Questioning the Question

As a queer artist-scholar I have been asked to contribute, to speak to the role of digital humanities and scholarship in ‘The Arts;’ to answer this question of how Digital Humanities practices and scholarship might transform and provide unique meaning to 'The Arts.' Yet, this question has been lurking uneasily in the corners of my mind since it was originally asked of me; largely because I don't believe that Digital Humanities or 'The Arts' are monolithic, uniform entities that can 'speak' to each other. Both ‘Digital Humanities’ and ‘The Arts’ are terms that hold sets of meanings for academic disciplines and communities of practice. How they are each understood as part of a lexicon/cannon is part of the larger power struggle that seeks to define individual practices, academic and geographic locations, and ability to be funded, amongst other concerns.(1) These terms are also laden with historical prejudices, ones that are baked into their very meanings, descriptions, and forms, making it difficult to speak through the very terms I am supposed to use. (Yet I shall try.)

Standardized terminology leads to standard questions. “Is this art” or “is this Digital Humanities” are tossed around on a sea of boundary making, of rigid disciplinary lines that define cannons, projects, media: what is integral, central, and what lies on the edge, or just outside the borders. Yet at the same time, these same terms, as disciplines, are ‘under fire’ from those on the outside who wish to destroy the arts and the humanities at large, by claiming they are not valid forms of knowledge, or even necessary within the terms of our current conditions.

Yet in actuality, as entangled networks of practice, of fields of study, of embodied yet diffuse nodes of knowledge, ‘The Arts’ and Digital Humanities can, and do, investigate how the histories of white, Western knowledge production discount other ways of knowing through the structures that themselves produce knowledge, and ultimately consider how we might change those structures to consider other ways of knowing. (Of course, they both can also reify normative knowledge. We can easily look to the paradox of exploring multiple forms of oppression using the very technologies that continuously (re)produce these within their structures.)

Perhaps, then, these rigid lines between so-called disciplines are actually the 'problem' or issue. By focusing on these containers that hold particular forms of knowing, we are separating and creating artificial boundaries where none need lie.(2)  They both, after all, enable us to 'know' our cultures, our practices, and ourselves, as well as to create new methods for knowing and change.

This leads me to me second uneasy point: I am also wary of the idea that the Digital Humanities should somehow transform ‘The Arts,’ that this type of scholarship should necessarily play a role in art, while not considering how art might also transform the Digital Humanities. Yet for me, this has always been the question. I am first, and foremost, an artist. Everything I do is inflected with my particular embodied art practices, and the digital humanities are no exception.

While both fields/communities of practice expand our perception of ourselves, explore ‘humanity,’ and extend our knowledges of what it means to be human, there are many differences in their approaches, methods, materials, and perhaps even in their very purposes. Digital Humanities comes across as intellectual, academic, attempting to organize and interpret knowledge, while ‘The Arts,’ by turning to embodied knowledges, to muscle memories, attempts to express life and (in)humanity.

What then might it look like to consider how Digital Humanities serves to intellectualize embodied knowledge, while Art serves to be embodied knowledge? If a foundational difference between them is that Digital Humanities is about humanistic inquiry, while Art is humanistic inquiry, how do our questions change?


(1) When we speak of DH’s role in ‘the Arts’ –which DH? Is it: work about individual objects, or larger collaborative works like The Early Caribbean Digital Archive, or the making of tools such as Omeka and Scalar, or methods such as discourse analysis and critical code studies, or perhaps Postcolonial DH, or #TransformDH? What about DH within academic institutional centers, like MITH and the Scholar’s Lab, or DH in community colleges? Or, how about DH in nations other than my US-centric list? And how does DH dis/align with media studies, and what are their influences upon each other?

(2) I recognize that these disciplinary boundaries are necessary in our current academic environment/moment, especially for those in smaller colleges and outsider programs in order to define difference and therefore necessity.


Thank you for flipping the question to think about how art transforms dh!

As always, and which you of course know from our collaborations, I am interested in those embodied knowledges and muscle memories. If we were to be less concerned with policing the boundaries between "art" and "dh" we might be able to see that coding and other forms of digital praxis that usually get shorthanded as dh, including the creation of media, are as embedded in the bodily memories of some of us as, say, painting or doodling are for others. I am thinking here of yours and others' insistence elsewhere on ways of producing algorithms that are not digital (or rather, "digital" in the sense of having to do with our fingers). Artistic process is algorithmic, involving the cutting up and layering and recombination of bits and pieces of things; I would argue that this is as true of dance as it is for writing or collage or crochet, for example. We get hung up on what to call these processes and what they technically involve, as thoroughly disciplined in these fields and immersed in their vocabularies as we are. Having done such processes for so long that they become thoroughly integrated into our bodily knowledge, it is easy to forget that none of them are "natural"--they have just become naturalized to us, remaining black-boxed for others. I think it is this humanistic questioning of what is natural, and in turn what is "human," that I would like dh practitioners to borrow from the arts (and of course, what I find so compelling about your work!).    

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