[D]igital [H]umanities vs. digital humanities: DH and/as the Digital Black Atlantic

I’m interested in how this week’s readings, over time, seem to draw out this tension between what could be understood as “Digital Humanities” and “digital humanities.” I understand the former, with first letters intentionally capitalized, as an attempt by scholars (as seen especially in the readings from 2012-2016) to understand a field’s relationship to the academy. Specifically, the Digital Humanities, as an academic field and institution itself, is continuously trying to balance the potentially subversive use of technology with traditional modes of knowledge production. On the other hand, “digital humanities” seems to act as the very refusal of these traditions: the refusal to acknowledge the white, Western university as epistemic authority, and the refusal to derive an understanding of its Value from it. It’s in finding a liminal position within these positions (based on the readings) that I find a lot of DH scholars. In particular, Spiro’s attempt at defining the field’s values—such as diversity and openness—can perhaps be understood as one possible way to alleviating this tension, in that defining values provides the specificity needed for the field to be taken seriously, yet are defined in such a way that opens it up for conversation, interdisciplinarity, and new “relations.”

However, if “A DH That Matters” makes anything clear, it’s that our world in crisis has revealed that out very understanding of relations are subtended by histories of slavery and colonialism—relations that are undergirded by race, gender, and sexuality. Thus, I found myself trying to define DH around projects like “The Digital Black Atlantic” and The Early Caribbean Digital Archive. Specifically, what these projects communicate is that the subversive potential of DH lies not in the technology themselves, but in how DH invites us to rethink what we consider our sources and sites of knowledge production: What would it mean for us to read the margins as not secondary, but primary sites of exploration and knowledge? A theoretical/methodological lens of the “Black Atlantic”, Josephs and Risam argue, “negotiates movement across time and space, forging varied spatial and temporal relationships,” through re-mixing the archive and reconfiguring memory in the present. In calling attention to and re-mixing “travel narratives, novels, poetry, natural histories, and diaries” as a way to disrupt the Western archive, The Early Caribbean Digital Archive does just that; acting as, what Donaldson would call, an “ephemeral archive” that speaks to “the transient nature of modern memory,” and emplacing the past, present and future together. From these projects, I see the potential for DH to cultivate a politic that celebrates and takes seriously overlooked, non-traditional texts—which, in this moment, may look like tweets, Instagram infographics, hashtags, etc.

In this way, what these projects—and a Black critical lens in general—provides “digital humanists” is, perhaps, the very refusal of the “humanist” concept itself. Indeed, Black feminists like Sylvia Wynter, Hortense Spillers, and Christina Sharpe have long written about how the figure of “The Human” has been historically constructed as the white, cis-heterosexual male—a colonial technology that defines Blackness as non-human, imposes relationality as hierarchy, and justifies centuries of brutality and violence along lines of race, gender, and sexuality. If we take this as our starting point, then the remixing of the archive with a Digital Black Atlantic lens can be understood as not only the act of recovering the past, but an onto-epistemological practice that refigures ways of Being and Becoming: specifically, ways that refuse the sovereignty of The (rational, individualistic, and technocratic) Human. And so I wonder: If we are to take these works seriously, then would a digital humanities for the 2020’s and beyond be better understood as a digital non-humanities? And what would that look like?

5 thoughts on “[D]igital [H]umanities vs. digital humanities: DH and/as the Digital Black Atlantic

  1. Asma (ahs-ma) Neblett (she/hers)

    Hi Kevin, I really value your blog and its prompt as it concerns a Black feminist scholarship and a centering of margins in DH philosophy.

    Your prompt and this week’s readings inspire me to situate the neoliberal institution and how really masterful projects that center identities on the margins are (often) mechanized by it for field and institutional diversity responsibilities. Anecdotally, practitioners who self-identify on or represent the margins in this particular space are usually tasked with thinly-veiled expectations that prioritize the optics of a program, department, institute, etc., which compound intellectual labor production, and is later consumed for internal/external reporting that keep institutions in compliance and financially endowed.

    If projects like the Digital Black Atlantic denotationally contribute to a “digital non-humanities” because of its *presence* in the field – and not for what it discusses or accomplishes, per Josephs and your post – then the ‘non’ prefix becomes adversely symbolic in a wildly exploitative system.

    Before it can be interpreted as ‘non’, I question how we can (and why we don’t) sit with it as, indeed, constitutive of the field because of its discourse *and* diverse texture – especially when considering Gold and Klein’s contributions on the expanded field model in DH? Or more specifically, how do we move away from *defining* scholarship and intellectual products by authors, on or about the margins, as “non” to the traditions of the field (without defaulting to behaviors that resemble color-blindness, so to speak)?

    In Summer 2020 via Twitter, feminist-legal scholar, Dr. Kimberly Crenshaw offered a contribution that connects to your question and a potential answer for me. She stated, “Intersectionality is not additive. It’s fundamentally reconstitutive…” to which the latter can be understood as an offering on the wholeness or simultaneity that is necessary to understanding and deploying the theory, in and outside of academic contexts. We risk appreciating DH scholarship and interventions discussed this week as ‘boutique’ without an actual appraisal of it as integral to digital humanities in the first place, and I believe the absence of this work prior to defining it outside of the field as ‘non’, contributes to an additive understanding touched in this week’s readings.

  2. A Virtual Lisa (she/them/their)

    This post was beautifully written, Kevin.
    “What would it mean for us to read the margins as not secondary, but primary sites of exploration and knowledge?” <– That is a great question, and one that DHers may be uniquely positioned to answer.

  3. Brianna Caszatt (she/her/hers)

    Kevin, I agree that your post has presented a lot of great ideas and questions worth exploring more in depth.

    Asma, I am so in love with Dr. Crenshaw’s tweet and so grateful that you shared that.

    The reflex to prefix with “non” is spurred by good intentions, but it is not sufficient (I say this as a reminder to myself). As “non-x” necessarily carries all of the baggage of “x” without solving “x”–being defined by the lack of “x” or by its opposition to “x”–I’m more inclined to put the work into redefining/reclaiming x (in this case humanist, humanities, and even traditional) or perhaps coming up with new words altogether.

  4. Maggi Delgado

    I don’t think they would be considered non-humanists. Digital humanists are experimenting, studying, and exposing a different side of the human experience. Yes we have Caribbean studies, courses on slave narratives and Black voices, but these studies are not mainstream. No everyone is expose to these authors and creators. So traditional humanities studies are limiting. This is where DH comes in and has the ability to expose and bridge that gap.

    During last week’s zoom someone defined “DH is the continuation of the humanities as we know it!”. This is important! The field as the readings mentioned, and as you reiterated, is defined by its openness, and its counter narrative to that the white, cis gender, male. Looking at 2020 and beyond, I believe digital humanist will be the ones responsible for capturing and archiving a more diverse and realistic view of what’s happening now. DH folks will continue to bringing to light and therefore making it more accessible, the social and humanities works of authors/creators that were either never given proper credit, or the space to share their voices.

Comments are closed.