Our readings this week have me thinking again about Robert Hayden’s poem “Those Winter Sundays,” a much anthologized sonnet about a blue-collar father building fires in a fireplace and a son who, too late, realizes the subtle importance of this act. The poem concludes with the question: “What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?”—austere here meaning “unadorned,” and “offices” referring to either a kindness done for others or a ritualized religious prayer (or both). It’s a rhetorical question, really, as in: How could I have known that love can take the form of continuous, humble, thankless labor? And the regretful and sympathetic quivering in the son’s voice—“What did I know, what did I know”—drives home the additional unsaid: …until now.
It’s this double formulation of love—as both subtle labor and an (even-belated) appreciation for the laborer—that I’d like to use to catalyze a line of questioning through our five readings on the digital humanities (DH) practice of building within public and academic knowledge infrastructures. Think of this more as a yeast starter than a fully baked loaf, a noodle flung against the wall than one finely plated.
We see the first kind of love—the father’s love, a love through building—in Kim Gallon’s case for Black DH as “a technology of recovery” that is “characterized by efforts to bring forth the full humanity of marginalized people through the use of digital platforms and tools,” and in Todd Presner’s description of DH’s expansive “ethic of participation and curation” as one lying in the ideal of “participation without condition.” Together, these seem to formulate an idea that DH practitioners can and do demonstrate love to those outside of the DH community (i.e., in the public knowledge infrastructure) through the labor of their building work.
The second kind of love—the son’s love, a love for the builder—in this DH context perhaps could be thought of as an appreciation and advocacy for those “doing the work” of the first order, particularly in an academic institutional context. In this way, we might see the three other readings—from Stephen Jackson’s call for “subtle acts of care” and repair that will allow us to “love, and love deeply, a world of things” that are essential to engaged DH practice, to Brian Greenspan’s defense of DH as a field whose fault is only in its “making all too visible the dirty gears that drive the scholarly machine,” to Stephen Ramsay and Geoffrey Rockwell’s validation of DH’s building practice as “a distinct form of scholarly endeavor, both in the humanities and beyond”—all showing love for DH practitioners through increased visibility and professional recognition within the academic knowledge infrastructure. (Importantly about the father, in the Hayden: “No one ever thanked him.”)
For class, perhaps we want to linger in this space for some time to ask whether and when we consider DH to be an extension of the incessant churn of technological innovation and neoliberal management, and whether and when we consider DH to participate in a craft of continuous, humble, thankless building—and its extensions: repairing, recovering, participating—that can be held up and focused on as an act of love and care, to transformative effect, both inside and outside of the academy.
Perhaps we want to consider other intersections:
- What about the way that Jane Bennett talks about the independent lives of things seems relevant for Ramsay and Rockwell’s project of establishing built things (especially facilitating, non-discursive “tools”) as non-secondary forms of scholarship? Or for Greenspan’s argument that the “scandal” of DH is that it “reveal[s] the system’s components” and scrutinizes “the material underpinnings of scholarship” (e.g., databases, IP, unpaid student labor) that were there all along, even in non-DH scholarship?
- Maybe we return to thinking about boundary objects. More than one of the readings this week cite Alan Liu’s call for DH to have a stronger cultural criticism. What do we make of this quote from a piece Liu wrote following up on that essay, in which he calls the building of boundary objects the best way (at least, the most unique way) for DH to make its impact:
Acting out through the digital humanities about larger social issues is necessary. But such actions must be complemented by creating infrastructures and practices that make their social impact by being what Susan Leigh Star called “boundary objects”–in this case boundary objects situated between the academic institution and other major social institutions. It is in this boundary zone–just as one example, “content management system” infrastructures whose use by scholars oscillates between corporate “managed” and “open community” philosophies–that higher education can most pertinently influence, and be influenced by, other institutions through what I earlier called “shared but contested information-technology infrastructures.” It is in this boundary zone of hybrid scholarly, pedagogical, and administrative institutional infrastructure that we need the attention of skilled and thoughtful digital humanists, even if the interventions they make are not called anything as ambitious as “activism” but instead simply “building.”
- Jackson argues that Marxism looks backward to connect things to their “moments of origin, discovering the congealed forms of human labor, power, and interests that are built into objects at their moment of production.” Broken world thinking, on the other hand, “draws our attention around the sociality of objects forward, into the ongoing forms of labor, powers, and interests… that underpin the ongoing survival of things as objects in the world.” How is this forward-backward orientation reinforced or troubled by Gallon’s argument that Black DH hinges on a broken world thinking that “forces us to move backward before moving forward”?