[During the #dhpoco 2013 summer school the important question of the role of DH in activism and vice versa came up . My contribution followed some lines of thought and practice I have continued to explore. The following is a combination of thoughts then, and thoughts now].
Do it if you can, if the spirit moves you, and where you will be most useful. Wouldn’t want a revolution without dancing, personally. In many ways my activism is not worthy of that honorable name. Given my current position, know-how and ethical disposition, I am most useful fighting the battle for the redesign of and open access to certain traditions of thought and art. This fight against the financial juggernauts is elsewhere from the public spaces, and I do little to collaborate with those who occupy them (other than show up once in a while to break bread). I fight in the archive, real and virtual, where an important chunk of our collective memories are in danger of disappearing or await patiently. The fight consists of advocacy most of the time, but sometimes, and this is the fun part, building playgrounds on the margins of the law. My heart definitely lurks in bushy hills above the legal gothic where I am forced to make a living, hence the guerrilla in #guerrilladh […]
I fight in the living archives for good reasons. Jerome McGann has argued—and many have agreed, myself included—that one of the most important scholarly tasks of the 21st century is to oversee the remediation of and provide access to our material past informed by a keen understanding of editorial theory and a deep knowledge of the new medium. Whether you buy that argument or not, I hope you agree that many of us will be engaged in that practice regardless, and that our work will provide the foundation for much of future scholarship, yours included. To textual scholarship and digital humanities I add the interventions that seek to reorient our vision away from History and towards histories, as Édouard Glissant does in Poétique de la relation. I cite here the suite of x-studies that have given us new entries and opportunities to reweave the past with a wider set of threads.
These two forces combined, the new medium and the new histories, may lead to one of the broadest universals we have known. Borges imagined a library with all possible books bound only by size, and we are building the closest of kin. In our library of babel the human will be an aggregative after effect, driven in part by a combination of flickering exhibits and vast knowledge repositories.
On the way there the question of quid and design continue to be paramount. As Bess Sadler and Chris Bourg point out in “Feminism and the Future of Library Discovery“, even discovery is not neutral. In two recent, and most brilliant keynotes, delivered on opposite sides of the planet, Miriam Posner and Tim Sherratt echo this sentiment and extend it to interfaces in general. If I’m reading them correctly, we are not only called to follow McGann’s injunction to think of building as an ultimately interpretative act—i.e. your DH project can be as insightful a reading on X as your essay—, we must constantly link our praxis to the question of the quid, the what is being read. If our human is to be as universal as the Haitian Revolution began to imagine (see Nick Nesbitt on this), our aggregate quid and our collective designs should reflect that.
Alas, our total library has many private rooms now, where large economies of knowledge are built at the expense of those outside the rooms, in many cases with their labor and their quid. Design then becomes also a question of access. How can we have our new universal be born in locked-down mode? We can’t. For many of us who work in A© post-1923, the material past we are called to remediate is under literal negotiation. As we trudge along, one ethical hand locked behind our backs by professional demands to publish and not make public, shadow and pirate libraries have sprouted to remind us that the mechanisms we have set in motion will ignore the ticket-booths to knowledge central. These remediations are happening with our half-baked collaboration but without our scholarship. The pirate libraries offering our graduate students free access to books and articles are fed by their own uploads. Wouldn’t want to be a leech, etc. We have created vast email chains of PDF’s. No take-down notice can work on these either. The time will come when these libraries will no longer live in the shadows or wave pirate colors. Are we ready for that moment?
#guerrilladh explores the spaces on the margins of the law, not outside of it. Let me be clear, I do not advocate anyone I know gratuitously break the law. Instead, I suggest we use our skills there where the law falters in its own inadequacies. For example, nothing is really stopping us right now from building prototypes of digital archives, wrap them up in virtual machines, tarball them and docker them for peers to review over secure channels. Because of bandwidth limitations in some parts of the world, we might want to share our work using USB sticks where those technologies are the best way to distribute work. We did as much for THATCamp Caribe 2: Cuba 2013. Recently we revisited these possibilities in our No Connect Jekyll modifications. No Connect provides a way for anyone to run a full website on a USB, generated by Jekyll, which automates certain repetitive tasks. My gratitude for the inspiration to explore these avenues goes to Jentery Sayers and John Simpsom, at UVic, who formed the minimal computing working group at GO::DH after our trip to Cuba in December 2013, and to Brian Rosenblum for keeping us going.
Of course, much of the work of #guerrilladh is unpaid and unrecognizable by definition, but it counts. The republic of letters we contribute to with guerrilla work is also not the publicly accessible library that we ultimately need, but it counts. Do it if you can, if the spirit moves you, and where you will be most useful. If we believe that all acts of remediation are in turn interpretations—that we don’t recover the past, we remake the present—the intervention in the living archive is itself one of our most beautiful testaments, and that may be your only reward. I hesitate to write these lines because I know that our struggles in the shadow clash with our struggle to have the work of the humanities sustained adequately by our institutions and our patrons, public and private. One possible solution is to deploy derivatives from the shadow work in recognizable channels. This post is an example of this.
Another example of this type of work is the public study of existing shadow and pirate libraries, both the technology and the social phenomenon. Following on the footsteps of Bodó Balázs and Joe Karaganis, Dennis Tenen and others at Columbia launched the PiracyLab in 2013 for exactly that purpose. The goal of the project was, and may yet be, to compare actual holdings in pirate libraries to the world’s legally sanctioned resources, to dig deep in the metadata to paint a picture of the alternative public.
If you are out there, working on ways to build shadow libraries, sneakernets, mesh networks, mounting your own form of digital archive activism, send me a line. We are always looking for allies. If you have ideas you are most welcome to share them with others below.