Designing and Resisting

Reviewed by Dani Spinosa

In their introduction to the latest instalment in the Debates in the Digital Humanities (DDH) series, Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein write that the work of digital humanities practitioners and scholars is necessarily political. They position digital humanities (DH) work against a cultural and political backdrop of the US as a culture war where “free speech” fights against “equal protection,” and where political resistance is haunted by a spectre ominously called “the 2016 election.” The immediate politicization, from the start of this collection, is defensive positioning, working to combat claims throughout the decade about the uncritical or apolitical missions of many DH projects—as exemplified by Alan Liu’s “Where Is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?,” included in the 2012 edition of DDH. Digital humanities has clearly responded to such criticism, and by 2019 Gold and Klein are “convinced that digital humanities can contribute significantly to a larger technically and historically informed resistance.” What’s more, the DH scholarship in this collection is not just contributing to resistance, but doing so “in concrete and meaningful ways” and “engag[ing] the world beyond the academy.” These are nice ideas, and I, too, tend to be utopian about the potential of digital writing and scholarship. But, as a reader immersed in this field, I cannot help but think that this edition of DDH doth protest a little too much.

Some of the essays are fabulous. Safiya Umoja Noble’s “Toward a Critical Black Digital Humanities” exemplifies both the inherent politics of Noble’s DH work and the applicability of these ideas outside the academic feedback loop. But rather than insisting on the politics of what’s already happening in DH, Noble’s work points forward: “[w]e should design against—or outright resist—the exploitative forms of labor and hazardous environmental practices in which information and communication technologies are implicated,” she writes. But, lest this sound too theoretical, she affirms that “this has to include our everyday decisions that foment erasure and silence among practitioners.” That mindfulness is key to a DH that, if it is to move forward as a contribution to the resistance, must be aware of the economic, racial, gendered, sexual, and ableist barriers to the study, use of, and—of course—access to DH tools.

What does this mean for those of us not yet quite convinced that DH at large makes good on the promise of real, significant contributions to resistance movements? For Élika Ortega, it means paying attention to DH work that is happening “all over the world . . . that is only beginning to be recognized.” For Kathi Inman Berens, it means making sure that DH as a scholarly and pedagogical tool is “infrastructurally visible” so as to remove some of the barriers keeping precarious academic instructors out of DH practices. And for Noble, it means “consider[ing] the degree to which our very reliance on digital tools, of the master or otherwise, exacerbates existing patterns of exploitation and at times even creates new ones.” To that end, it must mean reducing DH’s reliance on the technological tools of terrifying corporate behemoths and encouraging a pedagogical and scholarly maker culture. It must mean less Google and Microsoft, and more critical code studies. It must mean more of the “collaborative and broadly interdisciplinary” work that Brian Greenspan promotes in his discussion of Carleton University’s Hyberlab (94).

And it must also mean the forceful reinsertion of the human—which is to say social, community-based, critical thinking, and creative problem-solving—end of DH. My feelings about this edition of DDH and the direction that DH should be—is?—heading towards are perhaps best summed up by the trademark thoughtfulness and practicality of Johanna Drucker, who, in her exchange with Claire Bishop on digital art history, states clearly: “[y]ou don’t ask a computer to do the things humans do better, but rather, you ask it to assist by doing things it does well.” Humans do political resistance better than computers, but as computers continue to assist in the radical, political work of scholars like Noble, Ortega, Berens, Greenspan, and Drucker, that resistance can only get stronger. The future of DH looks bright, but the field needs to de-corporatize and to recognize how many DH tools continue to exploit, to silence, and to erase.

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