An MLA13 Proposal: Representing Race: Silence in the Digital Humanities

Update Dec 30: Unfortunately Moya Bailey will not be attending the MLA; however, she has posted a brief abstract of her remarks, “Digital Alchemy: The Transformative Magic of Women of Color Online,” here

Update Oct 18: This will be session #s239, Friday, 4 January, 10:15–11:30 a.m., Gardner, Sheraton. 

Update May 15: This roundtable has been accepted for presentation at the 2013 Modern Language Association Meeting in Boston.

Respondent: Alondra Nelson (Columbia U) Organized by: Adeline Koh (Duke University & Richard Stockton College)

Papers:

This roundtable presents new work by younger scholars on the issues of race, ethnicity and silence within within the digital humanities. Despite being widely acknowledged as important structural norms, race and ethnicity continue to be neglected analytical concepts within this growing field. This silence extends in various forms: in the calibration of digital humanities tools, projects and datasets, which fail to provide mechanisms to examine race as an important category of analysis; in how race structures forms of online identity in computer-mediated forms of communication; and in racialized silences within digital archives. In all of these forms, race and ethnicity persist as undertheorized, haunting signifiers within the digital humanities.

While established scholars in sociology and media and communications have published extensively on this subject such as Alondra Nelson (Technicolor: Race, Technology and Everyday Life, Afrofuturism); Lisa Nakamura (Visualizing Race; Race after the Internet); Wendy Chun (Programmed Visions) and Tara McPherson (Race and Cyberspace) this question is only slowly starting to be voiced within the larger umbrella of literary scholarship through the work of Alan Liu and Amy Earhart (Debates in the Digital Humanities). This is the right moment to raise this debate at the MLA, as the question is starting to be raised in both conference and print literary venues such as within the “Transformative Digital Humanities” collective (#transformdh on Twitter), and fields that encourage the broadening of the definition of literature, such as Critical Code Studies, a field which examines how computer code represents a variation of a politically charged discursive practice.

This session is timely as it directly addresses some recent digital humanities debates such as the debate on archival silences featured in Digital Humanities Now in March 2012. It will address questions such as: Why has the rapidly growing field of the digital humanities been largely silent on the issues of race and ethnicity? How does this silence reinforce unspoken assumptions and doxa within this field? How would a scholar nuance the representation of race in digital humanities projects? What is the role of the scholar of color within this new field? Representing Race: Silence in the Digital Humanities will address these questions by focusing on the theoretical implications of silence as an important structuring and limiting presence within the digital humanities.

To promote discussion, each presenter will be limited to a ten-minute electronic demonstration of their project. Professor Alondra Nelson will propose questions to both the panelists and the audience on questions of race and digital representation within both the social sciences and the humanities.

We will begin with short papers from two members of the Transformative Digital Humanities (#TransformDH) collective that focus on how the digital humanities community has been reluctant to address the issue of race and representation. Anne Cong-Huyen’s “Thinking of Race (Gender, Class, Nation) in DH,” discusses some of the hesitant resistance to the #TransformDH group at both the ASA Annual Meeting in 2011 and the MLA12 meeting, and some of the problems that emerge through the omission of race in the academy. Moya Bailey explores another dimension of this in her paper, “All the Digital Humanists Are White, All the Nerds are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave” by analyzing some new sets of theoretical questions that emerge from an examination of the politics of whiteness, masculinity and able-bodiedness within the digital humanities. Bailey’s paper examines how issues of access inform project design, and how underrepresented groups are imagined as end users to digital humanities projects.

Hussein Keshani goes further in his paper, “Race and State Patronage of Digital Islamic Studies in the UK” to explore the implications of the recent increase in state funding of digital infrastructure initiatives within UK Islamic Studies. By examining the long history of British imperialism and racialized representations of the Middle East, and South and Central Asia, Keshani argues that the UK state patronage of digital Islamic Studies represents more than a silencing of Islam, but a new form of racial governance and control.

Adeline Koh explores how a combination of postcolonial theory and new digital interfaces can address these forms of archival control in “Navigating Archival Silence: Creating a Nineteenth Century Postcolonial Archive.”  She begins by describing how many nineteenth century archives have occluded race and empire in navigational structure, and then discusses how her digital project Digitizing Chinese Englishmen attempts to create a “postcolonial” digital archive by establishing a self-reflexive structure with crowdsourced annotations and other types of public mediated interaction.

The formal part of the session will end with Maria Velazquez’s “Blog Like You Love: Anti-Racist Projects, Black Feminism and the Virtual,” which uses the ideas of embodiment and the ‘posthuman’ to trace a genealogical connection between black feminist creative projects and the digital humanities. Velazquez argues that the 1990s gave rise to a key moment in which black women’s creative practices and neoliberal understandings of community came together, but that these projects have been largely silenced.

All of these papers begin and end with a discussion of race, representation and silence within digital humanities discourse, debates and projects. Panelists will discuss how this contributes to the reproduction norms of social inequity in the digital space, and explore how theory can be incorporated in this discussion to further this debate. The exponential growth of the digital humanities, given the rapidly increasing number of digital-humanities centered panels at the MLA in the last three years, indicates the urgency of investigating the role of race in this field.

Panelist Biographies

Alondra Nelson (respondent). Alondra Nelson is associate professor of sociology and gender studies at Columbia University. Nelson is one of the foremost figures in the field of race and the digital humanities. Her publications include Afrofuturism—A Special Issue of Social Text (2002), a now classic text on the cultural effects of technology on the African diaspora; Technicolor: Race, Technology and Everyday Life (2001), and most recently Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination (2011), a seminal new study on the effects of race, health care, genetics and technology. Nelson has also published an essay titled “Roots and Revelation: Genetic Ancestry Testing and the Youtube Generation,” in the new collection Race After the Internet by Lis Nakamura and Peter Chow-White.

Anne Cong-Huyen is a Doctoral Candidate of English at UC Santa Barbara. She is currently finishing her dissertation on temporariness in the literature and media of the post 1980’s global cities of Los Angeles, Dubai, and Ho Chi Minh City. She deals heavily with issues of temporary migration and labor, often unequally divided along lines of gender, ethnicity, and nationality. In addition, she has been involved with questions of race, nationality, and materiality, as a result of digital technologies and within the digital humanities as part of the #transformDH collective, which seeks to insert critical race, gender, queer, disability, and other theories to DH scholarship. She first blogged about Asian American studies and DH in January of 2011, and will be writing an expanded version of that initial blog entry for the forthcoming collection Humanities and the Digital, edited by David Theo Goldberg and Patrik Svensson. She has served as Graduate Research Fellow of the American Cultures & Global Contexts Center, a HASTAC Scholar (where she co-hosted the first HASTAC forum on Race Diaspora in the Digital), and a Research Assistant of the Research-Oriented Social Environment (or RoSE) of the Transliteracies Project, led by Alan Liu.

Moya Bailey is a scholar of critical race, feminist, and disability studies at Emory University.  Her current work focuses on constructs of health and normativity within a US context. She is interested in how race, gender, and sexuality are represented in media and medicine. She is a blogger and digital alchemist for the Crunk Feminist Collective. In a co-authored piece for Ms. Magazine, Bailey proclaims “Black Feminism Lives (online)!” and chronicles the digital discourses of race, gender, and politics as articulated by young black women in cyber space. An earlier version of this paper, “All the Digital Humanists Are White, All the Nerds Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave,” is under review for The Journal of Digital Humanities.

Hussein Keshani is an assistant professor in Art History and Visual Culture with the Department of Critical Studies at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan campus. His research focuses of the visual cultures of the Islamic world, with particular emphasis on South Asia between the 12th and 15th centuries and between the 18th and 19th centuries. His current research interests include gender and Islamic visual cultures in North India and digital art history. He has recently published “Towards Digital Islamic Art History,” in the Journal of Architectural History (2012), “Reading Visually: Can Art Historical Reading Approaches go Digital?” in Scholarly and Research Communication (2012) and is working on a manuscript on gender, art and space in 18th and 19th C North India.

Adeline Koh is assistant professor of postcolonial literature at Richard Stockton College and a visiting faculty fellow at the Duke University Humanities Writ Large Program in academic year 2012-2013. Her work focuses on the intersections of postcolonial studies, new media and the digital humanities. She recently published a co-edited volume titled Rethinking Third Cinema (2009), and heads two digital humanities projects: The Stockton Postcolonial Studies Project and Digitizing Chinese Englishmen. She regularly contributes to the Profhacker column at the Chronicle of Higher Education on the topic of digital publishing. She is currently working on two major projects: a monograph called Cosmopolitan Whiteness, which examines whiteness as a symbolic form of property in postcolonial literature, and Trading Races, an Alternate Reality/Role Playing Game designed to teach race consciousness in undergraduate courses at the Duke Greater than Games laboratory.

Maria Velazquez is a doctoral student at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her research interests include constructions of race, class, gender, and sexuality in contemporary media, as well as community-building and technology. She has served on the board of Lifting Voices, a District of Columbia-based nonprofit that helped young people in DC discover the power of creative writing, and is on the editorial board of Femspec, an academic journal exploring feminist speculative fiction. She recently received the Winnemore Dissertation Fellowship from the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities. She has also received a fellowship from the Consortium on Race, Gender, and Ethnicity’s Interdisciplinary Scholars Program.  Her dissertation project examines the use of the body as a component in community building online, paying particular attention to the Bellydancers of Color Association, the anti-racist blogosphere, and Red Light Center, an adults’ only virtual world.

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