Focusing on the “Humanities” of Digital Humanities

An important role for digital humanities regarding the future of the archive is in acknowledging “humanity” as not being a fixed category and the creation of tools representing that.  Before moving forward, we must ensure that the “humanities” of digital humanities is represented by including the recovery of writings by marginalized groups, and the restoration of their humanity in regard to the narrative of human experience—and also to ensure that the tools used to do this are not reinscribing the inequities embedded in older methods steeped in white Western supremacy.

Kim Gallon, in “Making the Case for the Black Digital Humanities,” included in the most recent edition of Debates in the Digital Humanities, argues that digital humanities can help expose how humanity is a construct, but with real, material consequences for the marginalized, or more specifically in this case, African Americans (Gallon 1).  Black digital humanities focus on recovery not only of texts, but of the humanity of black people which has been affected by white supremacy, colonization, and subjugation.  Tool making should reflect this view of constructed, fluid, and restorative humanism, so that digital humanities does not begin in a position where it has already failed.  This requires the inclusion of marginalized people in the creation of these tools.

As an acknowledgement, I am white, and I am not commanding others to do the dirty work.  Rather, I am affirming the need to support marginalized creators through funding and recognition of their efforts.  Topics regarding race should be always welcome, lest the practice fall into the fallacy of being “raceless.”  The inclusion of diversity is pivotal in the digital humanities, as Gallon states that, “digital humanities developed exclusively by white scholars often reflect the racial hierarchies seen in higher education” (Gallon 4).  Marginalized voices, contributions, and leadership are essential in disrupting existing practices and tools.  Otherwise, the “humanity” in digital humanities will be static, fixed, and unaware of its manufactured status.

Successful tools and practices will include naturally intersectional work.  One example can be found in “Something Else to Be,” from No Tea, No Shade.  The authors, Alexis Pauline Gumbs and Julia Roxanne Wallace, describe their Mobile Homecoming experiential archive project as “a form of reading and writing community” (381).  The essay details how the two women approach collecting the stories of queer black people in an effort to reclaim stories and history while also challenging the form of the archive.  Examples such as this demonstrate the importance of accounting for a full range of experience to be present in the humanities, particularly in the transition to the digital.

While there is a significant faction of Digital Humanities practitioners who insist that computation is the most worthy agenda for DH, I disagree. This is not to say that text mining should be discontinued until we reach some point in the future where humanity becomes a fixed category, which would not happen, but rather that there is a need for an emphasis on recovery and an awareness of the usage of tools to push aside subjects such as race or sexuality. Adeline Koh, in “A Letter to the Humanities: DH will Not Save You,” writes that in order to “save” digital humanities, practitioners must “champion the new wave of digital humanities: one which has humanistic questions at its core” (Koh).  It is a challenge of technology to not replicate systems of oppression.  To move forward, digital humanities must also look backward, and recover what has been lost in the human experience.

Works Cited

Gallon, Kim.  “Making a Case for the Black Digital Humanities.”  Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Mathew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klien, University of Minnesota Press, 2016.

Gumbs, Alexis Pauline and Julia Roxanne Wallace.  “Something Else to Be.”  No Tea, No Shade, edited by E. Patrick Johnson, Duke University Press, 2016, pp. 380-93.

Koh, Adeline.  “A Letter to the Humanities: DH Will Not Save You.”  Hybrid Pedagogy, 25 Apr. 2015, http://www.digitalpedagogylab.com/hybridped/a-letter-to-the-humanities-d…