Not (Re)Covering Feminist Methods in Digital Humanities

NB: this is a new title for my short position paper that was part of the Excavating Feminisms panel at DH2013. I’m a participant in Early Modern Digital Agendas at the Folger Library in DC and unable to be also in Nebraska. I was lucky to have Miriam Posner read on my behalf. I should note that I kept this intentionally short and polemical because we designed our panel to spur a larger discussion.

My initial proposal for this position paper asserted that “feminist theory seems to be woefully absent from digital humanities interventions, despite the number of literary archival project that began from a feminist impulse of one sort or another.” In the intervening year since I wrote that proposal, my thoughts on this have shifted a great deal.

In a piece in the forthcoming issue of DHQ, I discuss the difficulties of describing any particular DH project as feminist. The challenges arise not from a lack of feminist engagement in digital humanities work, quite the opposite is true, but rather in the difficulty tracing political, ideological, and theoretical commitments in work that involves so many layers of production.
Put rather simply – the systems and networks from which DH projects arise are wickedly complex. Perhaps a bit more contentiously – the complexity of those networks has enabled narratives of digital humanities that elide the feminist work that is foundational to the field.

A feminist scholar might consider the workflows and organizational structures of DH projects, networks of authority and expertise engaged and produced by the project, or the interface or data structures.
Or a scholar might think in terms of content, canon revision, and historical recovery. This last area is perhaps the most traditional approach to understanding DH work as feminist – gender-based digital projects afford users the thrill and affirmation of having “women’s countless contributions to Western culture and society made visible.”[1] There is little doubt that such projects make texts available for reading, research, criticism, and teaching in ways that the print industry is increasingly unable to do.

But to focus on recovery of content is to miss the absolutely elemental feminist contributions to technical and human infrastructure with digital humanities.

Today’s session is a roundtable and we’ve agreed to put forth a position in our short papers. Here is mine: the familiarity of recovery-style projects has focused attention in unproductive ways, both in terms of our understanding of individual projects and in the ways we talk about what DH is and what it is missing.

Recovery – in both the colloquial and legal senses suggests a return of something lost or perhaps of a person restored. But feminist work within digital humanities and its related disciplines has not gone missing, it is not lost, nor has it been languishing in some metaphorical sick-bed. Quite the opposite is true – feminist making, thinking, tinkering, and critiquing have been vibrantly part of our development of interfaces, databases, markup standards, usability assessments, archive building, and technology theorizing.

If we think that feminist intervention has been lost or perhaps absent, it is only by way of origin tales and disciplinary histories that actively dis-member the field. Does this mean that we shouldn’t push for more – more feminist critique, more feminist making, more feminist engagements? No – I want to see a great deal more.

But I think we do ourselves a great disservice if we articulate the feminist position within DH as one of lack – that is an imaginative recreation. One that fails to engage in the difficult task of understanding how and to what ends we locate feminist work within digital projects. One that rewrites the history of our fields as “man and his tools” – in effect, creating the very effacement that feminist scholarship seeks to redress. Arguing that we need to recover the work of feminists and women within the many interdisciplinary zones that constitute digital humanities re-covers /covers up the long and lively history of engagement, creation, and critique that is already there.


[1] Susan Fraiman. “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens—With Help from a New Digital Resource for Literary Scholars,” Modern Philology, August 2008, 142-48

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