Matthew G. Kirschenbaum

University of Maryland

The (DH) Stars Come Out in LA

Much has already been made of William Pannapacker’s January 8th Brainstorm column in the Chronicle of Higher Education, in which he declares that the digital humanities stars came out at the recent MLA convention in Los Angeles. Stéfan Sinclair has produced probably the best and most comprehensive response to date, but the conversation on Twitter has also been extensive (so much so that Pannapacker describes it as like being “nibbled to death by ducks,” which is rather funny). No doubt further responses are on the way.

There are a couple of things, I think, to say up front. First, this is one guy’s one-off. It’s not a pronouncement from the mountaintop. Second, as Pannapacker himself reminds us, he had a lot of positive things to say. The posting was hardly a rebuke or a slam. Third, I am mentioned in the piece in what I take to be a positive light. (To not acknowledge this in light of what follows would be disingenuous.) So what do I make of the allegation of a “star system” in digital humanities?

That phrase, “star system,” comes not from Pannapacker himself but from David R. Shumway, who wrote a then-much-talked-about piece in 1997 in PMLA entitled “The Star System in Literary Studies.” Shumway, of course, is adopting the phrase from Hollywood (how perfect in context!), recounting the genealogy of “stardom” as a new and distinct form of celebrity manufactured by the studios. Shumway makes several trenchant points, yoking the emergence of stars in literary studies not only to the rise of high theory, but also to the rise of the international academic conference, the airlines that transport us to them, the ongoing institutionalization of academic literary studies as a research discipline (and attendant search for legitimization), and the proliferation of images of the professoriate amid the ferment of the culture wars. Ultimately he concludes that the star system in literary studies is a distinct historical phenomenon, originating in the late 1970s; he also concludes that it’s not healthy, the disproportionate resources required to maintain it likely contributing to the rise of contingent labor and the general deterioration of academic working conditions. Moreover, he sees it as Balkanizing knowledge into partisan camps and serving to undermine the public’s confidence in the academy by diluting the authority of the rank-and-file professoriate.

Several of Shumway’s characterizations of the star system map all too easily onto DH. The management of public image, for example: we do this both trivially in the form of avatars, as well as more substantively through our daily online “presences” on blogs, Twitter, listservs, and more. Likewise, it’s worth noting that like “high theory,” DH (or “big humanities”) positions itself as a kind of meta-discourse (and/or methodology), cutting across all individual sub-disciplines and fields. This is an enormously powerful and seductive base.

So are there stars in DH? My answer is that of course there are. You can’t, for example, agree with Steve Ramsay (as I do) that,

Digital Humanities is not some airy Lyceum. It is a series of concrete instantiations involving money, students, funding agencies, big schools, little schools, programs, curricula, old guards, new guards, gatekeepers, and prestige. It might be more than these things, but it cannot not be these things.

. . . and not acknowledge that there are also, inevitably, stars, cliques, insiders and outsiders. To have it otherwise would be to believe digital humanities is somehow unique as a phenomenon in the history of human social relations. One readily observable way in which the star system in DH manifests is in speaking and consulting invitations to institutions looking to start centers or programs in the digital humanities. Many of us receive more such invitations than we can accept, and it’s mostly the same couple of dozen people who make the rounds on this particular circuit. As more and more campuses look to gain traction in DH (and make no mistake, this is a very good thing) we find such gestures typically authorized in the first instance by a series of visits from one or more established figures in the field. A talk or a seminar is the centerpiece of the occasion, and there are meetings with students, with faculty, perhaps with campus administrators. This is a lot like what Stanley Fish, quoted in the epigraph to Shumway’s essay, calls “flying to Charlottesville,” with the delish irony that Charlottesville itself is one of the epicenters of accomplishment in the digital humanities.

Nor are we ourselves immune to slipping into the language of starpower on occasion (I recall that when Digital Humanities Questions and Answers launched, we celebrated the eagerness with which the community was contributing by noting “my god, it’s full of stars”). Yes, the lines might be delivered with some self-deprecation, but we’re deceiving ourselves if we think they aren’t also rendered with satisfaction. Is there a problem with that? Not at all. I’ll repeat: of course there are stars in DH, there were even when I was coming up (and it was called humanities computing).

If the stars exist, then the more salient question is whether we can avoid the pitfalls of the star system that Shumway delineates. The problem (and I believe Shumway would concur) is not that a minority of academics are famous for being good at what they do. Knowledge is real, expertise is real, different kinds of institutional authority are real. Smart is real. If you’re going to start your own DH center it’s not surprising that you would want to hear from someone who’s been running one for five or ten or twenty years, and the truth is there simply aren’t all that many of those people to go around.

Yet the perception of Twitter cliques and in-groups is also real. And just as a flame over email can have exaggerated impact—you carry around for days the perceived stigma of some barb you would brush aside in an f2f exchange—so too can the inevitable inequities and asymmetries of networked relationships come to chafe in less pointed but no less profound ways. To some extent, this simply must be accepted as a fact of grown up life. None of us have infinite attention spans, thus we hang out with our friends, maybe pay more attention to someone “big” than someone little, and make all kinds of choices, dozens of times a day, as to how to apportion the micro-cycles of attention online community demands. Human nature is what is, even on Twitter.

We often seek to defuse that with testimonials about digital humanities’ “niceness,” or more tellingly how collectively open and available we all tend to be, rightly pointing to resources like DHQ&A, the THATCamp phenomenon, and the countless uncompensated hours many of us spend advising peers, students, and sometimes perfect strangers who turn up in our email queues (or buttonhole us at conferences) on matters ranging from technical minutiae to institution-wide strategy. But while being nice is good, being nice is not, or may no longer be, enough. For Shumway, star quality is not simply a function of public image or the number of frequent flier miles the academic logs, but of a specific kind of relationship between consumers, or “fans,” and the celebrity: “It is the feeling of personal connection that transforms the merely famous scholar into a star” (92). In digital humanities, I would argue, this special relationship is less a function of the performativity of a lecture (most of us are simply not that interesting to watch) than the ruthless metrics of online community, the frisson that comes from an @reply from someone more famous than you, or you’ll never believe who just started following me! For those of us who spend time online in Twitter and (to a lesser degree) other social networks, including Facebook and the looser tissues of the blogosphere, this star system is reified (and sometimes even quantified or visualized) in the ongoing accumulation of network relations that describe—often all too precisely—influence and impact, pitilessly allowing one to locate oneself in the ecosystem at any given instant. This seems to me to go some way towards explaining why there is so much anxiety around the Twitter/DH nexus—its constant mappings and metrics have come to inhabit that intangible performative dimension that Shumway earlier ascribed to the public (and in person) appearances of the high theory stars.

But that’s not all. Online relationships are eminently portable across the analog/digital membrane. So those who are in positions of visibility and impact online reap rewards that have more tangible consequences in meatspace. Be part of enough high profile online exchanges and you’re likely to find yourself squirming in a coach-class airline seat on your way to a speaking gig (or a job interview) six months later. As Phil Agre reminded us a long time ago, the network is a terrific place to . . . well, network. At its best this can be a great multiplier, or democratizer: the individual with a 4/4 load at an isolated teaching institution can wield influence in ways that would have been unthinkable in the theory-era of which Shumway writes. That kind of load-balancing—no longer Yale deconstruction or Duke English, but centers of influence at big public land-grant institutions or small “teaching colleges”—is dramatically different from the star system characterized by glossies of Derrida or De Man, or the faux-fanzine Judy. But it is not any less divorced from the real world balance of academic power, which (still) manifests in the form of jobs, grants, publications, invitations and all the rest of the apparatus that Shumway’s high theory stars defined by transcending. As cycles of influence flicker ever more rapidly back and forth between the analog and digital world, as tenure committees in the humanities begin to import impact metrics (citation indices and the like) from the sciences, and as the success stories of the disempowered few who rise above their rank through social networking become more commonplace, digital humanities must do better than simply brush off any suggestion of ins and outs on the networks that connect it day to day. It must acknowledge, openly and frankly, that while Twitter (and other online social networks) and DH are not coextensive, the interactions among and between them are real and consequential and ultimately material. It’s not just that our avatars are now the real stars—it’s that stardom is also now a function of one’s ability to arbitrage influence across all manner of networks, “real” and virtual alike.

How will digital humanities reckon with its growing prominence, prestige, and yes, even stardom? I for one think the jury is still out. I agree with Stéfan, for example, that to a one DH folk are “the most humble and down-to-earth colleagues I can imagine.” Yet the kind of tensions (and challenges) Beth Nowviskie gestures toward in her remarkable “Eternal September” post from a few months back are also very real, and at some level deeply related to stardom and such. Part of what it means to be a star in DH, at least the 24/7 segment of it, is being always “on” in exactly the way that Nowviskie sees as most pernicious for the long-term health and sanity of those working in this field. So in the end, yes, I think Pannapacker was on to something, and we would do well to acknowledge it and think about it (and yes, even blog and tweet about it) rather than just brush it away as reductio ad absurdum. I’m looking forward to hearing what others have to say below.

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  Rosemary G. Feal wrote @

This analysis struck me as correct in all its major points. I appreciated the “always historicize” framework, too. Thanks for this, and I’m looking forward to the PMLA article to follow!

Rosemary Feal

  Stephen Ramsay wrote @

This is great, Matt.

When I was in graduate school, the “stars” (of, in my case, HC, but generally in English studies) seemed untouchable to me. They would greet each other with great enthusiasm at conferences. They always seemed to head off to dinner together after some function. They shared jokes and stories that I had no idea about. Mostly, they seemed to enjoy each others’ company and to rejoice in a shared history of being “in the field” for a long time.

Being a bit socially inept (and really, almost shy — despite my often bombastic manner at the podium), I never had a thought of joining these people. How could any outsider break into that? And of course, a group that has this kind of public confidence is very powerful. They tend to agree with each other more often than not, and even when they disagree, you can tell that they’re still going to go have a beer afterward. The whole thing is literally *attractive* (and yet repellent at the same time).

Here it is years later. Am I star? I probably look like one. When I go to a DH conference, I know most of the people there. I certainly know every *star* in the field. I have been in DH long enough to remember what people like, well, you — and dozen of others — looked like in their 20s, when we were looking admiringly at the stars of the time, and planning our own revolution.

So when I walk into a DH session at MLA, it’s like a family reunion. There I am cracking jokes with so-and-so, waving to that big DH person. And yes, we’re all going to go have a drink later. When I walk into a room of people I *don’t* know, I make a beeline for the people I do — people who are, inevitably, the ones who (like me) have been around long enough to pile up the frequent-flier miles speaking to everyone about DH.

I’m frankly astonished at this strange turn of events (I bet my forbears were just as amazed). And I can see how difficult it must seem to break into the group that (marvel of marvels) I am now in — as difficult, I expect, as it was when I started out. This is a good way to make yourself feel middle-aged, frankly, but it also raises an ethical question.

Is it possible to willfully transcend this, and say, “You know what, I’m just going to walk up these people and start talking?” I see now that people who came before me weren’t necessarily trying to be exclusive, but they didn’t go out of their way to be inclusive either. Could we change that by force of will? Is it possible that DH’s long sojourn in the wilderness could ironically leave us better equipped to occupy the “cool kid’s” table without becoming the jerks that frequently sit there?

I’d like to think so, anyway.

  Tara McPherson wrote @

As elegant (and spot on) as ever.

It’s also interesting to think about how we each inhabit multiple ecologies of stardom. Some of these overlap quite nicely (say DH + media studies), but the relationship is often an inverse one. For instance, at my university, ‘fame’ on Twitter and being taken seriously by senior administration do not lead to heart-warming Venn diagram.

  Craig Bellamy wrote @

I think looking for stardom in the Digital Humanities is sort of like seeking social justice in Architecture. BTW I don’t agree with Architecture!

  Stéfan Sinclair wrote @

Lots of great stuff to chew on here, Matt.

If we can admit (and accept) that some kind of star system is inevitable (maybe even healthy), then we can start to have useful conversations around the mechanics of the star system (in the self-reflexive way that DH seems to excel at, ad nauseum for some folks). In particular, 1) it seems to me that the structure of stars in DH is relatively layered as opposed to pyramid-shaped; there aren’t superstars so much as a whole mess of fairly recognizable people (but even that breaks down into recognizable people for subsets of DH, like history, text analysis, new media, etc.). Also, 2) I suspect that the half-life of stardom is shorter than we’ve seen in the past. A published monograph or influential theory can have lasting staying power, but your big fancy DH thingy may be obsolete in a couple of years, and people may ask “What have you tweeted for us lately?” (I’m caricaturing a bit here, of course.) I take both the flatter and more ephemeral aspects of DH stardom to be good things (there’s that DH inclusiveness streak again).

  Jordan wrote @

As someone (very) new to DH, both your post and the comments that follow resonate very strongly with me.

I agree that the field seems to have a nascent star system, but I think it differs remarkably from the type fostered in literary studies. I “follow” and listen to DH stars because they serve as essential hubs for new information and ideas – from job announcements to emerging research to this very this blog post. Without the stars, I don’t know how well the DH community would function.

Moreover, as a rule, DH stars seem to use their avatars and aliases to promote the work of others, not themselves. Does that make DH nicer? Fairer? More open? I think so.

  Some genre & digital humanities links – anecdotes wrote @

[...] as a field: “The Meandering through Textuality Challenge” by Stephen Ramsay, and “The (DH) Stars Come Out in LA,” by Matthew Kirschenbaum (one of the most sensible and least defensive reactions to William [...]

  Kathi Inman Berens wrote @

Matt, you and Stephen Ramsay have the advantage of being DH eminences gris w/o looking, well, old. Your participation in conversation during and after MLA11 has historicized DH, intervened in self-congratulation (“when I hear about ‘cool kids,’ I worry about my career”), and helped delineate key terms in a field that clearly is moving from its naissance into a loose-limbed adolescence.

Which is just when the suitors come calling.

I think MLA11 is the tipping point for DH. You and Stephen would know vastly better than I who is developing labs at which institutions, but I’m inclined to think the buzz of this MLA will have admins shaking out loose change from campus couches to fund DH programs of their own. From an administrative perspective, I should think DH an assessment dream. What that means for the field I leave it to those more experienced than I to imagine.

  Nathan Kelber wrote @

Thanks Matt for this great analysis. I agree that there will always be stars in academic fields, but DH stardom is more flexible than the precedent of big theory. Twitter, as an asymmetrical social network, precisely quantifies DH stardom, but it also allows unprecedented access for junior scholars to enter the type of after-conference conversations that Stephen mentioned. What you call meat-space “portability” gives DH some insulation from the negative aspects of the big theory star system, but stars are necessary. The navigation of any field depends on star constellations (which all-too-often reflect real-world academic power structures).

I think it’s only natural for some DH veterans to feel as if September has become eternal. Part of being established is knowing the history and directions of a field (being a pole star). Yet September also brings new ideas and new stars. It’s an uncomfortable feeling when a group of friends becomes a sea of strangers with new ideas (and old ones that have failed many times before). September means the field is growing. It’s uncomfortable because it is changing. The work you’re doing to historicize DH is important because it helps ease the growing changes in the DH constellation.

[...] system” in digital humanities. This notion has been usefully interrogated and historicized by Matt Kirschenbaum and Stefan Sinclair, among others. Even knowing I’d have been at the various DH tables at [...]

  Johanna Drucker wrote @


Your post is well-balanced, reasonable, and puts these matters into a useful institutional and disciplinary perspective.

But the real challenge to digital humanities is still intellectual: how does work in this area contribute to theory, methods, or the corpus of humanistic study? This question goes right to the heart of ways we assess the value of tool-making, project development and management, institutional initiatives, programs, Humanities fields constitute themselves, like any discipline, through their theoretical approaches (ways of thinking), methods (ways of doing), and objects of study (pre-existing and constituted by the act of study). I do think we have instances of each of these in our legacy of digital humanities projects, but the explicit articulation of this – rather than blunt assertion – is not yet fully developed or we would not have to keep making the case.

I’d like to have a conversation – with you and others – that outlines specific examples of humanistic method in digital projects that have implications for humanities study – a theoretical principle, methodological move, or innovative object—that can be taken from the project and used to push humanities in new or substantive directions (novelty and innovation aren’t the issue so much as contributions that belong to digital humanities, arise from its activities, in ways that are specific to its approaches).

In suggesting this, I’m trying to shift the conversation away from the “to code or not to code” or “whose work matters” and “whose labor gets status” to the substantive core of our undertaking: how are we thinking and how do the digital humanities enable and extend the core values of the humanities – however defined. To me, humanities work is defined by attention to certain objects and practices (production, preservation, and transmission of cultural legacy), theoretical principles (non-self-identicality of objects, constitutive force of discourse on production of objects, observer-dependent conditions of knowledge production), and methods (interpretative, tolerant of ambiguity, situated, embodied, historically and culturally inflected). Not everyone will agree with that list, but the question I’m trying foreground remains, however one defines humanities: How do digital humanities projects create theoretical, methodogical, or artifactual knowledge that can have implications for humanities more broadly conceived? And how can we take the implicit insights we have gained from the last decades and make them explicit? Look at other epistemological and critical shifts in the humanities over the last century, the embrace of political theory, psychoanalysis, structuralism, phenomenology, deconstruction – any methodological or epistemological shift – and think about how it gained currency, then ask how does digital humanities create the same intellectual interest? We have to articulate this clearly. I’d be happy to start with some examples, or create a study in dialogue with others that communicates this.


  Jon wrote @

Matt, could you put a *star* — like in gmail’s starred emails — next to the stars who respond to this just so we know?

I don’t know how much anxiety Pannapacker’s criticism deserves. I think some humanities figures who don’t code are frustrated and worried because they expect of themselves a quick and expert orientation in new developments in their fields — and feel that in the case of DH their skills keep them on the outside. But they shouldn’t worry — coders will code and the tools will improve to enable scholars to be scholars in this field too.

  Katherine D. Harris wrote @

The after-glow of the MLA was certainly interesting. It went from congratulatory and continually social, to reflective; then the family reunion affect arrived. Some bickering, a little self-reflection, and some startling discoveries about what DH lacks. Some Twitter conversations started very publicly and then quietly became DMs instead.

I’m not so concerned about the stars. My foray into DH is fairly recent and comes from a textual studies angle. I was made aware of the larger community by another set of textual scholars at U Nebraska when they demonstrated text analysis tools across the thousands of pages of texts that I was hand transcribing. Connections were made; questions were asked about discovering an aesthetic with these tools; scholarly inquiry was expanded; I was hooked. On Twitter, my DH pals push me to be a better teacher, to articulate my need for a tool in an assignment, to challenge me when I put forth hasty and emotionally-charged quips (and then yes, invite me out for a beer or glass of good Pinot). For me, DH is a generous crowd that’s enthusiastically collaborative. In academia, this type of collegiality is unfortunately *not* the norm. I think the stardom of DH is about this friendliness. And, really, we’re all academics so we’re all a bit introverted: we can run a classroom but put us into a room with more than 5 people and ask us to work the room, it’s nigh terrifying.

If stardom is our worst critique, I’ll take it. We can amend the lack that was identified in DM Twitter conversations. But there’s a greater mission for DH — as identified by Johanna Drucker above — now that’s the stuff.

  Susannah McGowan wrote @

I am not a digital humanist, but more of a digital interloper in the DH field. I attended the MLA DH session to see how the field talks about the type of learning that occurs when one (or many) is engaged in digital projects. Looking at the type of thinking and learning involved in building tools, networks, archives, etc. needs to be articulated more to see how these new “skills” will spiral down to grad students, undergrads, high school students, and even kindergartners. Basically, I am also interested in the questions Johanna Drucker posed. Specifically this one, “How do digital humanities projects create theoretical, methodogical, or artifactual knowledge that can have implications for humanities more broadly conceived?” Except I would replace “humanities” with implications for learning.

As far as stardom, the energy of the DH MLA session far surpassed any conference session I have ever attended. If we have a few people generating this much energy around harnessing tools for creative scholarship, then so be it. The difference is this scholarship is open to everyone and we can all follow along, learn, engage, and extend the energy to our own work.

Thank you for your thoughtful response! And thanks to Katherine Harris for also bringing up the pedagogical aspect of DH work.

[...] The (DH) Stars Come Out in LA, Matthew G. Kirschenbaum responds to Pannapacker and looks at the role of “stardom” in [...]

  David Shumway wrote @

This is a very perceptive reading of a phenomenon very much in flux. I particularly liked the point about the way social media change the venue in which personal relationships with stars may be experienced. It is interesting that there is already a star system in DH. When I wrote my PMLA article, theory was more than 25 years old and clearly had peaked. In the 1970s, leading theorists were not yet stars. Does this increasing rapidity of star production result from social media? Or, is it that we are more willing to describe leading professionals as stars because of our greater consciousness of celebrity in the culture at large?

  mkirschenbaum wrote @

Thanks to everyone for their comments here, as well as to people who weighed in elsewhere. Its given me a lot to think about, and I appreciate the generous reception for this short piece.

Thanks especially to David Shumway for stopping by. David, while I think it might be tempting to map the terminal velocity of DH’s shooting stars onto the general precepts of accelerated internet time, I think it has more to do with social media (as you mention) coupled with the immense capital investment in DH more and more campuses are undertaking (see also Kathi’s comments in this regard). The urgency to underwrite and legitimize those investments is enormous, and a “star system” doubtless contributes to that. That said, it’s worth remarking that while DH may have only just recently come into its majority, the field (if “field” is what it is) has been building for decades, and some of us (hat tip again to Kathi) are already older than we care to admit.

As to the contours of DH stardom, I think Stefan is on to something, his instinct of the shorter half life as well as his characterization, in place of the celebrity pyramid, of “a whole mess of fairly recognizable people.” I’m not sure I can put it any better than that, other than to reinforce that “messes of fairly recognizable people” strike me as exactly the kind of conglomerations social media exists to reify.

Finally, Johanna, as always, cuts to the heart of the matter: the work. Many years back (this is the eminence grise part of the program), I posted to the Humanist listserv suggesting DH compile a casebook of success stories, akin to the pathbreaking papers that made computation a mainstay in, say, bioinformatics. I was roundly castigated for my positivism and enjoined to reread my McGann, the better to imagine what I don’t know. I don’t think DH will ever (nor would it want to) canonize a small set of key papers, but, at the end of the day, if we can’t point to actual scholarship engendered by–to take an example from one strata of DH’s development–the great thematic archives of the nineties, then what are we really talking about?

[...] considered “widespread” might still be up for grabs. What does seem persuasive is that a sizable number of institutions are investing in DH right now. If it has not already arrived, it will likely do so [...]

[...] the 80s and 90s.” Perhaps the most salient point of Pannapacker’s argument—which Matt Kirschenbaum responds to beautifully—is that DH work can look, from the outside, quite alien. If, as Stephen Ramsay provocatively [...]

[...] by William Pannapacker in the Chronicle of Higher Education and two interesting responses: The (DH) Stars Come Out in LA and Digital Humanities and [...]

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