On Why I’m On The Fence About Digital Humanities

In her essay titled Why Are the Digital Humanities So White?, Tara McPherson writes:

“We must remember that computers are themselves encoders of culture. If in the 1960s and 1970s, UNIX hardwired an emerging system of covert racism into our mainframes and our minds, then computation responds to culture as much as it controls it. Code and race are deeply intertwined, even as the structures of code labor to disavow these very connections (McPherson 155.)”


[Video from Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency Project. More on this near the end. Note that the talking heads are well established games journalists.]

The driving concept behind McPherson’s argument is that UNIX, when it was originally conceptualized– was not only ignorant of the tacit racism of the 60s and 70s– it was in fact a product of it. McPherson illustrates this through a lengthy and sophisticated argument where she works to draw this out by applying textual analyses to the languages surrounding coding. McPherson traces a pre-eminent focus on object oriented styles and the modular nature in UNIX with the purposes of highlighting 20th century themes of separation and racial politics.


State of Exception

[UNIX is not the Agambinian “State of Exception” that McPherson makes it out to be.]

In particular, the last sentence of the quote above is especially important, as this is where McPherson shows how the project now is engaged in a process where it is trying to distance itself from its own history. In a manner of speaking, the separation of itself from its own historico-political projects contains a similar motivation to a great deal of 21st century museum practices, which seek to distance the museum from its roots in colonial exhibitions (which we read about regarding the Tate Modern and the demolition of the Bamiyan from the VCR two weeks ago.) There’s just one problem. McPherson’s reading is a tectonic oversimplification of UNIX as a workbench, and she greatly twists its history as such in order to meet her own critical readings, which themselves are plagued by the very techno-determinism that she is trying to problematize. She realizes this at times, but at others it escapes her in ways that do not endear me to her essay.

One of the most interesting points that McPherson makes is in how the modular nature of UNIX is part of what is contributing to the “lenticular” structure of modern racism, which she argues has since been written into the very structure of our operating systems  (McPherson 148.) In a manner of speaking, like the Derridean mystic writing pad, the computer is writing me, as I write on it. She may very well be correct, but she seems to be missing the point that not only is epistemology “lenticular” (and not as a result of computers), our very subjectivity is “lenticular”– and that, in fact, the very “lenticular” nature of our subjectivity is in many cases a good thing because it is a process that enables us to live through trauma. The “lenticular” concept that she is writing about is a problem that extends all the way back to cartesian optics, and the way she addresses it through stereoscopic postcards is a clever insight. Nevertheless, it left me cold because in part, it pushes her into making a boring argument about “false consciousness” as a model of ideology for explaining UNIX’s modular nature as another form of tacit racism (McPherson 147, 149.) In other words, my reply would be that UNIX didn’t make itself, and moreover UNIX isn’t making itself– and it has changed a lot since it was first created.



[Linux Object Oriented Programming Modular History]

McPherson also plays a little bit of the revisionist when it comes to the history of UNIX and why it was created. She seems to forget that UNIX was designed precisely for accessibility and flexibility so that people could code on whatever platforms were available to them wherever they were/are in the world. I’m not saying that all UNIX coders are bricoleurs, romantically creating political material out of what is available to them at hand– but, this is essentially why it was designed in the first place! (It was also designed so that people would not need to use C++, which is hilariously beyond the abilities of most people who are interested in the digital humanities– which is to say nothing of digital storytelling.)


Unix Architecture

[How UNIX transforms complicated C++ commands into a user friendly architecture. You can’t blame a camera for making you look silly.]

Of course our technology formations are bound up in our racial formations. Ray Kurzweil and the other various modern futurists out there who frequently pop up in your Facebook newsfeed from your semi-new-agey friends who like to speculate about whether or not the world is a “simulation”, are the paragon examples of this! There is however a difference between racially informed technology and racial thinking, and McPherson frequently loses sight of this and participates in the latter. This becomes even clearer when we consider the fact that UNIX isn’t even a coding language! It’s a framing language of C++, which means you can change it as much as you need to in order to get it to work how you want it to. Furthermore it’s designed so that it’s not stupid-difficult to learn. To me, McPherson sounds a lot like the digital humanists that Ian Bogost is castigating when he writes:

“We don’t make reform our mission because we secretly hate the idea of partaking of and in the greater world, even as we purport to give it voice, to speak of its ills through critical esoterics no public ear could ever grasp. Instead we colonize that world– all in the name of liberation, of course– in order to return its spoils to our fetid den of Lacanian self-denial. We masticate on culture for the pleasure of praising our own steaming shit (Bogost 242.)”

Also, in all of this castigation of the digital humanities, I couldn’t help but wonder, where is the critique of tacit sexism? After all, a majority of programmers are dudes at the moment. Maybe we should be looking at who goes for STEM degrees, instead of focusing on coding language. Just saying…

One organization that came up in the readings, and which is using UNIX in brilliant ways is Steve Kurz’s Critical Arts Ensemble (CAE). CAE is an organization that creates digital media and real world performance projects for the public which front-load strong leftist projects in works referred to as “Tactical Media.” Another similar organization is Alexander Galloway’s Radical Software Group (RSG), which has strong roots in cryptography. Both organizations have clear educational agendas alongside strong political agendas, and they are both using technology in ways that– instead of ‘perpetuating tacit racism through their use of UNIX’– are actively geared towards instantiating and protecting creative publicly focused intellectual work and, more importantly, digital public space. I also could have listed Ricardo Dominguez’s project here as another blatant counter example to Tara McPherson’s argument, but it would have been too easy. (His project would not have been possible without a coding language!)





In the realm of Digital Storytelling, two great examples I can think of are the video game bloggers Anita Sarkeesian and Carolyn Petit. Both are established commentators. Petit is a professional journalist and Sarkeesian is fashioning herself into a well known digital feminist academic activist. Both are part of the vanguard of contemporary games journalism. Where Sarkeesian spends generous amounts of time creating video content for the web deconstructing gender and sexuality in video games, Petit deftly weaves critical theory into readable games criticism from the perspective of a trans woman who loves to play games. Both have become flashpoints for conversations about journalism where they have cut their teeth dealing with sexist youtube commentators and media institutions which are hostile to their very identities. And moreover– contrary to the ethos that “games are the undiscovered country of the digital humanities” (read Damasceno here)– both Sarkeesian and Petit have been around for a while, which points to the fact that instead of trying to give voice or help people find voice, maybe DH should instead just shut the hell up and start listening.


[Anita Sarkeesian’s first episode of Feminist Frequency. It’s also worth noting that this was a kickstarter project.]

Petit’s work is interesting in it’s own right. Surrounding commentary has had a lot to say about her as a journalist, which of course includes the usual ignorance, but Petit is doing just fine. She has done a good job of rebutting people who have tried to turn her into a token Trans writer, but has also made a point of drawing unavoidable attention to problems in digital media where she is able to. Many have tried to argue as well, that she was hired on as a journalist “because of her identity”, but when it comes down to it Petit is an outstanding writer with an eye for presentation, which gives her the ability to tactically challenge discourses that get leveled at her on the internet. The fact that she produced a video review for a major piece of software for a major website is indicative of this.


[Carolyn Petit’s review of Grand Theft Auto V.]

All of this isn’t to say that the climates in which Sarkeesian and Petit are working have been open to them in the ways that they have been open to white men in the field of games journalism– but the discursive nature of the internet is a double-edged sword, and times are changing. Sarkeesian and Petit are out there everyday showing us that digital content isn’t necessarily inherently sexist or racist, but that instead the people who create them and the way that they derive power from the institutions that create and publish digital media, are things that warrant more focus, alongside a prolonged study of how people read and consume digital media.


Works Cited:

McPherson, Tara. “Why Are the Digital Humanities So White?” From: Debates in the Digital Humanities. Ed. Matthew K Gold. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, MN 2012. Book

Damasceno, Cristiane Sommer. “Chapter 4: Paying Attention to the Chocolate Covered Broccoli: How Videogames Can Change The Way You Understand Teaching.” From: HASTAC [http://www.hastac.org/blogs/cristiane-sommer-damasceno/2013/08/01/chapter-four-paying-attention-chocolate-covered-broccoli]