The Digital in the Humanities: An Interview with Marisa Parham




Click here for the complete series of “The Digital in the Humanities.”

FOR AT LEAST THE PAST DECADE, the term “digital humanities” (DH) has captured the imagination and the ire of scholars across American universities. Supporters of the field, which melds computer science with hermeneutics, champion it as the much needed means to shake up and expand methods of traditional literary interpretation; for most outspoken critics, it is a new fad that symbolizes the neoliberal bean-counting destroying American higher education. Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes lies a vast and varied body of work that utilizes and critically examines digital tools in the pursuit of humanistic study. This field is large and increasingly indefinable even by those in its midst. In fact, “digital humanities” seems astoundingly inappropriate for an area of study that includes, on one hand, computational research, digital reading and writing platforms, digital pedagogy, open-access publishing, augmented texts, and literary databases, and on the other, media archaeology and theories of networks, gaming, and wares both hard and soft. As Franco Moretti said to me in the first of these interviews: “‘digital humanities’ means nothing.”

Marisa Parham explores many digital and humanistic fields of inquiry as a Professor of English at Amherst College, working in black studies, media studies, and film, where she also serves as Director of the Five College Digital Humanities Project. Her work, perhaps more than anyone else in this series, challenges the seeming divide between digital humanities and digital studies, between practice and theory. In her conversation with me she effortlessly moves between passionate advocate and skeptical critic, finding a much sought after line between the use of digital tools and a healthy reflection upon them. By embodying the tension of the digital in the humanities, Parham articulates both the surprising lines of overlap as well as outright disagreement that this series seeks to explore. But at its heart, this series is a means to explore the intersection of the digital and the humanities, and this intersection’s impact on research and teaching, American higher education, and the increasingly tenuous connection between the ivory tower of elite institutions and the general public.

I’m not sure that my words will accurately describe how enjoyable it was to interview Parham for this series. In our conversation she touches on everything from virtual reality and the Commodore 64 to Afrofuturism and enslavement. But this breadth isn’t a surprise to anyone familiar with her work. Her first monograph, Haunting and Displacement in African American Literature and Culture (2008), and her works in progress, including “Use Everything”: Octavia Butler’s Speculative Fictions and Black Haunts in the Anthropocene, speak to her desire to make a space for minorities in the digital humanities that challenges methods of assimilation and instead enables minorities and women to also “change the terms of the game” as equals. Parham eloquently and powerfully articulates the troubling status quo of exclusion in the academy and the digital humanities and offers profound means to change this. At the center of this interview is Parham’s deep interest in the human, through which she approaches the digital. As she states, “Technology is nothing but humanness.” This privileging of humanness, the human, and the humanities in her digital work has led her to an exciting virtual reality project called the Immersive Realities Lab for the Humanities (IRLh), that aims to make VR available for all people regardless of income level. But there is also something deeply democratic about her approach to technology and learning that is refreshing and I think opens up new avenues of conversation for this series.

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MELISSA DINSMAN: So how did you first come to enter what I am broadly calling the “digital” field?

MARISA PARHAM: For me, it started a long time ago. In college, I was one of those nerds who helped to maintain the campus computer lab. Before that, I was a huge Commodore 64 / Amiga addict, first playing around with Turtle and then other text-based, narrative video games. So I came to digital work pretty naturally. I was doing digital stuff before this thing called “digital humanities” came around. I think this foundation has been really important for me.

How do think this background with the digital has impacted your academic work? 

I think it has changed it, but it took a long time for me to realize it. It formed my basic idea of what a publication can accomplish and enact. And I know that digital publishing and digital humanities aren’t quite the same thing, but there is a way in which a lot of my digital work reflects the things I was interested in back in the ‘80s and the ‘90s in terms of narrative form, narration, and digitality. To me, the hyper-textual was a basic operating premise versus a thing to try to imagine myself into. Looking back, I think my first academic book, the book on haunting, wanted to be digital. My background is in African-American literature, literary theory, and digital / media studies. One thing I’m interested in is what I think of as the deep roots of the digital in Black cultural expression. But thinking about this means identifying how digitality —signals that are lost, found, glitched, compressed — influences all kinds of texts, even prior to electricity — so taking the idea of the digital itself as a thing.

You’ve already begun to answer this question, but how would you describe the role of the digital in your humanities work? Do you think this qualifies as “digital humanities”? Do you care?

No, I don’t care [laughs]; but at the same time, because I direct the Digital Humanities Consortium for the Five Colleges, I must care. To backtrack a little bit, if I am answering honestly, I do think I am working in the digital humanities. It is so fascinating to me, because I do a lot of very technical things, like programming and coding, and there are people in DH who say “well that’s not digital humanities, that’s just programming.” And then I do things that are more theoretical and critical, and that isn’t considered digital humanities either. This gets to the definitional question of what are we talking about when we use the term “digital humanities.” Is it about method, or about the object of inquiry, or about a tool? In my case, my work crosses all of those, so the answer has to be, yes, I work in the digital humanities. But I’m not convinced that the debate, as it currently stands, is really that interesting, particularly until we can determine if it’s best to imagine a digital studies mainly outside of the digital humanities, which you do see in media software studies. But for now, “digital humanities” is mainly, quite frankly, an institutional configuration.

Speaking about digital and media software studies, do you think there are any subfields that yield the most benefit to the humanities?

On the level on inquiry, I really do think software and hardware studies are incredibly important right now. And I know work in media studies theorizing “medium” has of course been going on for a while now, outside of the realm of digital studies, but it is incredibly important for understanding the digital as well. There is also the larger writ question ­­— and this gets to one of your later questions — of thinking about how much a humanist really needs to understand the technological underpinnings of a medium. We have never argued that humanists need to understand ink — or how ink is made — at the same time it is not unhelpful for humanists to understand the way in which knowledge is shaped by those who have access to ink, or even how the emergence of certain inks historically allowed different kinds of writing, which changed what people pursue. But in terms of most important trends in thinking about the lines of inquiry to get us to what is at stake in digital studies, it is thinking about media and medium, software and hardware, and where they stand in relation to the production of meaning and also how the technologies themselves produce meaning on the level of methodology and instrumentality. This, combined with the critical workflows familiar to race, class, and gender studies, moves us toward understanding, in a deeper way, how people make technologies, even as technologies also produce (or foreclose) new opportunities for personhood.

People often speak of digital work (and more frequently the digital humanities) as a means of making the humanities relevant in the 21st-century university. Do you think this statement is a fair assessment of digital work and its purpose? Do you think it is fair to the humanities?

No, not at all. I think plenty of people, plenty of students care about the humanities. They care about their English and History courses and so on — even if they don’t thematize that care as being with “the humanities.” I also want to tie my answer to the inaccurate idea that our students today are digital natives, which many of them are not. There is a way in which older generations project these imaginations of what younger people experience as excitement. I am starting here because it is tied to the relevance question. When people say the digital will make the humanities relevant for today’s generation, part of this has to do with the incorrect notion that no one wants to learn old stuff if it isn’t presented in the newest media forms. One way to frame the question more productively is to think about how digital frameworks open up a new dimension of humanistic inquiry. Digital life has humanist dimensions. Technology is nothing but humanness. I’m working on a project right now that’s getting people to think about virtual reality. With virtual reality you could browse bookshelves again and use your hands to turn the pages, from an offsite location. Virtual reality ironically gets the physical body back into the digital even as it takes away the body in new ways. This is of course theoretically interesting. At the same time, on some level maybe I am just talking about different proliferating delivery systems for “content.” So the relevance question on the one hand can be very productive when it comes to objects of inquiry, and on the other hand it’s a little bit of a red herring, because usually when people talk about the digital making things relevant they are simply talking about new kinds of delivery of the same old things. They aren’t talking about new vitalities in the humanities; they’re thinking “more videos.”

Thinking about relevance also leads to conversations about productivity and scholarly output. In a C21 post titled “The Dark Side of Digital Humanities,” media scholar Richard Grusin draws connections between the emergence of DH and the increased “neoliberalism and corporatization of higher education.” Do you think such a comparison has merit? Is there something about the digital humanities’ desire to produce that creates an alignment with neoliberal thinking? 

I struggle with this a lot, but yes. And the other place where you can really see the digital’s implication with neoliberalism is in teaching and learning — distance learning, online education, and MOOCs [Massive Open Online Courses]. In these digital versions teaching is broken down into servable packets — you are reproducing the scholar as a textbook that can be sold in really specific kinds of ways, and you can roll that content out to a greater number of people. We can see how this is technically attractive when thinking about access, but troubling when thinking about labor, for instance. And there are of course alternative models for what digital learning can offer, but I think most institutions are approaching it from a content delivery perspective. When it comes to the digital humanities, this is also true, although I have even more ambivalence about this. When it comes to how projects are often grant funded and the ways in which projects often require you to develop teams that will ensure long-term project sustainability and growth, digital humanities people need to learn to look at their work as production, as an enterprise. This is difficult because it brings “business thinking” into scholarly work; however, I am not convinced it was not already there. And if you look at the kinds of battles scholars have had over the 20th and 21st centuries around publication rights, marketing, audience, freedom of speech, academic freedom, there is a way in which all those concepts are equally tied up in one’s right to imagine one’s own work as belonging to oneself. The question is, who actually has control? The way you break that is by finding different metaphors. People, including myself, have been working toward this by thinking in terms of cooperatives or working groups or open access, but at the end of the day all of this comes down to infrastructure: how do you produce sustaining structures in which inquiry and creativity flourish? This is about labor, responsibility, and intellectual property and, for now, grants are usually what make that space, but they’re standing in for various kinds of infrastructure.

Speaking about groups and grant funding leads me to my next question. To put together a solid digital humanities research group, a fair amount of funding is needed. How is this funding typically achieved? Are universities willing to pay for DH projects despite massive cutbacks elsewhere, or is funding most likely to be found from external sources?

I will say that to produce a successful team for a long-term project, my sense is that most universities are trying to work with the staff they already have on the ground and it’s barely feasible, because it comes down to using people’s goodwill in academia to get a project done. The only reasonable alternative to that is seeking grant funding, and those funds are generous, but very few. And even that becomes complex because being able to manage that level of grant funding becomes a job in itself. I am circling back to my neoliberalism answer here, but when you are working on large team projects or have a large grant you have to run the team like a small business to make it happen, especially if you’re thinking about things like fairness for project participants, outreach to audiences, accessibility. It is not unreasonable for a DH group to at some point spend like 20% or more of its time every week figuring out how it is going to get through the next couple of months. So you can spend as much time trying to figure out where the time and money is going to come from as you do doing the work. Also, because the model for so much funding rightfully depends on you being able to show that you will be able to do what you haven’t done yet, it becomes a sort of kooky temporal problem, which is particularly daunting to people new to this kind of work.

You have already spoken about the difficulties of defining the digital humanities, and another area where this definitional question has emerged is in the question of coding. In the past there has been a line drawn in the digital humanities between those who code and those who don’t. Do you think full engagement with the digital humanities requires programming skills and if so, should programming become a requirement for humanities students?

The answer has to be no, because what constitutes, for me, digital studies and digital humanities is so broad. However, learning at least a little bit about programming can at least impart a structural understanding of how things are produced. Scholars working with the digital should want to look behind the curtain to glimpse how something works. Part of the magic of DH is imagining stuff just happens because it’s “digital,” but it isn’t magic. It’s engineering. And there is a way in which understanding how the technology or programming works helps you understand how the computation has been enacted and as a result helps you understand what you are working with. Understanding basic programming is very important for this. Despite the many platforms we use, you are not necessarily looking at that many configurations of production, which is simply to say, I could give you a basic vocabulary for how a website works or how an app on your phone works and they are not that distant from each other. For me, understanding programming for me is simply understanding how systems of logic enable and constrain our experiences of many technologies in ways that we need to be able to see.

We also hear quite a bit about the significant underrepresentation of women and minorities across digital fields, including the digital humanities. I know your own work touches upon this disparity as seen in both those who practice and those who are the subject of digital humanities research. Is there a remedy to this? How has your own work tried to challenge this lack?

My own work has always been in that place. So from my perspective I’m just doing what I’ve always done. But when we are talking about the lack of gender, racial, and ethnic diversity in the digital humanities, it’s of course completely unsurprising because academia itself is not particularly diverse. So all you are seeing are the ways in which academics never took the opportunity to become more exposed to different perspectives, which sounds corny, but in this case I think it’s a useful construction. It is really fascinating to me when scholars want to pick up something about, for instance, Asian-American or African-American life and you realize that they have never sought out an area studies course in their lives, despite opportunities to do so, or they fall back on citation practices that reify myths about the “absence” of diverse voices. You definitely see this in the digital humanities in that people have already constrained their scholarly range and, in today’s academic world you’ve chosen to be constrained, whether you admit it or not. You’ve made choices not to take these types of courses or to turn away from certain exposures and conversations, and have thus decided that they weren’t important. It’s a strong statement, but I believe it. We’ve made this world.

On the flip side, an example I often use, because it sticks with me so much, is an experience I had in South Africa when speaking about virtual reality and the digital post-human. A white guy stood up and pointed at me, who is obviously black, and said, “I don’t even see why someone like you is talking about this. I don’t see how this is relevant to the lives of black people, especially not the black people in South Africa.” And I get versions of this argument — albeit less grotesque versions — a lot. There’s a way in which the notion that the technological has nothing to do with people of color is embedded in society. It runs deeply. This perspective stems from three different inaccurate beliefs: 1) we take the technological for being futurist, and it’s not, 2) we often think of technology as frivolous, and it’s not, and 3) even if one and two were true, Black people deserve frivolity and the future. So on the one hand you get the institutional argument for how technology and the digital will make the humanities more relevant while simultaneously claiming that certain populations don’t need the digital. When you put those contradictory statements together what underlies them is the question of who counts as at the center of an inquiry. Who can participate in an inquiry? Looking at this from a Black perspective, and an African-American perspective specifically, you are looking at a diverse community that has always had a profound relationship with new technologies, usually because African-Americans are always looking for the next new thing, because the past was pretty crap [laughs]. Black communities around the world are innovation engines, but Blacks are never seen as innovators. They make something new but are never seen as inventors. This is just a racialized version of men become chefs and women become cooks.

The question then is how do we break these conceptualizations. We can do this 1) through better training for scholars and more exposure to new ways of looking at the world and 2) by thinking about the history of technology extending back as well as forward. My own work thinks about how racial and social configurations presage what we think about as the future of technology. Think about this in terms of robotics, so much of which is driven by the quest for better servitude, to get the dirty work done, from roombas to drones. It is also about taking the person out of servitude so you don’t have to feel badly about it. One apotheosis of innovation then is better, ethically cleaner, enslavement. Once you see those two things together you have to ask what is the purpose of innovation when it is just to produce the past’s same old desires. That is one claim. The second is if you are thinking from the perspective of a population that has been subjugated, this is all deeply unsurprising. And I think that lack of surprise is incredibly interesting theoretically. We don’t want to encourage women and minorities to get into technology to be assimilated. We want them to become involved so that they can change the terms of the game.

Despite its reliance on online platforms, much of the talk around the digital in the humanities today also concerns physical location — namely does the future of digital work lie in individual departments or libraries? Do you have an opinion on the best physical place for digital scholarship and what does this say about its future role in the university?

I think at the university and college level you need multiple locations. I’ll use myself as an example. Most of my projects don’t require a library or the help of a librarian because I am on the software/media studies side. So for my particular VR project I need to collaborate with computer scientists and software / hardware engineers. But then there are other projects, like my social media project, which is about what constitutes an archive of the present — how to best utilize an archive — and that sends me running back to the librarians. I think at most institutions what you need is a very large conglomerate of people who have been incentivized to make themselves available to one another. In terms of space, different projects need such wildly different kinds spaces. However, at most institutions, there is no such thing as funding without a space. People aren’t going to throw money into the cloud; they want to throw it into a physical room. At the end of the day you need a broad range of flexible spaces made available to people and you also need people to maintain those spaces. And this is where it gets really dicey. Those spaces mean nothing without staff, and very few institutions will dedicate people to projects that might happen in the future. Institutions get behind results, not potential.

You’ve been speaking about public engagement on and off throughout our conversation, but do you think the general public understands the term “digital humanities” or, more broadly, the digital work being done in the humanities (if at all)?

I don’t think the work is always getting out there. The virtual reality project I am working on is a very front-facing and public project with the goal of getting all kinds of people to think about digital life and the genuinely deep questions about storytelling that are attached to it, and it’s okay to want to ask questions about that and be able to critique it, to be able to think about its impact on human experience Modeling this kind of hybrid inquiry is important work for the digital humanities but I think, right now, “digital humanities” is a very esoteric term. People don’t even really know what “humanities” means and why should they? What do those terms mean without showing the kinds of work they stand in for?

My next question has to do with public intellectualism, which many scholars and journalists alike have described as being in decline (for example, Nicholas Kristof’s The New York Times essay last year). What role, if any, do you think digital work plays? Could the digital humanities (or the digital in the humanities) be a much-needed bridge between the academy and the public, or is this perhaps expecting too much of a discipline?

I think the answer is yes, for the second half of the question, because the digital can be an instrument of dissemination and interactivity for public engagement. In terms of the Kristof argument about the decline of the public intellectual, I think it’s just untrue. When that essay first came out, I was shocked. I found it to be profoundly narrow, especially if we think about this in terms of women and people of color. It isn’t that the public intellectual isn’t there, it’s that Kristof is thinking very narrowly about what a public intellectual is, so narrowly that only a few people fit the category. I think we have actually seen an explosion in the number of very insightful voices in the world and that is tied to the rise of the digital, for example the broadening of reach and voice through the rise of blog culture. But of course for Kristof, blogs don’t count. So yeah, if you make me a long list about the types of mediums that don’t count you can come to the claim that something is not there. But then you have come from a place of exclusion. If you are thinking historically among different communities, for example the African-American community, there are all kinds of public intellectuals. You have them at the pulpit in church communities. You have them within study groups that explore not only biblical but philosophical questions. You have book groups being led by 1-2 people across communities. Not to get all hokey, but communities often take care of themselves and that includes scholarship and intellectualism.  If you discount blogs, academic writing, and community groups that’s when you realize Kristof is only writing about the three newspapers and a magazine that he cares about. It’s a question of medium, of access, recognition, and of validation.

My final question is going to ask you to continue looking backwards and speak to what you think the digital in the humanities has accomplished so far.

I think helping produce vocabularies that enable different disciplines to talk to each other is really important. There is a way in which thinking differently about what constitutes the apparatus through which knowledge comes into being has been incredible for the digital humanities and the humanities in general. I do think, despite the neoliberal potential, that getting scholarly communities and individual scholars to think about their work in more inclusive and long-term collaborative ways has been important. Getting humanities scholars to really understand how important collaboration has always been and how important it is going to be in the future is incredibly transformative. Also, the way in which DH has forced scholars to think about their work as an enterprise is actually important because it can be very empowering for women and people of color to begin their research from a perspective of first ownership then sharing. To think, “this is my thing and I need to make it happen. I will make it live and grow.” I think this is a really powerful relationship versus only thinking I am a cog in a larger machine and hoping that someone will acknowledge me as fitting in. I think the work being done on African-American history and labor history and queer history through interactive timelines and databases and the sheer work being done on recovering archival voices we’ve forgotten is incredibly important. This recovery is forcing us to ask important questions about how archives are produced. Also, pulling media studies and software studies from the margins of inquiry and more to the center is also valuable because it broadens our understanding of how the world is made — getting at a deeper history and therefore being able to say more about the future because we understand more about our past.

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Melissa Dinsman is the CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow in Data Curation for Visual Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and the author of Modernism at the Microphone: Radio, Propaganda, and Literary Aesthetics During World War II (2015).


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