storytelling in video sharing sites, ARGs, virtual world, oh, and the novel. This comment will be a bit long but I started wrestling with some of these issues of late, so apologies in advance.

    What I have seen lately is the recent increase in the “digital humanities” programs. I would consider myself as working in the field of digital humanities but some questions that came out in my recent interview led me to realize that what I’ve done may not have been exactly digital humanities. Frankly, I was a bit startled by this realization. The line of questioning suggested that “digital humanities” is something other than “new media studies” and the implication was that my research fell under the second category. I was surprised by this realization because I start my dissertation with a set of novels, I use the theories of some textual critics, scholars of literary criticism and hypertext theories. Now what astounded me was that the initial conceptualization of my project, that is working on hypertexts/hypermedia, the analysis of some novels and games, hypertexts, and other forms of non-traditional online storytelling projects quickly turned into something else.

    The turning point was my Second Life research and here’s why: I started working on the griefer groups in Second Life, but initially I was mainly focusing on the spatial analysis of the spaces that they occupied, meaning what kind of images/icons they used, what kind of jargon (or memes) they used in their speeches, how they designed their sims in Second Life and the blogs that talked about them, their comments on various blog posts etc… so initially (in my mind) this was merely a “textual analysis” of the environment and the interface. And this is, of course, relevant to storytelling. Malcolm McCullough’s understanding of spatial literacy, for example, emphasizes environments as a factor contributing to the construction of stories. Spatial literacy, according to him, is not confined to literal signage that declares space, but rather includes its events and symbols legible to its residents. When starting my Second Life research on griefers this was what I was focusing on: examining their spatial literacies as how they relate to the stories they generate. My biggest surprise was when I realized that I actually needed to interview these folks and ask questions as to how and why they were engaging in these types of discourses (and I use this term very loosely). All of a sudden, the project transformed from a literary analysis of spatial literacies to cultural studies and a game studies project where I had to get IRB permission and conduct fieldwork. And the rest of my research became exactly that: me (who had no formal training in conducting fieldwork whatsoever) having to conduct interviews, hanging out in IRCs, interact with players and such.

    In that sense, the “digital” did point towards the “outdoors” and allowed me to engage in discourses that I may not have engaged in otherwise, such as the legendary 4chan or the literacies (as expressed through videos) that the fans of Lonelygirl15 generated. So, I appreciate your observation.

    Your post made me think about some of the tendencies that I came across lately. For instance, within the recent emergence of “digital humanities” programs, a lot of universities are launching digitization initiatives of their archives so that they are readily accessible. Is this, then, an attempt to “colonize” (or a weak attempt at harnessing) the digital world by organizing it and making it readily available with the click of a button? I hear that there is an archiving initiative of Second Life. As a world that comes into existence exclusively with user-generated content that changes on a daily basis, I am not sure about how successful this initiative would be, but more important, to what end are we embarking on such initiatives, really… These are all interesting questions.

    So, I am no longer sure that my research area was “digital humanities” after all… It begs the question then, what was it??? And really, is digital humanities that different than new media studies that I am faced with the task of having to explain how my research relates to digital humanities or even justify its validity within the context of digital humanities?

    I apologize for “colonizing” your blog space like this. But your post was extremely timely because I was wrestling with these questions of late. I would welcome the conversation…

  4. Paul Bains

    ‘We must be brutal. We must invoke wrath instead of liberation. We must cull. We must burn away the dead wood to let new growth flourish.

    OMG, count me out.

    I must be up for ‘culling’. Have you ever seen any culling?’

  5. P.Bains

    xcuse the repetition. I am senile and due for culling.

    A randomly opened page from ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’:

    ‘Oh your poverty, you men, and your avarice of soul! As much as you give to your friend I will give even to my enemy, and will not have grown poorer in doing so.’

    Enjoy the culling.

  6. Benjamin Geer

    At best, the humanities are a breeding ground for new sciences. Physics emerged out of philosophy and has left it behind; sociology is in the process of doing the same thing. The goal of the humanities should be to disappear and be replaced by sciences, i.e. to become capable of doing useful, practical work in the world. Humanists should be striving to become scientists. What’s dysfunctional is that many of them have rejected this ambition, have rejected the very idea of science, and are bent on remaining humanists forever. Thus they condemn themselves to doing research that can never be useful for anything except the advancement of their own careers.

  7. Robert Jackson

    Interdisciplinary is a foolish term for disciplines that secretly privilege one body of knowledge whilst casually allowing other disciplines to aid its research.

    Ian is spot on here, the humanities needs to get over itself and apply a trans-disciplinary approach. We should have the courage to speculate on how the world operates, not throwing in the towel with how humans and the world are constantly out-of-sync.

  8. Ian Bogost

    @Lisa

    Interesting provocation. I’d love to hear more about the flaws you see in the digital humanities. (I’m not doubting there are flaws, I just want the dirty details!)

    @Chris

    I’m not so sure that the “humanization” of computer science is going so well. CS and engineering have their own ills, among them a strong instrumentalism when it comes to reasons for pursuing “human-centered” computing or what have you.

    @Chris, @Robert

    You’re right that humanist “interdisciplinarity” has been weak (Katherine Hayles calls it “loose and flabby”), but so is most interdisciplinarity. You might be interested in this piece of mine on that subject, which oddly was from a keynote at the GDC education summit.

    @PaleFire

    You’re absolutely right that there seems to be a strong, forced schism between the digital humanities and new media studies. I’m not sure I fully understand it yet, but perhaps it comes down to this: broadly speaking, the “traditional” humanities might not believe that computational artifacts are really worthy of study compared to literary ones. Computers, then, become mere tools for performing traditional work (that is, isolationist work), the razorwire of the same old ghetto.

    @Paul

    We are overproducing ourselves. It’s cruel. It’s akin to starvation. We must do something different. Whatever it is, it will likely be painful. Is there an alternative?

    @Benjamin

    I think you’re right that the future might include a fascinating and welcome fusion of humanism, science, and engineering. Worth reading on this subject: James Duderstadt’s Engineering for a Changing World [PDF], which calls for the reform of engineering as a liberal art. I suspect (and hope) we’ll see reform on all sides, with new approaches triangulating in the middle.

  9. JennaMcWilliams

    My only wish is that you had posted this piece before Dec. 31 so I could nominate it for best tech writing 2009.

  10. Karl Steel

    @Benjamin

    If I understand you correctly, I couldn’t disagree more. Is painting worthwhile only insofar as it gives us optics? And dance…? The importance of play should not be discounted.

  11. Matt Kirschenbaum

    Before any of us get too invested in the digital-humanities-as-same-shit-different-day narrative, please have a read here, where Steve Ramsay responds eloquently to what’s essentially the same contention:

    http://academhack.outsidethetext.com/home/2010/the-mla-briancroxall-and-the-non-rise-of-the-digital-humanities/#comment-142351

    Digital humanities is a term that’s been granted some pretty big institutional purchase lately, and that leads (inevitably) to tensions about what’s in and what’s out and who the deciders are. My feeling is that attempts to locate the supposed “schism” between DH and new media studies anywhere but in institutional turf wars and jostling for local advantage are doomed to founder. The perceived differences are unsustainable. Mechanisms has pages and pages about hard drives and hex editors. Or take the example of the critical code studies panel at the DH09 conference here at Maryland last summer, which was packed. It’s not like everyone was off in some other room tagging their texts.

  12. Lisa Nakamura

    Ian: palefire’s dilemma is exactly what I was referring to. “digital humanities” boils down to using computers to do exactly the same silo-ed and intellectually buttoned down work that people did before. It is the opposite of expansive. But it’s always easier to get money for equipment (ie computers to make a million concordances of literature that people don’t even read anymore and sure as hell don’t want to read lit-crit about) than it is to re-envision a field. People in this kind of digital humanities are very concerned with “preservation” in every sense of the word–preservation of the status quo, of themselves and their jobs, and of the methods and fields of the past.

  13. Annette Vee

    Ian, your link to Duderstadt (thanks!) reminds me of Donald Knuth’s 1974 ACM Turing Award acceptance speech. Knuth invoked CP Snow’s “two cultures” and the idea that “we need to combine scientific and artistic values if we are to make real progress.” Knuth complained of the transformation of his discipline into a science through the magic of naming it “computer science,” as though science was the only way to achieve disciplinary stature.

    More from Knuth: “The computer programs that are truly beautiful, useful and profitable must be readable by people. So we ought to address them to people, not to machines. All of the major problems associated with computer programming—issues of reliability, portability, learnability, maintainability, and efficiency—are ameliorated when programs and their dialogs with users become more literate.”

    As Knuth suggests, the humanities are already central: their emphasis on communication, writing, and creativity is critical to success in all disciplines, as well as “the great outdoors.” I think you’re right though that the humanities thrives on an idea of marginalization. This self-victimization stands in the way of us owning–and sharing–the centrality of humanistic concerns in all pursuits of knowledge.

  14. Maxwell Biddle

    Insightful and timely. Deliberately provocative and much needed, i.e., a splash of very cold water in the face of the “discipline” especially after Dan Cohen’s estimate that perhaps 0.1% of the historians at #aha201 were on Twitter.

    @PaleFire, PLEASE email me at MaxwellDOTBiddleATgmailDOTcom … I am more than a little involved in the Second Life Archivists developments…

  15. Matt Kirschenbaum

    I think among some “new media” types there is a perception that digital humanities is simply the same old same old, at best misguided in its emphases, at worst a kind of bastion of critical or ideological conservatism.

    I think among some “digital humanities” types, there is a perception that new media is simply the same old same old, lots of shiny sexy books–*books*–dutifully putting all things digital through the theory grinder.

    Both would be very wrong. And the last thing either community needs–to the extent there are separate communities–is a turf war.

  16. Paul Bains

    Ian: ‘We are overproducing ourselves. It’s cruel. It’s akin to starvation. We must do something different. Whatever it is, it will likely be painful. Is there an alternative?’

    You’re right, there are far too many…One alternative is to get out – into the ‘great outdoors’ – ‘an outside more distant than any external world because it is an inside deeper than any internal world.’ (D/G, WIP,59).

    What I saw of the rise of ‘media studies’ in Oz in the 90′s was simply another industry to keep bored high school leavers busy for a few years, ‘studying’ something that could be discussed over a coffee – and provide a few lecturers with an income.

    Unis aren’t really about education most of the time – they’re largely about crowd control – just more ‘schooling’ (Illich said it all).

    Rather than ‘culling’, escape from the overcrowed institution – not so easy though…there are many kinds of walls to cross.

    Maybe it could be an idea for a video game. Overcoming fear of the unknown ‘outside’, making a break for it…parents and administrators saying ‘don’t do it, you have a job…’

    ‘Think like a biosphere. Dare to evolve. Now.’ (Annie March, The Guardian Weekly, Letters, ‘Concerned about Climate’, 18/12/09 p.25).

    http://digital.guardianweekly.co.uk/Launch.aspx?referral=other&pnum=&refresh=eL0371xFrZ12&EID=e0c141ef-e219-4a0e-bbba-fd775cdc204e&skip=true

  17. Ian Bogost

    @Karl

    That’s not now I read Benjamin’s comment, although I understand the risk that you identify. I do think it is time for humanists to see science and engineering as promising sources of both practical and rhetorical fusion. For example, it’s worth knowing how optics work when we talk about photography, and it’s worth knowing about the historical and contemporary use of photography when forming goals for new optical research.

    @Matt, @Lisa

    Mechanisms is a great book that does both digital humanistic and new media scholarship. But I think you’re a rare example, with the more common attitude resembling Lisa’s charge.

    As for a turf war, I’m not sure that’s likely. If there are two camps, I’m not sure they pay much attention to one another.

    @Annette

    Thanks for your comments, and for bringing up Knuth. The real shame of Knuth is not his words but his legacy, since all too often his writing on code are used only to justify arguments for efficiency and reusability in code, rather than the more complex aesthetics his argument opened up. I’d say more about that, but perhaps this isn’t the venue for it.

    @Paul

    Indeed, orienting advanced study in the humanities toward more than just higher education is an important matter. And indeed too, schooling rules the day, and institutions grow not for the sake of better and more education, but often for longer and more extensive day care.

  18. Patrik Svensson

    Very interesting debate!

    I agree with you, Matt, that the two (or more) communities would benefit from having a better sense of each other/working more together. This is a fairly complex disciplinary territory, and of course, “digital humanities” is not a particularly old term, and partly a result of “renaming” humanities computing. This means that new media studies probably never were part of digital humanities in terms of actually subscribing to the term. And also, there are different epistemic commitments at play here (I do some background work in my article on Digital Humanities as Humanities Computing: http://digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/3/3/000065.html).

    Look at internet studies, for instance. In my “The Landscape of Digital Humanities” article (soon to be finished), I look at the Air-L list:

    From the article: For instance, looking at instances of “digital humanities” on the Air-L email list, the digital humanities is directly mentioned in 27 out of 19619 posts , and many of these are announcements coming from departments or organizations invested in the digital humanities.

    I have also done a humanities computing like analysis of the Aoir conferences and the digital humanities conferences, and looking at simple data (frequency analysis etc.), there is a pattern:

    From the article: Among the 20 most frequent words for each conference series, there is not a single word that occurs in both corpora. This pattern is also clear in less frequent terms, which tend to be less generic. Looking at the 20-50 most frequent words, humanities computing as evidenced in the material focuses on databases, models, resources, systems, editions and words whereas internet studies focuses on space, divide, culture, self, politics and privacy.

    This is crude data, of course, and only part of a (hopefully) more sophisticated analysis. As for engaging strongly with the humanities at large, this is not so much a part of digital humanities/humanities computing I think, but neither of much of new media studies I would argue. There is more of it (thinking about the “big humanities” etc) in new media studies, but much of it also comes from elsewhere. Maybe from somewhere in between, but certainly also from disciplines outside of the ones closest associated with media studies or digital humanities/humanities computing. To some extent from ‘environments’ such as HASTAC, humanities center driven/influenced digital humanities, digital humanities centers and young faculty. Maybe also humanities computing taking on the challenge of digital humanities. This is part of what I look at in my fourth digital humanities article (on envisioning the digital humanities), so your entry, Ian, and the discussion here will certainly become source material!

  19. Emily Bembeneck

    Fascinating read. My own work falls clearly within humanities and yet I struggle to define exactly what it is I do when asked.

    I’m a PhD student in Classics, but I work on narrative in video games and the construction of a hero in epic, the novel, and games. Most of my recent work focuses on AAA titles and much of my research comes from play and discussions on Twitter and GoogleWave. The breeding ground for many of my ideas is the blogspace and its comments.

    There are so many questions for a graduate student in my position. How do I write a dissertation that’s relevant, interests me, and can still land me a job somewhere? Where do I publish work that often has little to do with what the rest of my discipline cares about? I feel like I’m working on something relevant and current and modern, but who is ever going to care except my advisor and a few colleagues?

    I fight almost daily against the image of pretension that the Academy carries out there in the “great outdoors”. I get termed a “populist humanist” because I spend more time caring about real people’s experiences in these narratives than I do about the intricacies of Derrida’s prose. Professors in Comparative Literature struggle to understand how video games can be a worthy area of study. Comparative Literature!! If they can’t move out from this traditional rut, who can?

    The humanities may indeed be central as Annette says above, but the student base of almost 30,000 kids doesn’t think so (at least at my Uni). Their parents don’t think so. That place is taken by engineering and various other sciences. Humanities is a distribution requirement and that’s all. In fact, the majority of the academics in humanities don’t think they’re central. If we don’t understand or appreciate our own worth to humanity, why should the rest of the world care?

    There certainly will have to be a change among us, and the generations around us. Our image needs to change. It’s not that our work does no good or doesn’t matter – how can studying about what it means to be human ever be irrelevant? Rather, we’ve lost sight of the fact that what we do does matter and can be central. In order for that status to either remain or be recovered though, we are going to have to understand that humanity is moving away from us into realms far beyond text and beyond current theory.

    It’s going to take more than just much-lauded interdisciplinarity. That’s just walking across the hall on our floor of the Ivory Tower. So, do we walk downstairs and go outside? Sounds easy enough, but what do we do when we get there? Talk to people? Ask them about their lives? That sounds like sociology and anthropology. Ok, so maybe have a writing group? Compare diaries? That sounds unscholarly. Carry around our Derrida and our Kant and give readings on little banana crates? That sounds a little crazy, and frankly, completely irrelevant.

    It sounds like Humanities is having an identity crisis. Sadly, I think the ground floor wine bar is full of people hoping it’s all better by tomorrow.

  20. PaleFire

    Looking back, I think my comment was a bit of an emotional reaction to the unexpected realization that there is a unclean separation between digital humanities and new media studies. And my research, although it was born out of humanities, was implicitly piled in the new media studies section. Not once did I think citing Matt Kirschenbaum and Henry Jenkins or Mia Consalvo along with Katherine Hayles required explanation for “digital humanities.” I mean, for the purposes of my research they “obviously” belonged together… I would argue that because digital humanities and new media are this much intertwined that I was able to seamlessly make the transition between the two, back and forth, without even realizing it. I was able to start with an analysis of Don Quixote and finish my project with Second Life or I was able to engage in discussions about gaming, griefing, and performance studies in the same project.

    Faced with the question I mentioned above, I felt like I was tackled or even “sacked” at the 20-yard line. Not being able to come up with a way to relate the two or, more important, separate the two, I started asking myself, how I could have glazed over such an important question during the four years of my research?

    I agree with Matt in that it is a turf war between the fields and I also agree with Matt’s tweet that the term “digital humanities” is being thrown around without knowing what it really means… It is an empty signifier if you will. For example, I’ve been systematically going through job openings, and I am not sure that some of the departments know what they are looking for when they open a “digital humanities” position. My impression is that some institutions know that they need it, either to stay at the cutting edge or to attract students, but not sure what for or what the role of this shiny new thing is going to be in their departments. (BTW, the previous statement was not meant to include all institutions, obviously some know exactly what they want). I just read an online article where the author was claiming that the to Rennes-le-Chateau phenomenon (don’t ask what this is, I have no idea since I read about it for the first time in that article) was an ARG. And the way he defined what an ARG was and how he analyzed it was (in my opinion) completely wrong. And I intend to blog about it. But the point being that when new concepts emerge we don’t know exactly what they mean but everybody wants it.

    On another note, my experience in Second Life and the “outdoors” that Ian mentions need a bit explaining. I broaden the definition of the term. For me, interviewing folks in SL or LG15, or AoTH meant getting involved in their daily lives, engaging in the issues/events that took place. This goes beyond mere interviewing or content analysis. For instance, LG15 fans are very disappointed with the creators of the show, or SL fashion designers were totally pissed off at Linden Lab because of CopyBot that they protested it by closing their shops during Thanksgiving 2006. So I didn’t just interview these folks, but I was involved in their “virtual” daily lives. Why did I even bother to investigate these issues? Because in some weird way, they related to my research and, ultimately, are in the final product. That’s the outdoors that I was referring to, daily life, so-to-speak. No matter what you say, Derrida doesn’t prepare you for this kind of scholarship. The “human” factor is a wild card at best, anything can happen when dealing with people.

    And I am pleasantly surprised that Ian brought this topic now, when I, too, was wrestling with similar issues.

  21. Erik

    @Benjamin, I have to disagree regards physics leaving behind philosophy. Every time a physicist tries to explain significance of required funding, weighs up the social impacts of new technology or predicts the origins or destiny of the universe–they are engaged in some aspect of philosophy.Philosophy is the study of wisdom and wisdom is hopefully involved in the understanding of anything significant, the worth or consequences of research and most any issue starting with “Should I..”

  22. Mark N.

    @Ian, re: “the future might include a fascinating and welcome fusion of humanism, science, and engineering”, that seems right, but my impression is that the 3-4 disciplines that could serve as its launchboard all seem to strangely be going out of their way not to be.

    I know CS’s failings in that regard most first-handedly, where the adoption of anything new-media or liberal-arts is grudging and foot-dragging, in a lot of cases tolerated at all only because enrollments in conservative, traditional programs are dropping. But even when tolerated, there’s this worry that we don’t want to expose ourselves to charges from more conservative CS types that we’re not hardcore-techie enough, or not scientific enough.

    But I don’t see the humanities exploiting this opportunity to wrest away the interesting parts of computing from CS, either. A course like your Atari course, that is a genuine humanities course, but includes non-trivial technical content and creation of computational artifacts (“programming”), strikes me as very unusual.

  23. Chris DeLeon

    > I’m not so sure that the “humanization” of computer science is going so well. …a strong instrumentalism when it comes to reasons for pursuing “human-centered” computing…

    The technical end is definitely – from a humanities perspective – not doing it well. And for the most part digital humanities – from a technical perspective – are not doing it well either. (This is only natural, given that both sides are judging against a substantially different “it”.)

    It was not my intention to suggest that it was being done right from the other end, only that there is a growing student interest on both sides pointing toward the middle. Differences in each discipline’s objectives seems to be splitting students that have otherwise highly overlapping academic pursuits artificially into two camps: humanities with a growing technical leaning on one side, and technical with a growing humanities leaning on the other. At least some of those students will be tomorrow’s researchers, professors, and administration, which I suspect (hope?) will make bridging differences easier from both sides.

  24. Ian Bogost

    I just wrote a lengthy response to most of you, and then my browser started showing 960% CPU usage, and my whole machine crashed before I could post it. This second go will probably be less detailed than it would have been otherwise, and I apologize for those of you I appear to be ignoring. I’ll get back to this post soon.

    @Emily

    I empathize with you, having once been a comp lit grad student (and with classics among my fields even). It’s disappointing (even if not surprising) to learn that little has changed. I was most fortunate to find very empathetic advisers. In discussions like this one, we often hear hopes that a new generation will solve all our problems. But in this case, we need a generation dissatisfied and ready to forge entirely new paths (no matter their area of study, and even if it has nothing to do with digital anything). This is difficult, but I do think its part of the answer to the question I’m posing.

    @PaleFire

    I agree that “digital humanities” has become a rhetorical talisman, particularly lately. Hopefully folks will soon realize that technology (alone) is not going to solve the greater problem with the humanities, since it’s a problem of its people above all.

    Overall, and to no one in particular: I’m a little surprised that it’s the discussion of conflict between digital humanities and new media that has proven the hottest poker in the fire. I’m a little disappointed, in a way… I had in mind a much broader effrontery when I wrote this!

  25. Liz Losh

    I feel that if you can’t get into an argument with a cab driver about your research, then you shouldn’t be in the humanities.

    Seriously. Every newly minted PhD should be able to pass the cab driver test with content from his or her dissertation before being granted a diploma. If the cabby is not inspired to raise his voice to disagree with your opinion about Foucault or the Glorious Revolution or the Situationists, no degree.

    This may lead to more dissertations about bad road signs, sketchy neighborhoods, marriages that go south, and where to get a good sandwich.

    But if you are right that won’t be a bad thing.

    (Caveat: I have discovered that if the cab driver goes past your destination because he was busy arguing with you, he will still expect to be paid for the overage.)

  26. Robert Jackson

    The humanities (digital or otherwise) should not be afraid in speculating the nature of reality, or to concretely analyse the features of causality. Why should we back ourselves into the parental homely-ness of human subjectivty (consistent subjectivity, or deferred, or becoming-ness, etc). To find out what it means to be human isn’t something we need to relate to a cast-iron theory human activity or desire. Perhaps we should invest most of our interest into a disipline of non-humanities. A much broader scope of aesthetics is a start at least in my case.

  27. Darshana Jayemanne

    Which Don DeLillo character is this an impression of?

  28. Justin Martin

    To all involved – Ian’s language had me imagining humanities as a more encompassing term. It applies more or less to practices in my field; I’m an MFA (studio arts) student at Cornell U. Ian, your language (and your challenges) apply also to critical theory in art. In my opinion it suffers from a similar practice of establishing itself as defensible post with which to act upon the world from a distance. And the art is ever more concerned with ‘humanities,’ though this may be largely from a desire to establish a fertile ground with which to implant art as institutionally sound, academic and scholarly. (Nevermind the weirdness of educating students in how to successfully challenge the institution and still survive in it).

    In any case, I found this post provoked some interesting concerns about how and what the various practices in art could/should/might do to expand beyond the dichotomy of commercial work and ‘institutional’ work. It was also well written, thank you Ian.

    And to all, a challenge: if greater ‘interdisciplinary-ness’ is a desirable goal, I urge you to seek out us artists. Particularly within schools; many of us already fancy ourselves as some mutant sociologist/anthropologist/critical-thinkers or philosophers, and the curriculum usually encourages this. I’m certain that we have much to offer, and would benefit greatly from some schooling in application and rigor that seems to come from your side of the quad.

  29. Darshana Jayemanne

    To make a more serious comment, Ian, I think there’s a problem in the way you’re conflating “The Humanities” as a set of academic disciplines with “humanism” as a political/ethical standpoint (this may be viable view of the contradictory composition of ‘the Left’ in the US, but it doesn’t obtain everywhere – I hope you weren’t trying to be ecumenical because as I see it you’ve advanced an American point of view here).

    Humanists are perfectly ‘central’, you’ll see humanist arguments emanating from both sides of US politics and commerce to justify military and economic adventurism.

    Those who are in the Humanities, broadly imagined, might well see the periphery as the place for them to be if they disagree with the policy being peddled by the centre. The question of centrality might come up only the form of “How the hell do I avoid it?”

    That said, I think you’re right about needless esotericism, and it’s always fun to have a swipe at hidebound psychoanalysis and Marxism. I’m also fascinated by the study of contemporary media. Your comment about postcolonialists (not all of whom are sitting pretty at Columbia) and colonisation though shows that turnabout is certainly *not* always fair play. I’m from a young settler nation too, and the role of Indigenous academics in trying to change an apalling situation through public discourse is not one I could imagine describing as any kind of ‘reverse colonisation’.

  30. Mark N.

    @Darshana Jayemanne: I assume Bogost meant “humanist” in the sense of “person who studies the humanities”, the original sense of the term. See definitions 1 and 2 here.

    The colonialism I see is in scholars co-opting cultures for their own ends: the vast majority of books I’ve read by cultural-studies scholars about various cultures and sub-cultures do not take those cultures seriously and on their own terms, but instead twist them into merely example case studies to illustrate some position (usually a political one) drawn from the scholar’s own cultural milieu.

  31. Darshana Jayemanne

    @Mark N. I’m aware of the history of the term, but some of the disciplines taken to task in the post would feel that kind of description of what they do as precisely part of the problem (ie. taking for granted what constitutes the human, who gets to decide, what is at stake in that decision etc.). Whereas people who ‘believe in the philosophy of humanism’ tend to think that all these questions are foreclosed, for them it’s more about utilising political institutions as they stand.

    Neither Bush nor Obama (nor Lloyd Blankfein nor Dominique Strauss-Khan nor Alan Greenspan for that matter) would be likely to have any problem with any humanist proposition you put to them, but they’d both balk at Foucault*. This is why I think assuming that humanities scholars want to assume the humanist centre is a reductive way to look at why people engage in thinking about culture.

    I definitely agree that there’s a problem if cultural studies academics treat subcultures as mines in which to look for rich veins of funding. However, postcolonialism isn’t a subordinate discipline to cultural studies – it has its own methodologies, history and certainly controversies… but given colonialism isn’t finished yet any flippant dismissiveness about that work can only evidence a very distant grasp of its contexts.

    * As to the question of “Who can blame a discipline?”, there’s one: Foucault.

  32. Jeff Doemland

    Emily (and others, including Ian),

    I’m writing from corporate America with the encouragement that the humanities are not only relevant in this least likely of places, they are also valued. And it isn’t just in the communications and marketing departments where humanities graduates can find a place to practice their crafts (in fact, corporate communications and marketing are often no more humanities-oriented than IT or finance). The large multi-national corporation I’ve been employed by for long enough to trust that they’ve had a chance to “kick my tires” looks and behaves about the same as any of the sections of literature I taught before leaving academics. As one of the previous commenters remarked (and I paraphrase), thinking about what it means to be a human is important. It’s just that simple. Given the right setting and facilitation, corporate leaders are willing to do that thinking — and they are willing to fund (in my experience) small groups of people with a background in the humanities to explore the territory mapped in that thinking.

    Cynics among us (and I count myself occasionally in that group) regard as suspect the motivation of a corporation pursuing humanitarian endeavors. And then I remind myself that the work I (and my partners) do is so far under the radar it is pretty much only the communities we work with that know what it is exactly we do. A reality that has to be addressed at the end of every year by rekindling the interest among our leadership in that most fundamental of questions for humanities: what does it mean to be human. Insofar as my partners and I are still employed I claim that we’ve made humanities relevant, in a major American corporation of all places.

  33. Ian Bogost

    @Liz

    Awesome.

    @Justin

    Indeed, I meant the term in a very broad sense; it’s just that the comments picked up Lisa’s critique of the digital humanities. In fact, art and design are interesting models to consider, and I appreciate you bringing it up.

    @Darshana

    First, I suppose it’s true that videogame studies is no less or more absurd than Hilter studies. :)

    As for “humanist,” I’d reply the same way Mark did, but I see that you found his response unsatisfactory. But when I read your reply, it seems to me to be quite supportive of my original critique. Help me out?

    As for post-colonialism, I think we agree: I’m thinking particularly of the tendency to do what we might call “import humanities.” The indigenous work seems much more potentially public and grounded, but I’m also not ready to believe that it’s automatically so.

    @Jeff

    Don’t get me wrong; it’s not that I don’t believe in the humanities’ relevance. Precisely the opposite. But the idea of that relevance and the state of the field are quite different indeed. It’s one thing to say, as I have done in the past, that the humanities are “unpredictably useful.” It’s quite another to consider that unpredictable usefulness seriously instead of accidentally… to take responsibility for it, rather than to assume that it will take care of itself.

  34. Darshana Jayemanne

    Ian, thanks for clarifying. I was just worried that your original post put under the label ‘humanist’ people/groups who have actively criticised humanism. If I misread, my bad.

    I certainly hear what you say about import, public profile and groundedness in the humanities, and attention to digital culture is going to be central going forward. Even if videogame studies seems simultaneously Very Important and wtf (reminds me, it’s been awhile since I’ve picked up White Noise)!

  35. Gardner Campbell

    Wonderful post.

    Actually kind of a thrill to read it, as it sums up my own state of exhaustion and despair over the academy I have tried to work within for the last three decades (from grad school to now). And I’m still working within it, and still finding stark and grinding absurdities, such as turf wars between new media studies and digital humanities. As the kids say, wtf?

    In the meantime, everyone go read Grant McCracken’s new “Chief Culture Officer” and get to the end, where he discusses academia. I think you’ll find a fellow traveler.

    Thanks for a light and some welcome warmth.

  36. Ian Bogost

    Thanks Gardner, much appreciated. I’ll check out Chief Culture Officer.

  37. Mejores Creditos

    I’m not so sure that the “humanization” of computer science is going so well. …a strong instrumentalism when it comes to reasons for pursuing “human-centered”…

    For the most part digital humanities – from a technical perspective – are not doing it well either. (This is only natural, given that both sides are judging against a substantially different “it”.)

  38. Don Mutchler

    Don’t you dare cull my jello. I mean it.