Can the Subaltern Speak in the digital archive? This is the second of two posts on “Addressing Archival Silence on 19th Century Colonialism.” Readers may be interested in reading Natalia Cecire’s storify of the conversation over twitter and blog posts by Roger Whitson and Katherine Harris to follow up on the discussion. See part 1 to read my analysis of archival power, and my rationale for creating Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen.’
In this second post, I follow up on how Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen’ attempts to deal with the logics of archival power.
Decolonizing the Archive
Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen’ is a first attempt to fill this void. The website is meant to be both a “decentralized” and a “postcolonial” archive. By a “decentralized” archive, it refers to one which provides modes for democratic access and exchange. On first glance, the term “postcolonial” nineteenth century archive may appear anachronistic, as no colonies were in fact “postcolonial” in this time period. My use of the term ‘postcolonial,’ however, derives more from the type of postcolonial literary criticism and postcolonial theory commonly associated with Edward Said and the Subaltern Studies Collective, than with movements towards decolonization before and after the Second World War.
In this definition, a “postcolonial” archive is one which examines and questions the creation of imperialist ideology within the structure of the archive. Additionally, it aims to assemble a previously unrepresented collection of subaltern artifacts. Even further, as Elizabeth Povinelli has argued in her essay “The Woman on the Other Side of the Wall”, a postcolonial archive should also “investigate the compositional logics of the archive as such: the material conditions that allow something to be archived and archivable; […] the cultures of circulation, manipulation and management that allow an object to enter the archive and thus contribute to the endurance of specific social formations” (152-153). At the same time, as Allen Isaacman, Premesh Lalu and Thomas Nygren have noted, a “postcolonial” archive will seriously interrogate “the need for scholars to overcome the traces of colonialism and apartheid that persist through forms of knowledge production.” (6)
Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen’ is an attempt to create a nineteenth century “postcolonial” archive. Firstly, the subject matter of the archive, and the way in which it frames the content—“Chinese Englishmen”—creates a potential point from which other projects on Anglophone hybridity can be created.
Secondly, the digital nature of the project, in which ideas, texts and connections are not viewed linearly through the development of an extended argument, but multidimensionally through the hypertext linking of different pages, tags, and sites encourage a different form of reading within the project. This dynamic form of linking will hopefully “open up” the text to more diverse readings. Furthermore, the digital project will accommodate public commentary and response through the use of the comment form. Being able to “open up” this archive to discussion by members of the public who are not necessarily academic experts on the subject will allow for a more open exchange and forum on the materials discussed in the website.
Another important feature of the project is to encourage social interaction between the project and the public and for this social interaction to influence the scope and direction of the project. I have created a twitter hashtag (#CEnglishmen) and account (@CEnglishmen) for the project, which establishes a social media presence for the project on the Internet.
As the project develops I hope to continue to make the project more “decentralized” in form. One of them may involve “crowdsource annotations” of the texts, both through comments and through targeting experts in the subject to annotate sections of the magazine. In the future, I may also adopt features in the website (such as digress.it) which will allow for paragraph-level commentary on the project.
Numerous scholars—such as Alan Liu, Tara McPherson and Lisa Nakamura have noted that the emerging field of the digital humanities has been to slow to integrate “cultural studies approaches” involving race and ethnicity in their elaboration. In many ways, cultural studies conversations and digital humanities conversations have been conducted in parallel, rather than with each other. Projects like Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen’ are baby steps towards creating this bridge between conversations.
In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education report on the 2012 Modern Language Association annual meeting, then-MLA-president Russell Berman stated that humanities scholars today “need to explain to policy makers as well as that public we meet every day—our students—the importance of the humanities.” Projects such as Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen’—by serving as open-access windows to the public at large on the history and interconnectedness of the nineteenth century—help to demonstrate the importance of humanities critical analysis to interpreting historical conditions. Additionally, through actively involving the internet community in the construction and articulation of this archive, digital projects like these both educate and learn from the public simultaneously. Ultimately, projects like Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen’ aim to demonstrate the relevance of the humanities and humanistic thinking to the global community.
First image source credit: http://www.skilliter.newn.cam.ac.uk/contact.shtml