Diving into the Wreck: feminism and DH

Two texts have been in the back of my mind this week as I have been reading and re-reading in preparation for my new blog post. While they are seemingly unrelated, I kept returning to specific passages in these two texts as I parsed through the readings for this week’s discussion. Here are my odd pairings:

  • Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message,”—this is probably not surprising as I’ve blogged about McLuhan before. But I’m reminded of his writing this week because it seems that his idea of: “it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action” is at the heart of arguments like Tara McPherson’s or Moya Bailey’s or Natalie Cecire’s.
  • Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck,”—this may be more surprising, because why poetry? Why nautical themed poetry? Why nautical themed poetry by queer, feminist author Adrienne Rich? Well, I see Rich’s lines, “I came to explore the wreck. / The words are purposes. / The words are maps. / I came to see the damage that was done / and the treasures that prevail” in line with Moya Bailey’s argument that with digital humanities, as with any field, there are “structural limitations that are the inevitable result of an unexamined identity politics of whiteness, masculinity, and ablebodiness.” I recently read this poem for my feminist theory class, where we discussed it as a metaphor for feminist critics and writers uncovering lost voices and untold stories in history. But I think it is also possible to read this poem in line with some of the problems of integrating critical race theory and feminist theory into “the digital humanities’ epistemology of building”—it can feel (at least to me, as a woman, and as a feminist theory scholar) like diving into and exploring “a wreck,” or encountering a lot of data, numbers, and empirical research methods that are new, intimidating, but also founded in structural limitations that have marginalized scholars like me. Not that there is anything disastrous about encountering DH projects for the first time, but there is clearly a lot of work to be done, as this weeks’ readings have shown, to incorporate identity politics and theory into digital humanities research.

In writing this post, I am most influenced by McPherson’s argument that

“we…need to take seriously the possibility that questions of representation and of narrative and textual analysis may, in effect, divert us from studying the reorganization of capital—a reorganization dependent on the triumph of the very particular patterns of informationalization evident in code.”

I read McPherson’s statement here in line with McLuhan’s basic idea: that content can distract us, and that we need to pay attention to the forms on which that content is projected. It isn’t that McPherson is calling for the end of close reading of poetry (as I have sort of done above), instead she seems to be insisting that

“politically committed academics with humanities skill sets must engage technology and its production not simply as an object of our scorn, critique, or fascination but as a productive and generative space that is always emergent and never fully determined.”

We need to find a way to bring the digital more seamlessly into discussions that engage topics like postcolonial theory, critical race theory, feminist and queer theory.
McPherson’s discussion, and Bailey’s, reminds me of the way that gender is performed and policed online, in ways that are extraordinarily violent. While I agree with McPherson that politically committed academics need to seriously engage technology, I also think we need to be more upfront with the way that having a public online presence is not always “a productive and generative space” for women and for feminist scholars. What is it about the medium of these online and digital forums that leads to such violent acts of misogyny? Perhaps it’s that digital workplaces themselves have been largely dominated by men and by discussions that gain power from excluding women and people of color. As Bailey elucidates,

“there is still a need to challenge the ‘add and stir’ model of diversity, a practice of sprinkling in more women, people of color, disabled folks and assuming that is enough to change current paradigms.”

This “add and stir” model is even more fraught when you consider how difficult it is for feminists to speak, write, and work in online and digital formats, knowing that terrifying accounts of cyberbullying, like Anita Sarkeesian’s, are constantly and consistently occurring. To add to Bailey’s question of “what counts as a digital humanities project?”—I think that it is necessary to think of blogs like, Sociological Images, Racialicious, and as Bailey mentions The Crunk Feminist Collective, as DH projects, as well as projects like Anita Sarkeesian’s video blogs on Feminist Frequency. If we accept that these online feminist voices are part of the DH community, then maybe we can start theorizing on how to better proliferate feminist and critical race scholarship into the digital humanities. As Natalia Cecire mentions, when critiquing the masculine DH metaphors of “building” and “mining” and digging,”

“the field might look very different if dominant metaphors for ‘doing’ digital humanities research included weaving, cooking, knitting, and raising or nurturing.”

A larger awareness of the masculine and white washed environment of digital workplaces will thus help bridge the divide between “theory” and “doing.”
Even as I write this, I am thinking of how labeling this public post with my name and my interests in feminist theory is a more dangerous act, and a more contentious space to occupy online, than it is for some of my white, male colleagues, or even for my female colleagues who do not conduct research in feminist theory. In this sense, perhaps Rich’s metaphor of “diving into the wreck” is even more appropriate for scholars like me than I originally thought—online and digital workplaces can feel like a shipwreck that are fraught with “damage,” as we carry “a book of myths / in which / our names do not appear.”
Tara McPherson, “Why Are the Digital Humanities So White? or Thinking the Histories of Race and Computation”
Moya Z. Bailey, “All the Digital Humanists Are White, All the Nerds Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave”
Natalia Cecire, “Theory and the Virtues of Digital Humanities”
Poem from Poets.org