At HASTAC: Where do we go from here? A comment on ‘building’ in the digital humanities

On 14 May 2013 I left a comment on this thread. I have edited and extended it a little bit and tried to correct some of the typos (my original comment is here) –some might remain and some new ones might have added though– and have posted it again on my HASTAC blog hoping it finds a new audience. It’s not a proper essay about one single thing, but a series of thoughts I wanted to share. I have also copied and pasted it below.

XKCD party
Comic strip by Randall Munroe, XKCD

To properly engage with academic debates online, one needs time and the right setting to sit down and go through the discussions and reply as one would like to. This means replying thoroughly, thoughtfully, including correct references and hyperlinks, engaging respectfully with the different points of view, remembering people’s names, etc..  Sadly, this is becoming increasingly difficult to do (I miss my students days!). The ability to do this is in itself a kind of privilege.

I once published a post on U of Venus/Inside Higher Education (23 February 2011) that was inspired by Spivak’s Death of a Discipline (2003), which is on comparative literature but I thought then it could also be ‘used’ to engage in debates around the theory and practice of the digital humanities (DH). My post asked if the “subaltern could tweet”. By this I meant that under-represented voices often have to face much more obstacles than well-represented voices in online and academic discourse.

For me, developing resources and communities for the humanities of today has resemblances to organizing a party. If you host it but don’t tell anyone no one will come. If you are a rude host people will leave early. If the party is boring, they might not come again to the next one you organize. If the venue is in a remote location which is very hard to get to, people might be late or get lost in the way (in case they were given an address, directions or a map). Those with special mobility needs might not come if you don’t host your party in an accessible venue. If you charge money at the door only those who can pay will come (if the party is good, some will gatecrash it).

It might sound simplistic but in my experience it is in this sense that when we talk online resources, in DH or any other discipline, your resource won’t be used just because it’s there. One needs to build ‘the thing’ and also build the community (increasingly ‘the thing’ and ‘the community’ are one and the same). (Warwick, C; Terras, M; Huntington, P; Pappa, N; 2008; Procter, R; Williams, R; Stweart, J; 2010). Moreover, often ‘the thing’ will need to address/predict what a given community might need to become meaningful. Sometimes you do a lot of hard work promoting a party, but the community is in no mood for it.

But let’s say it again: they will not come just because you have built it. Perhaps some will come if you are famous enough (but even celebrities have someone who carefully curates their guest lists). It will be fully built until they come and they inhabit it. Even though I am sick and tired of the definitional debate, I have to say I like this metaphor of ‘building’ when speaking of DH. I echo what others have said (apologies if I don’t name you personally and link to you directly here) when I say I believe there is a difference between the need to interrogate the discourse of/around/in/on/inside/outside DH and technology in general and the need to do something with those technologies for research. They are, indeed, not mutually exclusive, but there can come the point in which they need to be distinct activities.

A simile might be useful. Often, the academic critique of, say, colonialist representations of ‘the Other’ and the act of creating colonial representations of ‘the Other’ are clearly distinct. One is performed by the cultural scholar, the latter by the film maker, photographer, advertising agency. It is possible to create representations that are critical of those colonialist represenations, and indeed address in practice the need to interrogate colonialist represenations and in so doing offer an example of how to do it differently/ethically/better. I suppose the same happens with DH: we can spend the rest of our days (hopefully with funding we have obtained to do so) critiquing discourse or practices and calling for the need to do/engage with/ digital technologies differently.

This activity, it seems to me, requires a different kind of investment than that of working directly with those technologies, no matter how imperfect. This is indeed a dilemma, because many of us are very much aware of the in-built discourses in the technologies/systems/structures/superstructures, but at the same time we face the danger of then not engaging with them at all. If we take the critique to its ultimate circumstances we wouldn’t even dare to invest our time blogging, tweeting and commenting on online discussions using these same specific technologies that require such a long set of often-uninterrogated a prioris.

It might be that the critique of DH has come too early, before we have even begun to understand what they can be. I am not saying this critique is unnecessary. On the contrary. It is. What I guess I am trying to say is that the much-needed (so-called) postcolonial critique of DH is in fact not different from the critique we all need to make of the whole academic endeavor. This also means realising that sometimes these debates reflect a USA-centrism which can be alienating for those of us outside the everyday practicalities of the USAmerican Higher Education system.

Deep down what I perceive is a general dissatisfaction with the (to many of us painfully obvious) lack of equality of opportunity in academia in general and even more in DH  (given that in most cases significant funding and infrastructural support is needed to get a project/center up the ground). From a non-USAmerican perspective, it seems that suddenly ‘DH’ became this trendy panacea, making some people feel included and many others excluded. Those excluded are not happy. Once again: this is not specific of DH.

So the question is: where do we go from here? I believe there is room from all the different approaches. The fact some people are busy doing text encoding does not mean they are not sensitive to the “discursive formations” that govern most code. And if we spend all our time interrogating these “discursive formations”, maybe we won’t be coding, or doing whatever it is required to have ‘the thing’ up and running, making things happen, including some of the interrogations that had to be momentarily suspended if you will just to do ‘the thing’. (A related question is if we don’t need to be able to do something before being able to interrogate it– can a cultural critique of code be performed as a ‘reader’ only? Open question. Some prove true advancement can be achieved by blending both, see this for example). This does not mean I am making a bipolar opposition between interrogation and doing, it means I must accommodate both in their difference if we want to take things forward.

The question was if DH could be considered a historical ‘refuge’ from Race/class/gender/sexuality/disability”. My personal (very simple, direct) answer to the question: of course not. On the contrary, it might be one of the places where  those categories are most openly acted-out.

As someone who has been at the receiving end of many ‘Othering’ exclusionary practices, I consider myself particularly sensitive to discrimination and exclusion. And yet I believe that DH can offer that space which is not a space of exemption (on the contrary). It is because of this that it can offer an open window (not sure if door) to what is now and could be done better, more openly and more accessibly. But in order to do this we need to host the party first. If we spend our lives discussing whether we should plan it or what the meanings of “hosting” and “party” are, well, we will just go mad (and have no party).

I write this as someone who doesn’t really do DH, not like other colleagues I respect and admire. In my case, it has been by leading and coordinating the creation of communities and colalborative online projects that I have realised how difficult and complex it can be. If coordinating a team of scholars to advance an open access online publishing platform for an emerging arts and humanities trans-discipline is doing DH, then maybe I do, but seriously I don’t think determining that is the point. All I know is that we had a choice between working to create something that didn’t exist before in the same way or not doing it. All projects are perfectible, and flaws are discovered and created along the way. Productive theoretical interrogation can take place (it often does) along practice.

Needless to say there ain’t no final truths in what I wrote. I may be completely wrong, and anyone is always-already entitled to disagree.