The Digital Turn

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David Golumbia and The b2 Review look to digital culture

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I am pleased and honored to have been asked by the editors of boundary 2 to inaugurate a new section on digital culture for The b2 Review.

The editors asked me to write a couple of sentences for the print journal to indicate the direction the new section will take, which I’ve included here:

In the new section of the b2 Review, we’ll be bringing the same level of critical intelligence and insight—and some of the same voices—to the study of digital culture that boundary 2 has long brought to other areas of literary and cultural studies. Our main focus will be on scholarly books about digital technology and culture, but we will also branch out to articles, legal proceedings, videos, social media, digital humanities projects, and other emerging digital forms.

While some might think it late in the day for boundary 2 to be joining the game of digital cultural criticism, I take the time lag between the moment at which thoroughgoing digitization became an unavoidable reality (sometime during the 1990s) and the first of the major literary studies journals to dedicate part of itself to digital culture as indicative of a welcome and necessary caution with regard to the breathless enthusiasm of digital utopianism. As humanists our primary intellectual commitment is to the deeply embedded texts, figures, and themes that constitute human culture, and precisely the intensity and thoroughgoing nature of the putative digital revolution must give somebody pause—and if not humanists, who?

Today, the most overt mark of the digital in humanities scholarship goes by the name Digital Humanities, but it remains notable how little interaction there is between the rest of literary studies and that which comes under the DH rubric. That lack of interaction goes in both directions: DH scholars rarely cite or engage directly with the work the rest of us do, and the rest of literary studies rarely cites DH work, especially when DH is taken in its “narrow” or most heavily quantitative form. The enterprises seem, at times, to be entirely at odds, and the rhetoric of the digital enthusiasts who populate DH does little to forestall this impression. Indeed, my own membership in the field of DH has long been a vexed question, despite being one of the first English professors in the country to be hired to a position for which the primary specialization was explicitly indicated as Digital Humanities (at the University of Virginia in 2003), and despite being a humanist whose primary area is “digital studies,” and the inability of scholars “to be” or “not to be” members of a field in which they work is one of the several ways that DH does not resemble other developments in the always-changing world of literary studies.

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Earlier this month, along with my colleague Jennifer Rhee, I organized a symposium called Critical Approaches to Digital Humanities sponsored by the MATX PhD program at Virginia Commonwealth University, where Prof. Rhee and I teach in the English Department. One of the conference participants, Fiona Barnett of Duke and HASTAC, prepared a Storify version of the Twitter activity at the symposium that provides some sense of the proceedings. While it followed on the heels and was continuous with panels such as the ‘Dark Side of the Digital Humanities’ at the 2013 MLA Annual Convention, and several at recent American Studies Association Conventions, among others, this was to our knowledge the first standalone DH event that resembled other humanities conferences as they are conducted today. Issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability were primary; cultural representation and its relation to (or lack of relation to) identity politics was of primary concern; close reading of texts both likely and unlikely figured prominently; the presenters were diverse along several different axes. This arose not out of deliberate planning so much as organically from the speakers whose work spoke to the questions we wanted to raise.

I mention the symposium to draw attention to what I think it represents, and what the launching of a digital culture section by boundary 2 also represents: the considered turning of the great ship of humanistic study toward the digital. For too long enthusiasts alone have been able to stake out this territory and claim special and even exclusive insight with regard to the digital, following typical “hacker” or cyberlibertarian assertions about the irrelevance of any work that does not proceed directly out of knowledge of the computer. That such claims could even be taken seriously has, I think, produced a kind of stunned silence on the part of many humanists, because it is both so confrontational and so antithetical to the remit of the literary humanities from comparative philology to the New Criticism to deconstruction, feminism and queer theory. That the core of the literary humanities as represented by so august an institution as boundary 2 should turn its attention there both validates the sense of digital enthusiasts of the medium’s importance, but should also provoke them toward a responsibility toward the project and history of the humanities that, so far, many of them have treated with a disregard that at times might be characterized as cavalier.

-David Golumbia

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