On DH, solidarity, and humility – or why @miriamkp rules

I can’t help but admire my colleague Miriam Posner. As voices go back and forth after #aha2012 and #mla12 about whether DH is too utopian, not critical enough, not oppositional enough, too postmodern, too meta, too religious, etc. etc. etc.,* Miriam offers a wonderfully concise and powerful account of why the digital humanities inspires those who practice it. In a response to Andrew Hartman’s claim that THATCamp, and DH in general, suffer from an unwarranted utopianism, Miriam writes:

Hartman enjoyed himself but wondered if the scholars attending THATCamp evinced an unwarranted utopianism about the prospects of technology to transform the practice of history. It’s a good question, and an understandable reaction, but I don’t think it’s altogether accurate. First, I think that what Hartman understood as utopianism may in fact have been an attempt by the participants to make newcomers like Hartman feel welcome. If there’s a utopianism present at THATCamp, I think it’s more about the possibilities of new forms of interacting with each other, not the technology itself.

Miriam later argues that “history has a humility that I love,” and indeed Miriam’s dedication to humility is part of the reason why I’ve learned so much from her. From her reflections on project management to sharing her research tools and thinking about academic accessibility for people with disabilities, Miriam has shown me the power of valuing different contributions and approaching academic work with humility.

For me, the recent yack about the lack of opposition and critique in the digital humanities discounts the work that Miriam (and others already engaging in critical and cultural work) have contributed. Everyone wants to be welcomed, and yet many people feel the need to defend their territory. In her response to my last post, Natalia Cecire argues that what she terms a liberal, “never oppositional,” welcoming attitude of the digital humanities tries to be “above the fray,” and “can imagine that the stakes of cultural criticism are really as low as getting to sit with the cool kids at lunch in a high school; or rather, it does not acknowledge (despite the shocking mortality rate among queer adolescents) that not getting to sit with the cool kids is ever anything but a metaphor, that its stakes are ever anything but trivial.”

Despite my admiration for Natalia’s critical eye and her dedication to solidarity, I feel that her argument misses the radical nature of DH’s welcoming and humble attitude. For me, and I suspect for Miriam, collaboration is solidarity. In critiquing the “guerilla warfare rhetoric of #transformdh, I’m not suggesting that DH should never be oppositional. The fact that, for example, Miriam and I are participating in a project that uses digital technology to chronicle the history of lynchings in Georgia suggests that the digital humanities is already taking inclusion, and the consequences of segregation, seriously. My beef with #transformdh’s guerilla warfare rhetoric is that it suggests that the only (or even primary) way to express solidarity by identifying an enemy and relentlessly marginalizing them.

Miriam has taught me that solidarity is much more complicated and potentially valuable than that. I fundamentally believe that we can do more together than we ever could do individually. Welcoming others into larger projects takes negotiating difference and maintaining an openness to be surprised, but I fundamentally believe that doing so can give us benefits that we do not yet fully understand. I do agree with Natalia that sometimes opposition is necessary. But we shouldn’t undercut the potential of the digital humanities to offer a more egalitarian spirit to academic work simply because it is difficult to welcome others to our table.
*Sheesh, no wonder THATCamp has adopted the phrase “more hack, less yack.”

Comments

  1. This is incredibly embarrassing, and as anyone who knows me knows, I am actually kind of an enormous pain in the ass and extremely narcissistic.

    I don’t know. I’ve long seen the need for other voices in DH, and so I’m actually quite sympathetic to the goals of #transformDH. Plus, I like the people involved very much — they’re super-smart, and just the kinds of people who should be involved in DH. Part of me wonders if my raised hackles aren’t a kind of territoriality, now that I’m The Man. But on the other hand, it seems to me that there is quite a bit of this kind of work (on race, gender, queer theory, disability) happening in DH right now, and I was sorry to see it apparently overlooked. It seemed like a gesture of dismissal, or a kind of invisibility, that is exactly what the group’s members are inveighing against.

    But all that is to say that I don’t really know, and I’m willing to listen.

    1. I fully admit to being a little cranky in this post, and to somewhat inelegantly attempting to show my appreciation of your voice in the same post.

      And I also appreciate the idea of highlighting marginalized work in the DH field and moving the field in different directions. I’m just tired of the revolutionary rhetoric that gets tossed around in the humanties – as if in order to do something meaningful you have to topple or transform or crush someone else.

  2. The greatness of Dr. Posner is one of the things you and I unequivocally agree on. I believe we agree on more than that, too; I think the disagreement comes down to vocabulary, since I would argue that oppositional vocabulary (and the critical lineages that it may signify) can also be useful. But this disagreement is okay.

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