Week 2: Readings and Summary of Tara McPherson's "Why are the Digital Humanities So White?"
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  • @Paulb, I like what you said about how McPherson calls us "to theorize and challenge our idea of the humanities alongside the digital." For me, DH actually made me think about the H in DH; I had always thought of myself as an English major, or someone in Arts and Sciences, but to think about "humanities" and what that meant was something DH prompted me to think about. 
  • @NayradeBordeaux - well we are in the same situation in many ways, since as a layperson I am not familiar with the overall language of DH.  So I apologize for my unfamiliarity with the terms, etc. 

    As an outsider looking in, though, it seems like a much harder problem in academia.  It seems like fields are so specialized that it would be hard for individuals to be conversant.  Although, I'm not sure what is causing what.

    Thank you (and Adeline and Roopsi), for bringing the article to my attention, it is very interesting to me coming from more of an Information Technology perspective....

  • @Kevin, what do you do specifically? Your issues with modularity in Tara's article were raised by Jonathan Stray in comments my blog post on her article some time back: http://www.adelinekoh.org/blog/2012/05/21/more-hack-less-yack-modularity-theory-and-habitus-in-the-digital-humanities/ I'll follow up on Twitter with him so maybe he can get on here. 
  • Well, in short, I'm an Area Studies undergrad major who went into tech consulting then b-school.  So I'm not a computer science person beyond what I'm exposed to through work. 

    Having programmed in a 4th generation language that was trying to be "object oriented" (which is an extension of the modularity discussion), I have run into both the pros and cons of the approach.  I'd say that it's good if you're dealing with something simple, but the concept becomes harder to implement as things get harder.  For example, if you want the computer to tell you what day it is today, that's simple.  Once you get into things like "is today a holiday for my company?" then things start getting more customized.

  • I read "Race and UNIX" in may, so need to add a similar set of caveats to my dashed-off comment.

    I have four problems with the essay -- I won't call them criticisms, as I'm not sure that they invalidate McPherson's point, but I would like to raise them.

    First, I do wish that McPherson had compared UNIX with other operating systems -- particularly those which originated around the same time, but also diachronically with systems emerging at very different periods in history.  While I've programmed in and administered UNIX systems for the last twenty years, my first professional tech work was running a campus mainframe running VM/CMS -- an operating system that emerged in the mid 1960s, which may be considered a contemporary. 

    The VM model was quite different from UNIX in two ways: for one thing, each user, and each program ran in a virtual machine -- the user metaphor was of a solitary programmer/operator sitting at their own mainframe, with its own card reader, card punch, and printer, which they had all to themselves.  They could communicate with other VMs (analogs to processes or daemons in the UNIX world, but also to logged-in users) via punching cards to other VM's readers or reading and writing to cross-mounted "minidisks", but there was no equivalent of UNIX's "talk", "wall", "finger" or other social programs. 

    On the other hand, the VM model of tools was far different--some would say friendlier--than the UNIX system, with robust, menu-driven systems able to touch many parts of the system at once.  (A German-speaking UNIX partisan might describe this as an "egg-laying woolly milk-sow".)  VM emerged from a political world, just as UNIX did, but the results were very different.

    (more later)
  • @kevin_cassidy: I'm glad you jumped in! You're right to point out that specialization (and overspecialization) becomes an issue - it's one of the other questions that @nayradebordeaux raised this week on another thread. http://vanilla.dhpoco.org/discussion/29/week-2-question-3-overspecialization#Item_3
  • If you're interested in more on the origins of VM--including a lot of background on the corporate and academic politics at the time--I recommend Melinda Varian's "VM and the VM Community".

    The other issue I take with "Race and UNIX" is its dependence on Eric Scott Raymond as a source.  Raymond is very readable, entertaining, and colorful--I've read through The Jargon File and several of his UNIX Koans for fun--and his Art of UNIX Programming is certainly more accessible for the kind of analysis McPherson wants to do than, say, Lions' Commentary on UNIX 6th Edition with its pages of PDP-11 assembly listings.

    The problem is that basing an analysis of how contemporary politics of the 1960s and '70s shaped UNIX on ESR's work is very, very difficult, because of the ways that contemporary politics of the 1990s and 2000s shaped ESR's writing.  Raymond is not a historian.  Most of his writing is synthesis, technical polemic, apologetic, or a mixture of the three.  He's formulating theories about what works and what doesn't in UNIX and F/OSS based in part on his desire to influence technical decision-makers to purchase open systems instead of Windows, install some flavors of UNIX instead of others, or write programs he approves of rather than ones he doesn't.  Many of his readers would respond well to appeals to antiquity citing the original visions for UNIX, whether those visions presented were representative or not. 

    And at the time he was writing Art of UNIX Programming, Raymond was heavily influenced by contemporary politics.  His blog--which today is headed by a credulous and approving link to a racist rant--was obsessed with second-amendment advocacy, terrorism, and of course the Microsoft anti-trust trial.  (Among other things -- writing this from airport wi-fi is limiting my research).  To what extent were his interactions with contemporary politics projected onto the views he presents of early and authentic UNIX?

    Again, I don't know if any of this invalidates McPherson's point.  (As I've written about on Adeline's blog, I worry that techies like me criticizing this kind of study may be like refereeing  a tennis game by the rules of soccer.)  I think I'm sympathetic to her larger point, and am in fact about to make an argument that the assumptions embedded within editorial software are affecting--and perhaps threatening to destroy--the act of editing, which might line up with the lenticular logic thread of the conversation.
  • Indeed, after two generations of works between Humanities/Social sciences and IT, the lightning success of the name Digital Humanities indicates not so much the emergence of a new field of studies, but the institutional marking of an epistemological bend. Since the statement of the term, we are in my opinion crossing about twenty years of cultural transition (by including race and post-colonial studies!)#taramcpherson points this al over her article.
    That’s what you @digifeminist deduced at the end of your comment. This invite us to think about DH mentions, rather than doctorates in DH.  It is a question of accompanying the transition of all, rather than of creating a "new field" (we still coming to the http://vanilla.dhpoco.org/discussion/29/week-2-question-3-overspecialization#Item_3) question that I asked .Claire Clivaz's  say it : "Long live the Digital Humanities, the shakers of today for the cocktail parties of the knowledge of tomorrow!" I think, this new vision of post-colonial DH must face the divers tools, particularly in this "new"field, to get into more deeply lecture of analyzing our different contexts (or "territoires")…
  • I've spent quite some time mulling over my reaction to McPherson's essay, and am still not sure how I feel. I am sympathetic to the goal of revealing the imbrication of computing and ideology, but am not convinced that modularity is the right place to level such a critique. 

    It seems to me that modularity in a programming context enables the extension of human capacities, by enabling us to deal with otherwise intractable complexity. In contrast, neoliberal modularity restricts and delimits human capacities, alienating us from our labor and preventing us from relating to each other as full-fledged beings. Thus it's not that the concept of modularity in itself encodes covert racism, but rather the contexts in which it is deployed and the uses to which it is put.

    @digifeminist, it is certainly a possibility that digital humanities could simply reproduce hegemonic knowledge and erase difference, as we see when DH'ers co-opt subaltern status (cf. Natalia Cecire's point about "how 'the (raceless, sexless, genderless) technological' is rather unselfconsciously represented as somehow beleaguered in just the same way that women, the working class, and minorities have been"). 

    Relatedly, I also hope we can spend more time on McPherson's initial question: "Why are the digital humanities so white?" It seems to me that the answer is not, "Because the organization of code is inherently alienating to racialized subjects." Rather, I suspect McPherson would agree that unequal access to technology and education, along with the racist and patriarchal attitudes of (some) programmers, are largely to blame. With that in mind -- and if we choose not to abandon computation altogether -- is it possible somehow to reconfigure programming, in the very structure of our code as well as the projects we undertake, as a part of liberatory praxis? (Here there's certainly some overlap with the #guerillaDH topic.)
  • My thoughts:


    The UNIX article, at least so far misses a big point. Modularization in computing is meant to make it easier for a layman to interact with a computer. Modularization in the humanites / academia appears to make it harder for the layman to interact with academics.

  • Having thought about it for a while, I'm coming around to the big difference being that in modular computer systems one can objectively evaluate whether the output produced is appropriate for the input that was given.

    E.g., if you are calling a sort ascending routine and you give it {9,3,10,14,7} if you don't get {3,7,9,10,14} you know you have a problem.  Then you have options:  don't use that routine, ask the person who created it to fix it, or fix it yourself.  As part of the development of the language of computing, one had to define that 3 comes before 7.  Of course, as I discovered when I coded, the character set used on the mainframe thought that numbers come before letters, while the PC character set thought the opposite. 

    You can't really 100% objectively test the outputs of an academic department by how it processes its intellectual inputs, I'd imagine.  The metrics available are much more subjective.

  • My thoughts are based on when I first read McPherson's article so excuse my fuzzy memory. I think this is a very important article but I don't agree that thinking about race in the previous 40 years (or however long we've been living with UNIX) necessarily has become increasingly modular. Gilroy has a line in Against Race where says something like 'no one fills skulls with lead shot anymore' -- in other words, the old archaic thinking about race and biology has been replaced with a new (genomic?) means of encoding race. This is not to say its any less pernicious or has less effects - but it seems distinct from the kind of modular thinking that McPherson is identifying.

    This is a fascinating and lively article and was key to me being interested in DH in general. I think what it really calls for is for us to begin to theorize and challenge our idea of the humanities alongside the digital - humanity in the sense that Fanon discusses. I think someone like Sylvia Wynter and her work on race would be an excellent complement to this article as it would historicize and challenge the definition of human and humanism that informs so much DH thinking.

  • mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-ansi-language:EN-US" lang="EN-US">Thank you for your comment @Kevin_Cassidy. First of all, I apologize about my English (it's not that good since I leave in France!). I'll like to discuss the computing experiences (in relation with DH) here in France. Most of the time, we try to develop a new approach of what you call the "modularization in the humanites / academia" ...for that we have many meetings (really French!). Results are quite good. Even if one part of the article discuss "UNIX", we should think about the futures creations, where should we "position" our academic view of the programs we create (together)?

  • I found the previous comments very interesting, I think I am a little against the grain of the majority.  I agree with many of the points #taramcpherson makes in her chapter/article. I also like how the theoretical perspectives challenge us as scholars to view many perspectives pertaining to her research questions, rather than a singular perspective. :)

    I am most interested in #taramcpherson's idea of lenticular logic of #racialized paradigms, particularly in digital spaces.   This idea is really resonating with me and it seems to complement another feminist theory in "beauty studies" expressed as Cosmopolitan Whiteness by Ayu Saraswati  http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2979/meridians.2010.10.2.15?uid=3739256&uid=2&uid=4&sid=21102446215931.  Saraswati's theories concern #race and #postcolonial concepts of beauty in print magazines and post-colonial Asian culture, but I think her theories can be a lens for recognizing some of the racialized/unracialized contexts of digital humanities and media studies scholarship.  Does DH have to look "so white"/ traditionally-digital-studies -that-ignores-#race-and-difference  to be recognized as digital scholarship and media studies?   

    This reading has inspired me to devote more time to exploring #taramcpherson and other scholar's ideas I have about lenticular logics and lenses. I think the concept is particularly relevant to digital scholarship and media studies. I predict that it will be even more important moving in the future conceptions of the discipline. 

    This work has also inspired me to seriously consider the convergence of #criticalcodestudies with
    a.) post WWII uniformity /assimilation politics in relation to #race and the citizen state, 
    b.) industrialization and its role in world power structures, and 
    c.) digital history and scholarship.

    Finally, #taramcpherson 's article is inspiring me to consider whether digital humanities is a discipline that may be inadvertently moving against the exploration and research model of academic liberty into a uniformed space of intellectual affirmation, a space that simply restates the previously explored and maintains singular academic perspectives.

    What do you think?  

    PS -- I really enjoyed this reading. :)
  • @chris_jr, thanks for the post. I really appreciate your frankness and honesty regarding hegemony in academic practices.

    I agree that #taramcpherson's critiques should extend beyond "the organization of code." I think her critiques of code and computer language can be framed and contextualized in a larger intellectual legacy that asserts that language is the mark of culture. (1940s – present)

    If code and computing languages are alienating, what would Anthropological and Linguistic scholars conclude about the culture of tech community and digital spaces?

    I assume those scientist would draw similar conclusions as Priego draws, "...national [insert cultural] language and online [insert computer communities] technologies can both create communities and alienate large numbers of individuals."

    I am equally confident that the findings would reflect the conclusions you so eloquently stated above [bracketed phrasings are markers of my background singing to your intellectual riff], “unequal access to technology and education, along with the [unconscious/subconscious/conscious] racist and patriarchal attitudes of (some) programmers [the tech industry and its ancestral roots in military power and weapons technology that may be viewed as patriarchal and racist], are largely to blame. 

  • @chris_jr, I am in no way advocating that we abandon code and the current language associated with digital scholarship. Rather I am opting that we, as an intellectual culture, do not use this language as a means of or for excluding scholarship that challenges the limits of computational phrasing and non-cultural scope.

    As a community, we may have to do as other disciplines have done. We may have to borrow terminology or modify terminology from other disciplines in order to expand the scope of knowledge within the discipline and articulate the emergent research.

    Like others have proposed, I am an advocate of yack and hack. I hope this hybrid approach with expand the humanities, digital humanities and the scope of disciplines that contextualize the human experience.

    We must be careful, what we write today will be the intellectual legacy of future generations. As an intellectual community, we should view these questions of  language, inclusion, erasure, and intellectual preferences within the context of the intellectual history and scholarship of the past century.

  • @digifeminist, thanks for your reply. I didn't think you to be calling for an abandonment of code and the ways of knowing that accompany it, and I concur that it can function as a means of exclusion, a quite literal "code" in the sense of a secret language. Certainly its logic (and appeals to its "rationality") has also been used to justify a lot of reprehensible policies and to support the operation of systems harmful to human life, which is why I am committed to the spirit of McPherson's critique.

    At the same time, growing up as a biracial (black/white) child fortunate enough to live in a household with a computer and teaching myself to code through online tutorials and the like, I felt that coding was one of the few domains in the entirety of my experience that was not overwhelmingly structured by race. Perhaps I have simply fallen prey to the lenticular logic McPherson describes, but I still don't believe that modularity qua programming has the effects on our thinking that she suggests it does.

    There are many aspects of computing that are (not-so-)covertly racist, in ways that are still not acknowledged by the majority: for example, the "master/slave" terminology for disk drives, which Anna Everett mentions in her introduction to the Afrofuturism issue of Social Text, and which Ron Eglash has an article about here. The problem is not that these terms encode racism per se; instead, a specific configuration of social relations has been unreflectively imported into the computer, where it becomes even further naturalized. (Eglash notes that one African-American CS professor tried to replace the old terms with "boss" and "worker," but here we merely substitute the vocabulary of chattel slavery for that of industrial capitalism.)

    The key difference for me is that "master/slave" not only naturalizes atavistic social relations but obfuscates what the computer is doing in a way that limits our understanding of the system -- while modularity (again, strictly with regards to computing) clarifies the operation of the computer for the benefit of human operators, regardless of its negative effects when applied to other parts of life.

    Some people will never be convinced that code can encode racism, but I think we can still strive for greater clarity on the ways in which it does so. In any case, it's certainly a worthwhile debate to have and benefits from open-mindedness on all sides, which is why McPherson's call for intellectual generosity is so important.
  • On the question of the broader relationship of language and culture as it applies to programming languages, it's interesting to look at the various non-English programming languages that have been created. Wikipedia offers a list at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-English-based_programming_languages

    A lot of them seem to be defunct, but some are still active. For example, Kalimat is an Arabic-based language intended as an educational language for kids: http://www.kalimat-lang.com/ (note: link in Arabic; here's an article about it in English: http://iamsamy.blogspot.com/2013/03/kalimat-educational-programming.html).

    If anyone has proficiency in Arabic, I'd be fascinated to hear what you think about that effort.
  • Thanks for your input Chris_Jr and Digifeminist--you make some important observations. Chris do you have a twitter handle so I can publicize your comments?
  • Hi Adeline -- I haven't yet used it very much, but my twitter handle is @chris__jr with two underscores. (A sure sign that I should be more creative!)
  • Excellent thanks! (And for the note about the double underscore, I'd have missed that.)
  • This thread is so fascinating. Reading McPherson's article and considering entwined post WWII histories, I can't help but think about technology and immigration in a United States context. I wonder if I am taking things too literally here, but this history interest me. I have memories of being a child in the 80's and watching my mother, a first generation immigrant from Bombay, stay up late at night studying books on UNIX to finish her associate's degree. There are so many unknowns for me in that history: what this pedagogical experience was like for her and other immigrants like her, whether she saw other women of color and other immigrant women in her night classes at the local community college, and how this knowledge was transmitted. Also, what emerging technologies represented for immigrants entering US labor markets.

    I think too of how technological labor may have been rendered visible or invisible depending on the kind being done. For example, how were computers (in their strictest hardware form) physically built, who built them and under what conditions, and was this process also modular? I guess I can't just ask these questions in the past tense---they are so relevant today---but I want to think about them as we look back to the earlier days of computing.

  • These comments and the article itself made me go back and question how well postcolonial studies itself deals with race, especially with the whole idea of whiteness as privilege. This made me start reading a book I have assigned for my fall class on colonial/postcolonial research methods: Alfred J. Lopez: Postcolonial Whiteness: A Critical Reader on Race and Empire. This anthology has proven very helpful to me as I realize how the assumption of whiteness lingers on in both postcolonial states and, for the purposes of this thread of conversation, in emerging areas of new scholarship like humanities computing which gave rise to DH. So, my question is not why is DH so white, but how can DH and poco scholars, fans, novices, etc. destabilize the assumption of white privilege as the default mode for knowledge production.

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