Adam Kirsch’s takedown of digital humanities in the New Republic tries its best, but ultimately disappoints.
After taking a few easy potshots and tossing forward a few casual examples and over-generalizations, he concludes somewhat lamely with this: “The best thing that the humanities could do at this moment, then, is not to embrace the momentum of the digital, the tech tsunami, but to resist it and to critique it. This is not Luddism; it is intellectual responsibility.” But what digital humanist would want any less? Indeed, hasn’t he been listening: isn’t this the whole point?
(We pause to note the somewhat comical image of standing on a breakwall, Canute-like, resisting a tsunami by offering a critique of it.)
Similarly, his peroration is reduced to the usual highbrow clichés:
These are the kinds of questions that humanists ought to be well equipped to answer. Indeed, they are just the newest forms of questions that they have been asking since the Industrial Revolution began to make our tools our masters. The posture of skepticism is a wearisome one for the humanities, now perhaps more than ever, when technology is so confident and culture is so self-suspicious. It is no wonder that some humanists are tempted to throw off the traditional burden and infuse the humanities with the material resources and the militant confidence of the digital. The danger is that they will wake up one morning to find that they have sold their birthright for a mess of apps.
That bit too has another funny notion, namely that a posture should be a burden — one wonders why, if one’s posture were a burden, wouldn’t one straighten up or do whatever one should do to relieve it? presumably the answer being “well that depends”, and I take it that Kirsch feels the posture of skepticism is still worth undertaking. (It’s a tough job but someone’s got to do it.) But I think he’s got it exactly backward: if those who assume responsibility for “the humanities” don’t step up and engage directly with the digital — apps is exactly what we’ll be left with. The apps, after all, will be there in any case. It’s only a matter of whether there’s anything demonstrably better to offer against them. Like, using digital machinery not just to create game spaces, diversions and echo chambers, but also to help understand and document our actual world and its actual history.
But finally, one thing puzzles me. How does Adam Kirsch figure that DHers recommend that humanities students and scholars stop doing whatever it is that they’re doing (or are supposed to do, in his mind or anyone else’s)? What DHer has ever said that the old-fashioned work isn’t worth doing? Why can’t this be about expanding the pie (to use another cliché)?