Snippet 2: DH as Critical University Studies

In her 2003 book, Feminism Without Borders, Chandra Talapade Mohanty claims that “the moment we tie university-based research to economic development–and describe this research as fundamentally drive by market forces–it becomes possible  to locate the university as an important player in capitalist rule” (173). This claim is couched in a decolonial method committed to developing “the urgent political necessity of forming strategic coalitions across class, race, and national boundaries,” but it is also motivated by a commitment to feminist struggle (9). The university is a site of decolonial feminist struggle in particular because it is a “contradictory place where knowledges are colonized but also contested […] It is one of the few remaining spaces in a rapidly privatized world that offers some semblance of a public arena for dialogue, engagement, and visioning of democracy and justice” (170). What follows is therefore a simple claim, but one that is difficult to reconcile in a contemporary context, especially as it might apply to DH: “Feminist literacy necessitates learning to see (and theorize) differently–to identify and challenge the politics of knowledge that naturalizes global capitalism and business-as-usual in North American higher education” (171).

Mohanty extends this critique to the formation of citizenship as an effect of university study following figures like William Readings and Henry Giroux; she also extends this critique to a concept of the border and border crossing, citing the fact that corporate restructuring affects women and people of color most severely. How might this critique extend to the digital humanities?

Methodologically speaking, Mohanty’s approach tracks well with intersectional claims to DH, it also tracks well with Autonomist Marxist interventions that conceptualize race, gender, and class as co-constitutive markers of subjective and political formation, affirming the turn from the made to the maker in this text. Perhaps the strongest emergent DH interest in which Mohanty’s work carries the most methodological weight, however, is Alan Liu’s claim to a critical infrastructure studies. Liu summarizes his interest in critical infrastructure studies as a “call for digital humanities research and development informed by, and able to influence, the way scholarship, teaching, administration, support services, labor practices, and even development and investment strategies in higher education intersect with society.” The rhetorical shift from “critical university” to “critical infrastructure” is interesting here. Where Liu goes so far to say that most, if not the whole of our lives, are organized through institutional mechanisms formative of a “social-cum-technological milieu,” “the word ‘infrastructure’ give[s] us the same kind of general purchase on social complexity that Stuart Hall, Raymond Williams, and others sought when they reached for their all-purpose word, ‘culture.’”

This claim is motivated by three logical moments on Liu’s view, paralleling Smithies’ claim to an “anti-foundationalist” approach to DH praxis. His logical moments proceed as follows: 1) “critique recognizes that the ‘real,’ ‘true,’ or ‘lawful’ groundwork (i.e., infrastructure) for anything, especially the things that matter most to people, such as the allocation of goods or the assignation of identity, is ungrounded.” 2) “critique then goes antifoundationalist to the second degree by criticizing its own standing in the political-economic system–a recursion effect attested in now familiar, post-May-1968 worries that critics themselves are complicit in elitism, ‘embourgeoisment,’ ‘recuperation,’ ‘containment,’ and majoritarian identity, not to mention tenure.” 3) “critique seeks to turn its complicity to advantage–for example, by positioning critics as what Foucault called embedded or ‘specific intellectuals’ acting on a particular institutional scene to steer social forces.”

Liu’s logic clearly presumes a radical political bent. It is not the simple recognition of technocratic regimes or acceptance of cybernetic culture, nor is it a naive attempt to capitalize on our current socio-economic condition. It offers a mode of critique that preserves the radical possibilities inherent to leftist critique while placing them within DH praxis. As Liu argues, his three logical moments culminate in a critical potential in DH because it signifies our “ability to treat infrastructure not as a foundation, a given, but instead as a tactical medium that opens the possibility of critical infrastructure studies as a mode of cultural studies.”

This work is perhaps most apparent in Roopika Risam’s essay, “Navigating the Global Digital Humanities: Insights from Black Feminism.” There, Risam argues that

As the field of digital humanities has grown in size and scope, the question of how to navigate a scholarly community that is diverse in geography, language, and participant demographics has become pressing. An increasing number of initiatives have sought to address these concerns, both in scholarship–as in work on postcoloinal digital humanities or #transformDH–and through new organizational structures like the ALliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO) Multi-Lingualism and Multi-Culturalism Committee and Global Outlook::Digital Humanities (GO::DH), a special interest group of ADHO.

Paired with Liu’s work above, Risam draws us to closer to a critique that would mirror Mohanty’s.


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