The Digital in the Humanities: An Interview with Jessica Marie Johnson (@jmjafrx)

I was interviewed by Melissa Dinsman as part 10 of a new series exploring the role of the digital humanities, as well as the digital in the humanities as it currently exists in the US academy.

Melissa Dinsman wrote this intro:

“FOR AT LEAST THE PAST DECADE, the term “digital humanities” (DH) has captured the imagination and the ire of scholars across American universities. Supporters of the field, which melds computer science with hermeneutics, champion it as the much needed means to shake up and expand methods of traditional literary interpretation; for most outspoken critics, it is a new fad that symbolizes the neoliberal bean-counting destroying American higher education. Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes lies a vast and varied body of work that utilizes and critically examines digital tools in the pursuit of humanistic study. This field is large and increasingly indefinable even by those in its midst. In fact, “digital humanities” seems astoundingly inappropriate for an area of study that includes, on one hand, computational research, digital reading and writing platforms, digital pedagogy, open-access publishing, augmented texts, and literary databases, and on the other, media archaeology and theories of networks, gaming, and wares both hard and soft. As Franco Moretti said to me in the first of these interviews: “‘digital humanities’ means nothing.”

For Jessica Marie Johnson, assistant professor of Africana Studies and History at Johns Hopkins University, the digital humanities offers the academy and public alike the opportunity to proactively work for social justice. In fact, for Johnson, much like for the previous interviewee, George Mason’s Sharon Leon, working in DH provides new means to interact and engage with local communities and populations that exist outside the ivory tower of the academy. But for Johnson, the need for the academy to engage with society’s “marginalized or discriminated against” is more urgent. Throughout our conversation there is a sense that, for Johnson, working critically in DH is akin to a call to action, one that if done correctly will take seriously the humanities’s larger purpose — one that is in her words inadequately met — as a “social justice actor for diverse communities.” Speaking on everything from black history and life, to the Confederate flag, to the debate around gender and bathroom use, she articulates the need for the digital and the humanities to engage with these larger societal questions and practices of discrimination. Johnson pushes the boundaries of this series to speak more specifically to the need for public engagement in DH. In so doing she articulates the “beyond” part of “The Digital in the Humanities,” which aims to explore the surprising lines of overlap as well as outright disagreement in DH.

But Johnson also wants to push the boundaries of what the academy understands as “digital humanities” work. The field is not made up solely of programming and computation, which she says is just another way the academy tries to “limit who has access” to the DH label and conversation. Instead, Johnson’s work in the digital, which stems from her research on histories of race and gender, and in slavery studies, is by necessity replicable by those with fewer institutional resources. Thus her current digital projects include African Diaspora, Ph.D. and Diaspora Hypertext, the Blog; the related Tumblrs, Twitter, and Facebook spaces; and collaborations on theLatiNegrxs Project, the Queering Slavery Working Group, and Black Code Studies. Her work on the intersection of race, social justice, and the digital has also appeared in differences (2014), Uri McMillan’s Embodied Avatars: Genealogies of Black Feminist Art and Performance, The Black Scholar (2015),and Debates in the Digital Humanities (2016). Johnson’s interest in social media networks and archives as overlooked spaces of digital culture in discussions of the digital humanities is essentially tied to her research into and recovery of lost narratives of marginalized people. And if these narratives and digital work fail to count as “digital humanities” then we are, as she rightfully claims at the end, “having a faulty conversation.”

Read it all: The Digital in the Humanities: An Interview with Jessica Marie Johnson – Los Angeles Review of Books

To be transparent, this series has been touched by a bit of tension, and not simply because interviewees (myself included) debate what it means to do digital things, the state of the humanities, the academy, and more. On top of this, the same issues of diversity, difference, justice, and accountability I hope I highlight in the interview have been issues the LARB has been critiqued for, especially in recent months, and issues the digital humanities have been critiqued for over the years.

As a result, #DH folks may have LARB fatigue, which I understand. And POC folks may have LARB and #DH fatigue, which I understand. Will I be hurt if you share this with a donotlink link? Nope. I get it.

More than any of that, though, if you do read on, I hope I made it excruciatingly clear that I believe young, radical, #LOUD, belligerent, and futuristic black and qtpoc dreamers, creatives, and trouble-makers have been and will remain central to any ‘digital’ we discuss. Period.

And as one of those radical dreamer-creative-troublemakers still (though perhaps, lol, not as young), I am grateful for and love us so very much. Loving ourselves and each other is our superpower.


One thought on “The Digital in the Humanities: An Interview with Jessica Marie Johnson (@jmjafrx)

  1. Pingback: Johnson Interviewed by LARB on the Digital Humanities – Jessica Marie Johnson

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