Tag Archives: materiality

Make the infrastructure you want in the world

“Infrastructure and Materiality” may sound like a dry and bloodless module, but I’ve found the readings this week positively rousing.

Brian Larkin expanded the definition of infrastructure from the physical, built forms that move material to the political and social systems from which the physical networks can not be teased apart and without which they could not exist. ‘Placing the system at the center of analysis decenters a focus on technology and offers a more synthetic perspective, bringing into our conception of machines all sorts of nontechnological elements.’ This perspective is in line with a social shift I’ve noticed toward taking a more holistic view of causes and effects in our world, a recognition of the massive complexity in the systems we create and which shape us in turn.

Shannon Mattern too emphasizes the reality of infrastructure as greater than its emblematic factories and power lines. ‘[I]ntellectual and institutional structures and operations – measurement standards, technical protocols, naming conventions, bureaucratic forms, etc. – are also infrastructures’. This is where I feel like the praxis assignments could have done so much more. The bulk of our time, as reported in accompanying blog posts, was spent in trying to get data cleaned up and transformed into a shape that would be accepted by the text analysis, mapping, or network visualization tool. Many of us bemoaned the lack of understanding of our results at the end of it. It might be useful to provide an option that facilitates less time on data cleanup and more time interrogating the infrastructure of the tools and praxis. Ryan Cordell endorses this approach for similar reasons in his piece, How Not to Teach Digital Humanities. (In class it was put forth that he was only writing about undergraduates, but this is incorrect. His piece is explicitly about teaching both undergraduate and graduate students).

What I loved most in the readings are the loud and clear, outward-facing calls to action. Mattern’s article and the book draft notes from Alan Liu both earnestly exhort the reader to go forth and make works that reify and support the world we want. Build! Create! Generate! Mattern suggests we look at our field and identify opportunities to create infrastructure that support our liberal values. Liu encourages looking at our works as opportunities to channel the energy and values in the digital humanities today into actions that affect society beyond the academic realm.

I can’t think of a more inspiring and invigorating set of readings to shake off the mid-semester doldrums and power us up for the final few weeks of class. We will be developing project proposals. Perhaps we’ll end up with some projects that positively shape the infrastructure of our field.

The Image of Absence: Klein

I’m 3/4 of the way through this reading and as much as Hemings’s ghost is palpable, the historian in me is quite concerned with WHY Jefferson “for reasons unknown, failed to comply with [Hemings’s] request” for the terms of his employment and shrewdly specifying that it be in Jefferson’s own hand. I’d really like to explore the absent reasons to illuminate them. What could have prevented him, Jefferson, from providing this, or, is there some archival evidence that perhaps Jefferson didn’t want to provide Hemings with this. I find myself angered at Jefferson, given his prolific letter writing, letter-copying and letter filing/archiving, that he didn’t provide this to Hemings. Or perhaps he did but did so via ephemera?

My outrage softened, however, near the end of the reading as I read about the materiality Jefferson undertook in preparing Hemings’s “emancipation agreement” which he “penned in his special ink, encased in his imported paper, copied in his copying press, and then placed in his personal archive to preserve” (682) as Jefferson routinely did with his “significant” correspondence.

Via subjective analysis, then, I echo the call that Klein takes up from Alan Liu “to reinscribe cultural criticism at the center of digital humanities work” (665) and thereby offer the following:

WHAT IF, in preparing Hemings’s “emancipation agreement” — A HORRIFYING, OXYMORON CONTRADICTION-IN-TERMS PHRASE that MUST BE re-thought AND re-named BY ALL scholars ASAP (I mean “agreement” really?!) — Jefferson was actually elevating Hemings to the status of his most respected correspondents? Through his careful and mindful materiality toward this document, and his “awareness of his own historical legacy” (662) perhaps Jefferson is leaving a trail of crumbs for posterity of his regard of Hemings as a person and a chef, and not as a slave who lived and toiled invisibly, reduced to a mere “line of data” and “object of “empirical knowledge” in his farm book.

I do not put it past Jefferson to have scoffed at Hemings’s request for the terms of his employment as the likely reason for potentially not providing it. But I also do not put it past Jefferson to have left a watermark, albeit in quite “invisible ink”, of his friendship and perhaps even very deep personal regard for Hemings, for those of us looking to illuminate it.