Addressing Archival Silence on 19th Century Colonialism – Part 2: Creating a Nineteenth Century “Postcolonial” Archive

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.

Looking Forward

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

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13 Responses to “Addressing Archival Silence on 19th Century Colonialism – Part 2: Creating a Nineteenth Century “Postcolonial” Archive”

  1. Katherine D. Harris March 4, 2012 at 11:50 am # Reply

    Adeline, this is such an intriguing project. Thank you for the two blog posts.

    I’m wondering though if you wouldn’t benefit from using a transcription tool to allow for crowd-sourcing transcripts of this material. (I’m thinking of Scripto here, http://scripto.org/). Also, the Devonshire Manuscript Project is using some unique platforms to help create a crowd-sourced archive for their materials.

    I suggest these other platforms as way to articulate some of the issues with “archive” and the long history of debates among librarians, archivists, and scholarly editors on the liberal use of this term (NB: “The problem with the scholar as “archivist,” or is there a problem?” http://www.archivesnext.com/?p=2522).

    Describing your intentions for the project, as you’ve done above is a great way to begin the theorizing of an “archive” addressing these issues. But, if you create this archive over here without interoperability with other archives/projects, are you in the end isolating your wonderful project? How (in the future) can your digital project supersede some of the ideas about colonialism and empire resident in what is becoming canonical and institutionalized in digital projects? If you can gesture towards those things in the future in your thoughts about this great project, it might help develop a bigger life for your digital project.

    • admin March 6, 2012 at 10:36 am #

      These are great ideas Kathy. Right now the project is in alpha stage, but eventually transitioning to an interoperable framework sounds like a good idea. There are some issues also with this though–which frameworks are best to use? It appears that T.E.I is the gold standard in the US academy, but is it also the case internationally? This raises a question that Alex Gil (@electroalex) pointed out in another discussion: when do frameworks and platforms “colonize” their own texts?
      I also like your bringing up the point regarding the scholar as archivist–it sounds like a rich debate that I might try to blog on in the future. As a scholar-archivist, how have you reacted to this distinction yourself?

  2. Jeremy Antley March 4, 2012 at 12:50 pm # Reply

    Kudos on envisioning such a project. This is a great idea, especially now that we are beginning to build tools and analytical perspectives that can address questions directed at the archival structure itself. The study of Russian peasants runs into similar issues (although peasants were hardly the only social group in flux during the 19th century) in that views on what the peasants ‘were’ or ‘thought’ were largely shaped by the perceptions espoused by local police or governing official who wrote documents destined for the archives. I would also add that Eugene Avrutin just wrote a very good work- ‘Jews and the Imperial State’- which addresses primarily how the written document came to shape Jewish notions of identity, while also allowing either maddening ‘wiggle room’ in interpretation (such as when Hebrew names were transliterated into Russian) or safety in cultural space (such as when the Imperial government decided to utilize Rabbi’s instead of civil servants to document Jewish populations). There is also the great work of Nicholas Breyfogle, ‘Heretics and Colonizers: Forging Russia’s Empire in the South Caucasus’, which makes the observation that the perception of ‘heretical’ Old Believers changed from fringe element to integral colonial presence (in the minds of bureaucrats and military servicemen) when the OB’s moved to the Caucasus and became the ‘Russian’ presence on the ‘frontier’. Space turned out to be very key to re-visioning a marginalized population. Obviously not a perfect relational match to your work, but perhaps some threads to pursue with another large, multi-cultural land-locked empire.

    It’s also great to see your commitment towards bringing this research to the public. This is our ‘last mile’ problem, to borrow a term from telecommunications, in that Historians can produce some intriguing works but few outside of the academy are ever exposed to such ideas. So, this makes your venture a very exciting one.

    • admin March 6, 2012 at 10:38 am #

      Great ideas, Jeremy, and thanks for your references!

  3. Yvonne Perkins March 4, 2012 at 5:51 pm # Reply

    What a fabulous project! I look forward to seeing this unfolding. Thankyou for articulating the theoretical basis of this project – there is so much that can be done in digital humanities when it is informed by postcolonial studies.

    • admin March 6, 2012 at 10:37 am #

      thanks Yvonne! I’d love to hear any other suggestions or comments you may have to help improve the site as well.

  4. Francesca Benatti March 6, 2012 at 5:59 am # Reply

    Dear Adeline, are you aware of the “Making Britain: How South Asians Shaped the Nation, 1870-1950″ project, developed by the Open University with Oxford University and King’s College London? See http://www.open.ac.uk/makingbritain.
    This online database provides information about South Asians in Britain from 1870 to 1950, the organizations they were involved in, their British connections, and the major events in which they participated. It allows searching by timeline, location maps, and network diagrams modelled on social networking sites which demonstrate South Asians’ interactions and relationships in Britain at the time.

  5. Francesca Benatti March 6, 2012 at 8:21 am # Reply

    The British Library lists some archival sources about South Asians in Britain here: http://www.bl.uk/reshelp/findhelpsubject/history/history/asiansinbritain/asiansinbritain.html (though they are not available digitally and seem mostly to concentrate on India).

    • admin March 6, 2012 at 10:41 am #

      Another question: is “Making Britain” connected to the NINES project? This might help nineteenth century/Victorian studies scholars find it. The politics of discovery of digital resources is another interesting question.

  6. Francesca Benatti March 6, 2012 at 11:51 am # Reply

    Good point! I will ask my colleagues from History about Making Britain and NINES.
    I know Making Britain organised a major exhibition at the British Library, which is now touring India, and are developing the project further.
    See this page for more resources they are developing http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/south-asians-making-britain/index.shtml

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