Fashioning Feminism: On Bodies of Information.

William & Mary

What does a bulletproof dress prototype have to do with the digital humanities?

A lot actually, according to artist micha cárdenas. Such a garment, which was crafted from Kevlar airbags scavenged from a junkyard, could be capable of stopping a 9mm bullet. It’s one of the objects featured in the latest addition to the Debates in the Digital Humanities series, Bodies of Information: Intersectional Feminism and Digital Humanities.

As a piece of apparel, the dress dramatizes the higher risk of mortality that people of color face in confrontations with law enforcement. Of course, communities allied with #BlackLivesMatter are also deploying statistics, metadata (like hashtags), and even information visualizations to quantify how the inequities of state power do violence to black and brown bodies, as well as how activists can mobilize in response. Nonetheless, the metallic clothing created by cárdenas represents a critical kind of “embodied gesture” that she argues is as essential as big data number crunching, if not more so.

Others in this new collection, such as Marcia Chatelain – creator of the #Ferguson Syllabus – and Beth Coleman of the City as Platform Lab, similarly make the argument that #BLM should present central rather than peripheral concerns for digital humanities practitioners in the academy.

Furthermore, digital humanities scholars “can extend their work to be more accessible to low-income people,” cárdenas writes, “and to considerations of nondigital technologies, by abstracting the concept of algorithms to include recipes and rituals.”

Bringing DIY craftivism to the digital humanities is a commitment for Kim Brillante Knight as well. This scholar of “viral media” uses an unusual form of data visualization to depict the frequency of the use of the #prolife hashtag on Twitter. Rather than show a word cloud or network graph, Knight uses five pink LEDs as a meter to measure the occurrences of the relevant tweets.

“The medium for the visualization is a black T-shirt,” Knight explains, “onto which I have hand embroidered reproductive organs: a uterus, fallopian tubes, cervix, and part of a vagina.” The project also uses microcontroller technology and conductive thread.

Other evocative objects – such as yearbook photos – become artifacts of critical reflection in the new volume. Texas A&M professor Amy Earhart describes the unintended consequences of digital humanities projects that reveal sites of institutional shame. For example, she includes images from a project digitizing college memorabilia that reveal photos of student organizations with members proudly “wearing their Klan robes, with typical cross insignia, hoods, and brandishing swords.”

Rather than merely digitizing archives without reflecting on their design – who is included, what is excluded, and why some histories are deemed not worth preserving – this collection encourages digital humanities researchers to question what gets privileged in a library of rare materials and how digital archives can foster different perceptions of the historical record.

Brandeis medievalist Dorothy Kim, who has been a lightning rod for alt-right abuse online, invites us to consider what gets lost when we only experience the digital copy of a text. Kim notes that solely its visual elements are captured, and its other sensory features become lost. “Medieval reading practices were not linear,” Kim asserts, “often required vocality to read out loud or sing out loud, ideally required slow and repetitive rereading, were emotive, and involved sound, smell, touch, taste, visual, and even bodily calisthenics.”

The epistemological rethinking that digital technologies make possible is highlighted in many of the groundbreaking essays in the volume, including “Toward a Queer Digital Humanities” by Bonnie Ruberg, Jason Boyd, and James Howe.

Ruberg, Boyd, and Howe articulate basic principles: “If queer knowledge always resists completion, it becomes clear that queering metadata means more than adding new vocabulary to existing taxonomical systems. Queerness also points toward a shift in the very methodologies of metadata collection. To queer metadata, queer thinking must be brought to bear on the conceptual models and tools of object description as well as its content.”

The collection even includes Deb Verhoeven’s “Be More Than Binary” challenge to the international digital humanities community, as well as a number of essays that question what it means to speak of “community” in the digital humanities at all.

In emphasizing the importance of feminist digital humanities, this collection does much more than merely highlight digital archives that commemorate the previously hidden accomplishments of women. In addition to acknowledging transgender and nonbinary forms of digital humanities, these essays consider what is feminized as well as what is female. For example, Sharon Leon acknowledges the many professional roles that disprove the “Great Man” myth. And Julia Flanders encourages her audience to interrogate assumptions about all technical systems of knowledge production as they think about both print and digital publication processes. Flanders reflects upon how her own Women Writers Project “mirrored a shift in feminist theory from a second-wave attention to the visibility and rights of women . . . to a third-wave focus on how the structure of discourse enacts and reinforces cultural power dynamics of gender, race, class, coloniality, and other differentials.” There is also a wonderful essay by Susan Brown, who celebrated the 20th anniversary of Orlando recently, that deconstructs aversions to tropes of delivery and service associated with the “handmaiden” position in the digital humanities with an incisive reading of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

As we performed our own informational labor as the editors/handmaids of this book – collating comments from the peer-to-peer review process or indexing the key terms in the volume – we found ourselves marveling at the sophistication of the feminist thinking modeled in this collection and the fundamental questions that it explored. Sadly a single blog post can’t do justice to the dazzling array of ideas in a table of contents that concludes with two essays about why videogame design and analysis of its player community practices might rightly belong with the growing corpus of digital humanities scholarship.

Readers are likely to appreciate how this book challenges existing attitudes and stereotypes about a rapidly expanding field. As an added benefit, with its affordable cover price and open access launch in a few months, Bodies of Information also offers a rich set of resources for students who are interested in exploring how digital technologies can promote activist scholarship, community alliances, and public engagement in the academy.


Elizabeth Losh is associate professor of English and American studies at The College of William & Mary with a specialization in new media ecologies. She is coeditor, with Jacqueline Wernimont, of Bodies of Information: Intersectional Feminism and Digital Humanities; author of Virtualpolitik and The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University; and coauthor of Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing.
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