#Dhexceptionalism

For Disrupting the Digital Humanities, edited by Dorothy Kim and Jesse Strommel, Punctum Books

My hashtag title riffs on the parallels I perceive between narratives of American exceptionalism and U.S. based digital humanities.

It is a sign of my own AE that I originally chose #DHexceptionalism and not #USDHexceptionalism which I leave as a visible indication that I am complicit in all that follows.

By American exceptionalism I mean the analyses of men who taught at or went to college in Boston, a certain historical narrative of wilderness and hills, discovery and conquest, salvation and civilization, not to be conflated with American isolationism, a similar yet distinct rhetoric.

a re-birth … [n]ot as a re-birth of values that had existed previously in America, but as America’s way or producing a renaissance, by coming to its first maturity and affirming its rightful heritage in the whole expanse of art and culture” American Renaissance: Art And Expression In T… by Francis Otto Matthiessen

a potential wealth on an unprecedented scale the magnetic attraction of this untouched natural resources interfered with the  ….economic and political integration centered in London” Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and …by Henry Nash Smith

“bathed in a gold mist of utopian fantasy”   Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and …by Henry Nash Smith

“soon the dream of a retreat to an oasis of harmony and joy … [became] embodied in various utopian schemes for making America the site of a new beginning” The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the… by Leo Marx

“only one remained from the pantheon of great founders …. only he could pronounce the admonition and benediction of the fathers”  The New England Mind: From Colony to Province by Perry Miller

The approach for the map below was inspired by essay I reviewed for Ada, Issue #7 that highlighted the conservative bent in crowdselected art exhibits, the limitations of relying on the “crowd” as it were.  The map is descriptive and no prescriptive intent existed when I created it to explore where self-identified participants in the US-based digital humanities were located. I tweeted it with what I thought was a funny spin on the ironic/sarcastic save the humanities rhetoric, using the inclusive “we” rather than you, however, the map was interpreted by some people as a criticism of the organizations that the self-identified individuals worked through or as a commentary on the geographic isolation of US based digital humanities.  I am no stranger to wading into debates in the digital humanities, but it is clear that I misread the “temperature” of the online community, as we would say in pedagogical lingo.  I also failed to consider my position, mid career, tenured, not reliant on “digital humanities” and the positions of others.  The intense reactions highlighted to me that working in good faith within digital humanities means being very aware of the larger context of both crisis and imperilment that pervade both academia writ large but especially a newish movement like digital humanities.  The tensions provoked by the map tweet have therefore become a substantive part of this essay.

There are many maps of digital humanities.  I was inspired by Scott Weingart’s analysis of digital humanities conference submissions.  Alex Gil reminded me in the comments of the fascinating project Around DH in 80 Days.  John Levin tweeted a link to a map I had not seen of digital humanities in Spain.  I’m adding maps as I find them or people point them out to me, so please add in the comments.


Eventually I’ll get this into a proper map, but for now I wanted to see if there was anything going on geographically so I scraped and threw in google maps DHNow editors at large a self-nominated group (green), ThatCamp sites which are largely community organized although some are affiliated with professional annual meetings (yellow) DHQ “people” (red) and NEH recipients of grants that used “digital humanities” in abstract (blue).  318 locations extracted from 2009-2012 #digitalhumanities tweets (purple).  The approach for the map above was inspired by essay I reviewed for Ada, Issue #7 that highlighted the conservative bent in crowdselected art exhibits, as well as the many maps created by other DH people, particularly Scott Weingart.  The map is descriptive and no prescriptive intent existed when I created it.

 Variation on above map N ≥ 2

 


In what follows I offer a jesting jeremiad, but begin with a confession narrative.

All the sins explored within I am myself guilty of committing. The wrongs of digital humanities are common to the disciplines of academia, especially my own discipline of history.

I pursue the instructive parallels between American exceptionalism and digital humanities because as a feminist I believe introspection not only good for the individual soul, but also necessary for the critique that keeps us honest. I walk the line between finger pointing and productive discomfort. Mea culpa I repent for any slippages to the wrong side of the line.

Although for a time I apparently masqueraded on Twitter as a lit prof, I am and always have been mired hopelessly in thinking like a historian.

The digital humanities community I encountered on Twitter in the fall of 2011 was incredibly welcoming and I now, in early 2015, count myself among the people who do something that others would regard as digital humanities although I am at best a half way covenanter.

However, as I attended conferences, read journals, but most of all, participated in Twitter, I found myself struck, and not happily so, by the parallels between American exceptionalism and digital humanities.  Caveat I do not mean to imply a perfect correspondence or precise mapping of AE on to DH, but rather that I found myself often reminded of the writing of Henry Nash Smith, Perry Miller, Leo Marx, F. O. Matthiessen, among others.   Like any good preacher, the rhetoric herein will stretch and and times rend.

The historical analogy within is a way of drawing attention to what I want to talk about which is that enthusiasm for newness, rebirth, enrichment, and resources sometimes makes it difficult to think critically enough about how and what we are doing.  It was occasioned by many instances of seeing a gap in what we say we value and how we practice, of being in conferences where I have heard calls for a broader community (tents), but digitally inflected panels on black women have a faction of the audience, of the fears I have heard voiced that the gains of who and what counts as suitable subjects of inquiry in the humanities may be lost, to what has been described as “the darkside” of the digital humanities.  (and clearly I should have emulated Wendy Hui Kyong Chun in clarifying my context more clearly before starting to disrupt.)

Do I mean to implicate every single person who identifies as a digital humanist in this critique? No, of course not.  I am building here on many analyses of citations, of content, of grant recipients in the digital humanities and on the work of #transformDH, #DhPoco, Hybrid Pedagogy, FemTechNet, and individual writers who have called attention to similar concerns.  If I go down as a gossipy goodwife, so be it.

 

American Exceptionalism US Digital Humanities
City on a hill Save the humanities
Legacy of conquests Narratives of discovery
Sanctimonious tone Love of Snark
White man’s burden Dark side of DH
Founding Fathers Origin tales
Newness Innovation
Building Making

First four lines of table above were mine, others suggested on Twitter and Facebook.  Attribution of those pending permissions.

 

I am but an opportunist and a careerist in my pursuit of digital humanities. Mid career and middle aged some four years ago I feel into the rabbit hole of Twitter while on sabbatical and never truly emerged. I kept seeing the word “networks” in tweets regarding the digital humanities and since I used that precise word to describe the connections between activists I write about I began to investigate. Blithely and with the can-do spirit only of a Ph.D. from a Western land grant university, I heedlessly dove in to a world in which the powerhouses are located in Massachusetts and Virginia, in public universities in the Midwest and the West, and one that bears the familial name of a robber baron.  The above maps emphasize patterns of British colonization of the area now known as the United States and despite many fine suggestions to change to a different map background based on population or locations of all institutions of higher education or all Humanities institutions I have left it as such to highlight the legacies of colonization (and because I do not have access to ArcGIS).

I created the map in order to see how individual or community initiated endeavors (DHNow, ThatCamp) might align with externally validated indicators of digital humanities (NEH, DHQ).  Although I mapped all data, I planned to analyze the United States alone, yet when I tweeted the initial versions of the map which had only ThatCamp and DH Now Editors at large, the reception indicated that others read the maps’ intent differently.

Like those colonists on their errand in the wilderness, digital humanities, along with all humanities, exists against a backdrop of imperilment, where departments disappear over night and seemingly solvent colleges announce closures or mergers, leaving their faculty adrift, where fine scholars remained trapped in temporary or adjunct positions, and almost every day it seems someone from outside academia sees fit to weigh in publicly on our perceived value or contribution to humanity.

 

The pie feels like it is shrinking and digital humanities already is but a tiny sliver.

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Distribution of NEH funding.  DH is that tiny white slice of the pie.

 

first tweets I have found using Twitter advanced search “digital humanities” and #digitalhumanities

The historical analogy within is a way of drawing attention to what I want to talk about which is that in  our excitement of the newness sometimes some of us may not think critically enough about how and what we are doing

3 comments

  1. You ask ‘where are dh’? You offer a map. We asked the same question, and offered this map. Your architecture makes the work of the world invisible in the interest of supporting a particular narrative of neo-colonialism which only has purchase in certain pockets of the north american academy. We hoped NOT to do that in ours. I don’t think we can escape the lie of the map and our own exceptionalisms, but to a certain extent, we can control how useful our own speech can be. For whom is your mortificatio useful?

    The whole affair reminds me of the time when the first delegates of the Soviet COMINTERN went out to preach communism, and came back with a report that the Hindus were already practicing it, they just didn’t call it that!

    1. Thank you for sharing the link to your map. I’ve been gathering as many maps as I can. I find mapping data a useful way to visualize information that I wanted to explore here. I’ve found quite helpful the responses I’ve received so far, and I shall mind your delineation of “certain pockets of the north american academy.” I hope you will continue to comment.

      Most interesting so far is that the map wasn’t meant to comment on geographic isolation of DH at all, but rather to see where in the Continental US self identified participants in digital humanities located themselves. In particular I wondered how closely the lines would match the original British colonies in what is now the U.S. and even more particularly how New England appeared. The interpretation of the map of course reveals a great deal about the present state of DH and I think also points to the wider context, which I’ve started to sketch out in this draft, that the field itself feels quite imperiled. FInding a way to provoke some productive discomfort is proving more difficult that I anticipated and that too will become part of the essay.

      Usefulness is in the eye of the beholder of course, and perhaps I’ve slipped too far over into mortificatio or perhaps it is because I come from a field quite prone to self-reflection that I find the comparison one that is useful. I suppose my back ground in the contentious fields of feminism will serve me well as I continue to write.

      Thanks again for commenting.

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