Tuesday, September 10, 2013

On DHThis and critiques thereof

This was turning into The Infinite Comment, so I am posting here instead of on Whitney Trettien's post on DHThis, which is very worth reading. The bulk of this post ends up being about what "self-promotion" means under neoliberalism's compulsory self-commodification, which is a complete tangent, so I guess that's another reason not to dump it at Whitney's.


I am in general agreement with Whitney's main point that a reddit-like system has the potential for serious problems, and that reliance on "the community" to self-regulate has not worked out terribly well in the past. Stephen Ramsay and Trevor Owens asked on Twitter why DHThis didn't just use the existing DH subreddit. The obvious answer is that reddit is a terrifying cesspool of misogyny, racism, and assholery, and that is a very good reason.

But the obvious question that raises is: what structural safeguards will prevent DHthis from becoming a terrifying cesspool of misogyny, racism, and assholery? I have great faith in Adeline and Roopsi and the DHthis team as stewards of the project, but it's an important question. When I had my own dismaying interaction with JDH (which was also, to be clear, in many ways also a very good interaction), the problem was precisely an overreliance on crowdsourcing. As Matthew Ciszek recently tweeted, "Crowdsourcing selection kills diversity. More diverse materials typically less popular." I'll look forward to seeing what procedures DHthis implements to maintain a safe, productive, and genuinely diverse space. It's early days, and there's time for this project to develop.

I would offer a few points of disagreement as well.

First, I disagree with the suggestion that recent debates have been "petty quarrels." They have stakes for someone, and deciding which quarrel is petty and which is substantive depends on one's sense of security vis-à-vis the point of contention.

And second, I question the "self promotion" description, for three reasons.

1. I really don't see how this project is any more self-promoting than any other project rollout—say, One Week One Tool. Even the inclusion of a DHPoco category doesn't seem heavily self-promoting to me. Maybe it should have been called "Postcolonialism" instead?

2. Supposing we were to grant that the style of rollout was self-promoting (rather than project-promoting), what bearing would that have on the quality of the project? This, to me, is unclear. As a general rule, I think the question of intentions hinders evaluating effects.

3. There are a lot of mixed messages about self-promotion under neoliberalism, and women and people of color get them most of all. Like makeup ads that urge you to cover your face in allergens foundation to get that "natural glow," social media—which I think many people will agree have been central to recent DH formations—exhort an engagement that is "genuine," but which will also "get your voice out there"; ideally your internet presence will promote you through the effacement of its own promotional aspect. Merely having an internet presence is a form of "self-promotion"; yet it is also, importantly, a place of genuine (not just "genuine") engagement, a part of people's lives, and in many cases, not optional.

This critique has precisely been leveled at DH in recent years: that its webcentricity renders it "cliquish," even though blogs and Twitter are (mostly) public. Even for practitioners at the center of DH, the "second shift" of social media can be burdensome. The counterargument—not an empty one—is that these media offer a horizontal means of (genuine, not "genuine") engagement that cuts across existing hierarchies. Blogs and social media are currently central to DH, in part for the very good reason that digital publishing and pedagogy, through precisely some of these media (Tumblr and Twitter, but also Omeka and CommentPress) are a brave new terrain for DH (Stephen Ramsay's and David Golumbia's "DH II"), and have facilitated its recent expansion in all manner of ways. JDH and DHNow rely centrally on blogs and social media, which is why it never caught wind of #transformdh's important ASA panel on embodiment.

So who is "self-promoting"? Everyone probably remembers how, every time VIDA issues its count, editors from mainstream pubs wring their hands and say that women just don't pitch to them often enough; what can they doooo? Famously, the editors at Seal Press, a small feminist press, performed the same shopworn handwringing ritual about authors of color a few years ago. It was not impressive. Women and people of color are constantly admonished for failing to "put themselves out there" often enough. But when they do, all too often they are told that they are unbecomingly "self-promoting," and nobody should reward that! You kind of can't win.

I don't at all want to suggest that Whitney is proposing a double standard here, or singling the DHThis team out—I think most of us are turned off by what seems to be obvious self-promotion, wherever our thresholds for detecting it may lie. I myself have been known to zing people on the self-promotion front. But I do think that the question of self-promotion, in addition to being a language of intention that tends to confuse the issue (see 2 above), is a constantly moving target. For that reason, I don't think it's nearly as important a criterion as the central objection Whitney raised about the redditlike voting structure of DHThis.

I recognize the irony of spending an outsize amount of space on one of Whitney's avowedly lesser points, only to conclude that it is a lesser point! In a way, it's completely derailing of me to even bring it up. And yet, I also wanted to unpack the substance of my reservations about "self-promotion." Somehow its unimportance seems important.

I look forward to seeing how DHThis works, and how it will be shaped in the future by concerns like the ones Whitney raised.

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