Reading in conflict: an interdisciplinary seminar

The Open University, Milton Keynes
Christodoulou Meeting Room 01
24th June 2013
10:00-16:00

The commonplace understanding of reading as an essentially private activity is challenged not only by the very vocal kinds of reading carried out in classrooms, literary festivals, or reading groups (book clubs) but also by the important role it has played in social and political conflict.

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Now it seems…

…that the furore over my ‘Managerial humanities’ blog article has blown over (on the subject of which: a big thank you to Digital Humanities Now for making it their Editors’ Choice for the week of 30 April-6 May, to The New Inquiry for including it on the Sunday Reading List for 19 May, and to the Cyborgology people at The Society Pages for featuring it in an In Their Words list for 19 May), I am glad to report that I can at last get back to speaking to people face-to-face instead of endlessly arguing on the internet.

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The managerial humanities; or, Why the digital humanities don’t exist

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’.

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On literary theory

By and large, ‘theory’ enters into literary studies as a body of texts to be related to the texts that constitute ‘literature’. This process of relating is typically carried out through the production of ‘readings’ of specific works – unsurprisingly, since such production has (since the New Criticism) been enshrined as the central form of specifically literary research. There is little enthusiasm, on the whole, for asking whether a theory is coherent, or whether it is adequately supported by evidence, or whether it is consistent with other things that are known, or whether it explains observable facts more parsimoniously than other available theories. Asking these questions would not amount to a recognised form of literary research; persistent askers might even be accused of philosophy. Implicit in this system is the conception of a good theory as one that enables its user to produce a publishable reading. ‘Good theories’, in this sense, have been found just about everywhere, from linguistics to psychoanalysis and the speculative margins of cognitive science. As Jonathan Culler – one of the most prominent literary theorists to challenge this orthodoxy – argues, Continue reading “On literary theory”

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