Agora.Techno.Phobia.Philia2: Feminist Critical Inquiry, Knowledge Building, Digital Humanities

panel / roundtable
  1. 1. Martha Nell Smith

    University of Maryland, College Park

  2. 2. Susan Brown

    University of Guelph

  3. 3. Laura Mandell

    Miami University

  4. 4. Katie King

    University of Maryland, College Park

  5. 5. Marilee Lindemann

    University of Maryland, College Park

  6. 6. Rebecca Krefting

    University of Maryland, College Park

  7. 7. Amelia S. Wong

    University of Maryland, College Park

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In the later twentieth century, the humanities were transformed
by the rise of gender studies and related critical movements
that investigate the impact of socialized power distribution
on knowledge formations and institutions. Throughout the
humanities, the very research questions posed have been
fundamentally altered by the rise of feminist and, more
recently, critical race, queer, and related social justice-oriented
critiques. These critical perspectives, as speakers in last
year’s DH2007 panel “Agora.Techno.Phobia.Philia: Gender,
Knowledge Building, and Digital Media” amply demonstrated,
have much to contribute not only to thinking about women
in relation to information and communication technologies
but also to advancing the work and effi cacies of information
and communications technologies. The session we propose
extends and deepens the critical inquiries posed in last year’s
session. Though Carolyn Guertin will not be able to join us
in Finland this year, we each will take into account the telling
survey (available upon request) she presented of virtual space
and concomitant debates devoted to women and information
technology, as well as her compelling analysis of the stakes
involved for female participants in such debates. Important
also for our considerations are the special issue of Frontiers
devoted to gender, race, and information technology (http://; recent
books by feminist thinkers such as Isabel Zorn, J. McGrath
Cohoon and William Aspray, Lucy Suchman; and the most
recent issue of Vectors devoted to Difference (Fall 2007; http:// Though
these publications demonstrate keen and widespread interest
in messy and ambiguous questions of diversity and technology
and new media, such work and debates seem oddly absent
from or at least underappreciated by the digital humanities
(DH) community itself.
It’s not that the Digital Humanities community feels hostile to
women or to feminist work per se. Women have historically
been and currently are visible, audible, and active in ADHO
organizations, though not in equal numbers as men. The
language used in papers is generally gender-aware. Conference
programs regularly include work about feminist projects, that
is to say ones that focus on feminist content (such as the
interdisciplinary The Orlando Project, The Poetess Archive,
Women Writers Project, Dickinson Electronic Archives).
Though other DH projects and initiatives are inter- or transdisciplinary,
their interdisciplinarities have tended not to
include feminist elements, presumably because those feminist
lines of inquiry are assumed to be discipline- or content-based
(applicable only to projects such as those mentioned above),
hence are largely irrelevant to what the digital humanities in
general are about. Thus DH conference exchanges tend to
have little to do with gender. In other words, DH debates
over methodological and theoretical approaches, or over
the substance of digital humanities as a fi eld, have not been
informed by the research questions fundamentally altered
by feminist, critical race, queer, and related social justiceoriented
critiques, the very critiques that have transformed
the humanities as a whole.
Why? The timing of the rise of the “fi eld” perhaps?-much of
the institutionalization and expansion, if not the foundation,
of digital humanities took place from the late 20th century
onwards. As recent presentations at major DH centers make
clear (Smith @ MITH in October 2007, for example), there is
a sense among some in the DH community that technologies
are somehow neutral, notwithstanding arguments by Andrew
Feenberg, Lucy Suchman, and others in our bibliography that
technology and its innovations inevitably incorporate patterns
of domination and inequity or more generalized social power
distributions. Yet if we have learned one thing from critical
theory, it is that interrogating the naturalized assumptions that
inform how we make sense of the world is crucial in order to
produce knowledge. Important for our panel discussion (and
for the companion poster session we hope will be accepted as
part of this proposal) is feminist materialist inquiry, which urges
us to look for symptomatic gaps and silences in intellectual
inquiry and exchange and then analyze their meanings in order
to reinfl ect and thereby enrich the consequent knowledgebuilding
discourses. So what happens if we try to probe this
silence on gender in digital humanities discourse, not only in
regard to institutions and process, but in regard to defi ning
and framing DH debates?
Building on the work of Lucy Suchman and the questions of
her collaborators on the panel, Martha Nell Smith will show
how questions basic to feminist critical inquiry can advance
our digital work (not just that of projects featuring feminist
content): How do items of knowledge, organizations, working
groups come into being? Who made them? For what purposes?
Whose work is visible, what is happening when only certain
actors and associated achievements come into public view?
What happens when social orders, including intellectual and
social framings, are assumed to be objective features of social
life (i.e., what happens when assumptions of objectivity are
uninformed by ethnomethodology, which reminds us that
social order is illusory and that social structures appear
to be orderly but are in reality potentially chaotic)? Doing
so, Smith will analyze the consequences of the politics of
ordering within disambiguating binary divisions (Subject
and object; Human and nonhuman; Nature and culture; Old
and new) and the consequent constructions and politics of
technology: Where is agency located? Whose agencies matter?
What counts as innovation: why are tools valorized? How
might the mundane forms of inventive, yet taken for granted
labor, necessary (indeed VITAL) to the success of complex
sociotechnical arrangements, be more effectively recognized
and valued for the crucial work they do? Smith will argue that
digital humanities innovation needs to be sociological as well
as technological if digital humanities is to have a transformative
impact on traditional scholarly practices.
Susan Brown will open up the question-what happens if we try
to probe this silence on gender in digital humanties discoursein
a preliminary way by focusing on a couple of terms that
circulate within digital humanities discourse in relation to what
the digital humanities are (not) about: delivery and service.
Delivery and interface work are intriguingly marginal rather
than central to DH concerns, despite what we know about the
impact of usability on system success or failure. Willard McCarty
regards the term “delivery” as metaphorically freighted with
connotations of knowledge commodifi cation and mug-and-jug
pedagogy (6). However, informed by feminist theory and the
history of human birthing, we might alternatively mobilize the
less stable connotations of delivery as “being delivered of, or
act of bringing forth, offspring,” which offers a model open to
a range of agents and participants, in which the process and
mode of delivery have profound impacts on what is delivered.
The history of the forceps suggests a provocative lens on
the function of tools in processes of professionalization and
disciplinary formation. An emphasis on delivery from conception
through to usability studies of fully developed interfaces willif
it takes seriously the culturally and historically grounded
analyses of technology design and mobilization modeled by
Lucy Suchman-go a considerable distance towards breaking
down the oppositions between designer and user, producer
and consumer, technologist and humanist that prevent digital
humanities from having transformative impacts on traditional
scholarly practices. This sense of delivery foregrounds
boundaries as unstable and permeable, and boundary issues, as
Donna Haraway was among the fi rst to argue, have everything
to do with the highly politicized-and gendered-category of the
human, the subject/object of humanist knowledge production.
The relationships among service (often married to the term
“support”), disciplinarity, and professionalization within
debates over the nature and identity of humanities computing
are similarly important for reimagining how DH work might be
advanced and might have a greater impact on the humanities
as a whole. Service, a feminized concept, recurs as a danger to
the establishment of legitimacy (Rommel; Unsworth). Sliding,
as Geoffrey Rockwell points out, easily into the unequivocally
denigrating “servile,” service too challenges us to be aware of
how institutional power still circulates according to categories
and hierarchies that embed social power relations. As Susan
Leigh Star has argued, marginality, liminality, or hybridity,
multiple membership that crosses identities or communities,
provide valuable vantage points for engagement with shifting
technologies (Star 50-53). These two liminal terms within
digital humanities debates may open up digital humanities
debates to new questions, new prospects, and Brown will offer
examples of some ways in which this might be done in order
to enrich DH work in general.
By focusing on the terms gynesis and ontology, Laura Mandell
examines the relationship between concepts in traditional
epistemological discourses and those concepts as they appear
in discussions about and implementations of the semantic web:
hierarchy, ontology, individual, and class. First, she will look at
traditional meanings of these terms, performing philological
analysis of their origin and province as well as locating them
in their disciplinary silos - in the manner of Wikipedia’s
disambiguation pages. Next, she will look at how the terms
are defi ned in discussions of the emerging semantic web, and
also at how they function practically in XML Schema, database
design, and OWL, the Web Ontology Language. Much work
has been done by feminist theorists and philosophers from
Luce Irigaray to more recently Liz Stanley and Sue Wise in
critiquing the sexism implicit in concepts of hierarchy, being,
and individuality; Mary Poovey has tracked the emergence of
modern notions of class in her book about the history of the
fact. Mandell will extend these foundational critiques, asking
whether any of the insights achieved by that work apply to
the semantic web. Of particular concern for Mandell is the
category of error. Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex fi rst
brought to light the notion of woman as Other, as “error”
to the man, and Julia Kristeva (following anthropologist Mary
Douglas) fi nds female agency lurking in the dirt or ambiguity of
any logical system. If computational and generational languages
such as those producing the semantic web cannot tolerate
ambiguity and error, what will be repressed? Does the syntax
of natural language allow for women’s subjectivity in a way that
ontological relationships might not? What are the opportunities
for adding relationships to these systems that capitalize upon
the necessary logical errors that philosopher Luce Irigaray has
designated as necessary if “The Human are two”?
Rounding out this panel will be two respondents to these
three 12-15 minute presentations by experts in feminist and
queer theory and practice, both of whom have expressed
keen interest in DH through the evolving practices of their
work in knowledge-building and pedagogy. Professors Katie
King, who has worked for the past two decades on writing
technologies and their implications for knowledge production,
and Marilee Lindemann, who is a leading queer studies theorist
and a blogger who has been exploring new forms of scholarly
writing in her creative nonfi ction, Roxie’s World (http://roxiesworld. will respond to the questions posed by
Smith, Brown, and Mandell, formulating questions that aim to
engage the audience in discourse designed to advance both
our practices and our theories about what we are doing,
where we might be going, and how augmenting our modes and
designs for inquiry might improve both our day-to-day DH
work and its infl uence on humanities knowledge production.
Their questions will be posed ahead of time (by the end of
May) on the website we will devote to this session (http://, as will “think piece”
interactive essays contributed by all of the participants (we
are mostly likely to use a wiki).
As a result of ongoing work with feminist graduate students
interested in new media, the possibilities realized and unrealized,
we propose extending this panel asynchronously so that
current dissertation research be featured as case studies more
than suitable for testing some of the hypotheses, exploring the
questions, and refl ecting upon the issues raised by the panel
presentations. Thus we propose two poster sessions (or one
with two components) by University of Maryland graduate
students: Rebecca Krefting, “Because HTML Text is Still a Text:
The (False) Promise of Digital Objectivity,” and Amelia Wong,
“Everyone a Curator?: The Potential and Limitations of Web
2.0 for New Museology.”

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2008

Hosted at University of Oulu

Oulu, Finland

June 25, 2008 - June 29, 2008

135 works by 231 authors indexed

Conference website:

Series: ADHO (3)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None