A Close Reading of The DHThis Cat: Policing/Disrupting the Boundaries of the Digital Humanities and Strategic Uses for Cat GIFs

by Adeline Koh

In 2013 a group of colleagues and I started “DHThis”: an experimental publishing and curation platform for the digital humanities. The project was a Reddit/Slashdot-like platform for crowdsourcing the best content in the field. Anyone could sign up and submit links to the site, and the most popular posts would then appear on the front page of DHThis. You can read more about how the site functioned along with initial reactions to the project here.

This brief position paper conducts a close reading of the most upvoted post on DHThis: The “DHThis Cat” GIF. I argue that this cat GIF represents a variety of important intellectual positions within the digital humanities and their attendant anxieties. The DHThis Cat is a hilarious cat GIF that played on the title of the site, implying that DHThis made it easy to “digital humanicize” anything. As ably llustrated by the GIF, the cat summarily shoves things off the surface it is standing on proclaiming “DHThis,” “DHThat,” “DHThis too” “DHThat thing especially,” its flippant gestures at once underlining and mocking the arbitrariness of boundary-drawing and definitions within the field.

MpfnttnYet, the exact meaning of the DHThis cat is elusive. Is the DHThis cat supportive of boundary-drawing within the field, or critical of it? Does it write off both positions through harnessing the absurd, or does it simply represent curmudgeonly frustration with an incessant amount of navel gazing? I argue that the equivocal meaning of the DHThis cat signifies the real and present anxieties of manifold constituents within the field, many of which are continuing to grapple with what “counts” as digital humanities work as the field grows through federal funding support, numerous publications and the establishments of lines, positions, programs and departments. By reading the DHThis cat as a receptacle for the anxieties of the field, I posit two different interpretations of the DHThis cat GIF that correspond to tactics alternately used to shut down or open up definitions and boundaries.

Read in one light, the DHThis cat represents criticism that DH refuses to define and set clear boundaries and definitions for the field. This includes a recent attempt to draw upon poststructuralist approaches to argue that definition is impossible because it implies problematic reification; an argument that “everyone should get to say that they do DH” because “DH is not an identity category”; and the key question asked of all participants of the annual Day of DH, “How do you define the digital humanities?” It is possible to read this approach as a backlash against Stephen Ramsay’s originally well-intentioned blog post that explicitly laid clear boundaries for what a digital humanist is and is not (for critiques of this post, see Miriam Posner’s post and mine; for Ramsay’s followup which expanded definitions of coding/building, see here). For many digital humanists and aspirants Ramsay’s post signified a barrier of entry of unspoken privilege (in terms of class, gender, race, ability and the resources of one’s institution and position within that institution.) These critiques have arguably resulted in the more recent attempts that resist defining boundaries for the field. Mirroring the cursory swipes of the DHThis cat’s paw, critics who attempt to resist these definitions offer the critique that everything and nothing should count as the digital humanities; effectively rendering the term meaningless.

But the term is not meaningless. Increased financial support of the digital humanities through the establishment of an Office of the Digital Humanities within the National Endowment for the Humanities, the creation of more jobs (tenure-track, limited term and “alt-ac”) explicitly designated with the field in mind, and the flurry of publications in this field all indicate that the term is increasingly been given meaning and weight, so much so that it has and will continue to alter the shape of humanities departments and the profession itself. To undertake a poststructuralist approach that argues that the digital humanities cannot be defined or does not exist is an act of bad faith that flouts the very real material conditions that determine the lives of people who work in the field and aspire to get jobs within it.

The debate over the definitions and possibilities of the digital humanities recalls some of the most contentious arguments about race among scholars of race and ethnicity in the 1990s and early 2000s amid the growing popularity of poststructuralist theory. Paul Gilroy infamously declared that we should abandon the concept of race, given how it has been used to justify so many acts of aggression and genocide in the last few hundred years. Scientific researchers have also argued that race as a biological determinant for shared characteristics does not make sense; particularly when more meaning can be found through shared genetic characteristics rather than racial ones. These arguments effectively put forth the claim that race does not really exist as a condition of commonality among groups of people that is meaningful enough to create distinctions between these groups. In place of the concept of race, Paul Gilroy advocates a type of cosmopolitanism, of holding on to an idea of “diaspora” that goes beyond the lines drawn by the nation state. Gilroy’s argument has been declared problematic by postcolonial scholars (see Gikandi and Bhasin for examples), many of which doubt the possibility of moving towards such an utopian post-racial consciousness while skipping over the very real social realities of these identity categories.  While Gilroy’s work, combined with advances in genetics, are important in how they emphasize the arbitrariness of the category we call “race,” for many communities the move towards arguing that race does not exist will not help existing inequalities that result from the very real social presence the concept has in societies around the world. How then would one proceed–given that the term needs to be named in order for social inequality to improve, but still move past a static, real definition of the term?

I find an answer in the late Stuart Hall’s work, particularly in his concept of race as a “floating signifier.” Making use of cultural studies and semiotics, Hall understands race as a “signifier”–an important cultural sign with very real social use, implications and results–as well as one which is “floating,” emphasizing its arbitrary and shifting nature. By reading race as a “floating signifier,” Hall does not deny the reality and existence of race; rather, he calls attention to it as an important social construct which has very real social effects and consequences.

I posit that the “floating signifier” metaphor also applies to the definitions and boundaries of the digital humanities. Read in this light, I would read the DHThis cat in the spirit of playfulness; the carefree swipes of the paw “DHing this thing in particular” capturing the floating, arbitrary definitions of the term. Instead of representing an attempt to escape definition completely, the DHThis cat can be read as an attempt to emphasize the multiplicity of approaches within the field, thus emphasizing its broadness, scope and contingency.

Furthermore, that the cat GIF treats “DH” as a signifier makes clear the very real social, economic and disciplinary consequences of the term. By being marked as signifier, the cat GIF’s treatment of the “digital humanities” marks the field as a social construct: one with very real consequences such as  lines, positions, affiliations, committees, funding sources and organizations. In effect, the DHThis cat GIF’s batting about imaginary projects into the cavernous, amorphous field of DH draws home the reality that the digital humanities exists, and there are consequences to defining what falls within or outside of its boundaries.

I further suggest that the cat GIF’s playful treatment of research that does or does not belong in the field is a call for us to emphasize the floating nature of the term. To highlight this “floating” would be to open up, as I have argued previously, the genealogy of the digital humanities beyond the confines of humanities computing to encompass media studies, communications and science and technology studies. This is a call that I share with Tom Scheinfeldt, who has meditated on the divergent “family trees” of the digital humanities. In resituating this genealogy by opening it up, I want to emphasize the very real material conditions that come into being as a result of this re-opening. To open the genealogy of the digital humanities beyond its current history would be to recognize the contributions of other fields to this one, recognize these contributions by making work that falls outside of the history of humanities computing “count” for tenure and promotion, and make room for this work to have a persuasive place on the CV of someone on the job market. Ultimately, to open up the field and its definitions positively would be to do two things: 1) to posit an expanded definition and genealogy of the field, and 2) to give merit and weight to approaches that do not currently “count” as digital humanities through locating them in this broadened genealogy.

And there you have it: a close reading of the supposedly banal DHThis cat GIF in relation to two pictures of disciplinary boundaries and anxieties. As with any other complex literary images the image can be read in a multitude of ways–this position paper has only begun to investigate two. In summary, my reading of the DHThis cat is an optimistic one: I choose to interpret its playfulness not as an attempt to avoid definitions and boundary drawing, but one which emphaszies the arbitrariness of the term “digital humanities”, yet exhorts us to understand that these definitions have very real effects and consequences. Perhaps it was this subliminal complexity of the GIF and the many undercurrents it revealed that led it to becoming the most upvoted post on the DHThis website. Or maybe it was just because it was funny. Because humor, as we know well, is serious business.

Adeline Koh is Associate Professor of Postcolonial Literature at Richard Stockton College. Her work spans the intersections between postcolonial studies and the digital humanities, 19th/20th Century British and Anglophone Literature and Southeast Asian and African studies, and games in higher education. Koh directs The Stockton Postcolonial Studies Project and is the designer of Trading Races, an elaborate historical role playing game designed to teach race consciousness in the undergraduate classroom. She directs Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen,’ a digital archival project on 19th century ‘Asian Victorians’ in Southeast Asia. She is co-founder of the postcolonial digital humanities website, and is co-writing a forthcoming book on #DHPoco with Roopika Risam. She is a core contributor to the Chronicle of Higher Education Profhacker Column. She has held a Duke University Humanities Writ Large Fellowship and a postdoctoral fellowship at the National University of Singapore.

[“scanned paws” by flickr user stereotyp-0815 licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

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