Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Whitney Trettien reviews Feminist in a Software Lab: Design + Difference

Tara McPhersonFeminist in a Software Lab: Design + Difference. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2018. 276 pp.

Review by Whitney Trettien

29 May 2019

In Feminist in a Software Lab: Design + Difference, Tara McPherson roots digital publishing in critical theory, visual studies, feminism, and design. She does so by narrating an alternative genealogy of digital humanities. Rather than tracing the field’s inception to Roberto Busa’s early electronic concordance of the writings of Thomas Aquinas, as many others do, McPherson begins in October 1966 with 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering, a series of groundbreaking experiments in performance art and technology. The artists, scientists, and engineers from Bell Laboratories who organized the event would go on to form E. A. T. (Experiments in Art and Technology), a group that, along with the Eames Office of the 1970s, McPherson presents as a model for interdisciplinary collaboration at the fringes of industry and technology. By routing digital humanities’ text-centric origin stories, the book’s counter-narrative adds new depth and dimensionality to the long history of technologically-mediated art and humanistic inquiry. 

The core of the book consists of two long chapters. The first, “Designing for Difference,” expands McPherson’s essay for Debates in Digital Humanities, Why Are the Digital Humanities So White? or Thinking the Histories of Race and Computation.” In the Debates chapter––itself a revised version of a piece in Race After the Internet––McPherson argued that the historical coemergence of the modular operating system UNIX and increasingly covert racial logics points to a deeper rift between critical race studies and digital media studies. After publication, the chapter was hotly debated on the SIGCIS listserv, where it circulated under the subject line, “Is Unix racist?” Taking on these critics in the chapter’s latest iteration, McPherson broadens her argument to encompass not just UNIX and the civil rights movement but a wider array of “ways in which the organization of information and capital in the 1960s and 1970s powerfully responded—across many registers—to the struggles for racial justice and democracy that so categorized the United States and the globe at the time” (p. 67). These include the computational management of cities, the rise of New Criticism in English departments, and academic overspecialization. Some of the chapter’s most trenchant critiques emerge from these expansive moments—as when, for instance, McPherson suggests that the persistence of modular thinking in digital projects has fostered an approach to race and gender that “is more additive than integrative or relational” (p. 70). “We need conceptual models for the digital humanities and for digital media studies,” she argues, “that can help us attend to software, code, databases, and more in ways that push beyond modularity and that help us understand that these digital objects and systems exert their own agencies even as they also emerge from culture” (pp. 82–3). 

The second chapter, “Assembling Scholarship: From Vectors to Scalar,” takes up the development of the journal Vectors and its transition into the publishing platform Scalar as a case study in design-based and feminist digital humanities. Here, McPherson narrates a history dispersed across ephemeral documents and memories—a history that might otherwise be lost—and thus makes explicit the labor and contributions of various spaces, institutions, and people to the lab. In so doing, this chapter and the accompanying appendix, “Guidelines for Evaluating Multimedia Scholarship,” offer a roadmap for other humanities scholars, technologists, and administrators involved in building or assessing collaborative digital projects. Of course, many such case studies exist; what stands apart in McPherson’s work is her careful fastening of critical theory to practice. Thus a description of Vectors’ database-driven design unfolds into a discussion of databases themselves as technologies of modernity (p. 132), while Scalar is present not just as a digital publishing tool but as “a speculative remapping of rigidly logical structures toward more conceptual ones” (p. 223). At times, these connections seem a stretch too far into abstraction, and some of McPherson’s claims might be made more forcefully if she cited practicing archivists on archives rather than leaning on the word’s theoretical implications (p. 191). The discussion can also seem insular. For instance, McPherson does not attempt to situate the work of Vectors alongside other concurrent experiments in digital publishing, like the long-running journal Kairos, sometimes leaving the reader with the false sense that Vectors forged this space alone. These limitations are in part a function of the genre that McPherson is modeling the chapter after: this is a portfolio documenting the motivations of one group at a particular moment in electronic publishing, not a comprehensive history. 

Feminism is an important through-line threaded across both chapters, and while McPherson does not aim to, as she says, “map its plentiful pathways” in full, she occasionally pauses to stitch a new gathering (p. 94). Intersectionality, the cut, collaboration, fuzzy edges, entanglement, assemblage: these are the feminist materialist and queer-of-color vocabularies that McPherson draws into the weave of media theory and practice (p. 94). She does so to deepen digital humanities’ engagement with critical theory while also addressing feminism's recent turn to making and creative methods (p. 102). Still, the ethos and ethics of McPherson’s feminism is most fully expressed in the way she writes. It is present in her capacious approach to citation, which assumes many forms—a figure, a footnote, a reference, a caption. And it is embedded in how she narrates her collaborations, including their failures. If this non-hierarchical, networked style of writing still seems risky to junior scholars, who feel pressured to perform mastery, Feminist in a Software Lab leaves a generous and generative precedent in its wake.

Holding together the book's many pieces—feminism, media, practice, style—is its design. As one might expect from both McPherson and Harvard University Press’s MetaLAB imprint, visual modalities are front and center throughout. A “Visual Introduction” opens the book with a gallery of websites, film stills, and covers of influential monographs. Similarly, “Windows”—printed on taupe-colored pages and thus easily identifiable from the book’s fore-edge—punctuate each chapter with designers’ statements, meeting notes, and screenshots from Vectors projects. By gathering these materials not in a bibliography but as color images, the book draws into relief the materiality of the physical and digital spaces where we work: how the layout of an email client or collaborative document can shape a conversation; how certain books, like N. Katherine Hayles' How We Read, look on a shelf beside other academic monographs; the ways a font or color can make meaning. In the body of the chapters, too, McPherson interjects myriad images that not only illustrate but augment and extend her argument into new spaces. Indeed readers might gain a good sense of the book just by paging through the images and their captions. Like Scalar or a Vectors project themselves, Feminist in a Software Lab is equal parts archive and argument or, more strongly stated, archive as argument. By bringing together a shifting constellation of projects, practitioners, and theorists, McPherson continues to map new terrain for creative, critical publishing in print.