Post-Meeting Discussion Threads: Voices of Representation in Delineated Archives

As we complicated the readings with our discussion, we also highlighted a couple of digital archives outside our original collection, as well:

O Say Can You See: Early Washington DC, Law & Family


Visualizing Emancipation.

These both gave us a gateway into discussing ethical presentations of curated materials as both, like the Black at Bryn Mawr project, deal with presenting historical artifacts in a way that paints a multi-perspective narrative that deploys a representational memory. While all three of these archives resounded thoughtfully with us, they each utilize different tools for navigation and making meaning.

Even more interesting, all three occupy space within black studies and create a new, critical perspective. As Terman notes, “the challenge Black Studies scholars face . . . [is] how to produce quality content that is centralized enough to provide a cumulative critical apparatus, as opposed to a flurry of unorganized memes.” This is, as Terman goes on, even more difficult within the context of Digital Humanities as we think about ontologies. Each of these three archives can easily be delineated as “Black Studies” scholarship, but defining the specifics as to why this is so becomes murky. As Wernimont discusses when exploring feminist interventions, our understanding of the methodologies and criteria for classification impact our understanding of them. While the scholarship we read before our meeting and the discussions we had in class found us grappling with these ideas, we realized the inherent difficulty in approaching these topics was in securing an answer to these questions. That is to say, while dealing with power relations and alterity, a meaningful representation has to be one that calls these ethical considerations into question for there to be meaning present. As Gallon so concisely notes, “to get caught up in the exact definitions or questions of ‘who is in or who is out’ in black digital humanities is to ignore how the very nomenclature of blackness as a complex and rich history that moves in the same conceptual orbit as the term ‘digital humanities.’”

As all three of these archives are recovery projects (they pull forward and present historical artifacts for a more complex understanding of silenced voices), representation and identity are at the forefront of each. But because of the nature of archives, there is also a flattening happening. Collectively, we pushed back against what this flattening took away from these projects as we examined what it allowed. Interestingly, it was in this space that we managed our most productive conversation about the nature of DH and representation. This also gave us a more complex understanding of what each of these three archives were framing. Black at Bryn Mawr, for instance, in exploring identity and space, situates its meaning in the representation of the present. We are meant to see how these artifacts still hold power and where, specifically, that still resonates or is obscured in the now. With O Say Can You See, we are instead meant to grapple with just how widespread and inescapable the lack of humanity was in a specific moment in order to trace how these structures are still impactful.


The Privileges of Data in DH

I complained (lightly in self-deprecation) last semester about the nebulousness of the common threads among our readings for last semester’s Digital Humanities selections, without yet fully realizing the diverse nature of writing about the Digital Humanities as a collective, or the difficulty of a meaningful inspection of intersectionality. I was obviously wrong in my initial take in both the nature of the complaint and in the response of complaining in front of a nuanced critical analysis—I will not make that mistake this week. My first thought upon reading these selections was very similar to my reaction last semester, though: what a diverse selection!

Filtering the readings through McPherson’s text probably creates the best lens for me to approach this theme as a unifier here: How are we roadblocking alterity?

As this week’s selections teach us, attempting to narrow our perspective (as I do with filtering these readings through the lens of alterity in the Digital Humanities) also demonstrates our privilege.

Through Tsing’s discussion of scalability, we see the common hegemonic practice of simplifying for the sake of clarity in expression—that is to say, there’s a lot that gets ignored once non-convenient data is swept aside, never considered, or misplaced for the sake of convenience. As Tsing notes, when we contextualize data, we have a very focused filter of what we can understand and compare. Data that falls out of our view is reduced in importance or ignored. Systematically, we process information in ways we’ve been taught or shown; often, this happens without regard for how those larger frameworks compartmentalize and exclude.

As my ignorance demonstrated from last semester, comprehending only those knowledge systems works to falsely reinforce our (mis)understandings of data. As Rawson and Muñoz succinctly note, “this reductiveness can feel intellectually impoverishing to scholars who have spent their careers working through particular kinds of historical and cultural complexity.” Though not always apparent within our own work, we should be aware of how our own perspectives can be intellectual dampeners while also reinforcing our own privileges; what we sometimes see as clarity also creates adjacent distortions (as we see with ULAN’s database not recognizing gender as a spectrum and short-handed representations of visual spaces). As developing scholars, these unseen and non-representative knowledges sustain a daunting influx of ignorance we have to actively practice awareness of.

In discussing UNIX last semester—a personal scholarly interest—I used McPherson as a springboard to link UNIX’s original community’s ideology to that of access and representation. Until now, I never considered what this mythologized narrative flattens: What non-Western approaches to digital access were steamrolled by the language or system barriers established by UNIX-running systems? Whose work disappeared or went uncredited in establishing open source databases? What aspects of UNIX coding fits into frameworks that favor masculine input and privileges hegemonic processes?

Even in projects with altruistic intentions, the majority of now-recognized pre-Silicon Valley programmers were white males.

Some questions to consider ahead of Stanley’s presentation:

  1. In thinking about our specific fields, interests, and research, what are the frameworks and taxonomies we deal with but rarely consider alternative approaches of? What do they downplay, hide, or misrepresent? What knowledges do they frustrate? More importantly, how can we respond to this?
  2. Even within the context of these articles (and my post), binary framings are centerpoints (i.e., voices of alterity v. hegemonic; flat v. widened views; close v. distant readings; inclusive databases v. exclusivity). What are these articles also missing in their representations and how can we respond to what they do not discuss?

DH, Alterity, & Cybercrud

The “rules” of UNIX (and moreso in Richard Stallman’s open source stewardship of GNU in 1983) are the following: modularity, clarity, transparency, and simplicity all work to establish a unity in programming and a connectedness in work to come. There’s an inherent body of collaboration—maybe out of necessity and maybe out of spirit, depending on who is framing it—that runs through this UNIX narrative. Others will need to see, understand, and most importantly access this information later if the core of UNIX is going to segue into more usable programs in the future.

To extend Tara McPherson’s brilliant analogy of the UNIX timeline and the cultural movements of the ’60s, and please forgive the reductive nature of my poor generalization, I can’t help but focus on the zeitgeist of both branches of her timeline. As McPherson notes, the nature of UNIX’s establishment was both a response to the widening field of what programmers could work with and also an establishment of what they thought would soon be possible. There was a recognized kairos, and we see optimism and ingenuity emerge in response.

In 1972, Ted Nelson coined the phrase “cybercrud,” the veil of confusion, unnecessary jargon, and complex framing programmers purposefully use to keep computers as inaccessible to the ordinary user as possible, and fought against this kind of thought. We see in the genius of Nelson a foresight of optimism of how computers would shape the world and how that movement would look. The same often mythologized social movements of so-called “post war era” share this hope and eye towards the future. Compounded more so than anything else, we see both of these movements crescendo in the official narrative of Steve Jobs; counter-culture and computer work in capitalism to formulate a new kind of product that “thinks differently” and breaks free the chains of oppression.

If I can deviate slightly from McPherson’s analogy, I think this is also the moment where everything begins to fall apart for both tracings. We see the Western rise of neoliberalism and the proprietary computer arms race shatter the original zeitgeist of both these movements. It’s not so much a modularity mentality as it is a capitalistic one—whomever can gain financially within their given sphere will also use this to oppress the advancements of others. Apple, after borrowing heavily from UNIX and others quickly stymies anyone from borrowing from them. The post-war social movements lose traction and fall within the expanding globalization neoliberal powers. Collaboration no longer guides the digital, and marginalized voices remain, despite our better intentions, marginalized.

I make this overly-simplified metaphor only to highlight the importance of how some of these readings are working against both of these established frameworks. Sayers’s, McGrail’s, and Gil‘s essays in Minimal Computing all centralize open source and accessibility, expanding upon the nature of how things should work and what we can create when we function in collaboration (and please forgive me for lumping these three distinct works as one—each should really be examined on their own merits). The usefulness of re-tooling our tools with minimalist approaches in order to increase access works to correct the consumerist takeover that shaped the rise of the personal computer and bore the spine of neoliberalism, even in the almost ironic (but not really, you know?) framing of advancing technology by removing some of the superfluous tools of technology.

This is a purposeful scaleback that aims to work against established systems of power and recontextualize creative thought while still maintaining the core of what consists of the humanities. We see a reiteration of Nelson’s original concepts of an open learning and growing digital community of scholarship that allows access to anyone who wants to contribute.

In the transformative value of re-shaping our view(s) of the humanities through the lens of digital scholarship, we see the unique creativity and connectedness in these works. In more than just a cursory nod to alterity, we see real, applicable ways of inclusive and collaborative learning that openly works to stretch beyond the hegemonic and create open learning spaces. For those of us who occupy Composition and Rhetoric, the implications of this are especially exciting as our digital practices intersect in every way with the work of this presentation.

Some questions in advance of our meeting:

  1. There’s no dearth of innovation in the humanities, and this is especially so (at least I like to think) in the digital. Even with digital works, we see scholars and makers move around in the academic or digital world or shift focus to other projects. When we look at works like the GO:DH, Ed, and The Open Syllabus Project, what kind of sustainability can we see or hope to see once the initial excitement has dissipated a little? Once a project like this has moved beyond the stage of the original creators? How could these projects maintain or re-purpose their roles in order to generate more diversity?
  2. As we’ve seen within the humanities, alterity is a priority in scholarship but a lot of times not in reality within the actual voices of the scholars. Beyond collaboration, (re)introducing erased historical texts into the cannon, and increasing access of marginalize voices into places of conversation, how else do we counter the traditional-tradition thought of white hegemonic scholarship that still makes up the backbone of the humanities? As Gallon notes, even with a forefront of black issues in humanist conversation, there’s still a framework of “black voices vs the hegemonic” or black voices included as a footnote to the canon. [On second pass of this question: I know this is impossible to answer but I’d be interested on any insight at all]

Finally, this is amazing.

GIS, Dr. Craft’s Work, and Future Discovery

GIS research and development was a proud selling point for the Arts & Sciences department at the university where I previously worked, so I have had a little exposure to geovisual analytics. Interestingly, I have also seen 3D virtual reality visualizations of excavation sites the university was a part of, though I didn’t quite make the connection to their utility until our readings for this week. I’ve also had trouble mentally expanding the traditional concept of geographic mapping into what GIS adds. Moving into Dr. Craft’s presentation, I was curious about some of the implications for utilizing it and the different systems or uses it could be applied to, especially in light of her work with ancient settlements.

In discussing the implications of GIS in her work, Dr. Craft noted that each project site called for unique purposes as “GIS lends itself to different data sets.” We saw this in how her first project, focused around antiquity Byzantine, explored scale and landscapes as they related to how people migrated in the area. She noted she underused GIS as only a visual mapping tool with this work. We saw this in her next project, as GIS was used more for “landscape analysis” in Romuliana, Serbia where she searched for “what came before, after, and during” the existence of the palace. Focusing on how the landscape was shaped, she used existing records to (for lack of a better word) triangulate the activity surrounding roads, settlement locations that existed prior to the Roman expansion, and mineral deposit records with GIS data. Instead of having GIS present visualizations for discovery, she used it to create connections between the previous data and build into more meaning-making. Dr. Craft noted the particular usefulness of the act of discovery being encouraged when more data was present.

Part of her process involves formulating research goals and seeing how those develop into more areas of research as projects advance. As Dr. Craft and our readings referred to “the spatial humanities” in this instance of discovery, I originally struggled with how this site of visualization differed from how we traditionally approach research. When she discussed her issues with access to some of these areas, I made the connection to what roadblocks this type of historical study may face. Instead of how we normally think of “access” in the humanities, Dr. Craft was literally meaning physical access to sites. In making this connection, I realized the extent of what her work represents and how she was rewriting traditional historical implications. This kind of discovery, moreso than the actual data derived form GIS, is what makes Dr. Craft’s work so exciting. She raises questions about how we conceptualize historical data and what limits we’ve falsely assumed. Paired with the optimistic pessimism of Gupta and Devillers’s claims of scholars’ tendency to work down for “inadequate” tools, we may be near a tipping-point in how we formulate our historic conceptions of humanity.

One of the implications that Dr. Craft only briefly discussed was how her work with data and GIS can create “predictive modeling” with both mapping and “spatial representations.” This opens up so many questions about where research like this can lead. How can we use this to predict or better global weather patterns and the migration of species and humans in the wake of climate change? What data can we cultivate to suggest future farming or agricultural spaces in the wake of swelling populations and national border disputes? What behavioral patterns of our past are predictive of movements in a globalist age?