Excavating Feminisms: Digital Humanities and Feminist Scholarship

July 19, 2013, 10:30 | Panel, CBA 143

Session Abstract

In a field that sometimes organizes itself around the credo “more hack, less yack,” the role of theory and critical reflection upon race, sexuality, gender and and other discursive identity categories might seem a subordinate concern. But recent calls by Alan Liu, Laura Mandell, Tara McPherson, Adeline Koh, and Jamie Skye Bianco, among others, prompt this panel’s speakers to take up Liu’s challenge to “extend the issues involved” in building and making “into the register of society”:

We digital humanists develop tools, data, metadata, and archives critically; and we have also developed critical positions on the nature of such resources.... But rarely do we extend the issues involved into the register of society, economics, politics, or culture in the vintage manner, for instance, of the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR). How the digital humanities advance, channel, or resist the great postindustrial, neoliberal, corporatist, and globalist flows of information-cum-capital, for instance, is a question rarely heard in the digital humanities associations, conferences, journals, and projects with which I am familiar. [1]

Liu et al. have helped us raise a set of difficult questions: Has feminism slowly been leached out of some DH projects as those projects have become successful? Is a “revolutionary” pedagogy possible if the objects we train our students to make are welcomed by administrators and other higher ed stakeholders as precisely the “information-cum-capital” that Liu warns us against? How does one woman artist’s elision from a field-defining reception history reveal the apparati by which careers are made or broken? Can structuring tools like XML or xHTML or PHP be deployed as a feminist intervention, and how would that differ from other deployments? Do the institutional and funding structures of the field constrain our ability to make ethical interventions and encourage work that turns away from the kinds of social engagement that Liu describes?

The 1970s feminist slogan “the personal is political” taught people to break down systematic sexism into molecules that could at any moment cluster into atoms and catalyze real power. While recognition of the politics of everyday life and the value of quotidian genres of cultural production has clearly influenced certain kinds of recovery projects, moves within Digital Humanities to argue the necessity of advanced programming and development skills fails to recognize the ways in which structural elements of American education, family life, and work remain deeply gendered. Further, advocacy of a “bootstrap” or “DIY” [2] ethos risks perpetuating a dangerous suggestion that historically disenfranchised groups should make “do with what you can scrounge” in order to earn their way into spaces of greater privilege, and fails to recognize the important role that networks of support, mentoring, and technology access play in DH work. [3] While exhortations to “do it yourself” are often made in the spirit of rebellious assertions of power and independence, access to the practices behind these memes is culturally and economically bounded.

These issues have surfaced with striking force in the last couple of years. Miriam Posner’s provocative post from March 2012, “Some things to think about before you exhort everybody to code,” prompted 59 deeply engaged and passionate responses. Her thesis:

The point is, women aren’t [learning to code]. And neither, for that matter, are people of color. And unless you believe (and you don’t, do you?) that some biological explanation prevents us from excelling at programming, then you must see that there is a structural problem. [4]

DH practitioners have gathered into a community founded upon sharing and collaboration, a workflow ethos traceable to second-wave feminism. Several of the major Digital Humanities projects that are now at the forefront of the field and were driven originally by feminist imperatives (WWP, Orlando, Dickenson E Archive); but as these projects developed, their relationship to the communities they were built to serve attenuated at the same time that new types of DH practice, like “big” data mining, have sought to address different agendas. These shifts have left some despairing of the ethics and politics of DH. “I’m a teacher,” says Stephen Ramsay, in a comment on Posner’s “Code” post:

I care about students who want to learn, learning. I’m not so naive as to think that we can reform that culture from without, but honestly, if we just re-duplicate that culture [of sexism] in DH, then we have failed. And we might as well go back to whatever we were doing before. [5]

DHers would not naively posit themselves as uninfluenced by such hegemonic incursions; some of us are particularly mindful of them because we build projects that critique and resist them. But speakers on this panel submit that a tolerance for “yack”— a word that simultaneously conjures ladies chattering, not working, but that also signals attention to discursive and social relations— might be an initial intervention in the terms by which we construe the messy work of “excavating” feminist “art-&-facts” from DH’s rich silt: archives (Katherine D. Harris and Jacque Wernimont), encoding methodologies (Jacque Wernimont), literary reception (Kathi Inman Berens) and pedagogy (Dene Grigar). While we each canvass a discrete topic, we see significant overlap in terms of the means, histories, and technologies of digital production and teaching. Our roundtable will thus be structured by four short position statements, as outlined below, and then will engage all participants in the room to mount a community discussion exploring how and why the histories of cyberfeminism and feminist digital production matter right now as DH becomes “The Hot Thing.” [6] Even as we “excavate,” we look forward to building anew: what are the salient lessons to be gleaned from the presenters’ statements? How do they, and statements and observations from others in the room, suggest new or continuing avenues of work? Two of our panelists (Grigar and Wernimont) run their own labs. Is the material investment in women leading labs and programs an essential intervention in how privilege is disbursed? Or is it just essentialist?

The wide range of reviewers’ responses to our panel suggests a wish for us to address simultaneously an untenable range of feminisms: to be both grounded in material practice, but also theoretically expansive to address “Occupy” and other 21st-century feminisms. We suggest that the reviewers’ collective wish for feminist critique to be both united and expansive in its approach freights it with responsibility beyond the scope of our actual claims.

We appreciate that we can do more to unite the panel and will begin with a foundational grounding that includes of the trajectory of 21st century cyberfeminism that stretches back to Donna Haraway and bell hooks, and moves forward to practical and popular appropriations of Haraway’s theories twenty-five years later by Douglas Rushkoff and Howard Rheingold. We will then turn to the short papers arising from our particular practices and areas of expertise. Rather than seeing this as a weakness, we consider this diversity an important feature of our scholarship — a necessary link between our material practice, historical positions, and theoretical interventions. Additionally, each paper engages with a history of appropriation of technologies, practices, and ideas. The papers are short to encourage discussion by attendees, who will each bring their own expertise and thereby expand the scope of the session. Digital Humanities at large needs this kind of conversation in which feminist practice is deliberately applied in labs, archives, local communities, literary histories, and classrooms.


1. Liu, Alan. “Where Is Cultural Criticism in the Humanities?” http://liu.english.ucsb.edu/where-is-cultural-criticism-in-the-digital-humanities/

2. see for example: http://mayabielinski.com/?p=297, http://www.trevorowens.org/2011/07/the-digital-humanities-as-the-diy-humanities/,

3. see July 24 comment at 12:38 pm

4. Posner, Miriam. “Some Things to Think About Before You Exhort Everybody to Code.” http://miriamposner.com/blog/?p=1135

5. See Stephen Ramsay’s comment posted March 3, 2012 at 9:47 am: http://miriamposner.com/blog/?p=1135&cpage=1#comments

6. “The Hot Thing” is the title of Stephen Ramsay’s talk he gave at the Debates in DH launch April 2012. http://stephenramsay.us/text/2012/04/09/hot-thing.html

Seeking feminisms in digital literary archives

The connections between digital literary projects and certain kinds of feminist work are manifold. The Women Writer’s Project and the Orlando Project are exemplary for their commitment to the recovery of women’s textual work and lives. These projects, and other 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.

Nevertheless, I argue that we need to return with a critical eye to such projects in order to better understand how, if at all, we should understand the technological and methodological components of these digital literary projects as also feminist. It is clear from the histories of such projects that feminist ideologies are central to their inception and their collection practices — but is that the same as saying that there is a feminist encoding practice or a feminist approach to interface design? Can XML or xHTML or PHP be deployed as a feminist intervention, and how would that differ from other deployments? Is it enough to talk about feminist workflows? What kinds of users should be addressed or created by a feminist archive? Where, in an assessment of digital archives should we look to find the traces of feminist epistemology, practice, or politics?

In many ways, this need to grapple with a possible feminist forms and practices, as well as an underlying feminist impulse, speaks to two issues raised at the 2011 Modern Language Association annual meeting around digital humanities projects: the roles of building and theory. By asking how various projects are constructed, conceptually, materially, and in terms of encoding, I am asking if building — the creation of digital literary texts, of digital literary archives, of interfaces that engage literary texts — can be helpfully approached as itself theoretical. [2] Can we usefully theorize the “under the hood” work that goes into digital literary archives in feminist terms? In so far as feminist literary praxis has come to be understood as entailing the twin projects of critique and construction, the answer is yes. [3] But there are limits and boundaries to my positive answer, which may help us begin to develop a more dynamic theory of the “hermeneutics” of building suggested by Stephen Ramsay. Such theorizing is critical as an address to the critical silence, or the curious absence of cultural criticism within digital humanities work. As Alan Liu suggests, this absence threatens the vitality of digital literary scholarship by failing to cast our insights into literary texts, digital repositories, textual structures, and media translation in the context of cultural analysis — for Liu, we miss the opportunity to leverage our literary insights into cultural insights. [4] I would argue that this seems to be particularly true for feminist theory, which seems to be relatively absent from digital humanities interventions, despite the number of literary archival project that began from a feminist impulse of one sort or another and the powerful ways in which it can help address imbalances in technological work and culture.


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.

2. See Stephen Ramsay on the issues of building that he raised in “On Building”: http://lenz.unl.edu/wordpress/?p=340.

3. See, for example, Maggie Humm’s “Feminist Literary Theory” in Contemporary Feminist Theories, Jackie Jones and Stevi Jackson, eds. Edinburgh University Press, 1998, Mary C. Carruth Feminists Intervene in Early American Studies, Part 2: New Directions Early American Literature - Volume 44, Number 3, 2009, pp. 639-640

4. Alan Liu, “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?” http://liu.english.ucsb.edu/where-is-cultural-criticism-in-the-digital-humanities/

Loud Silences in Digital Archives

In “The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House” (1984), Audre Lorde identified a schism in feminism that would include missing voices, those voices that did not align themselves with patriarchal control, voices that refused to work within the system to gain power. In Digital Humanities’ interactions with literary studies, especially in the construction of databases, digital archives, and repositories, those marginalized voices exist, but they exist outside the scope of the traditional literary canon even still. Amy Earhart and Jamie Skye Bianco both notice this lack in digital representations of historical and literary materials; while Earhart focuses on the lack of diversity and the replication of the standard literary canon in “Can Information Be Unfettered?: Race and the New Digital Humanities Canon,” Skye Bianco asserts something more provocative about the very infrastructure of Digital Humanities:

Boiled down blithely, the theory is in the tool, and we code tools. Clearly this position never refers to Audre Lorde's famous essays on tools nor to 'the uses of anger,” but it does summon their politics. . . . Tools don't reflect upon their own making, use, or circulation or upon the constraints under which their constitution becomes legible, much less attractive to funding. They certainly cannot account for their circulations and relations, the discourses and epistemic constellations in which they resonate. They cannot take responsibility for the social relations they inflect or control. Nor do they explain why only 10 percent of today's computer science majors are women, a huge drop from 39 percent in 1984, and 87 percent of Wikipedia editors—that would be the first-tier online resource for information after a Google search—are men. Tools may track and compile data around these questions, visualize and configure it through interactive interfaces and porous databases, but what then? What do we do with the data? (“This Digital Humanities Which is Not One,” Debates in the Digital Humanities 99)

The tools, like mark-up, by their very nature ennact a sort of politics that replicates these archival silences that were the topics inspired by Miriam Posner’s blog post. By offering a “stable publication environment” and peer review to small-scale digital scholarly editions, the 2012 inaugural issue of the revised Scholarly Editing (http://scholarlyediting.org/), under the editors Amanda Gailey and Andrew Jewell, attempts to balance the digital offerings of cultural materials beyond canonical authors and figures. In “Googling the Victorians,” Patrick Leary concludes his essay by asserting that whatever does not end up in a digital archive, represented as cyber/hypertext will not, in the future, be studied, remembered, valorized and canonized. Though this statement reflects some hysteria about the loss of the print book, it is also revealing in its recognition that digital representations have become common and widespread, regardless of professional standards. But, as Gailey and Jewell point out, digital editions and archives haven’t lived up to their promise to provide access to inaccessible and non-canonical materials—most among these are works by women.

While Digital Humanities pushes ever outward toward innovation, the issue of feminist recovery projects and scholarly editions still persists on the margins. In order to attract funding, even users, these types of digital projects have to represent the stars of the literary canon. This, in effect, crushes the purposes of the digital archive—to provide access to an under-represented set of authors. If the traditionally marginalized authors are marginalized now because it’s no longer innovative to digitize and mark-up those collections, then how far have we really come? The voices that are lost, those silences in the archives, represent gaps in the traditional literary canon. How can Digital Humanities return to those small feminist recovery projects, offering help, professional credit, and authority?

Debugging “The Personal Is Political”: Uncle Roger’s Grandmother

Prior to reading Jill Walker Rettberg’s excellent Electronic Literature Seen From a Distance: The Beginnings of a Field," I'd suspected that Judy Malloy’s elision from the electronic literature reception history as the first author of hypertext fiction was attributable to genre: her comic piece Uncle Roger, a romp through Silicon Valley set in then-present day 1986, didn’t evince the seriousness, ambiguity, and intricate plotting that critics and other purveyors of taste associate with high art. I accepted Robert Coover’s 1992 declaration of Michael Joyce as the “granddaddy of e-lit” without question, even though Judy’s Uncle Roger pre-dates Michael’s afternoon: a story by at least one year and possibly three, if one measures from publication date rather than afternoon’s introduction to the coterie of enthusiasts who exchanged stories authored on Hypercard and other systems. Afternoon is a magnificent work that merits its august reputation. But Rettberg traces the far-reaching implications of that reputation in her distant reading, which demonstrates that afternoon is—by an order of magnitude—the most cited and taught work of electronic literature. The status Coover conferred in his review became a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s such a small thing, just one sentence in the NYTimes; but its impact has been field-defining.

Afternoon’s ISBN, and Uncle Roger’s lack of one, is a crucial differentiator in Malloy’s and Joyce’s divergent receptions. As Rettberg’s analysis shows, the presence or absence of an ISBN determined whether a work could be archived, collected or sold. The other key differentiator was the invention of the browser. Malloy’s Uncle Roger initially excited popular attention as articles about it in Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal attest. But there was no way for people to follow up on their curiosity, because in 1986, the browser was still four years from being invented by Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Hence attention to Uncle Roger was ephemeral. Afternoon’s publication, by contrast, was effectively coincident with introduction of the browser in 1990; the ability to find the work and then to buy it hugely impacted reception.

In an interview with Judy Malloy in July 2012 near her home in Berkeley, I surmised that the though the ISBN is attached to relatively few pieces of early hypertext, it united disparate stewards (programmers/developers, librarians, academics, vendors) to collect and fortify those works against bit-rot or obsolescence. Works lacking ISBNs, such as Uncle Roger, were left to the authors to maintain or abandon; in point of fact, it would be much later (1997) before Malloy would author Uncle Roger in a browser-friendly format. By then the excitement for the novelty of hypertext had given way to interest in Flash-based works. A moment had passed and with it, the power that comes from cultural currency.

Such different fates for these early hypertextual works adumbrate the the artists’ career trajectories. Joyce is an internationally acclaimed writer and tenured full professor. Malloy is an internationally acclaimed writer/programmer who is struggling—and failing—to land part-time teaching work. To compare them is to debug the “Personal Is Political”: the old story about seemingly “individual” choices disclosing, in aggregate, a systemic exclusionary logic. What does it mean for this familiar paradigm to survive our shift into seemingly disembodied virtual environments? What “post-feminism”? What “post-human”?

During our own cultural moment in 2012, when we are figuring out why curation and live presence matters for e-lit works that are for the most part perpetually available online, one goal of a Malloy reception history would be to show that from the traditionally “female” work of organizing gatherings to share and exchange work — a process now, thankfully, archived in databases like ELMCIP and so “visible” — a polysemous picture of field activity can be a site of feminist intervention.


Rettberg, J. W. Electronic Literature Seen From a Distance: Beginnings of a Field. http://www.dichtung-digital.org/2012/41/walker-rettberg/walker-rettberg.htm
Coover, R. (1992). The End of Books. New York Times Book Review. June 21.
ELMCIP: Electronic Literature as a Model of Creativity and Innovation in Practice is a collaborative research project funded by Humanities in the European Research Area (HERA) JRP for Creativity and Innovation. ELMCIP involves seven European academic research partners and one non-academic partner who are investigating how creative communities of practitioners form within a transnational and transcultural context in a globalized and distributed communication environment. It focuses on electronic literature as a model of networked creativity.

hooks in the 21st Century: Feminist Pedagogy in Action

In 1994 belle hooks wrote in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom that “[t]here is a serious crisis in education. Students often do not want to learn and teachers do not want to teach . . . “ (12). A clear lack of excitement in the classroom, which some see as “disruptive of the atmosphere of seriousness,” as well as a lack of engagement and of freedom to explore are among some of the ills she cites in her book (6-10). hooks’ call to action empowered many feminist teachers to experiment with new teaching strategies, to address the needs of the whole student, and to become with their students active participants in the learning process—in short, it inspired us to embrace what she refers to as “transformative pedagogy” (39).

In 2006 I arrived at Washington State University Vancouver to build the Creative Media & Digital Culture Program, bringing with me the principles of transformative pedagogy and eager to apply them to the digital media classroom. This paper lays out the approaches and projects that I and the faculty in the program have undertaken in the last six and a half years and the positive outcomes for students, faculty, and staff for this grand experiment. One example the paper highlights is the Mobile Tech Research Initiative (MTRI) that provided all of the faculty, staff, and 10 students, during summer 2011, to learn—together—how to design for and develop mobile apps. Out of MTRI our program was able to integrate mobile media into all of our curriculum; our students were able to receive fully funded fellowships and were fast-tracked through the program and land good jobs and placement in graduate programs specializing in interactive design; and faculty have been able to continue creating mobile media for their scholarship.

The paper provides those interested in transformative pedagogy with best practices for applying this approach to teaching in their classroom. As hooks reminds us, “[t]he academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created” (207).