Summary of “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities” by Alan Liu


“Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?”

by Alan Liu

Find the #DHPocoSS discussion of Liu’s article here


by Adeline Koh and Roopika Risam

  • Begins by describing 4Humanities, an advocacy group for using the digital humanities to communicate the value of the humanities, which argued that DH “woke up to its special potential and responsibility to assist humanities advocacy.”

  • Liu argues that this assertion is counterfactual, or “at best, proleptic.”

  • His thesis is the following:

    • DH has been oblivious to cultural criticism

      • Especially in comparison with new media studies

      • Not even cliched forms of the issues like “digital divide”, “surveillance” etc. enter the fray.

      • Liu then critiques the post-Fordist, neoliberal impulse of DH:

        • “It is as if, when the order comes down from the funding agencies, university administrations, and other bodies mediating today’s dominant socioeconomic and political beliefs, digital humanists just concentrate on pushing the ‘execute’ button on projects that amass the most data for the greatest number, process that data most efficiently and flexibly, and manage the whole through ever ‘smarter’ standards… […] … –all without pausing to reflect on the relation of the whole digital juggernaut to the new world order.”

    • Lack of cultural criticism blocks DH from becoming a full humanities partner

      • Cultural criticism may have its problems, but the lack of cultural criticism in DH will stunt the field

      • Highlights the ‘close’ versus ‘distant’ reading debates as a marker of the issues within this partnership, arguing that “it is apropos to recognize that the debate serves as a proxy for the present state of the running battle between New Critical method and post-May1968 cultural criticism”; giving a literary genealogy of the battles of cultural criticism.

        • Special point in this debate of methods: close reading. “Just as deconstruction was ultraclose reading, for instance, so New Historicism read the microhistory of ‘anecdotes.’ An unspoken demilitarized zone thus intervened between close and cultural-critical reading.”

        • DH breaks this detente; moving “distant reading” to the starting point of literary study. This changes the nature of the “relevant text” itself: “The relevant text is no longer the New Critical ‘poem [text] itself’ but instead the digital humanities archive, corpus or network”; where graphs start to replace blocks of text quotations

        • All this means that “digital humanists will never get a better invite to the table”–> mainstream humanists are realizing the value of digital media and interfaces.

        • to be an equal partner (and not a servant) at the table, DH needs to “show that thinking critically about metadata, for instance, scales into thinking about the power, finance and other governance protocols of the world.”

      • The digital humanities can transcend their ‘servant’ role through leadership in advocating for the humanities

        • Cultural criticism will allow DH to be a partner with “mainstream” humanities and to take a leadership role in that partnership.

        • With cultural criticism, DH is well-positioned to advocate for the humanities writ large outside of the academy. This is particularly pressing in light of the ongoing crisis in the humanities and questions/doubts about the humanities’ contemporary relevance.

        • The current climate within academia replicates what C.P. Snow identified in the late 1950s as a “two cultures” problem, pitting STEM fields against the humanities. Humanities fields are particularly vulnerable at public universities under current political and economic conditions.

        • The internet and Web 2.0 have challenged the dynamics of knowledge production and dissemination, particularly in the form of networked public knowledge. The academy is only beginning to address the implications of this form of knowledge and its ramifications for traditional mechanisms of assessment, such as peer review.

        • Yet, new forms of knowledge simultaneously offer new possibilities for leadership, particularly when intervening in public discourse about the humanities, such as forms of advocacy enabled by new media (e.g. Open Journal Systems publication platform).

      • DH can also advocate for the humanities by broadening the very idea of instrumentalism

        • The question of instrumentalism is a complicated one within DH.

          • DH-ers worry, for example, that the field is too instrumental (e.g. Willard McCarthy’s statement, “I fear that the Digital Humanities is becoming dominated by purely technical concerns of implementation”)

          • DH-ers also worry about not being instrumental enough, particularly in relationship to computer science and engineering (e.g. Stephen Ramsay’s question about whether one has to be able to code to be a DH-er).

        • Liu suggests broadening the concept of instrumentalism as a reflection of doubts and fears (and questions of instrumentalism) that plague the humanities at large

          • Humanities itself copes with its instrumental role in student preparation, lacking the kinds of external instrumental venues of STEM fields

          • Humanities also deals with its perceptions of lack of instrumental value – and uselessness.

          • The more the humanities seek to develop specialized vocabularies, the more it seems alienated from mainstream perceptions of value.

        • Broadening the concept further, the humanities reflect the larger concerns by modern society about instrumentalism.

          • Instrumentalism is at once (and paradoxically) necessary to the full experience of humanity and dehumanizing.

          • Technology has served to intensifies these concerns, and contemporary society is uncomfortable with instrumentalism

        • DH, Liu suggests, can make a unique contribution to cultural criticism by using tools and DH concepts to rethink instrumentality – particularly to think about STEM and the humanities in relationship to each other in a culturally broad way

  • Recommendations for DH

    • While continuing ongoing work on textual analysis, digital archives, pattern recognition, etc. DH should enter dialogue with related fields (new media, media archaeology) to address instrumental technologies through the lenses of culture and history

    • This work has been done by DH practitioners working across the fields but needs to become a centerpiece for all DH-ers.

    • DH should also extend conversations to science-technology studies to better understand how they come together

    • These tasks will help DH develop stronger technological and intellectual infrastructure

    • In turn, DH will be better positioned to intervene in the question of instrumentalism by addressing cultural, technological, social, and political concerns on the global scale made possible through technology.


  1. Liu first gave this article as a speech at the 2010 MLA meeting. Up to that point, how had digital humanists ignored cultural criticism as Liu asserts? How has the field changed since, if at all? Please give concrete examples and explain these examples.

  2. Liu provides an important genealogy of the field debates between cultural criticism and New Criticism, and the way in which the close/distant reading matrix reshapes this debate. What would you add to his genealogy?

  3. How has DH traditionally performed a “servant role” to the humanities, and why is there the potential for this to change now?

  4. Liu identifies the potential for DH-ers to leverage institutional affiliations with access to networked public knowledge. What kinds of roles might we envision for DH-ers without institutional affiliations, DH-ers outside the R1 system, or DH-ers who are graduate students? What challenges do these relationships to institutions and to the academy present?

  5. Liu suggests that one of the responsibilities of DH is to create technologies that fundamentally reimagine humanities advocacy. Which technologies have started this work? Which, if any, DH projects you know about are intervening in humanities advocacy?

  6. Liu proposes that DH needs to intervene across disciplines to better address its technological and intellectual infrastructure. What might such an intervention look like? Where has work like this begun already and where is there room for more?

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

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