“Why are the Digital Humanities so White? or Thinking the Histories of Race and Computation” by Tara McPhearson
Article Citation: McPherson, Tara. “Why are the Digital Humanities So White? or Thinking of Histories of Race and Computation.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Ed. Matthew K. Gold. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 2012. Web. 10 Feb. 2016.
Abstract: McPherson makes the connection between the modularity of coding and computations in the 1960’s and 1970’s to the civil rights movements and segregation policies of that time. She is not saying that coders and programmers intended to extend modularity to politics and social issues, however, she is making the case that modularity in coding responds to the modularity in politics and vice-versa. She wants to bridge the gap between computation studies and cultural studies that focus on social issues and race.
Keywords: new media, digital humanities, race, computation, modularity, cultural studies
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“Further, I will argue that the difficulties we encounter in knitting together our discussions of race (or other modes of difference) with our technological productions within the digital humanities (or in our studies of code) are actually an effect of the very designs of our technological systems, designs that emerged in post–World War II computational culture. These origins of the digital continue to haunt our scholarly engagements with computers, underwriting the ease with which we partition off considerations of race in our work in the digital humanities and digital media studies.”
“Within American, cultural, and ethnic studies, the temporal touchstones of struggles over racial justice, antiwar activism, and legal history are also widely recognized and analyzed.Not surprisingly, these two fragments typically stand apart in parallel tracks, attracting the interest and attention of very different audiences located in the deeply siloed departments that categorize our universities.”
-Making a case to analyze and discuss cultural studies alongside the technical/technological developments in history due to their interdependence.
“Critical race theorists and postcolonial scholars like Chela Sandoval and Gayatri Spivak have illustrated the structuring (if unacknowledged) role that race plays in the work of poststructuralists like Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault. We might bring these two arguments together, triangulating race, electronic culture, and poststructuralism, and, further, argue that race, particularly in the United States, is central to this undertaking, fundamentally shaping how we see and know as well as the technologies that underwrite or cement both vision and knowledge.”
“In the post–civil rights United States, the lenticular is a way of organizing the world. It structures representations but also epistemologies. It also serves to secure our understandings of race in very narrow registers, fixating on sameness or difference while forestalling connection and interrelation. As I have argued elsewhere, we might think of the lenticular as a covert mode of the pretense of separate but equal, remixed for midcentury America (McPherson, 250).”
“A lenticular logic is a covert racial logic, a logic for the post–civil rights era. We might contrast the lenticular postcard to that wildly popular artifact of the industrial era, the stereoscope card. The stereoscope melds two different images into an imagined whole, privileging the whole; the lenticular image partitions and divides, privileging fragmentation. A lenticular logic is a logic of the fragment or the chunk, a way of seeing the world as discrete modules or nodes, a mode that suppresses relation and context. As such, the lenticular also manages and controls complexity.”
“Modules “don’t promiscuously share global data,” and problems can stay “local” (84–85). In writing about the Rule of Composition, Eric Raymond advises programmers to “make [programs] independent.” He writes, “It should be easy to replace one end with a completely different implementation without disturbing the other” (15).Detachment is valued because it allows a cleaving from “the particular …conditions under which a design problem was posed. Abstract. Simplify. Generalize” (95). While “generalization” in UNIX has specific meanings, we might also see at work here the basic contours of a lenticular approach to the world, an approach that separates object from context, cause from effect.”
“Modularity in software design was meant to decrease “global complexity” and cleanly separate one “neighbor” from another (Raymond, 85). These strategies also played out in ongoing reorganizations of the political field throughout the 1960s and 1970s in both the Right and the Left. The widespread divestiture in the infrastructure of inner cities can be seen as one more insidious effect of the logic of modularity in the postwar era. But we might also understand the emergence of identity politics in the 1960s as a kind of social and political embrace of modularity and encapsulation, a mode of partitioning that turned away from the broader forms of alliance-based and globally inflected political practice that characterized both labor politics and antiracist organizing in the 1930s and 1940s.”
“I am highlighting the ways in which the organization of information and capital in the 1960s powerfully responds—across many registers—to the struggles for racial justice and democracy that so categorized the United States at the time. Many of these shifts were enacted in the name of liberalism, aimed at distancing the overt racism of the past even as they contained and cordoned off progressive radicalism. The emergence of covert racism and its rhetoric of color blindness are not so much intentional as systemic.Computation is a primary delivery method of these new systems, and it seems at best naive to imagine that cultural and computational operating systems don’t mutually infect one another.”
- On the premise of “lenticular logic is a covert racial logic,” how else can we apply the lenticular logic when speaking about race in society, literature, art, etc.? Does it become a theoretical lens and term to discuss the design of separation, misdirection of the overall image?
- How can we use computation and cultural systems to discuss education? How does the composition classroom change based on these delivery systems? Is the rise of multimodality a result of this pairing?