Thinking (and Reading) About Digital Humanities II

Last week I talked about some of the texts I’ve been reading that emphasize the general excitement and scholarly potential surrounding digital humanities. Today we’ll take a look at some critiques of DH.

As Amy Earhart argues, Digital Humanities did not emerge from a vacuum, but remains deeply informed by the traditions and biases of other humanities disciplines.

One of the main critiques of digital humanities is that, rather than revolutionize humanities scholarship, it has perpetuated the biases of academia. As Amy E. Earhart argues in Traces of the Old, Uses of the New, digital humanities scholarship has often replicated both the questions and formats of established academic disciplines such as English or art history, with digital editions of journal, archives, and other formats replicating established forms of scholarship. While this can be advantageous, uncritical replications can continue previous biases or overlook other bodies of scholarship, including older websites that are no longer compatible with current technologies. In the case of digital archives, the extensive resources tend to be based on the most extant available materials, which, unsurprisingly perhaps, belong to white writers and creators. As Amardeep Singh argues in “The Archive Gap,” by gravitating toward readily accessible, extensive paper archives, we replicate the overrepresentation of white writers because their works tend to be better preserved than those of more marginalized groups in the first place. Such a preference for readily accessible written material also hearkens back to Diana Taylor’s discussion of the archive and the repertoire, with the dominance of written texts overshadowing knowledge expressed through more bodily forms.

Since 2012, the anthology series Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein, has been an important scholarly platform for critiquing DH theory and practice. A lot of the essays I read for this part of the list came from the most recent volume, published in 2019.

Additionally, DH has been accused of replicating the flaws of the university through its treatment of service-related work. Although DH has been celebrated for its emphasis on collaboration and teamwork, not all contributions are acknowledged equally. As Roxanne Shirazi posits in “Replicating the Academy,” librarians, archivists, and other university workers whose jobs concentrate on service-related tasks play a critical role in the implementation and maintenance of digital humanities projects due to their technical expertise and access to various academic resources. Yet they rarely get credited for their efforts to the same degree as professors or other faculty members, who often manage the conceptual side of the project. Such omissions, Shirazi argues, perpetuate an ongoing bias toward service-related work such as librarianship, nursing, and other tasks, jobs that are considered more technical than intellectual and consequently regarded as less serious.

Not surprisingly perhaps, such service-related careers are devalued due to their history as feminized positions, with women dominating the field. As John Hunter points out on “The Digital Humanities and ‘Critical Theory,’ An Institutional Cautionary Tale,” women entering the workforce underscored the affinity such jobs held with housework, nurturing, and other feminine roles, qualities that made them less controversial with regard to allowing women into the workforce, but also devalued them in the eyes of white male administrators. Yet DH scholarship as we know it, and more broadly academia, would not exist without the labor of librarians and other service-oriented positions, despite their relative invisibility.

Volumes like this book offer critical examinations of making and its significance to DH as a means of research.

The overrepresentation of whiteness, and by extension the Global North, through digital archives mirrors a broader issue of whiteness in the digital humanities. According to Moya Bailey in “All the Digital Humanists are White,” historically digital humanities has consisted of white male academics. As a result, marginalized groups are not only underrepresented through faculty appointments, but through digital project choices as well because the economic and social privilege underpinning whiteness makes it difficult for white faculty members to discern issues specific to marginalized groups. Bailey also resists the idea of simply “adding and stirring” a few token diversity faculty members into the overall white DH mix, arguing instead that digital humanities, and more broadly academia, should be recentered altogether, with white scholars becoming just one facet of a scholarly practice that embraces women, people of color, queer theorists, disabled people, and other groups.

Books like The Digital Humanist explore not only the humanist roots of the DH, but also critique its overemphasis on urban centers and the Global North at the expense of work taking place in the Global South and outside urban and university settings.

Connected to the homogenized, white character of the digital humanities is its complicity in the neoliberalization of the university. While DH is not directly responsible for the increasingly corporate nature of universities, scholars have observed that the DH projects that tend to receive the most funding originate from large lab environments and have a decidedly apolitical character. As a result, smaller projects that focus on marginalized groups, the kind of scholarship that should be getting attention, receive minimal to no funding, an omission that gets perpetuated in the DH canon. As Dr. Catherine Knight Steele mentioned in her CDHC talk, for instance, black digital feminists have been active on the Internet for years through blogging and other platforms, but because their work often exists outside the academy, or doesn’t originate in a large lab with ample funding, it gets neglected or ignored altogether.

Another facet of DH’s complicated relationship with neoliberal policies concerns the use of data. As discussed in the 2019 anthology Debates in the Digital Humanities, consent policies when it comes to collecting big data can be murky. While datasets like historical literature are open source, searching Twitter, Instagram, and other commercial repositories are more grey. While it’s presumed that people who post images or other data online accept that their information may be used for other purposes, offensive memes, the commodification of data via Google and other commercial search engines, among other issues, underscores the controversial nature of online data. Using people’s data for a project without them being able to knowingly consent, then, is a questionable practice.

Interrogating the mechanisms behind computational data itself has been another topic on inquiry. As Tara McPherson famously argued in “Why Are the Digital Humanities So White?” the computational methods of UNIX and other early systems, with their 0-1 language, demands a clean, rational approach to data that overlooks the messiness of reality, and omits people or data who don’t fit into that neat model. In a more recent but related article, “Against Cleaning,” Kate Rawson ad Trevor Munoz turn a critical eye to data cleaning, or the work we do to render archival documents and other forms of data ready for computer reading. As the authors discovered, cleaning usually prepares the documents for only one kind of machine reading, such as seeking out a certain word or phrase, at the expense of discovering other kinds of information or insight. Consequently, the recommend creating indexes for documents, and enabling different users the possibilities of creating new lists and categories for the documents they search. All of these readings hearken back to the observations made in Bowker and Star’s Sorting Things Out, which argues that for every classification made, an omission occurs that leaves other information out.

Edited anthologies like Between Humanities and the Digital interrogate the “hack vs. yack” debate while simultaneously critiquing itself for offering fairly conservative solutions to ongoing problems of representation and critical analysis.

This lack of critical engagement with the tools we use to create digital humanities projects also underlies another major critique of the field in general: the need for critical theory. As a discipline grounded in projects, DH puts greater emphasis on practice than a lot of humanities fields, the result in part of being able to explore producing knowledge in ways beyond the textual. Yet many scholars have argued that there’s been a greater emphasis on producing dazzling projects with minimal critical engagement than on interrogating both the tools we use to create works, and using those tools to critical ends. To put it another way, if the balance between theory and practice in DH could be described as “hack vs. yack,” there’s been a more pronounced emphasis on making, or “hacking,” without the deep investigation or reflection as enabled through critical theory, or “yacking.” In short, DH has been accused of perpetuating the biases of the academy because its primary focus in on creating cool-looking projects without a deeper analysis of the questions, data, and tools driving our research.

A lot of these critiques have resonated with me. As a white woman, I know that my demographic is overrepresented in both academia and museums (to the point that Brandon has joked on multiple occasions that I’m a ‘type’), and acknowledge that a lot of my previous work was fairly apolitical. Additionally, the years I spent working in smaller museums in the west brought me first-hand experience with the frustrations of larger, well-funded institutions receiving the bulk of grant monies because they had the time and resources to file the paperwork. Regarding my research on community art centers, I’m working with older material, but the communities in which these centers were based are still around, and I want to be mindful of consent moving forward.

While there are plenty of critiques of DH, however, there are also scholars who are working hard to develop a more inclusive version of digital humanities, one that recenters the field away from white, male dominance through considerations of race, feminism, class, postcolonialism, disability, and other theoretical frameworks. We’ll take a look at some of these readings next week.

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