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#transform…H? Reflections on #ASA2012

[This is a guest post by Amanda Phillips, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English with an emphasis in Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research interests are in queer, feminist, and race-conscious discourses in and around technoculture, popular media, video games and the digital humanities. She is a founding member of the #transformDH Collective, "a fluid and decentralized network of people and ideas that are invested in the representation and scholarship of marginalized communities in the digital humanities." Follow her on Twitter (@NazcaTheMad), or her blog, Gamer Trouble: The Dynamics of Difference in Video Games]

ProfHacker asked if I’d be willing to write a #transformDH perspective on the 2012 Meeting of the American Studies Assocation, which I had the good fortune to attend last month as an advocate for the hash tag. This is my story.

When the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association was in Los Angeles (#MLA11), I got my first taste of a major professional conference. I don’t know if it was technically “The Year of Digital Humanities” or not, but it was certainly A Year of Digital Humanities, the year of Building and free wi-fi and the “cool-kids’ table” and then-record numbers of DH panels.

You never forget your first major conference – the aca-stars wandering around and sipping cocktails at receptions, asking stomach-dropping questions at panels and making grad students squee by retweeting us. My first day there I went to every single session, stopping only (on Richard Grusin’s advice) to jam a sandwich down and make it to the panel a few minutes late. Even my advisor thought I was doing too much. I got deathly ill a few days later.

The 2011 meeting of the American Studies Association (#2011ASA), also a first, was only slightly less starry-eyed. After MLA I was prepared to take better care of my body, but the white male DH superheroes in Los Angeles gave way to social justice superheroes that make American Studies my new favorite destination of the year. Wendy Chun! José Muñoz! Anne Balsamo! Kara Keeling! Tara McPherson! Jack Halberstam! The first “official” #transformDH panel ever got its start with fewer audience members than panelists, but when Lisa Nakamura showed up and sat down we figured we could at least call it even. ASA, for me, was a social justice academic Wonderland.

As I recounted the history of #transformDH at our panel at #ASA2012 this year, tracing its origins to the DH battles of #MLA11 and #THATCampSoCal’s response, “Toward an Open Digital Humanities,” it wasn’t lost on me how different this year’s panel was from the last: for one thing, we had an audience (at dinner time on Saturday, no less!), and it included several recognizable names in the field. The faces on our panel were different than the one before, and I’ve never met most of the people now using the hashtag. What Matt Gold called “the public gadfly on the face of the digital humanities” is sprouting its wings. #transformDH is gaining a life of its own.

The conference itself felt different, too. This year’s ASA was a bizarre parade of juxtapositions: a dog show sharing the conference center with us, by some accounts howling at the National Anthem while academics continued their conversations in the lobby unfazed; a vigorous backchannel without wireless access, launching my tweets into the void via text messages; a conference about Empire whose Caribbean panels were woefully underattended.

My sense of unreality was magnified by chronic fatigue that weekend. I left Santa Barbara, California, at noon on Wednesday, and one bus and three planes later arrived in San Juan, exhausted and limping, at 1:30pm on Thursday. I woke up for the Friday 8 am session and walked to the convention center, remarking along the way that my body should have gone to sleep not too long ago in California.

At the Digital Humanities Caucus Roundtable that morning (Alexis Lothian’s thorough transcript of the session is here), the purpose of #transformDH was (somewhat hilariously) underscored by the joyous communion of the Minority Scholars’ Mentoring Breakfast that drowned out panel speakers through the partition in the room. While the panelists asked tough questions about DH origin stories and questionable expectations of digital labor, it was difficult not to be frustrated at the scheduling conflicts that forced people to choose between sleep, mentorship, breakfast, and DH. Choosing to attend this panel meant a non-trivial impact on some people’s careers.

ASA’s conference schedule is a long sequence of agonizing choices. Fortunately, Twitter and post-conference blogging makes those decisions a bit more palatable – it can’t replace a mentorship breakfast, nor can it allow someone to fully participate in workshops or roundtable discussions, but it does free up time to go to the panels that likely won’t get broadcast or archived and contribute to the documentation. For me, those included: “Cartooning, Caricature, and the Imperial Grotesque,” “Queer Performance in Black and Brown,” and “Computation and the Non-Human: New Directions in Queer Theory and Art” (certainly a DH panel, but one that got stuck in the dreaded 8 am Sunday slot).

There is plenty of quality documentation of DH and #transformDH at #ASA2012 out there already (and so much thanks to the tireless, thorough, and insightful Alexis Lothian), so I’d like to tell you instead that the caricature panel was a fascinating journey through racism, popular culture (old and new), disease, and physiognomy by Teresa Prados-Torreira (Columbia College), Ingrid Gessner (University of Regensberg), Kirstie Dorr (UCSD), and Dacia Mitchell (NYU) that had important resonances with my own work on digital facial animation and customization in video games.

Some heavy hitters of the Blacktino performance studies scene dominated my Friday afternoon (including E. Patrick Johnson, Ramón H. Rivera-Servera, Marlon Bailey, and Charles Nero), but I have to say that Sharon Bridgforth and Omi Osun Joni L. Jones took my breath away with their theory/performance of the theatrical jazz aesthetic – an important genre to consider for anyone who teaches interactive literature.

Those of us embracing #transformDH maintain that the important thing isn’t always to invent new ways to do digital humanities; sometimes it’s important to build on what is already there and waiting. A high-profile scholar remarked to me after our panel that our work was important and would be easier to achieve at ASA than other major conferences; social justice scholars might be more receptive to computational and digital methods than those scholars would be to social justice. Is this a fair assessment? I’m not sure, but the state of the tech industries on which much of DH models itself might suggest so. Sometimes it’s easy to hope for what Mark Marino tweeted earlier this week: “Someday #transformdh will come to be #dh just as #dh will come to be #h.”

My time at #ASA2012 ended at the most-neglected time slot of any conference, staring at beautiful, otherworldly images of mutant mammary clusters and labial flowers crafted by artist Pinar Yoldas (Duke). The reward for rousing my brain that morning was a mind-altering journey through the important queer art and media theory of Zach Blas (Duke), Micha Cárdenas (USC), Jacob Gaboury (NYU), and Yoldas.

One of the ways in which I am a curmudgeon is in my resistance to celebrating the nonhuman (posthuman?) until I can be assured this new direction of the humanities won’t leave behind the very human-centric theories of feminism, queer studies, disability studies, and critical race and ethnic studies. These panelists gave me hope with their decidedly queer speculations about what computation and bioengineering hold. Indeed, their cutting-edge work proves that #transformDH can’t really become #dh until radical formations like snaking chains of penises have a place in the academy.

We all know assimilation has its drawbacks, but that’s not exactly an objective here. It’s more about making connections, highlighting the links that were once thought of as unlikely. One gadfly is just annoying. Many gadflies… well, that’s a movement. Or a swarm. Or a multitude of relational database management systems. Any way you look at it, it’s powerful stuff. Go grab your wings.

[Creative Commons-licensed flickr photo by Vinoth Chandar]

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