December 28, 2011

The Unbearable Burden of Being Important

Filed under: writing — jrice @ 10:47 am

In The New York Times, Stanley Fish discovers the Digital Humanities. Fish isolates some of the panel titles associated with the Digital Humanities and offers commentary. Fish writes:

Upward of 40 sessions are devoted to what is called the “digital humanities,” an umbrella term for new and fast-moving developments across a range of topics: the organization and administration of libraries, the rethinking of peer review, the study of social networks, the expansion of digital archives, the refining of search engines, the production of scholarly editions, the restructuring of undergraduate instruction, the transformation of scholarly publishing, the re-conception of the doctoral dissertation, the teaching of foreign languages, the proliferation of online journals, the redefinition of what it means to be a text, the changing face of tenure — in short, everything.

While Fish names some panels in his short commentary, I wish he had named my talk as well since I, too, am speaking on a Digital Humanities panel at the MLA:

Debates in the Digital Humanities Sunday, 8 January, 10:15–11:30 a.m., 615, WSCC

My talk is entitled “Twenty-First-Century Literacy: Searching the Story of Billy the Kid,” and it is appropriately listed as the last talk of this panel on this last day of the conference. It would have even been more appropriate had I been the last talk of the conference itself, since my talk basically uses the 2010 Bill Richardson decision to pardon Billy the Kid as exigence for a discussion on the Digital Humanities, search, and search as writing (not as object of critique, as Siva Vaidhyanathan and Alex Halavais have recently done). My talk is not an endorsement of the Digital Humanities, and the essay it is based on is not either. It is no surprise that metaphorically (or maybe literately), I would be shoved to the end.

What I  tease out subtly in an exploration of search as writing (I search Billy the Kid through Digital Humanities endorsed online resources) is the pattern of bullshit. The proclamation that I have discovered bullshit instead of hegemony, cultural dominance, lack of access, problematic representation, or a “new” something or other is revealing. Much of the burden of being a part of an up and coming movement or what Fish calls “fast moving developments” is the burden of being important. My only response, borrowed from this very textual, online search through relevant texts tagged (since online information is tagged for search purposes) as history, film, music, writing, and news is bullshit. Bullshit is the pattern I discover. Bullshit is my response to a political moment but also to a specific Humanities methodology calling itself digital.

Fish’s commentary is an obvious response to literary studies’ crisis.  And it is easy to call Fish on bullshit as well. The Digital Humanities is not as new as Fish thinks, of course, but as we watch our English colleagues suddenly “doing” Digital Humanities we see that they are putting their hopes (and university funding) in this movement because there is nowhere left to go in a world that has long been digital (while many insist it is not), and a world where reading is dominated by writing.  Typically, though, the Digital Humanities advocates are still stuck in their own paradigm: reading and interpreting texts (scanned literary texts or software studies texts). Or else they are telling us what they’ve always told us about ideas: While you thought X was innocent, it is, in fact, a coded/hegemonic force (see The Googlization of Everything and all of its clones). We are reminded yet again – only now it’s Google instead of Milton – that power circulates. Textual Power, of course is not a new idea.

I have no objection to the Digital Humanities – we have formed a group here at the University of Kentucky as well. But most of what I see is banal and extremely familiar. And there is an insane amount of navel gazing (“What is Digital Humanities?”) that accompanies all these movements (aren’t people still asking the cliche: What is new about new media?). The burden of self justification is the burden of being important. We are important. Let’s define who we are over and over so everyone else understands we are important. Let’s repeat the tropes of critique to justify our importance.

For that reason, my piece takes up an issue completely unimportant in the political sphere. The pardon of Billy the Kid is not war, social uprising, access to information, a presidential election, the right to something or other. It is banal. It is unimportant. And in that unimportance, the burden of hermeneutics relaxes (if just for a bit) so that one may finally learn something rather than confirm what one already feels (ain’t Google awful? ain’t life unfair? ain’t it bad that such and such is such and such?).

There is a moment in his book Chronicle of a Small Town, where Jim Corder is doing a search (pre-Internet), and as he finds information, he asks:

I found myself wondering, again and again, what I would have learned, what would have startled me, what I could have seen in a new way that I had misremembered, if only I could read the missing papers. There are always missing papers. (Chronicle of a Small Town 17)

The point of an unimportant search is to find the metaphoric missing papers because they can’t be found. They are always missing. The burden of importance, however, pins our work (and sense of self definition) among the metaphoric found and already known. Jstor. Project Muse. A library’s holdings. Textual citation. The question of power. These are the knowns. We don’t search them. We already occupy them.

I’m drawn to another remark Corder makes about search, sources (such as those I use in the Billy the Kid essay and talk) and ethos:

“It occurred to me that a scholar’s reputation, supposing he had one, could be ruined if the world found out that he had discovered his sources at Aunt Mary’s house.” (Chronicles of a Small Town 5)

Indeed it could. Search as writing takes a backseat to search as legitimacy. I don’t find (yet) the willingness to search Aunty Mary’s metaphoric house in the Digital Humanities (or in other areas of academia, of course). But I don’t care anymore either. My search has already revealed a response to all of this, a response that may share Fish’s language, but not his overall meaning by any shape or form: bullshit.




  1. Uhm. You might want to assure you correct your blog and any other associated work. Billy the Kid was NOT pardoned.

    Thank you.

    Comment by TerilynnS — December 28, 2011 @ 9:14 pm

  2. Yup.

    Comment by jrice — December 28, 2011 @ 9:55 pm

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