Bend Until It Breaks: Digital Humanities and Resistance

Bend Until It Breaks: Digital Humanities and Resistance

“The problem is to begin with a conception of power relations that grants that resistance is always possible but not always successful.” ~ David Sholle, “Resistance: Pinning Down a Wandering Concept in Cultural Studies Discourse” 

Why resist?

Figurines of Bambi (on left, facing right) and Godzilla (on right, facing left) appear at a standoff, ready to attack one another

The capability inherent in digital humanities for resistance is part of what makes digital humanities “humanistic“ — rather than, say, techno-utopian or neoliberal — it’s what connects the digital humanities to the humanities. Alan Liu and Stephen Ramsay have both argued for the necessity of theorizing “resistance” and its place in the work of digital humanists. Ramsay gets to the heart of what “resistance” might look like in this context when, in his eloquent “defense“ of the humanities in general, he describes the humanities as a discursive space in which we answer the pressing question, “How do we become individuals who move through the world with awareness, empathy, and thoughtfulness, and who know how to act upon those dispositions?” What if, “we can resist” were at least a partial answer to Ramsay’s question? If this is what resistance can do for us, for the project of being or becoming human, then I think we can see pretty clearly why it matters, why digital humanists should be investing time and resources in activities of resistance.

What is resistance?

Water skimmer floating atop still water; slight ripples trailing behind it

In thinking about resistance and the role it has to play in humanistic inquiry, I am using the definition David Sholle offered more than twenty years ago: “If we strip away the inessential from the inflections of resistance that have been described thus far, it can be seen that they are all, at root, defensive activities in that they work to limit the capacity of power to define the parameters of action.” As Sholle describes it, resistance in this sense involves first understanding how power relations — social, economic, political — work to perpetuate things like inequality or poverty or racism or “evil,” in part, through the fragmentation of “all points of view and all values [so] as to render them without meaning beyond their value as commodities,” (Sholle, quoting T. Streeter). Resistance then requires a “refusal to participate in a strategic contest that power dictates,” i.e., “a rule-breaking activity” aimed at “encourag[ing] or discourag[ing] other activities aimed at altering power effects.”

Although in Sholle’s formulation successful resistance might be rare, opportunities for resistance abound. Success is uncertain because power itself is uncertain. Power is not hegemonic, consolidated, or even consciously coordinated. Rather it is shifting, changeable, contingent, and diffuse. Success depends in part, I believe, upon carefully thinking through how power relations may evolve in response to a particular strategy of resistance, including understanding how and when new power relations may emerge to contain or neutralize it. In this way, we can identify strategies that not only work to change how power is distributed within the system, but also — and this is the real trick if it can be accomplished — disrupt or destabilize the “means of bringing power relations into being” in the first instance.

Why resistance and DH?

Stormtrooper figure holding black sign with the word "PURPLE" in purple; background lit with soft purple glow

Given a working definition of resistance that highlights the necessity of rule-breaking, of interfering with and perhaps even restructuring power relationships, Jesse Stommel’s declaration, “The digital humanities is about breaking stuff,” can be seen for what it is. More than a provocation, it is a call to action. In particular, I would like to explore how the tendency towards, even perhaps the necessity of “breaking stuff” in the digital humanities plays out in the regulatory context. The idiomatic expressions we use to describe criminal activity in English are telling here. We describe criminals as those who “bend” or “break” the law. Obviously, breaking the law in this sense, while it may be resistance in one definition, isn’t effective resistance of the sort Sholle describes and for which Liu and Ramsay are advocating. That’s because criminal activity is, returning to Sholle again, a form of resistance that is already “managed” and “limited” within the law’s “discursive space” for the most part (though important exceptions to this general observation do exist, of course, including civil disobedience of the sort we saw during the civil rights movement and are seeing more recently in Nigeria, Egypt, Turkey, and the Occupy Wall Street protests).

When is DH resistance?

Bird holding on to wooden beam with both feet, head tucked into chin

What does it mean, though, to engage in professional practices whose end is, at least in part, to “bend,” “deform,” or even “break” the law? What happens when digital humanists — or any humanists, for that matter — rather than treading lightly, instead run roughshod through the carefully cultivated regulatory landscape in which formal, aesthetic distinctions between art and scholarship, between creating and critiquing, and between pedagogy and artistry must be maintained and reproduced in order for everything to “work”?

I have written elsewhere about how the discursive representation within legal decision-making of literary concepts such as “authorship,” “scholarship,” “utility,” and “ornament” have influenced the evolution of copyright law. These legally significant concepts are often borrowed almost wholesale from the discourse of literary studies or humanistic scholarship more generally. Thus, for example, the “authorship” copyright rewards does not include “sweat of the brow” collection and rote organization of information — however much labor that might involve, and however useful or interesting the resulting artifact — but only original, creative “invention.”

The law in turn has influenced and shaped the work we do as scholars and the forms our scholarship can take. The fair use analysis, for instance, often relies on a presumption the items enumerated in the fair use preamble — “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, … scholarship, or research” [17 U.S.C. Section 107] — will not look like creative artifacts, that literary scholarship will not resemble, except in the most superficial way, the literary objects with which it engages. To the extent humanistic inquiry redefines things like “authorship” and “scholarship,” and also begins to shift its practices in ways the law has not already anticipated, these transformations become part of the objective reality the law must come to terms with and regulate in subsequent decisions. By understanding the relationship between the law and the objects and activities towards which it is directed, and the complex discursive exchange among law and literary studies, we begin to reveal pressure points where opportunities for resistance as I’ve described it here arise.

How does DH break the law (Pt. 1)?

“All discourses … can be read as comprising different orders in which signifiers are articulated into discourse in order to produce different meanings; that is, different discourses are different constitutions of signs rather than different interpretations of an empirically given object of analysis.

“In order to make sense of the set of meanings produced in a particular discourse, we must take into account the relations of confrontation between this particular discourse and other discourses. These relations of confrontation are themselves the partial result of the operation of different politico-theoretical priorities in discourse.”

~ Jack Ameriglio and Antonio Callari, “Marxian Value Theory and the Problem of the Subject: The Role of Commodity Fetishism“ (1989)

Three or more rows of golden chrysalis from a butterfly, all attached to white styrofoam

In his essay “The Law Wishes to Have a Formal Existence,” collected in There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech: And It’s a Good Thing, Too, Stanley Fish observes, “[A] legal system whose conclusions clashed with our moral intuitions at every point so that the categories legally valid and morally right never (or almost never) coincided would immediately be suspect; but a legal system whose judgments perfectly meshed with our moral intuitions would thereby be rendered superfluous.” While there may be much to disagree with in Fish’s analysis of the law’s rhetorical operation, that analysis — and particularly this point — has nevertheless influenced my understanding of how the law casts human activity into narrative in order to accomplish its aims — and the ways in which certain kinds of scholarly activity within the digital humanities resist that process.

Much more recently, Stephen Best has asked us to consider, “How does the ‘form’ in the commodity form generate social phenomena in ways that are neither mechanical (historical causality) nor fully contingent (analogy)? When I ask, What is the generative power of form? I am not asking the conventional question, What does form cause? … It is more a question of what form produces, what form generates….” Reading Best and Fish together reveals how legal narratives comprise a variety of narrative registers or modes, including documentary, fictional, and speculative realism. Forms, both objective and discursive, matter in the law. Legal narrative can tolerate a certain amount of fictional or even speculative realism without losing its authority. When, however, the distance between the “real” objects of regulation and their discursive representation becomes too great, or, even, when the discursive representation of things in statutes and legal decisions strays too far from how those same things are represented in other discourses — like scholarly essays or the popular press — the law’s ability to “define the parameters of action” is tested.

How does DH break the law (Pt. 2)?

A series of chrysalises, progressing left to right through various phases. Emergent butterfly hangs on last empty shell.

When digital humanities scholars make scholarly artifacts, when any scholars make scholarly artifacts that don’t conform to aesthetic expectations baked into the law, they are potentially engaging in a kind of resistance. Such artifacts present opportunities to construct new disciplinary, discursive, and professional alliances and to write new narratives within which such forms can be discursively articulated as “scholarship” or “fair use” or “non-infringing” or, perhaps most tellingly, “transformative.” Simply making or building these things, however, is not in and of itself going to lead to the creation of a world in which “individuals … move through the world with awareness, empathy, and thoughtfulness, and … know how to act upon those dispositions.” Rather, we must also be able to cast these objective forms into discursive forms that can act within, can transform the complex regulatory narratives that constrain the field of human activity. And finally, because no one should be expected to “do all the things,” we must be open to new collaborative relationships and new definitions of what “counts” in academic hiring, tenure, and promotion.

How does resistance become reform?

“It is essential those involved in promotion and tenure reform recognize that excellence is a socially constructed notion. As human beings in social systems within universities, we are flawed. Efforts to become a more diverse, inclusive community are intimately tied to the kinds of work our academic reward systems value, how we evaluate it, and how conscious we can be about the biases we bring to the table.” ~ KerryAnn O’Meara, “Change the Tenure System,” 13 January 2014

“The redesign of scholarship to allow for participation is an enormous undertaking, not yet much beyond prototypes, none of which have yet proved fully viable except the wiki. And the difference between a book chapter that lays out a well informed and studied discussion of new research and a set of guided activities for the acquisition of that knowledge is the difference between research and pedagogy. They perform different roles.” ~ Johanna Drucker “Pixel Dust: Illusions of Innovation in Scholarly Publishing,” 16 January 2014

Image of book, open to "KAPITEL 1: Politische Grundlagen", with most other text cut out from this and subsequent pages. Various words are held in their respective places with red thread tied to the margins

Sholle’s definition of resistance has been in circulation in media studies since the early nineties. Resistance, like many of the other things digital humanists do now, is something media studies and cultural studies folks have also been doing for thirty years or more. I wonder, though, if part of the reluctance Liu has observed on the part of digital humanists to do cultural criticism is attributable, at least in part, to scholars’ general reluctance to engage with entrenched power dynamics and structural inequality within the academy itself, however astutely they may critique their manifestation beyond the ivory tower.

We must understand the conversations about things like getting rid of the dissertation — or accepting digital projects in lieu of graduate theses or print monographs — as arguments about whether and how to resist. We need to acknowledge how new modes of open access and open source scholarship and publication may involve reconfiguring the means of academic production, and the relationship between author and producer, reader and consumer, text and commodity in ontologically significant ways. Similarly, debates about the relationship between pedagogy and scholarship, and their relative value in the academy are directly relevant to the project of theorizing resistance in the digital humanities. When we build things, we are also building networks and relationships. When we define “digital humanities” and “research” in ways that exclude “pedagogy,” we are articulating relations of power that will govern the working conditions of our colleagues, shaping and perhaps constraining the field of intellectual activity within and perhaps even beyond the academy for years or decades to come.

At the same time, we must do more than pay lip service to scholarly or disciplinary innovation. We must walk the walk as well as talk the talk, hack as well as yack. The formal risks digital humanists take with their scholarship are every bit as important to the project of resistance as are theoretical and institutional advocacy that help to justify such work as scholarship. If the digital humanities are to be an effective path of most resistance in the academy, then the “digital” in digital humanities needs to refer to more than just the methods scholars employ, and the digital forms they produce must do more than simply iterate the aesthetics and conventions of more “traditional” print scholarship. Advisors and dissertation committees must be willing to let graduate students take formal risks with their work, and hiring and tenure and promotion committees must be willing to accept innovative forms not just in addition to, but in lieu of the print monograph.

The goal of resistance in the digital humanities should not, I think, be to replace one kind of thing with another kind of thing in academic work, but to open up the field of possibilities. Further, we must be open to critique that points out unintended consequences, and be wary of the “old wine in new bottles” problem in which forms that seem innovative at first glance simply repackage and recirculate the familiar damaged goods of socio-economic stratification, political alienation, contingency, ivory tower isolationism, and exclusion or disenfranchisement of people of color, those who identify as queer, women, and many others who don’t fit into a dominant Western, white, male, heteronormative paradigm. To resist, we must refuse to accept as given and even be willing to break the existing rules, and we should also be careful we don’t intentionally or unintentionally replace them with something worse.

Image credits:

  • “Bambi vs. Godzilla” courtesy JD Hancock; licensed under CC BY 2.0
  • “Rippling along” courtesy Jack Wolf; licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
  • “Imperial Art Appreciation: Purple” courtesy JD Hancock; licensed under CC BY 2.0
  • “Morning Workout” courtesy Dawn Huczek; licensed under CC BY 2.0
  • “The Big business of butterflies” courtesy praline3001; licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
  • “Butterfly and Chrysalises” courtesy Julia Folsom; licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
  • “out of the constitution” courtesy Ines Seidel, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
About the Author

Robin Wharton (@rswharton) is an Editor for Hybrid Pedagogy Publishing, and starting this Fall, she will be a lecturer in English at Georgia State University. Her interdisciplinary work — in digital humanities and pedagogy, critical theory, and medieval studies — considers the complex discursive exchange among literary, academic, and legal modes of cultural production. Her personal web site can be found at www.robinwharton.com.

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