Utopianism and its detractors

Alice in Wonderland reflected in a CD
"Digital Reflections," by seriykotik1970

This year, the American Historical Association’s annual meeting included a THATCamp, which I was happy to attend. Andrew Hartman, a professor at Illinois State University, published an interesting response, which I wanted to take a moment to address.

Hartman enjoyed himself but wondered if the scholars attending THATCamp evinced an unwarranted utopianism about the prospects of technology to transform the practice of history. It’s a good question, and an understandable reaction, but I don’t think it’s altogether accurate. First, I think that what Hartman understood as utopianism may in fact have been an attempt by the participants to make newcomers like Hartman feel welcome. If there’s a utopianism present at THATCamp, I think it’s more about the possibilities of new forms of interacting with each other, not the technology itself.

(As an aside, I think that for women this may hit a particular nerve. Digital humanities’ vaunted niceness is an aspect of the field I love, but for women in particular being “nice” is often read as an admission of intellectual inferiority. Some people can easily afford to be nice; for others, the cost is higher.)

In fact, as I’ve written before, technological utopianism bothers me a great deal for very personal reasons, and it’s a stance digital humanists have been quite active in countering.

More substantively, I’d like to respond to another of Hartman’s points: that while digital history is “an important new tool … it does not change the way we conceptualize the past.” I’d like to argue that it does, and in ways that directly counter the characterization of digital history as utopian. In fact, much of it has an activist project that, like Hartman, draws on Marxist theory.

Anyone who’s been to an archive understands that no arrangement of material is ideologically neutral. (Archivists understand this best of all.) The arrangement of folders, the classification of documents, and the institutional placement of material all entail thousands of tiny decisions, each of which has consequences. A good historian responds to this by accounting for absences, comparing sources, and adjusting interpretations to compensate for inherent biases.

Digital archives are no different. If you’ve done a keyword search in ProQuest’s historical newspapers database, you understand that the results you see are skewed by the newspapers the database contains, the peculiarities of the digitization process, and the options you’ve checked (or forgotten to check). One way that “digital history” can help historians to compensate for these biases is to help us understand what they are, how they work, and which methods might begin to fill in the gaps. To fail to do so would be — not utopian, exactly, but certainly naive.

Some of the most ambitious digital history presses beyond these cognitive compensations and toward digital methods of repairing some of the gaps in the historical record. In fact, we saw a number of examples of this work at the same AHA that Hartman attended. Chad Black, at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, identified the absence of indigenous people in the records of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Quito. Turning to jail records, Black used textual analysis to recover a history of indigenous people that would otherwise be invisible.

Meanwhile, at the MLA, Lauren Klein of the Georgia Institute of Technology was describing her work to account for a different kind of archival absence; in this case, that of Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved personal chef, James Hemings. Hemings himself isn’t present in the Jefferson papers, because Jefferson didn’t write to him, and he didn’t write to Jefferson. Inspired by Foucauldian critiques of the archive, Klein turned to social-network analysis to visualize correspondence about Hemings, resurrecting a ghostly image of Hemings from the gaps in the Jefferson papers.

Back at the AHA, Jo Guldi of the Harvard Society of Fellows was offering a meditation on the effect of mass-digitization of the history of the longue durée. The new availability of these records, said Guldi, makes possible (and imperative) a different kind of history, one that combines scale and scrutiny across wide swathes of time and space.

Brown University’s Jean Bauer, also present at THATCamp and the AHA, might have told Hartman about her work to design an ideologically and theoretically informed database to trace the movement of social networks and institutions over time and space.

Those at AHA may also have seen a presentation by Tim Sherratt about Invisible Australians, a project to resurrect via digitization, textual analysis, and facial recognition a history of Australians of color living under the White Australia policy.

Would any of these historians argue that their work constitutes a true, full identity between history as-it-happened and our present-day situatedness? Good God, no. No historian would. But I think they might argue the the truly utopian — or naive — move would be to continue believing that any record is perfect or impartial, including those contained in traditional archives. Digital historians are doing what historians do: alerting us to new ways of looking at people, places, and things we might have overlooked.

History has a humility that I love — the reason I insist on calling myself a historian, despite my degrees in film studies and American studies. A historian has a loyalty to and respect for her subjects that evinces itself not only in cautious interpretation but in a doggedness in seeking out every possible dimension of past lives. It’s not naive to search for new ways to do this; it’s a gesture of respect.

5 thoughts on “Utopianism and its detractors

  1. I never quiet understood the general impression that digital work needs to replace ‘traditional’ forms of scholarship. As a programmer and working with scholars I’ve not really personally experienced people as Utopian. I see them as thinking of digital techniques as an addition a set of tools and possibilities for their scholarship and teaching.

    I do think there is a darwin-esque attitude toward digital forms of scholarship and teaching in particular but I’m not sure it comes from the community. That said I’m not sure where it comes from in particular and likely comes from multiple sources. Administration is the flippant answers and it’s partially true but there are also, student expectations, the need to keep up with peers at conferences by presenting digital work, expectations of students and the need to keep up in college rankings for digital works, the list goes on and on.

    I can’t speak to the experiences of anyone else but I would ask that people be mindful that they’re not mistaking enthusiasm for fanaticism or newness for superiority.

    Thanks for the post and the commentary.

  2. Nice post Miriam. Thanks for engaging my admittedly provocative thinking. I don’t really disagree with any of the compelling evidence you provide–in terms of demonstrating that digital history can and should be an important and powerful tool for historians. But it doesn’t change the way we think about history. Historians have long sought to explain gaps in evidence. That digital history helps fill these gaps, or helps explain them, makes it an important and powerful tool.

  3. Eh, at a certain point, who cares whether it’s a tool or an epistemology? I think it’s more than a tool, but that’s an argument about terms. Digital history can (and at its best does) change the way we think about the past — which is, in the end, what history should do.

  4. I agree with all of this. However: why shouldn’t DH be open about its utopian drives? Or more accurately, about the constant dialectic between its utopian commitments and real-world imbrication? If Marx were here, he wouldn’t be studying classical economics, the industrial revolution, etc: he’d be looking at the utopian political possibilities opening up within actually-existing, digitally mediated global capitalism. This argument might be more popular with literary studies people… Utopian moments are ways to open up existing political arrangements, most of us would say, not to finalize and stabilize an imagined political order.

  5. Hi Gabriel,

    Good point! I agree with you, actually. I think sometimes the word “utopian” is a stand-in for “naive” or “technologically determinist,” which is where my hackles get raised. But you’re right, they’re not the same thing, and that’s important to remember.


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