Cultural Politics, Critique and the Digital Humanities

Posted by on May 25, 2010 in Articles | 12 Comments

Word cloud image via ghbrett.

In November 2009, I had the privilege of participating in a roundtable at the American Studies Association (ASA) conference with Anna Everett, Deborah Kimmey, Tara McPherson, Lisa Nakamura, and Kara Thompson on the Digital Humanities (DH). The panel was titled “Neoliberalism, Multiculturalism, and the Means of Digital Humanities Production.” Convened by Kara Thompson, the idea was to intervene in the prevailing discourses of DH and provide a critique of DH’s productive relations from the perspective of Cultural Studies, Ethnic Studies, American Studies, Women’s Studies, and so on. We covered a wide range of topics: labor and racism in games, code studies, activism, violating copyrights as praxis, undergrads at USC designing K-12 curriculum, archiving MMOs, the tyranny of the new in choosing objects of study, and much more. Many of the issues we discussed could be considered standard touchstones of DH but what made the discussion unique was our shared investment in a progressive cultural politics dedicated to interrogating and reworking established structures of power. It also doesn’t hurt that I was the only white dude on the panel.

Significantly, we didn’t just focus on the corporate university but the far more subtle ways technologies reproduce oppressive social relations in everyday life within and without academia. Although left unsaid, our guiding principle seemed to be that, as Carolyn Marvin has argued, technologies do not determine social relationships but enter into already established relations. They can either reinforce or transform them and it’s up to us to do something about it. Without a robust critical apparatus, DH has and will continue to unwittingly remake the world in its old image. (You know, the one that has a whole bunch of white guys sitting around a highly polished oak table comparing business cards.)

I didn’t write about the panel at the time because only now do I understand the significance of that experience to my formation as a scholar. It wasn’t simply that I was able to share an intellectual space with some of my academic idols, but that it articulated my grievances with DH as well as demonstrated to me that I wasn’t alone.

For the past few years I have had, at best, an ambivalent relationship with DH. Since I am primarily trained in Cultural Studies, Critical Race Theory, and Media Studies, I cannot help but take issue with what I see is a potentially technofetishistic obsession in DH with technological transformation via the creation and use of various digital tools/platforms/networks, etc. as agents of social change. These efforts are often performed under the guiding ethos of collaboration which often becomes an uncritical stand-in for an empty politics of access and equity. There are exceptions, but it seems, and I realize I am generalizing here, that issues of cultural politics are downplayed or, more commonly, considered a given within DH. There’s a disposition that the battles of race, gender, class and ecology have already been won, their lessons have been learned, and by espousing a rhetoric of equity everything will fall into place.

DH does have its strong suits:  e.g. the ethics of copyright, privacy and open source, but as an intellectual community its positions on race, gender, class, and the environment are undertheorized and underimplemented even if many practitioners think otherwise. My concern is that when everyone in DH finally builds his/her One Collaborative Widget to Rule Them All, the dust will settle around Mordor and it’ll still be mostly a bunch of white academics at relatively wealthy universities talking about open access and probably around a rather nice table with a few unlocked iPads on it.

To prevent this outcome, DH needs to cultivate an equal interest in critique as in creation. Our play needs a politics. Alongside the creative and practical, we need to have an attendant critical effort that has the license to step in and provoke revision, or, better yet, assist with production. And we need an intellectual community that welcomes this interventionist presence and acknowledges its current lack.

These thoughts were circulating in my mind last weekend during the 2010 THATCamp. Designed as unconference that embodies a more active and dialogic alternative to the traditional conference format, THATCamp is a successful and beloved event in DH which has spawned a host of regional and international offshoots. Hopelessly poor, I enviously lurked this year’s conference, as well as last year’s, and read with interest as some of my favorite Twitter acquaintances offered updates about the happenings. But as it wrapped up and I looked at the final schedule and browsed the Hacking Academia collaborative book project, I considered how fundamentally different the ASA roundtable was from THATCamp. Much of what I am interested in was left unsaid or assumed. There just didn’t seem to be work engaging explicitly with my concerns.

I tweeted a question, “Where’s the race/gender/power/ecology?”, to the #thatcamp and #hackacad communities and Dan Cohen, one of the organizers of THATCamp, told me to check the submissions to the Hacking Academia project. Since I had been following the conference closely I had already read the submissions, noticed the dearth of discussion of these issues, and meant the question to rhetorically expose the investments and exclusions of THATCamp. Admittedly, it was a rather lame and unsuccessful attempt at intervening into the dialogue about the conference, but I was still disappointed in the lack of engagement with what I feel is a legitimate issue with THATCamp and DH. My purpose was and is not to troll or be negative; rather, I would like THATCamp and all of DH to expand and clarify what it is we do and to embrace a vigorous politics of inclusion and provocation because, behind my curmudgeonly tone in this post, I like THATCamp and I like DH.

Most importantly, I believe that critique can do things too and it can do things  even better with the innovations of DH.

So let’s expand the focus of DH beyond what we do and how we do it to whom we do it with and whom we do it for. Let’s do what matters and let’s make that our battle cry.

Time to start work on my THATCamp 2011 proposal.


  1. Craig Bellamy
    May 27, 2010

    Hi Tanner,

    Thanks for your post but I am not sure I understand how you are using the term ‘Digital Humanities. You actually don’t need to use the term at all. Read this entry about Roberto Busa.

    kind regards,


  2. Brian Croxall
    September 10, 2010

    I can’t believe that I didn’t see this post earlier, but I’m glad that Chris Forster new post on HASTAC led me here. I think you bring up several very good points, and I think that one of the main ways to go about correcting or supplementing the discussion within the Digital Humanities is to recognize that we need to do a better job in bringing more people into the conversation. One of the reasons that DH can look like, as you put it, “a bunch of white academics at relatively wealthy universities talking about open access and probably around a rather nice table with a few unlocked iPads on it” is because the training in DH is hard to come by and centralized in a few different universities. Strikingly, most of these schools are not among the wealthiest; in fact, most of them tend to be state schools. But since so much in DH is done via apprenticeship rather than by “book-learnin'” it can be very difficult for someone who is not at one of these schools to situate herself in the field.

    Perhaps Lisa Spiro’s suggestion for a cross-campus, open digital humanities certificate is the way around this problem. When we bring more people into the fold, we not only get a chance to come up with new and better ideas but also a chance to have those ideas critiqued from a variety of perspectives.

    At the same time, I wonder if it’s possible to shift how ideological/political discussions take place within the humanities so as to make them more productive. I believe that many DHers are concerned with these issues but also that there is some relief in having escaped the culture wars of the 1980s and onward into the space of methodological work. That relief should of course be interrogated, as you’re doing here. But that relief also represents a site for those who critique to turn a lens on their own projects (and hence down the hall of mirrors).

  3. Tanner
    September 10, 2010


    Thanks for the response. It’s valuable because you have truly been in the trenches of DH. There’s no question that the difficult to obtain skill-sets of DH work make the barrier to producing knowledge as a DHer difficult, especially for people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

    I would add Tara McPherson’s Vector’s project as another great example of how to get people involved with technologically complex projects even if they have no experience working with the technologies. Vectors holds summer institutes and fellowships bringing together technical experts and humanists. But it’s scope is limited to academics (at least, I think so). I’d love to see more community based projects.

    There’s also a “digital studio” (and some others initiatives) in Riverside, CA at the UCR California Museum of Photography that brings in kids, arms them with cameras, and has them create digital documentaries of issues that affect them. NEH and MacArthur funding of similar projects have me very hopeful!

    And Vectors is a particularly great example because it does the more productive ideological/political critique you mention and that I gesture toward at the end of my post. I completely agree that we desperately need to devise new ways to intervene that move things forward rather than just undermine them.

  4. Defining the Digital Humanities at Digital Library Center Blog | UF
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  5. Craig Bellamy
    October 17, 2010

    The DH is the technical application of computing to humanities research problems. Critique all you want, but we also need to do it. You can write well…but are you only a one trick pony?

  6. Greta Niu
    October 27, 2010

    It seems like Digital Humanities could be as expansive as Humanities more generally, and that certain kinds of projects get more attention (or recognition).

    Initially, I was very intrigued by the term, thinking that it would bring me into contact with others who are investigating digital media. But after a few talks by eminent academics that demonstrated how digital concordia work I felt like I had wandered into the wrong lecture. It was interesting and potentially very helpful, but since my research does not hinge on the number of times a particular word or phrase appears in an author’s body of works, it didn’t exactly revolutionize my work. (I’m still waiting for that widget.)

    Now I am seeing that there may be room for a variety of approaches, just as there are in Humanities. When underserved populations are left out of the discussion, once again, it is absolutely critical to not only point this out, but to make efforts to change the narrative. The 2009 ASA panel–which I missed–sounds like it was doing just that.

    Regarding Craig Bellamy’s 17 Oct 2010 post, it seems that critique and practice are both necessary. (I don’t understand the one trick pony comment at all. I know folks in the Humanities feel beleaguered, so perhaps his comment references that?)

  7. Domenico
    October 1, 2012

    I just came across this post after Googling the tile of my recent article and… Urgh I am so sorry I didn’t see it before! I would have felt less alone in my battle against cultural ethnocentrism in DH:
    But I promise I’ll quote this post if I publish an updated version.
    Thanks Tanner!

  8. Tanner
    October 1, 2012


    Sounds good. Keep fighting the good fight!

  9. Paolo Monella
    October 2, 2012

    Hi Tanner,
    I came across this post via Domenico. I am also writing an article that interrogates institutionalization and disciplinary definition patterns in DH during the “DH moment”. I also question concepts like “tool”, “project” and “centre”. It’s in
    I agree that cultural criticism *is* a way of building the field. And that, as you articulate very well, we should certainly “build” actual digital applications, but in doing so we should be driven by an explicit transformative orientation. Otherwise, why bother go digital? There is already a diffused positive tension in DH to be “transformative”, but you’re right: issues of cultural politics should not remain unvoiced – they should be exposed and discussed.

  10. Research without Borders: The Changing World of Scholarly Communication: Negotiating Constraints and Open Scholarship | Digital Humanities at Pratt SILS
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  11. "Research without Borders: The Changing World of Scholarly Communication: Negotiating Constraints and Open Scholarship" (Columbia University, February 27, 2014) - Digital Humanities at Pratt SILS
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  12. A Media Studies Graduate Student
    March 30, 2017

    Though I appear to be about seven years late to the party, after studying this post in a graduate DH class, I would like to applaud Tanner for this post. Coming from the Department of Cinema & Media Studies, there is definitely a high technofetishistic obsession in the industry, even when said technology is playing directly into the hands the many digital humanists that have sought to distance themselves from it. Should I purchase the latest devices on the market with the intent, let’s say, to make films about the lack of inclusivity for women/people of colour/LGBT+ individuals/etc, I am playing right into the capitalist structure of (in all likelihood) a group of privileged white guys who created the technology to be used by all types of people, but who can not grasp the perspective of anyone but those at the metaphorical table. This of course, raises the question of, “Ok, how can we get more marginalized groups to the table?”, to which there is no one or simple answer. In all likelihood, it would have to involve someone from the status quo (in techno-heavy industries, this is typically a white, heterosexual man) deliberately standing up for a marginalized member at the cost of his own seat.

    In DH there is a lot of talk (which I can attest to from my own class) of the definite problems in the field lacking marginalized voices, but there are far less people discussing solutions. I think this is mostly due to the vast nature of the problem, in that it comes back to how some members of society are often ostracized from certain industries from a very young age, ergo never receiving the training necessary to allow them a seat at the table. There’s also the issue Tanner raises in his tweet about “You, Notworking”, which is a massive problem not just in DH but in my own department as well, in that despite being highly trained (if I understood his tweet correctly), there just simply aren’t enough jobs for many of us “artsy types”, as we tend to be deemed. Many graduate of the humanities, liberal arts and what-not all often find themselves in rough post-grad positions, unable to penetrate the industry despite being awarded a graduate degree. This further widens the gap of those not present at the “table” to make their voices heard, and many of these graduates are considered “lucky” if they can even find work in a field such as marketing/advertising, which often puts them back in the hands they sought to escape through sheer need of an income.

    Again, these questions have no quick “bandaid” solutions, but I’m happy to see that seven years ago, they were being discussed. But seven years on, and we are still very close to we were back when this was written.

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