Post 3 Kirtz: DH Centers & Commodification (MITH Specific)

Alan Liu raises an essential point regarding the lack of cultural criticism in the digital humanities, particularly “how the digital humanities advances, channels or resists today’s great postindustrial, neoliberal, corporate and global flows of information-cum-capital” (2013). This is especially pertinent through the recent commodification of digital humanities spaces wherein digital humanities centers are becoming popular resources for universities and offer a chance for institutions to lay claim to a particular type of work. For example, the Stanford Literary Lab/Humanities Center is recognized for big data studies involving literature, while the University of Chicago has devoted resources to preservation projects and museum studies, as well as creating a masters in digital humanities. Centers began appearing in the early 1990s and have produced important theoretical and practical tools and applications as well as providing opportunities for graduate students and professors to interact (Fraistat, 2013); however, with the rise of neoliberalism is the commodification and quantification of space, people and research. As Fraistat claims, these centers present spaces for current research but also future models of what institutional learning could look like (2013). How then, can we change the future, or will it these supposedly alternative spaces become corporate features much like the rest of the university labs? The competitive aspect of these centers detracts from their purpose by isolating researchers, although some efforts have been made to connect scholars through initiatives such as centerNet (Fraistat, 2013). These centers establish themselves through their researchers’ cultural capital, which transfer certain forms of knowledge and connote various statements about status. This in turn illustrates the institutional biases inherent in forming centers, even though they are for the purpose for researching alternative methods. Ultimately this results in a kind of academic catch twenty two.

This problem of academic institutionalization and power dynamics is witnessed through the development of these centers. As Fraistat describes, MITH began with one director and two graduate assistants, but also with a large grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which brought together the College of Arts and Humanities and the Office of Information Technology at the university (2013). This exemplifies the formation of subculture around capital, as Bourdieu speculates that with mobility, economic capital is transferred into cultural capital and vice versa (1986). In thinking about the exchange of capital or “value” in a Marxian sense, the objectification of these spaces is present at their very inception. Further many of the projects involve digitizing important texts and scrolls, borrowed from the Library of Congress or the Smithsonian, highlighting the objectification of cultural capital. The focus on goods and tools, particularly on their economic value as rare through the drive to preserve, highlights the mobility and power of the center due to its cultural capital. Interestingly, Julia Flander’s article focuses on how the university requires quantifiable work specifically in digital humanities environments in order to justify spending. Thus not only is the space objectified but the people within these spaces are too. They are (to borrow from Marx) alienated from their own work through the constant need to quantify their research and by unique specialization.

The commodification of space

The commodification of space

These centers also blur the line between traditional academic work and the “alt-ac” work described in the Flander’s article. The MITH embodies preservation seen through the Deena Larsen Collection, which is an archive of personal computers and software, as well as the Preserving Virtual Worlds Group that seeks preserve computer games, personal software and other computer related artifacts (Fraistat, 2013). This emphasis on alternative elements of study illustrates both the potential positives and fallacies of digital humanities as William Pannapacker notes the growing significance of the digital humanities, and the backlash of its imminent prevalence (2013). Furthermore he discusses the digital humanities as a space that “has included so many alt-academics who felt disrespected by the traditional academy” (2013). In Debates in Digital Humanities this problem is left unresolved, very much in the hands of the new generation.

The MITH is now an established center that is no longer entirely marginal as it receives funding and recognition within certain academic spheres. There are digital humanities communities and locations that exist outside the institution although these are not as widely populated. Hebdige describes power relations as the following: “some groups have more say, more opportunity to make the rules, to organize meaning, while others are less favorably placed, have less power to produce and impose their definitions of the world on the world” (1979, p.14). Those within institutions have the cultural, symbolic and economic capital to make rules and organize meaning, specifically in regards to defining digital humanities. Yet, there is no standardized test or evaluation system for measuring all intellectual activities and these activities have so far been defined only by already so-called intellectuals within social structure (Bensaïd, 2013). However, that does not preclude intellectual activity from existing outside the bounds of the institution (Bensaïd, 2013). Therefore is the only non-commodified space for digital humanities outside of the institution? How do we negotiate the socio-economic politics of digital humanities within the institution?


Bensaïd, D. (2012, Jan 20). “Pierre Bourdieu, l’intellectuel et le politique.” [Re-print of 2002 Editorial]

Retrieved from

Bourdieu, P. (1986). “The Forms of Capital.” In J. Richardson. (ed.), Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociological Education (241-258). New York, NY: Greenwood.

Flanders, J. (2013). “Time, Labor, and ‘Alternative Careers’ in Digital Humanities Knowledge Work.” In Debates in Digital Humanities, edited by M. Gold. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Fraistat, N. (2012). “The Function of Digital Humanities Centers at the Present Time.” In Debates in Digital Humanities, edited by M. Gold. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Hebdige, D. (1979). Subculture: The Meaning of Style. New York, NY: Methuen & CO.

Liu, A. (2012). “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?” In Debates in Digital Humanities, edited by M. Gold. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Pannapacker, W. (2013). “Digital Humanities Triumphant?” In Debates in Digital Humanities, edited by M. Gold. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


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