Excavating Feminisms: Digital Humanities and Feminist Scholarship

panel / roundtable
  1. 1. Katherine D. Harris

    Department of English & Comparative Literature - San Jose State University

  2. 2. Jacqueline Wernimont

    Department of English - Scripps College

  3. 3. Kathi Inman Berens

    Annenberg School for Communication - University of Southern California

  4. 4. Dene Grigar

    Texas Woman's University, Washington State University, Vancouver

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In a field that sometimes organizes itself around the credo “more hack, less yack,” the role of theory and critical reflection upon race, sexuality, gender and and other discursive identity categories might seem a subordinate concern. But recent calls by Alan Liu, Laura Mandell, Tara McPherson, Adeline Koh, and Jamie Skye Bianco, among others, prompt this panel’s speakers to take up Liu’s challenge to “extend the issues involved” in building and making “into the register of society”:

We digital humanists develop tools, data, metadata, and archives critically; and we have also developed critical positions on the nature of such resources.... But rarely do we extend the issues involved into the register of society, economics, politics, or culture in the vintage manner, for instance, of the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR). How the digital humanities advance, channel, or resist the great postindustrial, neoliberal, corporatist, and globalist flows of information-cum-capital, for instance, is a question rarely heard in the digital humanities associations, conferences, journals, and projects with which I am familiar. [1]

Liu et al. have helped us raise a set of difficult questions: Has feminism slowly been leached out of some DH projects as those projects have become successful? Is a “revolutionary” pedagogy possible if the objects we train our students to make are welcomed by administrators and other higher ed stakeholders as precisely the “information-cum-capital” that Liu warns us against? How does one woman artist’s elision from a field-defining reception history reveal the apparati by which careers are made or broken? Can structuring tools like XML or xHTML or PHP be deployed as a feminist intervention, and how would that differ from other deployments? Do the institutional and funding structures of the field constrain our ability to make ethical interventions and encourage work that turns away from the kinds of social engagement that Liu describes?

The 1970s feminist slogan “the personal is political” taught people to break down systematic sexism into molecules that could at any moment cluster into atoms and catalyze real power. While recognition of the politics of everyday life and the value of quotidian genres of cultural production has clearly influenced certain kinds of recovery projects, moves within Digital Humanities to argue the necessity of advanced programming and development skills fails to recognize the ways in which structural elements of American education, family life, and work remain deeply gendered. Further, advocacy of a “bootstrap” or “DIY” [2] ethos risks perpetuating a dangerous suggestion that historically disenfranchised groups should make “do with what you can scrounge” in order to earn their way into spaces of greater privilege, and fails to recognize the important role that networks of support, mentoring, and technology access play in DH work. [3] While exhortations to “do it yourself” are often made in the spirit of rebellious assertions of power and independence, access to the practices behind these memes is culturally and economically bounded.

These issues have surfaced with striking force in the last couple of years. Miriam Posner’s provocative post from March 2012, “Some things to think about before you exhort everybody to code,” prompted 59 deeply engaged and passionate responses. Her thesis:

The point is, women aren’t [learning to code]. And neither, for that matter, are people of color. And unless you believe (and you don’t, do you?) that some biological explanation prevents us from excelling at programming, then you must see that there is a structural problem. [4]

DH practitioners have gathered into a community founded upon sharing and collaboration, a workflow ethos traceable to second-wave feminism. Several of the major Digital Humanities projects that are now at the forefront of the field and were driven originally by feminist imperatives (WWP, Orlando, Dickenson E Archive); but as these projects developed, their relationship to the communities they were built to serve attenuated at the same time that new types of DH practice, like “big” data mining, have sought to address different agendas. These shifts have left some despairing of the ethics and politics of DH. “I’m a teacher,” says Stephen Ramsay, in a comment on Posner’s “Code” post:

I care about students who want to learn, learning. I’m not so naive as to think that we can reform that culture from without, but honestly, if we just re-duplicate that culture [of sexism] in DH, then we have failed. And we might as well go back to whatever we were doing before. [5]

DHers would not naively posit themselves as uninfluenced by such hegemonic incursions; some of us are particularly mindful of them because we build projects that critique and resist them. But speakers on this panel submit that a tolerance for “yack”— a word that simultaneously conjures ladies chattering, not working, but that also signals attention to discursive and social relations— might be an initial intervention in the terms by which we construe the messy work of “excavating” feminist “art-&-facts” from DH’s rich silt: archives (Katherine D. Harris and Jacque Wernimont), encoding methodologies (Jacque Wernimont), literary reception (Kathi Inman Berens) and pedagogy (Dene Grigar). While we each canvass a discrete topic, we see significant overlap in terms of the means, histories, and technologies of digital production and teaching. Our roundtable will thus be structured by four short position statements, as outlined below, and then will engage all participants in the room to mount a community discussion exploring how and why the histories of cyberfeminism and feminist digital production matter right now as DH becomes “The Hot Thing.” [6] Even as we “excavate,” we look forward to building anew: what are the salient lessons to be gleaned from the presenters’ statements? How do they, and statements and observations from others in the room, suggest new or continuing avenues of work? Two of our panelists (Grigar and Wernimont) run their own labs. Is the material investment in women leading labs and programs an essential intervention in how privilege is disbursed? Or is it just essentialist?

The wide range of reviewers’ responses to our panel suggests a wish for us to address simultaneously an untenable range of feminisms: to be both grounded in material practice, but also theoretically expansive to address “Occupy” and other 21st-century feminisms. We suggest that the reviewers’ collective wish for feminist critique to be both united and expansive in its approach freights it with responsibility beyond the scope of our actual claims.

We appreciate that we can do more to unite the panel and will begin with a foundational grounding that includes of the trajectory of 21st century cyberfeminism that stretches back to Donna Haraway and bell hooks, and moves forward to practical and popular appropriations of Haraway’s theories twenty-five years later by Douglas Rushkoff and Howard Rheingold. We will then turn to the short papers arising from our particular practices and areas of expertise. Rather than seeing this as a weakness, we consider this diversity an important feature of our scholarship — a necessary link between our material practice, historical positions, and theoretical interventions. Additionally, each paper engages with a history of appropriation of technologies, practices, and ideas. The papers are short to encourage discussion by attendees, who will each bring their own expertise and thereby expand the scope of the session. Digital Humanities at large needs this kind of conversation in which feminist practice is deliberately applied in labs, archives, local communities, literary histories, and classrooms.

1. Liu, Alan. “Where Is Cultural Criticism in the Humanities?” http://liu.english.ucsb.edu/where-is-cultural-criticism-in-the-digital-humanities/

2. see for example: http://mayabielinski.com/?p=297, http://www.trevorowens.org/2011/07/the-digital-humanities-as-the-diy-humanities/,

3. see July 24 comment at 12:38 pm

4. Posner, Miriam. “Some Things to Think About Before You Exhort Everybody to Code.” http://miriamposner.com/blog/?p=1135

5. See Stephen Ramsay’s comment posted March 3, 2012 at 9:47 am: http://miriamposner.com/blog/?p=1135&cpage=1#comments

6. “The Hot Thing” is the title of Stephen Ramsay’s talk he gave at the Debates in DH launch April 2012. http://stephenramsay.us/text/2012/04/09/hot-thing.html

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2013
"Freedom to Explore"

Hosted at University of Nebraska–Lincoln

Lincoln, Nebraska, United States

July 16, 2013 - July 19, 2013

243 works by 575 authors indexed

XML available from https://github.com/elliewix/DHAnalysis (still needs to be added)

Conference website: http://dh2013.unl.edu/

Series: ADHO (8)

Organizers: ADHO