Friday, September 20, 2013

This is a far too long response to a post by Adeline Koh.


I agree with Ted's point that DH is a social category more than anything else, but, as he acknowledges, such social categories are consequential. I've argued before that the search for "the most digital digital" is basically intellectually doomed. But I don't think that's the question Adeline was asking—I think she was already asking the social question. (Matt Kirschenbaum gave a social answer.)

In most cases in the humanities, there isn't that much disciplinary boundary-policing; people usually care more about whether the work is good (for what it is) than whether it's "modernist" or "eighteenth century" (a century reputed to be quite long!) or, to use Ted's examples, Marxist or New-Critical. Thus "[t]he ideal PMLA essay exemplifies the best of its kind, whatever the kind." To the question of "what kind of scholarship is this?" PMLA literally says "whatever"!*

Weirdly, though, when it comes to digital humanities, the digitalness (how digital?) matters a lot. In some quite consequential institutional settings (hiring, fellowships and grants, tenure), what kind? matters for things marked "digital" where, for other things, the operative question would be how good? (for widely varying definitions of "good," of course).** It's nice to say, "focus on the scholarship, not on whether it's DH" (#4 above). But there's a reason people focus on whether it's DH: largely through the urging of digital humanists themselves, digital work has come to be seen as warranting an entirely different evaluative system from "traditional" scholarship, so that the question of how good? depends on the question of what kind? in the first place. So in practical terms, "how digital?"—philosophically incoherent as the question is—often serves as a proxy for "how good?," and even if we think it shouldn't matter we've set it up so that it does (and not entirely without reason).

Matt's social answer to the "how digital?" question—tautological or recursive, depending on how we prefer to read it—is that "It is DH if it assumes value within a community of practice that 'does' DH."

But Adeline's question was posed in the specific context of putting together an introduction to DH for people who need one—who have heard of this "digital humanities" thing, do not [think they] do it, and would like to. If they're in "a community of practice that 'does' DH," they're not aware of it. Adeline's task is to inform them of how they might create or join such a community of practice. Under what circumstances would creating an online journal constitute such a thing?

So I think Ted's right; it's a social question. But it's a social question that matters for social reasons that can't, I think, be disavowed without abdicating responsibility for the institutionalization that was so ardently fought for (resulting in an "eternal September" or "DH II" that long-time practitioners are now declaring uncomfortable—y'all, what did you think was going to happen?).

Is an online journal "DH"?

I think Matt's social answer to this social question probably comes closest to the mark. But I also think what he's describing is unfortunate. It would be better, I think, to examine why the social question—how digital?—keeps mattering, so we can figure out how to make it matter less.

* But: as far as I know, PMLA is not set up to publish a database.

** I'm glossing over some local circumstances of boundary-policing—like, we all know that C19 has a vision of American lit scholarship that's different from ASA's or ALA's.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Wasting time on the internet: a syllabus

This is a syllabus in progress, imagined as part writing workshop, part American studies course on aesthetics. Comments and suggestions are welcome.

What I Did For Love: Taste, Evaluation, and Aesthetics in American Culture

“I don’t know art, but I know what I like,” goes the disclaimer. In this writing-intensive part-workshop, part-seminar, we will seek to unpack the relationship between “art” and “what I like” by examining a variety of cultural objects together with accounts of “taste.” What are the uses of an art that nobody likes? Could “annoyance” be an aesthetic principle? What is the role of money in taste? What are the ethics of aesthetics? Under what circumstances is an aesthetic pleasure “guilty”? When should the appreciation of art works be a matter of disinterested judgment, and when a matter of passionate engagement? Does “love” blind? What is the difference between a “fan” and a “critic”? What are the affordances and limits of the “formulaic” and the “generic”?

Four weeks of this course will be devoted to workshopping students’ critical writing, examining the roles of description, praise, blame, analysis, and enthusiasm in writing about culture. Students will also maintain a course blog. For the final assignment, students are encouraged to pitch their writing to an appropriately chosen publication.

Week 1

Introduction: Aesthetics
John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale”
Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”
Peter Coviello, “Talk, Talk”

Week 2

Beauty and the sublime
Immanuel Kant, from Critique of the Power of Judgment
Thomas Nagel, from The View from Nowhere
Short exercise: choose a cultural object to describe as plainly as possible. About 500 words.

Week 3

Taste and class
Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch”
Pierre Bourdieu, from Distinction
Thorstein Veblen, from The Theory of the Leisure Class
Barbara Herrnstein Smith, from Contingencies of Value
T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land; selections from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats
Andrew Lloyd Webber et al., selections from CATS

Week 4

Essay 1: Describe some piece of culture (novel, film, painting, poem, music video, etc.) that you love, and that you also think is good. (These are two different things.) Explain why it is that you love the piece, what it is that makes it good, and how you can tell the difference (and under what circumstances you can’t). Be sure to explain what it is that makes art good in general—you don’t need to advance a fully developed theory of aesthetics, but you do need to unpack your assumptions as much as you can. Have an argument. This should be around 3000 words.

Week 5

William Butler Yeats, “The Fascination of What’s Difficult”
Josef Albers, Homage to the Square: Dissolving/vanishing (1951)
Marianne Moore, “An Octopus”
Sianne Ngai, “Merely Interesting”
Leonard Diepeveen, from The Difficulties of Modernism
Lawrence Levine, from Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America
Rosalind Krauss, “Grids”

Week 6

“Guilty pleasures,” pop culture, and authenticity
Céline Dion, Let’s Talk About Love (1997)
Carl Wilson, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste
Sarah Blackwood, “Dance Dance Revelation: On So You Think You Can Dance
“I'm Not Here To Make Friends” supercut [YouTube video]
Mallory Ortberg, “Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman Probably Had Sex Once”
Abigail De Kosnik, “Fandom as Free Labor,” in The Internet as Playground and Factory, ed. Scholz

Week 7

Popular culture, popular criticism
Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility”
Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “The Culture Industry”
Caleb Smith, “Say Hello to My Little Friend”
Mary Oliver, selected poems
Short exercise: write a piece of fanfiction, about 1000 words, in the setting of your choice.

Week 8

Gender and “the popular”
Andreas Huyssen, “Mass Culture as Woman”
Rebecca Black, “Friday” [YouTube video]
Dana Vachon, “Arms So Freezy: Rebecca Black’s ‘Friday’ as Radical Text”
Rae Armantrout, “Why Don’t Women Write Language-Centered Poetry?”
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Queer and Now”; "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl"
Eve Kosofsky, “Curl Up and Read” (Seventeen, 1964)

Short exercise: Make the case that some cultural object is a “remake” of another, earlier one (for example, that Pixar’s Toy Story is a remake of Disney’s Pinocchio). Be honest about the ways in which the claim does not hold up. In addition to noting similarities or lines of influence, you should explain what we gain from understanding the later object as a remake of the earlier one. 500–1,000 words.

Week 9

Edgar Allan Poe, “The Philosophy of Composition”; “The Raven”
Mark Twain, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses”
Janice Radway, from Reading the Romance
Smart Bitches, Trashy Books reviews: "The RealDeal by Lucy Monroe”; Tell Me Lies by Jennifer Crusie”; Skies of Gold by Zoe Archer”, “Elves versus Dwarves”; “As You Know”
Lili Loofbourow, “Just Another Princess Movie” [rev of Brave]
Christian Bök, Eunoia

Week 10

Essay 2: Choose a piece of art and viciously pan it. Your critique should be utterly devastating, which is to say that you should be able to persuade your reader that this piece is a blight on humanity, and not merely that you are a mean-spirited person. This will be more effective if you resist choosing an easy target. 2,000–3,000 words.

Week 11

Cuteness and commodification
Sianne Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde”
Gary Cross, from The Cute and the Cool
“Many too small boxes and Maru” [YouTube video]
“Nyan Cat [original]” [YouTube video]

Week 12

Essay 3: Review some piece of culture that was recently produced—say, since January 2012. Give your reader a fairly thickly textured sense of what this piece is like, and explain what its successes and failures are. Once again, be sure to unpack what it means for something to “succeed” (in any register). What is the historical, cultural, or aesthetic milieu in which this piece is ideally legible? Make a point. This should be around 3,000 words.

Week 13

William Gibson, Pattern Recognition
Alan Liu, from The Laws of Cool
Michael Szalay, from Hip Figures
Janelle Monáe, “Tightrope” [YouTube video]

Week 14

Chinua Achebe, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
Justine Larbalestier, “Ain’t That a Shame”
Fanlore Wiki: “Race and Fandom”
Mitali Perkins, “Straight Talk on Race: Challenging the Stereotypes in Kids’ Books
Malcolm Harris, “The White Market”
Nancy Sommers, “Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers”

Week 15


Essay 4: Revise your review for publication in a venue of your choice. It may be print or online. When you submit this assignment to me, you should also submit a copy of the submission guidelines for this venue (to which your revised review should adhere) and a rationale (about 500 words) for choosing this publication. You are encouraged to actually submit the review to the publication you have chosen. (You might be interested in this.)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

On DHThis and critiques thereof

This was turning into The Infinite Comment, so I am posting here instead of on Whitney Trettien's post on DHThis, which is very worth reading. The bulk of this post ends up being about what "self-promotion" means under neoliberalism's compulsory self-commodification, which is a complete tangent, so I guess that's another reason not to dump it at Whitney's.


I am in general agreement with Whitney's main point that a reddit-like system has the potential for serious problems, and that reliance on "the community" to self-regulate has not worked out terribly well in the past. Stephen Ramsay and Trevor Owens asked on Twitter why DHThis didn't just use the existing DH subreddit. The obvious answer is that reddit is a terrifying cesspool of misogyny, racism, and assholery, and that is a very good reason.

But the obvious question that raises is: what structural safeguards will prevent DHthis from becoming a terrifying cesspool of misogyny, racism, and assholery? I have great faith in Adeline and Roopsi and the DHthis team as stewards of the project, but it's an important question. When I had my own dismaying interaction with JDH (which was also, to be clear, in many ways also a very good interaction), the problem was precisely an overreliance on crowdsourcing. As Matthew Ciszek recently tweeted, "Crowdsourcing selection kills diversity. More diverse materials typically less popular." I'll look forward to seeing what procedures DHthis implements to maintain a safe, productive, and genuinely diverse space. It's early days, and there's time for this project to develop.

I would offer a few points of disagreement as well.

First, I disagree with the suggestion that recent debates have been "petty quarrels." They have stakes for someone, and deciding which quarrel is petty and which is substantive depends on one's sense of security vis-à-vis the point of contention.

And second, I question the "self promotion" description, for three reasons.

1. I really don't see how this project is any more self-promoting than any other project rollout—say, One Week One Tool. Even the inclusion of a DHPoco category doesn't seem heavily self-promoting to me. Maybe it should have been called "Postcolonialism" instead?

2. Supposing we were to grant that the style of rollout was self-promoting (rather than project-promoting), what bearing would that have on the quality of the project? This, to me, is unclear. As a general rule, I think the question of intentions hinders evaluating effects.

3. There are a lot of mixed messages about self-promotion under neoliberalism, and women and people of color get them most of all. Like makeup ads that urge you to cover your face in allergens foundation to get that "natural glow," social media—which I think many people will agree have been central to recent DH formations—exhort an engagement that is "genuine," but which will also "get your voice out there"; ideally your internet presence will promote you through the effacement of its own promotional aspect. Merely having an internet presence is a form of "self-promotion"; yet it is also, importantly, a place of genuine (not just "genuine") engagement, a part of people's lives, and in many cases, not optional.

This critique has precisely been leveled at DH in recent years: that its webcentricity renders it "cliquish," even though blogs and Twitter are (mostly) public. Even for practitioners at the center of DH, the "second shift" of social media can be burdensome. The counterargument—not an empty one—is that these media offer a horizontal means of (genuine, not "genuine") engagement that cuts across existing hierarchies. Blogs and social media are currently central to DH, in part for the very good reason that digital publishing and pedagogy, through precisely some of these media (Tumblr and Twitter, but also Omeka and CommentPress) are a brave new terrain for DH (Stephen Ramsay's and David Golumbia's "DH II"), and have facilitated its recent expansion in all manner of ways. JDH and DHNow rely centrally on blogs and social media, which is why it never caught wind of #transformdh's important ASA panel on embodiment.

So who is "self-promoting"? Everyone probably remembers how, every time VIDA issues its count, editors from mainstream pubs wring their hands and say that women just don't pitch to them often enough; what can they doooo? Famously, the editors at Seal Press, a small feminist press, performed the same shopworn handwringing ritual about authors of color a few years ago. It was not impressive. Women and people of color are constantly admonished for failing to "put themselves out there" often enough. But when they do, all too often they are told that they are unbecomingly "self-promoting," and nobody should reward that! You kind of can't win.

I don't at all want to suggest that Whitney is proposing a double standard here, or singling the DHThis team out—I think most of us are turned off by what seems to be obvious self-promotion, wherever our thresholds for detecting it may lie. I myself have been known to zing people on the self-promotion front. But I do think that the question of self-promotion, in addition to being a language of intention that tends to confuse the issue (see 2 above), is a constantly moving target. For that reason, I don't think it's nearly as important a criterion as the central objection Whitney raised about the redditlike voting structure of DHThis.

I recognize the irony of spending an outsize amount of space on one of Whitney's avowedly lesser points, only to conclude that it is a lesser point! In a way, it's completely derailing of me to even bring it up. And yet, I also wanted to unpack the substance of my reservations about "self-promotion." Somehow its unimportance seems important.

I look forward to seeing how DHThis works, and how it will be shaped in the future by concerns like the ones Whitney raised.