I had the pleasure of giving my talk “The Race for Digitality: Connectivity as Diasporic Identity” at African Diaspora 2.0. Here’s an excerpt on race in digital humanities.
… I want to begin at the junction of disciplinary knowledge and technical know-how, where tensions emerge between digital humanities and African diaspora studies. If we are to “do” the digital well, we must approach it through the lenses that shape our domains. Therefore, the race for digitality asks where discourses of race – critical race theory, black radical thought, intersectional feminism, womanism – reside in relation to the digital. It’s a question of how scholars of the African diaspora produce new ways of thinking about race through digital humanities. Moreover, it asks how we can develop new approaches to digital humanities by thinking about race.
The attention that digital humanities has earned is reminiscent of the culture wars of the US academy in the late 1980s and 1990s. To critics, Shakespeare was jettisoned for Saussure, Defoe for Derrida. As Roger Kimball opines, humanities education was being supplanted by “ideological posturing, pop culture, and hermetic word games.” Critics of digital humanities have made analogous charges. Digital humanities reduces literature to “data.” Distant reading is destroying close reading. Adam Kirsch proposes, “…the very idea of language as the basis of humane education – even of human identity – seems to give way to a post- or pre-verbal discourse of pictures and objects. Digital humanities becomes another name for the obsequies of humanism.” Sound familiar?
Criticisms from outside digital humanities are easy to dismiss as misinterpretation. Yet, ones from within – the well-articulated ones, at least – give us pause. Those of us who work with issues of difference perceive that many projects unintentionally privilege canonical writers or texts, eliding race, gender, disability, class, or sexuality. Without attention to such omissions, digital humanities risks replicating the vicissitudes of academia writ large. Of course, the African diaspora is one area that remains underrepresented in digital humanities, though we are among many working to change that.
So, when I use the phrase “the race for digitality,” I invoke Barbara Christian’s critiques of theory and difference in “The Race for Theory.” If we consider debates in digital humanities through her work, we can better understand critiques while finding ways forward.
Christian writes with concern for the growing importance of theory in the academy in the late 1980s, which is strikingly relevant to anxiety over digital humanities. She begins:
The New Philosophers, eager to understand a world that is today fast escaping their political control, have redefined literature so that the distinctions implied by the term … have been blurred. They have changed literary critical language to suit their own purposes as philosophers, and they have reinvented the meaning of theory. (51)
We could find any of Christian’s charges in critiques of digital humanities. Her “new philosophers” are “digital humanists.” Her altered “literary critical language” is “methodology.” Her article betrays concern for a landscape of literary studies fundamentally changing as theory becomes a commodity in the academy. As a result, Christian laments, “Some of our most daring and potentially radical critics” – that is, “black, women, third world” – have been coerced into “speaking a language and defining their discussion in terms alien to and opposed to our needs and orientations” (52). Scholars working in digital humanities and African diaspora studies can hear in Christian an important question: are we being co-opted by technology or are we co-opting it for emancipatory ends?
Christian suggests that theory’s “mechanical analyses of language, graphs, algebraic equations … [have] silenced many of us to the extent that some of us feel we can no longer discuss our literature” (53). Her ruminations may strike us as uncomfortably pertinent. We must consider how discourses of digital humanities affect the way we do scholarship of the African diaspora. Moreover, recalling Christian’s suggestion that “people of color have always theorized” (52), we must honor the work that has been going on in African diaspora and digital studies for more than 20 years. Through Afrofuturism, Alondra Nelson, Tricia Rose, Greg Tate, and others have brought together the African diaspora and technoculture. Amy Earhart has written about race and digital humanities. Scholars like Anna Everett, Lisa Nakamura, Tara McPherson, and Wendy Chun have been asking questions about race and the internet for years.
It’s easy to grow frustrated because our work has historically occupied the peripheries of the canon or of digital humanities. Christian raises a similar concern with theory – that African American writers have been “doing” theory for a great long time but post-structuralist theory conveniently ignores their contributions. She and other scholars of African American literature and culture were expected to “know” theory but theory was not expected to “know” them (56). We may share an experience of doing digital humanities and wondering whether digital humanities recognizes us back. However, we must ensure that in our own frustrations we don’t erase the contributions that African diaspora studies makes to digital humanities – or we simply affirm the power of Western academic hegemony.
By invoking a “race for digitality,” I echo Christian’s concerns about academic hegemony to suggest that our engagement with digital humanities should not cede to a master discourse. Rather, we must complicate the master discourse by the work we do. How we do this is a question we should be asking, along with what kinds of new theories of digital humanities are created by our work.
We must remember the vital role of literature and culture to the very survival of the African diaspora as we negotiate between method and text. This is perhaps why ongoing conversations about defining digital humanities are so fraught with angst. Like any field, digital humanities veers towards the monolithic, with a center and periphery. Consolidating definitions is an inevitable part of academic practice, but every definition is necessarily exclusionary. Acts of exclusion – even unintended ones arising from business as usual in the academy – often come at the expense of people of color. So, it is incumbent on those who find themselves at the center of digital humanities to understand the historical legacies that link knowledge production with the denigration – even the destruction – of that which is other and to continue supporting work on difference.
We find wisdom in Christian’s essay for our work. For example, she believes there needs to be a relationship between theory and praxis, an idea that appears in literature on building in digital humanities. Theory, as Christian reminds us, may arise from the specificities of praxis, “the intersection of language, class, race, and gender in literature,” and must be a “collective endeavor” (53). We would do well to remember that every step in the race for digitality must be taken towards collaboration, towards broader conversations with fellow scholars of the African diaspora and with digital humanists. Together, we can develop theory from praxis: from the archives we build, the oral histories we record, the geographies we map.
In the race for digitality, we find ourselves struggling to understand the relationship between our deep investments in discourses like intersectional feminism or critical race theory and digital humanities. The burden of representation falls on us. Our acts of representation should not be bids for power but for what Christian would call the need to become empowered – “seeing oneself as capable and having the right to determine one’s life” (61). At stake for us is not power in the putative hierarchies of digital humanities, rather the empowerment that our work on the African diaspora can effect.
To empower – ourselves, a new generation of scholars, diasporic subjects – we need to embrace multiplicity and the specificities of diaspora. We must answer Christian’s question, “For whom are we doing what we are doing?” (61) to make legible all our scholarship has to offer. This is, in part, a question of method – which tools do we use? We may recall Audre Lorde’s statement “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” which comes up often in critiques of digital humanities, but we must not mistake the master. It’s not digital humanities – it’s the effects of white supremacy on knowledge production. That’s where we are called to intervene. But how?
McPherson speaks to this master in her essay, “Why Are the Digital Humanities So White?” She describes the contrasts between experiences at the American Studies Association and National Science Foundation, “from diaspora to database, from oppression to ontology, from visual studies to visualizations.” Bridging the divide, she proposes that design itself has separated cultural criticism from infrastructure. Riffing off McPherson, I want to suggest that we can find connections between African diaspora studies and digital humanities through our interventions in infrastructure: in databases that emerges from diaspora, ontologies that form from oppression, visualizations of the African diaspora….
I want to honor the very real struggles and challenges we face as scholars of the African diaspora. However, I will end on an optimistic note. I propose that the race for digitality will ultimately enrich the theories and practices of African diaspora scholarship. In turn, it will do the same for the digital humanities.