Wikipedia + Feminist Epistemology, Take 2 (Babycastles Remix)

Number 04: Actual Source (via It's Nice That)
Number 04: Actual Source (via It’s Nice That)

Early last month I was invited to take part in the Art + Feminism Wikipedia edit-a-thon at Babycastles by stopping by, “mid-thon,” to offer a little food for thought, a little epistemological interjection. I have no particular expertise in Wikipedia, but I do research and teach classes on knowledge institutions and structures: libraries, archives, exhibitions, communications infrastructures, filing systems, classification systems, etc. So the intellectual and political concerns that likely inform Wikipedians’ work also inspire my own.

Thanks to some scheduling snafus, that presentation on March 9 didn’t happen as planned, so I posted my talk online — and then Ari Spool, from Babycastles (she also happens to be a former student and my current TA), invited me to join the WikiWednesdays Wikipedia meet-up at Babycastles to share some of the ideas I would’ve shared back in March. So, here’s my script, with some small adjustments:

The March 9 Art + Feminism edit-a-thon- at MoMA resulted in the expansion of a number of female artists’ biographies — Lucy Lippard’s, Janet Cardiff’s, Hella Jongerius’s — and the creation of new ones: LaToya Ruby Frazier’s, Toshiko Mori’s, Camille Henrot’s. But on March 10 we found ourselves hosting yet another edit-a-thon in a radically different kind of space: in Babycastles, far from 53rd Street. Consider the relationship between those two institutions — MoMA and Babycastles — and how their institutional (and architectural and cultural and ideological…) differences might’ve differentiated the work that went on in those related-but-separate events:

The MoMA edit-a-thon involved the insertion of myriad “notable” feminist artists, curators, art historians, etc., into Wikipedia. Notability is, of course, a key currency in WikiWorld. The Babycastles’ crew, I hoped, would expand the notion of notability – in part by thinking about the kinds of art that MoMA had been seriously thinking about as art only relatively recently: video games, net art, and other techno-aesthetic projects. Another potential advantage, or distinction, of the Babycastles crowd, I assumed, was a widespread recognition that “art” — or, more broadly, the aesthetic — doesn’t reside merely at the level of the exhibitable: the work that hangs on a wall or plays on a monitor and gets a wall label. Art’s also in the code; it’s in the servers and conduits; it’s in the preservation strategies and archives. It’s in the myriad intertwined infrastructures that make digital art – and, really, all art – possible.

Another group of folks with a similar sensibility includes librarians and archivists and preservationists – all of whom have made key contributions to the art world, and to media and technological history, but who are often regarded as, or “reduced” to, the organizers, the sorters, the tidy-ers, the care-takers. But this care-taking, this organization-making, is intellectual and aesthetic and political work. Notable work.

Consider two women – both of whom happen to have their own Wikipedia entries already:

  • First, Megan Prelinger, one half of the Prelinger Archive and Library duo, whose collaborative work reinforces the informational and historical value of quotidian artifacts and ephemera and “occasional” publications. She and her partner, Rick, mine history’s discard pile. They also advocate for alternative means of organizing information: their library in San Francisco is organized according to scales of exploration, from the local to the intergalactic — from San Francisco to Outer Space.
  • Second, Suzanne Briet, a French librarian who lived from 1894 to 1989, who encouraged folks to consider what constitutes, and what counts as, a document. She advocated for the valuation of “grey literature,” correspondence, the information in phone calls — even animals. She suggested that even an antelope could be a “document” in a zoo, where it is made an object of study, where it’s “taxonomized” and used as evidence of something. She also noted that documents are products of culture — what counts as a document is determined in part by its cultural context, as in the case of our antelope — and that culture plays a key role in our understanding of how we interpret  Her insights pertain the edit-a-thon’s mission: they were turning female artists into subjects worthy of documentation, and creating a culture where those documents are validated and valued.

I hope their capacious approaches to historiography, epistemology, and bibliography (or, as Briet would prefer, “documentalism”) will prompt us to ask if we’re being similarly capacious in our approaches to writing WikiHistories. While I do agree that it’s critically important that females and artists — and, of course, female artists — are well represented both among the contributors to Wikipedia and the subjects of its entries, I think it’s just as significant to think about what it means to be a Wikipedia “subject.” And about what, and how, Wikipedia itself constructs meaning. I’m asking here about feminist historiography and epistemology (approaches that have not been without controversy!).

Let’s consider some of these questions:

  • How does Wikipedia structure knowledge? What does it suggest is worth knowing? Who is a “notable” figure worthy of inclusion? To be considered for inclusion, an artist, for example, might have had a “significant” exhibition. Whose “significance” are we talking about? Or she might have “originated” a “significant new technique.” Again, says who? And what does it mean to “originate” something? Don’t we all take inspiration from those who’ve come before us, and draw ideas and support from our collaborators?
  • What kinds of histories does Wikipedia promote? A biographically-focused one, judging by the historiographic methods employed in many edit-a-thons. As the late historian Roy Rosenzweig wrote in 2006, in a very prescient article in The Journal of American History, “biographies of historical figures offer a more favorable terrain for Wikipedia” – in part because biographies are popular, and because the “unit of analysis is always clear cut.” (Thanks to Trevor Owens for the reference!)
  • How does the site’s architecture – the linear text, the info box, the heading structure, the bibliographies and external links – structure how we think about and write history? And given the edit-a-thon’s focus on art, it might be worth thinking, too, about the site’s aesthetics: what roles do Wikipedia’s ascetic look-and-feel play in the conception of history and the shaping of knowledge?
  • How do we reconcile Wikipedia’s insistence on a “neutral point of view” – which Rosenzweig calls “highly conventional, even old-fashioned” – with some feminists’ acknowledgment of knowledge as “situated” and embodied?

Could we potentially intervene instead on a structural or an aesthetic level, to make Wikipedia reflect a more feminist epistemology or historiography? Could Wikipedia embody some alternative to the “Great Man Theory” of how the world works? How might we think of infusing a little feminist sensibility (again, whatever that means!) through means that go beyond creating new entries for “forgotten” or “ignored” female figures (which is itself, of course, a valuable enterprise)? What if we instead wrote women – and feminist values – into Wikipedia’s existing macro-narratives? What if we sought to reconcile “neutrality” with “situatedness”? Is such a reconciliation possible? What if we edited entries in light of the understanding that history is the product of collective action, of minute events with rippling effects, rather than the heroic acts of “notable” individuals? And what if we thought about the site’s technical architecture and protocols — the link, the citation, and other writing conventions — as processes, or acts, that could be “feminized”? And what would that even mean?

The early-April edit-a-thons involved editing existing entries for female artists, and writing new artists into Wiki-history. That’s fabulous. But let’s think also about how that history is shaped, and what politics our Wiki-historiography embodies. And if that history reflects the values that might underlie a world in which “every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.”

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