Gender and the Political Unconscious of Digital Humanities
A strong tradition of politically invested digital activities, often motivated by an aim to expand available texts beyond the print canon and implicitly to reshape academic norms and values, dates from the early days of the Web (Earhart). Yet gender and other categories of social analysis have been taken up largely in disciplinary contexts or interdisciplinary fields, such as women and gender studies or media and communications studies, rather than in discussions of method or definitions of the field in major digital humanities conferences and publications. The challenge of holding together digital humanities as a field with the kinds of cultural and political critique that are of abiding interest across the humanities and in many digital initiatives has become more evident in the last decade or so, thanks in part to this book series (cf. particularly Liu, “Where Is Cultural Criticism”). This essay argues that while gender has been absent as an explicit term in the definitional work that has shaped the digital humanities, gendered categories and hierarchies profoundly shape debates. Understanding how concepts of service are imbued with gender helps elucidate tensions and contradictions that impede the field and perpetuate inequalities within it.
While the digital humanities community debates—at times fiercely—diversity and inclusivity, these tend to be seen as organizational matters. Definitional and methodological debates are insulated from questions of equity and social justice. So questions of representativeness or inclusivity paradoxically pertain to what is deemed largely irrelevant to the specificity of digital humanities scholarship itself, even as there has been increasing pressure on how the field constitutes and represents itself within conferences, publications, professional organizations, curricula, programs, and institutions (Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations; Wernimont and Nieves).
This essay attempts to read a few debates in the digital humanities for gaps, silences, and tensions surrounding the concept of service, which is cast as tangential to the central concerns of the field but points to major contradictions within it. The cost of excluding gender analysis becomes apparent when those debates are reframed by feminist theory. “Feminist theory” is a multivalent term that resonates in different contexts and at different moments in the history of the field in ways that are impossible to track fully here. Considering service as a category of labor—including its connection to feminized and reproductive labor—in relation to a number of key aspects of digital humanities points to contradictions and blockages that a feminist approach can help to address. Within digital humanities discourses, service is imbricated with value propositions, gender hierarchies, labor practices, and epistemologies that I explore in relation to disciplinarity, librarianship, training, tools, infrastructure, and delivery systems, in conjunction with several telling historical and literary narratives.
Unpacking how service is embedded within historically produced categories and hierarchies related to embodied differences provides insight into how value is accorded to representations and activities in DH in ways that are deeply gendered, often irrespective of individual intentions, as consequences of systemic patterns of meaning, ways of knowing, and habits of feeling. The contradictory associations that connect service to gendered bodies help to shed light on organizing logics that hold back the field, structuring knowledge and relationships in fundamental ways. A feminist epistemological framework opens up the potential to resituate service within definitional and methodological debates in digital humanities.
There has been until quite recently a historical gap or silence around the “f word,” that is to say, “feminism,” with its history of cultural denigration and caricature—in the self-representation of DH. The first edition of the Blackwell Companion to Digital Humanities, that wide-ranging tome in which various leaders in the field were “brought together to consider digital humanities as a discipline in its own right, as well as to reflect on how it relates to areas of normative humanities scholarship,” invoked women or gender almost entirely in relation to stylistics, reader responses, and particular projects (Schreibman, Siemens, and Unsworth, A Companion, Introduction). The Companion boasts strong feminist leadership, as do many other projects, centers, and initiatives, but its circumscribed references to gender indicate the difficulty of incorporating feminist analysis within the collection’s framing of DH as emerging from humanities computing and textual practice (Svensson, “Envisioning”; Losh). This is just one register of the absence of gender considerations from assertions of disciplinarity or field status in the two decades that span the turn of the millennium.
The idea of a political unconscious from Marxist psychoanalytic theory provides a means of addressing the extent to which feminism, and gender as its primary category of analysis, have been present but not explicitly engaged in discursive framing of the field. Pierre Macherey, building on Louis Althusser’s incorporation of insights from psychoanalysis into Marxist theory, considers it the work of literary criticism to give voice to the absences or gaps that are symptomatic of conflicts between meanings that a text cannot resolve but simply displays (Macherey, 84). The act of knowing or critique in this view becomes “the articulation of a silence” (Macherey, 6). Both Macherey and Frederic Jameson reject allegorical readings of texts as simplistically ideological while insisting that the “unconscious of the work” (Macherey, 92) or the “political unconscious” (Jameson) of a text, rather than that of an individual author, necessarily reflects the interrelationships of cultural, ideological, juridical, political, and economic forces (Jameson, 21). This perspective insists that the material and ideological conditions in any field inflect our representation of it and vice versa. Since such silences are a condition of utterance for any text, no text or utterance is apolitical.
DH has often been debating gender in other words, through debates over service, which has itself been positioned as marginal, often omitted or sidelined, precisely because it is caught up with gender. This inquiry explores tensions over service within the digital humanities as a contribution to a larger rethinking of the field through diversity and difference. It starts with the relatively rare invocation of service in the context of self-definition, both formal and informal.
Disciplinarity and the Gendering of Service
Geoffrey Rockwell, participating like the Blackwell Companion in the debate over disciplinarity, is unusual in taking up the relationship of computational scholarship to service, or what he calls the “servile” as well as the “liberal” arts, arguing for a reorientation of the humanities toward craft and creativity by breaking down the “artificial division of skills and liberal knowledge” (Rockwell). At a moment of intensive field formation, his resulting emphasis on rupture, liminality, and reproduction helps to make the gaps and silences surrounding service legible. Rockwell asserts, “The founding of a discipline is a rupture”; “the founding of a discipline is a liminal moment”; “a discipline is born when a field takes control of its means of reproduction” (“Multimedia”). Rockwell was writing from the position of director of McMaster University’s Humanities Media and Computing Centre and founder of its undergraduate Multimedia program. Bids for disciplinarity have given way in large part to an understanding of the field as inter- or transdisciplinary (Svensson, “Landscape,” para. 20), but what is salient for my argument here is that these terms bring to the fore what is at stake when we start to wrestle with service in the context of defining digital humanities. All three assertions have to do with bodies and boundaries: rupture with its origins in physical breaks, liminality with its initial grounding in sensory perceptions of difference, and reproduction with its tension between original and copy (Oxford English Dictionary Online). Situating service in relation to embodiment and difference brings home the extent to which gendered anxieties and contradictions are at work in DH.
There are close connections (historical and continuing, practical and intellectual) within the digital humanities to technical services and support (Flanders, “You Work at Brown,” 27). Some DH centers and activities have evolved from or remain tied to instruction or technical support initiatives, and libraries, with their strong ethos of service and crucial position in the provision of scholarly infrastructure for the humanities, have been and remain central to the growth of the field. For the purposes of this essay, cognizant of the myriad definitions of service that have grown from its original meaning of duty or work performed for a superior or master (Oxford English Dictionary Online) ranging from “Help, benefit, advantage, use” to “Friendly or professional assistance,” I would define service in the digital humanities as activities of practical benefit to others, including but not limited to providing expertise, guidance, and training related to specific skills, methods, or tools; structuring, manipulating, transforming, or remediating data; creating, distributing, and maintaining software; building, caring for, and sustaining platforms for hosting and disseminating digital datasets, assets, software, and scholarship; administering and managing digital humanities entities such as centers, programs, or projects; and establishing and running scholarly and professional networks and events, including conferences. Virtually everyone in the digital humanities participates to a greater or lesser extent in such activities, in contexts ranging from drop-in encounters at service desks to ongoing collaborations among teams of scholars. These activities account for much of the “technologically assisted knowledge work” that distinguishes the digital humanities from other fields (Liu, “Drafts”). They are typically represented as “service” rather than “scholarship” within formalized evaluation processes applied to faculty members, and associated with a more valorized notion of “service” in the work of academic librarians. Yet service and support have until recently been rarely debated in the field. For instance, posts to the Humanist listserv routinely mention technical services or support in job titles, while services mentioned alone almost always relate to web services or library services (Humanist 1987–). Service and support are thus present in the discourse of DH, but discussed more in relation to the mundane and practical rather than the self-definitional.
On rare occasions when it arises in definitional contexts, the language of support and service is often entirely disavowed. Thomas Rommel invokes David Robey (then director of the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s ICT [Information and Communications Technology] in Arts and Humanities Research Programme): “Humanities computing specialists thus have a vital role as interdisciplinary and interprofessional mediators. The old model of support services is no longer valid.” In his view, research should be seen as “a common enterprise between ›technologists‹ and ›scholars‹” (Rommel). “Service” is often an explicit component of advertised digital humanities positions, but notably not prominently of tenure-track faculty ones, though they may mention institutional or professional service. Willard McCarty links DH service to the traditions of collegiality: “In their uses of computing, the disciplines of the humanities furnish us with unending opportunities for intellectual field-work as well as mind-expanding collaboration, and the good work we do there, in collegial service, yields invaluable friendships” (“New Splashings”). The stress on affect among intellectual peers conjures up the privileged environment of Oxbridge colleges. The same phrase operated quite differently across the Atlantic at the University of Virginia, where a Digital Media program was articulated in opposition to “the ‘collegial service’ model pervasive in Humanities Computing” (Kirschenbaum, “Digital Humanities,” 419). Despite the contradictory invocations, in both of these cases involving elite academic contexts, DH is distanced from an understanding of service as devalued relative to research and normative teaching. Roles and activities in the academy are organized around the boundary between service and scholarship. The boundary inserts itself in the form of casual distinctions between, for instance, librarians and scholars or researchers, when of course many librarians are both.
Librarianship is a discipline founded on an ethos of service (Rubin; Williamson) that intersects with the feminization of the profession (Harris; Maack). The period of debates over disciplinarity in the late 1990s and 2000s was followed by the emergence of a different kind of DH entity than an academic program or traditional research institute: the library-based DH center or lab, such as the University of Virginia’s Scholars Lab, “staffed with librarians who act as scholar practitioners” (Nowviskie, “Skunks,” 53). This led to a flurry of self-reflection regarding the relationship of DH to libraries, including a controversial 2014 report, “Does Every Research Library Need a Digital Humanities Center?” (Schaffner and Erway). Dot Porter (“What If We Do”) argues that the report presumes a false dichotomy between librarians and academics. Both Porter and Bethany Nowviskie (“Asking for It”) counter its insistence on repurposing existing “services” with an alternative understanding of service as grounded in the academic expertise and autonomy of DH specialists. Nowviskie invokes the example of the Scholars Lab’s delivery of a spatial humanities service that had neither previously existed nor even been requested, providing leadership precisely because the scholars of the lab in the library had the ability to anticipate, or to an extent even to constitute, an emergent need. Delivering this service, which involved winning grants and eventually the development of the Neatline plugin for the Omeka platform, helped constitute the digital humanities’ relation to geospatial technologies (Nowviskie, “Asking for It”). The tension between a library service model and more autonomous scholarship has come to structure discussions of digital humanities and digital scholarship, articulated for instance as a “Tension between Research and Services,” or as “the service and lab models” (Lewis, Spiro, Wang, and Cawthorne, 28; Maron; Maron and Pickle). Alix Keener characterizes it as a tension between “service vs. servitude” (para. 16).
As Rockwell makes clear, much is at stake in this distinction in the context of established disciplines, given the “deeply ingrained belief in the superior value of the liberal arts over the ›servile‹ and professional arts”: “To justify HC [Humanities Computing] programmes that include significant training we are tempted to present ourselves as servile, providing enrichment programmes that service the liberal ones” (“Multimedia”). A field establishing its academic credentials in a liberal arts or humanities context must guard against the slippage from service to servility, or “subservience,” as it is termed in some more recent discussions (McCarty, “State of Relations?”). On the other hand, librarianship as a profession has traditionally occupied this ground of enrichment and support, and some adhere to a model that sees the roles of scholar and librarian as quite distinct. However, as Julia Flanders notes, DH has eroded “a division of labor and a level of intellectual independence” associated with the professoriate as opposed to support or service positions (“You Work at Brown,” 48), as witnessed by the flourishing of “alt-ac” positions in the field and personified by individuals who move among professorial, librarian, and other service- or support-oriented positions. The models of DH invoked by both Bethany Nowviskie and Dot Porter emerge from this blurring of roles and boundaries. They stress a greater level of initiative, leadership, and autonomy for scholar-practitioners within libraries than that associated with conventional service roles, as well as a model of scholarship rooted in collaborative rather than solitary research endeavors.
Delving further into the gendering of service helps to elucidate perplexities surrounding it. It emerges from etymological and persistent cultural notions of debasement that are strongly feminized, notwithstanding the Christian tradition of masculine service tied to the story of Jesus’s self-abjection. Within Western societies, working-class women have constituted a majority of those in “domestic service” and other types of service jobs. In the Victorian period, middle- and upper-class women entered the public sphere, and to a large extent public discourse, by leveraging the massive expansion of a number of economic sectors that flowed from the rise of the middle classes and the establishment of a secular state. The movement of privileged women into the paid workforce was justified initially in terms of the continuity of social service jobs with the unpaid philanthropic and domestic activities of women within the home and community (Smith-Rosenberg; Vicinus), activities that are still not factored into standard economic measures of wealth production. Reproduction, whether defined in terms of child-bearing, child-rearing, home-making, or teaching in the home, is perhaps the most distinctly gendered service role of all. As a result of these associations and the growing number of women it employed, the service sector was increasingly gendered as female from the middle of the nineteenth century onward. However, it must be stressed that the categorization and status of labor categories shift over time and that computer programming was once considered to be subprofessional “women’s work” (Abbate; Wajcman), that is, a service occupation.
Service jobs remain deeply gendered despite the shift to a service-oriented “knowledge economy.” As of 2009 in Canada, two thirds of women, twice as many as men, worked in historically female service occupations: teaching, nursing, and other health occupations; administrative positions; or sales and service roles (Farrao); in 2012, 55 percent of all jobs in the services sector were occupied by women, with the concentration particularly high in the health care and social assistance sector (82 percent) (“Fact Sheet”). In the United States, in 2014 women made up 75 percent of the education and health services sector and 64 percent of the community and social service workforce (AFL-CIO Department for Professional Employees, “Professionals in the Workplace: Women”; AFL-CIO Department for Professional Employees, Professionals in the Workplace: Community). Moreover, the gender wage gap is in large part due to the feminized nonprofessional “service” sector associated with “emotional labor”: people skills that are understood to be outside of the market because naturalized and assigned to women, and are under- or uncompensated (Guy and Newman). Yet as theorists of affect have argued, the apparently private or individual choices and responses associated with such affective labor are inflected by collective factors that structure public life (Ahmed; Berlant; Cvetkovich; Gregg and Seigworth; Sedgwick and Frank). The impact of this differential assignment and valuation of labor extends into academia as well as into women’s role in the tech startup world, where “soft” skills such as design, promotion, and marketing, as opposed to coding, can result in women’s contributions being informalized as “spouse-as-a-service,” written out of partnership agreements, and erased from the history of technology (Losse). It might seem prudent, then, to refuse the language of service, to steer clear of having one’s labor appropriated and undervalued, as is the case in other feminized labor sectors. To do so, however, is of course also to reinforce the gendered hierarchy of values that undergirds a pervasive system of economic and social injustice.
Debates over the disciplinarity of DH and the role of DH professionals within research libraries thus reflect quite different constructions of professorial as distinct from librarian positions, the ways in which service has figured in those constructions, and gendered hierarchies of value tied to categories of labor. Although often an explicit component of academic appointments, service is less valued and rewarded than either research achievement, which is considered paramount, or teaching, which is similarly devalued and feminized, in terms of the characteristics, abilities, and emotional labor associated with it and the disproportionate contributions by women (Bellas; Fairweather). In the more feminized field of librarianship, however, service has played a more valued and central role, sometimes to the detriment of the perception of profession (Garrison). This disjunction means that service tends to get suppressed in the first context and has been contested in the second, creating gaps, unevenness, and tensions regarding service-oriented activities. Both tendencies are informed by a perception of service activities as aligned with instrumentalism and thus distinct from defining digital humanities activities, a view that, as Liu observes, reflects the insecurities that swirl around instrumentalism for the humanities as a whole (Liu, “Where Is Cultural Criticism,” 498–99).
The divergent and contested understandings of service outlined thus far have a significant impact on perceptions of the crucial work that goes into creating and maintaining DH infrastructure (Rockwell and Ramsay). As Miriam Posner points out, the extensive human labor that underlies building and maintaining awe-inspiring centers, platforms, and tools can be invisible even within the community (“Here and There”). As Susan Leigh Star and Karen Ruhleder note, the common characterization of infrastructure as transparent until it breaks belies its intellectual challenges and complexity: “infrastructure is something that emerges for people in practice, connected to activities and structures” (112). By their analysis, “infrastructure is a fundamentally relational concept. It becomes infrastructure in relation to organized practices” (113). In contrast to innovation, then, all those “boring things” (Star, “Ethnography of Infrastructure”)—the meticulous work of moving from a prototype to production, of debugging and updating, the care, repair, and maintenance of digital humanities tools and platforms (Nowviskie, “Digital Humanities”), all that unsexy, detail-oriented, iterative work of debugging and tweaking, keeping things going, or preserving them—are activities that bear more resemblance to housework than to recognized forms of academic labor. Moreover, their relationship to coding, making, building, and hacking and the connotations of vocational skills and manual labor can lead to further devaluation within contexts that privilege the cerebral over the material and instrumental aspects of working on or with tools and infrastructure. Institutionally such activities often register as service or support rather than scholarship or research, let alone as “creative process and a catalyst of social amenity” (Verhoeven, “As Luck,” 11).
Anxieties about service arose early in debates on the Humanist listserv over Project Bamboo, a high-profile humanities cyberinfrastructure initiative funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation between 2008 and 2012 to bring together IT staff, librarians, and faculty members to develop a shared digital infrastructure for the humanities. McCarty early characterized the undertaking as cleaving to a service model: “Bamboo seems only more of what has kept the digital humanities in the U.S. from fulfilling great . . . promises. . . . It turned out that it meant rethinking what we mean by what we compute—and that job requires the *fusion* of computing and the humanities, not the *servicing* of the humanities by computing” (McCarty, “the future is Bamboo?”). Charles Faulhaber responds with a more obviously gendered metaphor: “This is not technology in the service of the humanities, with the former as handmaiden to the latter” (Faulhaber, “Bamboo”). Quinn Dombrowski’s postmortem of Project Bamboo, which never came to fruition, argues that it started to go sideways early on because “Faculty participants were particularly turned off by the technical jargon in the presentations (including ‘services,’ as commonly understood by IT staff)” (“What Ever Happened,” 328). As shown above, “service” was a trigger word not only because it was indicative of a literal semantic gap in the meaning of “services” but also because within a faculty context it signals a devalued category of work. It is telling that the word “servitude” occurs within A New Companion to Digital Humanities (2016) twice, in Jennifer Edmond’s discussion of “Collaboration and Infrastructure” and nowhere else (“Collaboration and Infrastructure,” 57, 63). It might seem peculiar that infrastructure work in DH apparently resonates in this way, given the increasing recognition of the inextricability of infrastructure from subjectivity, culture, and space in everyday practice as informational infrastructure becomes more ubiquitous and embodied (Bratton, The Stack; Dourish and Bell, “Infrastructure of Experience”; Liu, “Drafts”; see also Parks and Starosielski, Signal Traffic). This may have to do with a distinction between infrastructure as a totalized noun connoting automated computational services, and the human labor and subject positions associated with creating and sustaining such systems.
Just prior to the debate over Bamboo, Stephen Ramsay rejected the denigration implicit in the gendered hierarchy associated with service: “I regard the disentangling of digital humanities from English, history, computer science, etc. as a great danger. Digital humanists naturally bristle at the suggestion that we are the handmaidens of these august disciplines, but I think that is perhaps more to do with the pejorative connotations of that mildly offensive designation than with the nature of the relationship expressed” (“Re: 21.445”). The need to divorce an understanding of the relationship from the connotations that impede the debate is real. The invocation of handmaidens is not, however, entirely mild, deriving as it does from cultural roots that defined women as sexual chattel devoted to servicing elite men. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a fundamentalist Christian theocracy in which women’s right to reproductive freedom, along with most of the freedoms enjoyed by women in the “developed” world, have been rescinded by the state. In Atwood’s dystopia, women’s bodies are put at the service of a repressive, misogynist regime that has seized power in part by leveraging centralized information systems. Under the regime of Gilead in which sterility is rampant, “handmaidens” are assigned to bear the children of the religious elite. Atwood’s handmaiden helps to clarify the apparently exaggerated anxieties over service. They are not just about devaluation and hierarchy. They are about agency and control, the risk of a nightmarish, gendered lack of both status and self-determination that defines a handmaiden’s subject position.
Atwood’s reliteralization of the biblical bondswoman’s role lays bare the sexual violence at one end of the gendered service spectrum. A handmaiden is a sexual servant and, indeed, in Atwood’s dystopia and the Old Testament culture from which the term descends, a sexual slave within a patriarchal social structure. The abjection of a person subjected to sexual violence still signifies culturally as the paradigmatic state of being without agency. Atwood’s handmaid makes evident the link between service, objectification, and abjection and their connection to rupture, liminality, reproduction, and delivery. It is speculative fiction, but fiction extrapolated by its author from historical precedents (Mead). The title underscores the extent to which pejorative, gendered notions of service, including those of women of color under slavery, imply an objectification of women enforced through violence (Atwood, “Margaret Atwood”). This logic explains why women who are perceived online as out of line, that is, as transgressing the proper (yet intangible and shifting) boundaries of femininity, are threatened with rape and murder, doxed, and harassed. Such extreme policing of norms is relatively rare in academia, but the participation of women in DH in the #metoo social media campaign to raise awareness of sexual harassment and predation (Hsu and Stone), confirms, as Karen Kelsky summarizes based on more than 1,800 anonymous survey results, that “sexual harassment in academe is a spectrum that ranges from rape, assault, battery, and stalking to looks, hand-brushing, and innuendo delivered just on the edge of plausible deniability” (“Professor Is In”). Gendered values, including notions of sexual service, underwrite a continuum of violence experienced by women as embodied subjects, in DH as elsewhere.
The gendering of service is profound and multivalent, informed by cultural history and ongoing social practices. Much that is distinctive in DH can be characterized as service, and it resonates differently in relation to academic disciplinarity and to various types of positions within the academy. The tensions surrounding it manifest unevenly, but it is mostly present by its absence as a defining term in debates in DH, indicative of the political unconscious of the field. Recognizing the extent to which debates over service are imbued with gendered values and practices provides a means of addressing more directly fundamental contradictions and problems within DH, opening up new ways of thinking about what we do. This becomes apparent if we contrast the understanding of service to that of tools. Where the one connotes a feminized lack of control or self-determination, the other evokes a sense of autonomy and agency. Considering service in conjunction with delivery, and a recognition that human service is provided materially in space and time, advances an understanding of the impact and stakes of gendered thinking within DH and of the relationship of embodied human subjects to technological tools and processes.
Tools and Delivery
Atwood contests the claim that The Handmaid’s Tale is futuristic, pointing to historical precedents for all the components of her narrative at the time of its composition. Certainly, the treatment of childbearing women as objects to be managed is in keeping with mainstream Western medical practices, and Anne Balsamo (Technologies) links a powerful reading of the novel to the use of laparoscopy in late-twentieth-century reproductive technologies. Similarly, considering the invention of the forceps within the history of birth technologies helps to unpack the connotations of service.
Forceps for use in childbirth were invented about 1616 in England by a member of the Huguenot Chamberlen family, probably Peter Chamberlen the Elder. The invention was kept a family secret for 125 years, and had to be reinvented independently in the eighteenth century. In the meantime, the increasingly powerful Chamberlen and his successors attempted to form under their control a corporation of midwives, with whom they did not share this revolutionary technology; the midwives in turn saw the Chamberlens as limited by an overreliance on their tools rather than a broad range of midwifery skills (Brown, Clements, and Grundy, searches on “Chamberlen” and “forceps”). In my reading of this cautionary tale, a new and notably proprietary technology worked against the feminized service of the midwife, was hoarded for profit at the cost of innumerable lives, and radically altered the future of female reproductive labor in the West. This problematic history of the medicalized tools of delivery extends to the present day within the Western medical profession, from which midwifery is still largely excluded or, when included, devalued in terms of status and remuneration in relation to the practice of medicine, from which it is distinguished in part by the use of high-tech tools. At the same time, human reproduction, as Balsamo and others have demonstrated, has become increasingly technologized, despite much evidence that delivery tools should, in an obstetrical context, be the exception rather than the norm.
This history of the forceps provides an admonitory lens on processes of professionalization and disciplinary formation, suggesting that an emphasis on technology at the expense of service can work against women’s interests, in this case that of both clients and midwives. On the one hand, a more open technology would have saved more lives when forceps were truly needed. On the other, the adoption of a more situated and relational approach to delivery as opposed to one that privileged tools over services would lower the number of birth interventions and related complications such as infection. The combination would have produced better Western birth outcomes, then and now.
The rhetoric of digital humanities as tool-oriented deserves scrutiny, given that tools and technologies are not neutral, as feminists including Audre Lorde (“Master’s Tools”) have long stressed. Tara McPherson (“Why”) has unpacked ways in which the now prevalent UNIX operating system design mirrors the management of race in the post–World War II United States, while Jacqueline Wernimont (“Whence Feminism?”) stresses the extent to which “the logic of the maker/consumer paradigm is a gendering one regardless of the sex or intentions of the participants. Consequently, those who cannot make find themselves in subordinated, devalued, ‘user’ positions that deny agency and expertise (and funding!)” (para. 12).
The problem is neither simply the gendered connotations of tools nor their appropriation by men, but an epistemology within which tools and technologies are conceived as involving clear boundaries between subject and object, actor and acted-upon, and as conveying agency upon those who wield them. The self-other dichotomy is implicit in the opposition between conceptual or theoretical work, on the one hand, and practical or material work, on the other. This opposition underlies skepticism about the intellectual work associated with building and prototyping (Galey and Ruecker; Rockwell and Ramsay). Frederica Frabetti urges the digital humanities instead to rethink technology beyond instrumentality, in terms of “originary technicity.” This concept challenges the Western metaphysical tradition by viewing technology as always already imbricated with and indeed constitutive of human experience and identity. Within this alternative poststructuralist understanding, tools and making provide a route to self-consciousness, history, and inscription (Frabetti, 3–7). As articulated by Timothy Clark, Bernard Stiegler, and others, originary technicity opens a means of thinking of technology as “constitutive of the human” that is shared by Jacques Derrida and underscores his refusal to grant science or cognition priority over writing or technology (Frabetti, 9).
Despite the historical and epistemological baggage of tools, the masculinist associations are not monological. For instance, O’Reilly publishing has a long-standing series of programming “Cookbooks” that goes back to the 1970s. Stéfan Sinclair and Geoffrey Rockwell advanced similar language within DH by adopting the term “recipes,” suggested by Stan Ruecker, for step-by-step instructions for the use of the Text Analysis Portal for Research (TAPoR) and Voyant Tools. The initiative arose from the insight that “tool rhetoric might be alienating” and a desire to “understate the technological” (Sinclair and Rockwell, 251). Cooking metaphors invoke nourishment, sustenance, iteration, and the transmission of knowledge within a community. Their revised discursive framing of text analysis adopts the term “utensils” over tools, emphasizes human processes, and invokes the “digital domesticity” of the feminized world of food blogging (Hegde, 73). The broadening of this initiative through the partnership of the TAPoR and Digital Research Tools/DiRT Directory/Methods Commons (Dombrowski, “DiRT Partners with TAPoR”) is a heartening indication of a movement within DH to shift the discursive frameworks within which we conceive technology toward a posthuman epistemology that resists the problematic binaries of classical metaphysics. Working against those binaries will help undermine the gendered associations embedded in much of our thinking about tools.
Informed by feminist theory and recent movements including feminist midwifery, we can imagine reclaiming the tools and means of reproduction from the legacy of the Chamberlens and the culture of technology they represent. Thinking through the concept of delivery, whose definitions range from the act of setting free or rescuing, through bringing forth offspring, to surrendering or giving up possession (Oxford English Dictionary Online), enables a rethinking of the relationships among gender, technology, interfaces, and embodiment that helps to resituate service. We might mobilize the tensions embedded in the term. Mobilizing the unstable connotations of delivery offers a model open to a range of agents and participants, in which processes and modes of delivery have profound impacts on what is delivered. Rather than doctor, tool, and patient(s), we can conceive of at least three agents in the birthing process: mother, child, midwife—all in contact, all active, all in that liminal zone of risk, rupture, and possibility (Kitzinger). The analogy offers a flexible framework for thinking about agency and participation as regards delivery within a digital environment. The ambiguity and instability associated with the term suggest the profound impact of the act of delivery and the possibility of intimate, mutually constitutive relations between the one who or that which delivers, and who or what is delivered. This in turn helps in rethinking service as an ineluctable component of technological systems.
Lucy Suchman provides an anthropological foundation for culturally and historically grounded analyses of technology design and mobilization in a range of contexts. Her theory of “situated cognition” sees the complex social and material environment as inextricable from human understanding (“Agencies”; Human-Machine Reconfigurations). As we think about digital interfaces, the means by which we deliver the fruits of scholarly labor in the digital humanities community, such a framework helps to destabilize, productively, apparently distinct components of the delivery process. It pushes us to reflect on the relationships among the multiple and diverse agents involved in what Karen Barad (Meeting the Universe Halfway) has termed “intra-actions” to signal the “mutual constitutions of entangled agencies” (33). The word “interface” denotes a shared boundary or contact zone between a computational system and some other agent or entity, whether a human, a device or peripheral, software or hardware. Examples include command line interfaces, keyboards or touch screens, mobile devices, gaming controllers, haptic interfaces, and application programming interfaces (see Emerson; Ennis et al.; Farman; Galloway). Delivery in DH most commonly focuses on visual representation through graphical user interfaces, but most interfaces involve multiple material components and agencies.
McCarty regards the term “delivery” as metaphorically freighted with connotations of knowledge commodification and mug-and-jug pedagogy, which is to say that teaching involves simply pouring knowledge from the jug of professors to the mug of passive students, or worse yet, transferring commodified knowledge via technology (Humanities Computing, 6). He highlights the reductiveness that flows from conceptualizing delivery as the transfer of distinct knowledge products. However, if we consider with Johanna Drucker that delivery involves complex processes of subjectivity that, through the interfaces that computational systems employ, structure “our relation to knowledge and behavior,” then it follows that delivery systems act not only as enunciative or representational apparatuses. To the extent that they also constitute “provocations to cognitive” and other forms of experience, delivery ought to be central to our considerations of technologies (Drucker, front matter).
Yet consideration of delivery seldom enters into DH scholarship despite evidence that user interfaces are among the most influential factors in the adoption of digital humanities tools and services beyond their immediate community. Matthew G. Kirschenbaum (“‘So the Colors’”) argues that it is precisely because of anxieties about liminality, borders, and embodiment that interface work is so often neglected, despite the insistence within the humanities generally on the inextricability of form and content. Given their alignment with liminality, delivery, and materiality, charged as they are with service, affect, and sensitivity, it hardly seems surprising that women have been more often involved in human-computer-interaction or interface work, project management, or service-oriented digital librarianship than in coding and tool building, or that such work has been seen as marginal, tangential, incidental to the field. However, these activities and their (de)valuation emerge from an intertwined history of technological and social flux in which such values are far from fixed. The distinction between back-end coding and the productive apparatus of delivery itself breaks down as we start to put pressure on these categories, underscoring their constructedness. Drucker insists on the extent to which computational systems are always already cultural: “The crucial definition of human subjectivity is that it can register a trace of itself in a representational system, and that self-recognition and self-constitution depend on that trace, that capacity to make and register difference. The encounter between a subject and an interface need not be understood mechanistically. We can think beyond representational models to understand interface as an ecology, a border zone between cultural systems and human subjects” (Graphesis, 148). In stressing the imbrication of subjectivity and interface, this situated perspective highlights the complex and evolving dynamics at work in human interactions with machines, paving the way for new ways of thinking about the productive apparatus and processes of delivery work, and that work’s experiential impacts in particular engagements with technologies. Furthermore, as John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid demonstrate, technological systems cannot be understood without consideration of the social environments in which they are embedded (Social Life). In the context of DH, those environments frequently involve human services of one kind or another.
Thinking of delivery in terms of the complexities of interfaces foregrounds the liminal, unstable, and permeable over the hegemonic, simplifying, or transparent, suggesting its potential as a transformative rather than an instrumental process of bringing together data; analysis; media; and interpreting, embodied subjects. For example, investigation of the history of visualization has led Lauren Klein (“Visualization”) to argue that rather than presenting complex entities as static data points, visualization can work to foreground the process of knowledge production, including “two-way exchange between subject and object of knowledge,” as in the case of Elizabeth Peabody’s carefully crafted pedagogical visualizations. Peabody, a first-wave feminist “knowledge worker,” created initially opaque, very abstract, quilt-like visualizations of events designed to engage others actively in the interpretation of history in dialogue with her narrative chronology, aiming to appeal aesthetically and affectively to those who engaged with her work. In Klein’s analysis, Peabody’s interface or knowledge delivery system subverts the female teacher’s conventional service role of reproducing unproblematically a set of given social relations, underscoring the power of visualization to communicate different epistemological frameworks.
Within the field of rhetoric, digital delivery of everything from file sharing to pop-up archives speaks to a wide range of intersecting concerns including embodiment, affect, audience, and performativity (DeVoss and Porter; Ridolfo and Hart-Davidson; Ridolfo, Hart-Davidson, and McLeod). Jim Porter, for instance, insists on the situatedness of digital technologies and their effects: “As an isolated object, technology is of little interest. Rather, the real story is the use of the tool in its particular social, pedagogical, and rhetorical context,” a story composed of “human and non-human agents in a developmental dance” (J. Porter, 385). The technological imagination, as laid out by Anne Balsamo, assigns agency in relation to technology to (predominantly white) men (Designing Culture, 32). Drawing on Barad’s physics-grounded refusal of the distinction between subjects and objects, Balsamo regards subjects as constituted by the interactions that constitute them: agency materializes through “intra-actions” that constitute boundaries, demarcations, and distinctions among elements of phenomena (34). This leads to a vision of design as a “set of practices whereby the world is dynamically reconfigured by specific acts . . . through which boundaries are constituted and enacted” (35).
Boundary issues, as Haraway (“Cyborg Manifesto”) was among the first to argue, have everything to do with the highly politicized—and gendered—category of the human, the subject/object of (post?)humanist knowledge production. Indeed, cyberfeminism and feminist science fiction have been probing such boundaries for decades. James Tiptree Jr.’s 1973 “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” is all about the problem of the culturally idealized, objectified female body as interface: “PDs. Placental decanters. Modified embryos” are hooked up to others’ brains, and this fraudulent reproduction in the service of corporate interests results in a blurring of identities that is ultimately fatal to both the “wired-up slave” body that is the object of male desire and the grotesquely embodied female Remote Operator without whom the former is “just a vegetable” (551). Perverted reproduction and delivery, in this story, are at the crux of a violent literalization of the impossibility of the feminine, a denaturalized performance of gender and heteronormativity in the service of hegemony and greed (Hollinger). In a sense, female slave and female operator are both interfaces within a networked cybersystem in which, as N. Katherine Hayles (My Mother Was a Computer) notes, “the conglomerate controls the communication channels through which subjectivity-as-message flows and decides how the distribution of subjectivity will be parsed” (81). Tiptree sketches out the nightmarish conclusion to the trajectories of female abjection through reproductive technologies that begins with the Chamberlens, the marginalization of midwifery, and a service model of delivery.
Work in DH needs to place itself, its tools, its methods in that messy, problematic contact zone of social relations, subjectivities, information flows, and embodied practices powerfully evoked by Tiptree in order to imagine new relations, arrangements, and configurations and to forestall the realization of dystopic prophecies of a technocratic future. The challenge is to be mindful of how institutional power circulates and perpetuates itself according to categories and hierarchies that embed social power relations. Dealing with embodiment means dealing with the differences among bodies and their place within the body politic. As Miriam Posner argues, “DH needs scholarly expertise in critical race theory, feminist and queer theory, and other interrogations of structures of power in order to develop models of the world that have any relevance to people’s lived experience” (“Radical Potential”). This revisionary impetus touches on the “organizing logic, like the data models or databases, that underlies most of our work,” a logic baked deeply into algorithms and interfaces produced by corporate and military interests resistant to the kinds of changes for which Martha Nell Smith argued powerfully in 2007 (Posner, “Radical Potential”). A prerequisite for change, I am arguing, is recognizing the extent to which understandings of service in DH are bound up with logics and values that impede the field: not only with gendered hierarchies but also with fundamental subject-object distinctions that legitimate othering more generally. These logics structure how we know and (intra)act with and in the world, and the distinctions they legitimate in turn intersect in important ways with other categories of difference.
This essay has attempted to chart, albeit partially and imperfectly, the extent to which an opposition between the instrumental and the intellectual has led to a disavowal of the crucial role that service, a feminized labor category, plays in the digital humanities. The discourse surrounding tools, however, aligns instruments with masculinity, so that coding or making is thus privileged in some contexts and devalued in others. The evasions and contradictions in the discourse surrounding service mark it as a component of the political unconscious of digital humanities grounded in distinctions between subject and object, and the conceptual and the material, that belie the complexity and mutual constitution of humans and technologies. Modes and methods of delivery, human and technological, provide a means of reflecting on how service, bound up as it is with the production and reproduction of DH through training, making, designing, caring, repairing, empowering, and sustaining, might be rethought as a situated, embodied activity embedded inextricably in the field.
Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star elucidate the political and ethical consequences of the taxonomies that construct our world and masquerade as natural, shaping human understandings and affordances for action (326). The digital humanities can learn much from theoretical, critical, and creative practitioners who interrogate boundary objects and interfaces from a range of positions and perspectives. As Star argues, marginality, liminality, hybridity, and multiple memberships across identities or communities provide valuable vantage points for engagement with shifting technologies (“Power, Technology,” 50–53). That is one of the major strengths of the outsider perspective: the feminist perspective, the queer gaze, the view from outside of privileged categories of race, class, nation, or religion. The challenge is how to apply that perspective within DH debates and practices. Human interactions in libraries, labs, classrooms, collaborations, conversations, and other contexts in which service is mobilized, along with our tools, infrastructures, and delivery environments, offer embodied, situated possibilities for engagements and agencies with a difference. At the same time, respecting and incorporating difference is challenging to the extent that those technical systems themselves carry, in McPherson’s words, a logic of “removing context and decreasing complexity” complicit with a larger “approach to the world that separates object from subject, cause from effect, context from code” (“Designing for Difference”; cf. also McPherson, “Why”). That makes it all the more important to devise a world with alternative frames of reference.
Service as a category signals intrinsic and invaluable aspects of the digital humanities. However, epistemologies grounded in subject/object distinctions and a privileging of the ideal or conceptual or practical over the material impedes our ability to recognize the extent to which the devaluation of the feminized undergirds our evasions and our debates in ways that point to the political unconscious of the field. Social semiotics make it difficult to attend to service within a productive frame of analysis, imbued as it is with gendered anxieties regarding bodies, boundaries, and the loss of control and autonomy with respect to labor and reproduction. These associations are far from fixed, and contain contradictions that can be exploited. However, to do so, an equitable, ethical, and politically responsible digital humanities must work toward an epistemology that can deal with the imbrication of our work with an embodied set of relationships wherein gender and other forms of difference matter in the apportioning of attention, value, status, and resources. We can start by engaging with boundary objects, liminality, and materiality within the generative, messy, and contested zone of delivery and interfaces where straightforward subject/object and agential/passive distinctions are undermined. Bringing service to the fore will permit the conflicts and anxieties that it generates to be addressed more directly and effectively, setting the stage for change. Recognizing service as a pervasive and crucial form of knowledge work within DH requires no less than shifting the epistemologies that govern how we understand a wide range of activities. But it offers the opportunity to rethink the humanities in ways that avoid replicating toxic and inequitable hierarchies and practices, allowing us to imagine instead what a service to the academy it would be to deliver substantial change in how we relate to technologies.
Many thanks to editors Liz Losh and Jacque Wernimont, and the anonymous reviewers for the Press, for their help and guidance with this essay. Very thorough feedback from peer-to-peer reviewers Lisa Brundage, Julia Flanders, and Sharon Leon prompted revisions that I hope have clarified the argument.
1. For instance, the Women Writers Project is both inextricable from the development of text encoding as a methodology within the humanities and the feminist project of expanding our objects of analysis beyond the canon, in this case the canon of pre-Victorian women writers. Julia Flanders’s essay on the relationship between gender and encoding (Flanders, “Body Encoded”) is a rare early example of gender being brought to bear on methods within a dedicated DH publication. More typical is engagement with the feminist component of such projects in journals or anthologies beyond DH, as is evident in the citation trail from that early article and in Wernimont and Flanders, “Feminism.” The later piece exemplifies the way in which such endeavors are deeply informed by inter- and trans-disciplinary feminist analyses which are engaged most often outside of DH contexts.
2. Indicators of these debates are evident in the work of numerous scholars over the past two decades; however, they have recently reached a new level of prominence. In formal scholarship, see, for instance, in addition to essays in this one, the proportion of essays in the first two volumes of the Debates in Digital Humanities series that address race, gender, sexuality, geopolitical location, cultural diversity, and other forms of power imbalances such as those related to institutional positioning (Gold, Debates, “Introduction”; Gold and Klein, Debates). Public challenges to lack of diversity or insensitivity to diversity concerns have occurred in a number of contexts, the best recorded being that surrounding the opening of the DH2015 conference in Sydney addressed by Deb Verhoeven in “Has Anyone Seen a Woman?” Social media hashtags include #diverseDH, #myDH, #pocodh. More mainstream media treatments have begun to reflect better the growing diversity of the field, as in the eleven-part “The Digital in the Humanities: A Special Interview Series” by Melissa Dinsman in the LA Review of Books in 2016.
3. A New Companion to Digital Humanities includes a chapter titled “Gendering Digital Literary History: What Counts for Digital Humanities” by Laura C. Mandell in its final section, “Past, Present, Future of Digital Humanities” (Mandell, “Gendering Digital Literary History”; Schreibman, Siemens, and Unsworth, New Companion), marking the increasing prominence of gender in debates in the field.
4. See, for instance, Sharon Leon’s piece in this volume on the ways in which librarians and staff are barred from being principal investigators.
5. Liu reviews in “Where Is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities” the debates over instrumentalism that are closely linked to the matter of service.
6. Likewise, my focus here is on human service, but there is an interesting avenue of inquiry into how software-as-a-service relates to this topic. Online services such as Zotero, Omeka, Scalar, and Voyant meet others’ needs, as does all service, and the discourse surrounding SOAS to some extent reverses the rhetoric of agency by stressing users’ or consumers’ (see Wernimont, “Whence Feminism?”) dependence on services. At the same time, though, the labor associated with creating such services is still often excluded from consideration as scholarship. In a slightly different but related vein, Drucker and Svensson critique the “service” model of implementation as having impeded intellectual engagement with platforms.
7. See also Timothy Morton’s argument that an object-oriented rhetoric would reverse the implicit order provided by Aristotle: starting with delivery rather than invention “explodes the teleology implicit in common assumptions about rhetoric” (“Sublime Objects,” 212) that privilege the idea over the materiality, situatedness, and shaping impact of the delivery: “Delivery deforms what it delivers and the deliveree, stuttering and caricaturing them, remixing and remastering them” (214).
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