Evasion and Digital Humanities
The 2015 Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities forum "Peripheries, barriers, hierarchies: rethinking access, inclusivity, and infrastructure in global DH practice," September 24-26, generated productive, open-ended questions about the future of DH. It also broadcast warnings we ought not ignore. As a field, DH has expanded beyond easy definition; the only consensus is that scholars and other cultural workers are using new technologies and methodologies to do academic and non-academic work. It should be noted, however, that some fear of the "political" seems to be widespread within the field, although I'd point out that DH is an integral part of polis or the body politic. It generates its own version of "politics" by accident and design. In this sense, the word "inclusivity" in the thematic description of the forum embodies a crucial code. People who are making inquiries about African American literature and culture ought to deal with the code as a fair warning. It is a good reason to step back, slow down, and rethink what is progressive and regressive (i.e., neo-colonial) in an operative sense, a reason highlighted by the University of Kansas.
Amy Earhart's presentation "Take Back the Narrative: Rethinking the History of Diverse Digital Humanities" was directly relevant to the mission and vision of the Project on the History of Black Writing. and her reference to the developing Charles Chesnutt Archive directed us to a model of what should be done at various institutions for individual writers. From a different angle, Amardeep Singh's discussion "The Archive Gap: the Digital Humanities and the Western Canon" mapped another path to be taken. His blog on race, the canon, and digital humanities provides quite useful commentary on how barriers and hierarchies must be navigated in serious examination of black writing texts and contexts. These two presentations highlighted why performative frames do matter.
Jacqueline Wernimont's "Performing archives: sensitive data, social justice, and the performative frame. " was an excellent example of how caution must be exercised in using digital means to document "histories" that require us to face the horrors and shame of the past. Her use of digital technology to give us sonic and haptic representations of data suggested that good intentions can slip into forms of evasion. Decontextualized sound and touch can preclude confronting what horrors were attached to eugenics and the forced modification of a person's reproductive organs. Had she not provided ample context about her project on documenting sterilization in California, we would have thought her use of sound and a string one could touch was an effort to create postmodern art rather than an effort to show maximum respect for the victims of sterilization. Consider how counter-productive it would be to allow digital paintings based on photographs of lynching to replace the photographic evidence of how a 1919 Ellisville, Mississippi lynching was advertised . We should not condone evasions in DH that wear the mask of respect for victims or that aestheticize our visceral and rational analyses of what happened.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. September 29, 2015