Ferocious Generosity

A while ago I collected a few items on my blog in preparation to write about openly feminist scholarship and thinking through what I mean when I say I am working toward a “more generous method.” At the time I was reflecting on the idea of “baked in” feminism that I first wrote about in my “Whence Feminism” piece. I was also grappling with a series of eruptions of misogyny, racism, abelism, and transphobia within digital humanities. Among the things that I have been trying to understand is where to put my stretched-thin energies. To whom, I was asking myself, do I owe or want to give my generosity? This is a rather long post in which I am working through my own intellectual history and how it helps me answer those questions – feel free to skip around in the sections and please keep in mind that I am writing to myself in many ways here. For those who read on – “How I Got Here” “Ferociously Generous” are a bit of my own intellectual history and I include where people are from in order to be clear about institutional entanglement. “Ferocity in DH” and “Going forward with Digital Humanities” are about where this history positions me vis-à-vis DH.

How I Got Here
I have been strongly influenced by the words and work of Robert Scholes (Modern Culture and Media, Brown University) and David Scott Kastan (English, Yale and Columbia), with whom I took classes during my graduate studies. Each in his own way had asked a group of students to think hard about common modalities within humanist scholarship – quick refutation and the kind of biting critique designed not only to dismantle an argument but also a scholarly approach and sometimes a person. In a class full of eager graduate stuScreenshot 2015-11-13 18.00.54dents who were ready to demonstrate our skills finding holes in an argument, Scholes had asked us to stop and be ‘generous readers’ first. Kastan had asked a different room of students at the Folger Shakespeare Library to think hard about logics of disruption and fissure at work not only in academic culture, but in American culture more broadly. Their exhortations are ones that that I share with my own students and carry with me every day in my work. They are essential to how I understand my commitments as both teacher and scholar.

In those same years I was also strongly influenced by the words and work of Karen Newman (Comparative Literature and English, Brown U), Nancy Armstrong (English, Brown U), Barbara Herrnstein-Smith (English Brown U. and Duke), and Ellen Rooney (Modern Culture and Media, Brown U) — all also teachers at some point in my graduate work. With each, although in very different ways, I learned to think about forms and structures of representation and about power and its gendered networks. These are modes of seeing and reading that I share with my own studeScreenshot 2015-06-30 18.56.00nts and carry with me every day in my work. These too are essential to how I understand my commitments as both teacher and scholar.

As I worked I found historiographic modes of rupture dissatisfying and I became increasingly interested in the ways that technologies of knowing and commemorating morph across time and space. In tracing continuities I see opportunities to access alternative outcomes but I have also become increasingly aware of how patriarchy, racism, and capitalism consistently find ways to block the realization of those alternatives.

I was also acutely aware of my own very different affective experiences in working with Scholes and Kastan (men) and Newman et al (women) – one group asked me to consider setting aside my swords and the other helped me to sharpen and modeled no-holds-barred approaches. All of these mentor-teachers were and are ferocious in their own ways and I continue to find that ferocity exciting. That said, particularly in the case of Brown University faculty, there were histories that cut across my relationships with these people that felt perilous to me, especially as a graduate student, and I was deeply attracted to the vision of generative and generous engagement offered by the men. At a time when my brother and uncle were both overseas fighting in wars that I didn’t agree with but nevertheless structured a part of my life, I was eager to engage in practices that didn’t depend on military metaphors or logics. Faced with the daily possibility of losing people I loved in violent ways, I didn’t want to be insurgent, I wanted to heal — heal myself and offer ways of seeing that might heal others.

Ferociously Generous
In strange ways this all led me to the Brown Women Writers Project (now at Northeastern), to the history of science community at Brown (mostly Tara Nummedal) and to my work and friendship with Julia Flanders. She is a person with whom I think, write, and talk and our collaborative work has been some of the most rewarding that I have done. Working with Julia feels like the realization of the possibility of a space that is ferociously generous – an intellectual and personal space that is full of acuity and daring, including in thinking through what it means to create and labor within systems of power and support for the challenges of critical engagement. She introduced me to the many professional spaces of digital humanities and I considered those spaces to be extensions of the ones she/we created at the WWP and beyond. Julia and I do not always agree – but we have trusted one another enough to disagree at the beginning of a discussion and have respected that we may end up in different places at the end of a discussion.

I don’t want to give the impression that Scholes, Kastan, Armstrong, Herrnstein-Smith, Newman, and Rooney don’t also create ferociously generous spaces – I suspect that they do. But I was their student and that comes with different disciplinary, institutional, and personal structures. The comforts I found in spaces outside of my own department were not only about ideology and practice, but also about institutional politics. Nevertheless, these affective experiences have shaped how I understand my work and why I find myself where I do vis-à-vis digital humanities, so I share them here.

When I took my first teaching jobs in southern California, I was invited into a different kind of ferociously generous space by Alex Juhasz and the founding members of FemTechNet. As a new faculty member I entered into FTN as a kind of peer, although I was pretty in awe of the women in that room and, to be honest, I’d never been in a collective feminist space where I didn’t feel the need to watch out for fissures. I continue to be really profoundly impacted by the models of engagement that I see within FTN – models wherein play, pleasure, and laughter are part of critical work and care for one another means that dissensus is welcomed and engaged. We host, help, and sometimes hold one another in ways that I first saw glimmers of in those classes in graduate school and had realized in my collaborations with Flanders, but had not yet seen enacted in a group larger than three. This is one set of people to whom I owe my own ferocious generosity.

Ferocity and Digital Humanities
While my fealty to FTN is clear, I have often felt far more ambivalent about DH. I’m a big fan of Jamie Skye Bianco’s work, including her “This Digital Humanities Which is Not One” so I don’t say “the digital humanities.” That said, digital humanists do have certain centers of gravity and amongst these are our virtual social networks (twitter, Facebook, the Humanist listserv) and the major conferences, including the wave of THATCamps we’ve seen in the last five or so years and the annual Digital Humanities conference.

I don’t find crisis rhetoric particularly useful, especially when speaking about academic practices, but I do think we might be at a critical juncture within these DH centers of gravity. In the last year I have had many conversations with people wondering “when is enough?” with respect to digital humanities and have found myself feeling more and more reluctant to put those over-stretched energies into the service of the formal structures or centers of gravity. These last two sections are devoted to articulating my own sense of where ferocity and generosity come to bear within DH and my engagements therewith.

In “Whence Feminism” I talked a bit about an anecdote from the first FTN meeting in which people talked about their various feminisms as “cooked into everything” but not necessarily openly declared and I responded with my own sense of terror at this idea. “A cooked in feminism is visible in the way that nutmeg is in a cookie — if you’re looking, you’ll find it. If you’re not looking or, as is the case for many students, you don’t know how to look for it, you’re eating just another delicious (or perhaps just palatable) cookie. A hidden feminism may leave us in a contemporary context where it seems plausible that our tools and methods are all operating out of just a general liberatory ethics, rather than being a set of practices and tools fundamentally linked to the work of women and feminist scholars.”

Claire Potter’s May 2015 talk “Putting the Humanities in Action: Why We Are All Digital Humanists, and Why That Needs to Be a Feminist Project” engaged with this claim and concluded that  “our commitments as historians to the truth and our commitment as feminists to a truth that promotes social justice depend on understanding what media representations do to people.” Part of her argument is that by virtue of our participation in western culture saturated in digital media and machines we are all already “digital humanists” and that the histories of technology are so deeply entwined in the histories of gender and race as “to require feminism.” She makes a powerful argument on behalf of feminist digital humanities as a way of understanding the ways in which media can reinforce, facilitate, and (sometimes) subvert the operations of racism, capitalism, and patriarchy in the U.S.

In these pieces we each articulate the need for visible feminist engagements with the histories of technology – it’s not merely a matter of claiming an ideology, it’s about a clear and consistent commitment to social justice and this is much of what I mean when I talk about ‘generosity.’ This shouldn’t have to be said, but feminists engagements need not, indeed should not be just the domain of women and we have had some stellar feminist men show up lately. We need more.

Drawing on the work of Moya Bailey and #transformDH, Potter also attends to the critical value of talk, which has long been a feminist technology, and observes that the most marginalized amongst us can and do have the most to say. Potter is perhaps more hopeful than I regarding the”unruly public sphere” and the way it can create new opportunities for growth. Nevertheless, she is mindful and sensitive to its risks and the ways in which those risks are born disproportionally by the most marginalized, namely those in contingent labor and women of color.

In her  “What’s Next, The Radical, Unrealized, Potential of Digital Humanities“(which addresses the flattened “inclusivity” gestures that are often responses to calls to greater access and openness) , Miriam Posner offers us a vision of what is needed to create the kinds of spaces and conversations imagined by Potter. “It’s not only about shifting the focus of projects so that they feature marginalized communities more prominently; it’s about ripping apart and rebuilding the machinery of the archive and database so that it doesn’t reproduce the logic that got us here in the first place.” Here is where I find my own sense of where ‘ferocity’ – the sharpened swords – is absolutely positive and critical: in tearing apart the systemic operations of patriarchy, heteronormativity, and racism; in ensuring that we do not give further life to oppression and domination.
Coming to terms with what this means with respect to my own engagement within the increasingly institutional structures of DH is an ongoing project. It was 2012 when Posner wrote her “Some Things to Think About Before You Exhort Everyone to Code”, which was a clarion call to attend to the ways that race, gender, and class all play a part in the dissemination and uptake of technologies and practices. That and a few other flare ups, so to speak, in the DH community led to the creation of the THATCamp Feminisms triumvirate of East, South, and West and to the #tooFEW wiki-storming efforts in 2013. The #transformDH, #tooFEW, #nomoreexcuses, and #myDHis hashtags and events similarly responded to inequality in our communities. Since then it has felt to me as though we have had a steady drum beat of notices of exclusion and exclusionary thinking within DH. These have included transphobic/misogynistic presentations, manels, disparities in conference acceptances and speaker invitations, and news from within organizational structures that some consider “diversity” to be problematic for the “quality” of what they see as a unified field. Rather than feeling like a ferociously generous set of spaces – a set of spaces where we host, hold, and help one another as we pursue historical and other interventions on behalf of increasing social justice – DH has increasingly felt to me like an academic battle zone wherein people, particularly women and people of color are at serious risk. It has felt ferociously bad.

As part of my participation within FTN, I’ve also been working actively on issues around online violence. This has included some incredibly difficult discussions about how white academic feminists like myself can work to end the multiple kinds of violence experienced by women, particularly women of color and trans people both on and offline. Knowing how to best host, hold, and help one another has been hard and I’ve done an imperfect job thus far. All of this has unfolded and continues to unfold within a broader cultural context in which we see regular and systematic violences against people of color, a normalization of threats of violence against women in the public sphere, and a rapid erosion of women’s reproductive rights here in the United States.

It is incredible that as people are being murdered and abused and other lives are being circumscribed, I am engaging with centers of gravity wherein people mask racism, trans- and homophobia, and sexism in terms of quality.

Going Forward with Digital Humanities
Recently Deb Verhoeven suggested that it is critical that we, as feminist scholars, hold on to our sense of astonishment about the state of our labor and our lives. I have wanted to retreat, to “bake in” my feminism in order to protect myself and my family as we’ve been targeted for my work (doxxing, racist social media, super creepy professional interactions that have me thinking I need a guard dog). I have spent a lot of time trying to understand how to best engage in spaces that have been full of acrimony, tears, and anger – some because other people are hurting, others because other people feel threatened and have lashed out in order to hurt. I am often astonished lately and I don’t want to have to feel this. I would rather retreat and “just do my work;” I would rather be generous than have to do battle. The hours I spent writing this are precious hours that are critical the security of my own job. They are also precious hours that I have apart from my children. I want to be restored by my work, not drained. I feel exhausted and wounded and I want to return to the comfort of spaces where I have seen people hold one another even as we disagree. I know that there are others in my communities who have born more of this. I want all of us to be able to heal. I want ferocious generosity – not just the ferocity that harms people.

Even though it’s addressed to “blokes,” Verhoeven’s talk “Be More Than Binary,” has been a helpful reminder to me (it also makes me happy in its clear courage). There isn’t an opposition between “my work” and the work I’ve been doing to draw attention to and address the inequities within digital humanities and digital culture more generally. My historical and critical analyses of computational and poetic technologies are inextricable from the places in which I find myself. I could turn away from those entanglements, but I won’t. Potter’s talk (and her work) draws a clear link between feminist historiography and the promotion of social justice, and our “centers of gravity,” as I’ve framed them – conferences, publications, etc – are technologies of representation just as surely as paintings, movies, or books. As she suggests, “Feminism cannot do the work by itself” we must also engage digital humanities. What I take from that exhortation is that it would be incomplete and disingenuous of me to write about the ways that enumeration and abstraction have been strategies of control and commercialization and to then ignore what is going on in the field around me. Feminist analysis of history is not enough.
So here I am, recommitting myself to ferocious generosity – to creating, supporting, and maintaining spaces where we can host, hold, and help one another as we pursue historical and other interventions on behalf of increasing social justice. Within FTN we have held one another and held spaces for one another. We have not always agreed and we’ve felt pain alongside one another, but we continue to hold and I owe and want to give this community my ferocious generosity. Within DH there are centers of gravity that seem to me to resonate with this an idea of ferocious generosity – things like the Digital Diversity and transformDH conferences, the smaller but amazingly vital events like the KU DH Forum and the various events on data and social justice, as well as more intimate conversations and collaborations and I owe and would like to give my generous ferocity here as well.

These are the places where I will pour my energies – where I will do what I can to help, hold, host, and hear. This new ‘h’ in my alliterative list is really critical as I’ve learned over the last couple of years. It was there in Scholes’ call to be more generous readers and looking back I can see that it has always been a part of my work with Julia as well, but my sense of what that means has expanded as I’ve been working less with books and more with people (although i think it has also changed the way I read archives and the like). I will continue working in spaces where people are doing the really hard work to hear one another. Inevitably it will be imperfect – it is hard to hear some of these things, but the work needs to be there.
I’m not interested in doing battle against people and I am more keen to heal than to harm. I usually favor working within systems to effect change, but I will also embrace Posner’s notion of  “ripping apart and rebuilding the machinery of the archive and database [and academy] so that it doesn’t reproduce the logic that got us here in the first place.”
I will do it while dancing and with others, but I will dance with swords.

One Reply to “Ferocious Generosity”

  1. […] tent notions of DH that have emerged from the “centers of gravity”–as Jacque Wernimont calls them–could seem to have no borders and be all inclusive or at least have the potential and […]

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