“Hovering, Listening, Reading”

The readings from Matthew K. Gold’s and Lauren F. Klein’s “Introduction: A DH That Matters” to Debates in the Digital Humanities 2019 and Kelly Baker Josephs’ and Roopika Risam’s “Introduction” to The Digital Black Atlantic led me to two sites, one on the recommended list—the Early Caribbean Digital Archive (https://ecda.northeastern.edu/) — and one that followed from the list and the reading combined—Musical Passage: A Voyage to 1688 Jamaica (http://www.musicalpassage.org).   These two sites, in turn, reinforced and recast the questions and projects of the two Introductions in multiple ways.  Here I focus on three areas of particular interest to me as an academic scholar: the potentially changing relation of digital humanities to the academy as epitomized by Gold’s and Klein’s statement that “the expanded field model may still work, but it must more clearly account for work outside of digital humanities and outside of the academy”(1); Josephs’ and Risam’s interest in the role of canon-building and “the practice of citation”(4) for the digital Black Atlantic and digital humanities more generally; and the potential for the digital Black Atlantic to challenge the assumptions “within digital humanities . . . that the epistemology of white, dominant, English-speaking cultures of the Global North is a ‘universal,’ . . . by virtue of the transnational and multilingual dimensions of this work” (5).

            Both the ECDA and Musical Passage depend on academic institutional support as well as external funding and resources for their knowledge production.  ECDA is primarily a product of scholars and students at Northeastern and their archive is based in part on texts from and partnerships with academic libraries.  At the same time, the archive is reliant to a great extent on early Google digitization of library books with the limits to imaging, accuracy, and completeness that are symptomatic of that resource.  Using the archive can be unproductive if one hopes to search through traditional methods and categories: bibliographic printing details or female authorship for example.  The archive’s strength, however, lies precisely in the way that it reconceives of the archive as a tool as well as a body of K/knowledge: seeing “new possibilities for re-archiving (remixing and reassembling) materials from existing archives as well as archiving new materials”( https://ecda.northeastern.edu/home/about/decolonizing-the-archive/).  As Brandy K. Williams states in a recent conference paper, “when Knowledge with a capital K is about possession or ownership it becomes a colonial project” (“Technologies of resistance: towards feminist futures” GCWS 8/27/20).  Thus, by “remapping the lines between knowledge and non-knowledge” through its project to “disrupt, review, question, and revise the colonial knowledge regime that informs the archives from which [they] draw most of [their] materials” (https://ecda.northeastern.edu/home/about/decolonizing-the-archive/), the ECDA doubly decolonizes the archive, foregrounding other accounts of authorship and identity (through the recovery and juxtaposition of embedded narratives) while actively restructuring the kinds of questions the archive itself provokes and encourages.  The placing of the archive’s scholarly home predominantly in one institution and, indeed, one department, however, limits the range of languages and cultural production that the archive can provide.  Ultimately, the archive functions in English, both linguistically and in terms of the sources of textual publication.  By being predominantly book based, its resources for visual culture depend on print and are imbricated with traditional Knowledge forms even as its recontextualization invites us to deploy those materials in new interventions. 

Interestingly, the ECDA demonstrates how “in scholarship, particularly on marginalized communities, the practice of citation is key to building and reinforcing a recognized (and recognizable) canon that confers status on an area of study” (Josephs and Risam, 4).  Josephs and Risam emphasize the importance of looking to “the hard-won canons of black and postcolonial studies’ as crucial to the process of the “breaking and claiming of . . . interstitial space between recognized academic disciplines” as well as acknowledging that “the structure of current academic systems means that [the] ability to publish this volume is dependent on its legibility to these traditions” including the “white predominant perception of digital humanities” (12).  Their Introduction both offers a multinational/multilingual corpus of theory based on earlier critics like Gilroy, Glissant, Morrison, Brathwaite, and Du Bois, and provides links to other sites of knowledge production like AADHum and Musical Passage: Jamaica 1688.  Similarly, the “Projects We Love” section of ECDA, points visitors to such “additive” archives as Musical Passage, which itself embodies some of the disruptions of national and disciplinary boundaries within which ECDA remains constrained, through material circumstances if not in its methodology and aspirations. 

            Rather than an archive, Musical Passage presents itself as a careful interpretation of a “single rare artifact.”  Like the participants in the digital [B]lack Atlantic and ECDA, it is “motivated to make audible what otherwise falls silent in the historical record” (www.musicalpassage.org/#about); in this case literally the sounds and performances of the early modern/middle period African diaspora.  It also models new methods and modes of interacting with a core text of colonial Knowledge, even as it invites its visitors to participate in the “experience of closely engaging with the rich, although mediated and multilayered information on the page” (“About the Site Design”) that characterizes traditional textual scholarship, albeit providing hypertext and multisensory material to its layers and imagining a non-specialized audience (“Sloane published the results of his research in a very large, leather-bound volume, about four times the size of an average modern book [http://www.musicalpassage.org/#read]).  The site offers an unusually balanced intercultural understanding of the document, thanks in part to the wide range of university, departmental, and disciplinary homes of its primary creators –Laurent Dubois, David Garner, and Mary Caton Lingold—but also thanks to its recognition of and engagement with repositories of scholarly knowledge not often seen as relevant to the academy (i.e. Jamaican Musicians Respond March 17 2017).  Moreover, Musical Passage builds on the polyglot and Black Atlantic parameters of its singular text to suggest a shared knowledge that is made possible by “hovering, listening, and reading” not only to/in this particular document but as a call to a “slow” digital praxis.