Current Happenings in DH

Several weeks before the end of the semester, I gave the students in this class the assignment of collaboratively curating a site that documents what happened in DH since the day before our class began, on January 22, 2013. And so they did: Current Happenings in Digital Humanities. And they immediately grokked my logic:

“Thus, we are defining digital humanities not by what we believe it to be (as we did at the beginning of the course), but by what it actually does and continues to do.”

Yes. That. That really nails it; for me, “digital humanities” as a discipline, hashtag, or “big tent,” may finally only be sustainable as a documentary rubric, that is by the kind of collecting, gathering, organizing, and aligning that they’ve done here. This site strikes
me as a “cabinet of curiosities” in the best tradition of the Web, that is rather than a unified, coherent body of content it is willfully (and necessarily) partial, eclectic, diversified, and subjective. This is manifest in so many ways: the plurality of platforms and voices, the loose connective tissue of the links, and essential but ultimately I think futile attempt to impose an external organizing structure in the form of WordPress’s hierarchy of pages and sub-pages.

Highlights for me include the amazing archives visualization and the already voluminous Zotero Library, whose neatly ordered entries function as the skeletal discursive underpinning for much of the content manifest here. Oh, and the Easter egg that reveals our, ahem, *cheesy* class contribution to the world of @kfitz scholarship. But it’s all wonderful and smart. Go look.

And maybe someone wants to pick up the idea behind the original assignment and continue it in their own class next fall?


A parting (sniff!) shot, in re DH ‘Types’, PoCoDH, etc.

Just in case this horse isn’t quite dead yet, a final post: this morning I had what seemed at the time like a ‘moment of clarity’ on the whole boundary debate. Whether I can now recreate it on this blog with the same degree of pellucidity that it had in my 5 a.m. inner monologue is doubtful, but I’m going to give it my best shot.

On Wednesday the point that I was trying, largely unsuccessfully I think, to bring across in our final discussion stems from a realization that I have made over the past year or so, namely that, to put it rather glibly, the humanities are long and life is short.  Yes, I know that there are big issues at stake for those who are struggling to forge an academic career in a time of shrinking budgets and large-scale adjunctification of the professorate, but I just don’t have the patience for, or see the value in, squabbling over territory.  I think there are really exciting things happening right now in the humanities around open, accessible, and processable information structures, things largely made possible by a growing spirit of collaboration among cultural heritage institutions, government agencies, universities, and even commercial (gasp!) technology companies — and to spend time carding people at the entrance seems like a colossal waste of time.  As someone who at one point poured a fair amount of himself into seeking a tenure-track academic job, I have come around to this viewpoint less easily and willingly than did Andrew Prescott (see:, but I think I largely share his view that the current debate seems rather parochial, and once you no longer have a dog in that fight, the fight starts to seem pretty boring.  It’s a bit like reading the comments section attached to articles on the Chronicle website — a little goes a very long way.

That having been said, reading comment flame-wars is often entertaining, and once in a while the products can even be useful. I actually liked Steven Ramsay’s type1/type2 piece ( — which I think goes a long way toward explaining the current shape (and frequent disconnects) of the DH field.  I am myself rather partial to building things too, and I like code, but that doesn’t mean that I would dismiss TransformDH or the Dark Side conference as mere “silliness” (as one commentator — not Ramsay — has done), though I think no one can deny that they are, in part at least, ‘silly’.  Does anyone think TransformDH is meant purely in earnest?  And powerful ideas are, by virtue of their potency, also easy to parody.  To say that Gravity’s Rainbow is often silly — indeed, it is one of the most hilarious books I’ve ever read — does nothing to detract from its greatness as a work of literature, nor from the power of its ideas.  It is also, just like Joyce or Hemingway, easy to make fun of.  Of course critical theory should be applied to DH — of course it should.  But it doesn’t follow from that that building something or winning and directing a grant cannot be equally valid scholarly achievements or that they are merely “managerial” (cf.  Anyone who thinks you can effectively manage a team of software developers without yourself knowing at least something about programming is kidding themselves, and anyway would we criticize the biochemist who wrote a grant to undertake groundbreaking medical research as a mere ‘manager’ who just got the funding to hire postdocs to do the real work?  Sure, there have been some poorly conceived and poorly executed DH grants.  No doubt there have been DH grants that got funds that could have been better spent elsewhere. There have also been more than a few bad pomo/poco monographs over the years. With any research project, funded or not, the proof is in the outcomes, not the method, the theory, the label, or in whose tent it was carried out.  Enough with the sour grapes!

PS: Having gotten that out of my system, I’m adding this postscript, mainly because the preceding phrase would be a very unfitting way to end this course, the spirit of which has been precisely the opposite!  Thanks to you all for a fabulous semester, and hope to see you on the Dark Side!

#transformers…more than meets the eye!

Sorry, couldn’t help myself. But I think there’s something appropriate about the Transformers reference when it comes to #transformDH, a nascent movement that challenges the boundaries of digital humanities work and opens a space (indeed, many interstitial and tactical spaces) for transformative critique, as Alexis Lothian and Amanda Phillips termed it in their recent essay “Can Digital Humanities Mean Transformative Critique?”  For me, it is useful to think about the #transformDH crowd as Transformers in the pop cultural sense (and I’ve started referring to them as such on twitter) because they are constantly reworking, recombining, reconfiguring, and recontextualizing the technologies and concerns with which digital humanities are typically preoccupied. #transformers call attention to blind spots in digital humanities, and they spring into action to show that technologies always exceed the uses and audiences to which their creators imagine they can be put. #transformers are not just performing (or deforming) critique, but they’re also engaged in creative praxis that synthesizes and that offers something new.

Furthermore, the Transformers tagline “more than meets the eye” productively engages the contested issues of representation that many of our readings for today focused in on. For example, when Tara McPherson reports being asked “Why are the digital humanities so white?”, as her essay in Debates in the Digital Humanities is so provocatively titled, we need to ask ourselves what we are doing when we observe whiteness in one space or another. How does whiteness, and the power and privileges it accrues, organize and shape disciplinary spaces and imaginaries in ways that may be invisible to some but glaringly obvious to others? How is whiteness represented (or not), and how does it come to dominate our fields of vision without naming itself? What work does whiteness do, as a racial logic or a racial formation that whiteness studies understands to operate without or even beyond the actions of individual “white people”?

There is definitely “more than meets the eye” here, especially when whiteness goes unmarked. Thus we might putatively say “the digital humanities are so white” and in doing so mark and name whiteness, yet we would also be constructing a narrative that actively erases or ignores the vital presence, contributions, and ongoing interventions of scholars and thinkers of color, individuals who might also be queer, might also be women, might also be trans, might also be poor and working class, might also be alter- and disabled, might also be working in contexts that do not center the United States, might also not be doing their primary work within the multiply privileged site of the academy, might also…. In our discussion today, therefore, I want us to strategically and temporarily (re)center whiteness in order to be able to track where it goes and how it moves, yet I also want us to recognize and remember that the margins are very real, that they do not cease to exist because “we” [who is that, anyway?] cease to think about them, and that they are a precarious space where conversations are happening, work is being done, and lives are being lived. What do we want to do when we move what has and continues to be marginalized to the center? What is tactical about the space of the margin?

I have some questions to guide us and open up discussion.

Q: Where and how do we see #transformDH, in its various instantiations and iterations, engaging with, contesting, and (at risk of seeming redundant) transforming the topics that our course has taken as central to digital humanities, i.e., “big data” and the modeling and textual analysis of million+ books, archives and archiving, #studioDH or “building”, making, and playing?

Q: In addition to the racial, gender, sexual, class, and ability politics (among many others) that our readings for today urge us to attend to, many of these authors are also urging us to critically examine the shapes that our versions of interdisciplinary work take. How might digital humanities work already be aligned with existing interdisciplinary projects in women’s and gender studies, American studies, and queer studies? What are some concrete ways digital humanities work could productively engage the critical frameworks of critical race theory, critical whiteness studies, and disability studies? And by concrete, I mean how do you see your work in conversation with these modes of thought?

Q: Dovetailing off this question, I think it’s especially timely that as our semester draws to a close we have a conversation about our desire for digital humanities. I wrote about Robyn Wiegman’s new book Object Lessons in my first post and expanded on some of these thoughts on an under-construction collaborative venue that I’m a part of, Squeaky Wheel, which I very much consider to be a project of transformative critique. Wiegman asks us to interrogate our critical wishes–what do we desire to do with critique? What happens when critique does not fulfill all of our needs (professional, personal, political), when it fails, as it will, to do justice to and with our objects of study? We might ask the same thing of building, making, doing, coding, and MOOCing that we ask of critique. I want to ask, who is digital humanities doing justice to? Who is digital humanities doing just with? Why do we want digital humanities to be “a thing” and why do we get upset when digital humanities turns out to be many things? If digital humanities is supposed to be a public humanities project, who is “the public” and why do we assume we know what it is they want/need to know?

Some beginning thoughts.

A beginning roundup of #transformDH conversations, posts, and projects in this storify.


Some conclusions and some openings

I wanted to write a last post about some ideas I had and things that happened to me during the course. I wanted to share them with you and I thought that this was the best place to do that.

I enrolled in this course because of the reasons we were and are studying, especially in this last section. I was curious about DH because I like to build and transform things inside the field of literary studies. And I liked the fact that I can do something else in academia more than just writing papers, and I can share my writings with people I knew and unknowns, that they can help me writing and exposing ideas, that I can be creative with the way I presented my ideas, not just written ideas (without having to be a designer), and being in touch with a lot of things that are happening right NOW in many disciplines, especially literature.

I never liked the way I studied at the academia, at least in Latin American literature (I do not think English is very different). It was too closed to things that were happening (especially in literature!), I thought that having a publishing house, a literary magazine, even a bookstore was a better idea – but I do not have a commercial spirit and I would have sunk. I have always been tempted to drop my classes: it is a debate I had to myself since an undergrad. But here I am, pursuing a PhD degree! I do not think I would have done the same If I had stayed in Argentina, because one of the things that seduced me the most to go on my studies here was my curiosity about American academy, what was trendy, and the possibility of dialoguing with current theories and critics. I thought it would be a great opportunity to listen to different ideas, and study how they circulate in the powerful countries, and the place that Latin America had there.

When I began studying here, I realized that it wasn’t that different and that professors still were reading Derrida, Foucault, Barthes, (Rancière as a relatively new member of the circle) which I find all very interesting but I am really tired of listening always to the same approach to literature. I was disappointed. More years of studying the same, saying the same, producing the same! (The biggest difference between American universities and ours is that you have to produce A LOT! With no real time to produce a real idea). I always liked to intervene instead of just producing for a certificate, a title, etc., I liked to think about my work as a work of intervention, of transformation of a certain field. That is why I began studying for being an editor, and also began translating literature from Portuguese into Spanish, and that’s why I found Internet as a great medium to publish.

So I decided to develop a site and thought of it as a digital project as part of my academic work (actually, I just wanted an “excuse” for doing my web page and whenever someone asked me “But really, why do you do this?” I could answer “Oh, it is just part of my research for the university” not having thus to justify I was doing something because I felt I had to, with any visible gain). And it was then when I finally discovered something interesting for me in academia: Digital Humanities. It was a different way to approach reading, writing, authorship, literary criticism, publishing. The digital texts denaturalized our conceptions of book and scholarship, and our whole written culture. New theories have been and are written now, new discussions not only about new materiality and a new culture, but also about pre-digital written culture.

When I went with this these ideas to my Spanish and Portuguese department, I thought the reaction would be worst. But many of my department’s professors showed interest in DH. Even though it was very common that some professors found my project very shallow, nothing to do with academy, and dismissed it.

When I presented my web page at a Graduate Student Conference, the discussant, from History department, with a very disdainful expression asked me: “How can you be talking about internet when some parts of Brazil do not even have electricity, when poor areas like favelas do not have internet?” He totally loosed the point. He said he did not like to spend hours online and that the digital was not a revolution at all. So I answered him with a question: “Do you know how much does it cost a book in Brazil? Much more than hours in an Internet café for those who do not have access at home. Nowadays, it is easier for a poor person to have access to internet in Brazil than buying a book, an object that was and still is made for the elite. Almost nobody reads literature in Brazil because literature is not where people are.”  It is a lot of ignorance and arrogance! This kind of professors is very common in Spanish and Portuguese departments, sadly. They long for those days when books were only made with paper. But digital publishing is not a threat because it changes the smell of literature. The problem is that it threatens a whole idea of knowledge and power. All topics that Fitzpatrick very intelligently approached in her Planned Obsolescence, a programmatic essay, a real call to action sometimes!

Books were a sign of power. A privilege in the pre digital written culture, especially in countries like mine, where it is difficult to get books from the rest of the world. It was very common to listen to (and to believe) professors that were the only ones that had access to texts. But not anymore. I can check what the professor is saying, I can read what the world is reading, and I can participate in all kind of debates. And that is the threat. They do not have the library for themselves. And I like the way digital is disorganizing knowledge and power in academia. Last week, I attended a conference of one of the most important intellectuals in Latin America. He told us that Humanities were in crisis, that nobody was interested in it anymore. The legacy he gave to future scholars was just a debris, and that kind of speech (very common, indeed and very depowering) is limiting and useless: it is as if we have nothing to debate, therefore, those professors pitied us. When I talked to him about Digital Humanities, he did not even know what I was talking about. He looked interested (for some seconds or so) but he did not know what to answer. I liked that. I like when a professor remains in silence. It is a little kind of revenge.

Among some voices that still fight against digital (or at least feel bewildered about digital scholarship, or digital authorship, those “new modes of authorship” that Fitzpatrick mentions) and others that find it interesting and new, I decided last week, backed by my thesis director, to present a digital based project for my PhD dissertation. Digital projects are a different kind of scholar genre; no, they are more than that, they are cultural objects. They are like books that do not follow any MLA guide (great!). And any reviewer or professors of the thesis committee should be clever (maybe sensitive?) enough to read it.

So, I am really happy I was encouraged by the readings we had in this course during the semester and the classes and the exercises to begin developing my own ideas and my place in academia. I didn’t think my thesis director was going to let me present a “digital thesis”, but she was glad I was going to begin something so different in the Spanish and Portuguese department, and not only at the UMD, but also in Latin America. As there are not digital-based thesis, at least in Argentina, and DH is a field almost unknown and underdeveloped in academia, although there are people working in similar things.

I am really thankful for having been pushed to be in touch with other DHers, because I found many people in Brazil and Argentina that are working in the DH field. And now I have a place and a group of people with whom I am going to collaborate from now on.

I also found a group called GO::DH,  with people from all over the world that do an incredible work spreading DH around the world,  I am amazed at all they do. I am participating translating into Spanish!

So thanks to this class, I can finally be glad of being part of the academia, but more than that, I can change it.

My digital project will improve the page I created in many different ways, and I will use some of the tools we experimented in the course (of course, Twine!!!). I will be in Brazil, in a city there is nothing or near to nothing to do (you can imagine that: I found a blog which name is “How not to die of boredom in Brasilia”), and I hope I can be still in touch with you.

What I like about DH is that our questions and ideas are never in the hands of a few but are discussed among many people, that can be from different countries and speak different languages, as you and me.