Brennan's Critique of the Digital Humanities

You can read Brennan's article on the Chronicle (Paywalled, of course. 🙄 If you don't have access, email me)

I have two thoughts on his piece.

1. These critiques are not new.

I see it every day. There have been articles, critiques, and complaints about the digital humanities before they were the digital humanities. Every single critique that Brennan raises has been raised before, and will be again. I am thinking about starting a drinking game or a bingo card:

  • The digital humanities are a neo-liberal wedge aimed at destroying the humanities.
  • It tells us nothing!
  • Information isn't meaning!
  • It's all techno-lust!
  • Instrumentality!
  • Buzzwords!

I admit there is a part of me that wants to pick apart Brennan's essay[1]. In many ways, though, each one of these critiques has been refuted or addressed by a whole slew of digital humanists who helped to pave the way for the research we now do. The critiques may not go away, but neither is the digital humanities. As a humanities researcher who spends a lot of time working on projects and research with a focus on digital tools and methods, I can assure you of that.

Which brings me to the second point.

2. These critiques can be useful.

I used to get frustrated by these commentaries, but I see a sort of value in them. The digital humanities are under intense scrutiny, and that is a good thing. Consider this a form of aggressive peer review. Brennan's comments on research that identified texts that made it into the New York Times reviews as "literary" is well taken. Digital humanists needs to address their methods with a critical eye. As for his comments on neologisms, I would suggest that a cultural theorist and comparative lit. researcher be careful of throwing stones in glass houses. Academia, as a whole, has a serious problem with neologisms and the accompanying failure to adequately define them. That said, this is something that we in the digital humanities need stay aware of and address when it arises.

These critiques really do feel like peer reviews to me. Some of them are clearly valid and need to be addressed, and some are just the nitpicks of a different researcher. I've gotten annoyed at peer review, but I believe it is a necessary process that helps us all improve as researchers.

Yes, some digital humanities research isn't going to pan out. I, myself, have serious questions about the usefulness of distant reading as an interpretive tool, but I value the research being done on it. I hope it does produce something interesting. Even if the research fails to deliver, I am keenly interested in the processes that are developed. In fact, it is critical to some of the research I have recently helped with that isn't focused on critical interpretation, but still requires the ability to read, manage, and understand vast amounts of textual data.

While I disagree with Brennan's closing comments, I think that we do need to stay wary of such potentials. I also think that we, as digital humanists, need to do more in our approach to critical research (it helps that this a big part of my research focus). Finally, I think that we need to find ways to engage with academics who are suspicious of the digital humanities. The University is full of people willing to draw up disciplinary battle lines in a sort of capitalist, survival of the fittest, format that deeply troubles me. I tend to think that form of balkanization and protectionist thinking poses a far greater threat to the humanities. As researchers who often work across those disciplinary lines, we are in a unique place to find avenues for deeper collaboration for all forms of research. We can keep pointing fingers at each other, but I am far more interested in working to protect the humanities as a whole, digital and otherwise. Honestly, I think Brennan is, too. That gives us a common ground and from that we can build something.

I draw hope from that.


  1. For example, Brennan takes Pannapacker to task for saying that digital pedagogies may help to "involve students in their own learning" suggesting that this is a way to undermine the need for the University. I would argue that student-centered learning should be core to a University's approach to teaching. Whether I am using digital methods or not, I want my students involved in their learning. I welcome new pedagogies that challenge the lecture/exam model whether they have a digital component or not. ↩︎

  2. Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash ↩︎