I have always been a creative person, an artist even. In undergrad I majored in creative writing and was in a punk band. I hated anything to do with numbers, science, computers, or making money. I saw myself as “not like other girls.” I read books like The Catcher in the Rye and On the Road and believed I identified with the male protagonists. I thought being suicidal made me an interesting person. I never thought I would do anything “digital” or learn to code.
I only recently realized (thanks to a comps deep dive into cultural history) that from a young age my core beliefs were shaped by ideas that date back to the Romantic movement of the early nineteenth century. The Romantics believed in individualism, glorification of an imagined past, emphasizing emotion over logic, and rebellion against the scientific rationalism of the Enlightenment. These ideas continued to influence art movements through the twentieth century, which is where I encountered them through things like the Beat poets, the existentialists, the folk revival, and punk rock.
Figure caption: My favorite Romantic painting, “The Nightmare” by John Henry Fuseli, The Detroit Institute of Arts
Romanticism’s binary division between creativity and logic, which is still embedded in western culture, separated me from the STEM fields. This has not only resulted in a career in the service industry, but also means I haven’t pursued activities that I might otherwise have been interested in. When I was encouraged by a colleague and former fellow to apply for the Praxis fellowship, my initial reaction was to recoil in disgust at the idea of tainting my saintly humanities work with computers. I surprised myself when I actually opened the link he sent me with the program’s description. When I read the Scholar’s Lab’s and previous Praxis fellows’ charters, for the first time since arriving at grad school I encountered folks who seemed like they cared more about the people around them than an abstract notion of work or success. These DHers sounded more like my anti-capitalist research subjects than anyone in my department. I was intrigued.
Once I decided that I was going to apply, I began thinking about what it would actually mean for me to learn to code, a dreaded activity that I had spent my life adamantly refusing. Did this mean I was surrendering to the market’s demand for this knowledge? Through my journey learning Python, I have realized the Romantic ideologies that for better or worse make up part of who I am have come with some misogynistic side effects that have to be painfully unlearned, and my alienation from the STEM fields is one of them. I see my efforts to learn to code as a rebellion against the male artists, poets, and musicians who taught me that logic, reason, technology and math can’t be used for creative ends.
My initial hatred of coding wasn’t all the Romantics’ fault, though. Silicon Valley’s tech bro culture that has accelerated late-stage capitalism and eroded our democracy did not encourage me to try learning to code sooner.
This is why the culture of the digital humanities was such a shock to me. People declaring that they care about each other in manifestos against the toxic climate that festers in the ivory tower? This is more radical than the neoliberalized academic department where I do my touchy-feely humanities work. My history research is on punks and anarchists in mid-twentieth century Detroit, and digital humanities calls on practitioners to “practice digital anarchy” through praxes like radical interpretations of fair use and the disavowal of disciplines. This allows me a space to embody, explore, and work through the politics that could remain merely theoretical if, like many academics, I kept them walled off in my dissertation. Because stereotypes of Silicon Valley were all I knew about coding, digital humanities is the last place I had expected to find anarchy in academia.
I still think the Romantics had some good ideas. They made and inspired art that I continue to love despite its flaws. Horror movies are my comfort food. Many of the early Romantics were radicals involved with or sympathetic to the French Revolution. Their theories responded to the alienation and environmental destruction they witnessed along with the Industrial Revolution, which is pretty relatable as we go through climate apocalypse. I’ll probably always be an emotion and intuition person rather than a logical person, but digital humanities has taught me I can learn to code and still be a Romantic.