Digital Object Lessons

My name is Melissa, and there are a couple of reasons why I feel relatively comfortable not defining digital humanities (plural), or at least, not making myself anxious about its various definitions. The first reason is personal and anecdotal, so I’ll start with that by way of an introduction.

When I think back on my own experiences with technology [as a feminist autobiographer a "memory audit" like this one is a necessary first step for me in thinking about gendered histories of technology and power], I realize that I’m not afraid of it because tools and machines were part of my milieu from an early age. Now that I’m thinking about it, I see that this has everything to do with being from a working-class family. There are infamous pictures of me as a toddler in a leopard leotard on the seat of my uncle’s yellow bulldozer. My grandfather was a tool and die maker–he worked on machines that made other machines, but before that he worked in a paper factory. I can distinctly remember my excitement watching paper being made, excitement that was magnified when he brought home boxes of it to feed through the typewriter he found at a garage sale for me. So my love of literature is intimately bound up with material production itself; it has as much to do with the feel, smell, and sound of paper and the thoroughly nostalgic and satisfying experience of (loudly) making words appear on the page with a machine as it does with the words themselves. [Speaking of words, I also argued as a child with my grandfather about why the "square" used to measure angles was triangular.]

My mom dated and eventually married a mechanic who is also a carpenter, plumber, and, though he probably wouldn’t admit it, a lay engineer and inventor. I grew up in garages and hardware stores, watching him “hack” things–whether it was a new foundation for a very old house or an engine fix that, while unorthodox, was “close enough for government work,” in his words. He is a maker to his core, so I probably got to play with more weird tools and ancient, highly specific machines than most tomboys. Meanwhile I was happily word processing with Mavis Beacon on Windows 95, dabbling in early virtual worlds on a dial-up connection, and beating Nintendo games. All of this, I think, prepared me to not care very much when I was one of about five women in my Advanced Placement computer programming class in high school. In turn, and to come back to the purpose of this post, that programming class is what helped me not be daunted by some of my colleagues’ thinly veiled fear and disdain for digital humanities.

So, I know I am, and will continue to be, a cyborg whether or not others consider me to be a digital humanist. Which brings me to the second reason I’m not getting anxious about definitions of digital humanities. I recently read Robyn Wiegman’s brilliant book Object Lessons, which argues, in short, that the critical desires that motivate our scholarship (in the case of Women’s Studies and other minoritarian “identity knowledges,” the desire to do justice) can tell us much about disciplinary norms and imperatives. Wiegman pays attention to the often bitter and snarky conflicts that take place in academic journals and conference presentations in moments of field formation and consolidation. I cannot help but take an object lesson from debates surrounding the origins and the futures of digital humanities work. The obvious anxiety that surrounds “who’s in and who’s out,” “the cool kids’ table,” and “the big tent” are not new–they are part and parcel of capitalist academic institutions that value shiny newness and sexy neologisms ["intertwinglings" is my new fave], entrepreneurship and innovation narrowly and profitably defined, and competition that leads to “progress” for only a select few.

It’s not surprising that, as David Golumbia points out in “‘Digital Humanities’: Two Definitions,” multiple and contradictory assertions of what digital humanities are “about” and what they do are circulating simultaneously. In fact, while they appear to be contradictory, the “big tent” definition and the “tools and archives” or “making and building” definition might actually be achieving the same purpose, which is allowing universities and eventually the state to profit off whatever they think digital humanities are. I’m not trying to make this sound like a conspiracy theory with no accountable actors–there are powerful individuals making big decisions with huge amounts of money here. You and me could argue till the cows come home about what digital humanities mean, but in the end our language is going to have to match the assumptions of the funding agency we want to support our project, as the “Short Guide” offered by the authors of Digital_Humanities makes (somewhat implicitly) clear.

In short [or maybe at length], what are our investments in making, building, geeking out, hacking, coding, designing, reading (socially or otherwise), theorizing, critiquing, navelgazing? I come down hard on the side of Bianco when it comes to critical-creative praxis–I did so when I thought I was just a writer and I do so now, in the process of shifting my identity to that of maker. I don’t think writing, reading, and thinking critically and creatively can be excluded from the category of “doing,” as a recent twitter spat I had with another attendee of the Digital Humanities Winter Institute can attest. But rather than arguing about who’s cool or sexy, we need to seriously interrogate the kinds of cultural and academic capital attached to the practitioners who get to inhabit those labels, as well as the cost to those who don’t.

28 thoughts on “Digital Object Lessons

  1. Hi Melissa,

    Your post has some really interesting points! This “anxiety of definitions” is more than a simple pursuit of boundaries. It has to do with institutions and their agendas, market, or university recruiting, etc., and our readings showed that, particularly Golumbia’s text. But what I like about DH is that it also allows you to work in a very independent way, independent not only from institutions but also from publishing houses or any other kind of mediation in the publishing process. And I think that the most interesting part of the DH is that we are in touch with the production of things, as you said you liked, and work materially in the production of texts.

  2. Awesome post, especially in conjunction with Mary’s “What’s in a name?” question, I think. I’ve been trying to remember what I’ve read on naming (I took a “Philosophy of Language” course in undergrad that was the bane of my existence, yet continues to haunt me by always being theoretically relevant) but there’s such a huge power dynamic there–giving something a name is in and of itself a form of creation. (Think of our individual names–my mom always said that because all three kids got my dad’s last name, *she* would choose our first and middle names. As such, my two siblings and I all have names related to my mom and her family–so how much of our identity is based on on our mom and excludes our dad? A lot).

    Anyway, you make an important point about the need to investigate the motivation behind these names, boundaries and definitions, and the question of “who gets to inhabit these labels.”

  3. Pingback: Digital Object Lessons: On Gender, Class, and Technology | Squeaky Wheel Collective

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