Digital Humanities & Feminist Design

Mina Loy: Navigating the Avant-Garde is an experiment in modernist digital humanities (DH) that aims to move questions of design from the periphery to the center of scholarly attention. We contend that feminist design is fundamental to DH—not superficial, decorative, or ornamental (As a corollary, we reject the modernist claims that ornament is a crime and the decorative is superficial.)

The term “design” denotes the plan or blueprint of a project, its purpose and aims, as well as its aesthetics and function. Both a noun and a verb, “design” refers to structures and to the process of inventing them. It also encompasses matters of style and form—concerns modernist scholars may feel more confident addressing than questions of HTML, Java Script, Python, or R. While we may decode Gertrude Stein’s “Completed Portrait of Pablo Picasso” with relative ease—Gertrude Stein quotation

—we may be baffled by the HTML code that underlies it:

sample html code
Gertrude Stein, “If I Told Him, A Completed Portrait of Picasso,”

Fortunately, pioneering modernist DH scholars have mastered both the codes of twentieth-century, modernist experimentation and twenty-first century, digital innovation, and they’ve also embraced matters of style and aesthetics. To name just a few:

  • Alex Christie, Andrew Pilsch, Shawna Ross, and Katie Tanagawa’s co-authored “Manifesto of Modernist Digital Humanities” weds challenging content and disruptive visual formatting, asking, “WHAT would a methodological modernism look like?” They insist that matters of style are worthy of “attention and curiosity” and compel us to look deep into the eyes of style in order to rekindle the romance:

excerpt from Manifesto for modernist digital humanities

  • Amanda Visconti’s dynamic, engaging  Infinite Ulysses invites users to annotate and interpret James Joyce’s Ulysses, offering a new model of interactive, online close reading (the site has recently been archived but can still be explored).
  • Joan Sommers and Ascha Drake’s The Joseph Cornell Box provides information about Cornell’s signature boxes in a way that recreates the magical experience of opening each compartment and exploring with its contents—something impossible to do with the actual boxes, unless you are a museum curator.

Joseph Cornell box homepage image

  • Under the leadership of director Cristanne Miller and technical director Nicholas Wasmoen, the Marianne Moore Digital Archive provides access to Moore’s notebooks, drawings, and other resources in an intuitively navigable website that brings the same attention to detail and good design that Moore brought to her own writing and self-fashioning.
  • Speaking of fashion, Colleen Whalen and Jade French recently organized a conference on “Decorating Dissidence: Feminism, Modernism and the Arts,” sustaining the conversation in a blog dedicated to the “art of protest” and hosted on the online publishing platform Medium, which disseminates modernist scholarship to new and wider audiences.

1928 Delauney painting of women in swimsuits

To give design its due is a feminist act. It involves recognizing readers as vital partners in the scholarly endeavor and embracing style and aesthetics as crucial to the work of digital humanities, rather than insufficiently techy or rigorous. It is not just about making digital tools and media look pretty, but about considering the audience’s needs and interests, meeting them where they are, and inviting them to participate in humanities research. Feminist design also entails rethinking the processes of generating and disseminating knowledge. It calls for reinventing our scholarly methods in order to break down hierarchies, encourage open exchanges of expertise, and reflect the diversity of human creative production.