Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein
What matters in 2019?
On the surface of things, not much. In the United States, we have seen “fake news” take the place of informed reporting, “free speech” replace equal protection, and personal profiteering vault a chaos agent into the role of commander in chief. There he remains, secured by a welter of corporate interests, conservative media moguls, GOP enablers, and a vocal minority of the U.S. citizenry who find the rhetoric of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and generalized vitriol more appealing than the aspiration of a more perfect union. Events that only a few years ago seemed impossible—the intentional destruction of the nation’s social safety net, open rallies of armed white supremacists, and even the prospect of nuclear war—have become part and parcel of our daily lives.
What is the role of the digital humanities in the charged environment of 2019, and how can digital humanists ally themselves with the activists, organizers, and others who are working to empower those most threatened by it? Having spent nearly a decade immersed in the Debates in the Digital Humanities series, and even longer in the field, we are convinced that digital humanists can contribute significantly to a larger technically and historically informed resistance. By enabling communication across communities and networks, by creating platforms that amplify the voices of those most in need of being heard, by pursuing projects that perform the work of recovery and resistance, and by undertaking research that intervenes in the areas of data surveillance and privacy, the “artist-theorists, programming humanists, activist-scholars, theoretical archivists, [and] critical race coders” whom Tara McPherson, writing in the first volume of Debates in the Digital Humanities, called into being, have now been united with their task (154).
Indeed, this work has already begun. Media design professor David Carroll, for instance, was the one to the file the lawsuits that helped bring to light the problematic data mining of Facebook user data by Cambridge Analytica in the run-up to the 2016 election. The coalition of activists, organizers, and statisticians who, in 2017, established the group Data for Black Lives are mobilizing the field of data science around issues of racial justice. From within the digital humanities, we have seen the rise to prominence of the Colored Conventions Project, which exemplifies how principles of collective organizing can inform both project structure and research focus. We have also seen how DHers can mobilize in response to immediate need, as in the distributed efforts of DH centers around the United States that held participatory mapping events in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria with a goal of improving the routing of aid to Puerto Rico; and we have seen the collective work of Mobilized Humanities, an outgrowth of the hurricane mapping project, which created the website Torn Apart / Separados in response to the U.S. policy of separating immigrant children from their parents. These examples are by no means exhaustive, but they demonstrate how digital humanists, as well as scholars and practitioners in an expanding set of allied fields, can contribute in concrete and meaningful ways to improving the situation of those most affected by the toxic turn brought about by the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath.
The chapters in this volume were drafted before the 2016 election, and we ourselves write in the middle of 2018. To the degree that, in advance of the present moment, our authors demonstrated a commitment to advocacy and engagement, their words represent the embers of a fire that has since burst into flame. Had this work been compiled any later, we believe that it would have focused even more clearly than it already does on the profound transformations wrought on the national and international landscape. After all, the digital humanities has always seen itself as a field that engages the world beyond the academy—through its orientation toward the public in its scholarship, pedagogy, and service; through its calling attention to issues of academic labor and credit for the same; through its questioning of ossified institutional structures and outmoded scholarly systems; and through its attention to how digital methods can help prepare students for both academic and nonacademic careers. But the events that have transpired since the 2016 election demand a more explicit assertion of these beliefs, and evidence that we are translating these beliefs into action. Now is a time when digital humanists can usefully clarify our commitments to public scholarship, addressing our work not simply to “the public” but also, as Sheila Brennan has observed, to specific communities and the needs that they, and not we, identify as most pressing (386). Now is a time when we can employ our visibility in the academy to advocate for those whose contributions to digital scholarship remain undervalued. Now is a time when we can model how research undertaken by students and scholars who are both technically adept and critically informed can matter, not only to our chosen fields but also to the world at large.
As this work progresses, we must take care to acknowledge the myriad forms of labor that underlie it. By entering into conversation with our institutional administrations about how those who contribute this crucial work can reap the benefits of more stable employment, we can do our part to shore up the university itself, which has begun to show fissures brought about by decades of legislative defunding and corporate influence. As individuals and as a field, we must interrogate our work to ensure that we are not ourselves complicit in the neoliberal practice of naming problems in order to evade their resolution, or that the attention and resources bestowed on digital scholarship and DH centers do not eclipse the work of others who have provided us with the foundation, both intellectual and institutional, for our work. Ultimately, we must each ask ourselves if our service and scholarship, and the field in which we place this work, are sufficiently committed to addressing the problems we face in the present moment. And if the answer to that question remains unclear, we must look to ourselves to recalibrate our own—and our discipline’s—scholarly stance.
We have traveled far from the issues that framed the first volume of Debates in the Digital Humanities, published in 2012 during the first term of the Obama administration. Then, the key questions facing digital humanities had to do with the impact of digital methods and scholarship on the academy. When, for instance, Tom Scheinfeldt, then managing director of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, posed the question of whether the field was required to “produce new arguments” and “answer” new research questions, he was able to argue convincingly that digital humanities needed more time to mature, to experiment, and to play (56–58). His short piece, originally posted on his blog, was an attempt to stake out space for low-stakes inquiry and non-goal-oriented exploration in the face of demands from DH skeptics that the field justify its emergence by presenting clear evidence of research impact. But as the field has matured, the question of how digital humanities relates to a larger world that is itself in crisis has added a new urgency to questions about the value of digital scholarship and methods.
Our work within the digital humanities is enabled by larger social, political, and technological systems. In the present moment, we need work that exposes the impact of our embeddedness in those larger systems and that brings our technical expertise to bear on the societal problems that those systems sustain. Such work is exemplified by scholars such as Safiya Noble, who reveals the racist assumptions planted in the algorithms that power Google searches (Algorithms of Oppression); Marie Hicks, who illustrates the history of gender discrimination that has contributed to the inequities of representation in technological fields (Programmed Inequality); Lisa Nakamura, who exposes the physical and intellectual exploitation at the heart of hardware manufacture (“Indigenous Circuits”); Kathleen Fitzpatrick, who highlights the unscrupulous corporate networks that masquerade as research platforms (“Academia, Not Edu”); and many others who work at the intersection of technology and social justice. Their scholarship enables us to confirm, without a doubt, how social and cultural biases pervade our technologies, infrastructures, platforms, and devices. Digital humanities in the year 2019 might thus be said to be driven by an imperative, both ethical and intellectual, to acknowledge how history, culture, society, and politics overdetermine each and every one of our engagements with our work and the tools that enable it. We must therefore commit to making a digital humanities that matters beyond itself, one that probes the stakes and impacts of technology across a range of institutions and communities.
In our introduction to Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016, we offered Rosalind Krauss’s formulation of the “expanded field” as a model that might help move us away from thinking about the digital humanities as a “big tent,” with its attendant questions of who or what is included within it, toward a conception of DH as a set of vectors of inquiry that are defined by their tensions, alignments, and oppositions (x). A few years later, as the world careens from crisis to crisis, the expanded field model may still work, but it must more clearly account for work outside of digital humanities and outside of the academy. Models, as Richard Jean So reminds us, are meant to be applied in a self-reflexive fashion: one runs the model over a dataset and refines that model iteratively over time. Our expanded field model is no different; we must pause to take account of work currently in formation that indicates powerful new directions for the field. The rough shape of those directions is indicated by, for instance, the 2016 launch of the African American History, Culture and Digital Humanities (AADHum) project at the University of Maryland, which seeks to center African American history and culture in digital humanities inquiry; the 2017 Digital Library Federation conference, which featured keynotes by community arts activists alongside academic librarians and archivists, placing those fields in dialogue; the location of the 2018 Digital Humanities conference in Mexico City, which affirmed the global outlook and multilingual aspirations of the field; and the increasingly substantive efforts to expand DH work at HBCUs, tribal colleges, and community colleges. What is signaled by these wide-ranging efforts is a DH practice that is one part of a larger expanded field of socially oriented work—work that is informed by the digital, but extends beyond it.
As the variety of DH scholarship proliferates—to borrow a phrase from the forthcoming special issue of PMLA on the topic—it is increasingly being published in a range of established disciplinary venues. The publication of special issues of prominent journals—not only PMLA but also American Literature, American Quarterly, The Black Scholar, differences, South Asian Review, and Visible Language, among others—is an important marker of growth for the digital humanities. But a special issue of a journal is what signals the arrival of a field; the next phase occurs when articles that draw from that field appear regularly in those same journals in what Ted Underwood describes in Chapter 10 in this volume as a “semi-normal thing.” Today, DH articles appear in disciplinary journals such as ELH, NLH, Configurations, and PMLA integrated with articles that take a range of different approaches. This transformation speaks as much to the goals of DH scholars, who are seeking to make their digital work relevant to their colleagues, as it does to the evolving status of digital humanities within extant scholarly fields.
Also at work in the digital humanities in 2019 is a deepening and narrowing of scholarly niches within the field: this is another result of the field’s maturation. We are witnessing sophisticated developments within subfields of digital humanities that result in scholarship that is not always fully legible to those not versed in the particular methods or conversations taking place in that domain; see, for instance, the recent growth of the Journal of Cultural Analytics or the increasingly nuanced discussions of method in digital history. Accompanying this scholarship are calls for some subfields of digital humanities to split from it altogether, motivated by critiques from the outside that are perceived as uninitiated or uninformed. And yet, for the digital humanities to achieve its strongest impact, its subfields must remain in dialogue with each other, open to criticism in general terms if not specifics. Our principal task may no longer be to define or defend digital humanities to skeptical outsiders, but instead to translate the subtleties of our research to others within the expanded field—a project that can help DH matter beyond itself.
Perhaps this shift is a good thing for a series like Debates in the Digital Humanities (DDH), which is defined by its critical engagement with the unfolding tensions that surround DH research, teaching, and service. As editors, we have consciously steered DDH volumes—both the biannual volumes we have edited and the special-topics volumes edited by others—away from a case-study approach and toward argument-driven essays. Our editorial process is intellectually involved and time intensive; we go back and forth with our authors, and back and forth again, to ensure that the essays presented in DDH volumes foreground the stakes involved in their arguments. In some cases, this is a conversation that takes place over multiple drafts, conducted over multiple years. We believe that this rigorous process of editing and revision is essential to ensuring that the series lives up to its name and clearly examines the complications and contradictions involved in DH work.
With this in mind, going forward, we are committing to publishing shorter biannual volumes so that the essays can be published before the debates they address have been resolved. Likewise, after two long special volumes—Making Things and Drawing Boundaries, edited by Jentery Sayers, and Bodies of Information: Feminist Debates in Digital Humanities, edited by Jacqueline Wernimont and Elizabeth Losh—future special volumes will be shorter as well. We are excited to share with you a range of such volumes in the coming years on topics that include the digital Black Atlantic, global digital humanities, and institutions and infrastructures. All of these books will be published in print, in ebook form, and online on the open-access Debates website, which will soon make the transition to become an instance of Manifold, the interactive publishing platform recently released by the University of Minnesota Press and the GC Digital Scholarship Lab at The Graduate Center, CUNY.
As we look out into the world in 2019, we see much that is damaged. But in line with Part V of this volume, “Forum: Ethics, Theories, and Practices of Care,” we choose to exercise what Stephen Jackson has termed “broken-world thinking” and to extend to our fragile and often dispiriting world small acts of recuperation that may be the building blocks of larger collective actions (222). We hope that from counting to caretaking, from speculating to building, the digital humanities in 2019 and beyond will continue to offer space to work toward a more hopeful future, one where the shine of innovation gradually gives way to the familiarity of use, the tasks of maintenance, and the stubborn knowledge that there remains much work left to be done.
Brennan, Sheila K. “Public, First.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein, 384–89. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.
Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. “Academia, Not Edu.” Kathleen Fitzpatrick. October 26, 2015, http://kfitz.info/academia-not-edu/.
Hicks, Marie. Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2018.
Jackson, Steven. “Rethinking Repair.” In Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality and Society, edited by Tarleton Gillespie, Pablo Boczkowski, and Kirsten Foot, 221–39. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2014.
Klein, Lauren F. and Gold, Matthew K. “Digital Humanities: The Expanded Field.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein, ix–xv. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.
McGrail, Anne. “The ‘Whole Game’: Digital Humanities at Community Colleges.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein, 16–31. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.
McPherson, Tara. “Why Are the Digital Humanities So White? or Thinking the Histories of Race and Computation.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold, 139–60. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
Nakamura, Lisa. “Indigenous Circuits: Navajo Women and the Racialization of Early Electronic Manufacture.” American Quarterly 66, no. 4 (2014): 919–41.
Noble, Safiya U. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York: New York University Press, 2018.
Obama, Barack. “A More Perfect Union.” National Constitution Center. https://constitutioncenter.org/amoreperfectunion/.
Scheinfeldt, Tom. “Where’s the Beef? Does Digital Humanities Have to Answer Questions?” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold, 56–58. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
So, Richard Jean. “All Models Are Wrong.” PMLA 132, no. 3 (May 2017): 668–73.