Annotated Bibliography: Cultural-Criticism in the Digital Humanities: Race, Gender and Identity in the Technological Age

The following is a selection of essays written by and for digital humanists that cover the somewhat neglected area of cultural criticism, race, gender and identity politics in DH. Some reprehend DH practitioners for their seeming lack of concern for the wider social and cultural implications of the technologies they employ. Others, through methodology and praxis, attest to just how important solidifying research through constant critiquing of identity representation is, as technological development is coming to be seen as a monopoly of those in positions of monetary privilege and power. Overall, these essays bear out the growing landscape of DH — one that seeks to broaden its horizons through interdisciplinary methods and make its mark as a polemically useful field of study for addressing or redressing contemporary issues of technology and culture in today’s society.

Argamon, Shlomo et al. ‘Gender, Race, and Nationality in Black Drama, 1950-2006: Mining Differences in Language Use in Authors and their Characters’. Digital Humanities Quarterly 3.2 (2009): n. pag. Web. 25 November 2014. 

This article describes a data-mining project using a database developed by Alexander Street Press (ASP), in collaboration with the ARTFL project. Argamon et al. discuss their using of a bespoke machine-reading and text-mining tool, PhiloMine, with a view to finding idiosyncratic patterns in the works of black authors from the Black Drama collection. The results reveal that while the PhiloMine tool could be calibrated such that it would sort texts by author or speaker race and gender, the onus was on the human to aptly identify where the binary extremes of the yes/no computer consolidation outputs overlook the subtle, but salient, differences within the computer-sorted texts.

Bailey, Moya Z. ‘All the Digital Humanists Are White, All the Nerds Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave’. Journal of Digital Humanities 1.1 (Winter 2011): n.pag. Web. 25 November 2014.

Bailey argues that the way in which identities inform ‘both theory and practice in digital humanities have been largely overlooked’. The tendency within digital humanities to balk at the moment of identity  politics and cultural criticism is tantamount to disabling the yet burgeoning field from unexplored avenues, and ultimately exposes inherent ‘structural limitations’ within its methodological practices. Bailey invokes the writings of Lisa Nakamura, informing us of her tendentious criticisms encompassing such topics as ‘the alienated labour of people of colour in the production of technology that advances digital scholarship practices that they will not be able to access or directly benefit from’. Bailey adds that the interdisciplinary nature of the digital humanities makes it ‘uniquely poised to apply academic research to itself and its products’.

Earhart, Amy E. ‘Can Information Be Unfettered? Race and the New Digital Humanities Canon’. Debates in the Digital Humanities. Ed. Matthew K. Gold. University of Minnesota Press, 2012. 309-318. Print.

Earhart bemoans what she descries as a dearth of digitised collections and materials apropos of race online, despite the opportunities afforded by the internet as a potential platform for minority groups to be heard. Bending her thoughts back to the incipient years of the internet and its virtues for the democratisation of knowledge, Earhart points out the designs of iconoclast scholars who apperceived its potentialities as a conduit from which to bring into public property lesser-known works traditionally shirked by the literary canon. Earhart asserts that digital humanists must theorise technological approaches with a mind towards cultural construction for fear that certain materials will be excluded from digitisation. Earhart finally demonstrates how the TEI tagging system, which includes tags of linguistic and cultural identifiers, follow contemporary cultural-critical theories in their nomenclature — ultimately serving as symbols for future overtures between cultural-critical engagement via technological appropriation.

Finn, Ed. ‘Revenge of the Nerd: Junot Díaz and the Networks of American Literary Imagination’. Digital Humanities Quarterly 7.1 (2013): n. pag. Web. 24 November 2014.

This article employs Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao as a case study for the growing trend of the mixed-cultural narrative. Diaz’s novel is a mash up of mainstream American ‘pop culture’, the ‘hyperwhite’ technoscience and science-fiction fantasy fuelled domain of  ‘nerddom’, and cultural-historical accounts of ethnicity and ethnic identity as outlier from the Anglo-American cultural locus. Finn makes use of computational algorithms and scripts encoded in Perl to scrape information from Amazon in order to analyse the readership patterns of Diaz’s novel. The diversity of genres, titles and styles connected to Oscar Wao underwrites the multiplicity of Diaz’s style and content. Diaz’s novel can thus be seen as an attempt to interrogate stereotypically defined identities of culture, ethnicity, gender and ‘nerdiness’ in the way his novel remains undefinably elusive.

Fiormonte, Domenico. ‘Towards a Cultural Critique of Digital Humanities’. Historical Social Research.  37.3 (2012): 59-76. Web. 24 November 2014.

Fiormonte reprises Alan Liu’s proposal for a cultural-critical model in DH scholarship (‘Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities’) in his assertion that while digital humanists do tend to analyse the repercussions of methodologies involved with the adoption of technological tools, the wider sociological and global questions of technology are not being broached. The article assumes that the digital humanities are dominated by an Anglo-American elite with a ‘mono-cultural view’ in consequence of a perceived unwillingness to partake in cultural-critical debate. Technology, Fiormonte argues, is ‘subject to the influence of its environment [and] culture’ and thus he draws the conclusion that technology is part of culture, not a cause or effect of it. Organisations such as Unicode and standards like ASCII are by their very nature biased towards western viewpoints of the world. The digital humanities, Fiormonte concludes, need to leverage the possibilities for communications technologies to invite digital humanists working outside of the western world, or what is often referred to as the periphery, into discussion.

Gailey, Amanda. ‘A Case for Heavy Editing: the Example of Race and Children’s Literature of the Gilded Age’. The American Literature Scholar in the Digital Age, EDs. Amy Earhart and Andrew Jewell, University of Michigan Press. 125-144. Print. 

The author adumbrates her intention to cut across the heretofore selectively narrow scope of the digital literary canon. Gailey plans to create a digital archive for Joel Chandler Harris, a children’s author and folklorist who has incurred disfavour in literary studies over the course of the twentieth-century due to his controversial depiction of people of colour. Despite the controversy, there has invariably been a running battle between those who promote his works as offering overtures between the black/white divide in turn-of-the-century America and those who denigrate his demotic speech-patterns of the African slave as racially pejorative. Nonetheless Gailey feels his stories, derived from the mythopoeia of black slaves, warrants exposure for their keen insights into racial depictions of the past.

Liu, Alan. ‘Where Is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?’ Debates in the Digital Humanities. Ed. Matthew K. Gold. University of Minnesota Press, 2012. 490-509. Print.

Liu argues that while the digital humanities develops ‘tools, data, and metadata critically […] rarely do they extend their critique to the full register of society, economics, politics, or culture’. Liu believes that this lack of cultural-criticism in the digital humanities will ultimately serve as a deficit for further development in the field, using Casanova’s The World Republic of Letters and Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees as proxies for the success of cultural-critical cannibalisation for quantitative analysis. It is incumbent upon digital humanists to co-opt tools for the purpose of public advocation and public communication — not just as a plank for themselves but for the humanities in toto, especially in a straightened time of fiscal retrenchment and lack of funding.

McPherson, Tara. ‘Why Are the Digital Humanities So White? or Thinking the Histories of Race and Computation’. Debates in the Digital Humanities. Ed. Matthew K. Gold. University of Minnesota Press, 2012. 139-160. Print.

McPherson, like Fiormonte, descries a causal relationship between the lack of discussion about race, minority and difference in the digital humanities and technology’s matrix in ‘post-World War II computational culture’; or to put it less synecdochically, western culture. McPherson asks why it is that technological and cultural debate rarely overlap, and looks at how, for no perceptible reason, those interested in the cultural upheavals of the 1960s, such as the rise of the American Indian Movement or the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., do not include technological innovations (like the development of UNIX in 1969) into their sphere of knowledge. Mcpherson likewise concludes that the new media theory that developed in the 1990s failed to acknowledge technology as culturally imbued rather than neutrally disinterested. McPherson examines how the changes in technology, such as the development of more modular systems like UNIX in computing, can afford insights into the changing genius of the society from which it was born, a stance that harks back to Fiormonte’s argument, that the ontological make-up of much technology often mirrors the societal impulses and beliefs from which it  came.

Moretti, Franco. ‘Conjectures on World Literature’. NLR 1 (Jan/Feb 2000): n.pag. Web. 25 November 2014.

Moretti conceives world literature as a marketplace in which the core and periphery are in constant exchange, with the upshot being that the periphery is consistently affected by the ascendant position of the core, with the core completely ignoring the periphery. With the potentiality for a distant reading of world literature through the analysis of sweeping trends and patterns over extended periods of space and time, Moretti expounds a new breed of reading that can analyse world literature as a  singular, albeit incommensurate, system. Morello’s method of distant reading incorporates cultural criticism inasmuch as his exegetical approach to graphs and figures feeds off the wider social, cultural and economic context of the global versus local, orient versus occident.

Wernimont, Jacqueline. ‘Whence Feminism? Assessing Feminist Interventions in Digital Literary Archives’. Digital Humanities Quarterly 7.1 (2013): n. pag. Web. 25 November 2014.

This essay explores how in the wake of the world wide web’s engendering, feminist interests were piqued by the untold possibilities for the dissemination of women’s writing, largely marginalised within print culture. Inaccessibility and scarcity had long been for women’s writing prominent bugbears, and so scholarly recovery and the provision of visibility for archives were invariable concerns for those working with women’s writing. The author makes a note of the outcrop of epistemological concerns regarding the expectations of a digital archive seeking to relive the dream, and scale,  of the Library of Alexandria. The additive approach, for example, of size over content seems to model itself more proximately to traditionally patriarchal models of power and imposition. Wernimont skips to more recent years, mapping out the gender divide in the computer sciences, and highlighting the unquestioning and dangerously passive approach of much interface design today. The growing trend of the passive consumer is dangerous inasmuch that just as the limitations and conventions of a computer system remain unquestioned so to do the corporate systems of our society today. The digital feminist archive might be seen as a “testbed” for the digital humanities in total, as the appropriation and even development of tools for purposes outside of the locus of power may offer insights into alternative methods, solutions and theoretical models of and about technology.