From Print to Digital: Reconfiguring Postcolonial Knowledge

The following is a lightning talk that I gave at two venues: (1) the “Decolonizing DH” panel at the Modern Language Association annual meeting in 2014, and (2) at “Sorting the Digital Humanities Out,” a workshop convened by Patrik Svensson (@patriksv) at HUMLab, Umea, Sweden. I am currently working on a longer version of the paper, and would appreciate feedback.


My talk today is a provocation. Not so much towards the digital humanities but towards some of the central issues within postcolonial studies. I will limit myself to a discussion of some of the potential opportunities that digital forms of publication offer to postcolonial studies, by studying the possibilities that result from the move from print to digital.


One of the central concepts within postcolonial studies is to rewrite the colonial library. The colonial library, as V.Y. Mudimbe defines it in The Invention of Africa, is a fixed set of texts and representations that have been used to defined colonized people around the world. Its common tropes include the “evil Arab,” the “inscrutable Oriental”, the “noble savage,” and the “primitive,” among others. The same sentiment is echoed by Edward Said’s notion of “Orientalism,” in which limited, essentialist tropes were used to define immensely diverse groups of people throughout Asia as corrupt, evil and unchanging. Postcolonial theorists have argued that attacking this library is the root of our mission; meaning, in other words, that to changing the hegemonic discourses around race and culture should be one of our core goals.What has not been discussed as often, however, is the idea this colonial library has for centuries existed in print form. The rapidly changing field of digital and Internet publications offer postcolonial writers and scholars fundamentally new challenges and opportunities to rethink some of the modes and strategies of rewriting the colonial library.Print knowledge works similarly to the pyramid  (see the figure on the left in the above slide). Because of the expense involved in producing print, not everything could see the light of day of print. Traditionally, therefore, in the print world, what actually gets printed has been “filtered” for readers by ideas of the expert—specialized authorities who have been chosen for their ability to select work of merit; because of their trusted mastery of certain areas, or their tastes and sensibilities. As you can see in the diagram, only a little bit eventually passes through the filters to be published—what gets published is symbolized by the narrow apex of the pyramid. This has gone through extensive review and selection, after experts, in the form of professors, in the form of acquisition editors and review boards, have combed through innumerable proposals and manuscripts to deem what should be fit to print.Digital publication, on the other hand, has no real need for experts for ideas to be made public. The rise of WYSIWYG editors and simple, free blogging platforms such as Blogger and WordPress, makes disseminating information as easy as a click of a mouse button. Internet publication does not need the heavy investment of production supplies—typesetters, printers, paper, storage for books. Mistakes are easily corrected on a website, unlike how expensive they are to address, once typeset, in print. Current forms of social media—most notably the “microblogging” platform of Twitter—even allows for new imaginings of idea dissemination and what constitutes a research text or literary work.

Internet knowledge doesn’t exist as a pyramid—it exists in the form of networked knowledges, or the figure to the right of the slide above. The “best” work has not been filtered out by experts, rather, it is a collaborative effort across various groups of people. David Weinberger states this succinctly in his book Too Big to Know: When the Smartest Person in the Room is the Room. Networked knowledges present a fundamental challenge to print knowledge, because “networks of experts can be smarter than the sum of their participants.” (62). Cathy Davidson (@cathyndavidson) also argues for something similar in her book Now You See It; where she criticizes disciplinary expertise as forms of siloed blindness, and encourage us to move beyond these frameworks.

To some, the Internet represents the worst possible changes to the state of knowledge. At its worst it signifies how any random person can publish pretty much anything. To these people, the Internet is an unedited mishmash of rumor, gossip and lies. It breaks our attention and spells the end of reflective, long-form thought (see Jonathan Franzen on Twitter). These naysayers hearken back to a time of true quality, where acclaimed experts got to determine what saw the light of publication.

On the one hand, the naysayers have a point. But on the other hand, networked forms of knowledge via Internet publication represent some tremendous sources of potential for postcolonial studies. These filters—the experts, the tastemakers—have traditionally been the group that we have come to call the “Orientalists”: the biologist, the environmentalist, the anthropologist; experts that came to define knowledge of “exotic,” faraway lands. The rise of the European Empires of the nineteenth century coincided with the rise of the industries of scientific “knowledge,” the specialized fields of biology and anthropology coming into being coterminously with missions of exploration and conquering. Expertise, in other words, has—within the history of Europe—been synonymous with colonialism. Edward Said clearly reminds us of that at the start of Orientalism, where he recalls the  Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in the late 18th century as a highly scientific mission; one in which specialized knowledge was tightly linked to surveillance, domination and control.

If print knowledge, filtered by experts, is interminably linked with the colonial enterprise, the networked nature of digital knowledge, offers postcolonial critics and scholars many opportunities for disruption. One doesn’t need to be limited to challenging colonial renditions of history. One can edit Wikipedia. One does not need to seek a big budget Hollywood production team to get an audience for a short film; one could upload one’s work to Youtube or Vimeo. One does not need to find a publisher to disseminate anti-colonial literature; one can blog.

There is, in sum, a great deal potential for rewriting the colonial library in the shift from print to digital forms of knowledge dissemination. I want to caution, however, that this potential is not unreservedly positive, and that my suggestion should not be read as a form of techno-utopianism. Important things need to be considered; in particular changing notions of a digital divide and global access towards the Internet.

For want of time constraints I need to end my talk. I want to use this provocation, however, to get us to think through certain questions. Are these new technologies intrinsically more democratic, or do they contain embedded racial, ethnic and class hierarchies? What sort of potential—and what sorts of cautions—should be explored in terms of these new forms of knowledge production? How could we, and how should we, redefine the notion of postcolonial knowledge and expertise in the digital age?

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From Print to Digital: Reconfiguring Postcolonial Knowledge

3 Responses

  1. I know this is obvious to any reader, but I’ll go ahead and say it: this is wonderful!

    Because this posting seems to also be a call to awareness, action, and advocacy, I wanted to leave a comment to add my voice in support and to hopefully encourage others working on this to make more connections to build and create communities. Or, I may be misreading because of the importance of this work. It’s wonderful and inspiring whenever I see people working on these concerns, and especially when bringing in new voices and connections as you are from this presentation.

    Please forgive a possibly over-enthusiastic and not on topic comment.

    I’ve been working with folks at Amherst College, the University of Florida, and the University of Miami on the distributed online collaborative course (DOCC) “Panama Silver, Asian Gold : Migration, Money, and the Making of the Modern Caribbean” ( and the students, teaching faculty, librarians, and other collaborators on the class are all grappling with these concerns and how to actually do this work. Student projects will be coming in soon. I’m extremely excited by the work and project proposals I’ve seen thus far. I’m especially excited because the student work (following review by the scholar-faculty, and if the students choose to grant permissions) will be shared with the wider community. Already, collaborators in Panama have planned a visit to Florida and with the UF faculty, Leah Rosenberg, for many things, including to learn about the student work for other, possible connections in Panama. In this and in general, I see signs that dLOC is creating changes in regards to colonial libraries/archives, and dLOC (while I love it best) is one of many examples that are making change, as your work and writing here are also part of this transformative and creative work.

    For dLOC’s transformation-enabling-making, dLOC’s community is the change maker. I’m sure there are other models and ways that I don’t know. Based on what I do know, for anyone doing focused (or peripheral) work on colonial libraries, I’d strongly suggest that folks contact other community members for possible collaboration, and for growing the community. If anyone is working on colonial archives, dLOC connects to many people who can help and would be interested in collaboration, and the “contact” link on dLOC ( goes to a group of folks who connect out with the full community for any contacts. So, while I’m more able to help for technologies and permanent/institutional support concerns, and less able to help for subject matter specifics, the full dLOC community is available and happy to help whenever possible.

    Laurie N Taylor December 7, 2013 at 4:08 pm #
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