This summer I have the great privilege to be taking part in DHPoco Summerschool. Organized by Adeline Koh and Roopika Risam, the program aims to critically consider the role of race and coloniality in digital scholarship and activism. This is a particularly urgent goal given that, as our reading from Tara McPherson this week demonstrates, whiteness is embedded not just within the way new media is deployed, but into the very mechanisms and languages through which this work is brought into being.
Her article primarily demonstrates this through a focus on the UNIX coding structure. McPherson argues that this method of programming, which focuses on the creation of discrete, modular programs which intentionally resist the formation of a unified, accessible, clear-text whole, are inseparable from the post-Cold War context from which they arose, as they duplicate the modular logic of neoliberal capitalism. This structure has particular relevance for race, she notes, for it aligns itself effortlessly with discourses of ‘post race’ and ‘multiculturalism’ by isolating issues of race both spatially and politically while maintaining an emphasis on endless diversity and choice.
This article has me thinking about several things. Certainly I feel compelled to ruminate on and write more about my own complicity in this system, which is perpetuated by the fact that I know very little about the mechanisms of coding and other digital media production. I’ve always felt interested in learning this aspect of digital humanist work, but also resistant to the often-masculinist rhetoric of needing to build and produce things in order to be a ‘real’ DH scholar. However, McPherson’s piece demonstrates the problematics and limitations of such an approach, leading me to wonder if I could ever produce an effective materialist feminist reading of technology without a far greater awareness of the vast array of material relations governing not just the production of the mechanisms themselves, but also the often invisible structures determining how and why digital media appears and operates the way it does.
However, the primary question on my mind this week has to do with how (or if) DH can be used to combat what McPherson calls the “lenticular logic” of contemporary capitalism, which prevents (or severely hinders) attempts to simultaneously consider all individual nodes or modules simultaneously. In other words, digital media (and thus digital humanities) is literally programmed in a way that discourages us from being able to think in terms of totality. Is there any way to use existing DH tools and strategies to overcome this, particularly if by totality we mean a consciousness of the way in which all axes of oppression (race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, age, etc.) interact? Is thinking totality using DH possible without a massive overhaul of most aspects of digital production and consumption, from the way we code to the materials we use to produce and access data online?
Perhaps part of the answer to this lies not only in rethinking our digital practices, but our academic and/or activist ones as well. Reading McPherson’s piece concurrent with Jasbir Puar’s “I’d Rather Be a Cyborg than a Goddess” (longer version is behind a paywall, but a shorter, free version is up here) is making me consider the ways in which contemporary feminist methodologies might be unintentionally complicit in the processes McPherson is discussing. Though intersectionality is often hailed as the feminist intervention into whiteness, Puar argues that it frequently ends up reinforcing, or at least leaving unchallenged, racial (and geographic/regional) difference. For while white feminists often invoke intersectionality in their work, Puar notes that many tend to neglect race in favour of privileging other modes of oppression. I’ve seen this in a lot of digital feminist analysis and activism, and it’s a tendency that seems deeply aligned with precisely the modularity McPherson is describing.
As we’re having awesome discussions about how to change our digital practices and further challenge the hack/yack binary, then, I feel inspired to remember that the issues within the digital humanities stem not just from a lack of theorization, but from the limitations of the theory itself. A meaningful hack/yack dialogue (Is it wrong that I want to say hyack? Have I been in fannish communities, which often like to smoosh the names of people in relationships together as a shorthand for referring to them, for too long?) should be equally as invested in pushing back against dominant forms of ‘yack’ (even when those approaches are aiming to be feminist, liberatory, and anti-oppressive) as it is with producing more theoretically sound hacking.