Does This Post Make Me a Tool?


This is a rich and multifaceted discussion. I just want to add one observations that it has made me ponder.

The discussion has made me think about the metaphor of “tools” in digital humanities work. This makes sense, because the word “tools” is full of all kinds of associations. It is most of all a way to imaginatively bridge the troubling gap between the individual and the machine, between older modes of production and autonomy and newer ones. It alludes to the romantic vision of handicraft labor; it hints at masculinized visions of work (in ways that Natalia Cecire convincingly proposes are profoundly gendered); it offers a way to overcome questions of scale between the individual and larger, overwhelming, and dehumanizing structural forces (tools are held in the hand, safe and under control, mastered; machines are scary, semi-autonomous, out of control things, watch out, it’s Frankenstein!!); tools are at once something from the deep past, often conceptualized as what makes us human–as in it is our species nature to create and use them–and they are also somehow futuristic, key to a cyborgian vision of humans fusing with machines; tools are a way of mediating between, navigating between, compromising between culture and counterculture (I’m thinking of Fred Turner’s great work here on Stewart Brand in From Counterculture to Cyberculture), as in tools sound are ostensibly small and mobile enough that they can be wielded in an oppositional way by the marginalized, oppressed, impoverished even though it takes the massive infrastructure of modernity, military-industrial style, to create them; and while we’re at it, let’s make a bad joke about tools and all the sexual innuendo therein.

Tools are doing a lot of work for us, not only in building things digitally, but in building the theoretical apparatus for this construction zone. Men at work? Is this union restrictive in its membership? Who’s working for whom, anyway? What kind of shop is this? Won’t get tooled again?

OK, I’ll stop. I could go on, but the main point is this: I wonder if part of developing a better critique of digital humanities as “refuge” from questions of identity, structure, and power might focus a bit more on this concept of “tools” and the work that this term is doing conceptually, politically, institutionally in DH.

Do we want to imagine platforms, software, hardware, code, institutions, universities, funding agencies, bodies, identities, language, discourse, networks, the digital itself all as “tools”? Or are tools some subset of one of those other categories? If everything is a tool, what does that framework get us? What does it obfuscate?

What I’m proposing is not that tools are part of the problem, but rather that the use of that word offers a way into better theorizing and critiquing of what is at stake in digital humanities work (Type 1, 1.5, 2, etc. see Ramsey post and all the responses) in relation to questions of identity, structure, and power, into concepts of building and critical analysis of that building, into issues of individual agency, collective negotiation, and institutional organization, into the nature of things and people and all that gets constructed between and among them.


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