Toward a DH Politics of Location

“You could see your own house as a tiny fleck on an ever-widening landscape, or as the center of it all from which the circles expanded into the infinite unknown. It is that question of feeling at the center that gnaws at me now. At the center of what?”

—Adrienne Rich, “Notes Toward a Politics of Location”

            As I was looking toward my first blog post for Dr. Alan Liu’s introduction to digital humanities course here at UCSB, I originally planned to research some of the most prominent DH projects on women and literature. One of the most fascinating aspects of DH is the use of digital tools to uncover hidden histories—hidden histories of labor, of overlooked contributions, and of forgotten narratives. Feminist literary criticism is one of my major interests within literary studies, so I was seeking out work that addresses neglected female texts and authors.

            The projects that I first came across in my initial explorations are those that employ DH tools and methodologies to illuminate female contributions to a literary history dominated by white, male authors. These projects include the Victorian Women Writers Project based at Indiana University, which explores lesser-known nineteenth-century British female writers. Started in 1995, the archive continues to be updated with newly encoded texts and more comprehensive contextual materials, including introductions, annotations, and biographical information on featured authors. The British Women Romantic Poets Project at UC Davis is a similar digital collection of rare or otherwise difficult to access texts by British and Irish female writers from 1789-1832. And the Women Writers Project first started at Brown University in 1986 and now housed at Northeastern University has made pre-Victorian women’s writing more visible by digitizing early modern texts penned by women. An outgrowth of the Women Writers Project, Women Writers Online is a collection of more than 375 texts published between 1526 and 1850, with a special focus on rare or otherwise inaccessible texts. These projects are not only significant digital projects that reveal substantial—albeit often overlooked—female literary contributions and make these texts available for teaching and research, but also raise important questions about how and why certain texts and authors become canonical. Digital archiving projects of this variety therefore align with the goals of modern feminist literary criticism, carving out a space for a female literary tradition and asking new questions of old texts.[1]

             As early encoding projects, these archives demonstrate the power of using digital tools for feminist projects and have paved the way for more recent renegotiations of what a truly feminist DH looks like. In her well-known article and call to action, “What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities,” Miriam Posner argues that in order to dismantle the structures of sexism, racism, and colonialism in DH work, it is not enough to simply create more projects that take up women and people of color as their primary subjects. Of course, we still need these projects and should encourage their proliferation in a field where they are still minoritized, but we must also question and restructure the inherently flawed logic that underlies many DH tools and methodologies. These problematic underpinnings are reflected in everything from our mapping tools that fail to meaningfully represent absence or missing data to inflexible categories for recording gender and ethnicity. “It’s not only about shifting the focus of projects so that they feature marginalized communities more prominently,” Posner reflects, “it’s about ripping apart and rebuilding the machinery of the archive and database so that it doesn’t reproduce the logic that got us here in the first place.”

             Posner’s insights reminded me of a similar trajectory in the field of feminist science and technology studies (STS). Influenced by second-wave feminist activity that worked to remove legal and social barriers inhibiting equal participation within institutions, early feminist STS activity addressed questions of equity. While encouraging the participation of women and people of color who have been historically marginalized or barred from the STEM fields is still necessary to overcome the masculine bias in the sciences, it doesn’t remedy the fact that scientific methods and structures of knowledge are themselves constructed to perpetuate the power structures of dominant social groups.[2] Undergirding scientific hypotheses, methodologies, and technologies—theorists pointed out—are a troubling set of intertwined dualisms, including that of man/woman, science/nature, objective/subjective, and rational/irrational that enforce inequality and othering. As an area of study that works at the intersection of computing, technology, and the humanities, DH must not only combat the biases within literary canons, historical narratives, philosophy, the arts, anthropology, and other exclusionary histories in the humanities and social sciences, but also the flawed standards of knowledge, truth, and objectivity in the sciences.

             In light of Posner’s article and the questions it raises, where does this leave us with our DH tools? Do we abandon them altogether, tweak them, or continue to use them while steeping our analysis in cultural criticism? I believe a huge part of the solution is an integration of a politics of location in DH work and the continual use of DH to resist—rather than perpetuate—imperialist, racist, sexist, classist, and ableist genealogies. In addition to projects that focus on intersectionality and overlooked identities, we must continue to question the nature of the digital tools at our disposal. I want to touch upon two projects and initiatives that are working to position the “human” and the “humanities” at the forefront of digital humanities scholarship by restructuring the nature of these tools and bringing to life Rich’s concept of a politics of location.

Take Back the Archive

             Based at the University of Virginia, Take Back the Archive is a public history project on the history of rape and sexual violence at UVA. The collections of news articles, photographs, survivor stories, and ephemera reveal how sexual assault cannot be separated from issues of race, class, and gender. The project also allows us to reflect upon the politics of inclusion and exclusion of texts in an archive, featuring materials that would perhaps be thought too taboo to be featured in an archival space and giving voice to otherwise silenced perspectives. Take Back the Archive also reclaims the archive from its typical status as a repository for information, encouraging crowd-sourced images, stories, and other submissions to make the digital archive a living, evolving, and people-centered digital space.

takeback.scholarslab.org.png

FemTechNet’s Situated Knowledges Map

             The Situated Knowledges Map at FemTechNet is a collaborative, interactive project that allows users to explore how our knowledges are shaped by place, location, and space. It encourages users to continually confront how dominant or minoritized ideologies and cultures shape our individual perspective and place in the world. This activity would be particularly useful in the classroom to demonstrate the value of mapping tools and the representation of personal history without falling into the same binary, hegemonic traps. Along with a variety of curated readings like Graham Huggan’s work on decolonizing the map and Donna Haraway’s work on situated knowledges, this is a key project that encourages us to promote self-mapping in DH practice and envision a feminist and postcolonial DH.

map

             In addition to their individual goals, Take Back the Archive and the Situated Knowledges Map are linked by their radical reconsideration of the logical infrastructure underlying two concepts central to DH work: the map and the archive. The archive is recast as a dynamic digital space rather than a restricted physical place that houses valuable objects, and the prevailing approach to the map as a depiction of objective reality is critiqued to reveal that these delineations are shaped by weighty cultural assumptions of what—and who—is worth representing. In their use of social and crowd-based methods, these projects also break down assumptions of how DH work is completed and by whom, demonstrating that questions of access are intertwined with methods of representation.

             And perhaps most importantly, these projects suggest how we must restructure our logic to bridge the present gulf between who and what we claim to represent in DH work and who and what is actually represented and by what means. Going forward, we must work to further narrow this gap and see how our tools, projects, and methodologies can be reimagined as a result. Revisiting the quotation that I used as the epigraph of this post, I am thinking of the ways in which Rich can be brought into our current DH moment. She almost seems to speak to our DH mapping and visualization tools, with their nodes, edges, tiny flecks, centers, and circles expanding into the infinite unknown. If we’re doing it right, our DH work can resist sexism, racism, ableism, and other oppressions, placing people and their uniquely situated selves at the heart of DH projects and inquiries.

 

[1] Lisa Tuttle’s reflections on feminist literary theory.

[2] See, for example, Sandra Harding’s work on standpoint theory.

Advertisements