The (Digital) Library of Babel

[This talk was delivered as the closing keynote before the Digital Humanities Summer Institute in Victoria, B.C. on June 6, 2014. It was a bittersweet delivery because I had to miss the first day of our Open Syllabus Project conference at Columbia U., but the commitment to deliver went beyond my gratitude to the organizers of DHSI. I dedicate these attempts to say something useful to my guides, Bethany and Jerry.]


exeunt to the world

I feel privileged to be here at the institute with you. When I received the kind invitation to offer my remarks on the subject of a global digital humanities I was elated, and immediately remembered that other marvelous congress, "El congreso" de Jorge Luis Borges.

In that congress, Alejandro Ferri remembers for us, about 20 Argentineans would gather on Saturdays at the house of another Alejandro, the red bearded, wealthy landowner Alejandro Glencoe. Inspired by guillotined Anarchasis Coots, "citoyen de l’humanité," Glencoe had founded El Congreso del Mundo to represent all men of all nations. Sic on the men. Their vast mission, combined with their small numbers, led them to come up with very clever solutions: Glencoe for example could represent landowners as well as men with red beards, or men sitting on a couch.

Naturally, they needed a library of congress. They started small, with a few encyclopedias. Soon enough the classics followed. Eventually, inflamed by Pliny the Younger’s suggestion that no book was without some merit, the congress set about collecting all of them, including 3,400 copies of Don Quixote in different formats, theater bills, and yes, dissertations.

On the day the bankrupted Glencoe ordered the books to be burned, he invited all to take a carriage ride through the night streets of Buenos Aires, declaring with great authority that the real congress of the world was the world itself. All accepted and exited clearheaded unto that largest of tents.

the disangelium of the digital humanities

I for one take dead seriously Jerome McGann’s impossible injunction that the role of the humanist in the XXI century is to tend to the history of our documentary pasts—recorded, written, painted or built—and oversee their remediation for our digital futures. But whose documentary past are we talking about? The world’s documentary past, of course. "Scholars are made," Jerry is forced to remind us in A New Republic of Letters, and we must make whole congregations of them for the task at hand. But who’s we? The world’s current scholars, of course—independent, librarian, professing scholars.

A new philology this way comes to regain its clement place at the center of our κόσμος. Do not hesitate. This is not the first time we build a republic of letters. We memorists have built countless already, each bound to specific mnemotechnics, labor arrangements and ideological charges.

For the first time, though, we have within our reach the means for both the production and dissemination of our own scholarly work at a massive scale. Provided the bloodstained cables, circuits and energy sources that support our digital mirrors clean up their act and survive our politics and commerce, we have an unprecedented opportunity to rebuild our collective memories on a different key. A humanities gone digital brings not the future, but a new past.

I’m sure everyone here is aware of the amazonic topographies of our inherited republic of letters: Canons built on top of nationalist and regional agendas; material traces of the past languishing in the libraries of former and current empires; brittle others crumbling under the pressure of the politicians and booklice of former colonies.

In our diligent present, authors upon theorists sign over their Microsoft Word documents to the serviceable folks of the publishing industry, who will surely PDF them, perhaps stain and bind some paper, then ship the product by donkey or cable off to select corners of the earth. The industrial indexers and bundlers never lag far behind, chock-full of DRM cufflinks. Eventually we end up with an accumulation of our scholarship in large metropolitan or wealthy academic libraries—mostly north, to be clear. On the margins of our inherited republic of letters, the provinces make do with hungry local productions and dark libraries crawling with all kinds of strange critters—trackers, leechers, seeders—as the global (c) wars rage on.

At this juncture, in sight of a new deal, as we slowly break lose from national narratives and the deflating tent of "The Western Tradition," building a global community of scholars who can harness the machines finds its reason and rhyme.

global outlook :: digital humanities

The seeds for GO::DH were planted during a series of conversation at DH2012, Hamburg, among several scholars from North America, Europe and Asia, including Neil Fraistat and Dan O’Donnell, our current chair, on the difficulties of making connections with mainland China. By this point, centerNet had already made enormous strides in connecting centers across the constituent members of the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO), but they had found some difficulties connecting outside of that tent. In 2012 we also see the publication of Melissa Terras’ map, "Physical Centres in the Digital Humanities Across the Globe," which inadvertently calls attention to its absences more than its contents, and Domenico Fiormonte’s "Towards a Cultural Critique of the Digital Humanities," in which he takes to task mainstream digital humanities as detrimentally anglo-centric.

With this backdrop, GO::DH began coagulating in earnest during INKE’s Birds of Feather gathering in November of 2012, in Havana. Many in this room now were there. I joined the conversation around that time. In earlier conversations, the group was dangerously imagined as an advocacy group encouraging ADHO members to seek out scholars on the empty hinterlands of Melissa Terras’ map in order to provide assistance to them. During our fortuitous debates in Havana, though, GO::DH started molding its current ethos for transnational collaboration based on a different gambit: to go global, we would look for intersections within existing practices and networks, rather than replicate or over-valorize the tents that sheltered us. In doing so, we transformed the we. Our we is now a function of our intersections around the world, and WE are now entering our second year. So far, so good.

In practice, GO::DH consists of a mailing list, (which anyone can join), a website, around 250 members worldwide, a series of working groups and an executive board. During our short run we have already drafted our first set of by-laws, successfully ran an international essay contest, helped organize a few tents in South America, the Caribbean and Mexico , added a few new working groups to the mix, tackled several hot-button issues on our list, and all o’ that without drawing the ire of the internet. We are just getting started, of course.

While our online forum is the soul of our special interest group, our hands are the working groups. Each of the groups has their own coordinating executive, which reports back to the GO::DH executive periodically. Working groups are strategic, in the sense that they help us carry out our larger mission in one way or another. THATCampCaribe 2: Cuba, for example, continued the work we started during the INKE meeting; the Translation Commons group embodied our distributed and collaborative approach to language diversity; the Rewriting Wikipedia project provided us with a model of groups working together in different geographies and connecting by telepresence as groups (an alternative to controversial anonymous, individual-centered models of crowdsourcing); our most recent addition, the Minimal Computing group is setting out to imagine a digital humanities conscious of global accessibility questions (bandwidth, hardware, electricity, etc.) If you’re in Lausanne this year for DH2015, make sure to catch our workshop, organized by John Simpson.


Of the working groups, my personal favorite is the #arounddh in 80 Days project, which I’m happy to announce will launch one minute before the summer solstice. I promised I’d deliver in Spring, and well…

Turning Jules Vernes’ colonialist fantasy of homogenous space on its head, the #arounddh project, is a vehicle for addressing the challenge of multi-directional and reciprocal visibility in an asymmetric field. Starting June 21 and running for 80 days, the site will take us to different parts of the world to highlight a different digital humanities project every day. Not only can #arounddh allow us to get a sense of the rich diversity of scholarly engagement with digital environments around the world, it can also provide a piecemeal entry for beginners to the digital humanities, refracted now through a broader lens.

The first stage of the project consisted of compiling a master list on a Google Doc spreadsheet of digital humanities projects around the world (n.b. you can still contribute). Using social media and email, the working group was able to accumulate 300+ entries (and growing!) from contributors around the globe. The creation of the master list was itself instrumental in making connections between individual scholars, many of whom became more involved in the activities of GO::DH. The master list has already become a valuable resource in its own right, separate from the web project, and we’re already in discussions with DHCommons, MapaHD and other general directories of projects to find ways to mesh our data.

Production of the web project began in Ryan Cordell’s "Doing Digital Humanities" class in the Spring of 2013. Ryan approached us as collaborator with an understanding that the project would be a great pedagogical tool for introducing graduate students to digital humanities around the globe. Students in the class began work on the project using the Scalar platform, and were able to create a prototype of the project that included mapping and descriptions of the project. Students also made their selection process transparent. Their well-documented experience served as a foundation for the continued development of the project.

The next stage of the process consisted of gathering an editorial board of scholars from around the world to make the selection of the final 80 projects based on the master list. As of this moment, the final website is being designed using Jekyll, a static website generator, and using minimal design, like the SVG map you see in the slide, in order to make the project more easily accessible in areas with low bandwidths.

In the strongest sense, though, this project has been more about the process than the actual product. We have built many important relationships throughout the development stage, and expect to build more; we have also had an opportunity to see the pedagogical benefits of the anthological approach to the Introduction to Digital Humanities course, which is becoming a staple of our collective practices. More importantly the project has helped us broaden our network and put to test many of the ideas discussed in the forum.

decoding English, de-Englishing code

The thorny question of English—la colonialidad del poder—still hangs loose, never quite unraveling the emperor’s clothes, never quite breaking off. More recently, the question has been transposed to the realm of Critical Code Studies, where Roopika Risam and others encouraged us to tease out the role of English norms in Ramsey Nasser’s قلب programming language. The exercise proved that we are still long ways from sorting out how to foster a true babel. I personally have a longstanding love affair with the English language, but it does not blind me to the home court advantage of native speakers in large numbers.

Undoubtedly, many of these problems lie outside of the scope of what we can accomplish as scholars, but we can certainly tend to our own tents. At GO::DH we have approached these issues by foregrounding the role of translation, allowing all languages free reign. While for the most part the community reverts to globish as a lingua franca, our policies promise to be a model for other groups seeking a global outlook. For our essay contest, we decided to accept submissions in any language, with the plucky suspicion that we would be able to find a translator regardless what participants threw at us. Our gambit paid off. We received 53 submissions in seven languages, five of which the panel could easily read ourselves, two of which, Polish and Korean, we had no problems finding readers for.

Instead of requiring a lingua franca or official languages, we open language to the community, where a translation of the website or any forum post depends on the community itself. By allowing speakers to write in the language of their choice, we hope to chip away at perhaps one of the most daunting obstacles facing the global community of scholars to come. And because English speakers are all encouraged to speak in careful globish, we place the burden on the hegemon.

the dance of universals

Allow me to finish with a few maxims for those of you who are about to go out there to the disangelium. Perhaps I can send you off in good cheer.

  1. Do not confuse the dancer for the dancehall.

With In The World Interior of Capital, German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk reminds us that our obsession with dwelling within spheres and canopies is as old as dust, and like dust those celestial figures eventually must return to the ground. The rush for big data and massive surveillance, inevitably reduced to forms, continues an ancient search that could tame, and perhaps generate, the asymmetrical granularities of the real. If you pay attention, you will notice the Sanskrit grammar of Pāṇini is dancing to similar tunes as the Mercator Projection or the Universal Turing Machine.

Our new humanities must not refuse this dance, but we should dance it with our feet on the ground. Presented with a "massively addressable" past and present, we must resist the temptation to ignore what falls out of our buckets. Our task as memorists requires us to return always to a science of exceptions, to the punctum. As Nowviskie returns to Morris, “you can’t have art without resistance in the material.”

  1. Rejoice in the dancers and their dance

Perhaps we have reached a point, saturated with complex procedures for generating figures that mostly elude us, almost mocking us, where we can allow flesh and form to dance in step. Here is a gorgeous example from The Forsythe Company, “Synchronous objects for one flat thing.

Notice the dance easily sliding from choreography to dancers to visualization; form to flesh to form. Each produces an effect without being subordinate to the other. As we begin our global collaborations, we must do likewise. We must certainly have choreographies in place, do the dance, but remain open to wondrous new forms in the process.

  1. Listen to the experienced dancers.

As we invent new dances and write new histories of dance, listen to those who have been dancing for years. The arts we preach are rigorous and demand years of dedication, perhaps lifetimes.

The eternal September of the digital humanities is only bound to increase in intensity in the years to come. Aren’t we ultimately talking about the eternal September of the academy? Let us welcome our students with patience and remind them gradually, but firmly of our disciplinary memories.

Finally, and this one is personal,

  1. Let us be excellent dancers to one another.

The world is a messy place, covered under the big tent of a capitalism flirting with authoritarianism, plagued by AK-47s and countless lunacies; but also agency and promise, the dance halls of communities.

We are a small, if albeit visible, band of hackers and pirates charged with an impossible, but ever so crucial mandate. To reach the promised land, we must not fall into facile Us vs. Thems, especially those of us who are wrestling with the tough questions of race, gender and other charged differences. I see many tents, and tents within tents, big ones and small ones, and clearings too; I walk among many of them and so can you. Let us count beyond twos and threes as we do so, and always err on the side of grace.

Our students and publics are watching us; they have their fingers crossed. Not to disappoint them, let us continue to be excellent dancers to one another as we exit unto the world.

Category: Digital Humanities

Why do the humanities matter, and what does that have to do with a bus?

One of my favorite humans in the world is my cousin Edwin. He makes a good living exporting used cars in Houston. We phone all the time to catch up on family gossip and to talk about movies or books. He was one of the few ones in my family who gave me moral, and sometimes financial, support to pursue a degree in English. He didn’t always understand why I would do such a thing with my life. “You could be a lawyer or a doctor,” he would declare, and immediately add the question “What’s the use of an English degree?” I suppose he supported me because he trusted me to know the answer to that question. “I believe in you,” he would remind me without an ounce of irony. I could always hear him thinking “but I have no clue what you’re doing or why.”

Edwin is a smart man, a self-starter who has built a robust business through perseverance, discipline and acumen. He appreciates a good story, preferably told through film, and a good debate about religion, where he usually lands on the side of skepticism. Over the years, we inevitably revisit the question of the English degree, “what’s the use?” The closest I’ve ever been to convincing him that what I do is worthwhile was the time I suggested that people who write films probably have a background in literature. You see, Edwin is a private person, not very interested in the public sphere, not even Facebook. My cousin was just happy to know that something he loves had a connection to what I do.

I’m guessing a large number of grown ups feel the same way as my cousin. I hear it all the time from worried parents who would prefer their kids to major in Engineering or Business, perhaps get a Law or Medical degree. We also hear the pundits, all the way to the President, asking the same question as Edwin in one way or another. Tens of thousands of us have answers, perhaps even millions. I myself have a whole range of answers, some for Edwin, some for anonymous parents, some for politicians, some for students, some even for other colleagues at the university who should know better.

I’ll give you my favorite one, the one that convinces me to do what I do: I work to steward and interpret our material inheritance. I hope I don’t need to point out that the past survives to us only through its material traces. We have objects like books, manuscripts, buildings, paintings, you name it; we also have oral traditions and rituals that pass down from generation to generation; we even have our own bodies telling stories about the past. I specialize in that part of the past that we can call the world of books and manuscripts, trying to understand that past and make sure that some of it continues to survive. That means I also have to teach others how to do the same.

Notice that our understanding of that material past changes what survives and what doesn’t. I’ll give you an example. Many libraries in North America right now are digitizing print books and converting them to “e-books.” Some believe that by doing so they are getting rid of “legacy” containers. What they fail to take to heart is that the new thing is not the same as the old, and what is meant to survive now is something created in 2013, not 1913 or 1613. Of course, much of what we know of our past comes to us because of this telephone game, the Bible being one of the most famous examples. This ancient game has involved many players with less than noble agendas and many others who were uninformed, in many cases with horrible consequences for us. I do what I do because I know that our sense of who we are and our roles in the world depend on it.

Perhaps we might reach a point where we don’t try to save the past or try to understand it because we forgot how to do it, what we were doing or because we stopped caring. We’re not there yet. I know we all definitely have things we would like everyone to forget, things we would prefer not to understand. You can also tell that those who seem not to care are usually just trying to push their own version of the stories, in many cases painting a rosier picture, in others a very poor one. In the United States, for example, some folks are trying to convince those without access to education that the US Constitution was written by God. Obviously, these folks are not interested in getting rid of the past, they just want to transform it into a fairy tale. While we play the telephone game, what I do is also a struggle. If the time comes when we don’t care anymore about the past, and become a “race of immortals” as Jorge Luis Borges called people without a need for collective memory, then I won’t care either; I’ll be right there with you doing whatever it is we’re being compelled to do or just having fun.

In any case, my favorite reason for doing this is only a drop in the bucket. Here’s another great answer, this time by friend and colleague, Natalia Cecire. Like Natalia and me, many others have already answered, for centuries, but we need more, tons more. This is where the bus tour comes in, the “Humanities Matters Bus Tour” to be precise. We are “folks on a mission to defend Humanities education by taking a cross-country bus trip and documenting the evidence.” We are asking for your help financing the trip. If we succeed, our goal is to capture hundreds or thousands of video clips answering Edwin’s question, “What’s the use?” We are going up the East Coast of the United States starting in Virginia, and all across the continent near the Canadian border. We will stop in many cities, at many universities, to ask students, professors and librarians “Why do the humanities matter?” We want to hear as many diverse voices as possible, from Historians and Artists to Engineers and Economists.

Supporting the bus is one way to help us convince others to study or encourage others to study, teach and talk about Literature, History, Music, Art, Languages, etc. Here’s a couple of reasons why I like the bus in particular as a way to go out there and remind North America and the world why the humanities matter: the bus ride will be tons of fun (I mean, that one is just self-evident); we are capturing the most voices on video to speak at once in praise of the humanities of any other project before us, each of those voices, personal and professional, painting a picture of our very humanity in the process; we are highlighting the ways in which the humanities are also about building and reshaping cultural memory, and working collaboratively. They don’t call the original bus the MakerBus for nothing.

(I’ll let you in on a secret if you promise not to tell anyone: Our bus is also the illegitimate child of Furthur and a bookmobile in New Orleans. What could go wrong?)

We have six days of fundraising to go, and unless we get large infusions, we won’t be able to fund the bus. Help us #getonthebus. To contribute please visit our Kickstarter campaign or help us spread the word. Our twitter handler is @humbustour. You can also write to me directly if you want to make a contribution larger than $1000 and would like to know more details.

MLA 2014 Notes

On Arrival

The 2014 Modern Language Association annual conference took place on the week when the polar winds descended on the United States. Many students, faculty, librarians and vendors brought their papers and expectations to a frozen downtown Chicago. Several heated debates came to a fever pitch by the time of the conference. The most important of these were the debates on how best to address the condition of contingent labor in North America and the boycott of the Israeli academy. The world of Digital Humanities was not without controversy either, and debates about the role of critical theory and the scope of the field continued to flare up.

I arrived a day late from Beirut, where I was delivering a paper at the CASAR conference and working with the chair of AUB’s English Dept., David Wrisley, to develop strategies to foster digital humanities capacity in the Middle East. I was disappointed that I had missed the MLA Subconference, a pre-conference organized by “an independent and evolving group of graduate students in the humanities who are interested in creating a new kind of conference environment, in order to propose alternative professional, social, and political possibilities for ourselves and our peers.” I arrived instead the night before my first panel, New Ways of Reading: Surface Reading and Digital Methods.

Friday, Jan 10: Surface Reading; Beyond the Digital

The panel on Surface Reading was very well attended attended. The room was one of the largest in the conference, and seemed full from the stage. The reason was clear, we combined the DH and Surface Reading audiences1. The goal of the panel was to reconcile as much as we could of the two movements. Sharon Marcus and Heather Love began by recounting their experiences incorporating digital humanities methods into their classroom in the Fall semester. During the semester the students worked with a range of digital approaches to interpret the text of Herman Melville’s including “Benito Cereno.” During their talk Marcus and Love highlighted the effect of defamiliarization produced by encoding the text in TEI markup. Ted Underwood followed their talk by pointing out that computer science has its own versions of surface and deep reading, the latter being akin to latent probabilistic models. When my turn came, I argued that texts are “surfaces all the way down” by invoking Jerome McGann’s topological theory of textuality and using the example of a total library organized by Levenshtein Distances.

The question and answer was very vibrant and provoked a range of questions from both sides of the isle. The question of the political in relationship to reading practices surfaced, not surprisingly, since both surface reading and digital humanities have been accused of depoliticizing scholarship. All panelists addressed this misconception in their own way, leaving it clear that continuing to expand our interpretative arsenal can only lead to a more robust critical enterprise.

Early evening on Friday, another important DH panel took place. Organized by the Association for Computers in the Humanities, “Beyond the Digital” was designed to focus on the research questions, rather than the digital methods. In order to accomplish this, discussion of the methods were pre-circulated online prior to the event. The panel was an attempt by the ACH to reach out to those in the humanities who dismiss the digital humanities assuming research is secondary.

“In discussions of digital humanities we sometimes forget that the output of digital analysis is not the goal; rather, it is a means to an end: the interpretation of a text.”

Panelists included Jeffrey Binder, Ryan Cordell, Cedrick May, James O’Sullivan, Lisa Marie Rhody and Shawna Ross. The panel was well received, and Brian Croxall, the moderator, did a great job of keeping the conversation focused on the research questions. At one point the panelists were asked how did it feel to place research first within a digital humanities context, to which Ryan Cordell answered eloquently by reminding us of the primacy of research questions. The panel also worked well because the projects on display were focusing on computational approaches to “Pattern Recognition and Interpretation,” which are perhaps the easiest to recognize as traditional humanities research of the digital humanities genres.

Saturday, January 11: Evaluating DH

1:45–3:00 p.m Saturday morning was full of meetings for me—very normal for the MLA since the conference is an opportunity to catch up in person with colleagues and collaborators. In the early afternoon I participated in my second event, Evaluating Digital Scholarship: Candidate Success Stories. The goal of the event was to have a group of digital humanists who currently hold rewarding professional positions in the academy address questions of evaluation of work in digital humanities in dissertations and tenure & promotion processes. For the first half of the session the room was set up like an exhibition hall, with each of the panelists showcasing his or her own work at different tables. At my table I was showcasing some of the activities at the Studio@Butler and The Developing Librarian Project.

For the second half of the event, all the panelists regrouped around a table for questions and answers from our organizer, Victoria E. Szabo. On the table with me were Cheryl E. Ball, Matthew K. Gold, Adeline Koh and Kari M. Kraus. The panel was a combination of librarians with faculty, which made the conversation somewhat representative of the digital humanities in the anglophone world, where practitioners can hold positions at either or both. The questions hinged on best practices and experiences.2 How did we arrive where we were? Doing double the work many answered. How do we move forward? Revising guidelines for dissertations and tenure and promotion many answered. At the end of the question session from Szabo, our respondent N. Katherine Hayles offered some brief comments on how far we still have to go because of the lack of understanding of digital methods. All in all, the conversation was rich, and difficult to summarize. The panel itself is linked to attempts by the Modern Language Association to promote the MLA Guidelines for Evaluating Digital Work.

Following our panel, I had an opportunity to hop over to the panel on The Praxis Network: Rethinking Humanities Education, Together and in Public organized by Katina Rogers. For me this was a reunion of sorts with the Praxis Program that initiated me into software development for the humanities. The original program brought together 6 graduate students from different disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences at the University of Virginia to learn about software development from the Scholars’ Lab team. The program lasted a year and was centered around a common project, in this case Prism, a tool to “crowdsource interpretation.”

The Praxis Network now represents groups from many different universities, most of whom where represented by the panelists, David F. Bell, Duke Univ.; Matthew K. Gold, New York City Coll. of Tech., City Univ. of New York; Kevin Kee, Brock Univ.; Kelli Massa, University Coll. London; Cecilia Márquez, Univ. of Virginia; William Albert Pannapacker, Hope Coll.; Donnie Sackey, Wayne State Univ. The conversation hinged around the different ways in which each of these different teams has adapted the model for graduate training to the needs and peculiarities of their own local environments.

Sunday, January 12: DHPoco; Critical Making

My last panel was the much anticipated panel on Decolonizing DH: Theories and Practices of Postcolonial Digital Humanities, or the #dhpoco panel as we would call it. The panel was assigned to the “dead zone” of Sunday at 8:30am, but we were still able to draw in a crowd. Sharing the panel with me were Adeline Koh, Porter Olsen, Amit Ray, Roopika Risam with the fantastic Anna Everett moderating. Amardeep Singh provided a a brief but fair summary of the proceedings on his blog, which I quote below.3

Adeline Koh outlined in a general way what a postcolonial digital humanities might be — she and Roopika Risam have built a website on this and are working on a book-length project on the subject. Porter Olsen also gave a really interesting presentation about the discourse of imperialism in “civilizational” games like Civilization, Age of Empires, Empire, etc. He also had some provocative examples of hacks and modded versions of these games—what happens if you give the slaves more power to revolt than the game normally would?

Alexander Gil described his work looking at DH projects from outside of the United States and Europe, and mentioned an interesting project called Around DH in 80 Days. Amit Ray talked about the economic and corporate basis of much contemporary computing, and argued that mainstream DH (especially the emergent “maker” culture) has not done enough to acknowledge its complicity in transnational capitalism.

The audience followed the presentations with some questions, but mostly praise. Worthy of notice was the presence of Martha Nell Smith, who praised the scholars in the panel and those associated with #dhpoco for drawing attention to questions of marginality and dominance that she had been advocating for at least two decades. In the last instance, the panel was a vindication of the hard work of Adeline Koh and Roopika Risam, who have brought an enormous amount of social media energy to bear on #dhpoco, and have successfully inspired a large group of young scholars/activists working on these questions to get involved in the digital humanities. At the same time, the audience acknowledged the role their voices have had in helping senior digital humanists working to bring diversity and equality to the digital humanities.

Following on the heels of the #dhpoco panel, the panel on Critical Making in the Digital Humanities certainly showed us that maker culture in the Digital Humanities can provide a powerful mode of critical inquiry. Organized by Roger Whitson, the panel brought together two collaborations: “Theorizing Collaborative Making: Between Writing, Programming, and Development,” by Amaranth Borsuk and Dene M. Grigar; and, “Toward a History of Critical Making in the Humanities,” by Kari M. Kraus and Jentery Sayers. During their bit, Borsuk gave a presentation of her “Between Page and Screen” which creates a virtual space between books and their readers. For those who have not yet done so, I recommend experiencing it. Kari Kraus opened her talk by placing critical making in the humanities in at least three traditions: experimental archeology, physical bibliography and the GLAM profession. By doing so, Kraus shows us an alternative lineage to maker culture in the humanities than Amit Ray’s. Sayers closed the proceedings by highlighting several of the excellent projects at the University of Victoria’s Maker Lab, linking them all to critical practices. I regret not having time to stick around for the question and answer session, since I had to rush to the airport.

Distant reflections

I write these notes one month after the MLA was over, and I’m afraid I have left out much that was important. I invite the reader to explore further the many gaps left by these notes. A great place to start is by following the online traces of Mark Sample’s now canonical list of digital panels at the MLA. Another great place to explore the proceedings further is Ernesto Priego’s “distant reading” of the proceedings.

All in all the conference was an intense rewarding experience on a year full of tensions and troubles in the profession. As Amanda French put it after her MLA experience, it’s also the year when “digital humanities is no longer the next big thing — it’s beginning to be just an ordinary thing.”

  1. For an introduction to surface reading see Best, Stephen and Sharon Marcus. “Surface Reading: An Introduction” Representations. Vol. 108, No. 1 (Fall 2009)(pp. 1-21).
  2. You could get a good sense of the Q&A session from the Storify put together by Michelle Kassorla.
  3. You can see Roopika Risam’s slides tracing the past and present of #dhpoco, or read Adeline Koh’s paper “From Print to Digital: Reconfiguring Postcolonial Knowledge” online.
Category: Digital Humanities

Spreading the love: The wrong and the right in digital humanities

[Thanks to my penchant for travel-induced clumsiness, I missed my own panel at the American Studies Association, “Digital Humanities and the Neoliberal University: Complicity and/or Resistance.” I will never know exactly what transpired in detail, and must console myself with the twitter stream I read while on the wrong bus to Washington, DC. My love to those who did make it and rocked the audience, Susan Garfinkel, Frances Abbott, Natalia Cecire, Lauren F. Klein and Miriam Posner. Below is a written rendition of what my comments would have, could have, should have been.]

The jury is still out on the role that the digital humanities can play in redressing some troubling trends in Higher Ed in the United States. I side with those voices that warn against placing too much responsibility on what remains an ill-equipped band of hackers and hucksters, for what remain at the core structural and historical woes that require political, financial and cultural redress at scale. The first question I pose myself then is not what can DH do, but why is DH being called upon?

For those who don’t understand and stand to benefit, the main attractor is the word “digital,” no doubt an empty vortex collecting sound and fury, the eye of a predictable hurricane. To those who begin to know and want to play, our importance derives from the knowledge of institutions, intellectual property, publishing platforms, networks and computation that inevitably accrues the more you spend time doing DH. In other words, the digital humanities seem to generate awareness and can-do that seem absent from business as usual, and perhaps could save the day. This misleads some to believe that we can provide or promise the conditions for full employment. Again, these are problems best addressed at other scales, through other registers.

To those who do know, a couple of hacker-sized efforts seem a better fit: the construction of viable models for scholarly research and learning that move us away from the stranglehold of closed-access, print based publication; a revised, humanities-centered curriculum for graduate and undergraduate education, offering added possibilities to participate in the professional and academic middle class; sustainable oversight over the remediation of our material inheritance; a micro-cultural shift in the humanities from representative to participatory democratic collaboration, i.e. the death of the Genius; finally, and perhaps least urgent, a reconciliation between procedural thinking, arts & crafts and the critical enterprise.

The question of our collusion with that nasty neoliberalism comes from some unfortunate consequences of the efforts above—some unforeseen, some avoidable. That said, for the most part, we all find it hard to disentangle the complicit from the resistant; some of us even refuse to use the word neoliberal any more. As Dennis Tenen pointed out to me during the MLA 2013 panel, “The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities,” all panelists were wearing Microsoft Research lanyards while they talked of DH complicity with neoliberalism. Complicit much? If not, what then? Is it crowdsourcing? Is it the use of computers with blood on the production line? Is it our energy consumption? Is it Twitter? Is it unpaid interns? Credential creep? Is it that espresso macchiato we had with the provost?  Is it race? Gender? Citizenship? The prevalent euro-centric canons?  MOOCs? (that’s not us, by the way). Is it doing while talking?

All these questions are receiving attention as time and talent allows, and as all human endeavor paving roads to hell with their good intentions…

I digress. What I mean to say is that within what is being done in the name of a humanities turned digital much activity can have unintended consequences. Who would disagree with that? Isn’t the answer to remain vigilant and respond with alternatives? I will just use one semi-comic example to illustrate my point: The production of expensive, gargantuan digital humanities projects funded by soft money for the glory of a faculty member who couldn’t open a terminal on their overpriced Mac if their tenure depended on it.  Such projects usually tend to hire either a contingent labor force or existing library developers whose role is reemphasized as that of staff, when in reality their contribution shapes the epistemological core of the project. These boutique projects tend to create more problems than they solve, not the least of which are problems of missed opportunity.

I am not opposed to large projects per se, just the ones that are imagined as mono-credit juggernauts. Undoubtedly, several layers of the administration, both in libraries and schools, benefit from such projects, but the knowledge and labor ecologies that we would prefer are sidestepped. Coincidentally, these projects become large burdens to sustain over a period of time, and make us wonder about the return for investment. A large project can, though, serve a more salutary purpose, if for example, instead of having those who can build it, have those who can’t learn how to; If we raise the status and financial well-being of those who can teach the digital in the digital humanities by hiring them permanently and gainfully as integral parts of the university; If the project is built as an addition to an existing community-loved platform, or as a new platform; If we make it well worth the students’ efforts by also paying them to participate. I have seen such models succeed first hand.

These are just some preliminary thoughts considering the question at hand is one of justice, the object of infinite desire. Coming from me, they will always be preliminary. I refuse to address all problems at once, and choose tactics over impotence. Call it an ethics of the Robin Hood in times of greed and subservient reason.

Category: Digital Humanities

The Césaire gambit: Marking and remaking the present

[The following remarks were offered on Sunday, August 11, as part of the Nature Island Literary Festival in Roseau, Dominica. In the panel with me, Schuyler Esprit and Serge Letchimy].

Thank you for inviting me to your home and to your festival. I also thank you for making Césaire the center of our wonderful activities, a man whose humanism and humanity continues to nurture and inspire many of us.

Today I want to convince you of three things in the name of Césaire. I know it’s a bit ambitious and I don’t have that much time, but I will try anyway. The first thing I want to convince you of is that we should transform the weapons used against us to mark the present; the second is that we should constantly study our material past to remake that present. If I succeed with the first two, perhaps I can convince you we should all use the new miraculous weapons, computers, to both mark and remake this present.

Césaire wrote most of his life on a typewriter or with a pen. His art was destined for the printed page, with the occasional stage or spoken word. Why didn’t he restrict himself to the oral traditions of the Africa and Caribbean he loved and channeled? He wrote in French. Why didn’t he write in Creole? I say he wanted to leave a mark on the present. That present was colonial, and not that different than today’s, despite what you hear. The book and the French language were tools of Empire, but Césaire would make miracles out of these weapons, transmuting them beyond their ordinary, yet toxic uses.

We heard M. [Serge] Letchimy on Friday remind us of Césaire’s desire to embed the black experience in the universal history of humankind. Césaire wasn’t alone. When he returned to his native land from his student years in Paris, where he had just finished the first version of his famous notebook, he partnered with other important intellectuals of the time—Suzanne Césaire, René Ménil, and Aristide Maugée—to found the journal Tropiques. Let me quote René Ménil in an article titled “Naissance de notre art” (Birth of our Art) on the first issue of the journal, published in April 1941, under the occupation of the Vichy regime.

Seuls, nous pouvons exprimer ce par quoi nous sommes uniques. Si nous ne voulons pas être seulement spectateurs de l’aventure humaine, si nous croyons qu’il faut payer de soi pour simplement participer à l’humanité véritable, si nous sommes persuadés qu’ici comprendre n’est rien et que c’est faire qui importe, nous savons quelle tâche nous incombe et quelle voie mène à sa réalisation.

(We can express what makes us unique by ourselves. If we want to be more than just spectators of the human adventure, if we believe that authentic humanity comes with a cost, if we are convinced that to understand is still not as important as doing, we know our task and the way to see it through completion).

A universal “human adventure” is not the only way to imagine history, of course. It doesn’t have to be universal, a global club we join when we pass the grade. If you want an alternative to this way of looking at things, I recommend you read Édouard Glissant, also from Martinique. No matter, the young thinkers and artists of Tropiques wanted to believe in a shared humanity, as do I. They understood that a cultural, and by extension political, revolution was necessary if they were to join their imagined global dialogue as equals, and their chosen vehicle was print and French. Given their goals, their choice makes sense, a bundle of paper with French markings could travel farther than spoken Creole in the 1940′s.

But the choice was not only about convenience, these machines were also colonial machines. They had been brought to these lands by the colonizer. They were complicit in the catastrophes of centuries. These naughty machines were asking for an intervention. Césaire and his friends set out to do this in grand fashion under the watchful eyes of censors. They rented the colonial press, “les Imprimeries du Gouvernement,” secured paper and wrote and managed editorial work by stealing time away from their busy lives. They formed friendships with important writers living elsewhere and sent copies of their journal across the continent, from Buenos Aires to New York.

While all of this was happening Césaire began writing his first play, Et les chiens se taisaient (And the Dogs Were Silent). The manuscript of this play was lost to us until recently, when I found it, first in a footnote on the biography of Yvan Goll, one of Césaire’s early New York editors, and then in a small municipal library close to the border between France and Germany, where said editor went to die.

Césaire started writing this work as a historical drama based on the Haitian Revolution. After 20 pages of composition or so, he started making the character of Toussaint Louverture central to the action. [Slide]

Typescript page

Top portion of page 25 of the typescript. Originally the 5th page. We can see the erasure of Dessalines as a character.

Césaire sent the finished manuscript to his friend André Breton, the famous surrealist writer, to get it outside of the island. Soon after, Césaire wanted the manuscript destroyed. It was too late, Breton had lent it to Goll, who never gave it back.

In 1946, after the war and censorship, Césaire’s first book of poetry, Les Armes miraculeuses (The Miraculous weapons), was published in Paris by Gallimard. The book contains a different version of Et les chiens se taisaint than the one in the manuscript. Although the new text contains about 80% of the text of the original manuscript, the text has been transformed enormously. All explicit references to the Haitian revolutions have been removed, Toussaint Louverture has become Le Rebelle (The Rebel), and about 70 or so blocks of text have been shifted in relative position to one another. [Slide]

Et les chiens se taisaient: From typescript to 1946

Et les chiens se taisaient: From typescript to 1946

Texts have bodies. We who value the spoken know that texts are embodied. Texts migrate. They get sent by post, carried by trucks, now over wires. Texts change. Author’s revise them. Reader’s misread them. Texts fragment. You can copy and paste. No one is stopping you.

Et les chiens se taisaient started as a historical drama meant for a Martinique audience, it became a long poem published in Paris. In the 1950′s it became a play again, it became a radio-play. In the 1970′s it became a film. This was not rare for Césaire. All his major texts went through major changes, major migrations. The Cahier d’un retour au pays natal went through at least 4 major versions. [Slide]

The Switch

The first version could be called spiritual, the second and third surrealist, while the last one, with spirit and sex removed, political. When you speak of the Cahier d’un retour au pays natal which one are you talking about?

The simple act of studying the material past—the ink and binding of books, manuscripts waiting to be discovered, the revisions and ruses of writers—takes us on a path that changes our present. When we take that next step and decide to present that past to others, we remake what we know now. The point is to change it. Césaire, the man, can’t change himself anymore for the twenty-first century, but we can. In return, our Césaire, can continue to change us. Such is the human pact with the past.

I want you now to notice the tools I used to do and present my study, this little machine I have in front of me, the result of empire and ingenuity, of another great twentieth century thinker, Alan Turing, and of many other forces. If I want to present my Césaire to our century, I can’t afford to do it on paper alone. As we speak, a new way of reading and doing takes over the world. When I look at the past being remade on the internet, I cringe. Time for us to intervene again. On Friday we also heard from my friend Schuyler Esprit, who reminded us in so many words that culture is a round of returns, where we must eventually give back. Césaire, who cannibalized the weapons of his day to re-imagine history and art, returning everything he touched transformed, would approve.

If we take this challenge, we must understand that these new culture machines are very different than books. We must learn to understand them in order to transform them, as Césaire understood literature and print and transformed them. We do not forget about the lessons of print or the spoken word. But we cannot afford to be simple consumers of the new culture machines, “spectators of the human adventure” as Ménil would have it. If we are convinced that to understand is still not as important as doing, we know our task and the way to see it through completion.

Thank you.

Category: Announcements


I usually agree with Natalia Cecire, and today was no exception. The Scholars’ Lab, one of my spiritual homes, recently announced Speaking in Code, a summit to tease out the “tacit knowledge” built into the craft of DH software development.

On the summit’s site they emphasize their desire to welcome you:

However, because software development—even in the more intellectually diverse and welcoming digital humanities—is a predominantly white and male profession, we are particularly committed to amplifying the voices of developers who are women, people of color, queer/LGBT, or otherwise under-represented among programmers, and to creating a friendly and respectful environment for collaboration at this event.

Natalia took them to task for populating the leadership with white cis males in spite of their best intentions, and pointed out this is NOT an ideal model of inclusivity. I agree. Now what?

I still hope minority developers do sign up, and that they contribute with their words and bodies. I’m going to reach the folks I know and do my best to convince them to apply to be participants, especially for that second day, where the goal is “to foster grassroots leadership among participants and seed collaborative projects that may be technical or social in nature.” You should too. The organizers are clearly allies, actively seeking to build a diverse community for DH software development while engaging in the difficult battle of defending the professional standing, precarious labor conditions and intellectual worth of DH developers. Fighting on two fronts is not easy, especially considering the situation on the ground.

Yes, while software development is a source of prestige in the world today and in DH, those two are not symmetrical. Software developers in DH work below market rates, they are not as hirable for admin or faculty positions as easy as the very vocal non-developers among us and they are usually on soft money. The usual setup is folks–mostly white males–work in libraries for a range of faculty who don’t understand technology very well. They build DH projects without getting much credit and oftentimes curving their creative potential in deference to the crappy ideas coming from the top. It is a good thing that DH is fighting for their prestige given these labor and intellectual conditions. The ideological reversal can cut both ways here.

The long term goal, a fight we should all be involved in, is to bridge the gap between faculty and library, between developer and researcher, so that we can get rid of this nasty service situation. Digital + Humanities. Simultaneously, our second fight: To build diverse spaces for developers at our institutions and beyond (we probably won’t get rid of middle class norms in the near future, but I’ll be happy if we tackle gender, race, disability and sexuality).

Without a doubt, this social mess—the result of histories in need of scribes—comes with a learning curve for everyone involved, but onward. We can only learn from each other, and in order to do that we need to BE with each other. Now that the message is registered that a next event should have inclusivity built into the section leads, let’s not wait for the one we really want and help make this one a success form the bottom up. Leaders can come in and out of here without having been leads that first day. No need to wait, we have work to do.

No revolution can happen without self-critique or courage. I would not wait for the next event, with the right set up at the top, precisely because of the question of tacit knowledge. Don’t we have our own tacit knowledges to tease out as well?

Pa’ lante, #guerilladh. Pa’ lante!



Category: Announcements | Tags:

Pour Césaire at Fontevraud Abbey

We had a wonderful day catching up on Aimé Césaire at the Fontevraud Abbey recently. The event was organized by the Maison des Ecrivains Étrangers de Saint-Lazare with the help of Phillipe Ollé-Laprune as part of a series of encounters that lead to a published collection. “Pour Césaire” belongs then to a series that includes “Pour Lowry,” “Pour Rulfo” and “Pour Génet.” The informality of the event fell somewhere between a THATCamp and a traditional conference. We had four round tables with a moderator and 2 or 3 speakers. I was told this is how the art world does it in France. After brief commentaries, the mic was passed around for questions. The conversations were recorded and eventually will be published along with selected writings commissioned from living writers. Much of the editorial team of the complete works was in attendance.

The main question posed by the “Dialogue d’introduction” (J. Arnold et P. Ollé-Laprune) was “which Aimé Césaire do we commemorate?” Not an easy question, but one that at least kept us honest. You hear in the question an acknowledgement that Césaire’s legacy should be contested. Since the editorial team was at hand you knew that an effort to nuance Aimé Césaire beyond the monumental Césaire of the 1950′s and early 1960′s was inevitable. That said, the desire for a coherent Aimé Césaire was manifest in several of the grand theories on display. Hello, one and the many.

I took notes on the first two round tables (below), since I was on the last one.

First round Table: La langue de Césaire. Sa traduction.
(L.-F. Prudent et L. Pestre)
Prudent made what to me seemed like the most clear and sensible comments about Aimé Césaire’s relationship to créole that I know of. The thesis is simple: Aimé Césaire’s polysemy and polyphony taps into créole to a great extent. The point is an important response to the créolistes who wish Césaire had used créole instead of, as much as or right next to French. He also added that the poetry, when read by a créole performer sounds very much like a Caribbean affair. I have no way of verifying the veracity of these comments because I don’t speak créole (yet), but they seemed quite plausible. (Note to self: learn créole if I’m going to continue to speak with any degree of authority about Césaire).

Pestre talked about her experience translating Césaire and her study of other translations of Césaire, particularly in romance languages. She continued the theme of polysemy, now as a major challenge for translators. She reminded us that Césaire’s works contain enigmas. They sure do.

Second round table: Génétique de l’œuvre et édition.
(Pierre Laforgue et Marc Cheymol)
Cheymol began by reminding us that statues also serve their purpose, the problem begins when we start mistaking them for reality. Cheymol speaks mostly as one of the main organizers of our edition of Césaire. He rehearsed a history of the edition, dating back to 2006, when the volume was being commissioned under the Archivos collection. He summarized our maturing editorial philosophy. The first principle was and is to make these texts accessible; the second was to make available texts we can depend on; and lastly, lately and not necessarily in line with the second principle, to offer a genetic vision of the production of these texts. The three principles in a sense guarantee a more eclectic rendition of the texts, avoiding as much as possible a monolithic interpretation of Césaire’s œuvre.


Category: Césaire

Around DH in 80 Days

It is my pleasure to introduce to you one of our first pilot projects at GO::DH, Around DH in 80 Days!

AroundDH hopes to be a fun way to introduce the work of colleagues around the world to those who are just starting out. Everyday for 80 days we will visit a group or projects across the globe. An editorial board will select a total of 80 groups or projects out of master list created by volunteers like you. Groups in the list will be approached to describe themselves and highlight their work in 200 words or less. We will do our best to bring attention to digital scholarship outside of Canada, Europe, the US and Japan. In that sense, we are departing from a broad and inclusive vision of DH. Besides the audience of new comers, the global scope of the tour should also attract some of the more seasoned DH’ers. The greatest challenge of the editorial board is to balance the geographical margins with the greatest-hits of the northern mainstream. The greatest hope of the project is to paint enough of a broad picture of digital humanities to redefine it in the process. Thus, AroundDH can be read not only as a tour of the globe, but also as a dance around the periphery of DH.

The project began as an email experiment. One email was sent daily from my outbox to all the librarians in the H&H division at Columbia with the subject “The DH Daily.” Everyday, our librarians, who are in the middle of a 2-year professional development program to become the consultation arm of our Digital Humanities Center at Columbia, would visit a different DH center or project. Others outside of Columbia heard about the experiment and wanted to be included in the email list. The appeal was the small dosages. Like the librarians, the rise of DH across the land has brought crowds of DH-curious academic professionals and students to our doors asking, where do I begin?’ At the same time that the emails were going out, I was slowly but surely becoming part of the conversations around Global Outlook DH. There we were trying to discover as much as we could about the world outside the fields of vision of the member-nations of the ADHO. Eventually these two sets of concerns blend into one, and thus was born the idea for Around DH in 80 days.

The project is currently being developed by Ryan Cordell’s Doing Digital Humanities graduate class (#s13dh). You are still welcome to contribute to our global list. After Ryan’s class develops the first stage of the project, the project will be passed around the world for refinement and translation. Around DH indeed!

If you or your team would like to volunteer to translate the project once it’s ready, and/or become part of the editorial board that makes the final decisions for inclusion, please send me a line.

Interview for 4Humanities

[This interview by Ernesto Priego appeared earlier today in 4Humanities. Ernesto y yo creamos también una versión en Español.]

Ernesto Priego: Can you describe who you are and what you do?

Alex Gil: I am @elotroalex, the other Alex. I take to heart Sartre’s admonition that we are nothing and add Borges’ insight that we are someone other to the world. Columbia University employs me at the moment with the ambiguous title Digital Scholarship Coordinator to help bridge the widening gap between libraries and researchers. Part of my duties include preparing the subject and reference librarians to become the consultation arm of the Digital Humanities Center. Another big chunk of my time goes to consult and train graduate students and faculty in History and Humanities in a variety of subjects which I like to divide into three broad categories: remediation and curation, computational methods and scholarly communications.

I hear in your question another question: who have I been? A scholar, an editor, a conferencier, a digital tinkerer, a writer of tales and poems, an architecture student, a pre-med student, an odd-jobber. No wonder I am attracted to the digital humanities!

I finished my dissertation at the University of Virginia‘s English Department on the francophone poet and statesman, Aimé Césaire. I was lucky enough to find the earliest manuscript of a play he wrote during the Vichy occupation of his native land, Martinique. He later transformed that play into an oratorio and back into a play for different audiences at different points in his career. I used what we could call algorithmic thinking to sort out the complexities of that transformation.

In the years leading to my defense, I became more and more involved with the life of NINES and the Scholars’ Lab, eventually becoming a fellow of both. In the latter I was also part of the first run of the Praxis Program. In all honesty, I would not be who I am today without those experiences.

Caribbean Literary History, Textual Scholarship, Digital Humanities and now a Librarian. What a mix!

EPWe share various common interests, including a background in English literature. You are are also a fellow HASTAC scholar. Can you elaborate on how you perceive the interconnections/relationships between literary studies and digital scholarship?

AG: Literary studies has much to offer digital scholarship and vice versa. I learned early on in my training that interpretation, understood as repetition-with-a-difference, was essential to our experience as human beings. For all the genre pieces “against the digital humanities” claiming we are naïve about data, I knew that DH’ers with a literary background had always brought that sensitivity to texts; that only a small number of us were under the spell of naïve empiricism. The rest of us are still primed to ask the big questions from the machines.

I have been lucky to cut my teeth at the University of Virginia, where the tradition of textual scholarship and digital humanities are both strong and getting stronger. I was even luckier to become a researcher at a time in which we are wrestling with the difference between distant and close reading, between heuristic and algorithmic thinking, confronted with a new sense of textual enormity. These are questions that go to the very heart of interpretation.

Yes, I’m attracted to digital scholarship because I can get better search results, publish quicker and more openly, automate much tedious work, etc., but the reason that really carries my heart at the end of the day is the possibility of teasing out the human from the mechanical. Before Turing we had only one universal machine to worry about. Now we have two, and we are being asked to name the difference. Aha! A task for the literary scholars who command the machines!

As fundamental as the question of our humanity vis–à–vis the machines may be, an even more important contribution for literary scholars in the digital age is the creation of a reliable digital archive. I have already gone on record on this, and I will say it again: The most important task of the 21st century scholar is remediating our past and opening it up to the world. Literary scholars, in particular have kept the tradition of textual scholarship alive (as opposed to historians, for example), and now that we face a monstrous task of repetition, we are the ones who can lead the crowds we need to make sure we have a reliable past to offer future generations. For some marginal archives our task is urgent and spells the difference between survival or oblivion. I’m thinking here of archives in the poor and medium income countries, where governments can’t or won’t do much to preserve our documents from the elements.

EPNot all humanities departments or schools have frameworks, resources or even inclinations towards engaging in the theory and practice of digital scholarship. When did you first become attracted to it, and how have you experienced this transitional phase in which digital scholarship is not yet the openly-accepted, homogeneously self-described way of being a humanities scholar, at least not everywhere in the world?

AG: I became attracted to the digital humanities about 8 years ago when I found a dearth of digital resources on Caribbean scholarship and its primary sources. I had the ambitious, if naive, idea at the time that we could build an archive of canonical Caribbean literature. I approached a professor of Caribbean literature at the University of Virginia who was supportive, and we set to work. We got as far as organizing a stay at the Bellagio Center in Cuomo, Italy with some top Caribbean scholars and a team from the e-text center at UVa. We realized there that we had many challenges ahead, and the veil of naivete dropped in a period of 10 days. When I came back to the US I started learning skills, starting with TEI. I was lucky that UVa has such a strong DH presence on grounds. The rest is history.

Interestingly enough, the English Department is a very traditional department, and much of the DH work I did at UVa happened outside of it. Realizing that even at a place like UVa, DH is marginal to the departments can be eye-opening. Things seem to be changing now, and we’re starting to see more buy-in from departments.

We have to also acknowledge that computational methods do not encompass what we do under the banner of DH, and if chances are most scholarly communication will eventually transition online, algorithmic approaches to literature will remain theoretical—one theory amongst many. In the years ahead I imagine we will continue to negotiate that difference. While future generations of scholars will probably be comfortable with online venues of publication for their research, I don’t see us all doing topic modelling or network analysis. In that sense above all, I think the biggest change will come in the form of multi-modal, multi-media approaches to publication.

We must not forget either that these changes will not happen evenly across the world or even within national borders. I for one expect that some countries outside of the rich north will produce very innovative and striking forms of digital scholarship because they are not bound by the same institutional histories. For that to happen, though, we must overcome the same assimilationist forms of thought that anti-colonial and even postcolonial thinkers have combated. Perhaps those forms of scholarship will come from citizen scholarship, a secret hope of mine.

EPCan you discuss further what you understand by “citizen scholarship”?

AG: In the Caribbean, for example, most scholars/writers/artists don’t work for the academy. Many have affiliations to cultural groups of different sorts or freelance. A great deal of them work at banks, advertisement agencies, you name it. Beyond them, though, we have a cadre of aficionados, a wiki-style crowd that engages with the preservation and critique of our cultural heritage. Citizen scholarship refers to the aggregate activities of these groups and individuals. I know of very good scholars who never obtained a PhD.

What we count as a scholarship is also important here. Sonya Monjar for example directs a great project in Puerto Rico, “Esta Vida Boricua,” which focuses on life narratives. Some may say that this is mostly biographical work, but I see it as archival synthesis. Her’s is just one example of many outside of our traditional fields of vision that push the boundary between citizen engagement and scholarship.

The reason I hope to see more of these kinds of projects and the growth of scholarly interest from the part of the populace stems from the enormous need we have to remediate our material past. When Walter Benjamin warned us that the past was in danger, he spoke from a moment in the history of media where the work of curation and critical investigation was too expensive to be truly popular. Our moment is different, at least when it comes to the medium. The two things stopping us from rescuing that past that Benjamin favored–the one that is obscured by propaganda, profit interests and/or hegemonic ideology–are time and will. The average person in the Caribbean and other medium to low income areas needs to spend their time scraping up a living. Scholarly pursuit becomes a luxury under those conditions. Many things need to happen before a true public scholarly culture comes to life, granted, but I’m reassured by the fact that the medium is there already to facilitate it.

EPFinally, what strategies would you recommend to scholars (in academic institutions or not) interested in contributing to an international public scholarly culture?

AG: Start collaborating with someone who lives very far away from you. We have great tasks ahead of us. If remediating our archive responsibly is our most pressing need, as I argue above, then we have a great opportunity to collaborate on digitization projects that transcend boundaries. By rule rather than exception, archives are usually scattered. This creates many opportunities for us to build bridges between communities. At the moment I am involved in the Global Outlook DH initiative, a brand new Special Interest Group of the ADHO.

Our shared goal is to shed more light on the state of our global union and build bridges whenever possible. We are just starting out, but we hope to foster precisely those forms of shared archive building and playing that will lead to a global public scholarly culture. We have already started making wonderful progress in Cuba, where next year we will host the second THATCampCaribe. In the summer we hope to roll out Around DH in 80 Days, a tour of digital scholarship and curation around the world. I see other groups making great efforts to truly go beyond the rich countries: HASTAC and 4Humanities, to name two of the most visible ones. For these reasons and more, I predict this will be a year of many breakthroughs for digital scholarship on a global key.

The Internet was close to a blank slate at some point. Now it’s quickly becoming the dominant image of our cultural heritage. When it comes to the narratives we tell about our cultural and political history, at least in the West, in this our new mirror, we have an image that takes us back to canonical ideas of the West that have long been undermined in the Gutenberg galaxy. If the image of a shared cultural heritage is to be a non-hegemonic, honest reflection of ourselves, we must understand we are at heart working on a shared archive. True international collaboration around digitization and the play that they enable is a sine-qua-non of this archive. If I’m right, I hope the question on everyone’s mind will be not if, but who are you collaborating with?

Final Draft: “Migrant Textuality”

I just submitted the final draft of my dissertation, “Migrant Textuality: On the fields of Aimé Césaire’s Et les chiens se taisaient,” to my committee. My defense is scheduled for November 26 at noon at the University of Virginia English Department.

Let’s not waste too much time. Here’s a PDF copy of the document I submitted. You can find the appendices here. Let’s go ahead an offer these documents with a CC-BY 3.0 license, why don’t we.

Ater the defense, I will work to create an online version of the dissertation more suitable for reading on a browser. That should take me a few weekends… I hope.

Have at it!

Category: Announcements, Césaire