Neoliberalism and Other Realisms

I was glad to see the various responses by my colleagues in the digital humanities to the LARB article. Ted Underwood and Alan Liu both provided nuanced historical and theoretical contexts for the archival and infrastructural work done in the field. Schuyler Esprit and Roopsi Risam, meanwhile, compellingly argued for PoC scholars, alt-ac and NTT labor, students, and the other constituencies who are all-too-often ignored in broad discussions of the digital humanities.

One feature of this conversation that particularly interests me, however, are the various responses to the claim DH is essentially a form of “neoliberal” thought. Liu, for instance, mentions in tweets accompanying the original post, that working for open access within the neoliberal university is an “urgently needed form of critique even if it deals in shades of gray rather than righteous purity.” Likewise, Risam says that “there is also no digital humanities without complicity, which comes in varying degrees based on context.”

I think both Risam and Liu are right: that complicity is part of being embedded within the power structures of the neoliberal university. At the same time, this is a delimma we’ve seen before — right? In 1999, Bill Readings argued that the University was becoming “a transnational bureaucratic organization, either tied to transnational instances of government like the European Union or functioning independently, by analogy with a transnational corporation” (3). The past 17 years has seen various responses to what it means to function within a neoliberal order. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s appeal to Spinoza’s multitude as an alternative to the Hegelian dialectic was positioned — in part — to address the idea that there is no “outside” to neoliberal globalization. Hardt and Negri point out that “Empire itself is not a positive reality. […] Certainly power is everywhere, but it is everywhere because everywhere is in play in the nexus between virtuality and possibility, a nexus that is the sole province of the multitude” (Empire 361).

Hardt and Negri’s discussion of “reality” is important here, because it is an appeal to reality and realism that figures as the central neoliberal claim to our thoughts, our efforts, and our critiques. I’m reminded of Corey Robin’s recent post on Charles Peters’s “A Neoliberal Manifesto.” When reading the post, I was particularly struck by the passage in which Peters says that neoliberals “still believe in liberty and justice for all, in mercy for the afflicted and help for the down and out. But we no longer automatically favor unions and big government or oppose the military and big business. Indeed our search for solutions that work, we have to distrust all automatic responses, liberal or conservative.” Robin points out that this pragmatic realism ended up producing a neoliberal platform that embraced the GOP hatred of unions along with their rejection of the New Deal idea that the poor were central to the economy. In fact, for neoliberals “[t]he poor were superfluous to that economy: there was America, which was middle-class and mainstream; there was the ‘other,’ which was poor and marginal.” As is pretty obvious to many people who study culture, what’s figured by politicians and capitalists as “reality,” is often nothing more than an attempt to ossify what is actually changing and constantly in play.

I say this not to suggest that Liu and Risam’s claims about complicity are a mask for the kinds of betrayals found in something like Peters and other neoliberals like him. As a white-guy Assistant Professor at an R1 institution, I can lay claim to quite a bit of complicity myself. And, to be sure, both Liu and Risam (along with numberless other DH scholars) have done quite a bit of good with the power they’ve wielded in the neoliberal University. On the other hand, I want to echo Davin Heckman’s confusion over why so many people feel so possessive over DH, given its multiplicity of approaches and largely insubstantial nature as a field. Heckman continues by saying that he thinks “we should be very skeptical about our success working within systems. (We have little choice but to work within systems, but we should not trick ourselves into believing that we can master them). It seems, at best, we can be good for fleeting moments. (And our complicity within these systems might blind us, but it does not make us hypocrites to critique them).”

If we look at the past half-century of democrats rejecting the promise of the New Deal and the Great Society while gradually submitting to the increasingly corporate, militarized, carceral state, I’d argue that the consequences of our blindness to complicity are more profound than those associated with our possible hypocrisy. We should be cautious not to turn admittances of complicity into excuses for pausing in front of power, with its largely empty claims to limits and reality, when we could be doing and thinking more.

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