Sekunjani? Gibson Kente, Stephen Black, and Artistic Legacies

South Africans are obsessed with soap operas.  I don’t know how else to describe it.  When I was in South Africa this past summer, the Zulu-speaking family I lived with followed an ironclad schedule in evening: do whatever you want as the sun goes down, but when 6:30 rolls around, the T.V. will be tuned to S.A.B.C. 1 (“Mzansi Fo Sho”) and Skeem Saam will be playing, a quasi-educational soap about young men from Limpopo navigating university life in the big city.  At 7:00, we would watch the news in either Xhosa or Zulu (it alternates by day) as we ate dinner; then, at 7:30, we would switch to for Scandal! (or, rarely, watch Rhythm City on S.A.B.C. 1).  At 8:00 we would be back on S.A.B.C. 1 for Generations: The Legacy and at 8:30, just before most of us turned in for the night, we were faced with the difficult choice between two Zulu language soaps set in KwaZulu-Natal: Uzalo on Mzansi Magic, about the son of a pastor who struggles to balance his religious calling with his playboy tendencies, and Isibaya on good old S.A.B.C. 1, a graphically violent show about taxi drivers.  Almost without fail this routine was followed almost every weeknight I was in Durban (and if you happened to miss a day, the week’s episodes would re-air as an omnibus over the weekend.  Evenings in the living room with my homestay family, finding myself more and more invested in each show’s various melodramatic storylines are some of my strongest and happiest memories of the summer, and by the end of August I could recognize many of the actors and actresses gracing the covers of popular magazines like DRUM! and Bona.

It’s an aspect of South African popular culture that I think few outside the country really appreciate.  Due to government suspicion of the medium, television came to the country in 1976, almost absurdly late, and while Ron Krabill has explored how South African television in the late 1970’s and 1980’s reflected the complex desires and contradictions of the apartheid era (the most popular shows of the era were Dallas, The Bold and the Beautiful, and, perhaps unexpectedly, The Cosby Show), little academic attention has been paid to the South African soap opera.[1]  Given how important locally-made soap operas are in the lives of South Africans today (of all races; one of the most popular programs, S.A.B.C. 2’s long-running 7de Laan, is geared at an Afrikaans-speaking audience), it seems like an important avenue for future research.

But what does all this have to do with the digital humanities, and my own prospective project on Stephen Black?  Over the Thanksgiving holiday I was fortunate enough to read Rolf Solberg’s 2011 biography of Gibson Kente, the “father of South Africa’s township theatre,” and a somewhat controversial figure.  Active from the early 1960’s until his death from A.I.D.S. in 2004, Kente was enormously popular and influential during most of the apartheid era, and pioneered a style of musical theatre that in some ways presaged the flowering of South African soap operas in the post-apartheid era.  Criticized by some of his contemporaries for his apparent ambivalence towards the anti-apartheid struggle, Kente was nevertheless deeply interested in the everyday realities of life for black South Africans.  As the sociologist Herbert W. Vilakazi put it, “Kente was concerned to show how the outer boundaries of white supremacy shaped and determined the inner boundaries in the desires and dreams and aspirations, passions and thoughts, of normal people in the ghettos of South Africa.”[2]  Like Stephen Black, Gibson Kente’s plays often dealt with the spectre of the South African future, and future that present politics might create.  His 1987 play Sekunjalo (The Hour Is Come) was criticised for negatively portraying an African socialist future, while Mfowethu (1993) and Ezakithi (2001) present a more optimistic view of South African reconciliation reminiscent of the end of Stephen Black’s Helena’s Hope, Limited.

Another unfortunate similarity to Stephen Black is his elusive documentary remains. In 1989 almost all of his papers were destroyed in a house fire. He left very little documentation behind him after his death as well, “due to Kente’s particular way of developing a play. More often than not…Kente would build the storyline around a song or melody, with any writing down of dialogue and script coming later in the process.”[3]. It is no accident that some of Kente’s most important protégés, like Sello Maake kaNcube, are some of the most important soap stars in contemporary South Africa.

So here we have two of South Africa’s most important historical entertainers, spanning two drastically different times and milieux, yet inescapably united in the fragility of their legacies. Thinking back to my reflections on the M.I.T. Global Shakespeares Project, the point is underscored again and again that theatre is so much more than just a script, and digital spaces afford us the opportunity to preserve and present theatre and its memories in tremendously exciting ways. Clearly there is a lot be said for digitizing and making accessible what we can of Black and Kente’s work, but this can only go so far. Any digital space dedicated to them must emphasize fluidity and malleability, must be aware of the limits of our understanding. Such spaces should aim at facilitating creativity on the part of the user, because the benefit of preserving the embers of that creativity is, ultimately, the reason why we should care about Black and Kente to begin with.

What is the use of laughter in the face of injustice? By the same token, what is the use of spending two and a half hours almost every night following the travails of fictional characters? My suspicion is that the ability to imagine the world in a different way is fundamental to our experience as human beings. In a country like South Africa, where the future has often seemed so uncertain, this seems doubly true. A Stephen Black digital archive would not speak for itself; it would need curation and presentation. But how to present him and his world critically yet delicately, facilitating innovative engagements with his work—this is what I’m going to be thinking about these last weeks of the course. I don’t know quite how it will look, but I’m excited for the journey.

  1. [1]Ron Krabill, Starring Mandela and Cosby: Media and the End(s) of Apartheid (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2010)
  2. [2]Quoted in Rolf Solberg, Bra Gib: Father of South Africa’s Township Theatre (Scottsville, South Africa: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2011): 113
  3. [3]Ibid., 116

More Radical Than We Know: Digital Humanities’ Challenge to the Academy

Over the course of this semester, our digital humanities class has been centrally concerned with the postmodern and the ways in which the internet and digital scholarship reflect a shift in paradigm away from the ideas and infrastructures that shaped it in the twentieth century. In these conversations it’s been instructive for me to recall that the configuration of the twentieth century “pre-digital” academy is actually quite new. Barely more than a century old in its current form, our paradigm of professionalization—of an academy consisting of tenured scholars based at universities with specific disciplinary appointments—is nevertheless fundamental to our understanding of who’s in and who’s out, and what counts as valid academic work. In fact, at a time when job prospects for new humanities Ph.D.’s are historically poor, the need to fit clearly within the increasingly fragile frame of the twenty-first century academy is arguably more important than ever, since the stakes are now so high.

Digital humanists are frequently criticized for contributing to this unfortunate state of affairs, and I sympathize with that critique to the extent that digital humanities projects tend to be more expensive and outcome-oriented than other humanistic projects.  They also produce things readily suited to the contemporary needs of universities—one can easily show off glossy D.H. projects to “shareholders,” whether they be skeptical government officials, granting agencies, alumni or prospective students.  Mainstream perceptions of D.H. as dangerous and malign are reinforced by boosterish articles that extol the “promise”—indeed, necessity—of digital humanities while lamenting its exclusion from the disciplinary mainstream.  Calls to pursue digital humanities scholarship for its own sake, proclaiming, for example, that “the historical monograph no longer seems an appropriate model for for historical understanding in a digital environment,” despite “the continuous vitality of the monographic culture in the humanities” rightly draw more attention to the implicit agenda of the author than the content of the message.[1]  As Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette, and David Golumbia point out in a recent article for the Los Angeles Review of Books, digital humanities projects also tend to require specialized technical knowledge that seems to suggest that humanistic inquiry alone is no longer viable in a S.T.E.M.-centric world.[2]  I mention this not necessarily to endorse Allington et al.’s broader argument that the digital humanities are an active neoliberal plot, but to acknowledge the movement’s historical entanglements.  If digital humanities as a field rose to prominence in a neoliberal, post-Fordist era, it is, I think, to be expected that it reflect that era in its values—disruption, flexibility, interdisciplinarity, and a fundamental optimism about the promise of technology, even if paired with elements of critique.

Since arriving at Michigan State, I’ve had many conversations in seminars about the value of writing in a mode accessible to a general audience, and why doing so is particularly important for scholars working with Africans, who should be able, as one professor told me, to see themselves in the work one produces. At the same time, however, I’ve been warned about the difficulty of writing “out of the box” as a junior scholar. I’ve read books that test the boundaries of what counts as an academic monograph, like Kate Brown’s Plutopia, Jonny Steinberg’s A Man of Good Hope, and Anna Louwenhaupt-Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World (to name just a few), books that are beautifully written, theoretically rich examples of academic storytelling and deeply inspiring to me as a historian.[3]  Yet the very same professor I mentioned above also sternly instructed us to avoid non-academic presses and unique narrative forms at all costs, because failing to publish one’s revamped dissertation with a respected academic press can doom a fledgeling scholarly career. Not unlike digital humanities projects, then, book projects that fall outside the stylistic norms of a given subfield are consigned to the periphery. So junior scholars like me are faced with a Hobson’s choice. If the academy is seen as irrelevant to those outside it, we should seek to engage with a wider audience. However, if we try to do just that, by challenging the boundaries of genre, medium or discipline, we forfeit their chance at a slice of the shrinking academic pie.  What’s the solution?

In a recent article, William G. Thomas III argues that as far as the digital humanities are concerned, the problem is infrastructural. “Many digital humanists,” he writes, “take the position that digital environments demand multimodal, reciprocal, nonlinear modes of scholarship. Scholars in the disciplines perceive an inherent contradiction between that form of scholarship and criticism, review, and evaluation.”[4]  For Thomas, rectifying the marginalization of the digital humanities means actively promoting the development of more standardized genres within the field, genres that would then facilitate the development of critical apparatuses. Maybe so, but what of the “inherent contradiction” that “scholars in the disciplines perceive”?  Genres seem like a fairly prosaic solution to such a radical problem.  If the digital sphere has the potential to reshape the academic world so radically, shouldn’t the ends of academic endeavor also reflect that radical shift?  Perhaps a reassessment of exactly what “criticism, review, and evaluation” are, and why they should be valued, is in order.

Looking through the many innovative projects on the Vectors website, “a space for experimentation in screen languages, open access publishing, and collaborative design” lauded by Tara McPherson in the penultimate chapter of Between Humanities and the Digital, I was drawn to a project by McKenzie Wark on the French Letterist movement called “Totality for Kids.”[5]  I am not a literary scholar and have never studied French intellectual history, so the Letterists were thoroughly new to me. I was struck, however, by the beautiful artwork of Kevin Pyle, juxtaposed with explanatory text and quotations from important Letterists such as Guy DeBord and Raoul Vaneigem. It occurred to me that while a project like “Totality for Kids” certainly possesses, to some extent, a critical voice and important scholarly content, the graphic, nonlinear and interactive way that it is presented fundamentally sets it apart from the usual products of academic history. This is not just because its materiality and method of production are different, but also its objectives are also quite distinct. Steve Anderson, the project editor, compares “Totality for Kids” to Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project in that it “remains an open and arguably unfinishable project, illuminating both past and future through awareness of our situation in the present.”[6] Straddling the line between art and digital history, “Totality for Kids” just isn’t out to accomplish the same goals that academic journal articles and monographs on the Letterist movement seek after.

My basic thought here is that if we are to take digital humanities boosters seriously that the digital realm has the potential to radically transform the academy, we should seriously consider how that might look at every level, right down to the deep epistemological assumptions at the core of our enterprise.  In a postmodern, neoliberal world, why shouldn’t the academy engage the art world more deeply, as McKenzie Wark has done with “Totality for Kids.”  If subjectivities are what many of us mostly deal in, why must our works, the product, in part, of our own subjectivities, reflect a rigorism and conformity that, as we all readily admit, alienates all but the most intrepid generalist from coming in contact with our ideas?  Are we serving the ends of an academy, a historically specific infrastructure, or the proliferation of knowledge itself?

I ask these questions not to be wantonly provocative, but, once again, to stress that thinking the rhetoric of digital humanities through to its logical implications demands a radical transformation of the world as scholars know it, and, indeed, we may not be ready to stare into that abyss.  Such a transformation would necessarily produce winners and losers, new costs and new benefits.  But it’s a conversation I think we should be having, because bold visions of the future are usually what make reform possible.  As my dad used to tell me when he was teaching me to drive, “you won’t have a good time on the interstate if you don’t keep your eye on the horizon.”

  1. [1]Chiel van den Akker, quoted in William G. Thomas III, “The Promise of the Digital Humanities and the Contested Nature of Digital Scholarship,” in A New Companion to Digital Humanities, eds. Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth (New York, N.Y.: John Wiley and Sons, 2016):528; 527
  2. [2]Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette, and David Golumbia, “Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of the Digital Humanities,” Los Angeles Review of Books, May 1st, 2016, accessed November 21st, 2016, <>.
  3. [3]Kate Brown, Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2013); Jonny Steinberg, A Man of Good Hope (New York, N.Y.: Vintage Books, 2015); Anna Louwenhaupt-Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2015).
  4. [4]Thomas, “The Promise of the Digital Humanities,” 534.
  5. [5]Tara McPherson, “Post-Archive: The Humanities, The Archive, and the Database,” in Between Humanities and the Digital, eds. Patrik Svensson and David Theo Goldberg (Cambridge, Mass.: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2015): 492; “Totality for Kids,” last updated October 17th, 2013, accessed November 21st, 2016, <>.
  6. [6]“Editor’s Introduction,” in ibid.

Project Reflection: The M.I.T. Shakespeare Electronic Archive and Global Shakespeares Project

[Note: this post is tentative.  I have submitted a set of questions regarding more specific aspects of the M.I.T. Shakespeare archives to the Global Shakespeares co-founders, and I look forward to incorporating their answers into this post at a later time.  In the meanwhile, here are some of my reflections on their pathbreaking work and its possible relevance to my own endeavour]

The first thing that attracted me to the M.I.T. Global Shakespeares Project, if I’m being honest, was the M.I.T. name, a brand that hardly connotes the so-called fine arts. I recognized it from my undergraduate theatre days, when I was cast in a student-directed production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and, the following year, a production of The Winter’s Tale. In both cases I remember the look of our scripts: spare, no-nonsense Times New Roman printouts from the internet, with an U.R.L. address at the bottom.[1] As I learned in the course of writing this post, M.I.T.’s digital version of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare has been online since 1993, and it was the first time all of his plays and sonnets had been gathered together in one place on the internet. The text, which was fixed by Grady Ward as part of the Moby Project (a multivalent effort whose accomplishments included, among other things, “the largest word list in the world”) is presented with modernized spellings, free of any annotations or contextual notes.[2] Despite its shortcomings, it remains one of the dominant free versions of Shakespeare’s works on the internet.[3]

Peter Donaldson, who currently serves as M.I.T.’s Ford International Professor in the Humanities, first became involved with digital Shakespeare by acting as director for the Shakespeare Electronic Archive, a project that started in 1997. Taking advantage of resources available at the time, the Shakespeare Electronic Archive sought “to create an easily used system in which electronic texts are closely linked to digital copies of primary materials,” using Shakespeare’s works to model how the internet might make it easier to present searchable texts that may exist in multiple versions.[4]  Clicking on the “Collections” button takes you to a screen where the H.T.M.L. text of a play like King Lear is displayed alongside digital scans of a corresponding primary source with its metadata. For some plays, multiple scans and H.T.M.L. versions exist, such as folio and quarto, but this is somewhat uneven. The crown jewel of the collection is clearly its Hamlet section, where the folio and two quarto versions are available as well as video clips from three film versions of the play and almost 1,500 images of Shakespeare-inspired artwork collected by the Canada-based Shakespeare scholar Alan Young.

The educational applications of the Shakespeare Electronic Archive are clear—site users can clearly see how different versions of Shakespeare’s text differ from one another, and how, in the case of Hamlet, others have interpreted the Bard’s words visually and theatrically. With the Global Shakespeares Project, however, Donaldson and his co-founder Alexa Huang, a professor of English at George Washington University, sought to call even further into question our idea of Shakespeare plays as definitive texts. Compiling videos and scripts from Shakespeare productions around the world, Huang and Donaldson assembled an archive where one can explore Shakespeare’s plays as cross-cultural and transnational bodies of work—translated and retranslated, interpreted and performed in a myriad of ways that nevertheless somehow all claim kinship with their Elizabethan original.

This, to me, is a deeply important intervention. Arguing in his famous article on the Balinese cockfight for the value of interpreting “culture as an assemblage of texts,” Clifford Geertz asserted that “to treat the cockfight as a text is to bring out a feature of it (in my opinion, the central feature of it) that treating it as a rite or a pastime, the two most obvious alternatives, would tend to obscure: its use of emotion for cognitive ends.”[5] The use of emotion for cognitive ends: is this not exactly what Shakespeare’s Hamlet refers to when he declares that “the play’s the thing/ Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king”?[6] Obviously Shakespeare’s scripts by themselves are texts in the conventional way, but in a Geertzian sense the performance of Shakespeare becomes a much richer, more complex assemblage; an event—indeed, a ritual, driven by its own unique circumstances. Sound, lighting, scenery, music, dance and audience are decisive elements in the production of the whole, not derivatives or afterthoughts.

If, therefore, we are serious about taking a broad, postmodern view of performance as text and text as malleable and fluid, it follows that our view of drama must not rely solely upon the printed word. It is exceedingly difficult, however, to understand a dramatic performance without being able to experience it directly, yet even when performances are filmed they are not often made accessible online. In the case of internationally renowned playwrights such as Shakespeare, language presents an additional barrier. To study Shakespeare as a child was to study his language and learn to understand it; the idea that Shakespeare’s plays can be understood as authentic without his unparalleled English language diction is still slightly unfamiliar to me. The Global Shakespeares Archive directly challenges this view, and furthermore presents an incredible bounty of material, including video, related to Shakespeare performances all around the world, helping correct what Huang has described as “archival silence” regarding global Shakespeare performances.[7]

In her 1999 book, The Drama of South Africa: Plays, Pageants and Publics Since 1910, Loren Kruger stresses the importance of “theatrical nationhood” in South Africa’s twentieth century. From conventional plays to Nelson Mandela’s presidential inauguration, theatricality has consistently highlighted “not merely the restoration or even the revision of the past, but the transformation of received material in the inauguration of a new model that might prove the basis for future restoration.”[8] In other words, the nation called South Africa has had multiple incomplete births, and each birth has been marked, re-enacted, and subsumed through performance. I am increasingly interested in comparing the mythology surrounding South Africa’s 1910 “birth” with its rebirth in 1994, and that interest has led me not only to the plays of Stephen Black, but through the music of people like The Lucky Stars and the Zulu composer Reuben Caluza, towards a largely neglected period of South African artistic history.

Taken together, the M.I.T. Shakespeare Electronic and Global Shakespeares archives are valuable to me because, as I hope to do in my dissertation, they shed light simultaneously on the past and the future, and provide a model for presenting a wide variety of media relating to the theatre. There is much that I would still like to learn about the Global Shakespeares project itself, such as how Donaldson and Huang navigated the perils of copyright law to obtain so many videos of different performances, and how they coordinated a project that must have required negotiating with theatre companies in everything from Spanish to Arabic to Chinese. The scale of their archive is far larger than anything I see myself as able to do while I’m a graduate student, but if I can digitize and make available the manuscripts of Steven Black’s plays, along with resources relating to early twentieth century South African theatre and performing arts, I think it would be an important contribution to the self-understanding of a country whose burgeoning artistic scene merits a great deal more study.

  1. [1]“The Complete Works of William Shakespeare,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology, accessed October 26th, 2016, <>.
  2. [2]“Grady Ward’s Moby,” The Institute for Speech, Language and Hearing, The University of Sheffield, last modified October 24th, 2000, accessed October 26th, 2016, <>.
  3. [3]“How Moby Shakespeare Took Over the Internet,” Open Source Shakespeare, George Mason University, accessed October 26th, 2016, <>.
  4. [4]“Welcome to the Archive,” Shakespeare Electronic Archive, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, accessed October 26th, 2016, <>.
  5. [5]Clifford Geertz, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” Dædalus 101.1 (1972):27
  6. [6]William Shakespeare,”The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark,” act 2, scene 2, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, accessed October 30th, 2016, <>.
  7. [7]Alexa Huang, “Global Shakespeares as Methodology,” Shakespeare 9.3 (2013), 273-290.
  8. [8]Loren Kruger, The Drama of South Africa: Plays, Pageants and Publics Since 1910 (New York, N.Y.: Routledge, 1999): 5.

The Cost of Interdisciplinarity: Reflections on the Need for Cultural Criticism in DH

What is the purpose of good teaching? What is the purpose of good scholarship? I have to confess that as I read yet another set of readings focused on the radical promise of digital humanities, I found myself wondering again about the position of “DH” vis a vis other academic institutions, and whether the current state of the discourse is as insular as the readings suggest. What is it about the digital that invites such fetishism, from both critics and allies? To echo Alan Liu and William G. Thomas III in their discussion of digital humanities “centers” at universities, the construction of digital humanities as a discipline outside “traditional” academic departments feels increasingly pernicious to me, otherizing and exoticizing what should be firmly in the main stream of humanities discourse.

This week I began to read a collection of plays by the influential South African actor and playwright Stephen Black. Black is remembered as the first professional actor in South African history, and his plays like Love and the Hyphen (1908), Helena’s Hope, Ltd. (1910), and Van Kalabas Does His Bit (1916) oscillate wildly between low brow comedy, melodrama, and sophisticated exploration of heady political themes in a country still reeling from the South African War (1899-1902), knit together for the first time as a single political unit. From questions of class and status to latent tensions between “Boer” and “Brit” to women’s suffrage and the political rights of black people (some of whom were allowed to vote in the Cape province but not elsewhere), Black’s plays and their wild popularity have a lot to tell us about early twentieth century South Africa, but because he never published them he was largely forgotten after his death in 1931.

I am able to read these plays, of course, because half a century later the literary critic Stephen Gray edited and published the volume I am reading. Working at the University of Witwatersrand in the dark days of the P.W. Botha administration, he introduces the collection by recounting his experience reviving Helena’s Hope, Ltd. at the university’s Performing Arts Centre. Mixed-race theatrical companies had been less than two years before, and Gray recounts vividly the process by which Helena’s Hope, Ltd. forced his actors to reconsider the history they had been taught in apartheid-era South African schools:

Although all of the players were Johannesburg residents, another first was encountering the hard fact that, after generations of education in the Transvaal…almost no information about, for example, the dispossession of the agriculturalists, the advent of taxation, the Battle of Johannesburg between Boer republican and British imperialist, the rise of capital in the city, the enfranchisement of White women and the disenfranchisement of Black men, the Land Acts preceding 1913, etc., etc,—it is a long list and these are all crucial issues in Black’s play, had seeped through to them. For them, coming to an understanding of these issues through the script and in the rehearsal room was tantamount to a re-education in their own immediate past.[1]

Preparing and performing Helena’s Hope Ltd. challenged Gray and his actors to confront a history that had been buried, to resurrect on the stage a world of discourse that had been foreclosed and repressed by apartheid society.  Far from a mere exercise in antiquarian drama, Gray’s troupe at Wits confronted a text that challenged their ideas about the past, present and future, all at the same time.

The readings for this week all stress the need for digital humanities to confront questions of difference.  Whether emphasizing the potential contribution of Asian-American studies, intersectionality, or feminist research ethics, each reading is at pains to save digital humanities from itself (or a stereotype of itself, perhaps).  Yet each of the ideas the readings laid out are each two to three decades old, largely innovations of the 1980’s cultural turn.  What does it mean that even at this late stage scholars in the field of digital humanities are treating such established (if perhaps not predominant) ideas as potential paradigm shifts?  Is digital humanities really so out of touch with current debates in the disciplines out of which it comes?

Certainly valuable work is being done, as the readings describe.  Moya Bailey’s Misogynoir book project is a genuinely cutting edge contribution to our understanding of the online presence of trans women of color, and it provides a useful model for future activist scholarship engaging with online communities.  But the tone of the readings for this week led me to wonder whether the prevalence of digital humanities “centers” outside academic departments contributes to a sense that DH is separate from debates and developments in more traditional disciplines, a disturbing suggestion that the much-vaunted interdisciplinarity of DH is, in some way, holding the field back, kin to the “retro-humanism” Roopika Risam’s article alludes to.

Stephen Gray’s presentation of Helena’s Hope, Ltd.  exemplifies a multi-modal approach to scholarship and pedagogy that does not involve the digital.  It does the things that we ask all great pedagogy (and great digital humanities scholarship to do): to present something not otherwise easily accessible in ways that challenge and illuminate our understanding of a particular context.  Keeping digital humanities outside the mainstream of academic life maintains a unique, innovative culture of DHers across disciplines and departments, but at the cost of keeping DH marginalized, fighting for legitimacy among jealous, insecure university departments led by academics easily disposed to suspicion.  The more readings I do for this class, the more I find the air of exceptionalism surrounding digital humanities to be damaging.  The presence of computers does not necessarily mark a paradigm shift in disciplines that have always engaged in multimodal research and multimodal productions.  Instead, digital humanities should embed itself in established disciplines; after all, it’s not as if DH spaces are the only ones facilitating interdisciplinary projects.  In the long run, the goal must not be the creation of academic space for a sui generis digital humanities, but the full integration of digital methodologies and engagement with various fields in the humanities.  If an entire field, such as women’s studies, needs to move in a more digital direction, that debate should be going on at the central venues of the field, not at the periphery or among an academic subculture.  If digital humanities is valuable, and digital cultural criticism is necessary, there is no virtue in being on the sidelines.  This is especially critical given the considerable expense of digital humanities projects.  Only when great digital humanities scholarship is considered as simply great scholarship, and great digital pedagogy considered great pedagogy, will the fight be won.

  1. [1]Black, Stephen, Three Plays, Stephen Gray, ed. (Craighall, South Africa: Adriaan Donker, 1984): 31.

Digital Humanities and Digitized Humanities: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Having grown up in the age of the internet, it would be disingenuous of me to say that I have no previous experience with digital humanities.  Indeed, working in the College of William and Mary’s library as an undergraduate, I assisted with transcribing and digitizing items in the Tyler family papers.  Later on, writing my undergraduate honors thesis, I was fortunate to live in a time where a huge number of late nineteenth and early twentieth century books are available on websites like Project Gutenberg and HathiTrust, fully accessible and searchable.  In no other era but the present could I have inserted whole paragraphs into my notes by copying and pasting, saving myself the trouble of meticulously reproducing each jot and tittle in my own notes.  Indeed, my notes ended up running into the hundreds of pages, so the fact that they were searchable over the computer was itself a godsend.  But the resources that most caught my imagination in the course of my research were the enormous historical newspaper databases that allowed me to explore the circulation of information and the coverage of certain events with the click of a mouse and the movement of a slider.  Given the choice between that and poring through microfilm newspaper collections in search of the appearance of a particular phrase or collection of words, as someone who has spent time doing both, there is no question which option I would choose.  It’s a wonder to me that any research got done at all in a pre-internet age.

At Michigan State, my first proper introduction to debates over digital humanities stem from a talk given last fall by Lara Putnam, chair of the history department at the University of Pittsburgh, called “The Transnational and the Text-Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows They Cast,” reflections that eventually appeared as an article in the American Historical Review.  In that article, Putnam makes a perceptive distinction between the “digital” and the “digitized” turn, defining the first as the “specialized” arena of digital humanities scholars (who are keen, as our readings have demonstrated, to dissociate from what Bethany Nowviskie has called “supposedly uncritical, antitheoretical, presentist, cheerleading, neoliberal digital humanities culture”), and the second as “one that all historians, however traditional, are enacting, and about which the great majority of us have had nothing to say.”  Recalling Jonathan Sterne’s discussion of the “analog humanities,” in Patrik Svensson and David Theo Goldberg’s edited volume Between Humanities and the Digital, Putnam argues that the increasing popularity of “the transnational” in the humanities is related to the increasing prevalence of digital tools in the average humanities scholar’s toolkit (at least in the global North), and that this has the potential to threaten the place-based “analog” infrastructures scholars have traditionally relied on, from fieldwork to language study and regional studies centers.  Where many scholars both skeptical and supportive of the digital humanities might shrug at the use of search engines and digitized sources, Putnam identifies a revolutionary sea-change that forces us to re-examine the core of our respective disciplines.

When I went to hear Putnam speak about a year ago, I was initially more interested in the “transnational” side of her topic than the “digitized” side.  I came away with a new understanding of how the two are linked.  As Putnam argues, almost all historians today treat as commonplace practices that ten to twenty years ago would have constituted the cutting edge of “digital research methods.”  Yet most such scholars, myself included, would shrink from identifying ourselves as “digital humanities scholars.”

Reflecting on this today, I think of the controversies and debates in our readings from last week, and the recurring motif of digital humanities scholars’ self-indentification as a tight knit subculture within the humanities, struggling for legitimacy and recognition.  If Putnam is to be believed, the overwhelming majority of us are already digital humanities scholars, whether we realize it or not.  Digital humanities and the digitized turn, in reality, are two sides of the same coin.

It seems to me that coming to terms with the tremendous consequences of the digitized turn and accompanying technological innovations has the potential to de-exoticize digital humanities scholars.  If we’re in different parts of the river, but all heading to the same place, does it make sense to stigmatize digital humanities scholars to the extent that they feel as if they have to fight to be understood on their own terms, as Fiona M. Barnett so insightfully recalls in “The Brave Side of Digital Humanities”?  On the contrary, we should understand that digital humanities innovations, to the extent that they prove useful to scholars in a wide array of subfields, constitute the future of our disciplines in the same way that digital innovations will shape our lives in the future.  At the same time, “ordinary” scholars who do not consider themselves to be “techies” can no longer avoid coming to grips with the effect digital technologies and digitized sources have had on their work, as well as the major issues Putnam raises in her article about inequality and bias in digital sources (concerns echoed in many of our readings).  As of 2016, computers themselves are no longer particularly remarkable.  Neither are those interested in new ways to use them in the interest of humanities scholarship.