Putting the “humanities” into digital humanities

The readings for this week all focused in some way on issues of race and ethnicity within DH research. I think Tara McPherson’s article, “Why are the Digital Humanities so White? Or Thinking the Histories of Race and Computation,” set the tone for the readings. She offered some background on the lack of diversity within the DH community, but she also suggested that issues in the cultural context of DH’s existence must have some type of effect on the development of DH itself. I found it interesting that she contextualized the emergence of the Civil Rights movement with the rise of computing but then claimed that there has been a disconnect between cultural events that have likely had some impact on digital technology. Since we are discussing the digital “humanities,” it seems that her suggestion would lead to future studies that are focused on diversity, a very “human-centered” topic.

The next three articles all seem to have taken the suggestion of McPherson and moved DH forward in terms of thinking about cultural issues and diversity. Jennifer Sano-Franchini, in “Cultural Rhetorics and the Digital Humanities: Toward Cultural Reflexivity in Digital Making” focuses on rhetoric within and about an Asian community and standards of beauty. She studies the YouTube videos of a number of people of Asian descent who underwent double-eyelid surgery, then she analyzed the comments for reactions using a “culturally reflexive approach.” What I found interesting about her approach was that it revealed a subliminal racism in the way people spoke about the surgery, whether in terms of outrage or conformance to Western standards of beauty. While her method was to use a digital source through the YouTube clips, her study was rooted in cultural studies and humanities. I think this is an interesting way to ensure the “humanities” are at play in DH.

Angela M. Haas in “Wampum as Hypertext: An American Indian Intellectual Tradition of Multimedia Theory and Practice” examines ways to consider Native American wampums as an early form of hypertext. Again, I see this article as really reflecting the humanities part of DH. The connection between wampum and hypertext makes sense in the fact that wampum is a type of text that is nonlinear and creates webbed networks. I had a Native American friend explain to me that wampums can be read alone or in conjunction with other wampums not just to mark past events, but also current happenings. The beads and their colors also represent multiple meanings. This seems like hypertext because it creates references to other things. This article may not “do” a lot in the field of DH, but I like Haas’ suggestion that we look at other ways of understanding what DH is and how it may reflect practices that have been in place prior to the emergence of this new-ish field.

My favorite piece we discussed this week was actually not a reading, but a video presentation by Kimberly Christen Withey, “On Not Looking: Ethics and Access in the Digital Humanities.”  This discussion challenges my way of thinking about searching online and open access. I had a bit of an issue last week with the ideas we discussed about having open access to all copyrighted material because I do believe in intellectual property rights, but this presentation really confirmed to me some important cultural issues involved with open access. As Withey claims, we have always had ways of filtering what we share and with whom, but there seems to be a notion under DH that anything less than “open source” is the enemy. Her examples of digitizing materials from indigenous people and comparing that to a type of colonization made for a really compelling argument, particularly when this material was originally collected under dubious means. Do we have the right to appropriate, a right to open source on everything, or do groups of people, as well as individuals, have rights to privacy and rights to their own culture and artifacts? There does seem to be an assumption in Western culture that everything is “ours for the taking.” I really appreciate Withey’s voice. It seems to me that, to be truly “humanities,” DH should move into more discussions that actually occur in humanities, like ideas about subaltern voices and colonization.



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