Now for the next step after the postcolonial digital humanities tumblr: the #DHPoco website. Roopika and I hope this will become the space for more concentrated inquiry into the possibilities and shape of this new field. Check out our mission statement and founding principles. We gladly consider submissions.
Help us storm Wikipedia! In celebration of Women’s History Month and WikiWomen’s History Month, groups across the United States are organizing both virtual and in-person meet-ups to edit Wikipedia to include more perspectives on women and people of color on Friday: #tooFEW—a feministWikipedia edit-a-thon! Originally conceived of as part of a virtual way to connect the upcoming THATCamp unconferences on feminism, there are now widespread events everywhere. If you can’t find a way to physically get to one of the edit-a-thon parties, please consider just jumping in, editing entries and following on the Twitter conversations using the hashtag: #tooFEW. Amanda Starling Gould and I are organizing a splinter event with Duke at the Franklin Humanities Institute, with the sponsorship of the Duke PhD lab and HASTAC.
Here’s some ways you can get involved in the Edit-a-Thon:
Help generate ideas for new entries or entries to be improved – you can add your ideas to our working list here
Participate in wikipedia community
Sign up for a wikipedia account (consider using a pseudonym at the outset, you can always change it once you’re comfortable)
Watch this video to learn just how to edit Wikipedia. Be sure to set aside some time for this video, it’s an hour long, and we recommend clicking on FLASH – it tends to play better that way. (Although, we will provide editing help at the edit-a-thon, if you don’t have time to do this.)
Join us virtually by doing your work during our edit-a-thon, tweet to let us know you’re out there using the hashtag #tooFEW. We’ll be live editing from 11am-3pm EST, Friday March 15,
Join us in person at:
1) THATCampFeminisms West: We will be working in person (at Honnold-Mudd Libraryin Claremont) from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. EST. We are encouraging all THATCamp attendees to join us and we welcome those who cannot attend in person to join us virtually.
3) Duke University: We will be working in person at the Franklin Humanities Insititute Conference Room, Bay 4, C-107, Smith Warehouse from 1pm-3pm.The event is sponsored by HASTAC and the Duke PhD lab. Anyone is welcome to join in, or if you cannot come physically, do think about joining us virtually!
Students – Do they need extra credit? Can this be a class project? Are you learning about some really cool people in POC/Trans*/Queer/Women’s History that don’t have wiki pages or have pages with bad information? You can fix it!
Friends – Do you know other folks who should know about this? Please spread this information to activists you know, faculty, etc. Everyone is welcome!
Organizations – These edit-a-thons work best with lots of folks working on specific things. Do you know orgs like INCITE or SONG that know specific types of folks who should be added to wikipedia or projects folks should know about?
Too swamped and don’t want to login to Wikipedia but would like to contribute? Add your idea to this Google doc.
We look forward to seeing you on Wikipedia and the hashtag #tooFEW!
The first of hopefully many more with my co-conspirator, Roopika Risam!
Below are the slides to my 10 minute presentation, “Navigating Archival Silence: Creating a Nineteenth Century Postcolonial Archive” presented at the 2013 Modern Language Association annual meeting. The presentation is part of the panel “Representing Race: Silence in the Digital Humanities.”
On November 16 I gave a webinar on Race and the Digital Humanities for NITLE. You can find my slides and links to our shared google doc and public Zotero library below.
Link to #TransformDH Google Doc: Add yourself and your project/project idea here!
Join our public Zotero library on Race and the Digital Humanities here
Storify of Live Tweets of Event click here
One of the most prevalent debates within the Digital Humanities (DH) is the idea that practitioners should just go about doing rather than talking, or to practice “more hack, less yack.” In other words, instead of pontificating and problematizing, DH scholars should be more concerned with making stuff, and making stuff happen. The “more hack, less yack” mantra has been going on for a while now, and has brushed up against some challenges; notably Natalia Cecire’s (@ncecire) argument for the need for a ThatCamp Theory to uncover the theoretical leanings of the digital humanities, in Alan Liu’s call for the need to integrate cultural studies into dh approaches, and in the recent TransformDH collective, set up by Anne Cong-Huyen (@anitaconchita), Moya Bailey (@moyazb) and M. Rivera Monclova (@phdeviate) to bring race/gender/class/disability criticism to the digital humanities.** In many of these debates, it seems as though the “theoretification” of DH is viewed with suspicion as it disturbs the implicit good nature of much of the DH community. Roger Whitson (@rogerwhitson), for example, mused on whether the digital humanities “really needs to be transformed,” arguing that: “It seems to me that the word “guerilla” reappropriates the collaborative good will of the digital humanities, making it safe for traditional academic consumption and inserting it into the scheme Stanley Fish and William Pannapacker (@pannapacker) highlight.”
I’ve been musing on the “more hack, less yack” issue recently, and it seems that Tara McPherson’s (@tmcphers) essay “U.S. Operating Systems at Mid-Century: The Intertwining of Race and UNIX” in Lisa Nakamura (@lnakamur) and Peter Chow-White’s (@pachowwhite) recent collection Race After the Internet may offer some important insights into this ideological impasse. In her essay, McPherson argues that in the mid-twentieth century, a common structural logic developed due to computerization, one which argued for the importance of “modular thinking”, “common-sense” and disciplinary hyperspecialization. By focusing on processes which work via the modular form—simple blocks by which a complex system is broken down and analyzed by individual groups—the rationale of this system appears “common-sensical”, thereby obscuring the actual political and social moment from which it emerges.
McPherson sees this modular logic manifest in both the development of UNIX as well as racial formations in the United States, and expands this to argue that this might be a hallmark of the Fordist moment of capitalist production in the United States, and finds its manifestation in the hyperspecialization of late capitalism, extending to the specialization of disciplines in higher education such as Area Studies departments. This mode of modular thinking, she argues, is a type of “lenticular logic” which undergirds both the structures of UNIX as well as the covert racism of color blindness:
“A lenticular logic is a covert racial logic, a logic for the post-Civil Rights era. We might contrast the lenticular postcard to that wildly popular artifact of the industrial era, the stereoscope card. The stereoscope melds two different images into an imagined whole, privileging the whole; the lenticular image partitions and divides, privileging fragmentation. A lenticular logic is a logic of the fragment or the chunk, a way of seeing the world as discrete modules or nodes, a mode that suppresses relation and context. As such, the lenticular also manages and controls complexity.” (25)
Reading McPherson makes me think: to what degree does lenticular logic underlie the DH imperative for “more hack, less yack?” How much does digital humanities work, through the way it is processed and organized through computational models, actually follow the Fordist logic of modularity? In the same way that UNIX engineers extolled programmers to “common sense and notions about simplicity to justify their innovations in code,” (28), neglecting how his common-sense is similarly constituted by their historical specificity as a class of workers in the 1970s, how has this sentiment actually provided the language behind “more hack, less yack?”
In other words, common sense is never simply “common sense.” What is “common sense” comes out of a particular socio-historical moment, just as “hacking” has derived from a very specific social context. And, just as UNIX programmers relied, in McPherson’s argument, on a common-sense modular “lenticular logic” to avoid speaking about the socio-political origins and conditions that allowed for their “common sense” to come into being, perhaps the same logic has underwritten our resistance to theory within the digital humanities. Where does our “common sense” in the digital humanities come from? How is it implicated in structures of privilege which remain invisible to us? Why are we so resistant to speaking about it, and how does the language of modularity aid us in this silence?
It appears to me that much of the “more hack, less yack” issue circles around the problem of modularity and common-sensical “form” that McPherson outlines in this essay. I see this in Bethany Nowviskie’s (@nowviskie) recent post, Don’t Circle the Wagons:
“Software development functions in relative silence within the larger conversation of the digital humanities, in a sub-culture suffused — in my experience — not with locker-room towel-snaps and construction-worker catcalls, but with lovely stuff that’s un-voiced: what Bill Turkel and Devon Elliott have called tacit understanding, and with journeyman learning experiences. And that’s no surprise. To my mind, coding itself has more in common with traditional arts-and-crafts practice than with academic discourse.Too often, the things developers know — know and value, because they enact them every day — go entirely unspoken. These include the philosophy and ethos of software craftsmanship and, by extension, the intellectual underpinnings of digital humanities practice. (If you use their tools, that goes for your DH practice, too.)”
Nowviskie’s elaboration of a “tacit understanding” that derives from “journeyman learning experiences” makes me wonder how much of these learning experiences dovetail with McPherson’s notion of modular, lenticular logic that structures UNIX and other mid-century structuralist Fordist systems. This “tacit understanding” creates a common-sense notion of simplicity, but one whose structure and “common-sensical” nature similarly allows for a significant amnesia towards its own socio-political origins and context. In the same way that UNIX engineers extolled programmers to “common sense and notions about simplicity to justify their innovations in code,” (McPherson 28), neglecting how his common-sense is similarly constituted by their historical specificity as a class of workers in the 1970s, how has this mode of thought provided the language for the “more hack, less yack” sentiment?
McPherson’s argument recalls Paul De Man’s Blindness and Insight, where De Man asserted that all critical readings are ultimately predicated upon a “negative movement that animates the critic’s thought, an unstated principle that leads his language away from its asserted stand… as if the very possibility of assertion had been put into question.” De Man argued that we needed to return to engaging how a certain type of form made certain readings possible. At the same time, he asserted that the blindness to that very form was critical to structuring our insights. While De Man’s metaphor is problematically ableist***, it still makes a critical point: that we need to interrogate how the logic of form tends to erase the perspective of its own creation. As literary theory given critics insights that hide their own foundations, the logics of computation have given us a certain type of structure, a type of tacit understanding, a sort of visible logic and knowing that have simultaneously obscured their own foundational assumptions.
I do not mean to suggest that tacit understanding equates to a certain type of blindness. That said, I do mean to recognize that all forms of shared, cultural understandings, whether they come under the umbrella terms “common sense,” “tradition” or “ritual,” are founded upon an important obscuring of their own particular socio-political specificity, and that to ignore this specificity is troubling. As Pierre Bourdieu observed, all cultural practices exist as habitus, a set of learned dispositions, skills and ways of acting that appear simply natural, but which are rooted in specific social-cultural contexts. My call, then, is for us to interrogate the habitus that makes up the Digital Humanities community.
Let me be clear. I get annoyed by jargon and obfuscation as much as the next person, which is why I am so attracted to the digital humanities community. But I do think that we need to invest in the creation of a metalanguage that will allow us to see the ideological foundations that undergird our “common sense.” And sometimes that comes hand in hand with theory. Also, theory doesn’t always need to be annoyingly grating, especially if it allows us to understand how our implicit systems invisibly privilege and disenfranchise certain groups of people. We need to question the forms that make us see “common-sense”, and to see value in the converse “less hack, more yack” proposition.
If computation is, as Cathy N. Davidson (@cathyndavidson) and Dan Rowinski have been arguing, the fourth “R” of 21st century literacy, we very much need to treat it the way we already do existing human languages: as modes of knowledge which unwittingly create cultural valences and systems of privilege and oppression. Frantz Fanon wrote in Black Skin, White Masks: “To speak a language is to take on a world, a civilization.” As Digital Humanists, we have the responsibility to interrogate and to understand what kind of world, and what kind of civilization, our computational languages and forms create for us. Critical Code Studies is an important step in this direction. But it’s important not to stop there, but to continue to try to expand upon how computation and the digital humanities are underwritten by theoretical suppositions which still remain invisible.
** Alexis Lothian’s article, “Marked Bodies, Transformative Scholarship and the Question of Theory in the Digital Humanities.” Journal of Digital Humanities 1:1, November 4, 2011, gives an excellent history of the #TransformDH group, and the call towards Theory within the Digital Humanities. Thanks Alexis (@alothian) for pointing me to this!
***Thanks to Natalia Cecire (@ncecire) for reminding me of this.
Edited to Add: Some interesting responses to this post
- Michelle Moravec, (@professmoravec) “Can the Subaltern Hack And Must She to Create Digital History?”
- Peter K. Powers, (@peterkpowers) “Digital Humanities as Culture and Difference”
- Roger Whitson, (@rogerwhitson) “TheoryFan”
- Alexis Lothian (@alothian) “Theory, WisCon, chronicling: Loosely-Linked Observations”
The following roundtable has been accepted for the National Women Studies Association Annual Conference in Oakland, CA November 2012!
The Failure of Feminism in Digital Archives?
Panel Convener: Adeline Koh (@adelinekoh)
Panelists: Adeline Koh (@adelinekoh), Jacqueline Wernimont (@profwernimont), Katherine D. Harris (@triproftri), Deborah Gussman (@debgussman)
Moderator: Karen Alexander (@karenfalexander)
In the past thirty years, the “recovery” of women’s writing has extended beyond print to the creation of digital archives, such as project Orlando and the Brown Women Writer’s Project. In order to address the contributions of digital feminist archives to knowledge decolonization, this roundtable will discuss issues such as: relationships of digital archives to traditional archives; feminist archival methodology; the relationships between female authorship and feminist archival projects; different modes of reading and knowledge representation imposed by digital archives; and the relationships of racial and ethnic politics to feminist digital archives.
The recovery of the long history of eighteenth and nineteenth century women’s writing during the 1980s feminist literary and historical movements caused a shift in the male-dominated canon. Authors such as Elaine Showalter, Gilbert and Gubar, Eve Sedgwick, Jean Marsden, Judith Fetterley were integral to this shift. But even after 30 years of recovery work, only a small portion of the digital archive is dedicated to these women writers. How do we leverage these groundbreaking projects to fuel a more widespread recovery? How do we encourage a feminist poetics of content, infrastructure, and tool building in the digital archive? Finally, how do the politics of empire continue to fuel the “imperial meaning-making” of the construction of digital feminist knowledge?
This roundtable will explore how the the politics of recovery has transitioned from the print to the digital world, by examining various examples of what constitutes a digital feminist “archive.” Our examples span from Jacqueline Wernimont’s work on feminist encoding and the Brown Women Writer’s Project, a textbase of early modern women’s writing, Katherine D. Harris’ Forget Me Not Archive, a scholarly digital edition making accessible a non-canonical genre and the poetess aesthetic, Deborah Gussman’s work-in-progress on a digital edition of Catharine Sedgwick’s uncollected periodical writing, and Adeline Koh’s work on postcolonial feminism and digital pedagogy.
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 May 15: This roundtable has been accepted for presentation at the 2013 Modern Language Association Meeting in Boston.
- Anne Cong-Huyen, “Thinking of Race (Gender, Class, Nation) in DH” (UCSB)
- Moya Bailey, “Digital Alchemy: The Transformative Magic of Women of Color Online” (Emory)
- Hussein Keshani, “Race and State Patronage of Digital Islamic Studies in the UK” (U of British Columbia)
- Adeline Koh, “Navigating Archival Silence: Creating a Nineteenth Century Postcolonial Archive” (Duke University & Richard Stockton College)
- Maria Velazquez’s “Blog Like You Love: Anti-Racist Projects, Black Feminism and the Virtual “(U of Maryland)
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.
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.
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.
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
Can the Subaltern speak in the digital archive? This is the first of two blog posts which follows on a recent discussion on about silence in the archives regarding gender and minorities. 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.
These two posts are concerned with a more specific silence—on race and colonialism in the nineteenth century archive, and how one of my new digital projects, Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen,’ attempts to counteract this silence. To date, despite the explosion of digital work on nineteenth century writers and culture, there are no existing digital projects that specifically deal with the impact of British imperialism in the Victorian era. This neglect is surprising, given that by the start of the twentieth century, England’s political reach spanned the majority of the globe. To exclude British imperialism from digital Victorian studies is thus a serious gap that Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen’ tries to address.
In this first post, I describe the power of the archive, and my rationale for creating Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen.’ In my second post, I follow up on how Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen’ attempts to deal with the logics of archival power.
The Power of the Archive
Many have noted that the archive is not a static repository but a form in which knowledge is made legible by modes of power. Through the ways in which they organize information, archives create what is knowable and unknowable about a given historical moment and a group of people. For example, in the Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault argued that the ways in which objects are presented in the archive follow certain rules, and that these rules in turn represent the limits and possibilities to the creation of this knowledge. An archive thus creates the rules of possibility of thought and utterance, and sets the outline of a discursive formation, or an archaeology. Derrida calls this vested power of the archive an “achrontic power,” or a type of power that calls things into being; one which makes and commands the meaning of what happened at a certain place and a certain time. Derrida also notes that the archive conceals its possession of this power while asserting it.
An overview of the nineteenth century digital archive as it stands today reveals some of the rules of archival discourse. One of the existing “rules” that the digital nineteenth century archive presently demonstrates is that colonialism did not have a great impact on British culture itself. For example, England and its Empire are treated as separate entities—through the lack of projects problematizing England’s imperial history with places such as Australia, Africa and Southeast Asia. There are two exceptions to this—the Colonial Despatches of British Columbia and Vancouver Island DH project, which digitizes the correspondence between Canada and the British home office, and the Victorian Web project, which mentions the history of Empire. However, full websites on empire and Victorian studies still do not exist.
Author’s note: Since I published this post, Francesca Benatti has brought Making Britain: Discovering How South Asians Shaped the Nation” to my attention. This resource is another excellent method from which to begin connecting the Victorian period to the history of empire.
Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen’ is an electronic project that aims to create these kinds of connections between the digital humanities and Victorian Studies. The project tries to give voice and representation to formerly colonized subjects, and to work against the “imperial meaning-making” of the archive by implementing new types of reading and commenting technologies that disrupt the idea of dominant and subjugated knowledges.
The term “Chinese Englishmen” refers to a particular segment of the Anglophone Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia, located specifically in Singapore and Malaysia. Under British colonialism, this group of Chinese subjects experienced the tensions of being torn between the Qing Empire and their desire to be British subjects. When the British established a system of “indirect rule” over Malaya In 1874, they created a privileged class of non-Europeans who would serve as intermediaries between the British and the general masses. The British found this privileged class both in the “Straits Chinese”, and in local Malay nobility. The “Straits Chinese” were ideally suited to function as a “comprador class” because they had developed a separate culture and identity from the local Malay inhabitants, and new immigrants to the region from China and India. As a class they enjoyed access to English education and positions within the new British civil service.
Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen’ focuses on how this group of intermediaries negotiated these tensions in The Straits Chinese Magazine, a journal that appeared in Singapore from the late nineteenth century and which contained a mixture of news, editorials, essays and short stories. The magazine was modeled after the British periodicals Blackwoods and Macmillians. The Straits Chinese Magazine sought to give a voice to the Chinese inhabitants of British Malaya, and was edited by two prominent young Malayan Chinese men who had recently returned from studying in England, Song Ong Siang and Lim Boon Keng.
Many of the essays and short stories in the Straits Chinese Magazine demonstrate how these hybrid, ethnic subjects found themselves torn between wanting to claim access to forms of Englishness, but to still assert a form of ethnic Chinese identity. One of its main editors, Lim Boon Keng, was heavily influenced by the “Self-Strengthening Movement” in mainland China, which sought to modernize using Western technology but to maintain Chinese cultural identity through the term Zhongxue weiti, xixue weiyong 中學為體，西學為用 or, “Chinese learning as the essence, and Western learning for application.”
One short story, ‘A Victim of Chap-Ji-Ki’ by Lew See Fah (Vol. 2, no #6, pg 70), is a morality tale of how gambling (chap-ji-ki) can lead to insanity and death. Gambling is correlated with ill-discipline, a moral sin in relation to Victorian ideals of self-restraint. At the same time, many narratives rely on British notions of sports and manliness to establish credibility; in a news story on ‘Chinese Athleticism,’ (Vol 1. Pg 29), for example, the editors urge the colonial government to grant them a piece of land for “athletic games and sports generally” which emphasize their cohesion with Victorian norms.
First image credit: http://www.theblowoff.com/2011/02/can-blown-off-speak.html