#transformDH and transformativity

At MLA, Jentery Sayers gave a paper that cited the TransformDH Tumblr, which I previously linked at my post on digital praxis as theory––which Jentery also cited in his MLA talk. (I’m honored.) I was travelling at the time and only caught up on Twitter, but it seems that some controversy has ensued in this post by Roger Whitson,
Does DH Really Need to be Transformed?. The short version of his post is that the digital humanities don’t need to be transformed, as #transformDH is demanding; they are already marvelously welcoming and collaborative.

I certainly don’t deny his experience. But, to me at least, it feels tangential to what #transformDH has actually been setting out to do.

The Tumblr linked above was started, not after MLA, but after our American Studies Association roundtable titled “Transformative Mediations? Queer and Ethnic Studies and the Politics of the Digital.” Since then, the six of us who were on the panel have been gathering other collaborators to think about these concerns, organizing under the hashtag #transformDH. At the ASA panel, we agonized over our hashtag. #criticalintersectionalqueerandethnicstudiesDH is, to say the least, a bit too long; but #queerDH erases race. #criticalDH implies that most DH is not critical, which seems a bit unfair to a discipline so rooted in textual analysis. We settled on #transformDH because it seemed memorable and provocative, and because it linked to the title of our panel.

I think the title “Transformative Mediations” was mine originally, though it’s difficult to remember who wrote what in our collaboratively created panel description. The phrase comes from my situatedness at the intersection of critical media studies and queer studies; I am interested in how our various engagements with media can be transformative, shaping identities and communities and politics and worlds. (I’m also interested in the production and consumption of transformative works of media, art, and fiction, and I liked the terminological resonance.) ‘The politics of the digital’ has tended to be a more important idea to me than ‘the digital humanities,’ but as I’ve spent more time with my HASTAC and #transformDH collaborators, I’ve come to believe there is a place in DH for the kind of critical work of simultaneous production and critique that I am interested in making.

As the phrase #transformDH proliferated, it began to be seen more as an imperative than as a description of present creations and future possibilities. It has become a site for critique of what Natalia Cecire has acutely diagnosed, in her Defense of Transforming DH, as the endemic liberalism of DH: the common, though far from ubiquitous, presumption that racialized and gendered experiences in and out of the academy won’t affect people’s experiences in the big welcoming tent. I agree with Natalia: I think such antagonisms have their uses. Though I am unsettled that the presence of queer and ethnic studies theories and critiques has become an interpretive claim that she makes about #transformDH; from where I’m standing, that has always been the central, crucial point.

I’m also happy to say that I’ve had many great experiences, at MLA and other conferences, since I started talking with the DH community and stopped assuming that my orientation toward critical cultural studies would exclude me from participation. I think that most of the #transformDH group have felt similarly welcomed. I think that most of us also felt that the majority of DH projects did not speak to our areas of queer, feminist, critical race studies, cultural studies (within which we study a wide range of literature, theory, media and culture between us). We started #transformDH to think about how those interests might intersect with DH–how, most importantly, they might already be intersecting. We were not, I think, trying to take away from the good experiences others have had in the DH community: just to add to them, in the specific ways that mattered to us, transformatively.

3 thoughts on “#transformDH and transformativity

  1. Brian Lennon

    I hope it will not happen, but you may find in time that the welcoming attitude will be overwritten by covert or overt aggression, as critiques of the socially and politically static or regressive motives of some (not all) “DH” institution-building begin to take hold.

    I think you have many allies (strong ones, if relatively quiet, measured in social media decibels), who will be following the conversation around #transformDH in solidarity.

  2. Alexis Lothian Post author

    Thanks for your comment!

    There are certainly instances we could point towards as covert aggression already––but also great organizations like HASTAC that are committed to keeping critical cultural analysis at the center of digital intellectual work. I hope we can continue to have more of the latter than the former, regardless of those in the more established DH community remain uninterested and/or defensive.

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