Jacqueline Wernimont and Elizabeth Losh
I believe in data, but data itself has become spectacle.
—danah boyd, Data & Society: Points
We owe it to each other to falsify the institution, to make politics incorrect, to give the lie to our own determination. We owe each other the indeterminate. We owe each other everything.
—Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons
The manuscript for Bodies of Information came into being in the liminal space between the final days in office for the first black president of the United States of America and the simultaneous concussion waves of nationalism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and racism that appeared to set the stage for hostility to academic institutions, scientific inquiry, journalistic investigation, political inclusion, public investment, digital rights, and network neutrality. Within weeks of the 2017 White House inauguration, an important federal endowment that had supported the work of many of the practitioners represented in this volume was threatened with defunding. Innovative academic scholarship in and about digital environments was also disparaged by a president who relished expressing his disdain for projects that he singled out like “a wolf video game” or scholarly research on “Internet romance.” Increasingly global, digital humanities organizations struggled to come to terms with authoritarian governments ignoring human rights violations and the needs of hundreds of millions of migrants and displaced persons struggling to survive in a bleak biopolitical landscape.
This volume also emerges in an era when the tasks of intersectional feminisms, of coalition building, and of communal care and repair are recognized as increasingly important areas in the humanities. Yet as women and feminists who have been active in the digital humanities since it was called “humanities computing,” we are often astonished to see forms of intellectual engagement that confront structural misogyny and racism relegated to the status of fringe concerns. Even as leaders of digital humanities labs are finally being outed for sexual harassment or systemic discrimination, trivialization of feminist methodologies continues. For example, in 2016 we both participated in a panel on feminist infrastructures at the annual Digital Humanities conference organized by the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations and convened in Kraków, Poland. This panel was grouped together with other marginalized efforts as part of the “diversity” track, which was located in a separate building from the edifice that housed most of the conference sessions.
Such spatial arrangements communicate value and can establish barriers, peripheralizing even a panel of assembled digital humanities luminaries in positions of relative privilege, including the director of the Australian Humanities Networked Infrastructure (HuNI) project, the head of the Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory, the director of the Advanced Research Consortium (ARC) in the United States, and the principal investigator of the Institute for High Performance Sound Technologies for Access and Scholarship (HiPSTAS). Despite the profile of the panel, there was a clear sense that a feminist conversation about infrastructure was not valued in the same way as other similar panels at the event. While we felt that exclusion fairly keenly, we also were aware that as members of a panel of white women from Canada, the United States, and Australia, we were and are not subject to the full force of exclusion that our trans and women of color colleagues systematically experience. Indeed, the existence of the “diversity” track and its location was particularly notable given the extensive efforts of scholars of color in particular to ensure that the event was not a “parade of (white) patriarchs” as was the opening of the same annual meeting a year before in Australia.
A few months before the summer conference, “Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities” by Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette, and David Golumbia appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB). According to the authors, as “neoliberal tools,” digital humanities initiatives are a means for serving the ends of cultural conservatism and political reaction within increasingly corporatized universities and colleges. The LARB critique was grounded in tracing a small set of related origin stories in which “the trailblazer is usually identified as a Jesuit priest, Roberto Busa, whose 56-volume concordance to the works of St. Thomas Aquinas was produced over a period of three decades from 1949, with support from IBM.” The patrilineal genealogy mapped (and critiqued) by the LARB essay envisions digital humanities expanded from Busa’s trunk to related branches in digital humanities efforts at the University of Virginia, Stanford, and the University of Maryland. In each locus of the “Neoliberal Tools” story there is an academic entrepreneur who functions as an opportunistic homo oeconomicus. In the “Neoliberal Tools” fable a few lone feminist Cassandras might have attempted to arrest the progress of these enterprising men, but otherwise the narrative is free of women and people of color as digital humanities innovators. Unfortunately, by repeating different versions of the solo white male inventor myth, the LARB criticism of the techno-utopianism of digital humanities (DH) actually gave that myth more credence by reifying an Anglo-American tradition as “the field” and the “textual-studies” tradition within DH as originary. While critique of and within digital humanities origin stories is clearly needed, in part to push back against the johnny-come-lately tendencies in other popular pieces critical of the field, by suggesting that New Bibliography and the University of Virginia English department in particular were the “birthplace” of digital humanities, the piece served to further entrench the very origin stories it claimed to critique.
These two situated and situating events—the Kraków conference and the Los Angeles Review of Books publication—and their attendant narratives exemplify an ongoing denigration of feminist and antiracist theory and practice in the digital humanities. Both proponents and opponents of DH seem able to agree on one common position: histories of feminist and antiracist work in DH do not deserve a place at the table. By contrast, our argument is that feminisms have been and must continue to be central to the identity and the methodologies of the digital humanities as a field.
After all, historians of technology such as Janet Abbate have observed that the importance of gender dynamics in computational history more generally is often devalued. Abbate specifically asserts that the norms of how work is gendered can be surprisingly fluid, particularly when a new field, like computer programming, develops. In her book Recoding Gender, she reasons that the obvious presence of a large female labor force of human “computers” at the dawn of the information age led to a form of “reverse engineering” that caused programming to be associated with feminine traits and occupations. As Abbate points out, programming in the post–World War II period was often associated with avocations like educating, nursing, or mothering, and writing code was seen as analogous to cooking, sewing, or displaying musical accomplishment. Although programming would ultimately be allied with masculine disciplines like mathematics and engineering, during its embryonic phase computer science was far from an exclusively masculine domain. Similarly, the accounts of women of color in computer programming recounted in books like Hidden Figures describe different norms about racial inclusion in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields than the ones we have today. Digital humanities origin stories may well still be seen as protean; perhaps if we can avoid or more rapidly correct the revisionist exclusions visited upon other disciplines, then we may be able to practice DH as one of the more welcoming fields in university culture.
This is a particularly urgent task in a moment when systemic sexual harassment, predation, and racism are visible from within institutions of higher education across the globe. For future digital humanities work to create what is possible and combat what should be impermissible, we believe that intersectional feminism, which acknowledges the interactions of multiple power structures (including race, sexuality, class, and ability), must be central within digital humanities practices. In fact, many of the best challenges to our Kraków panelists, to the 2017 Digital Humanities conference organizing committee, and to the Los Angeles Review of Books piece came from those who noted the complete or relative absence of people of color in each of these discussions. Indeed, as Jessica Marie Johnson observes, despite being consigned to the sidelines in supposedly open and progressive conversations, Black digital practice “has created and facilitated insurgent and maroon knowledge creation within the ivory tower. It’s imperfect, and it’s problematic—and we are all imperfect and problematic. But in that sense I think the digital humanities, or doing digital work period, has helped people create maroon—free, black, liberatory, radical—spaces in the academy.” As Johnson notes, this is not simply “academic”; the work and communities of Black, Native, Latinx, queer, trans, and intersectional digital scholars have “literally saved lives . . . people—those who have felt alone or maligned or those who have been marginalized or discriminated against or bullied—have used digital tools to survive and live.”
In our own work we have also noted the striking absence of engagement with human-computer interaction (HCI), science and technology studies (STS), and media studies in the digital humanities as a field. Useful trends from this body of criticism have all had notable feminist proponents working across disciplines: Lucille Suchman on situated action, Leigh Star on infrastructure, Genevieve Bell on mess, Mary Ann Doane and Lori Emerson on media archaeology, Melissa Gregg on affect theory, Lisa Cartwright on the interactions of apparatuses and bodies, Judy Wajcman on digital labor, and Marisa Parham on black literary embodiment, haunting, and space/time disjunctions, to name just a few. More recently, much of the most exciting scholarship about digital culture has come out of sociology, anthropology, political economy, and library and information science domains with attention to the transnational circulation of people, products, and ideas, including that of Simone Browne, Katherine McKittrick, Radhika Gajjala, Nishant Shah, danah boyd, Zeynep Tufekci, Safiya Umoja Noble, Kate Crawford, Moya Bailey, and Michelle Caswell.
We urge our fellow digital humanists to think through the implications of ubiquitous computing in particular and to consider undertaking the analysis of new objects of study rather than merely focus their scholarship on the cultural artifacts of the screen, page, or canvas (as well as their digital remediations). After all, mobile and wearable devices exist in intimate proximity to our persons, and embedded sensing systems in our “smart” cities and designed environments monitor our interactions. (The work of Katina Michaels is exemplary for those pursuing this research agenda.) Thus, the digital humanities should also advocate attention to technosocial environments, the interfaces and platforms of mediation, and the procedures, protocols, and platforms of playable systems. In other words, we must expand our notions of text and context, archive and canon, and code and program.
Having some interest in mess as an area of inquiry is fundamental to understanding how technologies, people, resources, and networks work, and sometimes don’t work, together. As computer scientist Paul Dourish and anthropologist Genevieve Bell write in their analysis of the cultural imaginaries of ubiquitous computing, “mess” reveals that “the practice of any technology in the world is never quite as simple, straightforward, or idealized as it is imagined to be” and that “technological realities are always contested.” By emphasizing the material, situated, contingent, tacit, embodied, affective, labor-intensive, and political characteristics of digital archives and their supporting infrastructures and practices rather than friction-free visions of pure Cartesian “virtual reality” or “cyberspace,” feminist theorists are also expressing their concerns about present-day power relations and signifying interest in collective and communal consciousness-raising efforts.
Despite an often grim environment for equity, diversity, inclusion, and participation in the humanities within increasingly constrained research universities and the political institutions that support them, we are hopeful that the digital humanities are finally maturing from their critically naive beginnings. This volume reflects how feminist collectives and communities are making a difference in changing the digital humanities in particular and institutional cultures generally, from members of FemTechNet, to curators of the Ferguson syllabus effort, to participants in the #transformdh and #dhpoco hashtag campaigns.
Bodies of Information is organized with keywords that work as “boundary objects,” in the sense that they are shared resources that support systems of meaning used in different ways by different communities. First theorized by the late science and technology studies scholar Susan Leigh Star and her collaborators, boundary objects are plastic, interpreted differently, and adapted to express emergent thinking across communities and contexts while also maintaining sufficient conceptual integrity for common understanding. Recognizing that keywords like “materiality” and “embodiment” operate as boundary objects gives us a way of understanding the kinds of work such concepts do in creating identities, knitting communities, and suggesting relationships between seemingly disparate ideas. As Star and her collaborators so powerfully demonstrated, boundary objects play a pivotal role in the creation of reality. An array of boundary objects is possible. In our work we use the acronym MEALS as shorthand for a feminist emphasis on how the “material, embodied, affective, labor-intensive, and situated character of engagements with computation can operate experientially for users in shared spaces.”
Because boundary objects are mediating technologies for people and communities, we have used them here to cluster our chapters. Like the weakly determined boundary objects theorized by Star, our chapter clusters should be read as multifaceted engagements with the concepts that we believe operate in a certain kind of community with one another. That said, one of the great joys of rich intersectional feminist work is that it attends to issues of embodiment, affect, labor, and so on as a regular part of practice. Indeed, while we open with a focus on materiality and close with the recognition that all work, all bodies, and all actions are situated, readers will see that there are strong threads that weave across the chapter clusters as well. Readers will also note that here we have supplemented the MEALS framework with an additional boundary object, “Values,” in order to draw attention to the ways in which technologies promote particular ethical and ideological values (rather than acting as neutral tools).
The book’s title pays homage to Katherine Hayles’s account of how “information lost its body” in How We Became Posthuman. Hayles argues that during the post–World War II era multiple generations of thinkers influenced by cybernetic theory embraced a view that treated data as a transcendent entity that could be abstracted from materiality, embodiment, and reflexivity. Although Hayles notes that cybernetic thinkers from the Macy Conferences engaged in vigorous debates, she laments their general tendency to deemphasize affect and labor as well.
“Materiality” as a theoretical tool and boundary object takes a range of forms, as all good boundary objects do. In Kim Brillante Knight’s essay on her work creating wearable data visualizations, materiality is a way of understanding how gendered power relations move in and through something like an Arduino board or the related LilyPad microcontroller. For Knight, the LilyPad’s circuit material visibility is an important factor in the creation of techno-textile “counterpublics.” With her example of the “Danger, Jane Roe!” pieces, Knight asks us to consider how we might use “fem-techno-assemblages” in building resistant art and communities.
Material resistance and underground communities are a central concern for micha cárdenas’s “Android Goddess Declaration” as well, which draws on the vital work of Gloria Anzaldúa and Audre Lorde to think anew about tools for a liberatory politics. Working with the poetic and powerful work of Stefano Harney and Fred Moten on the “undercommons” and that of Walter Mignolo to think about mestiza functionalities, cárdenas asks: “Can tools be repurposed when used in different places, by different people?” Drawing on her own creation of instruments for safety, cárdenas offers a declaration of solidarity with “fugitive black androids hacking their own code . . . with the renegade clones of Orphan Black . . . with the hacker witches from Barcelona to Seattle who are using technology to fight back against centuries of persecution from the logics of Western patriarchy.”
Cyborg women also appear in Roopika Risam’s chapter, where the figure of the cyborg-girl from the 1980s American sitcom Small Wonder opens her examination of the forms of “human” sanctioned by electronic technologies and their implications for digital humanities scholarship. In considering the potentially important roles of machine learning and natural language processing in next-generation work, she points out that “artificial intelligence purports to represent universal ‘human’ intellectual processes but, in fact, is only representative of a fictive ‘universal’ model of human cognition that elides both women, peoples of the Global South, and those at the interstices of these categories.”
Materiality as a tool for thinking becomes something different in the piece by Danielle Cole and her coauthors, where the very real material concerns to provide food, shelter, and daily needs to very real women and femmes meet the impersonal structures of grant accounting and accountability. Refusing to flinch from their own roles in a grant payment cycle that has harmed some collaborators, Cole and her collaborators offer us a clear and detailed view of how community and institutional collaboration can have differential material impact on the lives of people attempting to do the very kind of work called for by Knight, cárdenas, and Risam.
As Deb Verhoeven observed in her stinging “Has Anyone Seen a Woman?” speech to the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO) annual DH meeting in 2015, far too few women have been allowed to take the stage, and historical inequities need to be addressed with a progressive politics of affirmative action. Verhoeven’s piece sets the stage for the “Values” part of the collection, in which our contributors each take a hard look at the values expressed by the organs of the field.
Indeed, as Nickoal Eichmann-Kalwara, Jeana Jorgensen, and Scott B. Weingart’s piece so clearly demonstrates, “women are consistently underrepresented [in the annual Digital Humanities conference presentations] with little changing in the last few years.” Additionally, geographic diversity is relatively poor, and there is a “visible bias against authors with non-English names in the peer review process.” In sorting through the data on rejected submissions, Eichmann-Kalwara, Jorgensen, and Weingart note that there also appear to be biases around subject matter that reflect gender disparities.
Thus, while the leadership of digital humanities organizations often lauds the virtues of statistical analysis, key stakeholders might be tempted to suppress data that counter narratives of consistent progress diversifying the field. Christina Boyles’s survey of several recent works by scholars like Amanda Phillips, Alexis Lothian, and Amy Earhart makes clear that while intersectional and critical digital humanities work has always been part of the community, it has not yet seen the kind of sustained funding familiar to projects that have centered canonical works or dominant theoretical frameworks. Boyles analyzes the infrastructural conditions of funding streams from the National Endowment for the Humanities and from philanthropic organizations like the Mellon Foundation that privilege certain kinds of projects that normalize how a text and educational uses are defined. Boyles also deploys information visualization to show clustering and gaps around topics like “diversity” and “public.”
In addition to the representational politics of feminisms, we assert that these feminisms function as sophisticated forms of critical theory and have much to offer digital humanities in terms of method and theory. As the closing piece in our “Values” part suggests, queer theorizations may be particularly fruitful for expanding interventions to larger issues of methodology. Feminist digital humanities should challenge, critique, rethink, and expand what the digital humanities should be, just as Bonnie Ruberg, Jason Boyd, and James Howe argue that a queer digital humanities is defined by much more than the archives documenting queer individuals and queer communities. In queering the digital humanities, Ruberg, Boyd, and Howe draw on the work of prominent queer theorists and queer digital artists to argue that queer knowledge always resists completion. In addition to adding new vocabulary to existing taxonomical systems, they assert that queerness also points toward a shift in the very methodologies of metadata collection. To queer metadata, queer thinking must be brought to bear on the conceptual models and tools of object description to challenge the norms that dictate how meaning is derived from data. They observe that the methods with which data are traditionally mapped rely on a model of the one-to-one relationship between concepts of the world that can account for nonbinary relationships.
Notions of queering digital work bridges between “Values” and “Embodiment” in this collection, demonstrating just how intrapenetrable such boundary objects can be. In their work on lesbian digital humanities, Michelle Schwartz and Constance Crompton argue that digital methodology matters as much to histories of queer bodies and lives as informational content of such study, because “the accumulation of data and the rhetorical structuring of that data (in these examples often as a list) serve as important acts of lesbian self-definition.” The particular problem of the epistemological structuring of taxonomies of shared digital knowledge becomes particularly marked if fundamental infrastructures of information are designed solely to sort data into binary or mutually exclusive categories.
In their description of archiving the literary production of periodicals from the so-called yellow nineties, Alison Hedley and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra want to challenge the standard classification practices that can make certain persons historical nonentities and facilitate accessibility by making their “knowledge modelling process visible.” In particular, Hedley and Kooistra look closely at authors in their archive who don’t fit standard gender binaries, because they use pseudonyms as identifying tactics.
The contingency and multiplicity of feminized identities and bodies both offline and online are a central concern for Marcia Chatelain when she asks, “Is Twitter any place for a [black academic] lady?” Drawing on her pedagogical engagements with the life and work of Ida B. Wells-Barnett and as the originator of #FergusonSyllabus, Chatelain’s piece opens with a reminder that race and gender have long been used as ways of excluding women of color from the innovative public spaces created by emerging technologies. Chatelain places the raced and gendered violence of twenty-first-century social media in a long history of black women’s intellectual history, demonstrating that women of color have consistently led the nation in using emerging technocultures to “intervene in moments of crisis and remind the academy of our roles and responsibilities to a broader world.”
Padmini Ray Murray engages with a related set of questions about the contingent and resistant feminist body, arguing that the differences between the “visceral and the virtual body” are located on points of “rupture” in the context of South Asian politics and practice. This rupture calls us to attend to the ways in which caste and privilege play out in and around both visceral and virtual women’s bodies in India. Additionally, Murray’s incisive analysis demands that we resist importing and imposing ill-fitting Western models and histories—however progressive they may seem—when working in or with digital humanities in India. Murray closes with a powerful call to action, noting that “in order to enact a more heterotopic reality, it is the responsibility of digital humanists to build tools and strategies to violate the bodies of the machines that watch over us with loving grace and to dismantle them with as much violence as is being done to our own.”
The grace and violence invoked by Murray finds a kind of formal manifestation in “Ev-Ent-Anglement” by VJ Um Amel, Brian Getnick, and Alexandra Juhasz. As we move into the “Affect” part, this artist-maker-cutter team tears up and stitches back together various texts, including their own. Each time, they pull their interlocutors into the performance, including us, their editors. In so doing, they think about not only the material and embodied nature of digital work but also how we can cut with it and perform the movement of “affective fragments.”
Dorothy Kim’s piece grapples not with affective “fragments” but with fragments of affect, the drive to pleasure that is a constitutive part of digital archive or project creation. This is a rarely, if ever, talked about “hidden” feature of discussions of the black-boxing effects of technologies, but as Kim points out, thinking about the desires that various platforms respond to or activate is particularly crucial for understanding their work. Returning again to the topic of embodiment, Kim’s piece foregrounds not only the pleasures and desires of interacting with digital book “bodies” in the tradition of book history but also the sensorium of editorial bodies that help to produce those digital bodies. Interrogating production and interface, Kim’s work brings medieval history and literary studies, book history, disability studies, interface theory, art history, and affective and feminist theories together in what we might frame as a critical assemblage. This project allows her to argue that digital editors are performing “an agential cut,” resonant but formally and temporally different from that seen in “Ev-Ent-Anglement.”
Pieces by Susan Brown and Julia Flanders constitute a bridge between “affect” and “labor.” Both authors have led foundational, long-term feminist digital humanities projects. Brown and Flanders are also able to speak to the transition within feminist literary theory and digital humanities from projects and analysis focused on recovering lost women’s voices to thinking about how feminist praxis and theory illuminate the challenges and opportunities presented by invisible labor and messy infrastructures, insights gained as they directed the Women’s Writers Project and the Orlando Project, respectively.
In Brown’s essay she examines why the figure of the handmaid excites so much anxiety, fear, and contempt in digital humanities discourses and attempts to retrieve both labor and delivery as paradigms for the digital humanities. Drawing out the patriarchal roots of a fear of women’s reproductive capacities in order to understand the anxiety around “service” in the digital humanities, Brown sees tensions between the cerebral and material in terms of training, scholarship, and infrastructure within the field. Brown includes an analysis of Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, which has particular resonances in the current American political context. Consequently, her piece is a particularly timely reminder that techne can create a dangerous passive/active agential dichotomy in which tools violently deliver a product from a feminized subject. On the other hand, Brown suggests reframing service and delivery in terms of midwifery, thereby positioning those involved as “all active, all in that liminal zone of risk, rupture, and possibility.” Weaving together analyses of affect, labor, and situated practices, Brown offers the “possibility of intimate, mutually constitutive relations between one who or that which delivers and one who or which is delivered” within digital scholarship.
Flanders, who has written before on the invisible labor of many DH efforts, writes here about the ways in which editorial methods are deeply implicated in the politics of gender and are affected by, and enacted through, technological choices. For Flanders, “there is no such thing as a ‘merely technical’ design decision: our technical systems are meaning systems and ideological systems.” Indeed, Flanders takes up the call to consider the “full stack” of a project and sketches out what it would mean to undertake such an analysis. Her piece offers the field a new way forward for thinking through the depth of social, political, material, formal, and economic factors in feminist analyses of digital projects.
Lisa Brundage, Karen Gregory, and Emily Sherwood draw attention to a central paradox in the digital humanities in that the most important work is often the most devalued, particularly because it is labor that is intended to render itself invisible. They chart how the development of digital humanities scholarship and pedagogy followed a trajectory of reliance on the use of postdoc and so-called alt-ac (alternative academic) work within larger gendered and racialized labor histories. They note that specific language often demarcates these positions as inferior despite their integral role in digital humanities initiatives.
Like Eichmann and her coauthors, Barbara Bordalejo takes a quantitative and sociological approach to the issue of representation in the fields of digital humanities. What she found with her own survey was on occasion ugly, but not surprising from either a historical or a contemporary perspective. Her work validates impressions that might otherwise be treated as anecdotal while showing how the new normal includes self-identifying white male colleagues who are willing to openly denigrate feminist work. Beyond the personal attacks attested to in her piece, Bordalejo’s contribution is important for the view it affords us on gender and sexual identities in digital humanities operations not captured in other metrics available for digital scraping, as in the case of Eichmann and her coauthors and Boyles. It also highlights that the Anglophone bias at the proposal stage, which was gestured to in Eichmann as well, is also an important aspect of the DH labor picture in the Global North that often ignores how digital humanities work may be outsourced to other continents.
Sharon Leon, the former director of public projects for the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, points out that “great man” histories that dominate our field fundamentally misrepresent the history of technocultural labor. She observes that the same canon of male names is often repeated and that digital humanities genealogies tend to name only one female ancestor. As she notes, “recent reviews of the field tend to reproduce these oversights, suggesting that the history of digital history is a settled one—one that is devoid of women.” In getting “beyond the principal investigator” to consider the work of different kinds of project and community managers leading digital humanities projects, she names over a hundred significant women in the history of digital humanities initiatives. Leon argues that women’s pivotal roles in the digital humanities become even more visible when libraries, archives, and museums are included, where occupations are often more feminized and affiliated with activities of service rather than research.
We have noted how strongly the threads of the “Values” and “Labor” parts weave together and constitute a demand that as feminist scholars we need to do far better to ensure that the fields of DH make good on promises of inclusivity. We would take this a step further and assert that the field of DH needs to make concerted efforts to decenter dominant, masculinist, and Anglophone work as the standard in the field. Harkening back to the work of Risam and Murray earlier in the volume and forward into the concerns of the “Situatedness” part, we also want to highlight that this might mean abandoning methods centered on including people in dominant paradigms to foreground exploding the traditional topoi in favor of a heterotopic, messy, and multipled conception of “DH.”
Like Leon, Amy Earhart has elsewhere offered an alternative feminist history of the digital humanities by looking at how publication of The Madwoman in the Attic by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in 1979 spurred efforts to recover artifacts from the cultural production of women, particularly women of color. Scholars of feminism and critical race studies compiled digital copies of rare and vulnerable primary sources throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and when later internet browsers became widely available, these sources were lovingly curated on the web. Earhart has bemoaned the fact that many of these early pioneering do-it-yourself archives have since fallen into disrepair after the original curator-caretakers retired or changed institutions or as a result of platform obsolescence or failed migration. In her previous work charting the “diverse history of the digital humanities,” Earhart has argued for the need to preserve existing digital archives—which may have idiosyncratic data structures and metadata naming conventions in need of digital redesign—and the labor of care and repair. She has cautioned that the tendency to overvalue innovation and to privilege developing new tools and archives compromises existing digital work.
In her contribution to our collection, Earhart argues that the university has a persistent trust problem with the communities that it purports to represent in digital humanities projects. She argues that well-meaning advocates for social justice in the digital humanities might make inappropriate claims to ownership of community materials, unethically appropriate authorship, or disregard the wishes of communities that they claim to be documenting for posterity. She argues that we need to consider how the exploitation of data and the exploitation of peoples may be interrelated phenomena.
Thinking through the Black Lives Matter movement as a site for digital humanities research, Beth Coleman argues that access to “heterogeneous data” invites multiple scales of engagement with the local and the distributed simultaneously. She argues that when bodies are literally put at risk it is important to be sensitive to what is made invisible by big data narratives that present elegant information visualizations and big picture patterns and consider how lived experiences and digital practices play out in sites of situated action.
Kathryn Holland and Susan Brown’s piece grapples with the markup structures that can effectively represent varied, changing, even contradictory vocabularies around gender and authorship in the Orlando Project. As Holland and Brown note, emerging markup paradigms enable the project team to convey “a feminist theory of subjectivity in which women’s identities and writing are understood to be multiple, substantial, historically and materially contingent, and at times unknown or incongruous with the concepts and language of our time.”
In “Decolonizing Digital Humanities,” Babalola Titilola Aiyegbusi takes up the task of situating the academic field of DH and directs our attention to the specific social and infrastructural reasons why scholars in “developing African countries tend to view DH as a western phenomenon practicable in technologically advanced locations.” Drawing on a range of scholars working in and on developing nations, Aiyegbusi observes that “regional idiosyncrasies impact the spread of DH” in ways that we must attend to if we are to develop a truly global understanding of digital cultures and scholarship. Focusing on the Nigerian context in particular, she notes that “poverty is the most dominant” factor impacting the possibility for digital humanities scholarship “because it births and cradles other issues, notable among which are network connectivity and power supply.” Aiyegbusi’s analysis deftly weaves economic and infrastructural challenges together with her analysis of the ways in which traditional DH narratives, regardless of how big a tent is cast, fail to resonate in Nigerian academic frameworks. In fact, she argues that the “big tent” framework may itself be a colonial perspective that alienates scholars working in African nations.
Our final two chapters take up situatedness in the context of feminist game studies. Feminist digital humanities and feminist game studies might seem like fundamentally different approaches to structuring digital content creation, particularly to those who believe in impersonal interactions, simple user navigation without puzzles or tricks, and a transactional approach to information retrieval experiences. Nonetheless, game studies has become an increasingly important reference point for digital humanists working to challenge norms in the field and is now part of the annual Digital Humanities Summer Institute at the University of Victoria. In these final two pieces, digital games function as tools to situate and experience two different phenomena related to one another as sites of public, and therefore vulnerable, work by women: sex work and public intellectualism.
Sandra Gabriele deploys the genre of the educational game as a way to approach the digital humanities critically by challenging the genre of the news game among so-called serious games intended to educate the public about systemic problems by offering them a playable simulation that will supposedly promote understanding and model how different factors might influence outcomes. Gabriele uses her own design of a game that represents the lives of sex workers as a case study for understanding why digital interfaces and databases that present a researcher’s work will always be situated in a specific framework of experiences rather than demonstrate detached procedural rhetoric that operates from a position of neutral distance.
Anastasia Salter and Bridget Blodgett use game studies as a way to understand that “public scholarship” and the visibility of the digital humanities can have different consequences for those of different genders or different races. In the wake of the GamerGate series of coordinated attacks on prominent feminist game critics, designers, players, and fans, scholars were harassed, conferences were targeted, and public and professional identities were vexed by conflict. The perils of the “open” platforms often favored by digital humanities initiatives were dramatized by the public spectacle of online violence entering a supposedly tolerant but elite field. For Salter and Blodgett, encouraging scholars to perform their ideas in the digital public sphere might have unanticipated consequences for those from at-risk groups and might ultimately lead to the unexpected silencing of many participants in the academy.
We hope that this volume will spur important conversations in the digital humanities about platforms, software, interfaces, and protocols and about the absence of people who should be present at conferences and in digital humanities centers to support the creation of innovative scholarship. We also hope that it will invite further work reminding us all of the predecessors that official origin stories want to suppress or ignore. We both are aware that this collection—which coalesced from both invited submissions and an open call—cannot be completely representative of the whole of the field. It also largely presents perspectives from within the privileged perspectives in academia, despite the fact that the digital humanities work done in higher education is connected to global supply chains of outsourced labor that might include digitizers scanning pages from books and journals, call center operators fielding customer service questions, assembly line workers manufacturing components, and extraction technicians mining raw materials.
We were both struck by Jessica Marie Johnson’s comments at the 2016 American Studies Association Digital Humanities Caucus roundtable about the difference between being “outside” and being “radical” in thinking about how alterity functions for the academy. For Johnson, “being radical or being political is a constant act,” so we would not want to give the impression that the work of this volume ends on the last page when the reader has reached the back cover. Instead, we would point to Fiona Barnett’s “The Brave Side of Digital Humanities,” which asks us to consider, “What happens when the outcome is a sustainable practice, a sustainable self in academia, a lifeline to others as a way of imagining a future together?” Like many of the feminist digital humanists represented in this volume, Barnett suggests that activities of care and maintenance may be more important than those validated as innovation.
We agree with Barnett that the digital humanities constitutes “a struggle to present a practice, not just a project” and it presents a series of ongoing questions, which involve, in Barnett’s words, “identifying future alter egos” and extend “to recognizing (and identifying) alternative genealogies: the making and remaking of self, community, narrative, and histories.” We also anticipate collaborating with our readers in putting this compendium of ideas into action and who similarly seek to apply principles of feminist digital humanities and the MEALS framework to an ethical grounding of user-centered design for cultural heritage collections, engagement with communities to respect their wishes about preservation and access, and student-centered pedagogical philosophies in digital environments that may undermine the humanity of participants.
1. “ACH Statement.”
2. Trump, Time to Get Tough, 75.
3. For example, see Brown, Lemak, Faulkner, Martin, and Warren, “Cultural (Re-)formations”; Noble and Tynes, Intersectional Internet; Noble, “Future”; Klein, “Carework and Codework”; Arcy, “Emotion Work,” 365–68.
4. See Deb Verhoeven’s piece “Be More than Binary,” Chapter 5 in this volume.
5. Critiques of DH and its practitioners as “tools” are well-trod terrain. See, for example, Fish, “Digital Humanities,” or more recently, Brennan, “Digital Humanities Bust.” For a different take, see Weiskott, “No Such Thing (which itself echoes Jamie “Skye” Bianco’s “This Digital Humanities Which Is Not One” and her “Man and His Tool, Again? Queer and Feminist Notes on Practices in the Digital Humanities and Object Orientations Everywhere.”
6. Abbate, Recoding Gender. Interested readers should also see Hicks, Programmed Inequality.
7. Such accounts make clear not only the gendered but also racialized nature of field definition. For another example, consider Lisa Nakamura’s “Indigenous Circuits: Navajo Women and the Racialization of Early Electronic Manufacture.”
8. Miriam Posner’s “What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities” points to additional ways that the field has yet to live up to its full potential.
9. The contexts in which violences in the academy have made recent news include the reactivation of the “Me Too” movement activated by Tarana Burke in 2006. They include the Guardian’s investigation of sexual assault in higher education in the United Kingdom (Batty, Weale, and Bannock, “Sexual Harassment”), Raya Sarkar’s crowdsourced list of South Asian academic predators (Doshi, “After #MeToo”), and revelations of sexual assault by several prominent male American academics (Gluckman, Read, Mangan, and Quilantan, “Sexual Harassment”), all of which was perhaps presaged by Sara Ahmed’s 2016 resignation from Goldsmith’s as protest of institutional failures to address sexual harassment (Ahmed, “Resignation”).
10. For more on intersectional praxis and analysis, see Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins,” 1241–99, and May, Pursuing Intersectionality.
11. Dinsman, “Digital in the Humanities.”
12. Dinsman, “Digital in the Humanities.”
13. Michael, “My Research Programme.”
14. See, for example, Lothian and Phillips, “Can Digital Humanities.”
15. Dourish and Bell, Divining a Digital Future, 4.
16. For more on how our collective uses boundary objects, see Juhasz and Balsamo, “Idea Whose Time.”
17. Wernimont and Losh, “Wear and Care,” 98.
18. Barnett, “Brave Side,” 74.
19. Barnett, “Brave Side,” 75–76.
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Ahmed, Sara. “Resignation.” Feminist Killjoys, May 30, 2016. https://feministkilljoys.com/2016/05/30/resignation/.
Barnett, Fiona M. “The Brave Side of Digital Humanities.” differences 25, no. 1 (May 1, 2014): 64–78. https://doi.org/10.1215/10407391-2420003.
Batty, David, Sally Weale, and Caroline Bannock. “Sexual Harassment ‘at Epidemic Levels’ in UK Universities.” The Guardian, March 5, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/mar/05/students-staff-uk-universities-sexual-harassment-epidemic.
Bianco, Jamie “Skye.” “Man and His Tool, Again? Queer and Feminist Notes on Practices in the Digital Humanities and Object Orientations Everywhere.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 9, no. 2 (2015), special issue, “Feminisms and DH,” edited by Jacqueline Wernimont. http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/9/2/000216/000216.html.
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Brown, Susan, Abigel Lemak, Colin Faulkner, Kim Martin, and Rob Warren. “Cultural (Re-)formations: Structuring a Linked Data Ontology for Intersectional Identities,” 2017. https://dh2017.adho.org/abstracts/580/580.pdf.
Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (July 1991): 1241–99. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1229039.
Dinsman, Melissa. “The Digital in the Humanities: An Interview with Jessica Marie Johnson.” Los Angeles Review of Books, July 23, 2016. https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/digital-humanities-interview-jessica-marie-johnson/#!.
Doshi, Vidhi. “After #MeToo, a Facebook List Names South Asian Academics. Some Say It’s a Step Too Far.” Washington Post, October 31, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/10/31/after-metoo-a-facebook-list-names-south-asian-academics-some-say-its-a-step-too-far/?utm_term=.2e22f51de284.
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Fish, S. “The Digital Humanities and the Transcending of Mortality.” Opinionator (blog). New York Times, January 9, 2012. https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/09/the-digital-humanities-and-the-transcending-of-mortality/.
Gluckman, Nell, Brock Read, Katherine Mangan, and Bianca Quilantan. “Sexual Harassment and Assault in Higher Ed: What’s Happened since Weinstein.” Chronicle of Higher Education, November 13, 2017. Updated January 10, 2018. https://www.chronicle.com/article/Sexual-HarassmentAssault/241757.
Hicks, Marie. Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2017.
Juhasz, Alexandra, and Anne Balsamo. “An Idea Whose Time Is Here: FemTechNet.” Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology 1 (2012). http://adanewmedia.org/2012/11/issue1-juhasz/.
Klein, Lauren F. “The Carework and Codework of the Digital Humanities.” Digital Antiquarian Conference, May 29, 2015, Worcester, Mass. lklein.com/2015/06/the-carework-and-codework-of-the-digital-humanities/.
Lothian, Alexis, and Amanda Phillips. “Can Digital Humanities Mean Transformative Critique.” e-media Studies 3, no. 1 (2013). http://journals.dartmouth.edu/cgi-bin/WebObjects/Journals.woa/1/xmlpage/4/article/425.
May, Vivian M. Pursuing Intersectionality, Unsettling Dominant Imaginaries. London: Routledge, 2015.
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Noble, Safiya Umoja. “A Future for Intersectional Black Feminist Technology Studies.” Scholar and Feminist Online 13, no. 3 (2016). http://sfonline.barnard.edu/traversing-technologies/safiya-umoja-noble-a-future-for-intersectional-black-feminist-technology-studies/0/.
Noble, Safiya Umoja, and Brendesha M. Tynes, eds. The Intersectional Internet. New York: Peter Lang, 2017.
Posner, Miriam. “What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities.” Miriam Posner’s Blog. http://miriamposner.com/blog/whats-next-the-radical-unrealized-potential-of-digital-humanities/.
Trump, Donald J. Time to Get Tough: Make America Great Again (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 2011), 75.
Weiskott, E. “There Is No Such Thing as ‘Digital Humanities.’” Chronicle of Higher Education, November 2017. https://www.chronicle.com/article/There-Is-No-Such-Thing-as/241633.
Wernimont, Jacqueline, and Elizabeth Losh. “Wear and Care: Feminisms at a Long Maker Table.” In Routledge Companion to New Media and Digital Humanities, edited by Jentery Sayers, 97–107. New York: Routledge, 2018.