UPDATE: This talk is now published as “Zonas de Contacto: A Digital Humanities Ecology of Knowledges” in Debates in the Digital Humanities 2019.

[On Friday January 8, 2016, I had the great pleasure of taking part of the MLA16 DH at the Borders. I shared the session with Jim English, Alex Gil, and Anita Say Chan. We were extremely lucky to have a generous audience who asked really thought provoking questions. Thank you to all of them and my fellow panelists. Below is a slightly edited version of my presentation that night.]


Crisscrossing Borders: GO::DH Regional Networks in Dialogue

In this presentation I wish to raise two questions of the current state of global diversity in DH informed by my work in the GO::DH executive committee. On the one hand, an interrogation of the role of Global Outlook::Digital Humanities as a Special Interest Group of the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations and the tensions that exist between an international centralized organization like ADHO and a global non-centralized one. And on the other, I want to ask what can be some strategies to foster diversity in centralized DH now that a number of projects and publications have made us fully aware that a huge array of DH work is and has been done all over the world?

I take as an axis of my reflection the work of the Portuguese scholars Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Joao Arriscado Nunes, and Maria Paula Meneses, in particular three of their concepts: the notion of ecology of knowledges, the internal tension of multiculturalism as description *and* project, and finally the strategy of horizontal translation (“Opening Up the Canon of Knowledge and Recognition of Difference”). Even though their work looks into the geopolitics of knowledge production in general, my intention is to identify the coincidences found in global DH practice. So here, first I want to survey how under different names much work has been done to articulate and evidence the extremely diverse work in DH, that is of what I, following de Sousa Santos, Nunes, and Meneses, propose to think as the ecology of knowledges of DH. Then, I’ll argue how all the self-reflexive work done in the field should be preparing us to devise strategies of recognition and redistribution — that is a sort of commons among the different regions, approaches, and their intersections while still keeping its particularities. Ultimately my intention is to reflect on the horizontal relationships GO::DH as a global group struggling with its own Western-ness has sought to establish with regional networks and organizations in order to gain a better understanding of the local/global dimensions of DH work.

An ecology of knowledges in DH

De Sousa Santos, Nunes, and Meneses establish that “The epistemic diversity of the world is open, since all knowledge is situated. There are neither pure nor complete knowledges; there are constellations of knowledges”(xl-xli). Further, they argue “The ecology of knowledges is an invitation to the promotion of non-relativistic dialogues among knowledges, granting “equality of opportunities” to the different kinds of knowledges engaged in even broader epistemological disputes aimed both at maximizing their respective contributions to build a more democratic and just society and at decolonizing knowledge and power” (xx). The Portuguese scholars’ characterization of knowledge diversity, situatedness, and democratization resonates with many of the discourses advocating for the openness, inclusivity, and locality of Digital Humanities that lie at the basis of the title of this session, DH at the Border.

Big tent notions of DH that have emerged from the “centers of gravity”–as Jacque Wernimont calls them–could seem to have no borders and be all inclusive or at least have the potential and willingness to be so.  As stated in its code of conduct, ADHO “works actively toward the creation of a more diverse, welcoming, and inclusive global community of digital humanities scholars and practitioners.” Since DH has long been (and continues to be) ideally articulated as interdisciplinary, fluid, porous, open, collaborative, edgy, always changing–in a way kind of borderless, and in short free of restrictions–how can we draw the border or borders in DH? What is/are the edges of the field?

This is not a new question and the answers are not hard to find, indeed the borders are everywhere we look: gender, race and ethnicity, language, levels of access, infrastructure, training opportunities, epistemological models, funding opportunities, and a long et cetera.

Promising steps have been taken recently at ADHO. For example the 5+1 languages accepted for DH2016 proposals and the optional demographics questionnaire available for all proposal authors on the submissions system. Initiatives whose results we all hope will become the springboard for new ones. Nevertheless, international or big tent DH continues to be largely a place of singularity and convergence, one where the margins may be taken in but the borders are not always crossed or lowered–indeed a sort of universalism of DH that has, as Jamie Skye Bianco puts it, “rendered the many under the name of one.” As Amy Earhart argues, efforts “to diversify scholarly questions and methodologies, [have] often [been] viewed as a direct assault on scholarly rigor and exclusiveness” of a cohesive community.

Cohesiveness or singularity in DH and the tensions it entails is not only a problem in literary digital studies in the US as Earhart rightly points out even though that’s the focus of her study. Feminist, queer, racial, indigenous, class, and other approaches have pushed back aiming to emancipate their voices within the singular DH. Happily, this has led us to, as Miriam Posner concisely sums it up in “What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities,” arrive at the understanding, though not always the agreement, that “DH needs scholarly expertise in critical race theory, feminist and queer theory, and other interrogations of structures of power in order to develop models of the world that have any relevance to people’s lived experience.”

Along the same lines, in her “An Information Science Question in DH Feminism,” Tanya Clement very interestingly questions the ideals of interdisciplinarity and collaboration as technologies that can unsituate us from particular–in this case, feminist–visions. For her, “interdisciplinarity is most useful when it becomes a technology that affords our ability to better situate ourselves: to see how we see, from where we see, who is interpreting the field (and who is not), the limits to our vision, and what we see when what we see is situated in relation to other visions”

If the singularity of DH is a local problem in the US and among critical cultural approaches, the landscape is much more complex when adding geopolitical borders–as Alex Gil has put it“A whole world of digital humanities is out there and it does not map neatly to our [US] issues.”

For example, from her work in India and speaking at theDigital Diversityconference and controversially articulating her “my DH is not your DH,” Padmini Ray Murray puts forward how “the contours of DH shift depending on where one is located (both research and self) and how theoretical practice emerging in global south has to adapt to different infrastructures, languages and technologies” (notes shared by the author). Further, more punctual conceptualizations of locality can be found in Roopika Risam’s “DH accents” as the “practices, theories, preferences that look different and are informed by local context.” Risam has further argued in favor of intersectionality as the vehicle “to understand the position of those whose work dwells in the peripheries, to understand the historical legacies that link knowledge production with the denigration – even the destruction – of that which is other.”

In The Digital Humanist: A Critical Inquiry recently translated from the Italian and published in the US, Domenico Fiormonte, Teresa Numerico, and Francesca Tomasi sustain that “Beyond Big Data, mega-platforms and the mass archivation of data, the true innovation of the next decade of dh appears to be its geographic expansion and the consequent enlargement (and deepening) of [the cultural problems afforded by the use of technology from a less Western-centric perspective]” (207).  Ray Murray also sees diversification as a means to “add further nuance to ongoing discussions as to the state of the field, and indeed, extend the limits of the discipline itself” (notes from the author).

It is evident from the work of all of these great digital humanists, deep critical meditations on the diverse dimension of DH, that situatedness and locality are not only the necessary place of self-reflexive work, but also an indispensable basis to interlink peripheral, border, global south DH practice with mainstream and canonical DH work. This is what de Sousa Santos, Nunes, and Meneses see as an ecology of knowledges. Moreover, this wealth of work has been extremely successful at highlighting the blind spots of the field and really making it impossible to negate the existence, quality, validity, and richness of diverse DH work.

That said, how do we do justice to that diversity? how do we move from a still rather singular convergent model of DH in our centers of gravity that needs constant pushing back? to, as Earhart puts it, “a return to activist digital innovation that is divergent, not convergent”? Or to foster a true DH ecology of knowledge, that is critical, intersectional, interdisciplinary, and global?

Answers to this question are not easily found. Going back to de Sousa Santos, Nunes, and Meneses, they insist on self-reflexivity and the discovery of hereo-referentiality as the first step towards an ecology of knowledge (xxi). While DH has certainly not lacked self-reflexivity, much of it has taken place or been aimed at its non-specific, tactical, big tent ideation. Thus, it remains the case that there is little awareness and dialogue across the borders, and even when it does take place, it rarely makes it back. Our sources (in syllabuses, anthologies, reading lists, works cited lists), more than we would like to, have for the most part converged in a canon. A plurality of sources that are not only acknowledged but written about, listened to and spoken to is still lacking from them. In previous posts and flash projects like RedHD in translation, I’ve sustained that this is in part a matter of language and the local/global scalability of the field. But multilinguality alone so far has not yielded the results we would’ve hoped. As Martin Grandjean showed in DH2014, linguistic diversity continued to be rather poor in the conference program. Conversely, my and Alex Gil’s experience as DH whisperers was the opposite: there was indeed a great linguistic diversity that went largely unacknowledged in official channels. To my mind, this is indicative of how most aspects of diversity are not dependent on language, especially within a community that, for good or bad, has adopted a lingua franca. In parallel, on the organization level, Fiormonte, Numerico, and Tomasi observe that “regional or national associations reflect cultural and juridical practices that cannot be fully implemented within ADHO”(216) and I would add within any convergent, or big tent notion of DH whether it comes from our bigger organizations or from smaller centers—the scales are simply not the same. Usefully, Barbara Bordalejo recently published a survey that will gather crucial information on several aspects of diversity, most importantly for me here, movement of DH practitioners across countries.

What we see in all of this work, and what we’ve seen in the sessions yesterday and today, is a increasingly more widespread interest in diversifying DH. We see it in the emergence of organizations around the world, we see it within our organization’s committees, and we see it in the projects that are being done in the US and outside. “The new house of the digital humanist is already taking shape” (19) or so say Fiormonte, Numerico, and Tomasi. I don’t think we doubt that DH is again reshaping—not in the ways that it has for decades, but in a new meaningful way that changes not just the way we do our scholarship, but the way we perceive and relate to the world where we do our scholarship. But my question to the Italian scholars is what bricks are being used to shape that hous?  And even more so, again, is it only one house?  “A politics of cultural diversity and mutual intelligibility,” says de Sousa Santos “calls for a complex procedure of reciprocal and horizontal translation rather than for a general theory” (xxv). Following the house metaphor, rather than building a house or many houses we need the roads leading from one to another. Our modest attempt to do this at GO::DH has been establishing links with Regional Networks, that we later called Affiliated Networks.

Regional Networks and Horizontal Translation

First ideated during DH2014 in Lausanne and put to long and fruitful discussions at GO::DH, the general ideas behind the networks were several:
1.    to establish stronger relationships with DH communities around the world that already existed like RedHD, AHDig, and the ones in formation like SADH, and three South African groups.
2.    always aware of our Western-ness, we also sought to increase the diversity in the group at large as well as in the Executive Committee in order to help push the conversation further towards the local/global;
3.    to develop initiatives that more consistently moved towards inclusion without obscuring differences, locality, and situatedness;
4.    to better fulfill our mission learning from knowledge and experiences from all over the world; and
5.    to keep out of the networks’ self-organization, self-determination, and long term plans

We saw our relationship to these networks as a horizontal platform that wouldn’t necessarily be mediated by the organizations and “centers of gravity” already in place. Fair criticisms came in the form of GO::DH becoming a new center of gravity on its own only for the Global South, a filter or guide path towards ADHO constituency, and exporting our notions of DH all over the world. Nevertheless, even when we continue to aim for the global, it’s in our name and we still like it, the work with the networks’ members is done at the local levels that cumulatively form the non-convergent, non-singular, and situated globality we claim. We aim with this to get close to the horizontal translation posited by de Sousa, Nunes, and Meneses:

“This theory of translation [they state] allows common ground to be identified in an indigenous struggle, a feminist struggle, an ecological struggle, etc., without erasing the autonomy and difference of each of them. Translation is also fundamental to the articulation between the diverse and specific intellectual and cognitive resources that are expressed through the various modes of producing knowledge about counter-hegemonic initiatives and experiences, aimed at redistribution and recognition and the construction of new configurations of knowledge anchored in local, situated forms of experience and struggle.” (xxvi)

Further, for them the articulation and activation of recognition and redistribution is the key outcome as it constitutes “the path to the proliferation of local public spheres that are, at the same time, able to establish translocal connections […] and genuinely cosmopolitan citizenships” (xxvii).” In short and now bringing their theorizations to our field, the recognition of diversity in DH has not yet turned into a redistribution of forums or audiences. But again, there are important steps that we hope we’ll become more exemplary.

For example, the recently published CLIR’s report Building Expertise to Support Digital Scholarship: A Global Perspective by Vivian Lewis, Lisa Spiro, Xuemao Wang, and Jon E. Cawthorne relied “on site visits and interviews of practicing digital scholars from around the world to ground their conclusions and recommendations.” This approach to shape Digital Scholarship in the US over a globally aware basis—even if it’s a pilot project that comes out of one such centers of gravity—has the potential to initiate more consistent exchanges among scholars in far away regions of the world.

To conclude, I want turn really quickly to our still in-development project The Translation Toolkit, which is also hoping to provide a basis for local/global connections. On the surface its purpose is to offer a set of strategies and ready-made tools to aid the translation of conference talks, websites, journals, etc. But deep down, the way I want to think about it now, and the way I want to explore the practice coming out of it, is the possibility fostering the other kind of translation: the movement of ideas around the world, fomenting in de Sousa’s words hetero-referentiality, the establishing of a DH global ecology of knowledge, and facilitating the redistribution of knowledge, forums, and audiences.