Designing Change? Gatekeepers in Digital Humanities

Posted by Sara Morais at Jul 02, 2013 06:45 AM |
After defining the archive as one of the important concepts for digital humanities research, the question arose, whether or not a redefined archive still functions as a gatekeeper. This blog entry follows the question, if the digital humanities have overcome gatekeepers of knowledge, or if there has simply been a shift in what is doing the gatekeeping.

The last digital humanities blog entry finished on a rather resentful note, arguing that perhaps the difference between humanities and the digital humanities were feigned – and badly at that – and if the digital humanities would stop worrying only about infrastructure, there would no longer be a difference between the two. This insinuates that if only digital humanities would drop the digital and go back to humanities research and include digital technologies into it, all would be well and resolved. However, it is obvious that this generalization was slightly exaggerated, as generalizations tend to be. Nonetheless, the hypotheses is that archives have served as gatekeepers to traditional humanities research in the past. As they suggest a literary canon, they contribute to shaping the field according to certain discursive perceptions. If something is archived, it is considered important enough at the time, to serve as a representation for future reference. This constructs a hierarchy of written work over others, and especially publicized work over written text without publication. Therefore archives serve as a gatekeeper of knowledge, which, if one remembers the circumstances under which books are and were published, is mostly not necessarily representative of important topics but mainly boils down to capitalistic preferences. These preferences are not made transparent and often they are not questioned.

As one could see in the last post, the digital humanities have a reviewed concept of the archive to encompass a more contemporary memory of discourse. This changes the function of the archive, which leaves the question, whether the gatekeepers have changed as well, or even completely dissolved. In traditional humanities, archives served as more of a historical perspective of discourse, which could only be accessed from a temporal distance, for a better understanding of discursive perception at the time. As a matter of fact, Derrida stresses the point that archives are not possible without exteriority and that they are always a protheses to memory, but also to reproduction (Derrida: 1998: 14). So in fact they are not only not supposed to be live, but are always highly technological transformations of events. If the archiving process “produces as much as it records the event” (ibid.: 17), then that change from archival work to live-archives is fundamental to understanding the digital humanities. As the time restrictions, the materiality and the function of the archive has changed, so must the field it is archiving. Nonetheless, as included in the citation, the archive is also a technology of reproduction and every reproductive process changes what is being reproduced incessantly, so that what was there before is not available anymore (ibid.:26). Which means that archives are not historical at all, but constantly changing themselves, as the media that contains them reproduces them.

The archives being produced nowadays therefore might be a lot more representative, as the medium of the internet in itself is ever-changing and therefore makes the repetitive and transformative process of archival work visible. Another fundamental difference in archival work, apart from the 'right-here-right-now' stance of modern internet archives, is that prior archives were mainly text-based. Up until now, the written word has been perceived as progressive as it is one of the main features of western advanced civilization (Stein 2006). This marginalizes populations who do not or cannot do research work in latin alphabetic writing. According to Vilém Flusser, writing is also a form of structuring knowledge in a one-dimensional manner, aberrations that do not fit into a flow of writing are not easily included into literary pieces (Flusser 1990). Research phenomena get a direction and a structure, just as writing is structured on a page. Text-based knowledge production therefore reproduces the “official reasoning of occidental culture” (Flusser 1999). This literary structure is closed, in a sense that a text portrays a meaning and once the text is over, its meaning will have enfolded itself completely onto the reader. It is therefore a closed train of thought without derivative. This narrative framework constructs historical consciousness as something linear. Going back to Foucault's conceptions around the archive, however, we see that history is never linear and never singular, but always a subjective fragment of the whole (Foucault 1969). Overcoming the structure of textual flow through visualizations and design could therefore mean overcoming supposed linearity and becoming more open towards diverse narratives of histories or knowledge.

The symbol for the ladies washroom exemplifies how design could be more generative to meaning than a purely textual format. The schematic depiction of a female via a dress implies that only females should enter the room beyond. It works internationally and does not need to rely on language or latin letters to portray its meaning. At the same time, women all across the world feel included by the sign, even though they do not match its proportions, or may never have worn a skirt or a dress, let alone one similar to the usual depiction. The depiction of the female body is completely fictional and has no relation to biological reality. The sign, just like Derrida's archive, is a repetition of the ideal of being female, just as any other female body is a repetition of this ideal, an ideal which does not have a 'real' existing counterpart. As Judith Butler explains, all embodiments of categories such as gender, but also race and class or any other category, are repetitions of this fictional ideal, and in their repetition they prove the ideal to be non-existent (Butler 1990). As no biologically female person would agree to the sign being a representation of womanhood, at least in this instance one could imagine a more open context within that sign to include people, who feel just as badly or well represented by the crude depiction, as any strictly biological female. The pictorial representation is a good example of how having only text-based information can often narrow perspectives and choosing design over text can open knowledge production to become more inclusive.

Nowadays digital technologies allow for multimedia documentation, in fact design has been identified as a key feature in digital humanities work, up to a point where designers, coders and artists are seen as equal to textual authors when collaborating on work (Burdick et. Al 2012: 12). This is a step towards deconstructing the hegemony the written word has over alternative forms of knowledge production. Visualizing what has been written and produced before, or even producing knowledge in a not solely textual form increases the openness of knowledge and makes it more accessible for people before marginalized by the latin phonetic alphabet, thereby overcoming conceptual barriers of nationality and dominant languages. Sure enough, giving credit to non-textual authors' contributions to text is sensible, as the way the output is shaped influences accessibility, readability and finally the content itself. So overcoming the hierarchy between text and non-textual knowledge production surely is something digital humanities should work on, it surely is not achieved yet, although some might claim otherwise. Especially in academia, a certain amount of written text is important even in visual departments such as an art academy, to show that ones productivity is not completely random, but justified. Still, design is becoming more and more relevant, just as packaging is important to sell a product.

However, the question is, if design counts as a main feature in research work, does it then function as a new gatekeeper? The hypotheses is, that just as publication and academic structures were limiting the knowledge being produced, needing a designer, a coder or any visual artist to actually produce and publish work can be just as limiting. If you need someone to visualize your work so that it can be comprehended, it will be just like needing a publisher – work will again be produced according to capitalistic preference and design just helps put your (intellectual) product on the market. Putting something in pretty packaging can sometimes obscure the production process, as it adds value to the final form, while hiding any ugly obstacles that were to be overcome along the way and could serve as a learning for future research. Design and visuality being more able to display affirmative information, such obstacles and learnings could be difficult to visualize. Also, given the timely limits one is faced with, there is reason for critics to believe that a nice form is valued over 'proper' or 'good' content. The problem lies within defining what is 'good' and what is 'proper'. Digital humanists like Ramsay would argue that “doing” is more important than reading (Ramsay 2011). However, by overcoming the hierarchy between written and non-textual knowledges, content and form cannot be separated but should be seen as two intertwined facets of one bundle of research output.

Another problem with the rising importance of design is that people with visual impediments are marginalized from knowledges that rely on optics and design to get their point across. So when design reaches new importance, researchers creating output must also take into consideration in what way this output is marginalizing people and how to overcome this marginalization. It is one of the main insights of disability studies that disabilities are “not so much a property of bodies as a product of cultural rules about what bodies should be or do” (Garland-Thomson 1997). Just as the phonetic alphabet, visualizations are therefore conceptualizing knowledge around a norm which implies functionality of vision. One way of overcoming that barrier is including screen-reading software onto visually appealing websites like it is described by George H. Williams (2012). The concept of inclusion is called 'universal design', instead of 'assistive technology', and is based on the perception that technology is always assistive, not only in the case of e.g. screen readers for the visually impaired (Williams 2012). This breaks with the normative perspective of the body functioning in a certain way and deconstructs the understanding of disabilities as an aberration of the norm. Universal design therefore benefits not only disabled people, but all people. As Williams puts it, “whether in a physical or digital environment, designers are always making choices about accessibility. However, not all designers are aware of how their choices affect accessibility. Universal design is design that involves conscious decisions about accessibility for all, and it is a philosophy that should be adopted more widely by digital humanities scholars” (ibid.). At the same time this intentional inclusion may be difficult to follow at times. Especially when considering that technology itself can be seen as co-authoring a text in the form of programs, algorithms and code, it might become difficult to impose the philosophy of universal design on non-human authorship. This implies that technology, too, should be theorized, a thought that is being suggested throughout more critical approaches of digital humanists and humanities (see e.g. Earhart 2012). As has been stated in prior blog entries, the digital humanities are trying to move away from theorizing, which might be the reason for the problems arising within the field. The deconstruction of text-based hegemony should not take place in favor of establishing new hierarchies. The written word and the visual underly a complex power/knowledge complex, simply trying to reverse it will not work. The category 'nation', or 'nationality' portrays the ambivalence of this case very well. While in some cases, like a national constitution, the written word will be more powerful than a pictorial or designed description, in others, like a national flag, the visual and symbolic materiality of a knowledge product is a lot more powerful than simple text. Instead of moving from reading to doing, as has been suggested (e.g. Ramsay), the digital humanities need to find a balance between the two, so as to incorporate questions of race, gender and other categories of human agency into their research. Especially when it comes to postcolonial studies and research in cultures and languages other than those of western dominance, digital humanists should not only consider themselves as consumers, but as actual producers of knowledge resources. This counts for producing work as much as it does for archiving, as the productive process of today remain the archives of tomorrow, or even of simultaneously happening research projects. Design can be a factor to help overcome these barriers, if the concept of universal design is incorporated into digital humanities work. All too often, however, design is still a concept that marginalizes, often unknowingly, so as to serve as a gatekeeper to knowledge production, benefiting capitalistic values. 

 

Butler 1990 Butler, Judith: "Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity". New York/London: Routledge

Derrida 1998 Derrida, Jacques: "Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression". Chicago: University of Chicago Press,

Earhart 2012 Earhart, Amy E.: "Can Information be Unfettered? Race and the New Digital Humanities Canon". Debates in the Digital Humanities. Open Access Edition. accessed June 28th, http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/16

Flusser 1990 Flusser, Vilém: "Does Writing have a Future?" U of Minnesota Press. 2011

Flusser 1999 Flusser, Vilém: “Into the Universe of Technical Images” U of Minnesota Press. 2011

Foucault 1969 Foucault, Michel: “The Archeology of Knowledge” translated by Allan Sheridan, New York: Harper and Row, 1972

Garland-Thomson 1997 Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie: "Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature". New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Ramsay 2011 Ramsay, Stephen: “On Building” accessed June 20th 2013, http://lenz.unl.edu/papers/2011/01/11/on-building.html.

Stein 2006 Stein, Peter: "Schriftkultur. Eine Geschichte des Schreibens und Lesens". Darmstadt: Primus

Williams 2012 Williams, George H.: "Disability, Universal Design, and the Digital Humanities". Debates in the Digital Humanities. Open Access Edition. accessed June 28th, http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/44 

 

 

 

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