Whose Job is it Anyway? “Black Digital Humanities”

Kim Gallon notes that while work on racial, ethnic, and national difference is “emerging in the digital humanities,” discussions about “the lineage of Black Studies within the digital humanities are almost nonexistent.” She later claims that “precise definitions of what constitutes the black digital humanities are elusive” and that it is really just “a constructed space to consider the intersections between the digital and blackness.” Rochelle Terman similarly notes that there is an “uncertain relationship between Black Studies and digital humanities.” Terman notes that there are a variety of issues to consider: many Black Studies departments are resistant to new technology; many Universities don’t see Black Studies as part of the “cutting edge” work of digital humanities, and thus come to them last; Universities don’t always see the ways that race factors into digital humanities projects, and see contributions made by black scholars on digital humanities as separate from a more general understanding of digital humanities, “sequestering the distinctive digital humanities projects created by Black Studies scholars”; the stereotype that “Black folks don’t do technology.” All of this works against the fostering of a healthy relationship of Black Studies and digital humanities.

In attempting to construct the relationship between these two fields, Gallon suggests that we turn to “the ‘technology of recovery’ that undergirds black digital scholarship, showing how it fills the apertures between Black studies and digital humanities.” Recovery projects “help to unmask the racialized systems of power at work in how we understand the digital humanities as a field and utilize its associated techniques.” It certainly makes sense to me that we should utilize the techniques of digital scholarship in order to help us recover the role of the African-American in American history. The projects we looked at all help us to see this role. However, I think that claiming recovery projects as the main function of Black Studies within digital humanities can be interpreted as sequestering the projects done by black scholars. If we understand recovery projects as recovering Black history, and we see it as the work and main contribution of black scholars, then white people are potentially free to remove themselves from the work in two key ways: (1) this is a history of black people for black people, and thus it is not my history, (2) as a white person I do not need to, and indeed should not attempt to, do recovery projects that look at oppressed groups, because that work belongs to them. In the former, we see that those who aren’t black are free to remove themselves and their historic role in this history. In the latter, we can see that those who aren’t black may see recovery projects that look at black history as the responsibility of black scholars or they may want to contribute but do not want to speak for the black person or take the work that is being defined as that of “Black Studies and digital humanities.”


Finding the Individual within the Digital

In Nootechnics of the Digital, Anais Nony focuses on a divide between the digital (notably Big Data) and the technical (what I assume to be the human work, the analytical, the critical, the close readings, the social periphery — I struggled with the term technical because Nony never defines it). Nony states that “While the technical pushes us to face the past while backing up into the future, the digital is rushing up on us from behind, reminding us that we are late in our own present” (129). I take this to mean that our work in the humanities asks us to look back to the past to understand the future and where we’re going, to understand more about who we are and how we function.

Meanwhile, the digital creates a sense of urgency to push forward, to explore the untouched terrain of technology and see where it leads us. This reminds me of John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid’s critique of tunnel design, which “takes aim at the surface of life” and strives toward new technologies without paying attention to the social periphery, “the communities, organizations, and institutions that frame human activities” (5). They claim that, in a tunnel designed world, “we are expected to live on a strict information-only diet. It’s a world that addresses worries about information by simply offering more” (3). Thus, perhaps it’s the case that the technical aligns with the social periphery surrounding technologies, while the digital aligns with the tunnel design mentality of creating more technology and adding more information.

A similar concern for the periphery around information can be found in Katherine Bode’s “The Equivalence of ‘Close’ and ‘Distant’ Reading: Or, Towards a New Object for Data-Rich Literary History” from our first week’s discussion on taxonomies. She claims that “the methodological achievement does not translate into historical insight because the study considers only an abstract amalgam of literary works.” In other words, information stripped of context does not produce meaningful knowledge (9). Thus, these information databases do not “offer any alternative influences, nor comment on the extent to which gender, nationality, and chronology shape literary history” (9). Here Bode is critiquing the way that two distant reading scholars have flattened the job of scholars and scholarship on their way to claiming they have turned all of the world’s texts into a searchable database of sorts. In legitimizing their database, they critique microanalysis and argue that any form of interpretation is defective, “interpretation is fueled by observation, and as a method of evidence gathering, observation is flawed” (Jockers 31, qtd in Bode 4). Bode emphasizes that distant reading maintains the “interpretative acts” found in all scholarship through “constructing literary data, organizing it, and ascribing an historical explanation to the results” (3).

While Bode emphasizes the role of humans in distant reading, regardless of what some of it’s advocates claim, Nony suggests that information is the agent that is constantly pushing us forward and defining us as individuals: “The digital has recently surpassed the technical realm due to the economy’s use of highly addictive, yet intuitive, relations to digital platforms that are designed to function without the mastery of any user skills” (1, emph. added). I don’t think Nony and Bode are making conflicting claims here; while Bode points out the role of human agents within Big Data and distant reading technologies, Nony points out that whatever system we as humans construct begins to take on a life of its own. Central to Nony’s claim is that digital platforms are intuitive and thus do not require mastery. User “jimcross42” writes about the programmer becoming a gatekeeper to memory, and notes that “has this not happened throughout history?  When writing was invented, did not the storyteller lose his place as gatekeeper?  When the printing press started printing in the vernacular, did not the monastery lose its role as gatekeeper?  Why does “get off my lawn” come to mind?” (Digital Scholars Blog). However, I think the key difference here is the tension that Brown and Duguid locate between tunnel design and the social periphery. When the writer took the role of storyteller, human beings were not lost, their status was amplified. Instead of one storyteller, there were many. And while the printing press signals a shift toward mass production, human beings were still at the center of this shift, writing and printing and buying and reading. Even if readers did not see it happening, there was a social periphery going on around the printing; humans did the work. As we’ve gotten further attached to technological tools to do the tedious work for us, we’ve gotten further removed from the social periphery. This is the concern, as I understand it, that digital scholars have with the programmer being the gatekeeper to memory. The gatekeeper’s values and expertise does not naturally or necessarily align with the humanities values and expertise. So how do we locate the individual, and furthermore the cultural, within the digital?

Nony emphasizes that the individual does not need to be lost within this new age: “the digital offers the opportunity for a temporal revolution in the way we cultivate information in both space and time” (130). She explains that as individuals within a culture we have “cultural agency”: “the ability to cultivate singularized forms of instrumental mediation, which are needed to foster individualizing relations within a milieu” (130). Because a great majority of us cannot code, our relationship to the digital is always mediated. The closer we can get to understanding this mediation, the closer our relationship to these technologies can become. Information moves at a dizzying rate, but if we do not grab hold of the digital and write ourselves into it, it will not be a tool embedded with our values. She notes that “a myriad of unpredicted approaches to the digital have already been developed by imaginative users, thus demonstrating the openness of digital objects in adopting new purposes outside the use value directed by the market” (130). While Brown and Duguid emphasize that individuals must consider the social periphery that goes into new technologies and new information when they themselves consume them (for example, the news doesn’t just occur, it is curated, distributed, negotiated, presented, etc.),  here we see Nony emphasizing that we consider the social periphery in terms of how humans write themselves into technologies and in so doing subvert their “value directed by the market.” In paying attention to the ways that individuals use technologies–not those who consume passively, but those who grasp the tools and use them to their own ends (the individual’s ends, not the technology’s)–we can foster a relationship between the individual, the cultural, and the technology. In doing so, we can better understand the “being” within the triad of being, milieu, and objects.

-Joel Bergholtz


BodeKatherine. “The Equivalence of ‘Close’ and ‘Distant’ Reading: Or, Towards a New Object for Data-Rich Literary History.” Draft. Final version forthcoming in Modern Language Quarterly (December 2017).

Brown, John Seely, and Paul Duguid. The Social Life of Information. Harvard Business School Press, 2017.

Nony Anais (2017) Nootechnics of the Digital, Parallax, 23:2, 129-146, DOI: 10.1080/13534645.2017.1299293