As we all know, the digital humanities are the next big thing. A couple of years ago, I gave a presentation at a digital humanities colloquium, explaining what I saw as the major reasons for this (Allington, 2011). We are working within an economic system in which owners of capital (funders) invest in research speculatively purchased in advance from the owners of the means of knowledge production (universities), with permanent employees of the latter (what North Americans call ‘faculty’) playing the role of brokers between the two (both as writers and as reviewers of grant applications) and managing the precariously-employed sellers of labour (junior academics and support staff on temporary contracts) who actually get things done. Humanities research is traditionally cheap, which is bad from at least two points of view: funders want to save money by administering fewer, larger, grants, while universities want to see every department generating research income on a par with that pulled in by STEM centres. The digital humanities come to the rescue by being so conveniently expensive: they appear not merely to profit from but to require such costly things as computer hardware, server space, and specialised technical support staff who – in a further benefit from the point of view of the ethically-indifferent university – can be employed on fixed-term contracts, instantly disposed of when the period of funding comes to an end, and almost as instantly replaced once the next grant is landed. It didn’t have to be like this: computers can as easily reduce as increase the size of a research project. In the funding game, however, the goal is not quality, nor even efficiency, but only bigger and bigger contracts. This is the context within which the digital humanities have fashioned themselves from their less tiresomely glamorous predecessor, ‘humanities computing’.
I had entitled my paper ‘Funded research: help or hindrance for the (digital) humanities?’, and I stood up to deliver it in full expectation of a fight: I knew that the event had been organised in order to promote the host institution as a recipient of research funding, and that there were serial large-grant holders in attendance. But a fight was not forthcoming. The audience laughed in the right places, and – once I had said my piece – responded not in outrage but in sad agreement. One respondent seemed to want me to take my critique further, asking whether I thought that this restructuring of the research process was leading to greater conservatism in the research actually produced (I’d be very surprised if it wasn’t, but my primary concern was elsewhere). To my further surprise, I even got a positive write-up in an article that several other members of the audience (including the event’s academic organisers) published the following year (Barker et al, 2012, pp. 188-189). Evidently, my analysis was less controversial than I had thought. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised.
Even among successful players of the funding game – and certain digital humanists have been very successful players, of late – one may find disquiet at the game itself, at the disproportionate importance now attached to it, and at the negative impact it is having on the careers of new researchers and (in the long term) on access to the profession as a whole by accelerating the casualisation of both teaching and research. The underlying problem – regretted by practically everyone with a genuine love of scholarship – is the ongoing reconstruction of all disciplines on the social model of the natural sciences and the creeping abandonment of ‘autonomy’ (in the sense used by Bourdieu, 1993 ) in the academic field through tacit acceptance of the principle – shared by university administrators, government ministers, and hiring committees alike – that knowledge can and should be valued primarily for its moneymaking potential. In this context, a permanent academic post has become virtually impossible to secure without some degree of complicity in the corrupting agenda of our paymasters. What early-career researcher has not put together a CV whose central organising principle is the Research Excellence Framework (or some non-UK equivalent)? What mid-career researcher has not wasted month after month of the last few years pimping after grants? What senior researcher does not advocate for his or her centre – or subject – or even for the very practice of research – at least partly on the basis of its contribution to the university budget? Yes, there are some – but they are increasingly few, because of the frequency with which we find ourselves at the mercy of those (typically, senior managers without experience of or interest in teaching and research, but all too often, fellow academics and former academics who see themselves as having adapted to a system of which they are in reality co-authors) for whom professionalism means subordinating every conceivable form of value to economic interest.
Having argued that ‘humanists have always been technologists’, Alan Galey once advised me that the best computer-based humanities research projects were those in which the humanists were also the programmers. He wrote this to encourage me to undertake (as he had done) the hard work of teaching myself programming: an endeavour into which I threw myself with commitment and enthusiasm. But as I eventually learnt, humanists today are less likely to be technologists than managers of technologists. Why do something for yourself when what you will be rewarded for is having found the money to pay someone to do it for you? And how can you find time to learn a programming language anyway, when your core competence is fluency in the language of grant applications?
To anyone still inclined to oppose the scramble for a piece of the digital humanist pie: anything trendy is irritating, but there’s no sense arguing with the digital humanities. They don’t really exist. This is the age of the managerial humanities.
Allington, Daniel (2011). ‘Funded research: help or hindrance for the (digital) humanities?’ Paper presented at Digital technologies: help or hindrance for the humanities, Open University, 8 July.
Barker, Elton; Bissell, Christopher; Hardwick, Lorna; Jones, Allan; Ridge, Mia and Wolffe, John (2012). ‘Colloquium: digital technologies: help or hindrance for the humanities?’ Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 11 (1-2): 185-200.
Bourdieu, Pierre (1993 ). ‘The historical genesis of a pure aesthetic’. In: The field of cultural production: essays on art and literature, tran. Charles Newman. Cambridge: Polity Press. pp. 112-144.