I wanted to pull together some of my thoughts on the Caribbean Digital II Conference (December 4, 2015 at Columbia University), hobbled together from notes I took on my phone and recollection, and connect them to some of the ideas we’ve looked at in the past months. Despite more generally being a literature-oriented person, I was actually most compelled to consider points brought up in the first two panels on Histories and Cartographies, which pushed me the most in considering what it is that digital spaces and tools can provide specifically for the study of the Caribbean in all its vastness and subfields. These considerations relate very much to issues of the archive and more generally what sources scholarship is drawn from and the media such scholarship is subsequently presented in.
First up was Vincent Brown, who I recognized right away as the Principle Investigator and scholar behind the interactive map of slave revolts in Jamaica from 1760-1761, which I had discussed in my website review. Brown’s talk was incredibly generative on issues of digital data and representation, and he raised points that would continue to come up in almost every subsequent conversation that afternoon. Some of the key points I took away from the presentation were his remarks on the aesthetic and sensory aspects of databases and digital data practices and more generally how digital data representation speaks back to the problem of data and the archive for scholars of slavery. His most potent question was in regards to the family tree and its shortcomings in describing families with histories of enslavement. How, he asked, can a diagram made to trace rights of property mark descendants of those considered property? Someone from the audience also added that these family trees of enslaved peoples would be “rootless.” It should also be noted that the family tree in its role tracing rights of property is inherently linked to heteronormative patriarchial formulations of family. Thus, Brown showed glimpses of what an alternative, rendered in the digital, might look like with a schematic of dots signifying peoples rather than names drawn together with straight lines on the tree. Overall, the discussion was a helpful groundwork for considering how issues specific to the slave trade, i.e. natal alienation, lack of the enslaved person’s voice in the archive, and alternative or even fictive kinship ties, might find new modes of representation in the digital sphere. How might the digital push us to reconsider what we consider “proper” knowledge and the subsequent production of the “proper” human subject supported by those knowledge systems? I found these questions reflected those in my website review of Brown’s slave revolt page about how cartography might be imagined from the epistemological view of the enslaved.
Kaiama Glover and Alex Gil followed with a lively conversation that ranged from issues of digital cartography and academic labor and knowledge production to relationality and hybrid forms of digital texts all centered on an ambitious digital project originally envisioned by Dr. Glover. However, as this panel made clear, digital projects rarely if ever remain the vision of any sole person as they require and grow from active collaboration. The project, In the Same Boats: Toward and Afro-Atlantic Intellectual Company is quite large in scope and sought to capture the movement and interconnected relationships of Trans-Atlantic thinkers of the African diaspora. An interesting question came from the audience, from a historian whose name escaped me, about whether such a project might not just trace the already known big names of Caribbean intellectuals but the movements of more ordinary and obscure people. This brought up a question formerly raised about digital humanities might allow links to community outside the ivory tower. It also got Dr. Glover speaking on the state of always becoming inherent to digital projects and the ways in which they are often willingness to display public failure. Part of the ever-continuing process, Dr. Gil added, is the sheer amount of capital and labor it takes to both build and maintain online projects. This lead to an important conversation around academic labor and processes of learning as relation-building that, as a graduate student, I found a refreshingly human and community-grounded view of how to do scholarship.
While I will skip over the last panel in interest of space and time, I will say that overall every panel of the Caribbean Digital II was thought-provoking on how exactly digital humanities can help, hinder, or simply change academic forms of knowledge production and specifically how we talk, write, know about the Caribbean.