Losh, Elizabeth and Wernimont, Jacqueline (eds.) Bodies of information: Intersectional feminism and digital humanities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018. xxv, 491 p. ISBN 978-1-5179-0611-5. $35.00
This book is a wide-ranging and much-needed exploration both of the state of women, queer people, and people of colour in digital humanities work and the state of intersectional feminist approaches to that work. Bodies of information embraces heterogeneity, covering theory and practice, presenting professional and project trends, and addressing post-colonialism, queerness, and feminist practice. This range reflects a main message of this volume, a call for digital humanities to begin 'to think through the implications of ubiquitous computing in particular and to consider undertaking the analysis of new objects of study', which will require that researchers 'expand our notions of text and context archive and canon, and code and program' (p. xii). This volume is a first step, offering starting points for a variety of new directions for the digital humanities that would not only make the field a site of institutional, methodological, theoretical, and practical innovation, but make digital humanities more equitable as well.
These purposes are concisely explained in the introduction by the volume's two editors, Elizabeth Losh and Jacqueline Wernimont, respectively a professor of English and American Studies at the College of William and Mary and the chair of the department of Digital Humanities and Social Engagement as a professor of gender, women's, and sexuality studies at Dartmouth University. The heterogeneity of the book Bodies of information presents organizational difficulties. This is a book comprised of twenty-five chapters excluding the introduction, combining the work of forty-two different authors from a wide variety of fields. Sections are organized under six rubrics or 'keywords' that function as 'boundary objects': (1) materiality, (2) values, (3) embodiment, (4) affect, (5) labour, and (6) situatedness. These headings should be read loosely as the concepts that help, as the editors note, in creating identities, knitting communities, and suggesting relationships between seemingly disparate ideas (p. xiii).
The section on Materiality centres primarily on questioning the boundaries between the physical and the digital world. Taking inspiration from Donna Haraway's seminal text A cyborg manifesto, several authors note that feminist praxis in the digital humanities highlights the penetrable, multiple, and moving boundaries between humans and technologies by placing them front and center, making them visible. Conclusions are not clear cut. Chapters by Kim Brillande Knight and micha cárdenas argue for the countercultural potentialities inherent in new technologies, which can be used to build and support counterpublics. Meanwhile, both Roopika Risam and Danielle Cole et al. point out how both digital technologies and the institutional grant-giving frameworks that support technological development historically are structured to erase women and people of colour.
The Values section continues this questioning of the possibilities for equity in the field, shifting the volume's gaze to the politics of the digital humanities with Deb Verhoeven's Has anyone seen a woman? call to arms at the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organization's 2015 meeting. A reproduction of her slide is followed by a series of texts on the coincidence of restricted female and geographic representation at digital humanities conferences and (more visibly) a restricted acceptance rate for gender-centered proposals by Nickoal Eichmann-Kalwara, Jeana Jorgensen, and Scott B. Weingart. Along the same lines, Christina Boyles assesses the lesser funding opportunities for projects that employ intersectional and critical digital humanities approaches. The section ends with a text by Bonnie Ruberg, Jason Royd, and James Howe on queering the digital humanities, ending with a series of proposals for introducing queerness and embracing category instability into object description, among other areas.
A series of texts on Embodiment moves from a focus on how to make the fuzzy, changeable categories of sexual and gender identity and intersectional feminist politics visible in digital contexts. Both the text by Michelle Schwartz and Constance Crompton on lesbian feminist historiographic methodology and the chapter by Alison Hedley and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra on personography and queering the digital archive address the need for new methodologies in the creation of digital humanities projects featuring people whose identities are not neatly described or static, but rather fluid and highly context-dependent. Articles by Marcia Chatelain and Padmini Ray Murray address how new technologies both empower and restrict women of colour, who have increased but still unequally weighted space for participation in public discourse; in the case of black American female academics, universities and Twitter provide professional and emotional disincentives to participation, while in India, Murray identifies Indian feminists' need to work across boundaries between the technological and the physical world, in response to opportunities and resistance.
The section on Affect addresses emotional approaches and responses to digital tools. The conversation between Laila Shereen Sakr (VJ Um Amel), Brian Getnick, and Alexandra Juhasz is a formalization of the affective possibilities of digital tools, which allows for the synchronous editing of texts. Dorothy Kim's chapter addresses the emotional resonance of digital materials and how these affective needs shape the construction and experience of these materials. And the text by Susan Brown notes how digital humanities labour should be more thoroughly subjected to feminist analysis, using academic adoption of the handmaid as a gendered metaphor for the instrumental (service and delivery), as a way of maintaining the boundaries around and thus the primacy of male-coded intellectual work.
The Labour chapters detail the work and workers who shape digital projects, Julia Flanders examines the invisible labour of building digital projects, noting the multiplicity of factors and perspectives (and particularly the importance of power dynamics in the development of technological systems) to be considered in an intersectional feminist analysis of digital humanities projects. The chapter by Lisa Brundage, Karen Gregory, and Emily Sherwood detail the devalued labour of non-tenured actors who contribute to digital projects. Barbara Bordalejo's piece examines quantitative representation in the digital humanities, as the groundwork towards creating a more equal playing field in the discipline. And Sharon M. Leon's analysis of digital history projects in the United States challenges the assumption that it has been mostly men who have built these projects and, therefore, it is a mostly male history the projects themselves cover.
Lastly, chapters on Situatedness highlight the need for an understanding of the hierarchies that structure digital tool usage. Amy E. Earhart's text is an empirically based call for the development of best practices that remind digital humanities practitioners of the cultural context and systems of ownership within which their projects are constructed. Beth Coleman's chapter uses several case studies to look at how the movement Black Lives Matter employed digital tools to collectively advance the argument that political, economic, and cultural structures in America have systematically devalued black life. The chapter by Kathryn Holland and Susan Brown uses the Orlando Project to investigate the challenges of maintaining feminist digital humanities projects and adapting them to shifts in both technologies and feminist practices. Babalola Titilola Aiyegbusi writes on the infrastructural, political, cultural and academic problems of developing the digital humanities in Africa, where local collaboration is restricted and international collaboration is often burdened by beliefs that the West is better equipped to 'do' digital humanities. The last two texts in the volume, the first by Sandra Gabrile and the second by Anastasia Salter and Bridget Blodgett, study gaming as a site that reproduced gendered, raced, and classed hierarchies, but also enables new kinds of feminist activism.
I did not always find the organization of the volume particularly intuitive: I found myself hopping around in it on a second read, beginning by reading material on professional development and funding structures before launching into chapters on feminist digital archival practice, and so on. But this is not a bad thing, as the groupings highlighted commonalities and argument strands that I might otherwise not have noticed. And this ability to read the chapters in a variety of orders is possible because the volume has such clear thematic threads. There is something here for everyone; Losh and Wernimont have done an admirable job of assembling a wide variety of theoretical, methodological, and topical subjects, all the while ensuring that the overall argument about the need for a variety of intersectional feminist approaches to the digital humanities that destabilize the field is loud and clear. This book is a call to action.
This is a convincing argument and an appealing invitation to collaboration, especially because the volume does such a good job anchoring this need for new approaches in the reality of digital humanities work in academe. Bodies of information represents a scholarly unwillingness to build walls between the position of women, LGBTQ+ persons, and people of colour within professional institutions and the content of the scholarship itself. The compendium agrees with Fiona Barnett's characterization of digital humanities as 'a struggle to present a practice, not just a project' (p. xxii). With this in mind, Bodies of information addresses how digital tools and hierarchies of power affect feminist academic practice, because the makeup of the field, as several authors note, influences what topics are covered at conferences and in journals, who is included in our ever-shifting definition of the field 'digital humanities', and how work within that field in divided and defined.
This concern for unequal structures produces references to the neoliberal structures and values upon which the supposedly neutral technology industry is built. And certainly, the neoliberalism that affects universities and grant-funding institutions and, thereby, digital humanities departments is fruitfully examined here. But there is little empirical examination of the relationship between this brand of neoliberalism and the versions that exist in the technology industry. Also potentially interesting would be an examination of how intersectional feminist humanities are political in the old-fashioned sense: as subject to policymaking. Speaking to this issue might help the book to address how university systems deal with politically motivated defunding, as well as the ways in which gendered, raced, and classed inequalities are built into national and state archives, public universities, and established archival practice.
The book, reflecting the field as it currently stands, is weighted towards North American (especially American) perspectives and empirical bases. This is certainly limiting: universities and funding systems are structured differently in other countries, and a more international approach might provide the basis for a heftier feminist examination of the relationship between neoliberalism, global technological development, technological use, and the academy. Babalola Titilola Aiyegbusi's chapter on Decolonizing digital humanities is an important contribution here, pointing out how the lack of minority representation in digital archives reflects both (1) political decisions that decimated the paper archive of many African nations, and (2) the particularities of the African digital humanities community, where African scholars focused on African digital collections are few and the infrastructure for collaborator digital humanities projects is less well-developed. This chapter makes the need for more research with a post-colonialist approach all the more apparent.
These comments should be taken less and critique and more as a contribution to the voices calling for more intersectional feminist analysis of the digital humanities. I found the articles on queering archival and digital humanities practices particularly interesting. In light of current political trends that seek to restrict and clearly define groups within the body politic (in order to set them against one another), it was refreshing to see so many scholars engage with how to document the internal heterogeneity, historical instability, and overlapping nature of identity groups. A rejection of binaries and an embrace of 'messiness', as Bonnie Ruberg, Jason Boyd, and James Howe note, can help us to redefine what representation means within the context of digital humanities, from the minutiae of metadata to how the academy functions. This application of messiness need not confine itself to groups traditionally underrepresented in digital humanities. In order to understand how normative categories are created and maintained, we must look at them directly, a point made clear in Michelle Schwartz and Constance Crompton's retelling of Melissa Terras' call for changes in the Text Encoding Initiative's values for sex.
Bodies of information is an excellent introduction to the realities and possibilities of intersectional feminist approaches to the digital humanities. The volume would work as a textbook, presenting complicated themes and concepts in an accessible way, providing broad strokes overviews of the field from a variety of perspectives, and examining feminist, queer digital projects that help to concretise what responding to this broad call to arms might look like in practice. Most of all, this book effectively emphasizes that this area is new, limitless, exciting. Applying intersectional feminist politics to the digital humanities will be a challenge, but this is an area begging for rapid expansion.
University of Borås < /br> August, 2019
How to cite this review
Pierce, R. (2019). Review of: Losh, Elizabeth and Wernimont, Jacqueline (eds.) Bodies of information: Intersectional feminism and digital humanities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018. Information Research, 24(3), review no. R672 [Retrieved from http://www.informationr.net/ir/reviews/revs672.html]
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