“Vox Populi”: Of Relevance to Digital Humanities as a Subject of Enquiry

[For part II, go here]

[Update: This post was originally published on 14 August 2020 at 09:43 am BST. On 14 August 2020 at 11:23 a.m. BST, “Humanist 34.228 – hiatus” was published.]

In this post I am sharing my email sent in reply to “vox populi” Humanist 34.224 – received on  11 August 2020, 9:13 a.m. BST. Until the time I type this my email has not been published.

For more context on the conversation, see this post by Bethan Tovey-Walsh.

A look at the Humanist archive for volume 34 (openly available) shows that messages from the list are usually sent at least once daily during weekdays, with rarely more than two workdays without messages in between, at least recently.

Maybe my message to the list will still be posted, but since it’s been three days now and conversations evolve and are replaced and / or forgotten these days quite rapidly (and because I’d like to liberate headspace) I am sharing it here today.

I did not blog my email response here immediately after sending it because I was hoping it would get included in and posted from Humanist within a day or two. I fully understand there might be several reasons why this has not been the case, so I don’t necessarily think I have been ‘censored’ nor ‘silenced’ yet. In order to personally move on though, here it is.

I have not revised the text of my email [update: I did a bit- I only removed a couple of minor typos which included an incorrect character and accidental punctuation], which perhaps I would have written differently or better now or with more time- it was written like one writes important emails when one is busy, which is to say it is not meant to read like a blog post or a proper paper or essay.

My email

Tue, 11 Aug, 11:07 BST (3 days ago)
to Humanist

Dear Willard, all,

Good morning. Thank you as always for your invitation to comment.

I personally have always found inspiration and motivation in Humanist as a platform. I remain in awe at how tirelessly and generously you continue to foster not only a living, open resource but a community too. As in all communities, and specifically as it’s the nature of scholarly work, there are bound to be disagreements, and tricky moments, and difficult decisions, and mistakes. Without their possibility, I believe, all the positive opportunities would not be there as well.

You wrote:

“I strongly suggest one condition to this expanded scope, apart from care always to respect those with whom we disagree. That condition is relevance to digital humanities as a subject of enquiry. The connection between subject and society is, to paraphrase Kathy Harris (below), that algorithms are not pure, timelessly ideal, culturally neutral expressions but are as we are.”

I think it’s important we recognise that the engagement with the issue of racist tropes is always-already of uttermost relevance to digital humanities as a subject of enquiry.

We all know of our compulsion to go back to “what is DH?”, and though many of us may want to move away from it it remains important to keep asking ourselves “what are subjects of enquiry? How did they come to be? How did digital humanities come to be as a subject of enquiry, and as the subject of enquiry it is today?”

Via the work of Domenico Fiormonte, Teresa Numerico and Francesca Tomasi (2015) I have been re-reading in recent years Antonio Gramsci’s work. He writes that “everything is political, even philosophy or  philosophies  and  the only “philosophy” is history in action, that is, life itself”. This sentence came back to me when you posed this condition, also because it alludes to that most philosophical of questions, “who are we?”. This question of course needs to be followed by “how do we know we are who we think we are?”

I am not a Gramsci scholar but I’d also argue Gramsci’s ideas on cultural hegemony are helpful (perhaps more than ever) to engage critically with the digital humanities as a subject of enquiry. Ideas of “Western civilization” have a history which has been more often than not imposed on others, and traditionally not always critically interrogated.

As a thinker of his time, who had read the authors he had, Gramsci argued that the principal “instruments”  of  “scientific  progress”  were  of  an  “intellectual  (and  even political)  and  methodological  order” (that is, not necessarily ‘machines’ or technologies in their literal sense). Part of what we are seeing in the discussion in question is to me a healthy indication of a productive interrogation of the conditions of production of the digital humanities, as a subject of enquiry (as an “intellectual tool” or set of tools) and therefore as a discourse as well.

Gramsci did note how in the traditional, Western understanding of “science” there was a dangerous equivalence between the industrialisation of a country (“which can be measured by how well equipped it is in the production of machines with which to produce machines, and in  the  manufacture  of  ever  more  accurate  instruments  for  making  both machines and further instruments for making machines, etc.”) and that country’s perceived level of scientific ‘advancement’. This remains true today. In order to interrogate the conflation of scientific (intellectual) and technological “progress”, Gramsci describes: “the country which  is   best   equipped   in   the   construction   of   instruments  for experimental   scientific   laboratories   and   in   the   construction   of instruments with which to test the first instruments, can be regarded as the most complex in the technical-industrial field, with the highest level of civilisation,  etc.” (Prison Notebooks, p 143 and p 825). This also remains a widely adopted view both within and outside DH (cfr., for example, when Jeffrey Beall called SciELO a “publication favela” (Scientific Electronic Library Online 2015) (Eve & Priego 2017).

There is still today a very dangerous reluctance from some quarters to accept fair, collegial and professional critiques of particular hegemonic understandings of scientific, cultural, social, and technological “advancement” and “civilization”, how that has been attained and the consequences it has had and continues to have on others. Walter Benjamin (a fellow historical materialist) famously noted that documents of civilization are also documents of barbarism (Theses on the Philosophy of Culture).  I suppose he would have been accused of “dismissing” Western civilization “as all bad”.

As an editor myself I fully appreciate the enormous challenges posed by curation, editing and moderation of a resource like Humanist. I once again welcome and I am grateful for the renewed invitation to comment on this topic, as it remains fully within the remit of this list. I think that the selection of responses shared on Humanist gives an indication that Humanist, as one of DH’s key spaces of information exchange and potentially knowledge construction, is a space for “history in action”. Given its specific relationship with industrialisation and machine – computing technologies, critically interrogating how DH came to be (at whose expense?), and how we continue to talk about it, should remain in my view one of its most important tasks.

Now this message seems way too long and convoluted for its particular mode of production and dissemination- itself the result of a particular cultural hegemony.

My very best wishes to you all.

Best regards,


*Typos might have remained.

[For part II, go here]

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