Word cloud image via ghbrett.
In November 2009, I had the privilege of participating in a roundtable at the American Studies Association (ASA) conference with Anna Everett, Deborah Kimmey, Tara McPherson, Lisa Nakamura, and Kara Thompson on the Digital Humanities (DH). The panel was titled “Neoliberalism, Multiculturalism, and the Means of Digital Humanities Production.” Convened by Kara Thompson, the idea was to intervene in the prevailing discourses of DH and provide a critique of DH’s productive relations from the perspective of Cultural Studies, Ethnic Studies, American Studies, Women’s Studies, and so on. We covered a wide range of topics: labor and racism in games, code studies, activism, violating copyrights as praxis, undergrads at USC designing K-12 curriculum, archiving MMOs, the tyranny of the new in choosing objects of study, and much more. Many of the issues we discussed could be considered standard touchstones of DH but what made the discussion unique was our shared investment in a progressive cultural politics dedicated to interrogating and reworking established structures of power. It also doesn’t hurt that I was the only white dude on the panel.
Significantly, we didn’t just focus on the corporate university but the far more subtle ways technologies reproduce oppressive social relations in everyday life within and without academia. Although left unsaid, our guiding principle seemed to be that, as Carolyn Marvin has argued, technologies do not determine social relationships but enter into already established relations. They can either reinforce or transform them and it’s up to us to do something about it. Without a robust critical apparatus, DH has and will continue to unwittingly remake the world in its old image. (You know, the one that has a whole bunch of white guys sitting around a highly polished oak table comparing business cards.)
I didn’t write about the panel at the time because only now do I understand the significance of that experience to my formation as a scholar. It wasn’t simply that I was able to share an intellectual space with some of my academic idols, but that it articulated my grievances with DH as well as demonstrated to me that I wasn’t alone.
For the past few years I have had, at best, an ambivalent relationship with DH. Since I am primarily trained in Cultural Studies, Critical Race Theory, and Media Studies, I cannot help but take issue with what I see is a potentially technofetishistic obsession in DH with technological transformation via the creation and use of various digital tools/platforms/networks, etc. as agents of social change. These efforts are often performed under the guiding ethos of collaboration which often becomes an uncritical stand-in for an empty politics of access and equity. There are exceptions, but it seems, and I realize I am generalizing here, that issues of cultural politics are downplayed or, more commonly, considered a given within DH. There’s a disposition that the battles of race, gender, class and ecology have already been won, their lessons have been learned, and by espousing a rhetoric of equity everything will fall into place.
DH does have its strong suits: e.g. the ethics of copyright, privacy and open source, but as an intellectual community its positions on race, gender, class, and the environment are undertheorized and underimplemented even if many practitioners think otherwise. My concern is that when everyone in DH finally builds his/her One Collaborative Widget to Rule Them All, the dust will settle around Mordor and it’ll still be mostly a bunch of white academics at relatively wealthy universities talking about open access and probably around a rather nice table with a few unlocked iPads on it.
To prevent this outcome, DH needs to cultivate an equal interest in critique as in creation. Our play needs a politics. Alongside the creative and practical, we need to have an attendant critical effort that has the license to step in and provoke revision, or, better yet, assist with production. And we need an intellectual community that welcomes this interventionist presence and acknowledges its current lack.
These thoughts were circulating in my mind last weekend during the 2010 THATCamp. Designed as unconference that embodies a more active and dialogic alternative to the traditional conference format, THATCamp is a successful and beloved event in DH which has spawned a host of regional and international offshoots. Hopelessly poor, I enviously lurked this year’s conference, as well as last year’s, and read with interest as some of my favorite Twitter acquaintances offered updates about the happenings. But as it wrapped up and I looked at the final schedule and browsed the Hacking Academia collaborative book project, I considered how fundamentally different the ASA roundtable was from THATCamp. Much of what I am interested in was left unsaid or assumed. There just didn’t seem to be work engaging explicitly with my concerns.
I tweeted a question, “Where’s the race/gender/power/ecology?”, to the #thatcamp and #hackacad communities and Dan Cohen, one of the organizers of THATCamp, told me to check the submissions to the Hacking Academia project. Since I had been following the conference closely I had already read the submissions, noticed the dearth of discussion of these issues, and meant the question to rhetorically expose the investments and exclusions of THATCamp. Admittedly, it was a rather lame and unsuccessful attempt at intervening into the dialogue about the conference, but I was still disappointed in the lack of engagement with what I feel is a legitimate issue with THATCamp and DH. My purpose was and is not to troll or be negative; rather, I would like THATCamp and all of DH to expand and clarify what it is we do and to embrace a vigorous politics of inclusion and provocation because, behind my curmudgeonly tone in this post, I like THATCamp and I like DH.
So let’s expand the focus of DH beyond what we do and how we do it to whom we do it with and whom we do it for. Let’s do what matters and let’s make that our battle cry.
Time to start work on my THATCamp 2011 proposal.