The following was written in response to “Open Thread: The Digital Humanities as a Historical “Refuge” from Race/Class/Gender/Sexuality/Disability?”, which the #dhpoco (Postcolonial Digital Humanities) initiative started in May 2013. The thread opened with the questions:

    In your view, how much of this has changed since Smith’s article was published, if anything?

  • What is your perspective on the intermingling of race, class, gender, sexuality and disability and the digital humanities?
  • What are your “core” texts of the digital humanities, and how do they engage with race, class, gender, sexuality and disability?
  • How are cultures of technology implicated in imperial projects? Is there existing DH work on digital colonialisms?
  • How would you write a genealogy of the digital humanities?
  • How should the digital humanities adapt and change, if at all?

11 May 2013

I think that the distinctive identity issue to address in considering “the intermingling of race, class, gender, sexuality and disability and the digital humanities” is the political economy of digital-human identity today. Such identity consists in a relational set of overlaps and differences between at least two [groups] of the digital human: those who stand in the position of producers or managers of the technologies and media that shape life in the information age, and those whose “power of identity” (to use Manuel Castells’ term from his trilogy about network society) is shaped by or against those technologies and media without having direct access to producing or managing them. More accurately, agency over technologies is fluid for each individual, such that one’s experience as a digital identity is constantly in flux between controlling and controlled (e.g., even the savviest tech person is cattle in a TSA security line), though it is certain that some national, racial, gender, and other population or sociological [groups] have greater agency or more “always on” agency than others.

I bracket the word “groups” above because it is a placeholder term. What I find generally unsatisfactory so far about the way we try to discuss identity and social justice issues in the digital humanities (as well as technology and media generally in new media studies) is that we seek to factor identity and social groups directly into the political economy of the digital human (and vice versa). Missing in our discourse is a whole set of meso-level group identities that act as transmission agents, filters, frames, etc but that are neither the home nor the “refuge” of humans in the digital age but uncannily both. There are at least two of these meso identity formations that really matter: institutions and professions. What I mean can be quickly sketched in the portraits (or perhaps passport pictures) of the many engineers and programmers whose entire social, cultural, national, and ethnic identity has been mediated–shaped, constrained, but also emancipated–by finding refuge (sometimes they are literally refugees) in an institution and a profession.

Recognizing the agency of these meso-level identity formations moves us into a whole other register of issues about identity. There are plenty of problems and contradictions at that level (including hypocrisy and injustice). But it cannot be said that the institutions and professions involved, with their “diversity management” programs, lobbying for H-1B visas, domestic partner policies, etc. (not to mention the institutions that are against all that) are simply neutral or oblivious in regard to race, class, gender, sexuality and disability. It’s that the problems are shifted onto an additional level that must be factored in alongside the social and cultural group levels.

At that meso-level, we’re witnessing today a gigantic, historical change in the relation between the two formations I mentioned: institutions and professions, which overlap but are not isometric with each other. Operationally, what we call neoliberalism and postindustrialism proceeds through a shift in power within institutions from professionals to upper managers (and, within the phylum of managers, specifically to finance people). Restructuring is thus a kind of internal colonization of professionals (many of whom in tech firms, by the way, immigrated from the original colonies). What we call privatization is the aggressive propagation of this trend from business institutions in particular to the so-called “soft” institutions like universities and government agencies that either have indirect relations to efficiency metrics or that have multiple or contradictory missions, all of which makes them susceptible to pressure to conform to the trends of “hard” institutions with clearer metrics and missions. (Much of this is from “neoinstitutionalism” scholarship in the sociology field, which theorizes and studies empirically the non-rational forces that drive the formation and propagation of institutions–e.g., “normative,” “cultural-cognitive,” symbolic, and other forces.)

So in my view, thinking about “the intermingling of race, class, gender, sexuality and disability and the digital humanities” requires that we think simultaneously about the institutional and professional identities that are today the staging ground for that “intermingling.” I like very much, for example, Natalia Cecire’s comments along these lines in her “Introduction: Theory and the Virtues of Digital Humanities”. Discussing the “epistemology of building” in DH, she writes: “digital humanities thus comes to be represented as a return to a (white, male) industrial order of union jobs and visible products, when in reality it is the subdiscipline of the humanities most closely implicated in the postindustrial ‘feminization of labor,’ with all that follows upon it: the rise of contingent and modular work, interstitiality, the hegemony of immaterial labor, the monetization of affect.” She adds, “I am troubled by the ease with which the epistemology of building occludes and even, through its metaphors, legitimizes digital humanities’ complicity with exploitative postindustrial labor practices, both within the academy and overseas.”

Of course, I think we should also be mindful of Stephen Ramsay’s rebuttal of 5 Sept. 2013 to Daniel Allington’s “The Managerial Humanities.” Steve reacts “strongly to overt connections being made between ‘digital humanities’ and ‘corporatism,’ ‘neo-liberalism,’ ‘anti-intellectualism,'” etc., and repudiates the view that the digital humanities can be held “responsible . . . for the ‘managerial humanities,’ the death of the humanities, the downfall of the university, or any of the other facile notions with which [they are] ‘associated.'” DH is a small player in much of this and can’t be asked to bear outsize responsibility for either representing or resisting the historical forces of our times. But the “neoinstitutional” approach I suggest is helpful in thinking about where and how DH does shape, and is shaped, by the multilevel problems of human identity today. The direct responsibility that the DH field has is to its institution of higher education (and related cultural or heritage institutions), through which its relation to institutions in other social sectors is mediated. DH has not been shy to exert critical and agential force within its institution, not only through its building activities but through its vocal, often passionate support of open access, collaboration, alt-ac, etc. The trick is to open that critical force outward so that DH is aware that in specializing in the technologies and practices in its own institution it is also in the sweet spot for thinking about the premises it shares, and does not share, with other great knowledge-work institutions today that rely on the same kinds of technologies and practices.

At the end of the day, it’s useful to cast these issues in pedagogical terms. What do I as a digital humanist want to teach my students? I want them to come out of university with the intellectual methods and technical skills needed to interoperate across the institutions and professions for which they are headed. But I want them also to have retained enough of a comparative sense of the differences in premises and identities vested in society’s institutions and professions that they can enter that fray as what we used to call “well-rounded” human beings. The companies call that “flexible” these days. But in educational and cultural institutions, we call that being “ethical,” having the ability to “think critically,” seeing things through “others'” eyes, etc. The difference between those two shades of flexibility is what society needs different institutions and professions for, and why there shouldn’t just be a single great Google Inc. or any other Inc. The digital humanities can really be a sweet spot for teaching such differences—encoded, as it were, as low in the stack as how databases are appropriately used in different social contexts. Todd Presner’s truly wonderful work in progress on “The Ethics of the Algorithm” is a model here (a book that uses the Holocaust testimonies of the Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive to ask “how a database or information architecture can be ‘ethical.'”) (Short blurb and link to his paper on this here.)