On Disruption, Race, and the Digital Humanities

By Roopika Risam

I. Disruption

In the front matter for Disrupting the Digital Humanities, Dorothy Kim and Jesse Stommel identify the “insidious” rhetoric of disruption within the tech industry, arguing that the term has been co-opted by the notion of “disruptive innovation.”[1] The very qualities that give disruption currency as an intellectual category have made it a buzzword for contemporary globalization. The fact that disruption is a valuable dimension of engagement invites the fond gaze of global capitalism. Making the case for its possibilities, however, Kim and Stommel propose to reappropriate disruption, rehabilitating its critical potential. This is a noble endeavor, as there is value to the act of disruption. It generates affective response and connotes innovation and newness, not for their own sakes but in the pursuit of change. Disruption recalls the seemingly radical moves of Occupy Wall Street, the liberatory possibilities of Arab Spring, the demands for recognition of #NotYourAsianSidekick. At first glance, disruption conjures blows struck against hegemony, a feeling of out with the old and in with the new, and hope for transformation.

A disruption, however, is an interruption. From the Latin disrumpere (to break into pieces, burst asunder), disruption is “the action of rending or bursting asunder; violent dissolution of continuity; forcible severance.[2] Taking into account this definition, how might disruption be a useful frame for thinking about race in the digital humanities and where are its limits?

II. Race

Black lives, histories, and literatures historically have been viewed as disruptive to dominant cultures that preserve a white status quo. W.E.B. Du Bois draws attention to this issue in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) where he identifies the color line as the problem of the 20th century and describes the disruptiveness of lived Black experience with the perennial question “How does it feel to be a problem?”[3] Du Bois notes that this is an unasked question, a moment in which the possibilities of conversation are foreclosed. This question, Du Bois suggests, is the essence of double consciousness, the incommensurate duality of black experience: “an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”[4] Double consciousness disrupts the unity of the Black self even as the Black self disrupts dominant culture.

Disruption has become an important part of public discourse about race in the United States, particularly in the last few months. One example is the actions organized by Black Lives Matter, a movement that began with a hashtag (#blacklivesmatter) in 2012 after the death of Trayvon Martin. Disruption in the context of Black Lives Matter conjures protests carried out, highways halted, stores shut down. These visually striking spectacles command attention and demonstrate solidarity with Black people, who are being “systematically and intentionally targeted for demise” by state violence.[5] Yet, these events themselves are moments, and as the Black Lives Matter tagline attests, it’s “Not a Moment, a Movement.”[6] Indeed, for Black Lives Matter, moments of disruption exist within a context. The movement itself renders disruption legible as a key component of broader conversation. The conversation itself is a rejoinder to Du Bois’s unasked question, “How does it feel to be a problem?” It forces a conversation about the value of black lives and reframes the problem as state violence, not disruptive black bodies. The importance of conversation is clear in the way that Black Lives Matter positions itself through the dialogic Black tradition of call and response as “an affirmation and embrace of the resistance and resilience of Black people.”[7]

III. Digital Humanities

Considering how Black Lives Matter positions the relationship between disruptions of the moment and dialogue of the movement, we find guidance for how we might use disruption to think about race in digital humanities scholarship. Is it a stretch to suggest that Black Lives Matter is relevant in this context? Absolutely not. Any discussion of race in a field must begin with acknowledgment of the academy’s complicity in devaluing black lives. In addition to structural devaluation, we find such complicity in the lack of representation in the academy, segregation within universities, and restructuring and defunding of African American studies departments. By our engagement in knowledge production, we are complicit in the silences and exclusions of dominant culture. If we aren’t actively resisting it, we are contributing to it. Even when we resist, we must understand our roles in an industry that participates in structures that devalue black lives and, in turn, enable state violence. As scholars of the digital humanities, we must also acknowledge the complicity of technology in creating and magnifying inequalities.

Over the past few years, a number of disruptions have focused on race within the digital humanities. More often than not, these have taken place on Twitter, under hashtags like #transformDH and #dhpoco. Such disruptions have led to further engagement, with panels and publications emerging from them. However, they have produced fragmented conversations about race in the digital humanities that beg more cohesion. A conversation about race cannot take place without attention to the larger, complex histories of race in computation, humanities computing, and the digital humanities. As a result, disruptions have produced useful moments but a real movement to foreground race in digital humanities scholarship has yet to materialize. These circumstances reflect the sticking point of disruption itself: if a disruption is an interruption, what remains in its wake?

As I have said elsewhere, digital humanities can only engage with race meaningfully if we build on existing genealogies of race in the digital milieu. This would include the work of Afrofuturism scholars including Alondra Nelson and Tricia Rose; new media scholars like Anna Everett, Lisa Nakamura, and Wendy Chun; and scholars who have written specifically about race in the digital humanities like Amy Earhart and Tara MacPherson. Within these genealogies, we also must take into account projects that have sought diverse representation like Alan Liu’s Voice of the Shuttle; ones that deal explicitly with race as a category of analysis like Earhart’s 19th-Century Concord Digital Archive; those that foreground the role of race as a component of design like Susan Brown, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy’s work on The Orlando Project; or ones that mark the limitations of race in their scope like Allison Booth’s Collective Biographies of Women. Through this task of discovery and building, more recent disruptions around race can be transformed into conversation. Race is not modular but discursive and iterative like the digital humanities itself. Finding place for disruption within a conversation privileges the latter qualities over the former. In doing so, these genealogies offer contexts for sifting through pieces torn asunder, for piecing together possibilities for the future.

If we are to embrace the task Mark Sample describes as “difficult thinking” for race in the digital humanities,[8] it will not be through disruption alone. Disruption raises awareness of an issue, absence, or gap in the moment of its articulation. Of course, we need such reminders that race is an integral category of analysis, subtending our scholarship whether we acknowledge it or not. Yet, without careful work and a predisposition towards conversation, the potential for change will be foreclosed.

In the desire to raise the stakes for how we discuss race in the digital humanities, we must be careful not to neglect scholarly conversation, whether nascent or developed, in the rush to disrupt. Disruption must be located within a conversation to effectively broaden dialogue. A conversation can only progress if we recognize the contexts in which we labor and the structures of race that surround all of us, linking our fates. Race in the digital humanities cannot be a conversation ended before it can even begin. Rather, it requires attention to the building blocks of engagement: showing generosity and patience, knowing when to listen, and learning when to speak. Only by fostering such an environment in which dialogue can thrive could disruption create transformation for scholarship on race in the digital humanities.

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[1] Dorothy Kim and Jesse Stommel, Disrupting the Digital Humanities, accessed January 2, 2015, http://disruptingdh.com.
[2] “Disruption,” Oxford English Dictionary, accessed January 1, 2015, http://www.oed.com.
[3] W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Terri Hume Oliver (New York: Norton, 1999): 4.
[4] Ibid., 5-6.
[5] “About,” Black Lives Matter, accessed January 1, 2015, http://blacklivesmatter.com.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Mark Sample, “Difficult Thinking about the Digital Humanities,” Sample Reality, accessed January 1, 2015, http://www.samplereality.com/2014/05/12/difficult-thinking-about-the-digital-humanities/.


Roopika Risam is Assistant Professor of World Literature and English Education. She is the co-founder of Postcolonial Digital Humanities (#dhpoco), a movement that foregrounds global explorations of difference within cultures of technology. Roopika is writing a book on postcolonial studies and digital humanities and is the co-director of The Harlem Shadows Project, an experiment in producing digital critical editions of public domain texts. Roopika’s research interests span postcolonial, African American, and Black British literary and cultural studies, as well as digital pedagogy and secondary education teacher preparation. Roopika is a member of the Executive Council of the Association for Computers and the Humanities, the founding editorial board of DHCommons, and MLA Delegate Assembly.

[“Mercury” by flickr user p.Gordon licensed under CC-BY-2.0]

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