200 Fingers Listening: The New Discipline and Matters of Alterity

Last Friday, we had the privilege of hearing Alex Gil speak, and while participants expected he would be speaking to the race and alterity issues present in our readings, I was a little surprised when he did not. I kept thinking, “He’s going to talk about race and alterity now.” He mentioned it a few times, and when our conversation via Google hangouts ended, I was scratching my head. Retrospectively, though, much of what he said relates to race and alterity, and I hope to tease out some of those things through the course of this blog post.

During his talk on April 21, 2017, Gil advocated for a new discipline that existed outside of digital humanities whose purpose was to “understand the creation, distribution, and location of all scholarship in all languages at all times.” He also noted that such a discipline was very materialist, based on empirical observation, and that the documents such disciplinarians were dealing with were both finite in number and could exist in analog (pottery shard, paper manuscript) or as bytes (electronic journal article). We are still unsure of what this discipline will be called, but for the sake of this blog post, I will refer to it as the new discipline.

Such a discipline has, according to Gil, three notable characteristics: knowledge architecture, cultural analytics, and a jack-of-all-trades workforce where each member has multiple analytical and technological literacies, making such workers capable not only of gathering and creating knowledge but also building the databases and platforms that host that information, storing it on non-institutional hardware like jump drives, publishing the data in journals, and analyzing the data there. Gil’s discussion dealt heavily with the survivability of materials and how we should be thinking about this materially. He gave an example of a database that could be placed on a jump drive.

Among all of this talk of disciplinarity, materiality, and access, I see faint but definite connections to alterity woven through these diverse issues. In her 1999 CCCC address, Cynthia Selfe notes that generally, marginalized groups, specifically African Americans and lower-class citizens, lack access to technology and therefore cannot gain the literacies to succeed. In his talk, Gil noted that likely community colleges and smaller institutions would be the root of this new discipline. In relation to the readings we did for this week, Sayers advocates for minimal barriers to access, and McGrail notes that universities and community colleges have power differences that are “mask[ed]” by their “share[d] disciplinary affinities.” Finally, Gallon discusses a “technology of recovery” through with African Americans and other marginalized groups can reclaim certain knowledges and epistemologies.

In a way, the new discipline seeks to do just that: it seeks to reclaim from those in power the rights to data (freely given) and to move away from data (which must be taken). While somewhat idealistic in its constructs and despite doubts of success, to understand all knowledges in all languages, the new discipline’s greatest asset might be diversity. If the 200 fingers listening that Gil spoke of are all diverse in background, skillsets, and demographics, then perhaps that would further contribute to the bodies of knowledge, to the new disciplines ability to know everything in every language.

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