Alan Liu’s MLA 2011 paper, “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?” arrived this morning in Google Reader. Basically, Liu introduces the 4Humanities advocacy initiative and then argues that a lack of cultural criticism in digital humanities may thwart the growth of this emerging field. Making data and making things out of data may not matter if, when deploying these things, digital humanists have not been able to demonstrate their value.
This inquiring into the status and location of specific, identifiable ingredients, e.g., “cultural criticism,” does seem like a common enough quest when we are confronted with something new and in-becoming as is the case for digital humanities. Up for discussion, though, is whether “cultural criticism” ought to be one of the building blocks in this new domain and what, exactly, is at stake should digital humanists neglect critique. Liu positions as rivals “close reading” and “distant reading,” and while I have questions about this matchup (i.e., equivalency) in the context of Moretti’s work, Liu ends up suggesting an improved, harmonious, cultural-critical blend. Distant readings (e.g., abstractions, models, visualizations) need to be cycled back through a critical apparatus, or people will not find relevance in them. Liu puts it this way: “To be an equal partner–rather than, again, just a servant–at the table, digital humanists will need to find ways to show that thinking critically about metadata, for instance, scales into thinking critically about the power, finance, and other governance protocols of the world.” A cynical reading of this argument finds the presumed nuturalness of critical thinking and hermeneutics in the humanities overstated, and, likewise, it appears to minimize (or altogether overlook) the heuretic-inventive edge of distant reading.
Still, for traditional-minded humanities scholars given to digital treatments of rare and special texts, this makes a certain sense. These methods and insights related to them should scale into other domains. But will their value go missing if that scaling–a scaling of “cultural criticism,” at that–is not fully realized (a rhetorical challenge, indeed)? Keeping in reach the advocacy motives of 4Humanities, the talk also hearkens to broader concerns about the dwindling cultural status of the humanities in general. If humanists’ digital expertise is not valued in other domains because those folks are capable of data-mining, coding, etc., then, in one scenario, what awaits is the continuation of a value-it-how-you-will interpretive enterprise. Much is at stake in how the digital humanities goes, in other words. We can expect its failures and successes to have residual bearing on the humanities more traditionally understood. This thinking is a degree removed from Liu’s central assertion. I think it’s as likely the case that digital humanities, for its investment in computation, is not as much at risk as the non-digital humanities. If the digital humanities are going to be preservation-minded, in other words, perhaps they should be as much concerned with the heuretic and inventive aspects of their work as they are with the critical and hermeneutic aspects.