Attack of the Alt-Acs: Response to Stephen Ramsey, “DH Types One and Two”

Response to Stephen Ramsey’s post, “DH Types One and Two”:

Stephen —

Thank you as always for your engagement with these sorts of dh debates. They do get tiresome, yes, but they are also important for thinking critically about all the different kinds of work going on under the rubric of dh.

I think your typology is productive, but I was also struck by a missing aspect of it. Actually less a missing type than what I would call a slightly different historicization of the humanities computing to digital humanities transition.

What I remember most from the last ten years or so is that suddenly, around 2008 or thereabouts, the “digital humanities” was tethered to the emergence of the “alt-ac” movement. That was the crucial moment when digital humanities became cemented in as the term of choice instead of humanities computing (sure the term was already around, but those were the key years when digital humanities gained prominence).

So I would build upon (we all like to build, eh?) your typology in this way.

(1) Type 1: the humanities computing subfield, as you describe it, already at work with computers dating back to the 1990s (and earlier)

(2) Type 1.5: the appearance of, say let’s call it the “alt-ac/digital humanities tendency,” which burst on the scene around 2008/2009 and positioned the digital as the key to solving the jobs crisis among humanities PhDs by picturing those scholars pursuing a much broader range of intellectual jobs beyond barely existent tenured professorships. Visions of the “big tent,” of an opening up of scholarly activity.

(3) Type 2: the more recent emergence in the last few years of critique and backlash (coming from a media studies/cultural studies orientation often) against digital humanities as a kind of inside-job sabotage of academia by neoliberal forces and ideologies dressed up to seem like liberation from hierarchy, but in fact smuggling in invidious new modes of control and exploitation: the deskilling of academic laborers; the assessment-crazed “show me the data” loss of autonomy over the classroom; the fading of consensus about how the publication process should function; MOOC-ville; and, worst of all, the mirroring at the micro-level of academe what are macro-level operations of surveillance, corporatization, inequality, and faux-populism in contemporary society.

I wonder if the disconnects, the talking past, between type 1 and type 2 dh hinge on the historical emergence of type 1.5, which absorbed and cannibalized earlier practices of humanities computing, but also linked the digital to larger, very fraught and vexing struggles over intellectual labor and work under neoliberalism, corporatization, and privitization in the US and beyond.

I think it is this moment when humanities computing and the “alt-ac” vision came together that needs more attention here. Why “alt” (shades of alt.rock?)? Why were “alt” and “digital” so powerfully connected as driving terms and forces suddenly? It’s questions like these that seem pertinent to the political stakes of defining dh. The seeming randomness of the shift from humanities computing to digital humanities takes on a whole new light when linked to struggles over jobs in the academia, their quality, their precarity, their “alternativeness” and the terms of that imagined alternative.

— Michael

Tweetdendum 5/4/13:

To be clear, “attack of the alt acs” title of my post meant to be silly, like b movie title. Not meant as a slam of alt-ac…

… rather to ask us to think abt the larger forces into which/out if which “alt” surfaces, gains attention.

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