Below is my position paper from the 2016 MLA panel “Where is the Nation in the Digital Humanities?”
As the organizer of this panel, I wanted to set the stage for what I hope will be a productive conversation about the practices in which the digital humanities engage. The title of this roundtable, “Where Is the Nation in Digital Humanities” takes its title from a 2014 blog post by Paul Barrett: “Where Is the Nation in Postcolonial Digital Humanities.” Barrett observed that within the work that I and several others were doing on postcolonial approaches to digital humanities, “The continued salience of the nation as an organizing structure and category of analysis” was absent. He found this at odds with the preoccupation with the nation – and critiques of it – within postcolonial scholarship. I have thought often of Barrett’s critique and the many ways that the nation manifests within digital humanities scholarship.
The first is that the nation inevitably shapes academic conversations – and digital humanities is no exception. I recall a conversation with an Australian colleague who told me that my decision to focus on the “postcolonial” in digital humanities was a problem because “postcolonial theory” as practiced in the United States is compromised by the fact that its not driven by the work of indigenous communities. In Australia, he told me, indigenous Australians played a central role in defining the debates of postcolonial studies. While a critique of postcolonial theory for its implication in continental European philosophy is a good one – and has been much discussed in the field – the comment struck me as failing to recognize the national differences in how postcolonialism is understood. In the United States, where indigenous communities are sovereign nations that continue to be colonized, postcolonial theory hasn’t gained a significant amount of currency, and the emphasis in indigenous studies is to value theory and scholarship that emerges specifically from the experience of Native American communities. Therefore, recognizing the value and outputs for a postcolonial approach to digital humanities is itself linked to local academic contexts in which postcolonial theory is applied.
Another key issue here is what forms of the nation are instantiated in digital humanities scholarship? If, indeed, digital humanities practices are local and situated, influenced by contexts like the nation, in what kinds of politics of the nation is scholarship situated? To ask an infamous digital humanities question, “who’s in and who’s out” in the nation in digital humanities? We will hear more about this in Dhanashree Thorat’s talk on the construction of the September 11th digital archive, an example par excellence of the stakes of the nation in digital archives. Sara Humphreys will take up this question as well in the context of representations of settler colonialism in video games. And Toniesha Taylor’s work explores digital tools and discourse analysis – particularly in the context of #blacklivesmatter and other hashtags that engage with race and social justice in the U.S. The work of these scholars is advancing the questions of nation-building, nationalism and cultural formation, and national belonging in digital humanities. Equally important, they are demonstrating how digital humanities scholarship can be used to push back against dominant national narratives that are exclusionary.
In the digital humanities in a transnational context, it’s also clear that there is a strong impact of national context on scholarship, which has serious implications for community formation and collaboration at a global scale. Alex Gil will shed more light on this as he talks about the state of the union of global digital scholarship. This has been evident to me through committee work – particularly as a member of the program committee for this year’s Digital Humanities conference. In national contexts where digital humanities is emergent or where the digital humanities scholars feel embattled – this seems to be the case in some Eastern European countries and in Israel, for example – there is often a seeming conservatism and retrenchment on the definition of digital humanities – a desire to hew to a more limited set of practices, to ensure a distinction between digital humanities and media studies. There are often practical reasons for this, like competition for funding, which is very frequently tied to the state. Another area this is evident is in conversations around diversity in the conference. Telling you that story would require more than five minutes – and probably a few drinks – but there are serious national and cultural divides on the matter, and they are inextricable from contemporary, national, and transnational political contexts.
All of this is to say that addressing the role of the nation in digital humanities, perhaps paradoxically, is essential to strengthening the impact of digital humanities at both the national and global stages. Doing so makes the case for an anti-universalist approach to digital humanities that emerges from the particular and centers local practices. Considering how the nation shapes academic conversations, the traces of the nation evident in digital humanities scholarship, and the national contexts that must be addressed in the global dimensions of the field is a win-win. It’s essential to negotiating the challenges of developing an inclusive, global community that fosters equal footing, ethical collaboration, and genuine engagement of scholars from around the world. It further demonstrates how digital humanities can be complicit with the pitfalls of the nation and of nationalism but also suggests how we might challenge, deconstruct, and offer critique of the nation.