For the first time in five years, I attended the Modern Language Association (MLA) conference. This is the main conference for scholars of language and literature, with about 8,000 attendees at this year’s event in Seattle.
Among the big things going down this year: the ongoing clash of cultures between the “traditional humanities”—the scholars who read books and write books about the books they read—and the “digital humanities”—the scholars who use computers to do the things they used to do with books. This is a “big debate,” big enough that the University of Minnesota Press rushed Matt Gold’s edited collection Debates in the Digital Humanities to press in time for a release at this year’s MLA (the book reprints my blog post The Turtlenecked Hairshirt).
Now that the conference is over, the debate continues. Not just in Gold’s book, which should reach the non-MLA attending rabble forthwith, but via other debates, largely on blogs. The most visible of these came from the deposed duke of theory Stanley Fish, at the New York Times. Fish argues (on a blog) that blogs, with their immediacy and temporariness and interconnectedness, undermine the originality of long-form scholarship, and that digital humanities is yet another in a long line of attempts to govern cultural practice. He gets there partly through critiques of Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s book Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy. It’s a book she wrote online, on a blog, soliciting feedback through blog comments that were later incorporated into the print book. Fitzpatrick (who also happens to be the acting Director of Scholarly Communication for the MLA) responded to Fish, both in a blog comment on Fish’s blog post, and on her own blog, in a blog post that contains the blog comment she posted to Fish’s blog post, but which had been subject first to moderation and then to obscurity amidst so many other comments. Fitzpatrick also commented on her own blog post that contains the blog comment she posted to Fish’s blog post, noting that she has more to say but that the NY Times has a maximum comment character count. One presumes she’ll blog those further comments on her blog, eventually. Meanwhile, lots of folks on Twitter are tweeting comments about all these blog posts and blog comments, as well as links to their own blog post responses. Mark Sample, for example, tweeted that Fish acknowledged the new world order by citing on his blog a blog comment Sample had posted on a graduate student’s blog.
Let’s go over that again. At the MLA and in a new book, digital humanists debated the role of computer media like blogs in the practice of humanism. In the wake of the MLA, a famous and controversial literary theorist notes that the MLA featured debates about the use of media like blogs in scholarship, and raises concern about the nature of media like blogs in scholarship, largely through discussion of a book by an MLA officer about the ways scholarship is changing when done on blogs, which was first a blog and then became a book. Digital humanities advocates respond in blogs and blog comments about blogging, arguing, among other things, that digital humanities are not really postmodernist. Ahem.
When I lived in Los Angeles and worked in the entertainment industry, I remember coming to a realization: a great deal of Hollywood entertainment is about the entertainment industry. Think about it. Fame, Barton Fink, Super 8, Tropic Thunder, Party Down, Adaptation, Full Frontal, Peeping Tom, Ed Wood, The Truman Show, Sunset Blvd., The Barefoot Contessa, Somewhere, Hollywood Ending, Seinfeld. I guess it makes sense. Write what you know, the aphorism goes. At first, that means heartbreak or black heartedness, but eventually, with success, what one knows is what one does. And currently, what one does in the humanities is talk about the humanities. This is particularly true of the digital humanities, some of whose proponents are actually using computers to do new kinds of humanistic scholarly work in breaks between debates about the potential to use computers for new kinds of humanistic scholarly work.
And now I’ve written a blog post about it.