About Networks

JM Turners ‘The Slave Ship’ (1840). This image helped to turn public opinion in Britain against global slavery

I am associated with a group called 4Humanities that is a Digital Humanities advocacy group based in the US that is advocating for the Humanities. The economic reality of the recession in the US and Europe has put enormous pressures on Humanities schools and many are closing or losing staff. The group is doing a lot of good work and has received financial support from two of the leading Associations in the Digital Humanities; the ACH and ALLC.  I am on the discussion list for the group and recently sent this post (that has been edited and I hope makes sense out of the context of the threaded discussion…and in reflection; I am not actually sure I have a concrete suggestion for what I am advocating).

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I have just read a few past emails and there are some very interesting threads here (and I am exited by the ACH and ALLC donation and the broader support of the DH community!). If you put a button on the site to donate I will send some Antipodean money your way (plus we will have our own Association to help you soon). This region has not suffered the same economic downturn as the US and Europe, partly because we kept-it-real in the banking sector. But the humanities has suffered for quite sometime for the opposite reason. The economy wants jobs and dare I say ‘usuful’ and compliant skilled labour; not critical and independently motivated people who challenge and innovate . The humanities has been in relative decline for at least 2 decades in Australia.

Let me be a little contrary here in that I am a little worried by a focus upon ‘showcase’ and ‘methods’ and ‘networks’. What audiences love seeing is their history in new ways; in engaging with the ‘methods’ that help them understand the human condition; of understanding the struggles and choices that have made their society and will continue to make their society. In other words, a network has meaning and is built within larger active humanistic understandings. Scientists know this (I think); and they would never attempt to build a network that does little except advocate Science. A network, like a Union, uses is scaled-up power to critically addresses problems that individuals can’t.

What is a large problem in the US that a network could slot itself into? What is a large coherent and inclusive problem that a network could address? (apart from the obvious recession fueled one because if everyone is broke; then who cares about the humanities?) May I be so bold and suggest that an under-investment in humanities education could exacerbate US decline on the international stage. Would stating this (and collectively proving it) get the right people excited? Is there something new and exciting about US humanities work on-line that could challenge and excite large audiences? Would it be possible to curate and focus some digital resources quickly around some burning national problem; to challenge people, to upset them and show what the humanities does within the hearts and minds of the American people? A Union has power because it can withdraw the central commodity in a capitalist economy; Labour. What power does a network have? Can we say; withdraw XML or TEI? Scale in the Digital Humanities; networked or otherwise means little when it is not driven by an equally bold intellectual agenda.

What we need is bold intellectual leadership centred on a synergistic human problem and then let the network follow. I liked very much Alan’s post in terms of HASTAC scholars and activist techniques. This is the right direction as long as the medium and the message can marry; like in JM Turner’s The Slave Ship. It helped to stop slavery and he did it with a few cans of paint! Surely with the resources at our disposal we could do something very special.

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