HASTAC V Conference Reflections, Vision, Disappointment, Praxis
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The HASTAC V Conference at the University of Michigan covered an incredibly broad span of approaches to the digital humanities, and above all demonstrated that it is a field still rich difference, providing significant fuel for discussions.
The morning started out with an impassioned and inspiring keynote from Cathy Davidson. Her talk discussed the link between neuroscience and social resistance to transformation. Throughout a talk that included an interactive and collaborative exercise, which was highly illuminating, Cathy discussed the many social conventions that shape our approaches to learning, including the learned habits from timed tests that force people to work alone instead of collaborating. Cathy pointed out how in some indigenous or asian cultures, or when considered by greek philosophers, individualistic, silent approaches to knowledge and learning would be unthinkable.
In her talk, Cathy talked about how both grading and bubble tests are horribly reductive and problematic. I still think a dog is a farm animal. I appreciated Cathy talking about trying out other grading systems and "getting in trouble" for it. My biggest question after the talk was if we all agree that grading is not just reductive, but some profesors like K. Wayne Yang at UCSD call it immoral that the job of professors is to "sort out" students, then how can we make real concrete gains towards ending letter/numeric grades, now?
Her talk ended with a call for people to not simply blame institutions for problems, but to take responsibility for their own complicity with and participation in institutions. I couldn't help but hear a resonance of her recent excellent article on UC Davis police brutality and resonance of the Occupy movement more broadly in this part of her talk.
Later in the day I felt very differently about the keynote speech by Jim Leach of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which I was deeply troubled by. A primary claim of Leach's talk was that the digital humanities must take up a "civilizing project". I missed some of the talk, but I found this claim to be unacceptable. The talk revealed to me what deep splits exist in our field, to see a keynote speech that was so egregious to my own values. Certainly, if there is a need of a civilizing mission, there are people who are uncivilized in Leach's view. I was troubled by his reference to "our" conflict with "the Arab World", which seemed to act as the Other in need of civilizing. This forumlation made a troubling conflation between "us" and the United States, a claim which I already have trouble accepting.
Leach went on to propose a new digital class which would take up this civilizing mission, based on choice and access. This was, to me, a troubling conflation that smoothed over the fact that many don't have a choice to join the digital class because they lack access and often access is determined by social structures of inequality including gender, race, ability, sexuality, immigration status. Here is where I find myself firmly in the post-humanities with Donna Haraway and Judith Halberstam and many other theorists working to address the limitations of the liberal humanist subject and the way that it forecloses discussion of its own limitations, of who gets to be a rational subject and who is deemed irrational and uncivilized, often on the basis of the social structures I listed above. In Halberstam's new book The Queer Art of Failure, he claims that certain CIG based children's "cartoons expose the fact that what parades as civilization is actually barbarism," the barbarism that the United States is currently involved in, killing innocent people in "the Arab World" on a daily basis in the name of a civilizing project of democracy. Such a project is not one I can accept or parcipate in as a digital (post)humanities scholar.
Perhaps the most deeply troubling part of the talk was then Leach discussed slavery. While he said it was unfathomable that people were made into commodities, he also framed slavery as part of "our" country's "imperfect" history. Again, at this moment I had to recall Tara Mcpherson's essay "Why Are the Digital Humanities So White?" and look around the room and ask the same question. Only in a huge full auditorium with only a handful of African-American people in attendance could people accept a statement claiming that slavery was imperfect, as opposed to murderous, tragic and genocidal. I do not find the murdering of over ten million African people in the slave trade to be imperfect, but far, far worse. This moment indicated to me the very serious work that needs to be done by digital humanities to address the lack of understanding of work being done around race, gender, sexuality and other forms of social inequality, by scholars like McPherson and Lisa Nakamura and how it shapes our understandings of technology.
Perhaps my favorite moment of the conference was the roundtable "From the Center: Facilitating Feminist Praxis and Pedagogy Through Collaboration" with Margaret Rhee, Isela Gonzales and Allyse Gray. This inspiring project is not simply theorizing about what needs to be done by digital humanitists, it is deep in the challenges and contradictions and work that is involved with applying a digital story telling approach to HIV/AIDS prevention with women incarcerated in SF County Jails. As I am attempting to do my own current research from a prison abolitionist framework, I found their talk not only deeply inspiring but also incredibly important and relevant to the questions that I am working with.
Overall, the HASTAC conference was an incredibly rich experience, and perhaps the most important moments were the wonderful receptions where we could discuss our own work and our own concerns with other scholars in attendance. Over and over again I would start up a conversation with someone only to be amazed by the high caliber of their work and the many resonances their work had with my own. I am so deeply grateful to the conference organizers, to HASTAC and specifically to Fiona Barnett for facilitating the HASTAC scholars participation in this year's conference. I feel that all of their hard work resulted in an incredibly well executed conference, one of the best events I have been to in a long time, and I will cerainly see you in Toronto!