XML Version
Brown, S., Clement, T., Mandell, L., Verhoeven, D., Wernimont, J. (2016). Creating Feminist Infrastructure in the Digital Humanities. In Digital Humanities 2016: Conference Abstracts. Jagiellonian University & Pedagogical University, Kraków, pp. 47-50.
Creating Feminist Infrastructure in the Digital Humanities

Creating Feminist Infrastructure in the Digital Humanities

Today, it is imperative that we develop an ideological infrastructure that
both supports and facilitates feminist interventions within connective,
networked elements of the contemporary world. [...] We want to
cultivate the exercise of positive freedom – freedom-to rather than simply
freedom-from – and urge feminists to equip themselves with the skills to
redeploy existing technologies and invent novel cognitive and material tools
in the service of common ends.

Laboria Cubonix, Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation

1. Introduction

This panel considers how gender and digital infrastructures shape each other. Infrastructure can be described as that which creates the conditions of possibility for certain kinds of activities. In the context of digital humanities, infrastructure can refer to physical infrastructure such as servers, software infrastructure in the form of code or a software stack, organizational infrastructure such as a scholarly society, institutional infrastructure such as a DH centre, or methodological infrastructure such as a standard.

As is often observed, infrastructure tends to be transparent or invisible until broken (see Bowker and Starr), rather in the manner that ideological structures can blind us to systemic discrimination and gender bias. Rather than view infrastructure as a transparent mediation, feminist thinking invites broader questions around how we might address the social or relational aspects of infrastructure:

  • How can digital infrastructure, as technologies of connection, support complex, non-binary understanding?
  • How does a systemic approach to information infrastructure offer opportunities for a more systemic political critique within the digital humanities?
  • How can we address the ways in which standards (such as the TEI encoding of sex [Terras]) and procedures (‘organizing logic’ [Posner]) embed values?
  • What would an explicitly ‘ideological infrastructure’ look like? Is it desirable?
  • To what extent can existing infrastructure be adapted for feminist ends and/or do we need to create new forms and instances of infrastructure to redress inequity?

The panel will be a hybrid of the panel- and multiple-paper session. Within each of its three sectioned themes, the panelists specified for a particular subtopic will have the responsibility to open up discussion with short statements of up to 7 minutes, followed by pithy responses from other panel members (who will have read the statements in advance) of up to 5 minutes in total, followed by an invitation to the audience to continue the discussion jointly with us. What is proposed, therefore, is not a series of 5 papers, but a set of interweaving engagements with each other and our audience that will make clear the connections between the component topics.

2. Training and pedagogical traditions

DH Training (Tanya Clement) Project-based research is often heralded as the site of work that defines DH. Indeed, in Willard McCarty’s DH paradigm, the DH practitioner alone possesses ‘an outsider’s objectivity’ and the ‘performative ability to move in and out of disciplines, back and forth between duck and rabbit... while carrying its own intellectual load on its back’ (136). Except, a feminist perspective based on situated knowledges (Haraway, 1998) teaches us that what liberates us from obstacles often blinds us to the opportunities that difficulties illuminate.

This rhetoric of ‘mastery’ over technology threatens an advancement of knowledge production from other perspectives, adopting what Haraway would call ‘the standpoint of the Man, the One God, whose Eye produces, appropriates and orders all difference’ (Haraway, 1988: 587). Further, training in project-related work arguably produces skills- rather than knowledge-based programs, and digital humanists professionals rather than researchers (Clement, 2012; Kraus, 2013; Mahony and Pierazzo, 2012). The debate about whether designing and building tools provides indispensable knowledge about information infrastructures is inflected by the concern that the ability to bridge the ‘building’ gap) largely reflects social privilege.

Clement will posit a contradiction between the presumed goals behind DH work, and the everyday practices of DH scholars and major DH education and training programs. In short, while scholars claim a keen desire to frame infrastructure development in the context of theories such as cultural criticism, feminist inquiry, and post-colonial critique, her investigation indicates that many training programs are not framed in these ways.

Community-based Training and Research Networks (Jacque Wernimont): FemTechNet is an activated network of scholars, artists, and students working on, with, and at the borders of technology, science, and feminism in many fields including Science and Technology Studies, Digital Humanities, Media and Visual Studies, Art, Gender, Queer, and Ethnic Studies. This networked structure works asynchronously and across local and international interventions. A major feature of our work is the series of Distributed Open Collaborative Courses (DOCCs) that recognize the complexities of the learning situation by designing platforms both locally and collectively. They represent new models from which many stakeholders will learn. The DOCCs are alternatives to the ‘reform’ efforts represented by the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which actually do little to change the status quo and can even be counterproductive when promoters oversimplify questions of access, underestimate investments of labor in instructional technology, deny the importance of infrastructure and its human and discursive aspects, and reinforce ideologies about technology being values-neutral.

In addition to curricular work, FemTechNet members collaborate on the design and creation of feminist technological innovations and in so doing extend our networked training into both traditional curriculum, apprenticeship, and non-hierarchical collaboration. Consequently, FemTechNet is a model of research and training infrastructure that foregrounds transparent and locally responsive structures, affords the ability to move up and back as time, expertise, and desire allow, and places feminist principles of equity, justice, and engagement at the fore. It is also a case study in understanding the labor, care, and resources necessary to maintain international cooperation and collaboration. We believe that our infrastructure is as expressive of our intellectual and ethical commitments as any content that we might produce, making the challenges of distributed online work around digital technologies not simply innovative, but also absolutely necessary.

3. Examples of feminist technical infrastructure

To give a sense of the array and complexity of infrastructural concerns, we will frame three quite different technical infrastructure initiatives in relation to feminism.

HuNI (Deb Verhoeven): HuNI, Humanities Networked Infrastructure, is a service that aggregates data from a broad range of humanities disciplines and institutional sources and makes them available to researchers and any members of the public with access to a browser (Verhoeven and Burrows, 2015). HuNI provides users the opportunity to build collections and propose a graph of relationships between records which in turn contribute to a HuNI network graph. As researchers themselves create the links between data, they also produce a kind of ‘vernacular ontology’ which, rather than providing an ‘authoritative’ model of the data, instead allows for diversity, complexity, interpretation and contestability. In this way, HuNI acknowledges ‘difference’ in the representation and organisation of knowledge and underlines the way in which gender (and other ‘differences’) are socially produced rather than empirical givens.

ARC (Laura Mandell): ARC, the Advanced Research Consortium, is the parent group overseeing and supporting NINES, 18thConnect, MESA, and the forthcoming ReKN and ModNets. These period-specific, online finding aids and scholarly communities work with traditional scholars to encourage digital production: they provide peer review for digital projects, and guidance along the way. ARC supports that work by hosting the web interfaces for these groups, the SOLR server feeding them metadata, providing the Lucene search engine that powers the online finding aids. ARC also coordinates with proprietary companies to import their data into these online finding aids in order to make them into comprehensive research environments. Finally, ARC is attempting to build a sustainability plan for the group by selling BigDIVA, the Big Data Infrastructure Visualization Application ( http://www.bigdiva.org).

ARC is not explicitly a feminist infrastructure, but it is noteworthy that it was originally designed by a feminist, Bethany Nowviskie, and is currently directed by a feminist, Laura Mandell. It is possible, however, that the ethic of service and care is a form of stealth feminist infrastructure (Brown, 2008), channeling technological and social structures toward serving and educating the academy. Indeed, this infrastructure has a service focus: the period-specific groups attempt to serve scholars, to educate them about best practices in the peer-review procedure, to work with them in building up projects and creating metadata about those projects. ARC serves the period-specific communities so that they can focus on outreach to traditional scholars. At a recent two-day ARC meeting, including one or two directors from each period-specific group, we spent a full fifth of our meeting time discussing sexism and its impact on our work: the ARC board is made up of feminist men and women attempting to intervene in the way that the academy does its normal business.

CWRC (Susan Brown): The Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory is a feminist project in drag: built on a feminist recovery initiative (Brown et al 2006-15), it was a bid to gain infrastructure funding for several projects in women’s writing, but its scope was strategically broadened and generalized to ‘writing in and about Canada’. At least in 2009 in Canada, focusing on ostensibly neutral infrastructure was apparently a better strategy for gaining funding than a research grant application focused on women’s writing. Hence ‘drag’: we weren’t disguising who we were, but dressing ourselves up in infrastructural (read male) clothing, performing the ‘neutral’. As a virtual research environment, CWRC tried to take on board the insights of scholars such as Lucy Suchman that we needed to design for situated, embodied, that is sexed and gendered, subjects. Nevertheless, the project struggled throughout with the divide between form and content, technical and subject expertise, that has largely characterized the division between the digital humanities and feminist scholarship, even as CWRC supports projects that investigate gender, race, nationality, and sexuality in diverse ways.

4. Infrastructure, collaboration, and credit

We will conclude by tackling the thorny question of credit, awkward though it is to articulate. Infrastructure development’s implicit relation to service means that the development of research infrastructure is not considered research per se but rather is consigned to the role of research ‘support’ and is therefore not ‘accountable’ as a specific research outcome in a range of contexts. To materialize research infrastructure is a process that is clearly distinguished from the reality produced: a covert operation, not a recognized result. And yet the devising and development of new systems might equally be seen as the devising and development of their standards, measures, and meanings and the principles of their provenance in which the restless, transformative, and connective work of infrastructure can be understood as a form of inventiveness and interpretive resourcefulness too.

Collaboration is both highly prized in the digital humanities as a privileged, indeed essential (Price, 2011: 9) form of scholarly practice. Yet, we would contend on the basis of a number of stories arising from our own experience and knowledge of others’, it is also fraught for women to the extent that their contributions are more prone than men’s to be overlooked or misattributed. We will provide a few largely anonymized examples of having work misattributed, credit or authorship erased (or absorbed into a project identity), and contributions to fields ignored, followed by discussion of how to combat such tendencies.

The panel, we hope, will help to improve understanding of 1) the extent to which even something as apparently neutral or apolitical as infrastructure is imbued with gender and other socio-political considerations; 2) the impact of systemic gender and racial discrimination in a range of infrastructural contexts, notwithstanding the extent to which so many DH practitioners work hard to overcome the biases embedded in our cultures and our discourses; and 3) current and prospective strategies for countering those biases. We will seek to engage the audience throughout this session to include in the panel’s discussions a broad range of perspectives on and positions in relation to infrastructure.

Successful infrastructure has the capacity to transform the world in which we already (co‑)exist. Digital humanities infrastructure can open up new visions of the world in which we live, and invite contemplation of the different ways in which we might live, and work, in it.

  1. Bowker, G. C. and Starr, S. L. (2000). Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences. Cambridge, MIT Press.
  2. Brown, S. (2008). ‘Delivery/Service.’ In Smith, M. N., et al., Agora.Techno.Phobia.Philia2: feminist critical inquiry, knowledge building, digital humanities. Panel at Digital Humanities 2008. Oulu Finland. http://www.rch.uky.edu/docs/DigitalHumanities2008BookOfAbstracts.pdf
  3. Brown, S, Clements, P and Grundy, I. (2006-2015). Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. http://orlando.cambridge.org
  4. Clement, T. (2012). Multiliteracies in the Undergraduate Digital Humanities Curriculum: Skills, Principles, and Habits of Mind.’ In Hirsch, B. D. (Ed.) Digital Humanities Pedagogy: Practices, Principles and Politics. Cambridge, Open Book Publishers. http://www.openbookpublishers.com/reader/161#page/1/mode/2up
  5. Haraway, D. (1988). Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies, 14(3): 575–99.
  6. Harding, S. G. (1986). The Science Question in Feminism. Ithaca, Cornell University Press.
  7. Kraus, K. (2013). Alt-Research for Humanities PhDs. Kari Kraus. http://www.karikraus.com/?p=234
  8. Laboria Cubonix Collective. Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation. http://www.laboriacuboniks.net/
  9. Mahony, S. and Pierazzo, E. (2015). 8. Teaching Skills or Teaching Methodology?, Digital Humanities Pedagogy: Practices, Principles and Politics Cambridge, Open Book Publishers, pp. 215–25. http://www.openbookpublishers.com/reader/161#page/1/mode/2up
  10. McCarty, W. (2005). Humanities Computing. New York, Palgrave Macmillan.
  11. Price, K. M. (2011). Collaborative work and the conditions for American literary scholarship in a digital age. In Earhart, A. E. and Jewell, A. (Ed.) The American Literature Scholar in the Digital Age. Ann Arbor, University of Michgan Presss, pp. 9-27. http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/etlc.9362034.0001.001
  12. Suchman, L. A. (1987). Plans and Situated Actions: The Problem of Human-Machine Communication. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  13. Terras, M. (2015). On Changing the Rules of the Digital Humanities. Melissa Terras’ Blog. http://melissaterras.blogspot.com/2013/05/on-changing-rules-of-digital-humanities.html
  14. Verhoeven, D. and Burrows, T. (2015). Aggregating Cultural Heritage Data for Research Use: The Humanities Networked Infrastructure (HuNI). In Garoufallou, E. and Hartley, R. J. (Eds.) Metadata and Semantics Research, Proceedings of the 9th Research Conference. Springer, Cham, Computer and Information Science 544, pp. 417-423. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-24129-6_36