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Fighting on two fronts

May 10, 2013

I came across an interesting debate last week about whether the digital humanities (DH) could be deemed responsible for a number of unpleasant trends in higher education, because of its supposed pro-industry bias. Which involved, in turn, a debate about definitions of the digital humanities.

It is a recurring debate, but the latest round started with a blog post by Daniel Allington, which was answered by Stephen Ramsay. This led to more interesting posts and links, such as this and this, plus a lively discussion in the comments thread of the original post.

I do not know all the ins and outs of the debate, nor the people involved –I take a strong interest in DH but my own work is currently at one remove. However I recognise some patterns in the argument, which it seems helpful to share. Although possibly foolhardy, given the strength of feeling; so I apologise in advance for any errors or misunderstandings.

The main pattern is a tension between disciplines that can be described as practice-led, and those who perceive themselves as the champions of ‘theory’. I had to cut my teeth on this one around eight years ago, when first changing careers.

I discovered that on top of the usual snobberies about tomorrow’s fish and chips, journalism had difficulty cutting it as a university subject if it took practice seriously because it was deemed to lack a theoretical framework, and because practitioners were perceived as ciphers representing industry interests. This perception framed discussion about ‘skills’, which were often belittled in importance and regarded suspiciously as the thin end of an industry wedge.

Trying to make sense of it all, I wrote a paper which attributed some of the tensions to the fact that Journalism Education’s institutional host – in the UK, most frequently Cultural Studies or related disciplines – had historically defined itself against journalism, setting itself the task of deconstructing practices and the tacit theories believed to lie behind them. In response…

practitioner-academics have often fought on two fronts, arguing with industry for more theoretical context and with academic colleagues for more practice-based content.

The paper also noted that while universities were understandably happy to profit from the popularity of practical media courses, the classroom experience would become a cynical exercise unless the interpretive framework could allow for a positive vision of the practice. On that occasion it was the ‘theory’ bods who were taking advantage of the subject’s popularity (because they had seniority – i.e. because they could) and not the ‘practitioners’.

I am myself in the happy circumstance of teaching in a creative writing programme. However, although literature attracts more respect than journalism, it turned out that creative writing as a discipline came in for more or less the same stick. Writers in the academy also find themselves fighting on two fronts, to make space for an approach that conceives practice ‘not as a branch of some other subject but as a thing in itself; not a corpus of knowledge, but a living experience.’*

The parallels with DH, a hands-on approach to scholarship that is also accused of being the thin end of the industry wedge, seem to be worth exploring.

As it happens, doing theory is a practice as well, with its own institutions and ethos suitable for analysis and interpretation, and its own fight for scare resources. And as is proper for critical engagement and debate, people have different ideas about what theory is. What is maddening is when a party in the debate recognises only one definition of theory as theory.

I hope to post more on such matters on another occasion, and limit further comment now to a particular contribution in the latest DH debate, which had me sitting bolt upright:

Defenders of the digital humanities might ask themselves, with a bit more commitment than seems evident in public discourse, where such unwelcome associations keep coming from — apart, that is, from an utterly fantasized pure and/or personal malice — if they are really so thoroughly and consistently mistaken.

Lack of commitment and unwarranted suspicions – strong accusations indeed. But the fantasy of malice seems to work both ways, because the comment only makes sense if one assumes bad faith on the part of the opponent. There is also something a little creepy about holding the party that is the subject of an attack responsible for that attack.

The danger here is of taking the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ to such an extreme that one ends up telling one’s opponent what she or he really means. Because then, the debate really does get stuck in an Escher drawing.

* Myers, D. G. (1994) ‘The Lesson of Creative Writing’s History’, AWP Chronicle 26 (February): 1, 12-14

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