Week 8: Performativity, materiality, situated knowledge

  1. Disability, Universal Design, and the Digital Humanities, George H. Williams

Reading this article was really mind-opening for me in its laying out what universal design is, and in making me realize how easy it is to take for granted as ‘normal’ our own approaches to technologies which are actually never something ‘natural’. I think the implications of universal design not just to people with disabilities, but to everyone, are very well expressed in this particular passage:

We might consider, however, that there is no “natural” way to interact with the 1’s and 0’s that make up the data we are interested in creating, transmitting, receiving, and using; there is only the model we have chosen to think of as natural. All technology is assistive, in the end. 

However, the idea of universal access also brings back some of the questions we brought up last week, on how tricky it can be not to disempower certain users by making an effort towards access (I’m thinking specifically of D’Ignazio and Klein’s question: ‘When do values often assumed to be a social good, such as “choice,” “openness,” or “access,” result in disempowerment instead?’) I guess that when it comes to designing content, it might be really hard to understand the needs of certain users if we’re not ‘in their clothes’; and therefore it was very interesting to read Williams’ perspective on how working with a blind person for advice on accessibility made him reevaluate his assumptions on using computers. Since getting first-hand advice might not be always possible, I am glad the article flags out guidelines such as those provided by the Web Accessibility Initiative.

2. Located accountabilities in technology production, Lucy Suchman

I have been thinking quite a bit about Haraway’s notion of situated knowledge as I was working on my project, and what Suchman does in this article is really interesting in terms of applying this theoretical notion to her own work experiences and unveil some of the concrete factors that shape and limit the practice of technology work and production. I have to say I struggled following her arguments at times: probably because of the rather complicated language with which she describes very concrete situations, or maybe also because I was forced to envision these very concrete situations but I have little experience of them. In particular, for example, I am rather stuck on what is meant by the ‘detached intimacy’ that, Suchman argues, is imposed upon professional designers by their work conditions (5). It’d be very helpful if anyone has any thoughts or clarifications to share about their take on this particular paragraph!


7 thoughts on “Week 8: Performativity, materiality, situated knowledge

  1. Thanks for getting the conversation going, Maria!

    Here are my comments on Pierre’s “‘The Myth of Oneness’: Erasure of Indigenous and Ethnic Identities in Digital Feminist Discourse” and on Williams’s “Disability, Universal Design, and Digital Humanities:”

    I have found Pierre’s analysis of “The Myth of Oneness” very thought provoking. Her critique of the concept of “oneness” as an assumption rooted in an allegedly shared set of ideals made me think of how Western liberal feminisms sometimes address issues regarding third world women by considering them as homogeneous subjects of investigation, thus under-analysing the local and particular procedures informing them. To be more specific, Pierre’s claim that non-Western cultural issues are sometimes deformed through Western lenses is evident in certain Western feminist analyses of the Islamic practice of the veil. Such investigations, by superimposing normative concepts of freedom on the cultural tradition of the veil , sometimes label it as either liberatory or repressive (see Rasmussen, Susan J. ‘Re-casting the veil: situated meanings of covering.’ Culture & Psychology, vol. 19, no. 2, 2013, pp. 237–58; Abu-Odeh, Lama.‘Post-colonial feminism and the veil: thinking the difference.’ Feminist Review, vol. 43, 1993, pp. 26–37.) Paradoxically, such trends could be seen as a way in which liberal feminism imposes its own dominant configuration onto third-world women, thus ‘colonizing’ the specificities of such women’s realities by stereotyping them. In this way, first-world feminists inscribe themselves in relations of power in which they play a hegemonic role hindering the production of genuine portrayals of those allegedly subordinated non-Western women. Could we also regard such tendencies as symptomatic with a lack of intersectionality, then?

    Speaking of respecting different perspectives, Williams’s chapter raises important questions about the tendency in new media studies to assume that all users can equally access digital projects, thus erasing those individualities non-conforming to such standards. I think that his invitation to embrace “universal design” harmonizes very well with the Verran’s idea of “sameness” and Srinivasan’s concept of “multiple ontologies” (mentioned in Pierre’s article), as they all foster the acceptance and respect of different identities. Moreover, I like how he stresses the fact that universal design aims at satisfying all people’s needs, and not only the needs of people with disabilities. His approach can be seen as a positive one, as it does not focus on those supposedly “lacking” certain abilities, but rather on a heterogeneous conception of the user.

    Finally, like Maria, I have also found Williams’s questioning of disability very illuminating, especially when he states that “there is no ‘natural’ way to interact with the 1’s and 0’s that make up the data we are interested in creating, transmitting, receiving, and using; there is only the model we have chosen to think of as natural.” Then, with regards to the use of technology, we can all be seen as people with “special needs,” as, just like he says, technology itself is assistive by definition.

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  2. Jennifer Pierre – “‘The Myth of Oneness’: Erasure of Indigenous and Ethnic Identities in Digital Feminist Discourse”

    I understood that the point of this article is to demonstrate, from a critical perspective, how attempts of global feminist actions can be inadequate to tackle gender issues specific to Indigenous and Ethnic minorities. Even if the author’s view is quite subjective and debatable, I found the article really useful because it uses general concepts and main references in Humanities, to apply them to the actual example of the V-Day/One Billion Rising Movement.
    To unveil the ‘inconsistencies’ in this movement, Jennifer Pierre denounces its imposition of ‘oneness’, or the illusionary existence of one sole feminist group. This critic is at the core of third-wave feminist theories since the 90s and Butler’s groundwork, yet it also reminded of Haraway’s criticism of ‘wholeness’, which can have a very negative influence when imposed to individuals. Actually the myth of oneness can almost be read in religious/theological terms, since it relies on the idea that one institution, one voice can speak in the name of all the other groups. Pierre further explains the dichotomy between information vs ritual communication. I guess that the main flaw of modern information communication (as we find it online on our social media) is that it implies the purity, immediacy and clarity of the message sent, which is a kind of Western mythical conception.
    Reading Pierre’s argument and the way she refers to geographical analysis of the globalization process, I found that her discourse was inscribed in post-colonialist thinking. The way she talks about the Digital Divide reminded me of my History classes on colonization, and the way Western knowledge and idea of progress was imposed to colonized populations. According to the author, it seems that the danger today it that some Western feminists partly re-enact with technologies what has been done with knowledge and religion in the frame of colonial messianism, even if their original intention is in favour of social justice and Women’s right — which makes the problem even more complex. I agree that trying to impose Western ideals of progress, productivity and efficiency can be highly disrespectful of the ‘multiplicity of ontologies’ of other cultures, and that global movements like the one examined in this article should be more careful about local and individual ‘ontologies’. But how now could digital tools be used in harmony with local issues ? I was a bit disappointed by the fact that the article does not give any solution to remedy the gap between ‘sameness’ and ‘otherness’, even if I understand that it was not its objective.
    I think this kind of article is important to take some distance regarding our practice and admit that our tools are neither universal nor perfect. This reflexion raises another question, considering William’s article: is for example a universal feminist design realizable ?
    Last, I appreciate how Pierre uses Foucault, because it helped me understand some of his concepts ‘in context’. His early theories are key points to understand the problematic of situated knowledges, and how discursive practices are always conditioned by a complex set of factors.

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  3. Some thoughts on Mukurtu and “The Myth of Oneness”:

    Lead by Kimberly Christen and her team at the University of Washington, Mukurtu empowers communities to manage their digital heritage in ways that are culturally significant with the use of traditional knowledge tagsets. Projects like Mukurtu insist on respecting cultural protocols with an understanding of digital heritage sites as spaces in which the complexity of human relationships serve as the basis for content management systems. Within this model, “free” access to information becomes pushed beyond the dichotomies of “open” and “closed” and reveals a failure within the open access community to recognize culturally specific concepts of circulation and access. Mukurtu’’s CMS not only resists panIndigenous homogenization (where rather than understand indigeneity as a network of diverse cultures, indigeneity is instead used as a lump category of “other” in Western cultures), but also resists harmful identities of “oneness” and the values of shared “global knowledge” represented by open access advocates.

    Pierre’s essay on “The Myth of Oneness” critiques a pattern in global feminist discourse where “the perspectives, actions, and representations of a handful of women with power and political influence enact changes that work to the detriment of indigenous women of colour.” (1). Her attempts to re-imagine collective action campaigns on a global scale me think of ways in which DH visualization tools — especially operating under feminist data visualization principle — may aid in better representing “one” as made up of many: a diverse network of voices and subject identities (Irigaray’s theory of “not one” comes to mind). Perhaps the question of labour and problem of efficiency addressed by Pierre is one that can be answered with digital tools built with guiding intersectional feminist methodologies in mind. Then again, catering to techno-efficiency feels dangerous close to repeating the problems represented in Pierre’s analysis of “oneness.” Perhaps the kind of global ethic we need to push for in white, middle-class, Western feminism is a desire to be willing to do the work, that is, representing “decentralized methods of representing multiple ontologies in discourses of global causes” (12).

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  4. The Web has been successful in many ways as a result of its lack of centralization–though it does require adherence to technical standards. It’s interesting to ask how that decentralization, which on the face of it would seem to be an advantage in this context, does and does not assist in allowing agents on the web to advance heterogeneous and intersectional agendas. It’s interesting, for instance, that Mukurtu relies on the centralization of digital production and dissemination through a CMS.

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  5. Disability, Universal Design, and the Digital Humanities

    A pedantic disability scholar note: I’m not sure why Williams wavers back and forth between using identity-first language (“disabled people”) and person-first language (“people with disabilities”), or if this is even a conscious choice. The current consensus in the field s that identity-first language is the preferred way to go. This is for a number of reasons, not least of all because disability remains the only marginalized group where person-first language prevails as a perceived ‘kindness,’ i.e. “Don’t let your disability define you!” But…think of the absurdity of writing “people with Blackness,” or “people with queerness.” It makes no sense.


    Overall I think this piece is a good introduction into the difference between universal and accessible design (such an important distinction), which offers many suggestions for digital humanities projects that would fill some tech accessibility gaps. Everyone requires accessibility in their day-to-day life, even though it is not often framed this way for nondisabled people. Rosemarie Garland-Thompson’s social-cultural model of disability is extremely useful for reconfiguring our thinking about how products, services, and digital and nondigital architectures are disabling, rather than physical or cognitive conditions themselves.

    Slightly horrified at Williams’ assertion that no one has undertaken the task of creating universally accessible scholarly digital archives. The most recent instance where I know this to be true is at Berkeley, where they recently removed thousands of hours of publicly available lecture materials, because that was easier than paying someone to make them accessible to Deaf audiences: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/03/06/u-california-berkeley-delete-publicly-available-educational-content Williams quotes Jeremy Boggs, who says, “open access means more than simply making stuff available.”

    I would like to do some more digging on the Web Accessibility Initiative’s point that accessibility on mobile devices usually means more access for a greater class and race demographic, too—this intersectional moment gets left out of the disability conversation a lot (I know disabled PoC are less likely to have quality access to health care, but I’m curious how this might bleed into their technological lives). I might appropriate Lucy Suchman’s thoughts on located accountabilities here to say, “This [intersecational disability] agenda requires crossing boundaries both within technology production, and between technology production and use” (93). Do you want your products to be usable by diverse communities? Train and hire people from those communities to make them.

    Lastly, I’m not sure I’m sold on the statistic that only 54 percent of disabled adults use the Internet. What ‘counts’ as a disability in this report? Disabled identities, as Suchman reminds us, are “multiple, located, partial perspectives that find their objective character through ongoing processes of debate” (92).

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  6. “Disability, Universal Design, and Digital Humanities.”
    George H. Williams

    This article was a strong reminder that the exclusion of a particular audience in the presentation of a digital project undermines the goal of achieving the “holism” that I believe to be essential to successful work in the humanities. I am personally guilty of ableism in the sense that dis/ability is frequently left out of my discourse in intersectional feminism. However, this article presented me with resources for engaging with disability in both theory and methodology and I hope to incorporate both of these into my final project. While I understand and attempt to ascribe to the complexity of design/navigability generally proposed by cyberfeminism for example, I appreciated Williams’ argument for a more minimalist approach to design as a way of increasing accessibility. I was also intrigued by his perspective on including various forms of accessibility to a project as one would tailor content to various digital devices.

    I did notice, however, that Williams focused on physical accessibility issues without recognizing ways in which universal design could be implemented to aid non-“neurotypical” folks as well. I was reminded of a student who once told me about the obstacles presented by ADHD when interacting with structural elements of digital texts. Pages using double-spaced text, shorter paragraphs and more frequent line breaks were much more accessible to them than text presented in the format of many academic journals, for example. I wonder if this formatting would have to exist as an additional plug-in or if it could become part of the universal design as well.

    “The Myth of Oneness ”: Erasure of Indigenous and Ethnic Identities in Digital Feminist Discourse.
    Jennifer Pierre

    No sooner do I write about DH and “holism” than I take a single look at Pierre’s article and put my foot in my mouth. The OED’s definition of holism is

    “The theory that parts of a whole are in intimate interconnection, such that they cannot exist independently of the whole, or cannot be understood without reference to the whole, which is thus regarded as greater than the sum of its parts.”
    This gets into sticky territory in the overlap between holism/oneness and hegemony which is at the root of Pierre’s argument. The “Digital Divide” is essentially Boaventura de Sousa Santos’ “Abyssal line” restricted to the digital realm. Pierre’s examples of “hybridity” as performance of identity in order to appease hegemonic culture also impacted my perception of Haraway’s Cyborg myth. I have thought an embracement of “hybridity” would result in a total acceptance of difference, but I never considered how it could also require Aboriginal groups to sacrifice parts of their identities in order either fulfill hybridity as a utopic Western construct, or become part of the spectacle of the Western narrative of “oneness.”

    Ultimately, Pierre is reiterating the importance of situating oneself in the pursuit of projects both digital and humanitarian. The first step to overcoming hegemony and erasure of “indigenous and ethnic identities” is recognizing that the ontology familiar to us is not the one, true life-way by which we may engage with the experiences of others, and, perhaps more simply put, one woman cannot speak for all.


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