The Academic Department as 'Enabling Infrastructure'

A Critical Response to Wai Chee Dimock’s ‘Experimental Humanities’ Column

In the introduction to the PMLA’s March 2017 issue (Vol. 132, Num. 2), Wai Chee Dimock presents an arresting case for an “experimental humanities.” In her piece, Dimock cites a general assault on knowledge and the much ballyhooed “crisis facing the humanities” as reasons for exploring the “full range” of issues and possibilities surrounding “disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity” in literary studies. Her argument is for humanities scholars to take a cue from their natural science counterparts by developing a “tool-dependent, collaboration-based, and field-tested” experimental method to support and sustain a truly interdisciplinary field of study. 

Of particular interest is Dimock’s discussion of Rudolf Carnap, and his 1946 lectures on experimental method. In his philosophy of science, Carnap distinguishes between two types of scientific observation, passive (looking only at data supplied by nature) and active (going beyond what nature provides), the latter of which requires the “experimental” scientist to develop “enabling infrastructures” that “create what is not available or observable in nature.” 

As examples, Dimock references the Kennedy Space Center launch site in Cape Canaveral (FL), the Jet Propulsion Lab at the California Institute of Technology, and the commercial aerospace manufacturer SpaceX as public and private ventures (i.e. “enabling infrastructures”) built to support experimental astronomers who, unlike literary scholars, are “doing something, experimenting with something that could succeed in the here and now.” (Note: Dimock also mentions the telescope as an instrumental example of a “mini-infrastructure” developed for the advancement of experimental astronomy.) 

As Dimock shifts from an analysis of experimental astronomy to a prescription for the literary humanities, one passage stands out as particularly poignant:

"Most of us still tend to be nonexperimentalists. We stick with what already exists, seeing our objects of study as finished products, faits accomplis, if not quite stars and galaxies created billions of years ago, then works of literature created three hundred years, thirty years, three years before we turn our attention to them. Completed before our arrival and summoned now only to be observed and critiqued, these antecedent objects stand at an input-discouraging distance. We use our critical lenses, the equivalent of telescopes, to bring them into our fields of vision, but they remain closed chapters and done deals. We don’t dream of collaborating with these texts, nor do we design experiments to test their behavior under altered circumstances."

Perhaps, as *nonexperimentalists*, lit scholars display a particular forte and flare for identifying such epistemological dilemmas, for here Dimock presents a fair and honest assessment/indictment of literary studies at present. The more testing problematic for her (and the rest of us), it seems, lies in the Delphic identification of what steps need to be taken next in response.

The piece suggests a move towards digital research tools and grant fundable ventures that encourage an emphasis on “hybrid scholarship” and “reparative practice” as experimental methods vital to sustaining the humanities. The prime example given of such a venture is the online literary magazine, Public Books, cofounded by scholars Sharon Marcus (English professor, dean of humanities at Columbia University) and Caitlin Zaloom (anthropologist and associate professor in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University). Without being reductive, Public Books is a digital magazine that supplies book reviews and artist interviews to online reading publics as a means of showcasing works of scholarly interest in a variety of genres and media. The project’s considerable success (particularly after the publication of the “Trump Syllabus 2.0” went viral following the 2016 U.S. presidential election) illustrates the kind of “online infrastructure building” that Dimock deems crucial to developing and sustaining an experimental humanities.

Perhaps the potential for such an “experimental method” to take hold and provide the cure-all for the crisis in the humanities strikes us as so massively appealing that Dimock’s suggestion for scholars to move to building online infrastructures, as the “experimental” replacement for traditional “enabling infrastructures,” won’t be met with much critique or critical pushback. Clearly, there are benefits to using the Internet and digital media as tools for extending the reach of the humanities. And, in this Internet and social media age, a number of digital humanities scholars have already provided countless examples of how such ventures can help sustain humanities pedagogy and scholarship. (An example of which is the proliferation of collaborative digital syllabi like “Trump Syllabus 2.0” and the “#BlackLiveMatter” syllabus.)

Still, Dimock’s recommendation revises the approach of these digital humanists by suggesting, as a final act of experimentation, the building of these online infrastructures and platforms, as opposed to reading the building of such platforms as an experimentation with and on our already established enabling infrastructures—the most common of which have been university supported academic departments, centers, labs, and initiatives. Why Dimock displaces this call for “experimentation” to the digital rather than departmental realm may speak to a general disillusionment amongst humanities scholars with the American academy as a collection of increasingly bureaucratic institutions—a disillusionment that seems to demarcate the lines of crisis purportedly threatening humanities research and support in the first place.

“Completed before our arrival,” held “at an input-discouraging distance,” “summoned now only to be observed and critiqued,” the division of knowledge within universities necessitated early on the production of academic departments that remain "closed chapters and done deals” for scholars, slowing the progression of any potential interdisciplinarity and inhibiting the dream of a future experimental humanities. For this very reason, I would propose that humanities academics turn their experimental attention back towards the university supported academic department as the best “field-test” for building any truly enabling infrastructure in the humanities.

As a scholar of African American literature, my having a place in the academy has been determined by a history of the type of experimental humanities Dimock proposes. Evidenced by a generation of “thick-skinned” agitators and “hybrid scholars” (“still bookish but not giving up on the world”) whose “experimental method” and “reparative practice” helped birth Black Studies as an interdisciplinary field of study in the 1970s, examples of such experimentation proliferate throughout the history of our field. As an equivalent to Dimock's proposed online ventures, the reorganization of the academic department allows scholars to build enabling infrastructures as a byproduct of institutional (in addition to personal) investment--honoring a long history of such experimental practice and not displacing the full burden of that experimentation to an already hyper-extended humanities professoriat. 

The academy has always proven to be an ideal site for such experimentation, even during times of political and social resistance. Yet, in recent decades, the fruitful elasticity of academic departments, has been replaced by a widespread and, seemingly reactionary, impulse to retraction. As the funding for departments like Africana Studies and Comparative Literature studies dries up across different university platforms, the danger of displacing this commitment to experimentation to a virtual rather than real-world realm looms all-too large. 

What such university retractions tell me is that instead of wanting to enable experimentation in the production of humanistic knowledge that is "propelled at every turn by the mistakes it makes," departments have become enabling infrastructures of a different kind of ideological practice. If this impulse is correct, then very soon I fear literary scholars may find themselves a part of a university system that no longer believes in or desires to enable the production of scholarly knowledge in an experimental, or traditional, humanities of any kind.

This is why a properly-oriented "experimental humanities" is so vital. One where the literary scholar's concern isn't necessarily for a digital world, or even primarily a literary one. Nor would a truly experimental humanities scholar stop short at setting up new academic departments as a test of method only, but would work to extend that experimentation to perpetually reorganizing the static academy when and where it is constituted as such. Of course, such an endless reorganization would also require us to perpetually increase humanities archives, which would, hopefully, lead to directing our experimental energies beyond the walls of the university into the 'disabling infrastructures' of other political, economic, social, and educational institutions. 

The primary concern of the humanities has always been with the study of all things related to human culture. A humanistic experimental method would, thus, slowly displace a passive approach (looking only at culture supplied by human nature) with one that is more active (going beyond what human nature provides). Why not commit to such a method to create tools for, collaborate with, and field-test scholarly ideas on human culture? Why “stick with what already exists” in any human institution, when we face the possibility of "doing something" to "succeed in the here and now"? Experimenting with the academic department as an enabling infrastructure would prove to be only our first test site. 

If, as Dimock's editorial makes very clear, the production of knowledge needs ‘enabling,’ and ‘infrastructure,’ and “enabling infrastructures,’ then shouldn’t we, as active (and perhaps activist) experimental scholars, look for opportunities to "dream" up our culture and work for opportunities to "design experiments to test [its] behavior under altered circumstances"? Such a far reaching and interdisciplinary project for the humanities, it seems to me, would be the one that is truly experimental.