Week 5

by Jen

The manifesto from Precarity Lab and the article by Boyles et al provided an interesting contrast in looking at the human precarity of DH. Boyles et al focus on the academy, looking at the challenges faced by DH laborers; in addition to asking for better labor conditions, I felt that they were also asking for recognition of the work itself as labor: “Consider the graduate student encouraged to situate herself within digital humanities by completing digital projects in addition to a dissertation” (emphasis mine, page 694). There is an inference that these challenges arise because this work is new to the university (695). I would counter that this work is not entirely new, but that it is a tactic of the institution to silo this work into spaces where it feels new and disconnected from pre-existing networks and support structures, as a way to justify precarious conditions and under funding. It was interesting to read a piece that was focused specifically on DH within an American Studies context, but I wished for a little more broader recognition of the dynamics of other parts of the institution; I felt to an extent that many of the experiences they discussed were inherited from other parts of the institution, and real solutions could be found through broader solidarity.

I was surprised that Boyle et al’s critique did not name capitalism as the problem, and so was grateful to read the Precarity Lab’s diagnosis of “the precarity of contemporary neoliberal capitalism” at the start of their manifesto. I also appreciated their point that it is unfair to call this labor invisible when it “has always been visible in the same way that the people who do this labor have been: in plain sight but undervalued” (80). I felt that this responded to some of my criticism of Boyles et al seeing their labor as “new;” Precarity Lab recognizes that these types of labor have been invisibilized as a tactic; we’re led to believe it’s new so that we don’t realize it’s always been there, undervalued.

In contrast to Boyles et al.’s discipline-specific focus, Precarity Lab provides a high level view of other “scenes of precarity”: the Fairchild Semiconductor Plant, UberPASSPORT. I found these really interesting but felt that they zoomed too far out; again, they repeat Boyles et al’s step of not examining the academy as a whole. They have left their Humanities Collaboratory at the University of Michigan but, instead of stepping outside to analyze the dynamics of the institution, they’ve looked at the world as a whole.

I want to emphasize that I’m really not opposed to that analysis, but I wanted to read the analysis that lies between these broad and narrow perspectives. Precarity Lab notes that it’s important to situate digital platforms in historic and spatially constructed contexts to interrogate the way they’ve been positioned across time (81); what does it look like to situate these within the institution of academia and recognize how the precarity of DH mirrors the precarity of female computers in early 20th century math labs, or the precarity of visual resource curators in art departments (a weirdly siloed position often dedicated to management of visual art research collections in the latest technological format). I’m interested in an institution-level analysis as a way to articulate how the power structures of our institutes create and perpetuate precarity, and as a starting point for identifying work we can do to undo this.

1 thought on “Week 5

  1. Katina Rogers (she/her)

    Really interesting questions about scope and focal point, Jen. I wonder what makes that middle ground harder to write about? Are there assumptions that are not being examined, does it feel too big/too obvious/too defined (or not defined enough)? I’ll look forward to talking about this later today.

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