DH Reads

DH Read: “Colonial and Postcolonial Digital Humanities Roundtable”

In a post providing her Skype remarks from the Colonial and Postcolonial DH roundtable at the College of William and Mary’s Race, Memory, and the Digital Humanities Conference, Roopika Risam argues that challenging colonialism in the “digital cultural record” requires “significant attention to how we are designing projects, framing the material in them, and managing the data that is part of them.” As she contends, “The digital cultural record has largely ported over the hallmarks of colonialism from the cultural record, unthinkingly, without malice, in part because postcolonial critique has not made many in-roads in the practices of digital humanities scholarship.” She further asserts (emphasis mine):

In fact, I would argue, the dynamics of colonialism have not only been reproduced but are also being amplified by virtue of the fact that the digital cultural record is being constructed and disseminated publicly, online, in a digital milieu beset with its own politics of identity. As scholars of media and new media studies like Radhika Gajjala, Lisa Nakamura, and Anna Everett have pointed out, gone are the days when the internet could be theorized as a blank slate for identity creation – not that it was ever that space really. In fact, as the last few years have shown, whether through the #GamerGate attacks on women in the video game industry or the flocks of right-wing trolls that are attacking, threatening, and doxxing scholars of race, gender, sexuality, and colonialism, the digital cultural record not only must contend with the colonial hangovers from the cultural record but also the forces that are actively constructing its medium as a hostile environment where universities and the academy are under threat, right along with the knowledge we are producing and making available publicly.

For these reasons, Risam says that it is not enough to add a broader range of stories and voices to the digital cultural record; we must also ask questions about the role of colonialism when designing any and every digital humanities project. We should be asking not just “what gets digitized and thus represented in the digital cultural record” but also “how those who have created these projects have presented their subjects,” and “are they presenting them in ways that rehearse colonialist knowledge production? Or are they recognizing the role of colonialism in actively constructing the digital cultural record and, quite directly, seeking to push back against it?” Risam makes another key assertion for why we cannot rely on what she calls the “additive approach”:

In an environment in which we know and recognize that there is simply not going to be enough funding in the world to redress the inequalities in the digital cultural record and that one of the vestiges of colonialism is the absences in the cultural record – the voices that weren’t recorded, for which we couldn’t create a digital archive or project even if we wanted to – project design, specifically continued interrogation of colonialism through project design – is an essential site of intervention in the epistemologies of digital knowledge production.  And, put together, the two moves we have been making in scholarship – both the additive and the epistemological – hold possibility for remediating the digital cultural record.

There is much more to Risam’s post, including illustrative examples. Before reading this, I had not really thought about the additive and the epistemological as two different “moves” in decolonizing digital humanities, but I see now how these are two different kinds of interventions. Risam provides a useful way of framing digital projects that can help take us from theorizing about decolonizing digital humanities to putting it in practice. It’s a great reminder that no matter what the subject or sources for a project, questions about colonialism and knowledge production always have relevance.

See the original Editors’ Choice piece here.