Conference Thoughts: Queer Studies and the Digital Humanities

This weekend, I attended the LA Queer Studies conference. I’ve been every year since I first moved to LA in 2006, and presented three times; it’s a wonderful, welcoming conference that always leaves me feeling inspired and excited by queer scholarship. This year was one of the best, even though I missed the second day’s fashion show. Amanda Phillips has blogged about it, including an encounter we shared with some beautiful merkins.

I took part in a panel with Amanda, Micha Cárdenas, and Margaret Rhee on “Techno-Queer Self Fashioning: Digital Theory by Digital Praxis.” Our talks, on the possibility of butchness for gaming avatars (Amanda), the process of documenting the first Asian drag king troupe (Margaret), wearable electronics and––a concept with which I am in love––femme science (Micha) and vidding as queer critical fandom (me) were incredibly well received. Though our topics were very different, their shared central concern with thinking theory through creative practice, and with the necessity of a deep understanding of the technologies through which our critical and creative works are mediated, gave them many cross-connections and mutual coherences. I even had someone come up to me afterward and tell me she was a fan of the Cylon Vidding Machine, which was rather amazing.

Micha Cárdenas has blogged about the conference and the panel, bringing together keynote speaker Karen Tongson’s insights with our work, and has brought up some questions that I think are incredibly important––and that follow on from previous discussions in which I’ve been involved.

Tongson was discussing how Queer Theory used to be seen as a “hip, trendy” field to be in, when people still thought it was ripe with possibility for disruption and that now it seemed more institutionally tamed. (It’s hard to convey here the combination of sarcasm and actual sense of dissolusionment) Similarly, she said, with a bit of irony perhaps, that the Digital Humanities is the new hot, sellable commodity. … At times I fear or I feel that CCS discussions, or Digital Humanities discussions, can run down a road that is very conservative, by trying to bring together technologists/coders with humanities people/critical theory people/artists, yet never really getting beyond the initial conflicts of interest. Perhaps my concern is that the lack of a shared commitment to feminist, anti-racist, queer critiques involved in such a broad grouping creates a situation in which a lot of ground work has to be laid, and all the time gets spent laying that ground work.

My questions are: Is queer new media really so rare? Or are queer/feminist/women of color analyses of new media really so rare? Do you think there is often something very conservative, even sellable, that is appealing to corporations or to university regents or investors, that is often present in discussions of the digital humanities? Do you think there is still some radical potential for queer theory or new media or the digital humanities to disturb hegemonic systems of power that facilitate violence against certain groups of people every day and protect the interests of others?

These are the questions that I’ve been wrestling with ever since I started engaging with digital humanities discourse. I don’t think queer/feminist/women of color analyses of new media are rare at all, but I do think that more of them happen outside the academy than within it; I feel like often within the digital humanities area, there can be something of a fetishization of methodology that doesn’t let critical ideas go all the way to their conclusions.

I think that maybe a lot of queer/critical ethnic studies/similar scholars also lack access to the resources that make it easier to combine digital and humanities work. That might not only mean physical access and training in technology, but also the time to add yet another interdisciplinary element to a project. This is also a self-perpetuating process, in that new scholars might not realize that it’s possible to combine those elements, or think it is more difficult to do so than it actually is, if they don’t have mentors or models. But, again, my experience suggests that many, many politicized queers and people of color engaged in scholarly work in and out of the academy do use digital tools and think critically about them and even create them; they just don’t necessarily do so under the sign of the digital humanities. Whether they should is a question I certainly don’t know the answer to.

These issues are in fact the very topic of a roundtable at another conference, the American Studies Association conference in Baltimore this weekend, where I will be participating along with my fellow Queer Studies panelist Amanda Phillips, our panel chair Anna Everett, and Anne Cong-Huyen, Tanner Higgin, Marta S. Rivera Monclova, and Melanie Kohnen. If you’re attending, we’re on Friday at 10am in Hilton Baltimore Ruth. If you’re not going to ASA, the description is copied below; conference internet access willing, we will be trying to have a public set of notes and to engage in conversation with those who can’t attend the conference via Twitter and Google Docs.

In an era of widespread budget cuts at universities across the United States, scholars in the digital humanities are gaining recognition in the institution through significant grants, awards, new departments and cluster hires. At the same time, ethnic studies departments are losing ground, facing deep cuts and even disbandment. Though the apparent rise of one and retrenchment of the other may be the result of anti-affirmative action, post-racial, and neoliberal rhetoric of recent decades and not related to any effect of one field on the other, digital humanities discussions do often elide the difficult and complex work of talking about racial, gendered, and economic materialities, which are at the forefront of ethnic and gender studies. Suddenly, the (raceless, sexless, genderless) technological seems the only aspect of the humanities that has a viable future.

The increasing precariousness of the job market, which results in an unprecedented increase in part-time, adjunct, and non tenure-track hires, makes it important to consider issues of labor and inequality based on difference – whether in terms of race, gender, sexuality, or disability. Even tenured faculty have difficulty justifying their ambitious, non-traditional digital projects to funding agencies; ethnic and queer studies faculty–so often dual appointments or contingent positions–face additional challenges when planning digital projects. We must also consider the impact of technology on labor beyond academia. How, for example, is this current discourse of digital humanities ill-equipped to deal with issues of production and consumption, such as the Asian American women workers who build computer parts or the disposal of e-waste in Ghana? Moreover, how can we build a digital humanities that creates better tools and forms of collaboration, but is also attentive to the gendering of hardware and software tools, or is sensitive to the exclusionary practices of collaboration?

This roundtable consists of a panel of graduate students and recent PhDs who work on gender, queerness, race, and additional forms of difference in digital culture, moderated by Anna Everett, senior digital humanities professor. Focused on issues affecting more junior scholars, it emerged out of critical conversations that began at the 2011 MLA convention and continued at the Southern California digital humanities unconference THATCamp. First, we ask how “digital humanities” has been defined; who benefits from that definition? How can digital humanities benefit from more diverse critical paradigms, including race/ethnic studies and gender/sexuality studies? And what can modes of digital scholarship and pedagogy offer to scholars and teachers in American Studies? Our panel will discuss various ways digital scholarly work can productively engage with these lenses of critical cultural studies and solicit new ones. What works of digital scholarship, art, activism and pedagogy enable new possibilities for activating transformations in contemporary US cultural politics?

The issues of scholarly fashion and impact, significance and marketability that both Micha and our ASA panel bring up are especially salient for me at the moment, because I am finishing my PhD and applying for academic jobs. My future is open and uncertain, and despite the anxiety that involves, I feel glad for all I’ve been able to explore during my PhD and for the range of opportunities open to me as an interdisciplinary, international scholar. Now I’m wondering how the department in which I end up will shape my future contributions to these conversations…

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