Zombie Apocalypse and the Digital Humanities

Written by: Dean Rehberger

Primary Source: HistoryHacks

I was reading Gary Olson’s post in The Chronicle, “How Not to Reform Humanities Scholarship,”  (http://chronicle.com/article/How-Not-to-Reform-Humanities/130675/) and it reminded me of the wonderful opening scene in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968).  Barbra’s brother is teasing her with, “They’re coming to get you, Barbra, they’re coming to get you.”  In Olson’s palaver, and ones like it (I have had many callers), the digital humanities are imagined as a terrible unnamed contagion that threatens to devour the humanities.  Brain-dead and unfocused the hoards of digital scholars will swoop down on the traditional monographers to render them all bits and bytes.  They are, after all, coming to get you.  And at a really bad time (Zombie attacks always do come at a bad time; remember Zombieland rule #3, Beware of Bathrooms).

We can for the time being put aside all of the rhetorical fallacies in the article.  I mean, any call for reform is always a slip-slidey away down the slope to the end of peer review and the monograph.  It is not even worth the glyphs to argue against such things.  What interests me most here are both an appeal and a premise that are becoming ever more popular in these types of arguments. The appeal is a fun one and we like to pick it up from popular books on the subject of (ta da) brain science.  In this case it is Maryanne Wolf’s fun read, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.  With a lot rigor and meticulousness, we like to apply this popularized science to anything we see fit and “prove” that people are becoming more like zombies.  In this case, none of the studies cited by Wolf apply to monograph writers vs. digital scholars.  Does the close reading of articles and books for a monograph make the mind more focused than the rigors of doing animation or the meticulousness of coding (never mind that one needs to read articles and books to do digital scholarship)?  We don’t know and can’t conclude from the science cited by Wolf.   But we can make it apply by simply saying it is so.  Once again showing how good work in the humanities is done.

The long story short, by doing really bad science, by making unwarranted claims, we can both prove to the scientists and ward off “frontal attacks, ” and then ultimately show that we are really, really, really good scholars who won’t be party to no “erosion of standards” spread by those digital sorts cause we have good brains science on our side (lots of good brains — sadly Olson does not realize that is the zombie diet). The premise is more fun: the golden ladder of nostalgia or why we are always bad historians of ourselves.   We could point out that back in my day (getting so old), post-modern theorists were the zombies out to eat the living and the dead.  Or we could point out that the humanities have always been under attack (like Marx’ ghosts, the constant slippage of the humanities is a by-product of the invention of the modern university but that is for another post).  Or we could point out that we are all digital scholars – or at least most of us – using computers and word-processors, and in the last ten years, digital access to all sorts of materials has had profound impact on how we do scholarship. But this is just it, since the beginning of the modern humanities after the Civil War (it was all Rhetoric before then, literally), scholarship has been changing and mutating in fits and starts.

There never was a golden age of the monograph but a lot of different versions of monograph cultures that were different in the various disciplines of the humanities and vastly different over time.  Yet all this does not matter because we can point to that one golden moment of humanities scholarship that creates good brains and has the power to save the humanities; a golden moment always just slipping from our grip. In the end, though, there is no sense in trying to convince the Olson types (or the mysterious callers), better to call on rules 4, 8, and 31: Wear Seat Belts, Get a Kick Ass Partner, and Check the Back Seat.  The zombies are coming and they are out to get you.

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Dean Rehberger

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