Last week in the DHC, we had the profound joy of welcoming Marisa Parham for a discussion of her work, as a professor of English at Amherst College (where she is a prolific producer of DH projects), director of the Immersive Reality Lab for the Humanities, and former director of Five Colleges DH.
Professor Parham’s talk was engaging and inspiring in many ways and directions, but I want to focus this week on responding to an aspect of her talk that I found particularly compelling. Professor Parham talked about her process as one of taking ideas from conceptual into digital form in ways that “put pressure on the digital,” rather than the other way around. I found this idea to be eloquently reflected in the projects she showed us, many of which veered far from the expected structures of a web page in which one follows a linear path through hyperlinks to consume information in the order one desires.
Rather, Parham’s projects are nonlinear, playful, and resistant to the mastery of their users. A project created with a student, for example, features a 3D tic-tac-toe board of images that each lead to a poem, an array that reshuffles itself when the user navigates back to it, making it all but impossible to find the same piece twice (that is, until the user has clicked a certain number of times, at which point they are bounced out to a more straightforward index). Another project is set up to sync with average reading times, so that text, images, and videos appear and disappear on the screen as your eye travels down the page. This project, which deals with black womanhood, also incorporates a kind of digital code-switch capability, with hyperlinks that don’t announce themselves as passages to the next thing, but are more like passwords to further discussion, easy to suss out if you know what the look for and just as easy to miss if you’re less culturally literature in the topics at hand.
Essentially, the digital media of Parham’s projects do not self-obfuscate or efface; there is no level on which you could forget that what you are reading is not a weirdly backlit piece of paper. They put, to use her words, the pressure on the digital. One of the reasons I find this so interesting is the way in which “putting the pressure on the digital” means putting a kind of pressure on the reader, too, who must renounce some of the complete control that the typical web-browsing experience leads us to expect. What if I really wanted to find one of those poems again? I found myself thinking as Parham walked us through the project. And, of course, the answer is, too bad! Why was I ever asuming that a webpage has to give me exactly what I want when I want it, simply because it is a webpage and not, say, a video, a painting, or a piece of choroegraphy.
The other reason I have felt so drawn to the idea of “putting the pressure on the digital” is for how it challenges one of the ways I myself have been describing the work of the Digital Humanities. When asked by members of the Barnard community who have no experience with DH what it is we do in the center, I often find myself using some variation of the formulation “humanist inquiries plus digital methodologies.” This is an easy way of conveying the fact the Digital Humanities come in peace — that the work we do is Humanities work, and we’re not some alien invasion of scary coders hell bent on, I don’t know, Marie Kondo-ing everyone’s bookshelves into oblivion and replacing them with many many laptop carts or something — but Professor Parham’s talk really revealed to me how lazy a formulation it is.
Humanitist inquiries, digital methodologies is a neat turn of phrase for a field of work that is itself profoundly un-neat. Professor Parham described the way her research focuses on aspects of black culture that have always been in some way digital, even before the platforms themselves existed (her example is Black Twitter arguably pre-existing Twitter itself), which challenged me to think of digital not as something being added to humanities. Rather, the inquiries themselves can be — and have always been — digital, and the methodologies shouldn’t take digital-ness for granted but, again, should always be putting the pressure back on the digital. The playful or even mischevious qualities of Professor Parham’s work are not pre-existing qualities implemented by digital tools, but qualities inseperable from the digital medium of her work and its possibilities (arguably they are themselves digital qualities, but this is perhaps a topic for another post).
By putting pressure on the digital, we leave behind the world of the toolkit, challenging our conceptual thought to be fully integrated with digital practices, and questioning our assumptions about both. What a tremendous resource scholars like Professor Parham are in this process!
If you joined us on Wednesday for Professor Parham’s talk, thank you so much for your time and your engagement! If you missed it, be sure not to miss the DHC’s next event, a reading group for Philip N. Howard’s Pax Technica: How the Internet of Things May Set Us Free or Lock Us Up.