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In Bodies of Information: Intersectional Feminism and Digital Humanities, editors Elizabeth Losh and Jacqueline Wernimont assemble a collection of key contributions to critical conversations and research regarding online activity, activism, archiving, academia, systemic discrimination and interlocking inequalities, writes Francesca Sobande

Bodies of Information: Intersectional Feminism and Digital Humanities. Elizabeth Losh and Jacqueline Wernimont (eds). University of Minnesota Press. 2018.

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The words ‘intersectional’, ‘feminism’ and ‘digital’ are at the heart of many recent discussions concerning identities, inequalities, ideologies and the internet. These terms feature as part of writing about gender, race and society, including reflections on the #MeToo movement and its often unacknowledged roots in the longstanding activism and labour of a Black woman, Tarana Burke. Ideas associated with intersectionality (Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, 1994), feminism and digital activity are continually absorbed by mainstream media, politics, popular culture and public spheres (Christine Emba, 2015). Although this can raise awareness of intersectional issues, including the interdependency of anti-Black racism, sexism and classism, the meanings of the words ‘intersectionality’, ‘feminism’ and ‘digital’ are sometimes so diluted and distorted that they are completely misconstrued. As such, there is a need for work that brings together vital accounts of experiences and research which encapsulate intersectional and feminist approaches to different digital contexts. Bodies of Information: Intersectional Feminism and Digital Humanities delves into these connected discourses. Edited by media theorist and digital rhetoric scholar Elizabeth Losh, and digital humanities and women’s, gender and sexuality studies scholar Jacqueline Wernimont, this book is a collection of key contributions to critical conversations and research regarding online activity, activism, archiving, academia, systemic discrimination and interlocking inequalities.

From the outset this book acknowledges that different feminist perspectives exist and accordingly it avoids upholding a reductive and universalist concept of feminism. The contributions included cover many topics and link to themes related to materiality, values, embodiment, affect, labour and situatedness. The range of writing featured in the collection includes Chapter Ten by Alison Hedley and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, who discuss feminist and queer methodological approaches involved in ‘querying history in the digital age’ (157–72). This is a book that raises and explores questions such as those addressed by Roopika Risam, who asks ‘What Passes for Human?’ (39–56) in Chapter Three. Another contribution of note is Chapter Four by Danielle Cole, Izetta Autumn Mobley, Wernimont, Moya Bailey, T.L. Cowan and Veronica Paredes (57–70), which sheds light on the politics and constraints which often determine how digital scholarship funding is allocated. Created to lend itself to classroom settings, this volume enables readers to learn about the nature and development of the digital humanities, especially how intersectional and feminist work has shaped and is shaping it.

Image Credit: (WOCInTechChat CC BY 2.0)

Among the variety of voices in this collection that particularly stand out, is that of history and African American studies scholar Marcia Chatelain, who incisively outlines some of the opportunities and challenges involved in navigating Twitter as a Black woman in academia. In Chapter Eleven, titled ‘Is Twitter Any Place for a [Black Academic] Lady?’ (173 –84), Chatelain focuses on their experiences as a Black academic woman, ‘specifically as the curator of the social media campaign #FergusonSyllabus’ (174). Placing the lives of Black women at its centre, this chapter affirms that despite digital environments being sources of knowledge-sharing and innovation, they can also commonly be ones in which ‘Black women thinkers attract trolls regularly’ (177). The contributions of Chatelain’s chapter are many and include its articulation of the risks involved in the online visibility of Black women in academia, in addition to its illustration of how the Black Lives Matter movement is influencing syllabus-building and pedagogical approaches.

Within Chatelain’s writing lies consideration of how different perspectives of time (too much of it, not enough, time wasted, time spent, time-stamped) significantly impact expectations and experiences of academic performance and productivity. Chatelain calls for leaders and institutions in academia to understand the importance of digital tools being used ‘in ways to make the disciplines more accessible, dynamic, equitable, and relevant’ (180). This chapter also points out the limitations of all-encompassing terms such as ‘social media tools’ which can obscure the specific features and functions of various social media platforms and processes. Therefore, as well as demonstrating how Twitter can be used by Black women in academia in ways that involve forms of archiving, learning, teaching and community work, Chatelain’s writing highlights concerns related to notions of time scarcity, monitoring, hyper-surveillance and homogenising descriptions of different digital tools and their capabilities.

The theme of ‘time’ runs throughout many chapters in this collection, including Chapter Seventeen on making an academic living, by Lisa Brundage, Karen Gregory and Emily Sherwood (305–19). In dealing with issues to do with intersectionality, feminism, digital humanities and time, this collection attends to topics pertaining to global hierarchies and power relations. Relatedly, another key contribution is Babalola Titilola Aiyegbusi’s writing in Chapter 23 on ‘Decolonizing Digital Humanities: Africa in Perspective’ (434–46). Several questions are posed and explored as part of Aiyegbusi’s writing, including: ‘how is digital humanities perceived in Africa, and to what extent do sociocultural and economic realities affect these perceptions? What role does the Western digital humanities community play in fostering this perception?’ (438). This chapter includes an important critique of how the digital experiences and research of African people on the continent are often peripheral within digital humanities discourse. The effective arguments made by Aiyegbusi culminate in a call for ‘debunking the notion that digital humanities belongs only to the West’ (444). This closing statement captures the need for the future of digital humanities to not be one which involves lives, activities and research in Africa being treated as marginal and irrelevant to this discipline.

Overall, the book is part of an established and growing body of writing that examines how interlocking systemic oppression moves and is challenged through digital space. The insightful work of Safiya Umoja Noble and Brendesha M. Tynes The Intersectional Internet: Race, Sex, Class, and Culture Online (2006) – remains a crucial edited collection that paved part of the way for others such as this one. Consequently, there is much to gain from reading Bodies of Information alongside prior related work and current discussions about the concept of intersectional feminism and the Black feminist underpinnings of understandings of intersectionality.

The collection of chapters assembled by Losh and Wernimont offer readers the chance to learn about the digital humanities and the politics that surrounds it. This edited collection has the potential to considerably enrich the learning and teaching experiences of anybody with an interest in issues concerning digital activity, intersecting structural inequalities, feminist perspectives and associated innovative work. From undergraduate students to established scholars, this book contains a myriad of knowledge that reflects and can develop critical perspectives of contemporary intersectional, feminist and digital humanities dynamics.

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Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of USAPP– American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the reviewer

Francesca Sobande – Cardiff University
Dr. Francesca Sobande is a lecturer in digital media studies at the School of Journalism, Media and Culture at Cardiff University. Her research addresses issues concerning identity, intersecting inequalities, media and the marketplace. It particularly focuses on internet culture, Black experiences, digital diaspora, feminism and popular culture. Francesca’s work has been published in the European Journal of Cultural Studies, Consumption, Markets & Culture, Celebrity Studies and Marketing Theory. She is author of The Digital Lives of Black Women in Britain (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020) and is co-editor with Professor Akwugo Emejulu of To Exist is to Resist: Black Feminism in Europe (Pluto Press, 2019).