One very snowy winter day, I trudged in from shoveling three feet of snow and found an invitation to offer a keynote session at the HASTAC 2015 conference in my inbox. There may or may not have been shrieking. And jumping up and down.
HASTAC is an organization that has been a formative part of my professional life. I had the opportunity to be a HASTAC Scholar when I was a graduate student, and I’m mentoring my first Salem State HASTAC Scholar this year. The fact that the program committee for HASTAC 2015 opted to feature the work of emerging scholars like me when they could have had their pick of academic superstars for keynotes is precisely why I have always admired and respected HASTAC.
Selecting a topic for my talk was an intimidating feat. With the conference theme of “The Art and Science of Digital Humanities,” I immediately thought of C.P. Snow’s controversial lecture “The Two Cultures,” in which Snow suggests that the sciences and humanities constitute two separate “cultures” incapable of communication. My second thought was of Rudyard Kipling’s line “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet,” which speaks to two more cultural binaries. Finally, I thought of one of my favorite people, Alex Gil, whose powerful 2014 DHSI keynote “The (Digital) Library of Babel” on global digital humanities includes a section on “The Dance of Universals.”
With apologies to all three – though, maybe Kipling not so much – here’s a description of the closing plenary talk I’ll be giving at HASTAC 2015.
Across Two (Imperial) Cultures: A Ballad of Digital Humanities and the Global South
“East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet,” wrote Rudyard Kipling in his 1899 poem “The Ballad of East and West.” This oft-quoted phrase has come to signify the epistemological, cultural, and philosophical differences that render Europe and Asia fundamentally unreconcilable and unknowable to each other. Sixty years later, C.P. Snow identified another presumably alienated pair: the arts and science. He suggested that a lack of common culture between scientists and literary scholars posed a significant threat to civilization. Vastly different on first glance, these pairs have helped shape the rise of modernity and, indeed, imperialism. Constructions of “East” and “West” offered rationalization for European colonialism, while arts and sciences have been implicated in empire building. Yet, these binaries also have been misunderstood, presumed to be polar opposites while inextricably linked. Perhaps nowhere are connections between them more illuminating than in the field of digital humanities; its histories and methodologies reveal complex relationships between science, culture, technology, and power worldwide. This talk begins with points of contact between these categories to examine the challenges, affordances, and limits of the Global South as a geographical and epistemological category for the digital humanities. I will consider how digital humanities already exists within a matrix of East, West, arts, and science and identify the stakes for making these connections legible in scholarly practice. By attending to these links, we might compose a new ballad of digital humanities and the Global South, reshaping the map of the field and decentering North America and Western Europe in favor of a distributed network of practitioners around the world.