Adeline Koh my initiator so to speak into the digital humanities via her kind twittermentoring has a fascinating post up right now More Hack, Less Yack?: Modularity, Theory and Habitus in the Digital Humanities
. The hack v yack divides into a doing v saying debate that I’ve tweeted about before [yacking is an act after all, a doing orally rather than corporeally, but a doing just the same]. I find the “yack” metaphor disturbingly gendered as well, reminding me as it does of the notion of women “nattering” away while men produce [nicely industrialized metaphor no? reliant on middle class gendered behaviors]. I find also the denigration of “orality” associated with women in western society, although I suppose if the “yack” leads to theory produced more by women, it might not be bad thing. So even though I’m pretty damn unqualified to respond to her post, I’m going to anyway.
Koh’s post, and the many fine comments on it, are so filled with insider language and lit references [which is fine, Koh is engaging in her higher echelon DH community] that the head of this DH newbie still spinning. However I still found some points of entry since I’ve been spending some serious quality time with the big boys from the continent and their various musing about identity politics [aka the lenticular logic, lenticular logic is a logic of the fragment or the chunk, a way of seeing the world as discrete modules or nodes, a mode that suppresses relation and context. As such, the lenticular also manages and controls complexity.”] and the fragmentation of politics [the modular -simple blocks by which a complex system is broken down and analyzed by individual groups].
As digital humanities, or in my case digital history, grasps its way towards both an ontological and epistemological self-reflexivity, both these issues, modularity and lentircularity will need to be addressed.
The modular [known as the building block theory of history in my discipline] pushes the industrial metaphor to its logical conclusion, which each scholars responsible for so many cogs that drive the engine of history-making. However as we know [po-mo me talking now] our history makes us as much as we make our history. Past and present, scholar and archive interact, perhaps stereoscopically, to adopt a metaphor floating in Koh’s piece to create layered shifting histories rather than flat, fixed, one-dimensional accounts of the past.
In these accounts, [Feminist me talking now] the producer of knowledge occupies a position as important as the knowledge produced, or the materials of knowledge. Koh notes something to the effect that things that go unspoken never truly are. The unspoken rests on assumptions, conventions, etc, what Koh rightly locates as habitus. The corpus of work on habitus by feminist, queer, po-co, & po-mo scholars leads us to understand how complex habitus is and its sneaky way of normalizing at the expense of (multiple) the ‘other(s).’
What does this mean for making histories of the digital sort? I was particular hit by the “low hanging fruit” argument. I’m not interested in working with Shakespeare or the Bible or other canonical texts that have quality DH transcriptions. I want my messy ephemeral women’s liberation publications thanks, but they don’t exist digitally yet. Why? Well because of the complex power relations that underlay the digital humanities and digital history, of course. The very stuff we should be yacking about, what gets digitized first, by whom, and who pays for it?
As Koh points out, our forms speak us and certain forms have higher status than others. To craft certain arguments [to take up yet another metaphor floating about on the piece, one I hope that does not lead to an etsy-sort of feminism] I need certain materials to make a digital history about what I want to make [a grammar of liberation in women’s movement texts]. I can’t #transformDH at the moment unless I can find the way to hand transcribe my sources [which I’ve elected not to do. I’m waiting for the digitization project underway at Duke instead.]
Will these lead then to the effect we’ve seen in the non-digital world with the first produced works relying on the canon and those of us coming second (third, fourth etc) being forced to address the canonical, to squeeze ourselves into pre-existing formats and frameworks?
I desperately hope not. Projects like Koh’s
encourage me to believe that #transformDH can happen quickly enough that sometimes the other non canonical will come first and get to set the terms. However, that probably will involve considerable “yacking” along with (and at times instead of ) hacking. And I’m damn glad to see the “others” out in front doing most of the talking.