#MLA 2016 Proposal: Repair and Reparations in Digital Public Spaces

Lego toy repairing camera

I prepared the following proposal for #MLA16 with Annemarie Perez, and will chair the panel.

Saturday, 9 January, 5:15–6:30 p.m., 402, JW Marriott

Repair and Reparations in Digital Public Spaces

Chair/Presiding: Adeline Koh, Associate Professor, Director, DH@Stockton, Stockton U

David Theo Goldberg, Professor, UC Irvine
Angel David Nieves, Associate Professor, Hamilton College
Annemarie Perez, Instructor, Loyola Marymount University
Siobhan Senier, Associate Professor, U of New Hampshire
Joshua Yu Burnett, Assistant Professor, North South University, Bangladesh
Linda Garcia Merchant, Doctoral Student, U of Nebraska – Lincoln.

The notion of “repair” is becoming increasingly popular in digital humanities debates. This roundtable builds on this interest by specifically addressing the human side of repair in digital spaces: reparations. It will consider reparations as a form of symbolic politics to offer a new narrative about the relationships between groups of people, and explore the possibilities and limits of this in a digital public space. Topics considered include the digital representation of cultural heritage as restitution and conflict; issues of privacy and publicness in preserving cultural artifacts; and the ideological underpinnings of digital tools used for this purpose.

Longer Description of the Panel:
The concepts of building, breaking, hacking and yacking have been well-discussed in the digital humanities community in the last few years (Nowviskie, Sample, Stommel, Ramsay, Koh). More recently, Steven J. Jackson has reintroduced the importance of “repair” in relation to digital space and society: “the subtle acts of care by which order and meaning in complex sociotechnical systems are maintained and transformed,” a theoretical concept which is gaining ground in the digital humanities as evidenced by the panel on “care and repair” proposed by the MLA Digital Humanities Forum for the 2016 meeting. This roundtable builds on this interest by specifically addressing the human side of repair in digital spaces: reparations, or resources to be paid to groups which have suffered under a system of oppression (slavery, the Holocaust, genocide etc.) and the complications of translating the burden of reparations to a digital public space.

Reparations is a complicated and highly contested topic. While Jewish victims of the Holocaust were successfully able to claim reparations during the Nuremberg trials (Lombardo & Howard-Hassman 2005), as were Japanese Americans who were incarcerated by the U.S. government during the Second World War, claims by African Americans for reparations since the 1960s for slavery have been relatively unsuccessful (Forman, Bittker, Robinson), as the relatively small movement from Africans to Europe have been (Howard-Hassmann & Lombardo 2007). Additionally, while the South African government promised in 2003 to pay reparations to victims of apartheid, till today full payment to all claimants have not been completed.

Panelists will consider reparations as a form of symbolic politics (Brysk 1995), that serve the function of using an exchange to offer a new, counterhegemonic narrative to produce an emotional and moral resonance from people both making the claim as well as people from whom reparations are claimed, and explore how this manifests in a digital space. Topics considered will include how the representation of cultural heritage digitally may or may not successfully represent a form of restitution. The panelists will discuss the frequency that the histories and experiences of oppressed peoples are actually archived and given a digital presence, some of the tools that have been developed to archive these histories and stories and their limitations, as well as the complications involved in digital representation of these histories through discussions of various projects.

The roundtable thus directly addresses the 2016 Presidential Theme by considering how cultural heritage, trauma, pain and rebuilding is expressed and limited through the creation and maintenance of digital cultural objects (datasets, archives, websites, maps, virtual worlds, collections); the results of the movement of these objects across closed communities to a digital public, and attendant issues of reception, audience, commentary, translation, adaptation–and resistance to all these.

David Theo Goldberg’s remarks will frame those of all the other panelists.’ Goldberg will argue that the only viable mode of repair the digital humanities can proffer or provide is to enable the reparees to acquire the possibility of platforms and tools for self-representation. Angel David Nieves extends this to the South African context by arguing that DH techniques can help reconstruct and recover an apartheid era history that has already been co-opted by capitalist forces (into the “liberation-struggle-industry.”) Nieves uses historical reconstructions and the 3D visualization of historical GIS to help to address questions of power and reconciliation–while also using gaming conventions to represent indigenous cultures as related to racial segregation, colonialism and resistance against the state through the built environment. Moving to the concept of repair and the border, Annemarie Perez will discuss the paradox of discourses of technology and im/possibilities of repair in the borderlands focusing on Gloria Anzáldua’s work on the U.S./Mexican border. She discusses how, in the decades since the publication of Borderlands, the discourse of building and repair at the border is deployed against human refugees, while at the physical environment becomes more scarred and fractured. Siobhan Senier will then shift to the discussion to indigenous communities by discussing digital repatriation–the creation of electronic “surrogates” of sacred or other culturally important materials held by large collecting institutions, which aim to make low-cost copies available to the source communities that created them. These debates raise critical questions of cultural property, and of more material repatriations alongside symbolic reparations. Moving to the issues of digital repair and international ideoscapes, Joshua Yu Burnett will discuss social media response to a recent World Cup Cricket match controversy between Bangladesh and India, arguing that social media functions as a type of “digital reparations” for educated young Bangladeshis against state and international discourses about Bangladeshi culture. Finally, Linda Garcia Merchant will present on the outcomes of a workshop created by fifteen Chicago area Latino High School student groups to build a resource that develops and repairs the historical connections between local and national Chicano and Boriqua movements entitled, “The Past is Present: The Chicano College Bowl Symposium.”

Ultimately, this roundtable brings together a group of senior and junior scholars from a variety of institutions and subfields to discuss the role of affective cultures in constructing the digital humanities. Each scholar will be limited to five minutes of remarks, the goal of which are to stimulate conversation between the audience and the roundtable. The bulk of the session is reserved for discussion. Once the speakers have completed their remarks, the presider will lead discussion with the audience.

This panel is important because it introduces a concrete humanistic and political dimension to the concept of repair, and the ways that this is manifest in a public sphere that is becoming increasingly digitized. It compels the concept of repair to function as more than an abstraction, through engaging with the very real trauma of lived experience, its afterlife in digital form, and the possibility and appropriateness of material restitution for this trauma. It also demands that digital work deeply engage with ethical questions of human suffering and systems of oppression, especially in relation to a digital public sphere.


Adeline Koh is director of DH@Stockton and associate professor of literature at Stockton University. She works on the intersections of race, postcolonial studies, postcolonial theory and the digital humanities. She directs Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen,’ a digital archival project on 19th century ‘Asian Victorians’ in Southeast Asia, and The Stockton Postcolonial Studies Project, an online magazine of postcolonial studies. She is the designer of Trading Races, an elaborate historical role playing game designed to teach race consciousness in the undergraduate classroom, and co-runs the postcolonial digital humanities website. She is currently working on a monograph on critical histories of the digital humanities, under contract with Northwestern University Press, and an edited collection on alternative origin narratives of the digital humanities, under contract with Punctum Books.

David Theo Goldberg the Director of the University of California Humanities Research Institute and co-director of the Digital Humanities organization HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory). Formerly Director and Professor of the School of Justice Studies, a law and social science program, at Arizona State University, he is the author of Racist Culture: Philosophy and the Politics of Meaning (1993), Racial Subjects: Writing on Race in America (1997), Ethical Theory and Social Issues (1990/1995), The Racial State (2002), The Threat of Race (2009), and co-author of The Future of Thinking (2010). He edited Anatomy of Racism (1990), Multiculturalism: A Critical Reader (1995), and co-edited Race Critical Theories (2005), Rethinking Postcolonialism (2002), Companion on Gender Studies (2002) and Companion on Race and Ethnic Studies (2005). He was the founding co-editor of Social Identities: Journal for the Study of Race, Nation and Culture.

Angel David Nieves, Ph.D., is currently Co-Directing Hamilton College’s Digital Humanities Initiative (DHi), a $1.75 million Mellon Foundation Grant funded project (http://www.dhinitiative.org), and he has raised over $2.4 million in support of digital humanities research while serving at the college. He is Associate Professor of Africana Studies and Director of the American Studies Program at Hamilton College, Clinton, N.Y.

Annemarie Perez is an instructor in Chicana/o studies and rhetoric at Loyola Marymount University. She works on Chicana/o literature, activism and print cultures. Her research is on Chicana and Latina feminist editors and textual communities. A book chapter, titled “Tu riata es mi espada: Elizabeth Sutherland’s Chicana Formation” is forthcoming in the collection ), ¡Chicana!: New Narratives of Women’s Activism and Feminism in the Chicano Movement Era.

Siobhan Senier is an associate professor of English at the University of New Hampshire, where she teaches courses in Native American literature, Women’s Studies, and Sustainability Studies. She is the editor of Dawnland Voices: An Anthology of Writing from Indigenous New England and of indigenousnewengland.com.

Joshua Yu Burnett is an Assistant Professor of English at North South University in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He is currently working on a manuscript entitled My Left Arm, Her Twin Blades: Narratives of Resistance in Black Speculative Fiction. His research interests center around Black Speculative Fiction, both African American and diasporic, and also include Afrofuturism, Queer Studies, the music of Janelle Monáe, resistance, and intersections of race, gender, and sexuality. His publications include African American Review and On Writing: A Process Reader.

Linda Garcia Merchant, an award-winning filmmaker, a technical director of the Chicana Por Mi Raza Digital Memory Project (University of Michigan, University of Illinois Urbana Champaign), a Digital Media Partner of the Somos Latinas Oral History Project (University of Wisconsin Madison) and the Chicana Chicago/MABPW Collection Project (University of Illinois Chicago), and a board member of the Chicago Area Women’s History Council, is a doctoral student of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln English Literature program and the Ethnic Studies program. She specializes in Chicana Studies, Film and Digital Humanities. She focuses on the restoration and reconstruction of the counter narrative as an aid in rehabilitating the discourse of resistance and social movement.

Image by Stephan Harmes on Flickr.

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