Theorizing the Digital Subaltern

Posted by Sara Morais at Aug 02, 2013 10:25 AM |
As digital humanities research at CIS proceeds, a number of critical positions have arisen, making it possible to reconcile questions of humanities with the digital realm. This blog entry focusses on race as a factor of research and how it is displayed in the digital.

Digital humanities has been criticized for a lack of content when compared with research in the traditional field of humanities. While humanities work deals mostly with subalternity, politics and what it means to be human, it has been established that a lot of digital humanities work revolves mainly around questions of providing access. Access is a good thing and focussing on it can be helpful. Nonetheless, as has been stated by Nishant Shah, simply providing access only works in an ideal world, where all have the gadgets and knowledges of making use of the research made available through digitalization (Shah: 2012). The internet is not the discrimination-free, post-gendered space that cyber-enthusiasts hoped for it to be. As a matter of fact, as Lisa Nakamura describes, the internet is a space of racial and gendered re-embodiement (Nakamura: 2007). Her argument is that in relation to the advancing biotechnologies, ubiquitous surveillance and pre-emptive profiling, 'racio-visual logic' is reconfiguring the body online (ibid.). Even if there is actually visibility of marginalized groups online, it is not always something that actually results in fruitful engagement with the paradigms of racial discrimination. This means that social inequalities and racial discrimination marginalizing people offline are reproduced online. Nakamura exemplifies this in an example by investigating the website, where users are encouraged to participate in racial profiling by labeling pictures of Asians to be Korean, Chinese or Japanese. A majority of users falsely label the faces, which shows how the social construction of race can wrongly be mainstreamed to accommodate visual perceptions of eastern stereotypes. In this case, as the obviously problematic title of the website already suggests, simply making spaces for perceived minorities is more harmful than good. Nakamura also exemplifies how race is otherwise fetishized online, for example in video games like Grand Theft Auto, portraying non-white protagonists as thugs, or even all-time favorites like Street Fighter or Tekken, appealing to the western image of Asians as martial arts superpowers.

Therefore, the question of the quality of that access and visibility concerning subaltern groups should be vitally important to work in the digital humanities, more than the mere quantity of knowledges available. As Moore-Gilbert explains in his work on digital subalternity (Moore-Gilbert: 2000), it is not mainly access and digitalization, which will be equalizing factors in the digital age. The subaltern is a concept by Antonio Gramsci, which tries to describe the marginalized groups of people that do not have access to hegemonic spaces in society. Gayatri Spivak adds to that concept by saying that not only do the subaltern not have access to hegemonic power structures, also this denial of access makes it impossible for the subaltern to express their own knowledges, as they need to adopt Western ways of knowing to be heard. A subaltern's own cultural knowledges are therefore omitted from the discourse and a subaltern can never truly express oneself (Spivak: 1988).

Summarizing subalternity as the oppressed and dispossessed, Mike Kent (2008) defines a new digital divide, which is opening between people with access to the internet and abilities to operate a computer, and people to whom, for some reason, that description does not apply. These people may simply not own or have access to computers on a regular basis (or at all), but also may be excluded from a digital discourse, because they have been marginalized in that discourse from its analog beginnings. One of the examples was shortly addressed in one of the digital humanities blogposts, where it was explained that many people in India seem to believe that the digital is naturally for the english-speaking world and not available in local languages. These are therefore excluded in the building of gadgets and internet infrastructure, leading users to believe that the internet is a hegemonic space with male, white, western, or at the very least english-speaking dominance. Therefore local Indian languages are marginalized and the digital becomes a realm, which marginalizes non-hegemonic culture and people with different language priorities have difficulties finding their way into. The problem with subalternity is that these people are not visibly excluded, and might not even be aware of their exclusion (Kent: 2008). Providing Indian language Wikipedia, for example, is part of the solution, but definitely not all of it. When doing digital humanities work, archiving or creating access through digitalization, the digital divide grows and does so even more, as it is not, and cannot be addressed in such a way that the people being marginalized are put into a position of realizing the disproportion of knowledge access.

So merely providing information online will not result in the diminishment of the priorly addressed knowledge gap. Even when addressing this gap, it happens in terms of academics, intellectuals and people with online access speaking on behalf of people who do not have access to the discursive space in which these gaps are discussed. The experiences of the subaltern are only addressed from the outside and without their presence. This summarizes subalternity under one large, obscure category, ignoring that the subaltern might need to be addressed individually, according to race, class, gender, etc., to be able to gain the knowledges needed to participate in the discourse evolving around questions of digital humanities. Is it therefore substantive to include subaltern positions into digital discourses, even if this means speaking on behalf of certain positions at first to raise awareness. However, the awareness of speaking for someone else should also exist within the discourse and if there is any way of including subaltern positions directly, they should do so.

Within the work field of digital humanities, many projects are discussing the infrastructure and ways of dealing with online knowledges. The project Digital Humanities Q&A (, or @DHanswers on twitter) offers a platform to ask questions regarding anything concerned with digital humanities. The community quickly tries to help the poster to overcome whatever difficulties s_he might be having in 'building'. And even questions of politics and ethics are discussed in the forum. This is an important infrastructure for discourse happening outside of classical academic forms and certainly retains authority through the amount of other work the researchers participating in the project are publishing online and off.

What seems to be missing, however, is the acknowledgement that the digital is not simply something apart from humanity, and is not something simply extractable and usable as a tool without affecting what it means to be human. Technology forms our very being from the first moment of creation in our mother's wombs. It is intrinsic to every life form in human society and even a complete lack of technology surrounding someone (if that is even possible), is technological in a sense that it is perceived as a lack thereof. This does not necessarily mean that all research work results to digital humanities, but it does point to the impossibility of leaving questions of the social, of race, of gender, aside when dealing with technological development.

To make an analytical example, the technologically focussed concept of the 'Internet-Geek' or the 'Hacker' gives an outlook on how questions of race are handled within a digital space. The terms hacker and geek are being used interchangeably, even though the concepts might differ. Not all geeks are hackers, however, they occupy the same space in the mainstream discourse and when speaking of an internet-geek it is often the assumption that they hack as well. While the term geek bore negative connotations for years, it seems to have shaken these with the rise of the digital realm marking the turn from 'geekism' to 'hacktivism', and with that, geekism as a new type of expertise. Geeks are no longer seen as friendless mavericks, who spend their time obsessing about one subject, which the mainstream culture seems to have little interest in or use for. Much more, the internet-geek is a political figure, which is often said to have the best survival skills in the digital age and is able to navigate through the digital realm like 'a fish takes to water'. The discourse around geek-ism focusses on the geek as an anti-intellectual figure, which overcomes classical academia, as “it's unnecessary to get a college degree in order to be a great coder” (Sanger 2011). However, debates around intellectualism are as old as the concept of the intellectual itself. Historically, the discourse on intellectualism has always been paired with antisemitism and the concept of the intellectual was first used as a derogative term to attack the left wing group defending the jewish captain Alfred Dreyfus in late 19th century France. The captain was sentenced to life imprisonment for the wrongful accusations of having communicated french military secrets to the German embassy. His accusation and life sentence served the sustenance of French national values and enforced nationalism through the 'Othering'1 of the jewish captain. Anti-intellectualism therefore historically springs from structural antisemitism and it is worth looking into how that concept has been employed in today's digital culture. Unfortunately, dwelling on the concept of the intellectual is not possible within the frame of this short exemplary analysis. The ambivalence of the concept should, however, not go by unnoticed. This polemic of the discourse is lost in the digital age and there seems to be little engagement with historical perceptions, which may lead to essentialists perceptions of knowledges.

In embracing the priorly addressed values of the internet, the figure of the geek is in most discourses portrayed as anarchic and dismissive of any form of singular authority, therefore undermining power-structures and hegemonic knowledges. While these discourses engage in questions of authority and freedom, it is difficult to find engagement with the categorial inequalities existent in the digital realm. The political engagement, which is supposed to be a key feature in the identity of the hacker, limits itself to questions of freedom of data and open-source. As has been described before, these technological concepts restrict themselves to data accessibility, but do not engage in questions of the quality of access to that data, or the quality of that data itself. The work of the geek or hacker is therefore not subversive per se. Rather, hackerism saw the freedom of internet usage as a right, not a privilege, thereby essentializing a 'survival of the fittest' mentality, which benefits and excuses aggressive behaviour and therefore alienating more sensitive positions. This usually results in re-justifying patriarchal structures and affirming the white, male, heterosexual norm.

Within the last couple of years geek feminism blogs and websites have been springing up on the web in an attempt to overcome the existing knowledge gaps, but the linguistic and theoretical reference seems always to be more along the lines of feminism in an online space and how much these discourses actually impact hetero-normative hackerspaces is questionable. Geek feminists therefore seldom perceive themselves to be part of the hacker-identity, but move in the realm of feminist theory, where intersectionality with other categories, such as race, has been established to be a key factor of analysis. In the hacker-realm, however, when referring to color, what is mostly being addressed is the ethical direction, in which the hacker is performing his*2 task, as a short search-engine review of the topic implies. So the political questions the geek or hacker faces, evolve around cybersecurity, privacy and open spaces on the internet, but do not engage in what it means to be of a certain race, gender, etc. when writing code, hacking technologies, or processing knowledges online. This practice of obscuring categories of inequality does not make them any less effective, but, as has been shown above, enforce shallow and often fetishized depictions of online spaces and the users occupying them. This results in a naturalization of the white, male perspective and implies every other position to be an aberration. It is often implied that people of color simply don't want to participate, instead of seeing the possibility of the spaces not being inclusive and inviting enough. It has often been said that hackerspaces are alienating towards women, but the stereotypical depiction of any ethnic group influences the notion of the hacker to be of a certain class and race as well. While one might perceive that Asians occupy a great amount of online space, this does not necessarily mean fruitful engagement in a critical discourse around race in cyberspace.

So even if there is no direct racism in online spaces or within the notion of the hacker, the lack of theorizing race as a category which is still being seen as inferior leads to informal discrimination and reinforces a norm that marginalizes people of color. Research and the building of infrastructure follows these normative interests and marginalizes interests of groups that do not fit into the privileged categories. The notions of free internet usage implies a choice which is not always available, especially within marginalized communities. So it is necessary to engage with the questions of freedom, for whom they apply online, and where freedom and access stop being choices. 

To reference Marshall McLuhan, the medium may not necessarily be the message, but it does inseparably intertwine itself, so that it is impossible to tell where medium stops and message begins. If we accept the premise that we are all cyborgs and digital technologies are inscribed in our bodies, a mere quantitative approach to these is not possible and believing technology to simply be a methodology, a means to end is not either. It is necessary to find a way to deal with the technological, the data and, in the end, the internet as a cultural phenomenon which forms our society just as other media does, but also creates reality in a more accurate and impacting way than any medium has done before.

Therefore when taking a turn towards visualizations and design, one should remember what it means to visualize and what is being left out in the process. Of course, articulating something is always a process of marginalizing something else, as it is simply impossible to include all positions. However, the necessity to clarify ones own position, vital in humanities, seems lost in the transition towards digital humanities. The necessity of critical digital humanities has been stressed in the past and a number of critical projects have arisen, a number of which are summarized on the design for digital inclusion homepage from the Washington University: It is necessary to critically engage with concepts that occupy the digital space and this short analysis of the hacker may serve as a starting point for future research.



1'Othering' is a concept introduced by Edward Said, saying that the construction of a norm usually develops through the demarcation of what they are not. In this case, the french nationality was built upon a notion of anti-semitism and the concept of treason as the biggest offense to the nation state. The concept of 'othering' has also been employed by several other theorists and subaltern researchers, amongst them Gayatri Spivak. See Said: 1977, Spivak: 1985

2Unless explicitly feminist, most literature still addresses the hacker as a male figure. Although of course there are several female hackers, the concept is still connoted as a male identity. In following, this connotation will be applied, however the * indicates the critical engagement with the concept, mirroring the differential gap of power and authority according to the concept of hegemonic masculinity.



Deleuze, G./Guattari, F. (1993): A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minnesota: U of Minnesota Press.

Gold, M.K. (2012): Debates in the Digital Humanities. Open Access Edition

Kuhn, T. S.(1996): The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press. 3rd edition.

Kent, M. (2008): Digital Divide 2.0 and the Digital Subaltern. In: Nebula 5.4, 2008. Accessed July 26th 2013:

Moore-Gilbert, B. (2000): Spivak and Bhabha, In: Schwarz/Ray (ed.), A Companion to Postcolonial Studies. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000, p. 453.

Nakamura, L. (2008): Digitizing Race. Visual Cultures of the Internet. Minnesota: U of Minnesota Press.

Said, E. (1977): Orientalism. London: Penguin

Shah, N. (2012): The Digital Classroom in the Time of WikipediaAccessed July 26th 2013:

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. " Can the Subaltern Speak?" in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Eds. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988: 271-313.

Sterne, J. (2000): Computer Race goes to Class. How Computers in Schools Helped Shape the Racial Topography of the Internet. In: Kolko/Nakamura/Rodman (ed.): Race in Cyberspace. New York/London: Routledge. Accessed 29th July 2013: