Thanks to Miriam Posner for sharing her talk from her keynote address at the Keystone Digital Humanities Conference (University of Pennsylvania, July 22, 2015)! Her talk is excellent and should be read in its entirety. I’m writing about it here to highlight it as a resource and reference for folks in and writing about the Digital Humanities (DH) and thinking about DH, because it raises many critically important points:
What I’m getting at here is a comment on our ambitions for digital humanities going forward. I want us actually to be more ambitious, to hold ourselves to much higher standards when we’re claiming to develop databased work that depicts people’s lives. […]
I want us to stop acting as though the data models for identity are containers to be filled in order to produce meaning, and understand that these structures themselves constitute data. That’s where the work of DH should begin. […]
I think, though, that part of the reason the conversation has been a bit frustrating is that those of us who are interested in seeing more robust cultural critique need to be more specific about where the intervention might most productively take place. It’s not only about shifting the focus of projects so that they feature marginalized communities more prominently; it’s about ripping apart and rebuilding the machinery of the archive and database so that it doesn’t reproduce the logic that got us here in the first place.
Sometimes people frame calls for DH to engage more with race and gender as a kind of philanthropic activity; won’t you please consider the poor women and people of color?
But that’s wrong. 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. Truly, it’s the most complicated, challenging computing problem I can imagine, and DH hasn’t even begun yet to take it on.
I want to build upon so much of this, and I will in time. For now, I’m going to point to only part of the final point on philanthropy. This is a bit of a riff or a stretch, and it’s an important one because too often being positive or being seen as building things is understood as something different from critique and critical engagement, even though critique and critical engagement are positive. With the framing of positive/negative, strange responses come about that fall into have/havenot and philanthropy. I’ve thought about this a good bit over the years as I try to explain what I do with DH and why. My work is socio-technical (people, policies, technologies, communities) in support of research, teaching, and service as those are translational, so bench to bedside, public good and supporting peoples and societies. This is the abstract level, and I also share on particular projects to have concrete examples that make this more comprehensible instead of just jargon. My work makes connections and leverages institutional infrastructures and community capacities to make new things possible, and for particular projects, it often means combining resources from many different places. When explaining this process, people have often enough responded that my work is altruistic or philanthropic. This is a misunderstanding based, I think, on the perceived separation of positive/critical, where my work must be bringing resources to support critical engagement, because critical engagement can’t be positive and so can’t have it’s own resources or values or anything to bring. This is a very weird framing, but I think this is part of the misunderstanding. I’ve now started to explain what I do in terms of directed action, where the actions for all involved are aligned, individually and collectively for a shared or common objective. In academic research libraries, this clearly makes sense with so many libraries working together to build shared collections that benefit everyone, and are held and supported by the group, with individual libraries each benefiting and wanting to take part for their individual needs and benefits alone and as part of the whole. This also clearly makes sense for academia where we have shared needs and activities that we all work on together, and where success for any one of us is contingent on success for the community. But, somehow it doesn’t get framed this way, and we instead get narratives of economic scarcity and abundance with altruistic transfers among different groups and individuals. Until Posner’s piece, I hadn’t fully seen how this is weirdly playing out in DH.
Thanks to Miriam Posner for sharing a wonderful piece, and I look forward to reading the many excellent responses and discussions that will come from it!