Digital Object Lessons: On Gender, Class, and Technology

First post ever! Buckle your seatbelts, it’s gonna be a long one. I’ve been ruminating on this material for a while and I figured I’d better just get it all out. It’s adapted from the course blog for a graduate seminar I’m taking at the University of Maryland, English 668K: Critical Topics in Digital Humanities (on Twitter: @engl668k; #668K). Here’s the original post.

Every semester, part of my autobiographical praxis is figuring out my relationship to course material, which is never purely academic; I am personally invested in everything that I study, for many reasons. I wrote this as an attempt to map out some of my relationships with technology in response to an assignment on defining digital humanities. The question of definitions is a fraught one and can feel very high-stakes, especially when it comes to how scholars define what they do and why. As a feminist autobiographer a “memory audit” like this one is a necessary first step for me in exploring gendered histories of technology and power. I think this kind of mapping or sketching, whether in prose or in visual form, is essential for thinking about positionality, embeddedness, and one’s own stake in a project or subject. Here goes.

My name is Melissa, and there are a couple of reasons why I feel relatively comfortable not defining digital humanities (plural), or at least, not making myself overly anxious about their various definitions. The first reason is personal and anecdotal, so I’ll start with that by way of an introduction.

When I think back on my own experiences with technology, I realize that I’m not afraid of or resistant to it because tools and machines were part of my milieu from an early age. This has everything to do with being from a working-class family, although I wasn’t always able to articulate my vexed relationship to class for reasons I’ll start to detail here. I grew up in my grandparents’ house on Long Island, sharing a room with my mom, who also grew up in that house although it was much different then. It was only one floor when she shared a room with her three sisters, next door to their two brothers. [I’m still not sure where my grandparents slept in this scenario.] When I was a toddler and my aunts and uncles were adults, my grandparents added a second floor to the house, largely with the family’s own DIY labor.[During this process, I apparently argued with grandfather about why the metal “square” for measuring straight lines and angles wasn’t actually square but triangular, an old debate he likes to bring up from time to time.]

There are infamous pictures of me as a child in a leopard leotard on the seat of my uncle’s yellow bulldozer, probably also from the time of that renovation. I watched my grandmother slowly transform each room in the house with garbage-picked antiques and furniture she’d sanded and refinished herself. She conjures decor that looks like it’s straight out of a magazine with a few key bargain items, and to this day I’m still amazed by it. [Another set of photos shows my aunts and uncles in matching clothes my grandmother made. It always reminds me of The Sound of Music.]

Like my mother, Gram worked (and still works) constantly. She drove a school bus at one point, and when I started making zines I learned from my mom that Gram laid out and put together the newsletter for the both the bus yard and the archery club of which the entire family was a part. [This was right when xerography was on the up and up. Sidenote: here’s an awesome article on Xeroxes and paperwork, featuring Lisa Nakamura‘s work.] Meanwhile she was designing, sewing, and constructing the legendary Halloween costumes my own mother and I later emulated. I can’t help but admire their productivity, even though I know the image of the hetero white woman who does it all, selflessly and effortlessly, is as cruelly optimistic, as Lauren Berlant might say, as it is unfeasible, not to mention coded in terms of race, class, sexuality, and ability. [My grandfather lovingly called his own mother “the kitchen fixture” because she was perpetually stationed in there, on her prosthetic leg, cooking. According to him she was a “mutt” of mixed European heritage.]

When my youngest uncle (on my father’s side) sent me his Super Nintendo, it ushered in a new period of gaming for me, my mom, and Gram. [This same uncle also introduced me to Legos, for which I can’t thank him enough.] My grandfather couldn’t get the hang of these games, but I remember coming home from school to find that Gram had gotten much further along in Cool Spot that I ever had. [A brief altercation ensued when I informed her that I wanted to play but that her progress could not be saved. Interestingly, this room of the house became the office where the computer lived and where I first ventured onto what would eventually be known as the interwebs.] Gram got a job at a hospital, in the radiology department. She wore a pair of headphones and transcribed doctors’ reports, her fingers flying at a clunky keyboard, and she even wore a lab coat. I loved going to work with her some evenings because it meant I got to use the computer in the office she shared with another woman. I can vividly see the cursor blinking on the empty, bright green screen in front of me, encased in the yellowing plastic monitor. My stories looked so professional when they emerged from the noisy printer on those continuous sheets of paper with the perforated strip on both edges. I didn’t know at the time that we were living gendered, classed, and racialized technological histories. [See Kittler’s Gramophone, Film, Typewriter for his history of typing as gendered.]

Crafting, building, computing, and using a wide range of technologies are therefore interestingly gendered in my family, but everyone seems to work with a variety of materials. If Gram is a cyborg who can spin garbage into gold, Gramp is a machinist and DIY handyman par excellence. He was a tool and die maker–he worked on machines that made other machines, and on the side he made and sold long metal poles for extendable clamming rakes, but before that he worked in a paper factory. I can distinctly remember my excitement watching paper being made, excitement that was magnified when he brought home boxes of it to feed through the typewriter he found at a garage sale for me. So my love of literature is intimately bound up with material production itself; it has as much to do with the feel, smell, and sound of paper and the thoroughly nostalgic and satisfying experience of (loudly) making words appear on the page with a machine as it does with the words themselves.

My mom married a mechanic who is also a carpenter, plumber, and, though he probably wouldn’t admit it, a lay engineer and inventor. I grew up in garages and hardware stores, watching him “hack” things–whether it was a new foundation for a very old house or an engine fix that, while unorthodox, was “close enough for government work,” in his words. He is a maker to his core, so I probably got to play with more weird tools and ancient, highly specific machines than most tomboys. Meanwhile I was happily word processing at 65wpm with Mavis Beacon on Windows 95, dabbling in early virtual worlds on a dial-up connection, and beating second-hand Nintendo games.

All of this, I think, prepared me to not care very much when I was one of five to seven women, including the teacher, in my Advanced Placement computer programming class in high school. Many of the boys around me mooched off me the entire time, but only a few of them respected me enough to help me in return. I was taking so many other AP tests at the time that I had to reschedule the written, not “hands-on,” Programming exam and take it alone, which meant I was spared the boys’ anxiety and their heckling of the proctors. I ended up scoring among the highest in the class, but I haven’t retained too much of that knowledge. In hindsight designing a fish and making it swim around in a prefab Java aquarium wasn’t very practical. The logical structure and the satisfying feel of writing good //comments to accompany it, however, have stuck with me. I think that class is part of the reason I didn’t let myself be prohibitively daunted by some of the thinly veiled fear and disdain for “the digital” that circulate in humanities disciplines. I realized I had to jump in and start playing.

I think programming also taught me how to black box things and open them up again conceptually. My grandfather has never been able to do this with a computer. He used to dabble, but now he doesn’t send emails or play games anymore because, by his own admission, he is too mystified by computer’s internal structure and processes to be able to learn how it functions. My stepfather seemed to hit a similar road block. At a certain point a car will be too new for him to be able to fix–it will be more computer than machine. He was taking apart radios and TVs early in high school, back when you actually learned something in shop class, but his eyes and ears have been so affected by the noise, dust, and light of machines that he can’t easily interact with a computer. My mom and Gram both use computers everyday for their jobs, selling things online and over the phone. That’s the service economy for you. But like their partners, they both make, build, and do [ways of thinking, learning, and creating that are highly valued in some iterations of digital humanities] in other modes, other media. Each of us know how to use drills and saws and screwdrivers, and how to find solutions for some quite literally material problems.

Somehow, though, I don’t think many of these different kinds of knowledges exercised in technologically saturated environments are the ones some digital humanists explicitly value when they argue that working on a project or collaborating on making something is what is necessary to be part of the emergent field. Recently in our graduate seminar we were wondering just how much “experience,” and what kinds of it, one needs to count oneself “in” in digital humanities. Our professor suggested that this was the “digital dirt” under our fingernails, which got me thinking about the lack of dirt, digital or otherwise, under mine. My stepfather shakes the baby-soft hand of a motorcycle mechanic and scoffs a little bit, wondering how it is possible that he does most of his job at a desk, with software, instead of getting dirty. [Recent country songs echo these sentiments.] He told me at least once that if I was interested in working on cars or with machines, I was going to have to sacrifice the smoothness of my knuckles and probably my fingernails, a challenge to which I was willing to rise. [My hands were softer than after a manicure during my senior prom, because I had spent the previous two weeks sanding and painting my first car. The 1985 Jeep happened to be older than I was at the time.]

Thus gender, race, class, sexuality are all marked on our bodies in a number of ways that don’t just disappear if and when we gain access to a little of the class privilege that buoys academia. I am reminded of this whenever I see a fancy new digital tool or technology that few people in my family will ever have the means, the desire, or the necessary infrastructure to use. I’m noticing a clear and troubling hierarchy of value when it comes to the kinds of work that can be recognized as “innovative” or “creative,” in spite of the fact that my narrative has perhaps exposed some contingencies and continuities between analog and digital, between technologies of gender and technologies of race and class, between playing and making and learning. And I’m not the first to notice it. [Some nuances of the debates over “building,” “teaching,” and “coding” are captured in Lee Skallerup’s article on “The Incredible Privilege of ‘Building’” and Stephen Ramsay’s “On Building“. Meanwhile, more fascinating conversation on defining digital humanities and what “media archaeology” has to do with it in this interview with Wolfgang Ernst.]

I know I am, and will continue to be, a cyborg whether or not others consider me to be a digital humanist. Which brings me to the second reason I’m not getting anxious about definitions of digital humanities. [I told you this was a long post.] I recently read Robyn Wiegman’s brilliant book Object Lessons, which argues, in short, that the critical desires that motivate our scholarship can tell us much about disciplinary norms and imperatives. [In the case of women’s studies, queer studies, and other minoritarian “identity knowledges,” this desire is to do justice and create social change.] Wiegman pays attention to the often bitter and snarky conflicts that take place in academic journals and conference presentations in moments of field formation and consolidation, and which are certainly attending attempts to define digital humanities scholarship.

I cannot help but take a digital object lesson from debates surrounding digital humanities’ origins and futures. The obvious anxiety about “who’s in and who’s out,” “the cool kids’ table,” and “the big tent” are not new; despite phrasing reminiscent of high school cliques, these affects and emotions are part and parcel of capitalist academic institutions that value shiny newness and sexy neologisms [“intertwinglings” is my new fave], entrepreneurship and innovation narrowly and profitably defined, and competition that leads to “progress” for only a select few.

It’s not surprising that, as David Golumbia points out in “‘Digital Humanities’: Two Definitions,” multiple and contradictory assertions of what digital humanities are “about” and what they do are circulating simultaneously. In fact, while they might appear to be contradictory, the “big tent” definition and the “tools and archives” or “making and building” definition might actually be achieving the same purpose, which is allowing universities and eventually nation-states to profit off whatever they think digital humanities are. I’m not trying to make this sound like a conspiracy theory with no accountable actors–there are powerful individuals making big decisions with huge amounts of money here. You and me could argue till the cows come home about what digital humanities mean, but in the end our language is going to have to match the assumptions of the funding agency we want to support our project, as the “Short Guide” offered by the authors of Digital_Humanities makes (somewhat implicitly) clear.

In short [or rather, at length], what are our investments in making, building, geeking out, hacking, coding, designing, reading (socially or otherwise), theorizing, critiquing, or navelgazing ad infinitum? What forms of these do we value or prescribe, and what kinds of skills and materials are necessary to access them? I come down hard on the side of Jamie “Skye” Bianco when it comes to critical-creative praxis–I did so when I thought I was just a writer and I do so now, in the process of shifting my identity to that of maker in light of recognizing my long lineage of working-class makers. I don’t think writing, reading, and thinking critically and creatively can be excluded from the category of “doing,” as a recent twitter spat I had with another attendee of the Digital Humanities Winter Institute can attest. But rather than arguing about who’s cool or sexy, we need to seriously interrogate the kinds of cultural, academic, and monetary capital attached to the practitioners who get to inhabit those labels, as well as the cost to those who don’t.

I’m not, of course, trying to suggest that fixing a car or a toilet is somehow equivalent to installing memory in a computer or trying out a new chunk of code, or that one is easier or more valuable than another. Clearly these are different kinds of knowledge, each of which deserves to be respected and neither of which is intuitive or “natural.” But very real roadblocks stand in the way of forms of experimentation and play that, for some folks, do not seem very high stakes, but for others are the difference between being cutting edge and being painfully obsolete.

[This post is longer than usual because I just needed to get all these thoughts out. I hope it gives some sense of where I’m coming from and who I am. More soon on technology, school, gender, craft, zines, and DIY. ❤ ❤  -MSR ]