Thank you SO much for coming today and for the invitation to be part of your Digital Humanities Speaker Series. In one of the crueler ironies of this winter, it seems like Greater Boston has gotten more snow than Western Mass, so this is practically a tropical vacation for me.
Today, I’m going to talk a bit about my work in postcolonial digital humanities, the subject of the manuscript I’m currently finishing. What this project does is take a look at the ways that postcolonial and digital humanities scholarship have come into contact, over the past 20 years or so. And I’ve chosen to frame this talk around what has increasingly come to be called “critical digital humanities” or the metadiscourse that surrounds the digital humanities, particularly as it engages – or doesn’t engage with – thorny issues of power, labor, access, or questions of difference like race, gender, class, and so on.
I’m going to briefly contextualize the critical digital humanities before going on to talk about some of the theoretical and project-based moments were postcolonial studies and digital humanities overlap.
This is the stock moment in any given talk on the subject of the digital humanities when a definition should be offered.
Here’s a definition as good as any, from Kathleen Fitzpatrick, who is known best for her work on digital humanities and scholarly communication. In an interview from 2013, Fitzpatrick says, “For me it has to do with the work that gets done at the crossroads of digital media and traditional humanistic study. And that happens in two different ways. On the one hand, it’s bringing the tools and techniques of digital media to bear on traditional humanistic questions. But it’s also bringing humanistic modes of inquiry to bear on digital media.”
She goes on to note that digital humanities is “a sort of moving back and forth across those lines, thinking about what computing is, how it functions in our culture, and then using those computing technologies to think about the more traditional aspects of culture.”
This is what we might call a “big tent” definition – the more expansive definition of the digital humanities that encompasses not only the digital humanities predecessor field of humanities computing, with its emphasis on textual studies, but also genealogies from new media studies, communications, computers and writing, rhetoric and composition, science and technology studies, and more.
Recently, within the digital humanities, we’ve seen the emergence of the term “critical digital humanities.” This tweet from Alex Gil from September indicates some of the surprise that many of us experienced that there was actually a *job* in “Critical Digital Humanities* advertised on the MLA Job List.
For those of us who work in areas of digital humanities like postcolonial digital humanities, global digital humanities, or #transformDH, the idea that “Critical Digital Humanities” is somehow envisioned as a hiring category is odd, to say the least, given some of the struggles we have had to make the case that cultural criticism has an essential role in the digital humanities. And, well, if someone’s hiring for it on the MLA Job Information List then it must be a real thing!
This Google Trend analysis gives you a sense of the relative popularity of digital humanities vs. critical digital humanities as Google search terms. Methodologically, it does not make too much sense to belabor this chart, certainly not from the perspective of quantitative data. But suffice to say, digital humanities is a Google trend, critical digital humanities is not. Digital humanities has currency as a search term in the larger ecology of stuff people enter into Google, while critical digital humanities does not.
So what exactly is meant by the term “critical digital humanities”? And where does it come from?
The term itself is frequently attributed to David Berry of the University of Sussex. In his 2014 book, Critical Theory and the Digital, he writes: “These critical technical practices will become crucial to enable us to read and write the digital, the conditions of possibility for a form of critical computational reflexivity, and also to develop the ability to make public use of critical computational reason. To this end, additional critical technical practices and habits in the use of new digital methods and tools are needed, such as antisocial media, hacking, critical encryption practices, iteracy, critical digital humanities, and politically engaged computal praxis. This will ensure that we can read and write outside the streams of data collected in the service of computational capitalism and government monitoring and so avoid the shadow of what we might call the dialectic of computationality.”
This quote from Berry hits on the major themes that animate the so-called “critical digital humanities.” [specify what these are]
The origins of the critical digital humanities, however, pre-date Berry’s formulation. This reflects a trend towards retrofitting that animates much digital humanities conversation. If we were to make a list of the top ten most commonly spoken phrases by people in the field, I’m fairly certain number one would be, “I was doing digital humanities before it was even ‘called’ digital humanities.” Well, rest assured that there were people ‘doing’ critical digital humanities before it was called ‘critical digital humanities.’
Certainly, a watershed moment in the emergence of Critical Digital Humanities is Alan Liu’s 2011 MLA talk, “Where Is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?” which appeared in an expanded version in Matthew Gold’s 2012 collection, Debates in the Digital Humanities. Liu advises, “digital humanists will need to find ways to show that thinking critically about metadata, for instance, scales into thinking critically about the power, finance, and other governance protocols of the world.”
Following up on Liu’s question, Fred Gibbs asked, “Where is the criticism in the digital humanities?” and suggested there is none. That is to say, he argues that the field’s metadiscursive apparatus has yet to be developed. Gibbs raises three key points on this matter: 1) Digital humanists have not created an effective critical discourse around their work. And by critical discourse he means “a kind of scholarship in its own right that will help shape best practices and make the value of our work clearer to those both inside and outside the digital humanities community” 2) We need more theoretical and practical rubrics for evaluating digital humanities work. And 3. Digital Humanities work requires a different kind of peer review to produce effective criticism.” Suggesting what such a discourse might look like, Gibbs offers, “A critical discourse of digital humanities work: (1) must be concerned with both interpretation and evaluation; (2) is central to establishing the importance of the kind of scholarly and even cultural work that it does.”
Fortunately, there have been many interventions around these issues. To name a few, [Tara, Amy, others?] – so many, in fact, that I can’t provide an exhaustive list in this talk. Instead, I’m going to focus on the work that I’ve been doing at the juncture of postcolonial studies and the digital humanities. [specify its relationship to critical digital humanities]
By way of background, “postcolonial digital humanities” is a term I coined along with Adeline Koh in 2012, to create space for “Global explorations of race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability within cultures of technology.”
It really all began with the Twitter hashtag dhpoco, which we used to essentially find other people who were working at the intersections of postcolonial studies and digital humanities. For me, this task was very much animated by the DH maker ethos – I didn’t feel like I had an intellectual community, so why not build one.
Of course, this was the tendency towards retrofitting in digital humanities all over again. Indeed, there were people “doing” postcolonial digital humanities before it was even called postcolonial digital humanities.
The earliest of these projects from the 1990s, like George P. Landow’s website The Postcolonial Web or Deepika Bahri’s Postcolonial Studies at Emory site were largely informational and focused on representation and pedagogy – consolidating knowledge within the field, making it accessible to the public, particularly for students. These projects attest to the emergence of internet culture as an important space for establishing sites of knowledge within postcolonial studies, identifying key terms, theorists, and stakes for the field, publicizing the important work that postcolonial writers and scholars had been doing.
This is what The Postcolonial Web looks like, in all its 1995 Geocities design aesthetics. For Landow, who is known for his work on hypertext – essentially when a word is linked to other words- the “web” of the Postcolonial Web seemed to be, a double entendre for not only a home for postcolonial studies *on* the world wide web, but also using the affordances of hyperlinking to visualize – in a rudimentary way – connections between postcolonial theorists, writers, locations, and theoretical constructs.
Between these 90s projects and very recently – as in the two years or so – what scholars have been largely engaging with at the juncture of postcolonial studies and digital humanities is the theory, rather than the projects or the praxis. There are exceptions, like Masood Raja’s Postcolonial Space site founded in 2002, but theoretical interventions have been the trend. These have come out of a range of fields, from science and technology studies, new media studies, and critical code studies.
In her work within science and teachnology studies, Sandra Harding has long made the case for putting postcolonial studies, feminist theory, and science and technology studies in conversation with each other. Such a combination, Harding proposes, allows scholars to rethink narratives of technological development centered on the “West” in terms of theory and praxis. To do so is to revisit scientific traditions from non-Western cultures with an eye to the perspectives offered in other knowledge traditions. Moreover, it enables an examination of how both imperialism and colonialism have shaped value within scientific discourse. In her work, Harding makes the case for multicultural approaches to science, laying a theoretical foundation for postcolonial critiques of digital technologies and culture.
Emerging out of science and technology studies is an approach to postcolonial computing. Developed by Lilly Irani, Janet Vertesi, Paul Dourish, Kavita Philip, and Rebecca Grinter, “postcolonial computing” responds to developments in Human-Computer Interaction for Development (HCI4D), a scholarly community addressing the intersections of technology and development. Irani et al frame their critique of development within HCI4D in terms of postcolonial discourse, to underscore the vexing questions of authority, power, and legitimacy evoked in the rhetoric of “development.” In contrast to development-focused engagement, postcolonial computing offers an alternative lens on designing and analyzing technology. It foregrounds the dynamics of culture and power subtending design practices, arguing in favor of the particular over the universal. Postcolonial computing emphasizes cultural specificities to challenge more general presumptions about “good” design practices. As human-computer interaction has become more of a global phenomenon, the idea that design aesthetics or systems are universal has been called into question. To understand this phenomenon, Irani et al propose that postcolonial approaches to science and technology studies offers insight on how cultural encounters and their colonial dimensions shape technology design. By invoking a postcolonial approach to computing, they decenter the primacy of “Western” forms of knowledge in favor of a localized approach that broaches cross-cultural engagement with awareness of the effects of uneven development on design.
More recently, the term “decolonial computing” has emerged as a critique of and emancipatory alternative to “postcolonial computing.” Syed Mustafa Ali grounds decolonial computing in critiques of social contract theory raised by Charles Mills and decolonial theories of the global south articulated by Walter Mignolo among others. Ali argues that even in progressive approaches to computing, such as “postcolonial computing,” insufficient attention has been paid to the role of systemic racism and white supremacy, which Mills argues subtends the social contract. He contends that postcolonial theory fails to theorize racial materiality. By embracing decolonial thought in his approach to computing, Ali suggests that decolonial computing works from the peripheries, not the European center, centers delinking and the border, with emphasis on embodiment and situatedness. To exemplify the possibilities of decolonial computing, he considers artificial intelligence, asking the decolonial question of humanoid robots - what is the role of race in the making of faces for humanoid robots - are humanoid robots masking important questions about race by virtue of their design? While Ali’s articulation of “decolonial computing” is relatively new, it builds on his work on the relationship between critical race theory and technology and offers a new dimension to thinking through the questions of power, knowledge production, and development that computing engenders.
Within new media studies, a number of scholars like Lisa Nakamura, Alondra Nelson, and Tara McPherson have drawn attention to the way that internet culture is deeply implicated in cultural biases, norms, and practices. Focusing on postcolonial critique in particular, Radhika Gajjala’s work interprets silence and voice in online spaces, drawing on theoretical interventions on globalization and technology as frames. Also situating his work in postcolonial studies, Pramod Nayar’s work on digital dalits examines how subalternity is constructed through and represented within cyberspace. Additionally, Maria Fernandez has articulated the concept of “postcolonial media theory” to recoup the under-explored relationship between postcolonial studies and electronic media. Such scholarship takes a critical look at how modes of communication help shape lived postcolonial experience, reconfiguring identities. As the 2011 Arab Spring movement has shown, internet-based technologies are playing important roles in socio-political developments around the world. The range of interventions possible at the juncture of new media studies and postcolonial studies includes the effects of globalization on microcredit and online microfinancing, peer-to-peer networks, digital networking tools, and gaming environments. This body of work insists on a relationship between migration, mobility, space, capital, identity, and temporality visible in the production, dissemination, and consumption of technology.
While theoretical material has largely made up what we can think of as postcolonial digital humanities, projects still play an important role. The examples that follow offer a handful of digital humanities projects that have extended postcolonial scholarship into the digital sphere. This is by no means an exhaustive list, nor is it intended to represent a “best of” postcolonial digital humanities. Rather, the examples below are intended to show the breadth of ongoing postcolonial digital humanities research and point to the rich potential for future scholarly engagements.
The Bichitra Tagore Online Variorum Project (http://bichitra.jdvu.ac.in)
Headed by Professor Sukanta Chaudhuri of Jadavpur University, the Bichitra (a Bengali word meaning “various”) project is an effort to digitize all of the known texts—manuscripts, letters, speeches, published works—of Rabindranath Tagore. Bichitra began in 2011 in conjunction with Tagore’s 150th birthday and enjoyed financial and institutional support from the Indian Ministry of Culture and a broad coalition of universities and libraries from across the globe. The Bichitra project is notable for its immense scope, including over 47,000 pages of manuscripts and over 90,000 pages of printed materials that have been scanned, transcribed and made searchable. The volume of material digitized makes Bichitra one of the largest digital collections of any author in the world. In addition to the substantial digitization and transcription effort, the project developers created the Prabhed software that allows researchers to collate the various versions of Tagore’s texts in the database and compare them based on changes at the level chapter, verse and even word. Prabhed is under continued development and can be used independent of the Tagore collection, opening up rich possibilities for textual scholars worldwide. The Bichitra project has garnered significant attention in the digital humanities community, punctuated by Sukanta Chaudhuri’s closing plenary lecture at the 2014 Digital Humanities conference in Lausanne, Switzerland, and giving lie to the notion that major digital humanities projects are the province of the United States and Europe. The project’s website is available in three languages: Bengali, English and Hindi.
The 1947 Partition Archive is an oral history archive of the Partition of South Asia. Given the trauma that accompanied the birth of India and Pakistan, Partition is a subject that has engendered more silence than stories. Here, The 1947 Partition Archive intervenes. The archive was built by volunteer “citizen historians” who have attended one of the archive’s online workshops and submitted an oral history recorded in their communities. The project is funded through donations and contains audio and video life stories of Partition survivors. All are welcome to gather and submit an oral history for the project. The project website currently features a story map that documents locations for the 216 available oral histories. The map depicts not only static map points but also dynamic graphics that represent migrations. Stories are searchable through starting and end points of migration, as well as present location of a subject. Pop-up guides give an overview of the subject’s life story. A selection of interviews are available to watch on the website, while raw, unprocessed footage is available to researchers on-site at the project’s headquarters in Berkeley, California. More than 60 years after Partition, the project examines how to preserve and disseminate the stories of a generation that faced untold trauma at the moment of independence.
Around DH in 80 Days is a project sponsored by the Global Outlook::Digital Humanities special interest group of the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO), and is led by Alex Gil of Columbia University. As stated on the project website, Around DH in 80 Days is an effort to “introduce new and veteran audiences to the global field of DH scholarly practice by bringing together current DH projects from around the world.” To accomplish this goal, a collection of editors spotlighted one digital humanities project a day for 80 days by posting a short description of the project and a link to its project page. With each new entry, a red dot was added to a world map on the front of the Around DH in 80 Days page, creating a powerful visualization of the global diversity of digital humanities research. Once completed, visitors to the site curious about DH research beyond the United States and Europe could click on, for example, a link to the University of São Paulo in Brazil to find out more about the Hímaco (História, Mapas e Computadores) project’s work with GIS data, or Mo3jam, a Saudi Arabian user generated dictionary of colloquial Arabic words, or the Asian Shakespeare Intercultural Archive in Singapore, to name but a few. The image of a world literally dotted with DH projects beyond the developed West simultaneously underscores the need for a more globally focused DH community, and the rich possibilities for DH research independent of geographical location.
Designed by Mae Capozzi, an student at Swarthmore College, and Scott Enderele of Skidmore College, A Distant Reading of Empire considers how distant reading can contribute to postcolonial scholarship. Capozzi and Enderele developed a corpus of more than 3000 text files from HathiTrust and used MALLET (MAchine Learning for LanguagE Toolkit) to read the corpus. From this process, they drew conclusions about the influences of colonialism on late eighteenth-century writing, noting that India has a particularly important role in the literary imagination. The project includes topic modeling to visualize a network graph and examine connections between topics over time. Capozzi and Enderele’s project is an important example of how engaging with computational technology to read across a large number of texts allows scholars to consider broader trends of colonialism that emerge within British literature.
Despite the exciting work emerging at the confluence of postcolonial studies and digital humanities, the challenges to doing this work remain. Postcolonial digital humanities projects are underrepresented within the broader landscape of digital humanities by virtue of the data available for study. In the United States, copyright law shapes the availability of public domain material, which is currently restricted to texts pre-dating 1923. Therefore, the body of work that could be readily presented online in a digital project does not include contemporary postcolonial writing. Moreover, fair use laws have come under fire in recent years and are therefore not guaranteed to protect usage, particularly on the internet. Funding can pose a problem as well; the infrastructure needed to create projects is unevenly distributed around the world. As universities in the Global North develop digital humanities partnership with those of the Global South, the potential for neocolonial dynamics to emerge are real and must be guarded against. Another area of concern is whether local communities support the development of digital projects and archives, a fact that cannot always be assumed. For those working within academia, publishing presents another obstacle: digital humanities projects may not always “count” as scholarship to hiring or tenure and promotion committees and finding journals in which to publish articles that navigate the relationship between postcolonial studies and digital humanities can be difficult. Yet, as the genealogy of postcolonial digital humanities and sample projects suggest, this work is both timely and generative, offering theoretical and practical engagements with digital technology through a postcolonial lens.
Is a Critical Digital Humanities Possible? Lessons from Postcolonial Digital Humanities
IS A CRITICAL DIGITAL HUMANITIES
LESSONS FROM POSTCOLONIAL DIGITAL
Salem State University
OBLIGATORY DIGITAL HUMANITIES
“For me it has to do with the work that gets done at
the crossroads of digital media and traditional
humanistic study…. On the one hand, it’s bringing the
tools and techniques of digital media to bear on
traditional humanistic questions. But it’s also bringing
humanistic modes of inquiry to bear on digital
media.” –Kathleen Fitzpatrick (@kfitz)
THE EMERGENCE OF CRITICAL
“…additional critical technical practices and habits in
the use of new digital methods and tools are needed,
such as antisocial media, hacking, critical encryption
practices, iteracy, critical digital humanities, and
politically engaged computal praxis. This will ensure
that we can read and write outside the streams of
data collected in the service of computational
capitalism and government monitoring…” –David M.
RETROFITTING CRITICAL DIGITAL
“Digital humanists will need to find ways to show that
thinking critically about metadata, for instance,
scales into thinking critically about the power,
finance, and other governance protocols of the
world.” –Alan Liu (@alanyliu)
RETROFITTING CRITICAL DIGITAL
“A critical discourse of digital humanities work: (1)
must be concerned with both interpretation and
evaluation; (2) is central to establishing the
importance of the kind of scholarly and even cultural
work that it does.” –Fred Gibbs (@fredgibbs)
“Global explorations of race, class, gender, sexuality,
and disability within cultures of technology.”
The Postcolonial Web (thepostcolonialweb.org)
• Postcolonial science and technology studies
• Postcolonial computing
• Decolonial computing
• New media studies
AROUND DH IN 80 DAYS
Around DH in 80 Days (www.arounddh.org)
A DISTANT READING OF EMPIRE
A Distant Reading of Empire (readingfromadistance.wordpress.com)
CHALLENGES TO POSTCOLONIAL
• Underrepresentation within broader landscape of
• Copyright and fair use laws restricting data
• Uneven distribution of infrastructure globally
• Legibility of digital scholarship for hiring, tenure, and
• Challenges to publication
Berry, David, M. Critical Theory and the Digital. London: Bloomsbury, 2014. Print.
Gibbs, Fred. “Critical Discourse in Digital Humanities.” Journal of Digital
Humanities 1.1 (2011). Accessed 17 Feb. 2015. Web.
Liu, Alan. “Where is Cultural Critique in the Digital Humanities?” Alan Liu.
Accessed 16 Feb. 2015. Web.
Lopez, Andrew, Fred Rowland, and Kathleen Fitzpatrick. “On Scholarly
Communication and the Digital Humanities: An Interview with Kathleen
Fitzpatrick.” In the Library with the Lead Pipe. Accessed 17 Feb. 2015. Web.