Queering Digital Humanities

Written by: Dean Rehberger

Primary Source: HistoryHacks

Recently on the Humanist Discussion Group, Willard McCarty posed a bit of a challenge. He explained “Recently I found myself in a hotel lift with a colleague who had attended the same conference but with whom I had not previously spoken. I asked him what he was working on, or interested in, or some such thing as that. He said, ‘I’m an historian — not a digital historian but a *real* historian.’” As is often true of Willard, he does not take us to the mundane challenge of how do we deal with this attitude, but, much more profoundly, he take us in the more interesting direction of “how do we make it clear to our colleagues that the situation is one of fluidity and hybridity, that taking positions and establishing boundaries only impedes the discovery/invention of the world coming into being?”

I am often flummoxed myself when confronted with this attitude. One always wants to take on the easier challenge and say, “really, can’t we just move on.” But as students of history, we know we cannot and the row to plow is a good deal longer than we would wish. Yet I wonder if we should expend much energy in convincing traditional historians or literary critics of the value of DH. I would argue, to the contrary, that our energy, whatever we may want to expend outside doing our own projects, may be better spent in a different direction. Let me back up for a bit to set the stage. As product of American Studies, I have always felt the sting of being unreal. Not quite historians and not real literary critics, American Studies folks have always been on the outside of disciplines. “Sting” is really not a good term to use for it was never a painful place since there was always a good group of people at regional and national meetings who accepted you and did the same kind of things (not unlike DH).

As we know, it is not a bad place to play around the periphery of the disciplines and hang out with others who like the same flavor of Kool-Aid. But it is not an entirely safe place either since area studies are prone to being poorly funded and even cut (American Studies no longer exists as a separate program at MSU — now I am really homeless), and promotion and tenure is always tricky and a bit scary. We can take the position that time will take care of things. Although we do tend to be poor historians of our own domains (you would think that historians should be better at knowing their own histories, the “fluidity and hybridity” of the putative “real”), we know at heart that our “traditional” disciplines are always in a state of flux and change. Little over a century ago, American history and American literature were not “real” things worthy of study. And slowly (and at times very painfully), the great man narrative of history and cannon of “great” literature has crumbled (fitfully and nowhere near completely) to allow in a greatly expanded set of voices. It is so very weird. We know this story so well (we churn out books by the bushel about it) and yet we easily claim space for the “real.”

But there is something deeper to be mined here. I do remember (a long time ago and far far away) when I was starting out, I was told by my chair that we could teach women’s history as long as we taught “real” history first. One knew at once that the defense of the “real” was not simply a check against the inevitable, but that realization that the new ways of thinking about history were not simply something that could get along with (not threaten) the “traditional” but were something that would profoundly change the “traditional” as it did. As we all know, it was not a simple matter of placing women’s perspectives along side of “real” history but a foundational change in how we thought about and did history. Again a story of fluidity and hybridity that we know so well. Of course, I want to stop here (rather quickly) to say that I do not want to claim similitude between the digital humanities and other area studies. There are surface similarities in terms of battles over place, forms of scholarship, legitimacy, promotion and tenure, and such. But the kinds of political hardships and pain that has propelled many of the area studies (political and cultural battles that are still being fought out daily, sexism, racism, homophobia), are not, for the most part, part of the digital humanities landscape.

In fact, we have a bit of the opposite problem. While we have done a good job of embracing alternative career paths and have a bit of a disdain for rank (we are a bit geeky, too), we tend to be overly white and male. We also need to underscore this with the complex history of the connection between technology and power. So here is my proposition. We should not expend our time trying to convince the disciplines to take us in (that we really do “real” history and “real” literary scholarship — that we are safe, cute, and crudely, or even that it does not make sense to create artificial barriers). To the contrary, we should (we must) spend our time making connections with others doing work in the margins. We need to do much better at reaching out to those doing black studies, women’s studies, native studies, queer studies, Latina/Latino studies. We need to be much better at unraveling and revealing the connections between power and technology. As we know, the digital divide is not a simple gulf but a complex landscape of power, access and exclusion.

The scholar in the elevator has cause to keep his distance, to create a gulf between “real” and digital history. The digital is making and will continue to make foundational changes to how we go about doing humanities scholarship. But there is no guarantee that the changes and transformations of the humanities will be more inclusive. For us to lean over, and say, “no need to fear, we are just like you. In fact, we can hook you up, get you an inside track to more funding and power” may not be our best move. Rather than trying to make DH appear safe to take home to mother, straight arrow clean; it may be time to be making things a bit more queer. There is a very real danger that as the digital becomes more mainstream and acceptable that we forget our own fluidity and hybridity or lack thereof. This is not another call for DH (criticism of DH) to be more theoretical but a more general prod to think more about who is in the room and what rooms we want to enter, partnerships and projects.

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Dean Rehberger

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