Bethany Nowviskie

capacity through care

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[This is the draft of an invited contribution to a forum on “care” that will appear in Debates in the Digital Humanities 2017, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren Klein. It’s a capsule summary of my NEH talk, “On Capacity and Care.” (A more digestible pill?)] 

The grand challenges that face (and link) little cultures and fragile creatures across the implacable Anthropocene must be met by an academy made more capable—in every sense of that open-handed word. But our perpetually erupting anxieties about data-driven research and inquiry “at scale” seem to betray a deep-seated—and ill-timed—discomfort with the very notion of increased capacity in the humanities.

There are obvious and valid reasons for humanities scholars to be skeptical of big data analysis, distant reading, or work in the longue durée: problems of surveillance and privacy; the political ends to which data mining can be put and the systems of consumption and control in which it is complicit; intractable and cascading structural inequities in access to information; and disparities in sampling and representation, which limit the visibility of historical and present-day communities in our datasets, or filter them through a hostile lens. We can further understand and respect a discomfort with vastness in fields that have, most particularly over the past half century, focused intently on the little stuff: working in bits and bobs and “small things forgotten.”

Humanities scholars make theoretical and practical advances—including advances in the cause of social justice—by forwarding carefully observed, exquisitely described jewel-box examples. Our small data add nuance and offer counter-narratives to understandings of history and the arts that would otherwise fall along blunter lines. The finest contribution of the past several decades of humanities research has been to broaden, contextualize, and challenge canonical collections and privileged views. Scholars do this by elevating instances of neglected or alternate lived experience—singular human conditions, often revealed to reflect the mainstream.

The most compelling arguments against algorithmic visualization and analysis are not, therefore, fueled by nostalgic scholarly conservatism, but rather emerge across the political spectrum. Yet they share a common fear. Will the use of digital methods lead to an erosion of our most unique facility in the humanities, the aptitude for fine-grained and careful interpretive observation? In seeking macroscopic or synthetic views of arts and culture, will we forget to look carefully and take—or teach—care?

I see the well-established feminist ethic and praxis of care, itself, as a framework through which the digital humanities might advance in a deeply intertwingled, globalized, data-saturated age. An ethic of care—as formalized in the 1970s and ‘80s by Carol Gilligan, Nel Noddings, Joan Tronto, Virginia Held, and others—means to reorient its practitioners’ understanding in two essential ways. The first is toward a humanistic appreciation of context, interdependence, and vulnerability—of fragile, earthly things and their interrelation. The second is away from the supposedly objective evaluation and judgment of the philosophical mainstream of ethics—that is, away from criticism—and toward personal, worldly action and response. After all, the chief contribution, over prior directions in moral philosophy, of the feminist ethics of the 18th and 19th century that inform this work, was to see the self as most complete when in connection with others. Kantian morality and utilitarianism had valorized an impartial stance and posited that, as a man grew in judgment and developed ethical understanding, he separated himself from others. The mark of a fully developed (implicitly masculine) self was its ability to stand apart from and reason outside of familial systems and social bonds.

A feminist ethic of care—like many a DH research agenda or platform for large-scale visualization and analysis—seeks instead to illuminate the relationships of small components, one to another, within great systems. Noddings identifies the roots of care in what she calls engrossment: that close attention and focus on the other which provokes a productive appreciation of the standpoint or position of the cared-for person or group—or (I would say) of the qualities and affordances of an artifact, document, collection, or system requiring study or curation. Humanities scholars hone and experience engrossment in archival research and close reading. We perform it in explicating subjectivity. We reward each other for going deep. Yet one concern in the literature of care has been whether engrossment can become too intense. I believe the answer is the same for caregiving (nursing, teaching, tending, mothering, organizing) as it is for humanities scholarship. Real experts are those who manifest deep empathy, while still maintaining the level of distance necessary to perceive systemic effects and avoid projection of the self onto the other. In other words, empathetic appreciation of the positional or situated goes hand in hand with an increase in effective observational capacity. A care-filled humanities is by nature a capacious one.

To me, this suggests that a primary design desideratum for Anthropocenic DH and cultural heritage systems must be the facilitation of humanistic engrossment through digital reading (viewing, listening, sensing) and large-scale analysis. Let us build platforms that promote an understanding of the temporal vulnerability of the individual person or object; that more beautifully express the relationship of parts, one to another and to many a greater whole; and that instill, through depth of feeling in their users, an ethic of care—active, outward-facing, interdisciplinary, and expansive: sufficient to our daunting futures and broadened scope.

Creative Commons License This site uses a heavily modified version of Bryan Helmig's Magatheme. Work at by Bethany Nowviskie is always CC-BY. Want to know why? The falling letters are by Wayne Graham. He kindly made them to replace a set I designed in Flash in the late 1990s and had in place for more than 17 years. Not a bad run! Ave atque vale.