Data Humanities II: Collectivity, Collaboration and Generosity–or Data Humanitas

So, in yesterday’s blog, I distinctly talked about why what I’m doing is not really a publication. It is, at its most basic, work in progress, which I admit I felt no trepidation whatsoever about airing before I have it “all figured out.”

Perhaps it’s naive optimism, but I’ve had the very good fortune to do my academic coming-of-age under the aegis of scholarly communities and organizations that have been purposeful about collectivity and generosity that made me accept those two tenets as norms.  Realizing that generosity is not necessarily the default for many academics, I feel that it is important for me to pause and acknowledge the debt of gratitude I owe to too many scholars to really name and to several particular organizations that have empowered me to produce the kind of activist scholarship I feel compelled to produce.  Acknowledgements: The Babel Working Group, Material Collective, and (most recently) the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship have all created environments in which I felt welcome to contribute to my field, even as a young scholar. Additionally, I have benefitted immensely from the support and tutelage of excellent advisors, committee members, mentors, and friends as well the institutional, personal, and financial support of my own department.

The collegial environment these organizations and individuals have created has occasionally led me to forget some of the uglier potentials for academic life, and I thank them all the more for their unintentional insulation and willingness to take ecstasy with me.

Indeed, when Madam Doe left me her curmudgeonly, condescending comment, I sought refuge in Eileen Joy’s In the Middle blog post “This is Not My (or, Our) Time, so Please Take Ecstasy With Me” to think about the role of generosity for generativity, and of collectivity in innovation.  In it, (the aptly-named) Joy calls for a “radical hospitality” in lieu of the far more common and (for her) tiresome scholarship that is

intent on either destroying/negating its supposed “opposition” and/or, at the very least, would like to make the case that the work that SOMEONE ELSE is doing is useless, not worthy of consideration, and maybe even (gasp!) harmful to the overall health and vigor of intellectual life itself…

She makes clear in that post that she is against neither disagreement nor dissensus, since it can be productive and is sometimes the only means of moving a certain line of thought forward. What she wants, though, is if we must disagree or dissent, that we “do this work together: for and with each other”  without either the competitive agon, gatekeeping attitude, or the patronizing accusation that some of us don’t take our own work seriously.

I promise, I didn’t get up this morning and think, over my coffee and toast, ” today I will hoodwink everyone with my flim-flam fog-machine in order to get more clicks!” Nor do I do this work because it is my job.  

seek alternate employment

Indeed, as I mentioned in the previous blog, this is so not my job. I get no monetary or material reward out of doing it.  It is pure surplusIt is the fatty profit I skim off the top of the regular milk of my paid work as a MacCracken and Mellon fellow. It emerges out of my own scholarly labour without enriching the laborer one bit.

It is my supplémentin a very Derridean sense. It is the supplement to my “original” and “natural” dissertation work. In the same moment that it supplements my written (monographic) work, it draws attention to that work’s own supplementarity, as a sign of a sign, a supplement of a supplement.  How rich are we all to have so much supplement? This work is an enrichment of an enrichment, and elaboration and amplification of an already rich extant tradition. It is an erotic play of presence and absence, accretion and substitution.

But, like any experience of intimacy–with humans, companions or companion species, things, and data–it requires what Joy calls “felicitous receptivity” that desires the encounter in the other. Without which desire, Joy says,

we are left with an impoverished ontological imaginary, without which we will find it difficult to summon the inner resources necessary to, in a sense, loan ourselves out to others — in short, to care about anything at all…

Indeed, Joy reminds us of Jane Bennett’s insistence upon

“rendering oneself more open to the surprise of other selves and other bodies” and of being “willing and able to enter into productive assemblages with them” is a project of “cultivating a stance of presumptive generosity” — it is an ethos that “emerges in conjunction with a picture of the world as a web of lively and mobile matter-forms of varying degrees of complexity. [Joy’s excerpting of The Enchantment of Modern Life]

What Joy (and likely Bennett as well) want(s) is the radical hospitality I mentioned earlier that Joy describes as

itself a call for more work to be created that would (and might) be enjoyed for its own sake (as opposed to: for your sake, or for the sake of your most cherished coterie of scholar-companions, or for the sake of your favored methodological approaches, etc.)

This hospitality allows for two very particular things. First it enables the taking of risks, which is the condition that allows for the manifestation of that desire, almost universally acknowledged, that every young scholar in possession of a good intellect must be in want of innovation. But really, without risk there is no new thought, no “swerve”; without vulnerability there is no contact, no encounter.

What I am doing right now is an act of scholarly generosity on my part, undertaken at great personal risk. 

But I don’t really want this project to be all about me.  I mean, sure, in some ways lots of this I think of as “mine.” I mean, if you take it and claim it as your own I’ll be pissed.  But I’m not worried that you would do that. I have faith in you, and that is where my generosity comes from: by the very nature of our being different people with different backgrounds and intellectual tools, I do not think you can do exactly what I do in exactly the way I do it and make exactly the same claims while doing it.  Nor do I think that you would want to (this is not a dig at your scholarly or digital ability, never fear).  But I believe that you want me to do what I do (and to do it well), because I want you to do what you do. We need each other for the whole scholarly apparatus to work.

I want to take Michael’s scholarly “I,” the neo-liberal unit of “personal responsibility” and radically transition it to the we, the collective, the assemblage in which I participate, along with so many of you. I do not claim that my desire for collectivity is radically new. Indeed, it is modeled on the thought and actions of so many–Joy herself and Bennett, the works of Latour, Delueze and Guattari, the non-hierarchical machinations of the BABEL Working Group itself, and the rhizomatic instantiation of the Material Collective. This is the second thing that radical hospitality allows: collectivity and collaboration, because those who are taking risks, who are being vulnerable to each other, can do so, and are supported in so doing.


In fact, it is in the Material Collective’s Manifesto that I find the central tenets of my own scholarly (and inherently collective) ethos:

We are the Material Collective, a group of medievalists interrogating visual materials. We seek to:

  • cooperate
  • encourage
  • share
  • promote transparency
  • touch
  • desire
  • destabilize
  • amuse
  • and blunder

As a collaborative of students of visual culture, Material Collective seeks to foster a safe space for alternative ways of thinking about objects.

We strive for transparency in our practice, and we encourage the same in our institutional surroundings.

Our project touches upon both form and content, as we pursue a lyrical and experimental style of writing along with a more humane, collaborative, and supportive process of scholarship.

We value:

experimental processes
transparency, revelation
a blank space
joy in faltering. together

So say we all.
So say we all.

THIS to me, is the model of radical hospitality that Joy describes, that I know BABEL strives for, and that the Material Collective certainly embodies.

But before all you Michaels, editors, and monograph writers panic and think I’m asking for some kind of communal intellectual love-in where all knowledge and information is in common and available to all, I point out that I know the difference between utopian dreams and pragmatic realities.

I’m not asking you to give up your books, your monographs, your editions, or even your personal responsibility, not altogether.  What I am asking you to do, though, is to go for a ride with me.  To join me as we “grope our way toward a vision of the world as a ‘solidarity’” of positions and configurations (Joy, deploying Bersani) that both recognize and acknowledge our differences in the same moment that we celebrate them by coming together.

This blog, this work, this display, this risk, it is an invitation

Go with me. Enter into assemblage with me. When I make mistakes, an inevitability to say the least, find me a flawed friend rather than an infallibly flawed enemy. Collaborate with me, tell me what you know that I don’t, and let our data grow more complete.  This work is not simply MINE, it is OURS. 

If you care about medieval things, Piers Plowman, Middle English, manuscript studies, the difficult study of material objects, feminist materialisms, historical materialisms, feminist science studies (and about fss not belonging only to contemporary and American phenomena), the humanities (digital or not), learning things, exploring, seeing new things, having new ideas, exploring new spaces in new ways, or if you care that others care about these things, THEN THIS BLOG IS FOR YOU.


So please, if you dare, if you risk it, come with me

Get Medieval with me, and amplify a la Geoffrey of Vinsauf.

Get Digital, and dream dreams with me.

Get Quantitative, and do data with me. 

Get Material, and touch with me.

Get Collective, and take ecstasy with me.

Will you please assemble with me?


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