During the Boston Area Days of DH keynote address framed as a debate between Matthew Jockers and Julia Flanders at Northeastern University on March 18, Jockers made mention of a project that his team had developed for which they had applied for a Google grant (one of the Digital Humanities Research Awards that Liu mentions?) and been rejected. No stranger to varying degrees of rejection in an academic context myself, I was at first sympathetic to the situation in which Jockers and his team had found themselves. It was wonderful to see how easily and casually he accepted it, an inspiration for someone who is still building up a thick skin and working on a capacity to accept productive failure.. Upon hearing a description of the project, however, my reactions were manifold, conflicting, and contradictory.
At first glance the project seems simple, useful, and straightforward enough an endeavor. Without claiming in any way a complete understanding of the project, I will summarize that Jockers spoke of an analytical method (perhaps an algorithm?) that his team had constructed that could, with plus or minus twenty percent accuracy, determine the gender of authors in the Google Books corpus. On a superficial level the project seems innocuous enough, and I can see wonderful potential value in it. I suppose some part of me longs to be an optimist and/or pragmatist. What areas of inquiry could such identification make possible? The optimist in me wants to believe that this would be possible to further the project of opening the archive in some way, of reclaiming (if not renaming) women’s voices that have been lost to time.
A few moments of reflection, however, quickly led me to regard this tool with a more pessimistic eye that left me with questions about dealing with this troublesome thing called the archive vaguely reminiscent of those at the heart of works like Saidiya Hartman’s “Venus in Two Acts.” Hartman asks “Is it possible to construct a story from ‘the locus of impossible speech’ or to resurrect lives from the ruins? […] Or is narration its own gift and its own end, that is, all that is realizable when overcoming the past and redeeming the dead are not?” and in relation to Jockers’ team’s gender identification tool I cannot help but ask a similar question. What good does it actually do to divide the Google Books corpus along the line of gender? Moreover, what damage could it potentially do?
What makes me uneasy is not so much the tool itself as it is my perception of a lack of sensitivity to issues of gender inherent in its creation and the potential for misuse and unforeseen repercussions in its execution. I cannot begin to know what intentions and theory were involved in the creative process, but I could not help but raise my eyebrows. It seems to me inherent in such a project are a number of questions that do not pertain to the accuracy or utility of such an analysis. Rather, I am intrigued by the ethics of the thing. Just because we possess the capacity to build an analytical apparatus capable of identifying, with plus or minus twenty percent accuracy, which certainly seemed to be a margin of error at the talk that provoked laughter, the gender of authors in the Google Books corpus, should we make such a tool? And to what end? The digital humanist in me accepts and understands that it was likely issues of utility, the margin of error, and other more technical factors that I can only begin to comprehend that led to Jockers’ team’s rejection, but the more traditional humanist in me, the feminist and gender scholar in me, wants to hope that it was at least partially motivated by issues of application and theory.
I come to the digital humanities from a background of gender and sexuality studies. My freshman year of my undergraduate career I was recruited to my university’s women’s studies program, and while my interests have expanded beyond the scope of women’s issues, I am passionately motivated by issues of and inquiry into the slippery, tenuous nature of gender, its performance, and its impact upon society. I have become as passionately devoted to the digital humanities over the past six months as I have been over the past six years to gender studies, for I believe that it offers avenues for meaning making and analysis that have not been previously available. The possibilities provided by new ways of looking at old questions and new approaches for the generation of new questions and theories are manifold and have the potential to be transformative.
Yet marrying my background in gender and sexuality in literary studies to my newly found investment in a technological approach has proven exceedingly difficult. Over the course of the semester I have been struggling to find ways to resolve the tension that I have been feeling. I have spent many sleepless nights fruitlessly attempting to determine how I could adopt the “More Hack, Less Yack” imperative that Adeline Koh so eloquently critiques. I have blogged and Tweeted to little avail in an attempt to better understand where I can begin. “What can I make?” has been the question reverberating through the chambers of my mind, and I have been nothing short of disheartened by the resounding silence I’ve offered in response.
I had almost accepted my troubles as a single and solitary issue rooted in some lack within myself, but now I am reconsidering that stance. Are my difficulties rooted in and linked to this bigger question of the role of critical theory in DH and the perceived disconnect between theory and DH practice? Am I reflective of this troubling moment in DH? In what ways can I join and what do I have to offer the #TransformDH movement? It seems imperative for me now not only to begin, not only join the DH community as a whole, but to help make clear to myself and others the ways in which cultural criticism and the technical turn in the humanities that DH represents are not disparate, and this must be done even if it’s for no other reason than the fact that I am tired of feeling frustrated, as if I’m being pulled in two different directions and must choose one or the other.
In his conclusion to “Where Is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?” Alan Liu writes that “issues have a necessary cultural dimension, whether as cause or effect; and all, therefore, need the public service of humanist and, increasingly, digital humanist participants.” From this quote, the aforementioned anecdote from the Boston Area Days of DH keynote, and my experience over the semester as project manager of the initial stages of Around DH in 80 Days emerges a question much more important to our field than the recurrent “what is DH?” or “what should DHers make/do?” What we must begin asking ourselves, what must begin allowing to guide our work, for I would argue that conducting ourselves in such a way that we answer this question would make answers to the former two self-evident, is “what does it mean to participate?”
Let us engage in projects and develop tools, analyses, and technologies not because we can but because we must. Then let us embrace and celebrate the community that emerges from this new discourse. Conscientious construction, I argue, is a concept that we need to take steps to embrace as much as the potential value of productive failure. Perhaps this is the route towards a wider acceptance of DH tools and techniques by those outside of the community. And if not that, then maybe it’s at least a way to help one less new DHer feel less lost.
((Author’s Note: The current version of this blog post has been edited from the original version with the very positive and helpful feedback of Adeline Koh of dhpoco.org. It is still a dynamic work in progress, though it is merely the presentation, not the ideas, that have been edited. Thank you for your constructive criticism, Adeline!))