pencil-eraserThere’s been a series of commentaries online recently on the topic of using the term “data” when naming the (what shall we call “it”?) …, stuff that we, as scholars, study — commentaries driven by worries, in many cases, that this word erases the inherent worth and humanity of the people so named. The members of Culture on the Edge tackled this topic both here and here, all in favor of an informed/specific use of this technical term, and a more diverse group of responses also appeared at the Bulletin blog (here and then also here).

What I find so ironic about all the worrying that appears in some of these responses and also some of the comments on Facebook (where the debate began) — some of which favor such alternate terms as “conversation partners” or even “teachers” — is that the historical and human conditions of this very debate, its specifics, have been quite nicely erased and no one seems to have noticed it or minds it all that much — which nicely exemplifies that, at least as I see it, all discourse (including our discourse on the term “data”) is a matter of representations divorced from whatever the world may or may not really be. (I’ll leave Kant to speculate on how we can make claims about that while also knowing that we logically can’t get past mere phenomena.)

For this all began when a Facebook debate took place concerning the title of a post on this site by our own Leslie Dorrough Smith. A long debate on one person’s wall then developed, of which Leslie was not part but in which I participated, since I don’t think Leslie’s a friend of the person who first shared her article. So Leslie, the author, the one making the claims in the first place, the one whose title was being debated, and thus the one whose voice some people seem to be so concerned about including and hearing, was systematically excluded (for structural reasons, woven into the very way in which social media functions — we can’t be everyone’s friends, after all).

Where did Leslie go in all this? Where is Leslie’s agency? Her meanings and intentions? (She, of course, participated in one of our later posts on this topic.) What link is there between my use of those six letters — L-E-S-L-I-E — and some real flesh and blood person — or persons, since I have no doubt that she, like I, has complex personae that flit in and out of existence? And what do I make of the fact that many commenting on all this surely had no idea that there was a Leslie-person apparently at the root of it all?

So are those who see themselves as working to protect or recover the humanity of the people we talk about to be blamed for not investing Leslie with agency and a voice of her own, for not having a conversation with her or for failing to let themselves be instructed by her by simply first asking what she meant by the term before they judged its — to some of them, at least — dehumanizing implications? Or is this just how discourse works — such as my rhetorical use of Leslie in this very post — suggesting that quests for origins and authenticity and unique personhood are rather misguided scholarly quests?

For those on the one side of this debate, this deep irony of erasure at the heart of our topic is worth mulling over, I think. For they’re calling the kettle blackened while we all seem to be stuck in the same fiery conditions of discourse.

3 Replies to “Erased”

  1. Just a note, Leslie Smith wrote a very insightful post on your website… which is a space for scholars and non-scholars to debate cultural constructions, correct? She deployed a term, ‘data’, and generated a flood of responses, positive and negative… but primarily engaging discussions in which Ms. Smith was a participant. I’m not terribly worried about Leslie Smith needing someone to speak for her or defend her, she did a brilliant job defending herslef in the posts which you have put here on your website. Those of us, myself included, discussing the concept and uses of the term ‘data’ are more concerned (I speak primarily for myself here) with ‘data’/ people who have no way to speak back to the powers which define them. My desire was to use her post, which is public and meant to engage a scholarly discussion, to do just that. I am terribly sorry if she viewed this as an attack on her personally. Again, I stress, Ms. Smith was part of the dialogue and defended her position quite well… what happens when someone who is not writing on a public website (meant to enage critical discussion), who is not a scholar, and has no venue in which to dissent with how they have been presented by another… what happens when the ‘data’ can’t speak back?

  2. I don’t disagree and I don’t think you need defend anything, to be honest (if defense is even the correct word). My point is to press why “data” is so dangerously dehumanizing while, say, “concept” — which you use above, which tends to intellectualize the blood and guts nature of human discourse, no…? I assume you see what I’m doing here, for the critics of “data-talk” think it is no mere concept… — is just a, what?, natural or neutral word to use…? As for “when the ‘data’ can’t speak back?” — this is indeed a curious topic — but one of no relevance to historians (since pottery remnants do not have a voice), and depending what stripe of lit crit you claim to be it’s not an issue there either (i.e., who is the author to think she has exclusive rights to her meaning?). The interesting thing to me is that the most evident cases I know of in which the people studied disagree over their representation in scholarship is in the work of liberal humanist scholars who claim their work to be representing the deeply human in the Other — that is, I don’t know of any vocal retorts to how, say, cognitive psychologists are studying “their” rituals. This is instructive, I think, for I have come to conclude that people are easily capable of understanding when others have interests different from own and wish to use something local to one group as an example of something of interest to another. I think they also know when someone is actually speaking for them, which is rather different, I think, from analyzing them/their world/their artifacts. So, to appeal to Wayne Proudfoot’s old (and, actually, somewhat troublesome) distinction, while we ought to be rigorously reductionistic in our analysis, on the one hand, our descriptions of people’s behaviors must closely reflect people’s own self-representations — though descriptions are, in fact, prescriptive (“look at this, not that”), and are translations in themselves, of course (i.e., people the world over are not walking around spontaneously talking about their myths and rituals and symbolic systems, since they’re just living their lives).

  3. I can see what you mean here but I do think historians and literary critics are very concerned with the ‘data’ speaking back (especially when those people are still alive and producing histories and canons of their own). I’m thinking of the critiques of Howard Zinn, concerns over reconstructionist histories, debates over canons and reading lists, etc.

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