#DHPocoSS, Week 4: Summary of Martha Nell Smith’s “The Human Touch Software of the Highest Order”


Reading: Martha Nell Smith, “The Human Touch Software of the Highest Order: Revisiting Editing as Interpretation.”

Summaries and questions below by Renee Hudson (@rlhudson), Vani Natarajan (@lettersfromvani), Christina Boyles (@clboyles) and Lee Bessette (@readywriting)

Visit the forums and engage in the discussions here!: http://dhpoco.org/summerschool/classdiscussions

Summary by Renee Hudson (@rlhudson)

In “The Human Touch Software of the Highest Order: Revisiting Editing as Interpretation,” Martha Nell Smith provocatively introduces the concept of the “lesbian rule” for editing. The lesbian rule applies a 17th century architectural concept to editing by arguing for flexibility even when editors, for example, must follow certain standards. For Smith, many editors already follow the lesbian rule; her key intervention here is foregrounding the rule and making it a core principle for editors.

Smith continues the article by advocating the role of the humanities in creating a democratic society. To prove her claim, she applies Thomas Jefferson’s concepts of “subject matter” and “subject method” as ways to create an informed citizenry. “Subject matter” names “the knowledge required to obtain a level of happiness” while “subject method” refers to the process of obtaining that knowledge. Both of these concepts are central to Smith’s thinking. Subject matter is key because, as Smith argues, digital projects like the Dickinson Electronic Archives make scholarship freely available to internet users; as such, these types of projects democratize learning. Further, subject method is crucial for Smith because, in opting for the “lesbian rule” in editing, she is then able to advocate for an expanded notion of how method is presented to users. For Smith, users should be able to participate in wide array of scholarly discussions that do not privilege consensus or correctness, but, rather, demonstrate the prevalence and validity of a wide range of editorial interpretations. As such, Smith argues for the freeing of subject method from the ivory tower by making it readily available for the public in yet another democratizing move.

In this way, editorial work and humanities work as a whole can be free from Donna Haraway’s description of technology as “frozen social relations.” Rather, engaging in dissent and critique as well as consensus liberates texts from these frozen social relations by making visible the dynamic and engaging discussions around, in this case, textual scholarship.

Thus, by engaging in activities like viewing digital repositories and holding discussions online, digital scholarship can offer what Smith calls “the human touch.” For Smith, “the human touch” renders visible the social nature of textual production while simultaneously offering a way to account for social relations like race, class, and gender, concepts evacuated by the “back-end” where code and computation are still seen as neutral territory.

By situating texts within a complex set of social relationships, Smith extends Wimsatt and Beardsley’s critiques of the intentional and affective fallacies by demonstrating that authorial intentions are multiple and influenced by editors. Further, while the affective fallacy often assumes a universal subject who conforms to one reading of a text, Smith offers a way for users using digital technologies to see that there can be multiple authorities and readings of texts. Rather, instead of seeing texts as static – or frozen – we can view textual scholarship as part of a genealogy of criticism that marks specific time periods


  1. Although Smith seems critical of the neutral territory assumption held by coders, she doesn’t elaborate on her critique. What are some ways that code reveals itself to be less than neutral?
  2. Smith talks about how her method allows critics to account for race, gender, and class, yet the article doesn’t quite explain how this will happen. The assumption seems to be that by focusing on the social production of texts, analyses of race, gender, and class will follow. Are there ways to foreground/codify this kind of analysis?
  3. While Smith is keen on emphasizing the democratizing potential of digitizing technologies, her work assumes access to a certain level of technology along with the means for interpreting it. Further, the democratizing aspect of digital humanities is currently under suspicion with the prevalence of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). This is a big question, but how do we resolve these issues of democratization, access, and exploitation?

Summary by Vani Natarajan (@lettersfromvani)

The author opens her essay, and a special issue of the journal Textual Studies, by invoking the lesbian rule, which a footnote describes as a “mason’s rule made of lead, which could be bent to fit the curves of a moulding.” She gives us this concept as a way to work with “principled flexibility,” an approach to editing that does not subsume itself to rigid rules, a socially engaged way of editing that deals with the “messy” concerns of race, class, gender, and sexuality as important elements of editorial vision and process.

She widens her gaze to the significance of digital tools in the humanities.

What do the humanities offer humanity? She curiously crystallizes Thomas Jefferson’s 2 primary facets of education:

Subject matter consists of the knowledge required to obtain happiness.
Subject method illuminates and interrogates the process by which such knowledge comes to be/is produced.

Excerpting Donna Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, Smith also introduces us to technology as “frozen social relations.”

Smith argues that tools do not produce knowledge or enact social change—people and the ways we interface with tools (the “touch”) do. She insists on a historicization of tech that accounts for how scholars/teachers have ALWAYS been incorporating new tech into their praxis.

In the mid-90’s, humanities computing conferences abounded in talk of bringing “scientific rigor” to humanities as a way to somehow rationalize, objectivize, and aesthetically purify humanities disciplines. Smith is taking these attitudes to task.

She then prompts us to reconsider what technology is. She offers her definition: “the means by which we accomplish various ends—the tools and devices on which our critical suppositions rely.”

Smith introduces four technologies that have been important to her own praxis and work in the Dickinson Electronic Archives: access, multimedia study objects, collaboration, and self-consciousness.

By working on digital editions, Smith argues that we can  tease out intricate questions about how a text comes to be. New media can help to increase access. Multimedia study objects can help debunk the illusion of one stable text.

Self consciousness occurs during remediation: when we view a work outside its context and do not get to see how it was produced. The item in this instance “black boxes” the processes and histories it is hiding. We can become self conscious of what we don’t know, what the text before us doesn’t tell us, in these instances. Really, blackboxing happens whether we are looking at print or digital editions.


Smith created digital samplers in order to address popular conceptions about Dickinson’s work: solitude, morbidity, and the writing of poems that left lots of white space on the page. She found manuscripts that challenged all three preconceptions.

Manipulable lightbox displays in the digital exhibition allow a diverse array of users to engage in primary literary research with these documents, and to have agency in how they manipulate and view them.

The “wars” over authenticity and authority in literature reflect, in large part, capitalist relations in academia. A new proliferation of textual editions of Dickinson’s work have freed these conversations. She takes up Haraway’s assertion that technology = frozen social relations by suggesting that the use of tools may also “unfreeze” social relations.

Smith considered two plans for the project: to only release it when finalized and “perfect,” or to release in medias res, with changes and processes transparent (“critical review process”). She chose the second approach.

Dickinson herself did not prepare her writings for print. Her own manuscripts reveal the instability of the text.

Shifting editorial paradigms requires challenging certain ideas: that only one edition is valid, that all editors agree, that there is one perfect and right way to edit, and that new scholarly editions are in a teleological fashion improving upon previous ones.

Instead, Smith suggests, we would do well to adopt new editorial and interpretative methods that include: recognizing multiple identities and iterations of a text, as well as multiple views and authorities on that text; knowing that scholarly editions don’t “improve upon” each other, but they mark the times and contexts of their production; seeing that editors often operate in dissensus;   asking what decisions (inclusion, exclusion) where made that led up to an edition’s appearance; and most importantly, prioritizing the race, class, gender, and sexuality dimensions of editing (seeing it as the deeply social and political work that it is).

New media can help us do this, but we need an array of technologies beyond digital tools—using access, multimedia study objects, self consciousness, and collaboration, we must expand our subject matter as well as our subject method.


  1. Smith quotes Donna Haraway: “Myth and tool mutually constitute each other.” How do we see this play out in digital scholarship? What myths/ narratives/ guiding concepts would you want to uphold, recuperate, revise, or undo in relation to the digital tools that you use?
  2. Smith reminds us that technology in scholarship is nothing new. Why is that so easy to forget, time and again? What are the racialized, gendered, and classed underpinnings of the idea that technology itself is only recently born?
  3. Patriarchy, colonialism, militarism, and other oppressive structures can affect a text’s ability to survive. How might Smith’s ideas be used to work with texts that have been lost in some fashion?


Outline by Christina Boyles (@clboyles): 
Please click to view outline.


  1. How does the lesbian rule change our perception of scholarship and scholarly editing? When is it more/less appropriate to integrate into our scholarship? How will this influence future scholarship in the DH?
  2. In her article, Smith notes that “texts are social institutions and are never free from gender, race, class, and sex.” Is this true? If so, how does this influence our interaction with texts? What does this say about our role as scholars in the DH?
  3. Do you agree with Smith’s assertion that “technologies are formalizations or frozen social relations, but in their use, relations can be unfrozen, information unbound, and new tools developed”? Why or why not?
  4. Is traditional editing (that which advocates a definitive understanding of a text) inherently unconcerned with issues of race, gender, sex and class? And are new forms of editing (those which encourage collaboration and diversity of opinion) more open to these concerns?
  5. In what ways can technology improve our editing practices? Are there any downsides to using technology to create and edit digital texts? How do we prevent ourselves from falling back on earlier, more accepted, standards of editing?
  6. What is the role of “subject matter” and “subject method” in digital composition? How do these two concepts interact with Hemenway’s view of “frozen social relations”?
  7. How do you use digital technologies to address the “messiness” of human diversity? What kinds of technologies do you use–blogs, wikis, digital archives, Omeka, etc.–and what about these particular technologies address issues of race, class, gender, and sex? Do these programs allow for “principled flexibility” or are they more rigid in structure? Why is that significant?


Summary by Lee Bessette (@readywriting)

Martha Neil Smith is concerned with how editing practices often mistake rigor for a set of rigid orthodoxies. Instead she calls on editors to follow the “lesbian rule” which guided 17th Century architects: “a principle that is pliant and accommodating in its faithful adherence to standards” (2) or “principled flexibility.” Editors need to invoke “the queer” that “honors diversity and contests normativity” or the messiness of authorship, production, and reception, which include race, class, gender, and sexuality, especially in the light of new and emerging technologies.


Invoking Thomas Jefferson’s definition of education, we can think of both the subject matter (what we know) and subject method (process of knowing). Smith then moves on to integrating that with how we understand new technologies. These technologies have been beneficial because of their ability to help us collaborate more effectively. But, she states provocatively, they are not in and of themselves, vital to our scholarship. WE have use the tools thoughtfully and productively, hence the title, “The Human Touch.” How we use the tools matter, not their existence. In the particular case of editors, we can use these tools to self-consciously acknowledge and use the social nature of texts.


Smith points out that much discussion around Humanities Computing (DH’s precursor) in the mid-1990s was how the it was going to save the humanities from the “messy” concerns of race, class, gender, and sexuality that had “taken over” and instill a renewed objectivity and rational thought to the humanities. These same discussions had also taken over STS (Society for Textual Studies), but, as Smith points out, “texts are social instruments and so can never really be free from all of that messiness.”


Editing shapes the world and is not a neutral act. The technologies we should be focusing on are the “human technologies” such as self-consciousness, access, collaboration, etc. The technology of “self-consciousness” comes out most for Smith when she is asking her students “Who made those texts?” and in her work on Emily Dickinson online. What can me made visible with digital tools that is simple not available in print?  Her work showed (rather than told) various elements of Dickinson’s poetry, not to mention the potential of the technologies used. This kind of public scholarship and digital editions also allows for non-experts and non-academics to participate in the process of making-meaning.


These digital means of scholarship also upset the notion of the authoritative text, “instruments that enforce meaning”. Digital texts can be perpetually updated, for instance. This also upsets the typical analogy regarding scholarship and literary activity as being a “war” with winners and losers. Critics of the digital also point to the fact that digital editions make too many demands of the reader (prioritizing fluency over the “messiness” of the work). But the digital can prevent the “black boxing” of knowledge; critical opinion becomes fact, and fact becomes truth. Can, but does not automatically so.


The most human software of all, “human inquiry,” is what is necessary for these digital editions to be successful. We need to be public, provide access, and collaborate to create materials. We need to not just be mindful of our audiences, but be open to collaborate with them, opening up our work to communities outside of the STS. She concludes by reminding usthat the digital tools will not necessarily and automatically lead to these outcomes unless we consciously do so.


  1. Smith mentions in her piece that her students were disinterested and sometimes downright skeptical to her attempts to bring to light the question, “Who made those texts?” What should our strategies be to reach our students, and the other communities, with our work in these questions
  2. Smith talks repeatedly about showing our work, rather than telling. Is this another form of hack vs yack? And as a secondary questions, perhaps related to the first, how do we “show” our work?
  3. In the trenches of academia, there are “winners and losers”; as DH moves towards more formal structures, how do we avoid recreating the same systems, the same “war” that already exists?

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