The Routledge Companion to Media Studies and Digital Humanities
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The Routledge Companion to Media Studies and Digital Humanities

Jentery Sayers, Jentery Sayers

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eBook - ePub

The Routledge Companion to Media Studies and Digital Humanities

Jentery Sayers, Jentery Sayers

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Although media studies and digital humanities are established fields, their overlaps have not been examined in depth. This comprehensive collection fills that gap, giving readers a critical guide to understanding the array of methodologies and projects operating at the intersections of media, culture, and practice. Topics include: access, praxis, social justice, design, interaction, interfaces, mediation, materiality, remediation, data, memory, making, programming, and hacking.

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Part I



Tara McPherson
We need maps and tools, not simply to theorize with, but also to guide us to act and transform the worlds in which we live. We work, under the banner of feminism, for the improvement of women’s lives.
(Balsamo 2011: 49)


Sometime in the 1990s:
I wake to the realization that I have been dreaming in the most vivid color of my life, inhabiting deeply cinematic sequences full of interesting camera angles that shimmer with shadow and light. My dreams are highly edited, intricate nocturnal sequences of shifting narrative and points of view. Clearly my brain is processing in deeply visceral ways the lessons of film production that I am learning in a graduate seminar on feminist film, continuing to explore the visual language of film even as I sleep. Enrolled in an intense doctoral program focused on poststructuralism and feminism, I have dreamed the languages of theory as well. I have felt myself working through these languages, in and out of sleep. But this is different. These cinematic dreams are activating other senses. They inhabit other registers. They are moving me through theory toward different but related ways of knowing. They will help to inaugurate my commitment to practice, to making in the world, a making also grounded in my allegiance to feminism. They will come to guide how I engage both media studies and digital humanities, crossing the theory/practice divide.


“Less yack, more hack.”
Despite my dedication to making, I have never really been a fan of this much-debated digital humanities (DH) slogan, which at least partially emerged from early THATCamps, those “unconferences” focused on active participation, spontaneity, and learning and building together. I do think THATCamps offer important opportunities for hands-on experimentation but am sympathetic to Natalia Cecire’s observation (2011) that the early iterations of these camps tended to privilege practice over theory and also treat the “humanities” portion of digital humanities as a fixed and stable element. While Bethany Nowviskie (2014) offers a useful history of the phrase, highlighting that it in part began as a joke within a precise context and was never meant as a slogan for digital humanities writ large, I suspect that its association with certain types of DH work easily took root because a range of scholars were also beginning to critique digital humanities for undervaluing the contributions of certain types of theoretical inquiry, including theories of difference, identity, affect, and more. Around the same time, debates about whether a card-carrying digital humanist needed to code to be legitimate (Ramsay 2011), or whether digital humanities would “sunset theory” (Scheinfeldt 2012), fueled the perception that digital humanities were not sufficiently attentive to the theoretical questions that occupied the interpretative humanities for decades. What is more, Miriam Posner (2012), Adeline Koh (2012), and groups such as #TransformDH have detailed the ideological dimensions of favoring hacking while denigrating yacking, and the recent renewed emphasis on data analytics and quantitative analysis within digital humanities can also seem quite distant from the concerns of theoretically inflected humanities scholarship.
In a recent article taking up the phrase, Claire Warwick helpfully suggests that increased focus might be paid to the qualifiers “less” and “more” rather than to a binary opposition between “yacking” and “hacking.” I agree. We can thus most usefully see yacking and hacking as held within a productive and dialectical relation. To take this line of thinking further, we might not even focus on “less” or “more,” as if the relationship between theory and practice can be reduced to balancing a formula. Instead, we might understand the two terms to be tied together in a productive and iterative friction. Warwick looks at the tensions and debates around the establishment of English departments and notes that “neither in Cambridge nor anywhere else was it felt important that students should be taught about language by learning to write creatively” (2016: 545). Perhaps the productive relationship between yacking and hacking is harder to discern in fields such as English, where practice (in both creative writing and composition courses) and theory (typically framed as literary studies) often exist in tense relations to one another. (A multimedia journal like Kairos illustrates that composition programs are a site where theory and practice can more easily coexist, but literature departments often devalue composition as well.) English departments are not the only sites where “yacking” and “hacking” have been separated. Across the arts and humanities, theory and practice are often poorly integrated in our universities. Art practice is usually cleaved apart from art history. Film and media studies might integrate production in the curriculum in some cases, but few film and media scholars are also media makers. The tensions between “yack” and “hack” are not, perhaps, all that unique to digital humanities. They exist across the university in structures that make it hard to combine theory and practice in our curricula, evaluation and promotion structures, disciplinary methodologies, and privileged forms of scholarly output.
As digital humanities scholars have struggled with the right balance of yack and hack, broader debates have emerged about the relationship of theory to practice across the academy. If these tensions have simmered just below the surface of disciplines for much of the twentieth century, then the digital turn has reanimated such debates in new ways in the new millennium. Claims that critique has run of out steam (Latour 2004) have emerged at the same time that many universities have also begun to experiment with programs that integrate the applied and theoretical across numerous disciplines. My employer, the School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) at the University of Southern California (USC), has long claimed to value the integration of theory and practice. Students across SCA’s divisions take courses in both “making” and theory and history. Nonetheless, this learning often happens in a rather piecemeal fashion. In an attempt to more seamlessly join critique and making within digital media studies, SCA launched the Institute for Multimedia Literacy in 1998, a research institute that eventually grew into a new SCA division, Media Arts + Practice (MAP), that includes a practice-based PhD program (in which students produce hybrid dissertations), undergraduate majors and minors, certificate programs, and more. While not a “digital humanities” program per se, the division shares with many DH initiatives a commitment to hands-on production. There are also explicit commitments to theoretical inquiry, issues of ideology and social justice, and producing multimodal scholarly research, including support for the digital journal, Vectors, and the authoring platform, Scalar. USC is far from alone in these endeavors within North America. A number of “theory-practice” programs have recently emerged here, joining programs in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere. Such efforts take on a wide variety of labels, from makerspaces to arts-based research to innovation labs to digital scholarship centers and more. What they typically share is a focus on multiple ways of knowing and some relationship of theory to practice—of hack to yack.
They also meet similar forms of resistance as they take shape across a variety of campuses. Some such reactions might simply be categorized as an academic resistance to change, a traditionalism within the academy that tends to favor existing structures and approaches or treats emerging paradigms with suspicion, if not outright hostility. But another vector of opposition arises from those whose worries are more specific. That is, they worry that innovation labs and makerspaces hew too closely to the neoliberal, techno-utopian logics of Silicon Valley. For instance, in a recent piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouilette, and David Golumbia frame digital humanities as “playing a leading role in the corporatist restructuring of the humanities” through the field’s focus on “the manufacture of digital tools and archives” (2016). The limits of their position have been hotly debated across the web and social media, with many taking exception to the very broad contours of the argument that reduce all of digital humanities to a few very specific examples in English departments, and others pointing out that, of the many causes for alarm in the modern university, the increase in digital humanities programs hardly seems the most significant one (Kirschenbaum 2016; Spahr et al. 2016). Still others have underscored that the piece displaces women and scholars of color who have labored to create politically engaged DH practices (Risam 2016). Nonetheless, I think we might attend with some care to the authors’ concerns that emerging programs focused on making, innovation, and creative technology might indeed be serving corporate ends to the extent that they privilege tool building or technology (or we might say, “hack”) more than critique (or “yack”).
More nuanced versions of this argument that DH may be complicit with corporate interests have been written by other scholars, including Gary Hall’s claim (2013) that the turn toward quantitative data analysis within digital humanities is in fact incommensurable with the methods and aims of the interpretative humanities. I am sympathetic to Hall’s argument. It is not hard to see that there are lines of convergence between the rise of curricular programs in digital technologies and the needs of corporate technology firms. Some of the technology programs and labs at my university as well as many others are funded by corporate benefactors, and there is no doubt that such sponsorship torques scholarship and learning in very particular ways. And yet such pressures seem to necessitate not a repudiation of the humanities intersecting with the digital, but rather a demand that humanities scholars increasingly operate within that very conjunction. If we are indeed concerned about the escalating corporatization of our campuses—from online learning platforms to new regimes of management—then an engagement with technology and the digital seems a crucial (if not the only) way to navigate these concerns. Such engagements can certainly happen (and already are happening) within the making spaces, digital scholarship centers, and digital humanities labs taking shape on many of our campuses, but they are unlikely to do so unless we move beyond the binary framed by hacking versus yacking. They will also require an explicit focus upon the ideological dimensions of technology that scholars ranging from Martha Nell Smith (2007) and Alan Liu (2012) have noted as sometimes missing from the digital humanities agenda.


There are precedents in the recent history of the university that suggest how such conjunctions might take shape. This volume’s title actually limns one way. I find the explicit attempt to join media studies with digital humanities to be a promising gesture, one that might push each field in constructive directions and also speaks to my own intellectual trajectory. My graduate education and early scholarly career centered on film and media studies and, more particularly, on feminist film theory. While my PhD program was in an English department, the opportunity to engage in media practice did exist along the margins of the curriculum. One class in particular profoundly rejiggered how I would come to understand the relationship of making to theory, leading to the vivid dreams that opened this essay. It was team-taught by feminist theorist, Patricia Mellencamp, and video artist, Cecelia Condit. The two came together to offer the class based on a friendship that grew out of Pat writing about Cecelia’s videos. The course combined students from film production and film studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The production department skewed toward experimental practice and was part of the art school, while the film studies program was then part of the theory-rich Modern Studies track within English. Students were encouraged to stretch outside of their comfort zones and work in a medium less familiar to them, be that print or video.
The experience deeply reconfigured how I understood feminism and collaboration, and it gave me a hands-on engagement with making that continues to influence my research— research that engages both theory and practice. The films I collaborated on years ago in that class were not very good, but they opened me up to new ways of thinking about the materiality of production practices and to different aesthetic registers, exploring what forms an explicitly feminist film language might take. They connected to my feminist activism within and beyond the academy, particularly in relation to grad student labor and reproductive politics. They eventually led me to volunteer for public access television and think more rigorously about infrastructures for production and distribution, both within and beyond the confines of commercial media. They also modeled for me the generosity and commitment that collaborations across difference require, as both Pat and Cecelia actively engaged ways of producing knowledge different than those already familiar to them. I had the opportunity to work alongside other students who were primarily artists, and this experience was incredibly invigorating, even as it was often challenging. We were investigating the possibility for making in ongoing dialogue with ideological critique. The structure of the class made it clear that the two were inextricably intertwined.
These types of interactions are incredibly important for how we might conceive of the rich possibilities of particular modes of media studies for a politically engaged digital humanities. Feminist film studies emerged from an entanglement with what is now sometimes called critical making, if the terminology of the time was different. We can trace decades of feminist media makers blurring...

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