A Pixelated Paradigm

  • Patrik Svensson (Editor) and David Theo Goldberg (Editor)
    Between Humanities and the Digital. MIT (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Anna Poletti (Editor) and Julie Rak (Editor)
    Identity Technologies: Constructing the Self Online. University of Wisconsin Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Justin Shaw

Identity Technologies: Constructing the Self Online and Between Humanities and the Digital discuss a central issue in defining the “digital humanities”: to what extent are traditional humanistic concerns—pain, suffering, freedom, pleasure, happiness—taken into consideration in our increasingly abstract engagement with digital technologies? For some, this is a serious ethical issue that will always require the insights of the traditional humanities, while for others the “digital” needs to break free from antiquity. Along these lines, these texts diverge in tone and content: Identity Technologies leaves an impression of reluctant yet cautious optimism, while Between Humanities and the Digital is anchored in the “digital” world, focusing on digital success stories and calling for investment in digital infrastructure.

Identity Technologies interrogates wide-eyed optimism for the “revolutionary” and “democratizing” potential of digital technologies, emphasizing that critical theory needs to situate such technologies within the histories of their production. This takes into consideration neoliberal discriminations based on gender, race, ethnicity, and class which often impede the “democratic” participation of certain global citizens. Section one, “Foundations,” begins with Helen Kennedy’s critique of this rhetoric of “democratization,” arguing that offline discriminations are often transposed to online contexts. Lisa Nakumara extends this critique to the neoliberal commodification of cyberrace in “identity tourism.” Similarly, Rob Cover challenges the “authenticity” of social network subjectivity, with Facebook allowing users to define themselves according to delimiting schemata of neoliberal intelligibility. Finally, Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson ask whether digital extensions of human subjectivity will lead to posthuman liberation or neoliberal appropriation.

In section two, “Identity Affordances,” Aimee Morrison argues that Facebook co-authors subjectivity through its pre-constituted affordances, which delimit users’ authorial expression. Courtney Rivard also questions digital authorship, suggesting that the success and relative failure of the 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina digital archives reveal that archival production is always influenced by power relations. Laurie McNeill examines the affordances of creative self-expression and community building on Smith, a website dedicated to writing microfiction, arguing that its “democratic” image is undercut by its commodification of participants’ stories into books, bypassing author loyalties.

In section three, “Mediated Communities,” Mary L. Gray explores how “coming out” as LGBTQ has been facilitated by online communities, especially for rural youth who face conservative social values and who lack visible community. Olivia Banner examines how “lifelogging,” promoted by PatientsLikeMe.com, creates biosocial communities of patients who track and share their symptoms, which problematically reduces embodied/experiential understanding to abstract data sets that are sold to medical corporations. In contrast, Alessandra Micalizzi, by examining an online perinatal death support group, shows how the Internet can serve as an identity technology in which communities can share personal narratives and gain recognition online that is otherwise denied in the offline world. The penultimate essay by Philippe Lejeune laments the devaluation of the expansive sense of time afforded by traditional forms of autobiography, suggesting that the nature of online communication—including its immediacy, revisionism, and brevity—“attacks” the ability to construct coherent life narratives.

Between Humanities and the Digital is a more expansive and in-depth volume that highlights the contemporary transition of humanities to the digital realm. In the first section, “The Field of Digital Humanities,” Alan Liu and William G. Thomas outline how cost-cutting in neoliberalized universities encourages online courses, which traditional humanities departments have critiqued as dehumanizing. Along these lines, Todd Presner reasserts the fundamental importance of critical theory in the humanities, arguing that without it the “digital humanities will largely ape and extend the technological imaginary as defined by corporate needs and the bottom line.” As critical theorists, Henry Jenkins suggests, humanities scholars should become better public intellectuals by getting involved in technology and adopting a more “citizenly discourse.” Jenkins interviews Sherry Turkle, who sees public engagement as an antidote to current anxieties concerning technology, suggesting that people are “not happy and are genuinely searching for new ways of living with new technology.” In contrast, Ian Bogost’s polemic on the redundancy of the traditional humanities dismisses critical theory and thinking as “fashionable censure.” However, David Theo Goldberg recasts the debate by simply asking “what kind of humanists [should] we choose to be in and for our times[?]” In a technologically advanced culture, the answer is inevitably “digital.” From that affirmation, the second section, “Inflecting Fields and Disciplines,” moves into specific case studies of how the digital humanities are influencing contemporary fields. The breadth of application is wide: from digital interactive installations that revitalize medieval art forms, to “digital remixes” of media products as creative mashups, to critiques of gendered autocomplete results generated by Google’s search algorithms, to immersive and interactive multimedia platforms that transport users to the “Global Middle Ages,” to “cyber archaeology” that facilitates research in 3-Dimensional computer-generated environments, and to fMRI analyses of the brain while reading to better understand the processes of literary experience. All of the chapters on the practical applications of digital humanities are positive and gesture towards future research.

The third section, “Knowledge Production, Learning, and Infrastructure,” defines the unique infrastructural needs of the digital humanities. Amy E. Earheart argues that digital humanities labs need to be both “real and virtual,” and be “multipurpose, with activities ranging from research to pedagogy.” Zephyr Frank examines a virtual laboratory project: an online recreation of Richard Pryor’s hometown of Peoria, Illinois. The website was designed as an “alternative media” form that was “filled with links to primary documents and short filmed sequences designed to provide a visually rich narrative pathway into the material for novice users.” Elizabeth Losh proposes that such “novice users” (i.e., students), should learn by actually creating “the bulk of course content” in a lab setting, a “utopian” pedagogical approach that “highlight[s] how new ideas around ‘critical making’ change the fundamentals of the production and consumption of knowledge.” Closing the text, N. Katherine Hayles laments the “conservative” tenor of many commentators on the digital humanities, calling for a revolutionary embracing of the “nonconscious cognition” at the core of human reasoning that is replicated in current digital technologies.

The first text in this review, Identity Technologies, ends with a decidedly loose and philosophical interview with Lauren Berlant who envisions blogging as a productive crossover between the traditional humanities and the digital. In contrast, Between Humanities and the Digital makes a hard exit by focusing on digital humanities infrastructure. Svensson and Goldberg’s decision to conclude on future hardware and productive spaces treats the question of the digital as if it’s a foregone conclusion, and in many ways it is. While the inherent skepticism and ethical foundations of the traditional humanities will always remain vital to keeping “revolutionary” and “utopian” impulses in check, the digital world has been moving inexorably forward and the traditional humanities have to catch up to contemporary “human” concerns which are increasingly linked to digital ways of being.

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