is a critical digital humanities possible? lessons from postcolonial digital humanities
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Is a Critical Digital Humanities Possible?
Lessons from Postcolonial Digital HumanitiesRoopika RisamSalem State University@roopikarisam
Thank you SO much for coming today and for the invitation to be part of your Digital Humanities Speaker Series. In one of the crueler ironies of this winter, it seems like Greater Boston has gotten more snow than Western Mass, so this is practically a tropical vacation for me.
Today, Im going to talk a bit about my work in postcolonial digital humanities, the subject of the manuscript Im currently finishing. What this project does is take a look at the ways that postcolonial and digital humanities scholarship have come into contact, over the past 20 years or so. And Ive chosen to frame this talk around what has increasingly come to be called critical digital humanities or the metadiscourse that surrounds the digital humanities, particularly as it engages or doesnt engage with thorny issues of power, labor, access, or questions of difference like race, gender, class, and so on. Im going to briefly contextualize the critical digital humanities before going on to talk about some of the theoretical and project-based moments were postcolonial studies and digital humanities overlap. 1Obligatory Digital Humanities Definition
For me it has to do with the work that gets done at the crossroads of digital media and traditional humanistic study. On the one hand, its bringing the tools and techniques of digital media to bear on traditional humanistic questions. But its also bringing humanistic modes of inquiry to bear on digital media. Kathleen Fitzpatrick (@kfitz)This is the stock moment in any given talk on the subject of the digital humanities when a definition should be offered.
Heres a definition as good as any, from Kathleen Fitzpatrick, who is known best for her work on digital humanities and scholarly communication. In an interview from 2013, Fitzpatrick says, For me it has to do with the work that gets done at the crossroads of digital media and traditional humanistic study. And that happens in two different ways. On the one hand, its bringing the tools and techniques of digital media to bear on traditional humanistic questions. But its also bringing humanistic modes of inquiry to bear on digital media.
She goes on to note that digital humanities is a sort of moving back and forth across those lines, thinking about what computing is, how it functions in our culture, and then using those computing technologies to think about the more traditional aspects of culture.
This is what we might call a big tent definition the more expansive definition of the digital humanities that encompasses not only the digital humanities predecessor field of humanities computing, with its emphasis on textual studies, but also genealogies from new media studies, communications, computers and writing, rhetoric and composition, science and technology studies, and more.2The Emergence of Critical Digital Humanities
Recently, within the digital humanities, weve seen the emergence of the term critical digital humanities. This tweet from Alex Gil from September indicates some of the surprise that many of us experienced that there was actually a *job* in Critical Digital Humanities* advertised on the MLA Job List. 3The Emergence of Critical Digital Humanities
For those of us who work in areas of digital humanities like postcolonial digital humanities, global digital humanities, or #transformDH, the idea that Critical Digital Humanities is somehow envisioned as a hiring category is odd, to say the least, given some of the struggles we have had to make the case that cultural criticism has an essential role in the digital humanities. And, well, if someones hiring for it on the MLA Job Information List then it must be a real thing!4The Emergence of Critical Digital Humanities
This Google Trend analysis gives you a sense of the relative popularity of digital humanities vs. critical digital humanities as Google search terms. Methodologically, it does not make too much sense to belabor this chart, certainly not from the perspective of quantitative data. But suffice to say, digital humanities is a Google trend, critical digital humanities is not. Digital humanities has currency as a search term in the larger ecology of stuff people enter into Google, while critical digital humanities does not. 5The Emergence of Critical Digital Humanitiesadditional critical technical practices and habits in the use of new digital methods and tools are needed, such as antisocial media, hacking, critical encryption practices, iteracy, critical digital humanities, and politically engaged computal praxis. This will ensure that we can read and write outside the streams of data collected in the service of computational capitalism and government monitoring David M. Berry (@berrydm)So what exactly is meant by the term critical digital humanities? And where does it come from?
The term itself is frequently attributed to David Berry of the University of Sussex. In his 2014 book, Critical Theory and the Digital, he writes: These critical technical practices will become crucial to enable us to read and write the digital, the conditions of possibility for a form of critical computational reflexivity, and also to develop the ability to make public use of critical computational reason. To this end, additional critical technical practices and habits in the use of new digital methods and tools are needed, such as antisocial media, hacking, critical encryption practices, iteracy, critical digital humanities, and politically engaged computal praxis. This will ensure that we can read and write outside the streams of data collected in the service of computational capitalism and government monitoring and so avoid the shadow of what we might call the dialectic of computationality.
This quote from Berry hits on the major themes that animate the so-called critical digital humanities. [specify what these are]
*metadiscourse?6Retrofitting Critical Digital HumanitiesDigital humanists will need to find ways to show that thinking critically about metadata, for instance, scales into thinking critically about the power, finance, and other governance protocols of the world. Alan Liu (@alanyliu)The origins of the critical digital humanities, however, pre-date Berrys formulation. This reflects a trend towards retrofitting that animates much digital humanities conversation. If we were to make a list of the top ten most commonly spoken phrases by people in the field, Im fairly certain number one would be, I was doing digital humanities before it was even called digital humanities. Well, rest assured that there were people doing critical digital humanities before it was called critical digital humanities.
Certainly, a watershed moment in the emergence of Critical Digital Humanities is Alan Lius 2011 MLA talk, Where Is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities? which appeared in an expanded version in Matthew Golds 2012 collection, Debates in the Digital Humanities. Liu advises, digital humanists will need to find ways to show that thinking critically about metadata, for instance, scales into thinking critically about the power, finance, and other governance protocols of the world.
7Retrofitting Critical Digital HumanitiesA critical discourse of digital humanities work: (1) must be concerned with both interpretation and evaluation; (2) is central to establishing the importance of the kind of scholarly and even cultural work that it does. Fred Gibbs (@fredgibbs)Following up on Lius question, Fred Gibbs asked, Where is the criticism in the digital humanities? and suggested there is none. That is to say, he argues that the fields metadiscursive apparatus has yet to be developed. Gibbs raises three key points on this matter: 1) Digital humanists have not created an effective critical discourse around their work. And by critical discourse he means a kind of scholarship in its own right that will help shape best practices and make the value of our work clearer to those both inside and outside the digital humanities community 2) We need more theoretical and practical rubrics for evaluating digital humanities work. And 3. Digital Humanities work requires a different kind of peer review to produce effective criticism. Suggesting what such a discourse might look like, Gibbs offers, A critical discourse of digital humanities work: (1) must be concerned with both interpretation and evaluation; (2) is central to establishing the importance of the kind of scholarly and even cultural work that it does.
Fortunately, there have been many interventions around these issues. To name a few, [Tara, Amy, others?] so many, in fact, that I cant provide an exhaustive list in this talk. Instead, Im going to focus on the work that Ive been doing at the juncture of postcolonial studies and the digital humanities. [specify its relationship to critical digital humanities]
8Postcolonial Digital HumanitiesGlobal explorations of race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability within cultures of technology. dhpoco.orgBy way of background, postcolonial digital humanities is a term I coined along with Adeline Koh in 2012, to create space for Global explorations of race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability within cultures of technology.
It really all began with the Twitter hashtag dhpoco, which we used to essentially find other people who were working at the intersections of postcolonial studies and digital humanities. For me, this task was very much animated by the DH maker ethos I didnt feel like I had an intellectual community, so why not build one.
Of course, this was the tendency towards retrofitting in digital humanities all over again. Indeed, there were people doing postcolonial digital humanities