Toward an “Asian American” Digital Humanities

It’s almost 9pm. I’ve been back from MLA for a few hours now. I’m well snuggified on my couch with my kitty on my lap as I recover from my whirlwind three days in LA. And yet I cannot stop thinking about the many presentations, topics, controversies, and snippets that have filled the last days. They’ve invigorated me, troubled me, and as I’ve said elsewhere (twitter, facebook, etc.), they make me feel like my head is about to explode.

Before I go into why I’m feeling all excited and conflicted, I think it might be helpful to share some of the panels I went to at this past MLA…

185. Planet Wiki? Postcolonial Theory, Social Media, and Web 2.0

233. Transmedia Activism

309. The History and Future of the Digital Humanities

331. The Open Professoriat: Public Intellectuals on the Social Web

442. Postcolonial Diasporas

466. Teaching Asian American Literatures

681. Writing Human Rights: Asian American Contexts

743. What the Digital Does to Reading

Of course there were a gazillion other panels I wanted to attend and didn’t get to, whether it was because of my late arrival (darn the quarter system and early teaching duties) scheduling conflicts (so much going on at the same time!), or pure exhaustion. I think you can still get an idea of the breadth and the particularities of my interests, which is why I am sharing some of my MLA itinerary.

From my limited experience at MLA, I observed a few things about the various areas I’m interested in:

  • Digital Humanities is hot! There were over 40 panels and roundtables either devoted to or including presentations about digital projects, issues, etc. A massive increase from previous years. (Also catalogued here by Mark Sample.)
  • Maybe it was all those iPads and iPhones, but the atmosphere at those DH panels was positively electric. Of course this was probably aided by the vibrant young scholars, the running stream of tweets, and close-knit relationships fostered by that online community. This also gained criticism by some for being cliquish, exclusive, and even alienating. It’s the “cool-kid’s table,” said William Pannapacker at The Chronicle. But in my opinion, DH is no more cliquish or exclusive than any other period/geography/language specific field. It’s just much more transparent and rapid because we’re watching it unfold in real-time on twitter, ProfHacker, and individual or institutional blogs, as opposed to peer-reviewed journals and annual professional meetings. I mean, I was intimidated and reserved, and it wasn’t just cause these panels were populated with DH rock stars.
  • Digital Humanists seem to be overwhelmingly white. (Maybe it’s just the MLA? But I also noticed this at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute in 2009.) No offense, but where are all the people of color? Not that the work being done by these current superstar academics isn’t amazing and important, but where are those individuals and communities who are visibly different to examine and create or represent disparate voices and media objects?
  • And, this is where I was most concerned, there isn’t all that much overlap when it comes to race/ethnic studies, the postcolonial, and DH. I mean this in terms of participants as well as represented scholarship. “Planet Wiki?” was the only panel devoted to such issues (though there were several on language teaching and acquisition, which is quite different).

I don’t mean to criticize DH as a field (something that seemed to already be occurring by the third night of MLA, which led to a wonderfully self-conscious examination of the community on twitter that very night) for it’s lack of diversity. But as a new scholar invested in both the global, the subaltern, and the ethnic other, as well as the digital and the literary, I’ve been struggling to find a means of articulating a project that reconciles methods, theories, and cultural objects from both fields. This is most visible in a question I got from an Asian American scholar (a mentor) when she asked me, “Why do you want me on your committee?” My project wasn’t an Asian American project, why would I want an Asian Americanist?

And that was it. Why did the two have to be mutually exclusive?

For the longest time had the most difficult time trying to justify why I wanted to bring the two together. But I think I’ve got it now. Many thanks to the amazing scholars at MLA this year, cause their mind-blowing presentations helped me to articulate this. I think. I might reach the end of this and find out it still doesn’t make sense.

But here goes…

The critical significance paid to code, to networks, to interaction and play, to labor and practice that are foundational to DH can be used to inform an Asian American or global project. But what about the reverse relationship? Does Asian American criticism lend itself to larger, possibly non-Asian, more global, more digitally focused projects? As Stephen Sohn asked us so beautifully in his paper on D’souza’s Whiteman (panel 681), must Asian Am literary study restrict itself to texts based on the descent of the author or characters? Can we not re-appropriate the disciplinary concern of Asian Am (and other specific ethnic) criticism with its investment in social justice, equity, ethics, and representational politics to expand the scope of what is considered “Asian American literary criticism”? Can we not examine a more flexible “literary refraction” instead of insisting on “literary reflection”?

I think these questions are incredibly important right now in this environment of crisis in the public university. As the Digital Humanities becomes more institutionalized and recognized as a field, with many universities making cluster hires and building DH areas of their own, ethnic studies departments seem to be finding themselves in more precarious situations which has led to efforts to justify their existence and relevance. When ethnic studies programs elsewhere are being eliminated (I’m glaring in the general direction of Arizona right now) the anxiety I’ve noticed at UCSB in particular is not completely unfounded (but c’mon, “post-racial”? Really?!). How many grads have I spoken to have expressed some regret that they didn’t jump on that digital band wagon earlier so they could be more marketable now? Well, I can’t remember an exact number. But it’s a lot.

Ok. Now I’m fading. The kitty is purring, and I’ve since moved to my bed. So, to paraphrase: Asian American literary criticism doesn’t have to be only about Asian American texts any more, it can serve as a critical paradigm, and Digital Humanities can be informed by ethnic critical traditions. (Wow, why does this suddenly sound so easy?) Don’t the DH peeps always call for collaboration? Well, there you go.

And here’s a gratuitous picture of Allister sleeping. =D


  1. I love your line of thinking here, Anne. I wonder how many fields could we name that are concerned with “investment in social justice, equity, ethics, and representational politics”? When the frameworks of Asian-American criticism are directed toward other objects of inquiry, does it become unrecognizable as As-Am theory? In other words, it seems like a general framework of these concerns could be aligned with a lot of different schools of study. There isn’t anything in that framework to specifically suggest studies of race. Wondering if there needs to be? If not, do we just end up back where we are now?

    This is muddled and hopefully you get what I’m trying to say. If not, shoot me an email 😀

  2. Nice post. I too remain frustrated that there is so little intersection between the two areas I work in: theories of race and theories/practices of the digital. But there is some great work at this intersection, more now than ever: Lisa Nakamura, Wendy Chun, Jennifer Gonzalez, Kara Keeling. etc. I’ve been writing recently about the ways in which the early development of digital media (in the 60s and 70s) actually might have set the stage for our current disconnected, modular ways of thinking. And the online journal, Vectors, has frequently fostered digital work about race. We’ll be hosting an NEH 2011 summer institute here at USC precisely to address this issue. http://web-app.usc.edu/ws/eo2/calendar/112/event/892112

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