A Confederacy of Dullards

Don’t trust anyone under 30, Mark Bauerlein insists in the subtitle to his book The Dumbest Generation. Don’t trust them, because their methods are spurious and their intelligence superficial, conditioned by the hyper-mediated home and educational environments which shape their dumbness.

Don’t trust any humanist under 30, Katie Trumpener implies in her critique of digital humanities and especially Franco Moretti’s “distant reading,” as reported in a recent article in The Chronicle. Moretti might be pretty smart, but “what happens when his ‘dullard’ descendants take up ‘distant reading’ for their research?”

Trumpener’s apprehension about little digital humanists running amok extends her suspicion of “distant reading” as a method. She need not worry. As Matthew Jockers rightly argues in his riposte, graduate students doing this research are actually smart and generous and involved. Moreover, a confederacy of dullards doesn’t have much chance to form in our discipline. Scholars who are digital humanists, and especially scholars who are not, can recognize good arguments when they see them. Dullness will out.

Trumpener’s skepticism sounds familiar. Remember New Historicism? Or that hocus pocus

“they term New Historicist method. Typically this method amounts to a large claim about society or social relations based on some very close readings of tropes and figures in a number of parallel texts, say a novel, a medical treatise, a classic of political economy, and maybe some popular journalism” (Gagnier 120)

In a 1999 book review in the Journal of Victorian Culture, Regenia Gagnier aired some doubts that ironically prefigure what Trumpener worries about distant reading. What would happen if dullards or even graduate students got hold of it?

“The first thing that can be said about such a ‘method’ is that it is easily imitated. Graduate students in seminars can easily seize on and unpack a metaphor across several texts at the expense of broader reading. Unfortunately, close reading of such selective texts or even passages in practice appears to obviate the need for further evidence” (Gagnier 121)

There might be disaster impending if our whole field starting doing this. Beginning with the dissertations of graduate students we train:

“these dissertations, understandably enough, for we are talking about relatively young scholars, equally demonstrate immature experience in the historical period or deficient knowledge of the comparative ‘disciplines’, ‘discourses’, or ‘domains’ whose tropes and figures they are so creatively colonising.” (120)

In addition to the echo, there’s an interesting irony: if Gagnier was worried about historically shoddy and anecdotal methods, Trumpener worries about new methods which aim to redress these very shortcomings. Distant reading solves new historicist problems while simultaneously resurrecting the skepticism about its methods and younger practitioners. But the academy has not been colonized into a new historicist dystopia, nor will it succumb to a Matrix-like digital stupor. Our discipline was not irremediably distorted by grand historical claims spun from some thin threads from the archive, nor will it be perverted by the experiments of an inquiring digerati.

Gagnier and Trumpener are absolutely right to doubt and thoughtfully interrogate the claims and methods of new forms of scholarship. Gagnier’s very review testifies to some of the checks and balances of our intellectual self-governance. In the digital humanities, the forms of that governance are changing, particularly in terms of peer review and publishing. Digital humanities is an amorphous field with scholarship that still lacks a vocabulary for its best arguments, and with intellectual protocols that sometimes require drastically different modes of evaluation. But, notwithstanding some salutary “down with print” rhetoric, the digital humanities will likewise be shaped by the critique of a broad academic community. As Jennifer Howard urges in her contribution to Hacking the Academy, the digital humanities needs to become a culture of collaboration and expertise without forming in-groups or alienating traditional scholars. That broader community will come to realize, as it has done in the past, what scholarship is groundbreaking and what falls flat, which arguments persuade and which do not.

A dissertating dullard is an ugly duckling, but will likely mature and possibly shift the direction of the whole flock. Young scholars are neither deaf to criticism nor set in their ways. On the contrary, it is precisely because new methods come into the hands of graduate students that methodological limits are tested and subsequently refined. Finally, we should be thrilled that graduate students are doing this. Consider how infrequently higher education is actually a party to the direction of major commercial information providers. Consider the benefit of having smart people articulate the logic of digital interpretation before it becomes a gimmick or a bad habit. If they’re bringing humanities to the digital, even their mistakes are a good thing.


1 Comment

Filed under critique

One response to “A Confederacy of Dullards

  1. silverasm

    It’s funny to see such a defense of graduate students’ ability to do research. Here in computer science, it’s naturally assumed that graduate students will do *all* the work!

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