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ON OKWUI ENWEZOR (1963-2019)


Terry Smith

I first met Okwui Enwezor in 1997, at Bard College in upstate New York, when the curatorial team for the Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin 1950s-1980s was assembled by the project organizers: the artist Luis Camnitzer, the scholar Rachel Weiss, and the curator Jane Farver. The exhibition opened at the Queens Museum, New York, in April 1999, and traveled elsewhere in the US. The aim was to show New Yorkers and other Americans that conceptualist practices from elsewhere were not pale imitations of European and US models. Instead, they had originated throughout the world in response to local conditions; and were usually more political in intention and effect. At the Bard workshop, each curator was challenged to prove that “our” artists—the artists from the region we represented—met these criteria. Okwui and I were provoked by this: me to show that, in Australia and New Zealand, there were both imitators and originators, but more importantly to demonstrate that conceptualism was more an “art in transit” than an art locked into local settings. Okwui’s answer was better. Fresh from curating the 2nd Johannesburg Biennial, he boomed “Of course, there are some artists who are clearly international conceptualists, yet work in unique ways.” He showed South African Willem Boshoff’s braille text pieces. “But,” he continued, “the point is that, as Yoruba knowledge tells us, in Africa, artists emerge from a long tradition of ideas, language, and performance.” Thus, Frédéric Bruly Bouabré. African art, he was saying, has always been conceptual and political—on a broader scale, and in deeper, more embedded ways than anything you can imagine.


Global Conceptualism was reviled at the time; it is now regarded as a landmark exhibition, a harbinger of the “global exhibitions” to come, that are now almost a norm for exhibitions that aim to be seriously consequential. Okwui was not only a pioneer of this form, he quickly became its leading exponent. What drove him to take on such ambitious projects? What enabled him to succeed, so often, over more than two decades?

His personal qualities were evident to all who knew him. A love of life. A large laugh. A generosity of spirit. High intelligence. A constant quest for more knowledge; an incessant self-education. A gift for friendship. He was a demanding companion and a challenging colleague. Of course, he had unlimited ambition—for himself and for his projects. His natural inclination to leadership was tempered by an instinct towards collective action. True grit. Unbending integrity. Impatience with stupidity; hatred of cupidity. An instinctive educator; a great teacher (he was much loved at the University of Pittsburgh, where I brought him to teach, straight after Documenta 11). He was an inspiring, indefatigable collaborator, as I found out when he and Nancy Condee and I worked together in Pittsburgh to stage the conference that led to Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity (Duke, 2008). Above all, he was a visionary, a dreamer.

He possessed a love of art that encompassed continents and centuries, thus making a random stroll through the Metropolitan Museum, New York, his greatest happiness as a private visitor to an art gallery. It is one of the world’s losses that we never got to see Okwui in the role as director of that museum, or an equivalent institution. While the United States, to its great credit, was able to elect, and reelect, a black president (for whom we both voted), black directors of major museums are few and far between. The situation in Europe is no better. We talked about this structural exclusion, which he felt keenly. The world’s geopolitical turning would, we dared to hope, eventually lead to change, despite the current reactionary regressions. It is a matter of deep regret that his life cut short—he died in Munich on 15 March 2019—means that we will never see him break through that wall, as he did so many others.

But Okwui Enwezor amounted to much more than the sum of his personal qualities, and a lot more than the list of his formal identities. This became truly clear when I visited Documenta 11, the fifth platform of which was at Kassel in June 2002. For me, a defining moment occurred in the Documenta Halle, in the installation From/To by Fareed Armaly and Rashid Masharawi. Armaly, an artist of Lebanese-Palestinian descent, born in the US and resident in Stuttgart, designed a floor grid of orientations based on territories claimed by Palestine. Masharawi, a Palestinian filmmaker, born in the Shati refugee camp and resident of Ramallah, presented an engrossing program of Palestinian film. The projection space included an illuminated wall map showing the actual locations of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. It became obvious at a glance that Israel was establishing “facts on the ground” that would make the two-state solution supposedly desired by all parties a practical impossibility.

An informed, free press would have made this known to all, but these were the months after 9/11. The War on Terror had been declared by the oligarchs who were then, as now, in command of nations. Information inimical to their interests was systematically eclipsed, even in “free” societies. In the United States, where we were living, opposition was rare, and when exceptional intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky and Susan Sontag raised their voices against the tide of misinformation, mindless patriotism, and fearful retreat from critique, they were pilloried. Okwui and his team, and the artists in the exhibition, did not fear such criticism. They had a larger duty: to show the world to us as it was, and to imagine the world as it might be, after the legacies of colonialism are finally overcome.

Okwui called this: opening “The Black Box.” Not just creating spaces for photography, video, and documentary, but also exposing the world’s unconscious, its centuries of repression. Under his guidance, the exhibition became a space of liberation.

A certain trajectory emerges in the series of his exhibitions that began at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 1996, with In/sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present, and continued with Trade Routes: History and Geography, 2nd Johannesburg Biennial (1977); Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945-1994 (2001-2002); Documenta 11 (2002); and then through several others, up to and including his recent major achievements. It was no accident that he located the continuous reading of undervalued yet essential texts at the core of most of his exhibitions. Nor that, at Venice in 2015, it was Karl Marx’s Capital. Thomas Pikkety’s globalized version, Capital for the Twenty-first Century, had been published the year before. Okwui wanted us to remember the real thing, to help us imagine All the World’s Futures more clearly.

No curator working today matches the scope of Okwui’s vision. I see him as the Karl Marx of contemporary curating. I say this with full awareness that each of us is a clutch of contradictions, as was Marx himself. Okwui’s deep understanding of the kinds of work that art does in the world parallels Marx’s grasp of the importance of modes of production, and how when they change, the world changes. These are not abstractions. They are insights into how things are, and how they might get worse, or better, or both. Compare any of his exhibitions, with their world-historical sweep, to the mainstream surveys of contemporary art, vaguely shaped according to a generalizing, pluralistic theme—for example, most editions of the Venice Biennale. In contrast, Okwui became the master of what we might call the contemporary, historical, and critical exhibition. Magnificent Scale was a great title for the El Anatsui exhibition at the Haus der Kunst, Munich: it describes Okwui’s achievements equally well.

In a conversation that we had in Munich in 2013, that was published two years later in my book Talking Contemporary Curating, he said this:

To me the fundamental challenges that a curator faces today are how to provoke an engaged confrontation with works of art, how to make that experience legible, and how to use it to open up forms of engagement with the world. Exhibitions, in this sense, open up the surplus value of art. They create value of many kinds, simply because each time artworks are exhibited they accrue new meaning, new force, and open out new possibilities, while not necessarily changing their shape. In turn, art changes the perceptions of those it engages—so, to make an exhibition is to theorize the place of art not only in institutions, but also in public spaces, and, if you will, in the world.

To truly value the surplus value of art, and to never use it for its exchange value—that was what Okwui believed that contemporary curating should do.

In the week before he died, on 15 March 12019, I spent many hours each day by his hospital bed in Munich, as the vast complexities of his life converged upon us. It was a privilege to be there with him then, as it had been, so often but never often enough, since 1997.


TERRY SMITH is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh, and Professor in the Division of Philosophy, Art, and Critical Thought at the European Graduate School. In 2010, he became Australia Council Visual Arts Laureate and the received the Franklin Jewett Mather Award from the College Art Association (USA). Books include What is Contemporary Art? (2009), Contemporary Art: World Currents (2011), Thinking Contemporary Curating (2012), Talking Contemporary Curating (2015), The Contemporary Composition (2016), One and Five Ideas: On Conceptual Art and Conceptualism (2107), and Art to Come: Histories of Contemporary Art (2019). See

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The Palestinian Shoah?

The Palestinian Shoah?

David Simpson

First, note the italics. I mean the film, not the event. We have all been well schooled in the moral orthodoxy whereby nothing can or should be compared to the Shoah, which was indeed a genocide of staggering and exceptional proportions, one whose millions of dead indeed deserve not to be jumbled together as simply one set of victims among many in modern history. Speaking about the Shoah has generated a unique level of attentiveness and deference; some feel that nothing can be said by way of explanation, or that no restorative gesture can be adequately imagined, or that any comparison with anything else is an outrage. Some say that it is best remembered as an instance of absolute evil, one that will forever stand as the limit case of human cruelty and depravity. All explanations soon seem to come to the point where something irrational must be confronted. The disturbances generated by any attempt at explanation are not likely to disappear. Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) has a good deal to do with this situation.

Lanzmann’s film generated an uncommonly intense set of responses, all now part of the record. Whether out of choice or necessity, Lanzmann barely interviewed the Nazi perpetrators: figures like the Polish train driver at Treblinka had to do most of the work of accounting for the agents. Lanzmann was a Zionist, and historical complexity is no part of his film. But the testimony of the victim survivors is unforgettable. Above all it is suffused by the melancholic passage of time; these are among the last who will speak from personal experience, who saw and felt the culture of the death camps. The Palestinian survivors of the Nakba (catastrophe) are also reaching old age; they too have little time left to be recognized and recorded.

Shoah had worldwide distribution and massive publicity. It has become an unignorable centerpiece of film history, both for its topic and its methods, and at over nine hours in length it demands a serious commitment from its audiences, one commensurate, no doubt, with the gravity of its subject. It is unlikely that Andy Trimlett and Ahlam Muhtaseb’s 1948: Catastrophe and Creation, produced largely by community funding (it was twice refused NEH support), released in late 2017 and running for not much more than an hour, will get anywhere near this level of attention.[1] Indeed at least one city council in the US actively sought to prevent its being shown. The current weaponization of anti-Semitism, which seeks to identify any critique (or even historical analysis) of Israel or Zionism as an ethno-racial attack on all Jews, will ensure that many of us who see this film will see it in the way I saw it, at a one-off showing in a Unitarian church attended by persons already sympathetic to the cause of Palestinian rights. Alternatively, we can resort to Amazon Prime. It is worth doing so.


These limits on public circulation are to be regretted, for the film deserves the widest distribution. It is the outcome of much research and some ninety interviews with those who lived through 1948 in Palestine as it was becoming Israel, interspersed with the comments of modern historians of the Middle East. It offers more or less equal time to members of the Jewish militias and to their victims, and in this sense it records both sides; but equal time does not imply moral equivalence, nor does it pretend that there is no agreement about the harsh facts of what occurred.  As I am writing, things are going rapidly from bad to worse for the Palestinians, and it is unlikely that we have reached bottom. 1948 does not claim that what happened was a Shoah equivalent; the film is modest in its documentation of actual deaths (on both sides) and is scrupulously sensitive to the anguish of those who felt or now feel terrible about their role in the “cleansing” of Arab villages and neighborhoods. Even when we are told the story of a baker and his son who were thrown alive into an oven by Jewish soldiers, there is a remarkable lack of melodrama or coercive emotionalism. On the contrary, we are made to see how absolutely normal such events are among those who feel that being at war justifies the rapes, tortures, and murders committed. The Deir Yassin massacre figures in, of course, but only as one among many other stories of violent expulsions all over Palestine.

Absent here is any reference to the obfuscating question as to whether Israel has a “right to exist,” as if any state anywhere has ever had such a right, or has been innocent of founding violence. The old canard about the two-state solution that was supposedly on offer only to be refused by the Palestinians is shown for what it was: a massively uneven division of the land that gave more than half of the land, and the best land, to what was then a Jewish minority. Muhtaseb and Trimlett have done for film what Thomas Suárez’s State of Terror (2016)—also probably destined to remain a hard-to-find book—did for the print record: they bring to life the exhaustive evidence from the archive (or what the author has been allowed to see of it) that carefully planned terrorism and violence were the foundations of Israel both before and after it achieved statehood.[2]

If the film is not “even-handed” in the habitual American sense whereby one position is set against the opposite position, whatever the issue, and no one raises awkward questions about facts, it is because the history being remembered is itself not even-handed. One side had the weapons, the training and the violent ethno-nationalist motivation, and the other did not. In the present day, the winners are taking more and more of the land, and look as if they might take it all. In so doing they are bound to confirm and compound by more and more violence their own status as unwelcome occupiers, and enact more and more punitive legislation, all the while trying to persuade the world that they are an inclusive, nonracial democracy. Many of the old Irgun and Palmach fighters report what they did and what they saw without excessive sentiment and without explicit apology, but their discomfort and occasional distress are palpable, and they share with their victims, however reluctantly, a dignified commitment to establishing the record, to witnessing. They are neither vindicated nor excused, but there are no denials. The concluding voiceover in 1948 does not ask what degree of right and wrong exists here, but whether it has been worth it; and if it has not been worth it, then what happens next? In the face of the militant triumphalism and historical misrepresentation enacted by the current Israeli government and its apologists, this new way of asking an all-too old question should be welcomed and circulated as widely as possible.

David Simpson is Distinguished Professor and G. B. Needham Chair Emeritus at the University of California–Davis. His most recent book is States of Terror: History, Theory, Literature (2019).


[1] Andy Trimlett and Ahlam Muhtaseb, dir. 1948: Catastrophe and Creation (Portland, OR: Collective Eye, 2017), 85 min.

[2] See Thomas Suárez, State of Terror: How Terrorism Created Modern Israel (Bloxham, 2016).

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Reading the Mueller Report

The textual icon of our moment is surely the Mueller Report. It is the most discussed and least read books in many years. It must rank among the most eagerly anticipated and anticlimactic publications in the modern history of the book. How important is it? Or rather, what, precisely is its importance? Does it matter that is boring, especially for people who have watched the entire narrative unfold publicly over the last two years. Will it come alive (as some hope) when the movie version of the report is produced by the author’s testimony before Congress in the coming weeks?

Critical Inquiry is interested in the question of the Mueller Report as both a text and an iconic event. We hope to publish a few brief (1500 word) invited essays that assess the significance of the report, along with its reception. If you have an idea for such an essay, please send a letter with a brief precis of your idea to the editors at

We inaugurate this forum with an essay by Richard H. Weisberg, professor at Cardozo Law School and the author of When Lawyers Write (1987).

W. J. T. Mitchell




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Seventy Into ’48: The State as a Scandal

Khaled Furani

A state, is called the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly lieth it also; and this lie creepeth from its mouth: ‘I, the state, am the people’…where all are poison-drinkers, the good and the bad: the state, where all lose themselves, the good and the bad: the state, where the slow suicide of all—is called ‘life.’ —Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, 1883

We are summoned today to reflect on the seventieth anniversary of 1948. On this occasion, I present a certain “gift” to my conqueror. It is in a sense an absurd gift. In a “birthday card,” I extend a gift of truth, or rather regions of truth that may come with an effort towards self-recognition. These are regions that both conqueror and conquered—inhabiting discrepant conditions of fear due to discrepant power at their disposal—may rarely visit, just as one may rarely plunge into one’s own darkness. It is a gift of recognition that 1948 is a truth of a darkness unfolding. That year—and probably a further past—lives with us still, not behind us in the past. We are seventy years into 1948, not simply since 1948. What does it mean to be seventy years into the darkness of 1948?

I do not claim 1948 as ongoing merely due to the ongoing conquest of land, by means both legal and extra-legal. Rather, 1948 stands for unfinished business, by which I mean the variegated business of finishing off the Palestinian body, one-by-one and collectively. The Palestinian’s language, home, memory, land, water, and physical and political body must be cleared away, must vanish, for purity to be attained, for victory to be declared, for death itself to be conquered, for security to be achieved. Or so runs the illusion.

So long as purity stands for security then we ought to be on the alert for a “genocidal desire” at work. This is a desire for massive death for the sake of purity of the Jewish state (meaning composed purely of Jewish bodies) whose symptoms include: erasure of the Arabic language, destruction of historic and living homes, excision and criminalization of native memory, confiscation of lands, pollution of fields, obliteration and ghettoization of villages and towns, theft and contamination of water supplies, withholding of medicine and medical care, experimentation and weapons testing on populations, and elimination of bodies, directly and by proxy.

This genocidal desire seems to find nourishment in fear, fear that lives, for example, in the hoary but protean slogan promising a people said to be without a land a land said to have no people. That is, the Palestinian must not be so that the Israeli can be, just as wild nature must be extirpated from civilization. This genocidal desire has a traceable frequency of appearances, as well as effects. A common alarmist call maligns even Palestinian eggs and sperm going about their work. I am talking about the refrain of “demographic threat.” Then there is the frequent appearance of inciteful graffiti under bridges, on highways, and in streets and alleys throughout the country—“death to the Arabs” and “Kahane was right”—etched with apparent impunity. For tracing some of this desire’s effects, consider all those uprooted from the land. Read their poets. Fadwa Tuqan inscribed their unmet wish on her tomb: “It is enough for me to die on her and be buried in her, under her soil, melt and vanish, and come back to life as weed in her soil, as a flower.” Her wish to escape dying in exile, a wish to return to life in her own soil, even if only as a weed, should perhaps be enough to recognize the destruction wrought by this genocidal desire. In case it is not, I offer some numbers.

Photo by Mohamad Badarne

Traces of a Genocidal Desire

One woman each month. Two children each month. One man each day last month, and perhaps every month since 2000. I am citing a rough but rather probable “slow trickle” of hidden murder: a generally unreported rate of destroyed Palestinian bodies under Israel’s many hands, not including mass killings as in declared military “operations,” also known as “mowing the lawn.” Some bodies are murdered by “on duty” weapons and others by rampant “off duty” weapons. Some bodies are eradicated by soldiers or police in Jerusalem, the West Bank, or Gaza. Other bodies are annihilated in a carefully managed self-destruction of Palestinian citizenry of Israel. Via its selective surveillance and “law enforcement,” one eye of the state never sleeps—it watches for and prosecutes words, even poems in cyberspace—while the other eye “turns blind” when it comes to the influx of weapons for killing ourselves. As one hand tracks weapons and words across the physical and virtual earth, the other appears paralyzed to act against them in this very land.

This destruction of physical bodies is perhaps the most brutal of lenses through which to see how we are seventy years now into an abyss that is ‘48, seventy years into the unfinished business of finishing off the Palestinian body, multifariously, collectively, and yes, corporally. Seventy years, but actually longer, of not only wanting more land but also less and less Palestinians. Thus, by no means a deviation, the “Nationality Law,” like the “Law of Return,” is but one law in a battery of legislation for fulfilling the principle of purity.

This protean principle stems from the fear of impurity and can even be found at work every time fear lives in uttering “Arab” as a way not to see or say “Palestinian,” and “minorities” or “the sector” to see neither. But who is really a minority in this landscape? What enables a powerful minority of immigrants not to recognize a majority in whose midst it keeps bulldozing its way to a fortress? Who pays for this fortress and its enabling landscape that is the modern “Middle East”? At what price?

Photo by Razan Shalabi

The Price of Traps

Trap 1: Cement

In its relentless quest for purity, I see Israel caught in a kind of scandal, from the Greek skandalon, in the sense of a trap, one that can be typified by “cement and weeds.” Clearly, like any metaphor, it has its limits, but it helps me express the recurring drama of an Israel as a prevailing culture of cement and a peasants’ verdant and fecund Palestine, now destroyed and buried over, remaining only as weeds that grow through cracks, to pollinate and spread out through the air. The debacle for Israel is that despite all efforts at purification and eradication, “the weeds” never really go away. Israel is doomed to pour ever-sprawling cement and spew ever-toxic pesticides, to ultimately no avail. I am not sure what degree of obtuseness is required to not recognize where life, any life, is or is not viable: in the thorny, undesired, yet green of the weeds or in the cold, hard, grey of cement.

Trap 2: The Ghetto Incarnate

While Jews coming from Europe aspired for a kind of freedom when colonizing Palestine, it is unfreedom that they have built with their own hands. This kind of unfreedom is the same kind that comes with models like the shtetl or crusader’s castle, crisscrossed by all sorts of ramparts, immediately visible and less so. Aspiring for rootedness at “home,” rather than grow amidst the age-old olive trees, they sought to uproot them and plant instead fast-growing, concealing, highly flammable pines imported from their xenophobic oppressors. Loyal to its European baggage, the more Israel purges the roots of Palestine the more it plunges into its own grave. Through a coursing river, it planted a mikveh, a still pool for purification. And the river in this case would be the Arab-Muslim “civilizational space”—historically a home for flourishing Jewish traditions, among others—reduced to a fragmented, faltering complex of nation-states. Caught in a pendulum between Jewish and democratic, Israel fails to wonder if it should be a state or something better than a state. Fleeing from the diseases of purificatory Europe with its plaguing “cures,” Israel brings putrefication to the entire body of the “Middle East,” by which I mean modern sovereignty’s aseptic powers.

Trap 3: Vitality and Vitiation

The cage of the Ghetto Incarnate is ensnared by other cages, peculiar to Israel being a state, and being a state here, making the Jews’ “homecoming” very impiously unbecoming. As a state, and like any state, Israel is so worried about its death that it suffocates the possibility of its citizens coming into an authentic relation with theirs. And it so venerates “life,” that is, its life, that it vitiates access to a genuine life that recognizes life’s companion: death. It calls upon God only to end up acting like one. And on its altar, its citizenry is requested to surrender and sacrifice a basic sense of humility, a basic recognition of interdependence and fragility in themselves and in the universe. Israel thereby doubles down on its zarut, that is, its foreignness, as a kind of avodah zarah (idol worship), which should be a stranger to Abrahamic tradition and strange to take root in the land from which this very tradition grew.

In the meantime, we as autochthones of this place, descendants of its fellaheen and Bedouin, as organic guardians of the land’s evolving consciousness, including the Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Pharaonic, Persian, Phoenician, Philistine, Nabatean, Canaanite, Syriac, Aramaic, Hebraic, Hellenic, and Latin, among others to be sure that make up Palestine, attempt to thrive among their remains or risk our own calcification. Doing so means recognizing and confronting the cages first erected seventy years ago, but maybe much earlier. Perhaps we should be asking what does it mean to be 102 years into the darkness of Sykes-Picot and 370 years into the darkness of the Peace of Westphalia, the peace that pacified us by waging a fatal war on our sense of life and above all on life’s precariousness?

Photo by Razan Shalabi

[This paper originated as a talk given at a panel on “70 to ‘48: Reflections on Local Time,” held by the Sociology and Anthropology Department at Tel Aviv University on December 27, 2018.

Khaled Furani is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Tel Aviv University.

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More Responses to “The Computational Case against Computational Literary Studies” 

Earlier this month, Critical Inquiry hosted an online forum featuring responses to and discussion about Nan Z. Da’s “The Computational Case against Computational Literary Studies.”  To accommodate further commentary to Da’s article and to the forum itself, we have created a new page for responses.


  • Taylor Arnold (University of Richmond).
  • Duncan Buell (University of South Carolina, Columbia).


Taylor Arnold

As a statistician who has worked and published extensively within the fields of digital humanities (DH) and computational linguistics over the past decade, I have been closely following Nan Z. Da’s article “The Computational Case against Computational Literary Studies” and the ensuing conversations in the online forum. It has been repeatedly pointed out that the article contains numerous errors and misunderstandings about statistical inference, Bayesian inference, and mathematical topology. It is not my intention here to restate these same objections. I want to focus instead on an aspect of the work that has gone relatively undiscussed: the larger role to be played by statistics and statisticians within computational DH.

Da correctly points out that computational literary studies, and computational DH more generally, takes a large proportion of its methods, theories, and tools from the field of statistics. And yet, she also notes, scholars have had only limited collaborations with statisticians. It is easy to produce quantitative evidence of this fact. There are a total of zero trained statisticians (having either a Ph.D. or an academic position with the title of statistics) amongst: the 25 members on the editorial board of Cultural Analytics, 11 editors of Digital Humanities Quarterly, 22 members of the editorial board for Digital Scholarship in the Humanities, 10 members of the executive committee for the Australasian Association for Digital Humanities, 9 members of the executive committee for the Association for Computers and the Humanities, 9 members of the executive committee for the European Association for Digital Humanities, and the 4 executive council members in the Canadian Society for Digital Humanities.[1]While I do have great respect for these organizations and many of the people involved with them, the total of absence of any professional statisticians—and in many of the cited examples, lack of scholars with a terminal degree in any technical field—is a problem for a field grounded, at least in part, by the analysis of data.

In the last line of her response “Final Comments,” Da calls for a peer-review process “in which many people,” meaning statisticians and computer scientists, “are brought into peer review.” That is a good place to start but not nearly sufficient. I, and likely many other computationally trained scholars, am already frequently asked to review papers and abstract proposals for the aforementioned journals and professional societies. Da as well has claimed that her Critical Inquiry article was also vetted by a computational reviewer. The actual problem is instead that statisticians need to be involved in computational analyses from the start. To only use computational scholars at the level of peer-review risks falling into the classic trap famously described by Sir Ronald Fisher: consulting a statistician after already having collected data is nothing more than “a post mortem examination.”[2]

To see the potential for working closely with statisticians, one must look no further than Da’s own essay. She critiques the overuse and misinterpretation of term frequencies, latent Dirichlet allocation, and network analysis within computational literary studies. Without a solid background in these methods, however, the article opens itself up to the obvious (at least to a statistician) counterarguments offered in the forum by scholars such as Lauren Klein, Andrew Piper, and Ted Underwood. Had Da cowritten the article with someone with a background in statistics—she even admits that she is “far from being the ideal candidate for assessing this work,”[3] so why she would undertake this task alone in the first place is a mystery—these mistakes could have been avoided and replaced with stronger arguments. As a statistician, I also agree with many of her stated concerns over the particular methods listed in the article.[4]However, the empty critiques of what not to do could and should have been replaced with alternative methods that address some of Da’s concerns over reproducibility and multiple hypothesis testing. These corrections and additions would have been possible if she had heeded her own advice about engaging with statisticians.

My research in computational digital humanities has been a mostly productive and enjoyable experience. I have been fortunate to have colleagues who treat me as an equal within our joint research and I believe this has been the primary reason for the success of these projects. These relationships are unfortunately far from the norm. Collaborations with statisticians and computer scientists are too frequently either unattributed or avoided altogether. The field of DH often sees itself as challenging epistemological constraints towards the study of the humanities and transcending traditional disciplinary boundaries. These lofty goals are attainable only if scholars from other intellectual traditions are fully welcomed into the conversation as equal collaborators.

[1]I apologize in advance if I have missed anyone in the tally. I did my best to be diligent, but not every website provided easily checked contact information.

[2]Presidential Address to the First Indian Statistical Congress, 1938. Sankhya 4, 14-17.


[4]As a case in point, just last week I had a paper accepted for publication in which we lay out an argument and methodologies for moving beyond word counting methods in DH. See: Arnold, T., Baillier, N., Lissón, P., and Tilton, L. “Beyond lexical frequencies: Using R for text analysis in the digital humanities.” Linguistic Resources and Evaluation. To Appear.

TAYLOR ARNOLD is an assistant professor of statistics at the University of Richmond. He codirects the distant viewing lab with Lauren Tilton, an NEH-funded project that develops computational techniques to analyze visual culture on a large scale. He is the co-author the books Humanities Data in R and Computational Approach to Statistical Learning.


Duncan Buell

As a computer scientist who has been collaborating in the digital humanities for ten years now, I found Da’s article both well-written and dead on in its arguments about the shallow use of computation. I am teaching a course in text analysis this semester, and I find myself discussing repeatedly with my students the fact that they can computationally find patterns which are almost certainly not causal.

The purpose of computing being insight and not numbers (to quote Richard Hamming), computation in any area that looks like data mining is an iterative process. The first couple of iterations can be used to suggest directions for further study. That further study requires more careful analysis and computation. And at the end one comes back to analysis by scholars to determine if there’s really anything there. This can be especially true of text, more so than with scientific data, because text as data is so inherently messy; many of the most important features of text are almost impossible to quantify statistically and almost impossible to set rules for a priori.

Those first few iterations are the fun 90 percent of the work because new things show up that might only be seen by computation. It’s the next 90 percent of the work that isn’t so much fun and that often doesn’t get done. Da argues that scholars should step back from their perhaps too-easy conclusions and dig deeper. Unlike with much scientific data, we don’t have natural laws and equations to fall back on with which the data must be consistent. Ground truth is much harder to tease out, and skeptical calibration of numerical results is crucial.

Part of Da’s criticism, which seems to have been echoed by one respondent (Piper), is that scholars are perhaps too quick to conclude a “why” for the numbers they observe. Although for the purpose of making things seem more intuitive scientists often speak as if there were a “why,” there is in fact none of that.  Physics, as I learned in my freshman class at university, describes “what”; it does not explain “why.” The pull of gravity is 9.8 meters per second per second, as described by Newton’s equations. The empirical scientist will not ask why this is but will use the fact to provide models for physical interactions. It is the job of the theorist to provide a justification for the equations.

There is a need for more of this in the digital humanities. One can perform all kinds of computations (my collaborators and I, for example, have twenty thousand first-year-composition essays collected over several years). But to really provide value to scholarship one needs to frame quantitative questions that might correlate with ideas of scholarly interest, do the computations, calibrate the results, and verify that there is causation behind the results. This can be done and has been done in the digital humanities, but it isn’t as common as it should be, and Da is only pointing out this unfortunate fact.

DUNCAN BUELL is the NCR Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of South Carolina, Columbia.

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Computational Literary Studies: Participant Forum Responses, Day 3


Stanley Fish

Some commentators to this forum object to my inclusion in it in part because I have no real credentials in the field. They are correct. Although I have now written five pieces on the Digital Humanities—three brief op-eds in the New York Times, an essay entitled “The Interpretive Poverty of Data” published in the blog Balkinization, and a forthcoming contribution to the New York University Journal of Law & Liberty with the title “If You Count It They Will Come”—in none of these do I display any real knowledge of statistical methods. My only possible claim to expertise, and it is a spurious one, is that my daughter is a statistician. I recently heard her give an address on some issue in bio-medical statistics and I barely understood 20 percent of it. Nevertheless, I would contend that this confessed ignorance is no bar to my pronouncing on the Digital Humanities because my objections to it are lodged on a theoretical level in relation to which actual statistical work in the field is beside the point. I don’t care what form these analyses take. I know in advance that they will fail (at least in relation to the claims made from them) in two ways: either they crank up a huge amount of machinery in order to produce something that was obvious from the get go—they just dress up garden variety literary intuition in numbers—or the interpretive conclusions they draw from the assembled data are entirely arbitrary, without motivation except the motivation to have their labors yield something, yield anything. Either their herculean efforts do nothing or when something is done with them, it is entirely illegitimate. This is so (or so I argue) because the underlying claim of the Digital Humanities (and of its legal variant Corpus Linguistics) that formal features––anything from sentence length, to image clusters, to word frequencies, to collocations of words, to passive constructions, to you name it—carry meaning is uncashable. They don’t unless all of the factors the Digital Humanities procedures leave out—including, but not limited to, context, intention, literary history, the idea of literature itself—are put back in. I was pleased therefore to find that Professor Da, possessed of a detailed knowledge infinitely greater than mine, supports my relatively untutored critique. When she says that work in Computational Studies comes in two categories—“papers that present a statistical no result finding as a finding” and “papers that draw conclusions from its finding that are wrong”—I can only cheer. When she declares “CLS as it currently exists has very little explanatory power,” I think that she gives too much credit to the project with the words “very little”; it has no explanatory power. And then there is this sentence, which to my mind, absolutely clinches the case: “there are many different ways of extracting factors and loads of new techniques for odd data sets, but these are atheoretical approaches, meaning, strictly, that you can’t use them with the hope that they will work magic for you in producing interpretations that are intentional” and “have meaning and insight.” For me the word intentional is the key. The excavation of verbal patterns must remain an inert activity until added to it is the purpose of some intentional agent whose project gives those patterns significance. Once you detach the numbers from the intention that generated them, there is absolutely nothing you can do with them, or, rather (it is the same thing) you can do with them anything you like. At bottom CLS or Digital Humanities is a project dedicated to irresponsibility masked by diagrams and massive data mining. The antidote to the whole puffed-up thing is nicely identified by Professor Da in her final paragraph: “just read the texts.”


STANLEY FISH is a professor of law at Florida International University and a visiting professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. He is also a member of the extended Critical Inquiry editorial board.


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Computational Literary Studies: Participant Forum Responses, Day 3

Final Comments

Nan Z. Da

(This is the last of three responses to the online forum. The others are “Errors” and “Argument.”)

I want to state that nothing about this forum has been unbalanced or unfair. I wrote the article. Those who may not agree with it (in part or in its entirety) have every right to critique it in an academic forum.

What my critics and neutral parties on this forum seem to want from “The Computational Case” is nothing short of: (1) an across-the-board reproducibility check (qua OSC, as Piper suggests), plus (2) careful analyses of CLS work in which even the “suppression” of tiny hedges would count as misrepresentation, plus (3) a state-of-the-field for computational literary studies and related areas of the digital humanities, past and emergent. To them, that’s the kind of intellectual labor that would make my efforts valid.

Ted Underwood’s suggestion that my article and this forum have in effect been stunts designed to attract attention does a disservice to a mode of scholarship that we may simply call critical inquiry. He is right that this might be a function of the times. The demand, across social media and elsewhere, that I must answer for myself right away for critiquing CLS in a noncelebratory manner is a symptom of the social and institutional power computational studies and the digital humanities have garnered to themselves.

Yes, “field-killing” is a term that doesn’t belong in scholarship, and one more indication that certain kinds of academic discourse should only take place in certain contexts. That said, an unrooted rhetoric of solidarity and “moreness”—we’re all in this together—is a poor way to argue. Consider what Sarah Brouillette has powerfully underscored about the institutional and financial politics of this subfield: it is time, as I’ve said, to ask some questions.

Underwood condemns social media and other public responses. He has left out the equally pernicious efforts on social media and in other circles to invalidate my article by whispering—or rather, publically publishing doubts—about Critical Inquiry’s peer review process. It has been suggested, by Underwood and many other critics of this article, that it was not properly peer-reviewed by someone out-of-field. This is untrue—my paper was reviewed by an expert in quantitative analysis and mathematical modeling—and it is damaging. It suggests that anyone who dares to check the work of leading figures in CLS will be tried by gossip.

Does my article make empirical mistakes? Yes, a few, mostly in section 3. I will list them in time, but they do not bear on the macro-claims in that section. With the exception of a misunderstanding in the discussion of Underwood’s essay none of the rebuttals presented in this forum made on empirical grounds have any substance. Piper’s evidence that I “failed at basic math” refers to a simple rhetorical example in which I rounded down to the nearest thousand for the sake of legibility.

Anyone who does serious quantitative analysis will see that I am far from being the ideal candidate for assessing this work. Still, I think the fundamental conflict of interest at issue here should be obvious to all. People who can do this work on a high level tend not to care to critique it, or else they tend not to question how quantitative methods intersect with the distinctiveness of literary criticism, in all its forms and modes of argumentation. In the interest of full disclosure: after assessing the validity of my empirical claims, my out-of-field peer reviewer did not finally agree with me that computational methods works poorly on literary objects. This is the crux of the issue. Statisticians or computer scientists can check for empirical mistakes and errors in implementation; they do not understand what would constitute a weak or conceptually-confused argument in literary scholarship. This is why the guidelines I lay out in my appendix, in which many people are brought into peer review, should be considered.

NAN Z. DA teaches literature at the University of Notre Dame.

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