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.
I find this conversation concerning various iterations of labor very interesting.
It would seem that we have 2 different strands of consideration, both of which have a great deal of overlap. On the one hand we have academic labor, or the production of knowledge, and on the other digital labor, which is simultaneously a production and dissemination of knowledge. Of course recently, much of academia has come to depend on digital labors (and laborers) for access to research, labor which often goes unnoticed (who digitized this article into Project Muse, or this old newspaper into Google Books?). Do we want present on these articles information on who digitized them? Would this information alter our usage of these articles? Probably not, at least initially, but it would make more present the large number of people who remain occulted.
In both digital and academic labor there is a degree of ephemerality. The paper you write for a class might be read by only one person- your professor- and then forgotten (perhaps by you both). The work one does on a website can be overwritten with the click of a button. In both realms we are operating in the midst of a great deal of information, and wide lacunas. And yet we still proceed forward- perhaps aiming towards the status of those outliers, people whose words are considered relevant in the future.
And perhaps this ephemerality is a sort of built in acknowledgement of failure. We all operate within realms of reams of forgotten information. It’s also an outcome of capitalism- In the same way we don’t know who digitized the article, we don’t know who made our phone.
What if there was a dedicated section in CFA’s* that asked about the failure process and the labor process? What if it became commonplace in presentations to talk about labor and failure? In book introductions–or, perhaps even better, throughout the book? What if college professors routinely acknowledged the notion of failure with their students in regard to work submissions–not with a “F” grade, but with a built-in apparatus that recognizes failure as part of the academic experience and not a stain on someone’s record?
How might a push for recognizing labor and failure look structurally? Could there be, or is there, some sort of body that encourages these processes to be a part of academic performance / work? How might we make these acknowledgements a part of the process? Finally, is requiring an acknowledgement of failure and labor draconian, or not in the spirit of what this acknowledgement does?
*Call for Papers
Just wanted to respond briefly to you Chy and your further questions around the notion of public failure and the benefits of such failure in a digital context. This also relates to your comments on labor and whether there is truly a difference in labor distribution or compensation in a pre/post digital academia. I think one of the differences is that labor on the internet is often obscured while at the other times hypervisible (thinking of how frustrated I get when a site has an “under construction” page reminding me of all the invisible players making things happend on the back end). This also reminds us that many of us rely on other people’s labor to navigate the internet and help us in the digital projects we might want to create. But of course these things could also be said of non-digital academic work. So what your questions made me think about was how this conversation from the conference and here in this post around making labor visible and rewarded along with the focus on collaboration and possibilities for revision could be really helpful catalysts for changing how academic work is done in general. What would it mean to acknowledge in meaningful ways the labor of so many others that we are always relying on to produce our own thought? And imagine how different patterns of publishing, promotion and other parts of academia that tend to recognize the individual if these shifted to acknowledge collective work and collaborative projects.
*Wanted to add something:
-The notion of failure: what if that process, and the labor process were always included in digital productions? How might that inspire us to process the digital differently? How might that change our relationship with it? Is that a progressive project?
-Brown’s family tree project most excited me at the panel. Even though Brown said that he didn’t end up where he wanted to end up with the project, the fact that digital technology helped him to formulate a “tree” (his “tree” was made up of circles) that was not Eurocentric or heteronormative was inspiring to me.
-In regard to labor (nice that they discussed that throughout both panels): is the technological labor required in academic work much different from labor performed prior to digital technology? I guess it’s easy to say that it is, but can we answer that question? I guess what I’m saying is that questions of labor are important to grapple with in any space, digital technology or not. Questions of hiring: programmers, technicians, grad students, etc definitely come up, however. There wasn’t a need for programmers and technicians prior to the prevalence of digital technology in the academy, so I suppose the question of labor looms larger now. As technology advances, do questions of labor become greater and greater? Or will it become easier? Will computers become their own technicians, programmers, grad students (in some instances, they already are, but will there be no need for human workers, I mean)?
-The intersection of the innovative and perhaps liberatory advances of the digital (new family tree…rings, in Brown’s case) and human labor is very interesting to me as well. It seems it’s easy to forget the labor when advertising shows you just the shiny, finished product. But that is most definitely by design.
Lindsey, thank you for constructing a digital space for a post-Conference discussion.
I was also struck by Vincent Brown’s presentation, and though I didn’t have any questions for him, I thought it brought up a lot of productive issues to consider (as you point out).
In your recollection of Brown’s concern “How… 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’” I’m reminded of a number of points, all of which I think are extremely relevant to this class. The difficulties of presenting information and making claims about and among such varied communities and discourses of the Caribbean have haunted us all semester. Historical(?, European?, patriarchial?) models of representation have been challenged by authors like Baucom, Benito-Rojo, Braithwaite, etc. as being insufficient for the varieties of Caribbean experience and histories. Similarly, as the Archive.org article showed us, structures of form also influence memory. By this I mean I took part of Archive.org’s difficulties in accessing and archiving certain websites to be an outcome of the structural arrangement of certain websites (links, etc). All this is to say that the patriarchial family tree fails not only in relation to its structural failure to adequately address the lives of slaves, but also in the ways in which it problematically remembers for us, or in other words, passes down information. I think these were part of the difficulties Brown faced- the family tree structure is variously inadequate.
Your question “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” is also, I think, a question we’ve been considering all semester. Hopefully, in pointing out issues of insufficent structures (for instance the patriarchial family tree, but also as Gil and Glover pointed out, the ways in which websites are often built and accessed) we can arrive at better models (like the Small Axe Archipelago future site seems to be attempting).