I’m finally back with another blog post. This semester’s posts will focus on topics related to two ongoing projects of mine: the first, a collection of visualizations of intersectional representation in the LGBTQ Video Game Archive as part of the CHI fellowship at MSU, and the second, a TBD digital humanities project for a proseminar.
For this post, I want to explore some ideas I’ve been mulling over for quite some time related to DH. One of the readings for the proseminar this week was Kate Theimer’s “Archives in Context and as Context.” Theimer’s essay is an excellent overview of the ways digital humanists and archivists use the word “archive” differently, but I was frustrated by the definitional argument that she makes. Specifically, she highlights how the collections that digital humanists often refer to as archives would not count as archives to archivists, and while she acknowledges that archivists do not have the final say on what archives are, she writes, “The archivists’ definition is more specific, and therefore in my opinion conveys greater meaning.” The basic argument here is that a word too broadly applied to too many contexts loses meaning.
I’ve encountered this logic before in my studies in game narrative, where some scholars argue that applying the concept of narrative to play in games is to stretch the concept too far, and to make it lose meaning. It’s the move that “narrativists” make, those nasty folks who see narratives everywhere––and if narratives are everywhere, then narrative means nothing. I’ve always found this logic troubling and exclusionary: as though a word or concept can only maintain meaning within the confines of a particular context and a specific signified. In terms of clarity, this makes good sense. It’s much easier to understand a word or a concept when it has a limited number of interpretations. Yet this is also a very rigid sort of thinking, and one that fails to recognize how words and concepts with broad applications can be extremely useful and meaningful.
Words with broad usage are not less meaningful, nor are they further removed from context. Quite the opposite: a word that applies to many contexts *demands* context. And I think that’s the crucial point that is often lost: when a word applies to many and new signifieds, it does not do so in a universal way. It morphs and changes, and demonstrates it is flexible enough to adapt and relate to different contexts. It creates more meaning, and relational meaning at that. As long as we keep a wary eye to the contexts of that meaning, and clarify that meaning when we need to, then we shouldn’t shy away from differences in usage and understanding.
To bring this back to DH as a whole, this is why I’m not so concerned about defining exactly what the Digital Humanities are, or coming down to an official definition of what an archive or other key term is. I’m more interested in what these terms do, and what they can do: how can they change our perspectives? How can we use them in different ways? What meaning emerges in that difference? Beyond applying this simply to terms, I think we can apply it to DH as a field as well. DH is various, multivalent, and often messy, and it should be so. Rather than trying to standardize it and apply strict boundaries to the field, what would it look like for the field to practice a radical inclusiveness? For it to worry less about what is or is not DH, and more about how it relates to other projects and communities?
I want a DH that can flex and morph. One that reaches to and adapts to new problems. One that, from the get-go, is built to address the needs of marginalized and excluded peoples. One that is intersectional, not in the sense of checking diversity boxes, but in the sense of respecting, encouraging, and reaching across difference. And if we’re going to have a DH like that, we need to let go of rigid definitions and categories.
Referenced: Kate Theimer, “Archives in Context and as Context”