Friday, January 25, 2019

Fashioning Feminism: On Bodies of Information.

William & Mary

What does a bulletproof dress prototype have to do with the digital humanities?

A lot actually, according to artist micha cárdenas. Such a garment, which was crafted from Kevlar airbags scavenged from a junkyard, could be capable of stopping a 9mm bullet. It’s one of the objects featured in the latest addition to the Debates in the Digital Humanities series, Bodies of Information: Intersectional Feminism and Digital Humanities.

As a piece of apparel, the dress dramatizes the higher risk of mortality that people of color face in confrontations with law enforcement. Of course, communities allied with #BlackLivesMatter are also deploying statistics, metadata (like hashtags), and even information visualizations to quantify how the inequities of state power do violence to black and brown bodies, as well as how activists can mobilize in response. Nonetheless, the metallic clothing created by cárdenas represents a critical kind of “embodied gesture” that she argues is as essential as big data number crunching, if not more so.

Others in this new collection, such as Marcia Chatelain – creator of the #Ferguson Syllabus – and Beth Coleman of the City as Platform Lab, similarly make the argument that #BLM should present central rather than peripheral concerns for digital humanities practitioners in the academy.

Furthermore, digital humanities scholars “can extend their work to be more accessible to low-income people,” cárdenas writes, “and to considerations of nondigital technologies, by abstracting the concept of algorithms to include recipes and rituals.”

Bringing DIY craftivism to the digital humanities is a commitment for Kim Brillante Knight as well. This scholar of “viral media” uses an unusual form of data visualization to depict the frequency of the use of the #prolife hashtag on Twitter. Rather than show a word cloud or network graph, Knight uses five pink LEDs as a meter to measure the occurrences of the relevant tweets.

“The medium for the visualization is a black T-shirt,” Knight explains, “onto which I have hand embroidered reproductive organs: a uterus, fallopian tubes, cervix, and part of a vagina.” The project also uses microcontroller technology and conductive thread.

Other evocative objects – such as yearbook photos – become artifacts of critical reflection in the new volume. Texas A&M professor Amy Earhart describes the unintended consequences of digital humanities projects that reveal sites of institutional shame. For example, she includes images from a project digitizing college memorabilia that reveal photos of student organizations with members proudly “wearing their Klan robes, with typical cross insignia, hoods, and brandishing swords.”

Rather than merely digitizing archives without reflecting on their design – who is included, what is excluded, and why some histories are deemed not worth preserving – this collection encourages digital humanities researchers to question what gets privileged in a library of rare materials and how digital archives can foster different perceptions of the historical record.

Brandeis medievalist Dorothy Kim, who has been a lightning rod for alt-right abuse online, invites us to consider what gets lost when we only experience the digital copy of a text. Kim notes that solely its visual elements are captured, and its other sensory features become lost. “Medieval reading practices were not linear,” Kim asserts, “often required vocality to read out loud or sing out loud, ideally required slow and repetitive rereading, were emotive, and involved sound, smell, touch, taste, visual, and even bodily calisthenics.”

The epistemological rethinking that digital technologies make possible is highlighted in many of the groundbreaking essays in the volume, including “Toward a Queer Digital Humanities” by Bonnie Ruberg, Jason Boyd, and James Howe.

Ruberg, Boyd, and Howe articulate basic principles: “If queer knowledge always resists completion, it becomes clear that queering metadata means more than adding new vocabulary to existing taxonomical systems. Queerness also points toward a shift in the very methodologies of metadata collection. To queer metadata, queer thinking must be brought to bear on the conceptual models and tools of object description as well as its content.”

The collection even includes Deb Verhoeven’s “Be More Than Binary” challenge to the international digital humanities community, as well as a number of essays that question what it means to speak of “community” in the digital humanities at all.

In emphasizing the importance of feminist digital humanities, this collection does much more than merely highlight digital archives that commemorate the previously hidden accomplishments of women. In addition to acknowledging transgender and nonbinary forms of digital humanities, these essays consider what is feminized as well as what is female. For example, Sharon Leon acknowledges the many professional roles that disprove the “Great Man” myth. And Julia Flanders encourages her audience to interrogate assumptions about all technical systems of knowledge production as they think about both print and digital publication processes. Flanders reflects upon how her own Women Writers Project “mirrored a shift in feminist theory from a second-wave attention to the visibility and rights of women . . . to a third-wave focus on how the structure of discourse enacts and reinforces cultural power dynamics of gender, race, class, coloniality, and other differentials.” There is also a wonderful essay by Susan Brown, who celebrated the 20th anniversary of Orlando recently, that deconstructs aversions to tropes of delivery and service associated with the “handmaiden” position in the digital humanities with an incisive reading of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

As we performed our own informational labor as the editors/handmaids of this book – collating comments from the peer-to-peer review process or indexing the key terms in the volume – we found ourselves marveling at the sophistication of the feminist thinking modeled in this collection and the fundamental questions that it explored. Sadly a single blog post can’t do justice to the dazzling array of ideas in a table of contents that concludes with two essays about why videogame design and analysis of its player community practices might rightly belong with the growing corpus of digital humanities scholarship.

Readers are likely to appreciate how this book challenges existing attitudes and stereotypes about a rapidly expanding field. As an added benefit, with its affordable cover price and open access launch in a few months, Bodies of Information also offers a rich set of resources for students who are interested in exploring how digital technologies can promote activist scholarship, community alliances, and public engagement in the academy.


Elizabeth Losh is associate professor of English and American studies at The College of William & Mary with a specialization in new media ecologies. She is coeditor, with Jacqueline Wernimont, of Bodies of Information: Intersectional Feminism and Digital Humanities; author of Virtualpolitik and The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University; and coauthor of Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Frankenstein and anonymous authorship in eighteenth-century Britain.

University of Wisconsin–Madison

Having celebrated its 200th anniversary in 2018, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is perhaps one of the most well-known novels of the early nineteenth century. While many are familiar with Shelley’s classic novel and can immediately picture some version of the work’s iconic monster, few are aware that when Frankenstein was first published in 1818 it was an anonymous novel. Nowhere on the title page does the name “Mary Shelley” appear. The novel that began its life as an exercise in writing a ghost story during the particularly cold and wet summer of 1816 at Lord Byron’s Villa Diodati in Geneva was conveyed to the British reading public with no indication of its author’s name.

Indeed, when in 1817 Mary Shelley’s husband Percy tried to help her sell the completed novel to his publisher, Charles Ollier, he did so without disclosing the author’s name. Percy Shelley wrote to Ollier: “I send you with this letter a manuscript which has been consigned to my care by a friend in whom I feel considerable interest.” The manuscript was rejected. Acting again as Mary Shelley’s agent, Percy Shelley would eventually find a publisher for the novel in Lackington and Co., but Mary Shelley’s name was withheld. Percy Shelley referred to the novel in a letter to the publisher as “not [his] own production, but that of a friend…”

Shortly after the novel was published in January 1818, with a print run of 500 copies, reviews of the novel began appearing in periodicals. Some reviewers, noting novel’s anonymity, hazarded an attribution. Walter Scott in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine wrote: “It is said to be written by Mr Percy Bysshe Shelley, who, if we are rightly informed, is son-in-law to Mr Godwin; and it is inscribed to that ingenious author.” (Mary Shelley would later write to Scott to correct this error). An anonymous reviewer in The Literary Panorama, and National Register reported in its review of Frankenstein: “We have heard that this work is written by Mr. Shelley; but should be disposed to attribute it to even a less experienced writer than he is. In fact we have some idea that it is the production of a daughter of a celebrated living novelist.” The British Critic was even crueler in its dismissal:

The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment.

Given the harsh reviews Frankenstein endured from many, though not all, critics and the obvious antipathy to women writers held by some critics we might not be surprised that the novel was published anonymously. Indeed, we may wish to attribute some causal relationship between the expected reception of Frankenstein and its woman author and the decision to publish the novel anonymously. As Susan Eilenberg notes, however, “there was nothing peculiarly feminine about anonymity, nor anything very uncommon about it, either.”

Indeed, the novel in English emerges over the course of the long eighteenth century as a largely anonymous form. As James Raven asserts, “it is clear that the overwhelming majority of the English novels of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were published without attribution of authorship on the title page or within the preface or elsewhere in the text.” In 1818, the year Frankenstein appeared, 62 new novels were published in Britain and Ireland. 41 were published anonymously (66%). Of the 21 novels that appeared with their authors’ names attached, five were attributed to male authors and 16 to female authors. These figures upend assumptions we might make about gendered authorship as well has how atypical authorial anonymity was for the novel.

In Everywhere and Nowhere: Anonymity and Mediation in Eighteenth-Century Britain, I argue that because anonymity was typical of texts published (and performed) in the long eighteenth-century, we must rethink both how we approach anonymous texts and how we attribute motives to authors to account for that anonymity. I suggest we move from approaching anonymity as a product of an individual author’s choice to understanding it as an aspect of textual production. We tend to assume that anonymity is a choice made by an author and that named authorship is the default state. Publication history, however, suggests otherwise – anonymity was the default state, particularly for new novels like Frankenstein. We might understand the anonymity of a novel like Frankenstein along the lines that we understand Lackington and Co. issuing the novel in three volumes – the typical physical form of novels in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. That is, the anonymity of Frankenstein (and those other 40 novels published anonymously in 1818), while informed by the author’s choice and individual motives, is as much a product of the forces of generic expectation, publication practices, and the collective actions that bring a literary text to be in the world.


Mark Vareschi is author of Everywhere and Nowhere: Anonymity and Mediation in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Vareschi is assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

"This is fresh, compelling, detail-rich scholarship and essential reading."
—Brad Pasanek, author of Metaphors of Mind: An Eighteenth-Century Dictionary

"Everywhere and Nowhere is that rare thing: a genuinely interdisciplinary study, capacious and illuminating, of how anonymous authorship impacts meaning across genres and media. In Mark Vareschi’s hands, anonymity is transformed into a lens for reexamining the most fundamental literary concepts (authorship and intention, medium, textuality) and renovating them—not just in the domain of print but across the rich media ecologies of the eighteenth century."
—Michael Gamer, University of Pennsylvania


-Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Frederick L. Jones, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), Vol. I, p. 549; p. 553.
-Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 2 (March 1818): 613-620
-The British Critic, N.S., 9 (April 1818): 432-38
-Susan Eilenberg, “Nothing’s Nameless: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” in The Faces of Anonymity, ed. Robert J. Griffin (New York: Palgrave, 2003), 171.
Raven, 143.
-James Raven, “The Anonymous Novel in Britain and Ireland, 1750-1830,” in The Faces of Anonymity, ed. Robert J. Griffin (New York: Palgrave, 2003), 143; 164.