CHWP A.8 Brown & Clements, "Tag Team: Computing, Collaborators, and the History of Women's Writing in the British Isles"

6. Cultural Formation

To show what we mean here we want to explain how we've dealt with race and ethnicity in tagging the lives of women writers. Race and ethnicity are part of the cultural formation element within our Biography documents in which we note crucial influences on the constitution of a British woman writer's social positioning. We want to make the complexities of questions of race and ethnicity emerge so as to emphasize that these are shifting, historically constituted and interestedly deployed categories whose use must be understood contextually. One strategy for doing this has to do with the relationship between the elements of the biography DTD. In our first working version of this DTD, such factors as race, language and religion were structurally separate, so that discussing their interrelation was awkward. In our revision, we created a single cultural formation element to allow for the simultaneous discussion of such factors. This structure aims to reflect current understandings of subjectivity as constituted not by tranhistorical or isolated categories but through multiple categories intersecting at an historically specific moment for a particular individual or group.

Within cultural formation, we have the following elements for race and ethnicity: <race/colour> <ethnicity> <nationality> <geography> <national-heritage> <geographical heritage>. The first four elements are used for categories directly associated with the women writer herself; the last two provide for ways of talking about the national and geographical backgrounds of her forbears. To account for the different ways categories get mobilized, the terms used in each tag will not be exclusive or even internally consistent across what we write. Depending on the context, for instance, "Jewish" may be tagged as one or more of "religious denomination" "race/colour" or "ethnicity", and "West Indian" may be tagged with "geography", "nationality", "race/colour" or "ethnicity" tags. We plan to make it possible for the user who is interested in race/ethnicity to constitute her own search group. This could be done, for instance, as a kind of search menu with pull-down boxes, so that if she wanted to search on "black" authors, she would be presented with a list of possible constituencies which could be included in the search or not, as she chose. We would make it clear that "black" and "African", for instance, are not commensurate: that a search on all the women writers whose cultural formation element indicates an association with the African continent (i.e. contains <geography>African</geography> or <geography>Africa</geography>) would include Doris Lessing, and "black" might include people of East Indian background in the UK, especially if self-identified as such.

In other words, we don't think that we could, or should, come up with an exact, fully defined, or mutually exclusive set of categories: the point is the overlap between them. Within the system we are creating, counting per se -- for instance, of trying to determine the number of women writers in a particular identity category -- will be highly problematic, that is, purposefully problematized. As we move along in the project, we are carefully building sets of associations which can be accessed either through indexes or by some kind of specialized search function. Cultural formation, then, makes the definition and demarcation of such categories as race and ethnicity the shared responsibility of taggers and readers. By becoming active in the process of deciding how to search for and group the material in our history, our reader will become an active collaborator in the process. And to the extent that we are doing this tagging and thinking through these issues in order to push forward our own understanding of the material, the line between researcher and reader or user is continually blurred.

6.1 Example of Cultural Formation

The case of Anna Leonowens, the writer whose memoirs of her time in Siam became the basis for the musical The King and I, provides an example of how the cultural formation element works in practice. Leonowens is of interest in this context because recent historians have suggested that her subject position may be rather more complex than she represented it in her description of her life as an "English governess". The bare text of the cultural formation element for Leonowens is simply standard prose:

Although Leonowens herself, in attempting to adopt an unequivocally English identity, implicitly claimed that she was white, evidence suggests that although her father was probably Welsh and presumably white, her mother was quite possibly Eurasian. As the daughter of a low-ranking soldier for the East India Company, she would not have held a high position in Anglo-Indian society (Bristowe 1976: 23-31).

Revealing the pertinent SGML tags shows the depth of the tagging embedded in the prose:

Although Leonowens herself, in attempting to adopt an unequivocally <nationality self-defined="selfYes"> English </nationality> identity, implicitly claimed that she was <raceColour self-defined="selfYes"> white </raceColour>, evidence suggests that although her father was probably <nationalHeritage forbear="father"> Welsh </nationalHeritage> and presumably white, her mother was quite possibly <raceColour forbear="mother" historicalTermContext= Victorian British> Eurasian </raceColour>. As the <class self-defined="selfNo"> daughter of a low-ranking soldier for the East India Company </class>, she would not have held a high position in Anglo-Indian society (Bristowe 1976: 23-31). [4]

The tagging marks Leonowens' self-construction as English and white while acknowledging the possibility, based on scholarly evidence, that her position in relation to English constructions of race and nation was rather ambiguous. The term Eurasian is marked as specific to Victorian British usage and would be contextualized by a gloss noting its use "in the context of the ... colonization of India, to connote a mixture of white, European and Asiatic, usually East Indian, parentage" (OED). In addition, we will link similar terms as "Eurasian" and "Anglo-Indian" and would include "Eurasian" in results for searches on word "Indian". The end result of such tagging, we hope, will be to complicate and interrogate, both for ourselves and our users, the identity categories associated with women's writing in the British Isles.

The Orlando Project is still very much in progress. In addition to the problems of history-writing, of focussing our energies on a vast project of research and writing, we have major computing challenges before us. We need to figure out a means of providing access to the project's language in a way that is context-sensitive and which will help link related terms and clarify their relationships. We need to create documentation and design a delivery system which will make the structures of our encoding as transparent as possible. We need to enable our readers to engage in productive questioning, in problematization, of the materials we have researched. And we need to continue to ensure that the processes of the computing do not distort the processes of historical selection and interpretation.

7. Team Tag

We have been discussing tagging. Before we conclude, we must turn briefly to the tag team. As the above discussion of the lengthy processes of document analysis and DTD development will have made clear, Orlando is a genuinely collaborative project. There are some twenty-one of us working out the various intellectual frameworks of the project. Negotiation abounds: between the volume authors, between the volume authors and the computing planners; between the computing designers and the computing technicians building the connective tissues; between all these and the graduate research assistants who are the front-line users of the systems we are developing. This is not usual in the humanities -- certainly collaboration of this kind is new to most of us -- and the implications of this kind of collaboration are institutional as well as intellectual. Given evaluation practices which are tightly bolted to the idea of individual authorship, or, at a pinch, joint authorship, our institutions will be hard put to evaluate work which sometimes may not be authorship at all. Who, for instance, produced this paper? This is surely a challenge which as a profession we will be facing with increasing frequency. But the single most interesting institutional feature of the Orlando project is the involvement of graduate students. Humanities PhDs are long, lonely experiences. Graduate students, of whom there are always eight to ten at work in Alberta and Guelph, create a different kind of environment in their work on the Orlando Project. In an important sense, they are the project: they do a great deal of the library work, the checking, the first tests of the computing processes; they comprise a large part of the tag team; and they write materials for the text base. [5] To them, Orlando provides both intellectual community and a real role in a major project, with all of the training that implies. Some twenty-four or so graduate students will emerge from this project with experience of collaborative work and with an understanding of their research as part of the larger work of the discipline. They will also have confident knowledge in humanities computing and an understanding that we can adopt an active and shaping attitude to these tools, creating ways in which they serve our purposes.

We feel, as a team, that we are involved in the domestication of computing for the humanities. For us, this gendered metaphor highlights the obvious and important fact that we are a team predominantly composed of women, working to reshape, in the interests of feminist inquiry, the tools of a field very markedly dominated by men. That we are doing this with the major backing of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and our universities is an important part of the picture. We understand gender as cutting across every element of our project, from the time past we are constructing together to the time present in which we are working together to construct it. So while this domesticating labour is also productively underway in many other arenas in the humanities, we think we have a particular angle on the potential servitudes and freedoms of writing with computers, on the politics of knowledge this work produces, and on the ways that we may seek to possess the means of electronic production rather than being dispossessed by them. We find this work both daunting and exciting, and we hope that our collaboration will lead to many others -- both with the future users whose roles we see as continually blurring into our own, and with other attempts to use computers to open new possibilities for the conduct of research in the humanities.

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[4] The reference is to Louis and the King of Siam (Bristowe 1976), a study on Leonowens' son Louis and his career in Siam which casts doubt on Leonowens' claim to be English born and bred. For the sake of clarity, some tagging has been omitted from this example.

[5] The graduate students who have contributed to date to the work of the Orlando Project are Shauna Barry, Jocelyn Brown, Pippa Brush, Kathryn Carter, Jennifer Chambers, Tina Cheng, Karen Chow, Paul Dyck, Sarah Gibson, Jane Haslett, Carolyn Lee, Mary-Elizabeth Leighton, Heather McAsh, Margaret McCutcheon, Catherine Nelson-McDermott, Andrew Mactavish, Aimée Morrison, Sarah Timleck and Samantha Wrigley.