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.