Difficult Thinking about the Digital Humanities

Five years ago in this space I attempted what I saw as a meaningful formulation of critical thinking—as opposed to the more vapid definitions you tend to come across in higher education. Critical thinking, I wrote, “stands in opposition to facile thinking. Critical thinking is difficult thinking. Critical thinking is being comfortable with difficulty.”

Two hallmarks of difficult thinking are imagining the world from multiple perspectives and wrestling with conflicting evidence about the world. Difficult thinking faces these ambiguities head-on and even preserves them, while facile thinking strives to eliminate complexity—both the complexity of different points of view and the complexity of inconvenient facts.

Adam Kirsch’s much-discussed rejoinder to the digital humanities pivots on a follow-up post of mine, also about critical thinking. In this post—which later appeared in Debates in the Digital Humanities—I argue that most of the work we ask our students to produce is designed to eliminate ambiguity and complexity. It is ironic that Kirsch concludes my vision of difficult thinking represents nothing less than “the obsequies of humanism”—ironic because Kirsch’s piece is itself a remarkable example of facile thinking.

Others have already underscored the paranoid logic (Glen Worthey), glaring omissions (Ryan Cordell), and poor history (Tim Hitchcock) in Kirsch’s piece. You might also read Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s and Lisa Rhody’s recent Working the Digital Humanities essay in differences as a pre-emptive commentary on Kirsch. And finally, The New Republic has published a letter from the authors of Digital_Humanities, disputing Kirsch’s claims.I don’t have much more to add about the particulars of Kirsch’s essay, other than to say that I already wrote a response to it—back in 1998. (In an issue of Works and Days that focused on the scholarship of teaching with technology, which even then was “taking over” English Departments—inasmuch as faculty were using word processors instead of typewriters.)

I do have something to say about the broader context of Kirsch’s essay. It’s part of a growing body of work committed to approaching the intersection of technology and the humanities with purely facile thinking. This facile thinking ignores contradictory evidence, dismisses alternative ways of seeing, and generally places its critiques of the digital humanities in the service of some other goal having little to do with either technology or the humanities. It might be click bait for page views, it might be purely self-promotional, it might be crisis opportunism, and occasionally it’s even a sincere but misdirected criticism. For example, in the case I explored in 1998, anxieties about teaching with technology were really anxieties about teaching, full stop.

The facile thinking about the digital humanities comes from both within and without the academy. It appears on blogs and social media. It’s printed in The Chronicle of Education and Inside Higher Ed, The New York Times and Slate. It’s in scholarly  journals, wrapped in the emperor’s new clothes of jargon and theory. It comes from accomplished scholars, librarians,  graduate students, journalists and interns, former academics, and university administrators.  In nearly every case, the accounts eliminate complexity by leaving out history, ignoring counter-examples, and—in extreme examples—insisting that any other discourse about the digital humanities is invalid because it fails to take into consideration that particular account’s perspective. Here facile thinking masterfully (yes, facile thinking can be masterful) twists the greatest strength of difficult thinking—appreciating multiple perspectives, but inevitably not all perspectives—into its fatal weakness.

In one sensible comment about Kirsch’s account of the digital humanities, Ted Underwood reminds us that we can’t govern reception of our work. We can’t control how others think or talk or write about our work. I agree, but the problem—diagnosed by Matt Kirschenbaum, again in differences—is that so often the facile thinking about the digital humanities isn’t focused on our actual work, but rather on some abstract “construct” called the digital humanities. Matt thoroughly (and with humor) dismantles this construct. But more to my observation about facile thinking here, let me add a corollary to Ted’s point about reception. And this has to do with audience. We often mistake ourselves as the audience for other people’s work. However, the intended audience for facile thinking about the digital humanities is rarely people who work at the intersection of technology and the humanities. Very often there is a third (or fourth or fifth) party involved. Whomever you think a critic of the digital humanities is addressing, there is always someone else being addressed. This doesn’t just happen in the discussions outside of the academy, like Kirsch’s essay in The New Republic. It happens when academics appear to be talking only to each other. Let’s say one digital humanist levels an inflammatory charge against another. The charge is not really directed toward the second digital humanist; it is a charge meant to resound among another audience entirely. Facile thinking about the digital humanities is a performance, not scholarship.

What we need, obviously, is more difficult thinking about the digital humanities. I’m hardly the first to call for such a thing. Alan Liu is looking for more cultural criticism in the digital humanities, while Fred Gibbs wants critical discourse in the digital humanities. I’m dissatisfied with that word “critical” and all its variations—that’s why my formulation emphasizes difficult thinking over facile thinking. In other words, I don’t care whether you’re critical or not about the digital humanities—either the construct or its actual pedagogical and scholarly work. I simply want you to practice difficult thinking. That means evidentiary-based reasoning. That means perspectives not your own. Taken together, these add up to a kind of rational empathy.  Show me how rational empathy means the death knell of the humanities and I’ll gladly take over the obsequies myself.

39 thoughts on “Difficult Thinking about the Digital Humanities”

  1. I’m wondering if you could expand a little more on “facile thinking strives to eliminate complexity.” That is, in science, it’s standard practice to create models that are simplified versions of reality. It’s taken for granted that models “eliminate complexity,” but they are useful in building an understanding of patterns in reality and making predictions.

    From this perspective, how might you balance the viewpoint of “wrestling” with complexity and the perspective of building models that let us work with the complexity of reality?

  2. […] As I say below, it can take a long time to start thinking differently with a computer. Too often we forget that we didn’t start studying a particular field on the first day of graduate school. When I started my PhD in English literature, I had been writing about poetry and fiction for well more than 10 years. If you’re in a language program, you’ve got to count not just the literature classes in college, but those language classes in junior high. We live in an awesome age when you can find most things online—including the answer to “what is digital humanities?”—but the time that it takes for us to learn to think in a particular way is real and it can’t be skipped. Thinking, as Mark Sample has it, can be difficult. […]

  3. So… I have to be the jerk who asks… If “Whomever you think a critic of the digital humanities is addressing, there is always someone else being addressed,” the corollary is true as well, because even sincere scholarship, when created within the confines of the Academy, is performative…

    So who is “really” being addressed here?

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