Race Within Digital Humanities​

The readings that the digital scholar’s group was asked to read in preparation for Dr. Richard Jean So’s visit this week, took on the topic of race within digital humanities. These reading challenged us to consider how race is constructed within data-driven spaces, as well as the role that race plays in computational history.

In “Making a case for Black Digital Humanities” Gallon seeks to “articulate a relationship between the digital humanities and Africana/African American/Black studies…so as to highlight how technology, employed in this underexamined context, can further expose humanity as a racialized social construction”. Gallon notes that discussions about the lineage of black studies within digital humanities are historically absent. In order to begin the work of tracing this lineage, scholars need to engage in “a discussion of the black digital humanities by drawing attention to the “technology of recovery” that undergirds black digital scholarship, showing how it fills the apertures between Black studies and digital humanities”.  Recovery, notes Gallon “rests at the heart of Black studies, as a scholarly tradition that seeks to restore the humanity of black people lost and stolen through systemic global racialization”.  This recovery within digital humanities seen to recover those who have been excluded, or whose histories have been remained hidden. “One of the essential features of the black digital humanities, then, is that it conceptualizes a relationship between blackness and the digital where black people’s humanity is not a given”. Ultimately, Gallon challenges those involved in digital humanities to shift our epistemology in order to generate new questions about the relationship between the racialization of humanity and the digital spaces.

Tara McPherson, in her article “Why are digital Humanities So White Thinking the Histories of Race and Computation” argues that technological systems are inherently constructed for white audiences. Further, she argues“the difficulties we encounter in knitting together our discussions of race (or other modes of difference) with our technological productions within the digital humanities (or in our studies of code) are actually an effect of the very designs of our technological systems, designs that emerged in post–World War II computational culture”. Thus, part of the struggle that we face in trying to make digital spaces more inclusive is the actually coded design that underlies these spaces. McPherson notes that “First, we must better understand the machines and networks that continue to powerfully shape our lives in ways that we are often ill-equipped to deal with as media and humanities scholars. This necessarily involves more than simply studying our screens and the images that dance across them, moving beyond the study of representations and the rhetorics of visuality”. We need to move beyond visualization and on to construction. It is this that will help us to move beyond the boxes we create.


Museum Informatics

On April 4th, the Digital Scholars Group had the pleasure of welcoming Dr. Paul Marty, Professor in the School of Information at Florida State University, to help us critically consider the current shifts within museum identity. During his talk, Dr. Marty talked about the current shift in museum identify from an object centered identity to a knowledge about objects centered identity. As part of his talk, Dr. Marty introduced the group to collections of various crowdsourcing projects and the role that these project play in shifting museum identity. The objective of many of the projects that Dr. Marty introduced the group to was to get individuals more involved in museum culture and object knowledge. One such project, Citizen Archivist lets people view and transcribe material contained in the National Archives.

Through talking about these different projects, Marty introduced us to the idea of Sociotechnical Tensions; which he defined as “Study of the sociotechnical interactions that occur between people, information, and technology in museums and the other cultural heritage organizations”. In order to illustrate this concept, Dr. Marty talked with us about a boy who went to a museum that highlighted the history of Florida. The boy after walking through the museum remarked: “I don’t see myself here”. Often when histories are told there are voices that are excluded from the narrative. In order to open up spaces such as museums to these historically excluded, crowdsourcing platforms allow for the opportunity for all visitors to become active participants in the creation of historical knowledge. The idea being that the museum belongs to everyone and all should have a voice.

To conclude Dr. Marty left us with a few questions to consider:

How do we build applications that people want to use?

How do we learn from amateur engagement?

How do we connect the people with the right task?

What does it mean to crowdsource in a successful way?

Recovering Silenced Voices

At our meeting on November 9th, our reading group explored representation in digital archives. The digital archives that we explored where Black at Bryn Mawr, Visualizing Emancipation, and O Say Can You See. Each of these archives took a unique approach to visually representing racial history in the United States. Black at Bryn Mawr was started by Bryn Mawr students Emma Kioko ’15 and Grace Pusey ’15 in the Fall of 2014. Through the use of historical artifacts, such as pictures, documents, letters, ect, Kioka and Pusey composed a digital walking tour that illustrates the racialized history of Bryn Mawr. The digital walking tour represents the racial history of the college through discussions of place. Viewers are taken to different buildings on campus that represent the racialized views of the college. One particularly powerful visual representation on the map is Rockefeller Hall, known historically as “the servant quarters”.  The authors note “At Bryn Mawr, servant corridors communicated clearly the expectation that Black men and women should do their work without being seen or heard, thereby bypassing any need to acknowledge or credit them for their labor”( Kioka and Pusey 2015)

The second Archive that our reading group spent some time looking at Visualizing Emancipation. Visualizing Emancipation “organizes document evidence, about when, where, and how slavery fell apart during the American Civil War.” When viewers first click on the map they are bombarded by various data points that each represent a historical event. Once one clicks on the point a window will pop up details the event. Viewers can also click a link at the bottom of the pop up to be taken directly to the source for that event. In representing the archive visually on a map, it allows viewers to draw conclusions about what sort of vents were taking place where as well as where the greatest concentration of events took place.

The third archive that we briefly took a look at was O Say Can You See. This archive “documents the challenge to slavery and the quest for freedom in early Washington D.C.”  There are many ways to go about navigating this site. You can navigate by people, families, cases, and stories.  If one chooses to navigate by selecting a specific individual to follow then one will be brought to a sort of map detailing the chosen person connections. If one chooses to navigate by case then one is able to actually see some of the historical documents and the ruling of the case.

Though all of these archives go about presenting the artifacts contained in them differently, they all tell of a highly racialized history within our nation. One where certain voices are silenced because of their skin color. A country where we as digital scholars must engage in these types of recovery projects in order to begin to give voice to the silenced.


Collective Conciousness for Rewriting History

This week in preparation for Dr. Anaïs Nony’s visit, our Digital Scholars reading group engaged with two of her works. Nony’s texts challenge us as digital humanists to work towards a re-writing of history so that we may, as a society, collectively address our current geo-political condition. In “From Dividual Power to The Ethics of Renewal in the Anthropocene,” Nony states that “the battlefield of the Anthropocene is one that demands action” (2017, p.31). Nony argues that we need to address the urgency of our anthropocenic condition and to take ownership of our geo-political situation.

“To rewrite history,” she argues, “is to heal the festering wounds that thwart the possibility of becoming otherwise in the world. This becoming other than what we are is the promise launched by collective action, by the processes of collective emancipation” (2017, p. 31). Therefore, we cannot hope to address our anthropocenic condition if we do not first acknowledge the role that we as a collective society play. In the challenge towards becoming something other than who we have historically been, we must collectively act if we are to address the urgency of our condition.

Viewing our anthropocenic condition as a battlefield allows us to question relations of power. Power, according to Nony, “is both an ontological and epistemological problem that develops into reflections on philosophies of being and natures of knowledge” (2017, p.33). Nony goes on to argue that in our current situation power is dividual and used to divide rather than unite. This segregated setting produces the possibility of watching from a distance, from a remote place of privilege and comfort, where the actions deployed in front of one’s eyes can be fictionalized to produce feelings of pity and fear (2017 p.36).

This division of power allows some to claim that they have not contributed to the Anthropocene. If we are to overcome our condition however we need to unite and work together. To move forward and address this condition we need to collectively embrace an ethic of care.  Care in this situation is taken to mean an “investment in the future of a living relation, be it with a (deceased) person, a plant, an animal, an object, or a space. Caring is cultivating a relation by investing in it” (2017 p.39). If we are to work towards becoming then we need to invest in changing our current condition not just for the moment but for the future.

In the second article of Nony’s that we were asked to read this week “Nootechnics of the Digital” Nony discussed the role of technics in our digital spaces. Nony argues that nootechnics offers a mode for thinking about the genesis of both noos (intuition, intelligence, flair, intention) and techné (technique, craft, art) as the condition and the consequence of our cultural condition, of our ability to mediate and negotiate different realms of reality” (20017, p.130). Thus, nootechnics can allow researchers a way not only to mediate and negotiate multiple realities, but to also to create change. This brings me to one of the additional reading that our reading group was asked to engage with this week.

In Marisa Elena Duarte & Miranda Belarde-Lewis’s article “Imagining: Creating Spaces for Indigenous Ontologies” the authors explore the way that indigenous communities use online spaces to share cultural artifacts and create a sort of cultural archive. In order to work with Indigenous communities towards decolonization practices, we must first step back from normative expectation (2015 p.678). Doing this allows scholars to open the way indigenous communities make meaning. Duarte and Lewis note that “Indigenous epistemic partners will want to step outside their comfort zone, sensitize themselves to Indigenous histories and political realities, learn to listen in new ways, and position themselves as followers in collaborative projects with Indigenous specialists leading the way” (2015, p.697). What stood out for me was the way that the authors challenge those of us who are not from indigenous communities to listen and be open to hearing.

To allow indigenous voices to create their own narratives, those who work alongside these indigenous people scholars need to be own to new ways of knowing. We need to move away from

Western text-based systems so visible and, therefore, apparently superior to oral, kinesthetic, aesthetic, and communal Indigenous ways of knowing—quipu, ceremonies, dances, songs, oral histories, oratory, stories, hunting and growing practices, healing arts, weaving, painting, pottery, carving, dreaming, and vision work—are the institutions through which Western text-based systems are legitimated (683).

As scholars, we need to be open to these new meaning making moments if we are to work towards decolonization and empowerment of indigenous communities.

If nootechnics allows scholars a way to negotiate between different realities, then we can potentially apply this technique to the ways that we work with indigenous communities to give voice to multiple ways of knowing. If we are to value multiple ways of knowing, then we need to figure out a way to highlight the work of these indigenous communities. Many indigenous communities value oral traditions and storytelling, so the nootechnics approach would seek to figure out a way for technology to allow this tradition the legitimacy that it deserves.

Nony, Anaïs. (2017) “From Dividual Power to the Ethics of Renewal in the Anthropocene.” Azimuth, International Journal of Philosophy, 9, 31-41