Digital History “From Below”: a call to action (and an abstract)

I’ll be heading to Kraków this summer for DH2016 – here’s the paper I’ll be giving.


 

Humanists – inclusive of digital humanists – are preoccupied with telling stories. Some of our most interesting subjects, however, have left only the barest of marks on historical records. Their stories are among the most captivating, but also some of the most difficult to access. This paper knits together recent trends in digital humanities practices that have helped us to elevate unrepresented voices with a discussion of how to elevate the marginalized within the DH community. It showcases select projects that undermine archival silences.[1]   It then argues that digital humanities practitioners should add these theories to the collection of tools currently used to forward social justice projects in DH spaces.

 

Elevating the Archivally Silenced

Various methodologies have been adopted to address the problem of how to tell stories about people who left behind few records.   In the 1970s and 1980s, practitioners of “history from below” worked to elevate narratives about “people with no history,” by chronicling the everyday lives of peasants and non-elites.   At the same time, practitioners of the “new social history” turned to cliometrics – and adopted methods that would be familiar to those who work with “big data” today – to highlight trends about marginalized peoples from historical data like censuses, probate records and financial documents.

 

There have been various resurgences and developments in these methods in the intervening four decades. These include practices of reading archives “against the grain” to get at the unstated assumptions that historical actors made about those they held power over.   They also include theoretical approaches that advocate the reading of silences to understand those whose voices were intentionally obscured by official recorders and gatekeepers.

 

Marginalizations Within DH

Questions about whose voices are elevated and whose are silenced have also long been a theme in DH scholarship and discourse. These questions seek to unpack the ways in which DH as a field is exclusionary. This former is a much (though still not enough) referenced problem in panels at former DH conferences, which have asked how DH research can address (and remedy) social problems.

 

Digital humanities scholarship has also begun to address problems of access within the broader DH community, and the barriers erected to women and people of color in particular. For example, Adeline Koh has argued that we need to examine the ways in which DH publics are constituted, in order to better understand the creation of “limits of the discourse that defines the idea of a digital humanities ‘citizen.’”   Similarly, Tara McPherson has argued that we must see the evolution of DH as a field shaped by structural inequalities – of race, class and gender – which accompanied the rise of computation technologies.

 

A Knitted View

These are much needed interventions, and help us to understand the evolution of our field as one in which certain groups have been marginalized and others have been centered. These conversations also mirror methodological debates within history about whose voices to elevate, and under what circumstances. This paper complements extant work by arguing that theoretical interventions concerning current structural inequalities must be brought to bear on the past, and that digital methodologies are ideally suited to elevating subsumed voices in the present. It further demonstrates that these projects, the theories that underlie them, and current work to make DH more equable should be read together to further the practice of digital history and humanities “from below.”

 

Bastian, J. (2003). Owning Memory: How a Caribbean Community Lost Its Archives and Found Its History. Westport, Conn.: Libraries Unlimited.

Bhattacharya, S. (1983). ‘History from Below.’ Social Scientist, 3–20.

Farge, A. (2015). The Allure of the Archives, New Haven: Yale University Press

Fuentes, M. (2010). Power and Historical Figuring: Rachael Pringle Polgreen’s Troubled Archive. Gender & History 22, no. 3: 564–84.

Gallman, R. (1977). Some Notes on the New Social History. The Journal of Economic History 37, no. 1: 3–12.

Koh, A. (2014). Niceness, Building, and Opening the Genealogy of the Digital Humanities: Beyond the Social Contract of Humanities Computing. Differences 25, no. 1: 93–106. doi:10.1215/10407391-2420015.

McPherson, T. (2012). Why Are the Digital Humanities So White? Or Thinking the Histories of Race and Computation. in Gold, M (ed) Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Trouillot, M. (1995). Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Beacon Press.

 

 

[1] These might include work like Ben Schmidt’s, elaboration upon late twentieth-century cliometrics and use of “big data” methods to explore historical sources (http://benschmidt.org/projects/digital-humanities-research/); maps like Vincent Brown’s “Slave Revolt in Jamaica” which uses sources produced by slaveholders to argue for the agency and tactical prowess of enslaved people (http://revolt.axismaps.com/map/); and Michelle Moravec’s use of metadata to “unghost” lesbian women in the past (http://michellemoravec.com/).

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