Culture Machine, Vol 15 (2014)

CM2014 Article: Gabriela Mendez Cota

Digital Humanities: Whose Changes Do You Want to Save?

Gabriela Méndez Cota

Mediating 'Rethinking the Digital Humanities in the Context of Originary Technicity' by Federica Frabetti from vol 12 (2011) The Digital Humanities: Beyond Computing

Culture Machine devoted its 2012 issue to the topic of the digital humanities. The contributions to that issue explored the digital humanities as a critical engagement with digital technologies that goes ‘beyond computing’ in order to produce new ways of doing the humanities. The guest editor, Federica Frabetti, introduced the contributions with an argument about the critical and creative potential of the digital humanities in the face of a seemingly irreversible colonisation of the University by neoliberal rationality. The question, for her, was how best to actualize such a potential. In what sense, she asked, can the use of digital technologies by practitioners of the humanities bring about something ‘new’ in the humanities? Her response drew on the philosophical tradition of deconstruction, which effectively criticizes instrumentalist positions rooted in the Aristotelian view of technology as an external tool, one that is merely utilised according to the will and intentions of humanity. For the philosophers Jacques Derrida and Bernard Stiegler, for example, the classical devaluation of technology as an instrument of humanity cannot be separated from the devaluation of writing as a mere representation of speech. Failing to question this double devaluation would render the digital humanities themselves an instrument of a currently hegemonic ‘humanity’, namely, the neoliberal subject that produces, consumes and disposes at will technological products and services, including knowledge and education. An alternative to such a fate would be announced by ‘originary technicity’, which is Stiegler’s designation for the argument that no self-consciousness (and therefore no humanity in the classical Western sense) can be achieved without technology, given the latter’s essential role in the development of memory, language and knowledge. In this sense, Stiegler argues that historically specific writing technologies allow human beings to suspend their genetic program and evolve through means other than life in a process called ‘epiphylogenesis’. The kernel of Frabetti’s own argument (both with and against Stiegler) is that digital software (a technology that does not represent speech but rather ‘makes things happen in the world’) calls into question the concept of writing on which the humanities have been traditionally based, namely, an ethnocentric conception of writing as mere instrument for the recording of an authorial (and authoritative) speech. If the digital humanities pursue this line of thinking, she suggests, they will enable themselves to produce genuine alternatives to the easily commodifiable reproduction of the traditional humanities based on the authoritative, book-writing human. How does this human look from the standpoint of Latin American practitioners of the digital humanities?

The Question of Humanism in Latin American Digital Humanities

Whereas Frabetti’s position proposes a non-humanist or deconstructive task for the digital humanities, a first point regarding the digital humanities in Latin America would be that, at least among its most visible University-based representatives, the concept of ‘humanism’ has not been philosophically ‘deconstructed’, and much less has it been politically discredited. This is what emerges from the contributions of a number of digital humanists to the Latin American Network of Digital Humanities blog. In a recent contribution to this blog, Spanish philosopher Juan Luis Suárez asserts a continuity between 15th century humanism and the endeavours and aspirations of contemporary digital humanists:  'Digital Humanities in the 21st century can lead the debate on the specific contents that are to inform our culture, of the way in which we want to give our political communities the kind of human being that will - thanks to the presence of an education system - be responsible of these cultural communities’ life' (Suárez, 2014). There is no doubt, for Suárez, that humanism is alive and relevant for the Spanish-speaking world of the 21st century. In his words, what Latin American research systems should do is ‘create or adapt digital technologies to the Humanistic project’. Whether we agree or not with this idea or the way in which it is expressed, we can certainly ask about the role of technoscientific capitalism in the realization of such a project. In his blog entry ‘Digital Humanities in Spanish?’, Suárez observes that a consensus regarding the economic importance of research belongs to the industrialized countries, yet it is one that Latin American digital humanists can view optimistically as promising ‘progress’. Even though, in his view, not enough Spanish is spoken in the digital humanities, digitization entails above all an opportunity to valorise culture as ‘one of the most important economic sectors and a pillar of research interest’. Despite his apparent enthusiasm for culture as an economic sector, Suárez advises fellow digital humanists to start by interrogating the nature and the social relevance of the problems they deal with. The digitization of existing collections is seen as fundamental but not decisive, for while it is a practice that is allowing ‘us to learn how to be digital humanists’, the fact of the matter is that ‘Google has been doing it for years and creating the technology and shaping the social habits used now by researchers’. Thus, besides doing what Google already does, ‘it is necessary to create the technology to do it and invent the work protocols that will lead to the birth of communities of practice’. 

Crucially, this practice would be orientated to analysing the past in a different way in order to solve relevant problems. This applies, for Suárez at least, to ‘digitizers’ and not just to programmers because the problem goes beyond the technical, and encompasses anyone who is responsible, publicly or privately, in the spheres of education, patrimony, communication, and humanistic research. In this regard, he mentions a few pioneer projects as concrete examples of what can be done in Latin American countries in order to address the changing work habits among practitioners of the humanities, and the new technical requirements of those practitioners that result from dealing with complex problems requiring large amounts of data-processing and team work involving collaborations with institutions outside the University as well as those in other disciplines. Among them is the Corpus del Español project, a repository with over one hundred million Spanish words belonging to more than 20,000 texts stretching from 1200 right up to the 20th century, and whose interface is organized to facilitate linguistic searches by word, phrases, lemmas, words in context and, recently, semantic, synonymic queries. It also allows some natural language processing - an aspect of increasing importance in humanistic research if we consider the millions of digitized texts that are now available. In terms of the digitization of content, there is the Bracero History Archive, the aim of which is to collect, archive and spread the oral histories and artifacts from the Bracero Program -  1942-1964 US government initiative that invited Mexican labourers to take up temporary agrigultural work there and has, thus, had a considerable impact in the memories and experiences of the Mexican population in the US. One of its most important features is user interactivity of the kind characteristic of web 2.0. Both of these projects, however, have involved the participation of US universities which have links to state and private enterprise. This raises the question: how can projects like this take place in Mexico?

Mexican digital humanist Ernesto Priani, who is based at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), says that in Mexico digital humanists find themselves at ‘an earlier stage’ than the US National Digital Library project. Accordingly, they should reflect on questions that are much more general, such as the goal and meaning of a Mexican Digital Library, how to undertake it (and who should do so), the spirit and the form of creating it, together with the methodology and technology that should serve as its toolset (Priani, 2014). For Priani, the Mexican Digital Library is a cultural project that is only conceivable in national terms. Such a project ought to be the sum of all the efforts, great and small, of all the digitization groups dispersed across the country. For instance, there are government projects, such as the Mexican Digital Library, which is supported by the National Council for Culture and Arts (Conaculta), the Carso Group, and the General National Archives the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), following the specifications of the World Digital Library. There is the Biblioteca Digital del Bicentenario (Digital Library of the Bicentennial), a collection of PDFs created for the centenary of the Revolution. There are also university projects such as the Biblioteca Digital del Pensamiento Novohispano [Digital Library of Neohispanic Thought], sponsored by the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters of UNAM, or the Biblioteca Virtual de la Novela Corta (Virtual Library of the Short Novel), sponsored by the Philological Research Institute also of UNAM. The large-scale special collections scanning projects such as those undertaken by the University of Nuevo León, by the General Direction of Libraries of UNAM, which is not yet public, or by the personal libraries of José Luis Martínez undertaken again by Conaculta, can also be mentioned in this context. In Priani’s view, the lack of coordination, the absence of a shared vision and methodology have limited the efforts, dispersed the resources, and impeded the confluence of projects necessary for the creation of a unified library. For this reason, Priani also sees Mexican digital humanities as being confronted with the task of imagining a Mexican Digital Library that might be able to come to fruition. 

He narrates how, in the 18th century, Juan José de Eguiara y Eguren, a university professor in what was then ‘New Spain’, drafted a work he called Bibliotheca mexicana, with the purpose of creating a history of his land’s men of letters. According to Priani, he was reacting against the metropolitan belief that the inhabitants of the New World were incapable of scholarship. Eguiara’s Bibliotheca mexicana was the first systematic (yet incomplete) effort to identify, unite, and preserve the memory of the people of New Spain together with their works. Even though others continued with the project, they too failed to bring it to completion. According to Priani: 'The problem was not only the enormity of their objective, but also their constant returns to the beginning. Each one of them began the enterprise with a new methodology, new goals, and new personal intentions, which made the history of the Bibliotheca mexicana an inexorable return to the point of departure'. Should the construction of a national library be the main goal of the digital humanities in Mexico? It is perhaps not so strange that a humanist working at a public institution whose motto reads ‘For my Race the Spirit Will Speak’ should think so.1 Interestingly, Priani sets this goal against one of the most threatening agents of technoscientific capitalism: Google. In the case of Google Books, Priani remarks, we are not talking about an actual library, but rather a bookstore. Moreover, there is the problem of the culture that Google represents; we are also talking about a position of cultural dominance on the internet. It is in this context, he says, that ‘we must discuss the construction of a Mexican National Library’. The question for him is how to respond to the need to ‘preserve and make available our national patrimony in the face of possible appropriation by private enterprise’. Defined by the common task of making the patrimony of Mexico accessible, and enriching our knowledge of it, and by the explicit aim not only of moving objects of ‘our patrimony’ into the digital realm, but rather developing knowledge by means of this act. Only in this way, it seems to him, ‘we will we be saved from the curse of Eguiara’ – namely, that Mexican humanists tend to leave their encyclopedic projects incomplete.

Another Mexican digital humanist, Paola Ricaurte, contributes a series of questions to the Digital Humanities Network blog about the relationship between the digital humanities and the geopolitics of knowledge. She argues that in order to contribute to a genuine intellectual exercise, the practice of digital humanities in Latin America must not reproduce dominant epistemological frameworks, circuits of production and knowledge diffusion, institutions, referents and objects of study. In this vein, she diagnoses:

Digital humanists in Latin America face the challenge posed by Mignolo. On the one hand, the need to abandon the universalist conception of knowledge, which also involves the challenge of narrating ourselves on our own terms: What are the dominant academic discourses in the field of digital humanities and where are we situated in them? What criteria define digital humanities in Mexico and Latin America? What are the mechanisms of legitimation of knowledge production in the field of digital humanities? Who defines and controls them and what is our position about it? (Ricaurte, 2014)

None of these questions is answered in Ricaurte’s contribution to the blog of the Network of Latin American Digital Humanities, but the contributions from Suárez and Priani reviewed above suggest a picture in which university-based digital humanists align their task with nation-building, socioeconomic ‘development’, the creation of tools for patrimony conservation and rigorous academic standards – as if none of these narratives had been fundamentally destabilised by both the representatives of decolonial thought and the neoliberal orientation of global technoscience. Mignolo’s questions should therefore be applied in the first place to the ‘local’ understanding of the field of the digital humanities, which unproblematically reasserts broken narratives about the nation, knowledge and technology. Such an interrogation is likely to be pursued across Latin America in the coming years, precisely in response to the postcolonial injunction to define ‘our position’ about who controls the mechanisms of legitimation of knowledge production in all fields, not just the digital humanities. Yet this interrogation is likely to be pursued in unexpected places: that is, places outside the traditional university and outside the traditional task of authoritatively defining disciplinary boundaries for an academic practice. While university-based digital humanists advocate the academic harnessing of digital technologies as an instrument for the research, conservation and transmission of the ‘national patrimony’, heterogeneous actors across national and disciplinary boundaries gather to debate the implications of ‘the knowledge economy’ (that is, technoscience) for the Latin American relationship with culture: is it acceptable to reduce culture to an economic resource or should we rather articulate it with the political project of a democratic citizenship? Moreover, is epistemic decolonisation possible at all without a serious interrogation of Latin American investments in culture as something essentially different from the knowledge produced in the so-called ‘developed’ world?

Beyond University-Based Humanism: Do You Want to Save the Changes?

In 2008, the team at the Centro Cultural de Españain Córdoba, Argentina decided to call for a critical and ‘local’ take on the debates around intellectual property and copyright which were unfolding in Europe at the time.2 While some countries such as Chile and Mexico had already addressed these issues (see López Cuenca & Ramírez Pedrajo, 2008), in the case of Argentina the Center sought to inaugurate a yet unheard of discussion among academics, politicians and media professionals. The result of this initiative, led by Paula Baulieu, was a series of encounters called ‘The Lord of the Archives: Debates on Authorship, Entitlement and Rights’. Among their outputs is a freely available e-book titled (in Spanish) Do You Want to Save the Changes? As Baulieu notes in her introduction to this book, the most pressing questions addressed during the debates were the geopolitics of knowledge and the Latin American need for ‘a new social pact’ regarding culture and knowledge. Whereas the question of the geopolitics of knowledge addresses the fact that digital technologies have not by themselves reversed (and have in some ways actually strengthened) the unequal conditions in which culture and knowledge are generated on a global scale, the question about a new social pact concerns the need to reimagine culture in Latin America outside the framework of the commercial leisure and entertainment industries. As Baulieu observes, in Latin America there is still a tendency to marginalise culture from political agendas, basically by subordinating it to typical ‘Third World’ issues such as poverty, unemployment, child malnutrition, epidemics, water shortage, climate change and so on. Yet problems of poverty and climate change are not just economic but also cultural and political, as is the implicit or explicit privileging of (Northern) ‘expert’ discourse when dealing with them. As long as we understand culture as a (non-political) economic resource, citizenship in Latin America will be reduced to a form of consumption, and will continue to reproduce the extreme inequalities which have afflicted the region since colonial times, and which are currently deepening as they are in much of the rest of the world.

Do You Want to Save the Changes? contains numerous contributions which do not directly invoke the digital humanities as a field, but do address the questions posed by Ricaurte above in a way that might help us to think about the pertinence of a deconstructive reflection in Latin American digital humanities. While the book itself does not constitute a direct response to Culture Machine’s 2012 take on the digital humanities, the purpose of hosting it here alongside a critical review of the Latin American Network of Digital Humanities is to present the interested reader with a preliminary sketch of one possible theoretical mapping of the main concerns of Latin American practitioners of the humanities in relation to digital technologies and their implications for local cultures and knowledges. Of course the question remains open as to what exactly a deconstructive approach within such a theoretical mapping would entail for university-based digital humanists, besides pointing to the ethical and political dangers of re-asserting humanism uncritically in a technoscientific world. It could certainly not stop at admonishing Latin American academics for being too humanist. Rather it should confront us with the complexity of setting up a dialogue between incommensurable cultural and historical intellectual traditions that are nevertheless tightly imbricated with one another (through the history that has organised global knowledge production into centres and peripheries). One particular contribution to Do You Want to Save the Changes? makes this point clear.

For the Argentinian sociologist Leandro Rodriguez Medina, Latin America is ‘peripheral’ within the geopolitics of knowledge by virtue of its incapacity (or perhaps unwillingness) to develop a material and symbolic structure that allows for the expression of a local knowledge which, once channelled, makes possible a dialogue with other areas. How could university-based peripheral academics effectively counter First World prestige, organizational capacity and editorial influence? The problem is that First World publications are not merely vehicles of information but also models and parameters for the rest of the world - and not just the world of academics but also that of governments and society as a whole - through the symbolic and material influence of institutions such as UNESCO, the World Bank, the IMF and so forth. The latter adopt First World knowledge as a scheme to understand local realities. This sort of civilizational hegemony cannot be counteracted through the dis-articulated, sporadic, individual and economically precarious attempts that are usually found in so-called peripheral countries. What, then, can be done? For Rodríguez Medina, the most important thing is to decide whether ‘the answer to our local problems is in First World publications’. If it is, we should press harder so that our local institutions facilitate our access to those publications. If it is not, we should recognize that ‘free culture’ would not, by itself, guarantee any progress in our attempts to deal with our local problems. A more difficult yet indispensable alternative, he suggests, would be to interrogate how ‘we’, the periphery, reproduce this role by simultaneously accepting the quality standards of intellectual fields in the First World and a context of material and symbolic precariousness. This interrogation would have to unfold in the form of a dialogue that so far has appeared impossible to sustain. After reviewing the main contributions of both ‘Northern’ and ‘Southern’ (or postcolonial) STS, he concludes that few thinkers from either North or South have actually addressed the challenge of establishing genuine dialogue among centres and peripheries. He observes that dialogue is not a natural consequence of any encounter, but rather a contingent result of social, political and economic exchanges. If we look at this strategically, a theoretical mapping exercise could help us to identify the areas of knowledge which may throw light on the difficult process of creating dialogues among knowledge production sites. Could the digital humanities be one of these areas? To situate a practice such as the digital humanities is not to locate it in a spatial container - ‘a peripheral country’ or ‘a global city’, for example - but rather to pay attention to how specific practices of knowledge production contribute to configuring spaces near and far away, in structural and relational terms.

Let us leave the question open - but not without mentioning at least one successful initative by a group of Mexican academics based at the Autonomous University of the State of Mexico (UAEM). Redalyc (a Network of Scientific Journals of Latin America and the Caribbean, Spain and Portugal) is a project initiated by the Autonomous University of the State of Mexico (UAEM) with the purpose of promoting the visibility of academic publications produced in and about ‘Iberoamerica’ (a broader designation of Latin America that includes Spain and Portugal). Since 2002, Redalyc has created, designed and maintained an open-access internet archive of academic journals that works as a meeting point for all those researchers of this ‘other’ America (or at least all those who have access to the Spanish and Portuguese languages). Initially, the archive privileged the social sciences and humanities journals but, given its huge success and the challenges faced by other areas, it has expanded its coverage to the ‘natural’ and ‘exact’ sciences. As an academic organisation, Redalyc played an essential role in Mexico’s political reforms regarding open-access and institutional repositories. On May 2014 Mexico became the third country in Latin America (after Peru and Argentina) to legally endorse open access to all scientific information produced in public universities. At the presentation ceremony of the new legislation, Redalyc’s motto was pronounced by one senator: ‘the science that is not seen does not exist’. Political issues aside, this motto speaks of a much more realistic (though perhaps a bit too ‘postmodern’) attitude than the older nationalist motto of the National Autonomous University, ‘for my race the spirit will speak’. Yet it also suggests that the deep-rooted disadvantages faced by Latin American scholars are only half-addressed by the attempt to construct an open-access archive of ‘Iberoamerican’ science. The archive will not by itself challenge the dominance of the English language or the centre/periphery relation. It may contribute to doing so by strengthening the academic culture of the Latin American regions, yet one important task that remains to be pursued is precisely the critical engagement with lingering metaphysics of writing as the representation of an original speech – whether this is called ‘Iberoamerica’ or ‘Latin American culture, science and knowledge’. The intervention that a deconstructive digital humanities can make in this regard remains to be explored by Latin American scholars themselves, and it is one that Culture Machine will continue to host and support in future issues.

Notes

1 The motto was proposed in the 1920s by one of the intellectual fathers of Mexican revolutionary nationalism, José Vasconcelos.

2 The Centro Cultural de España belongs to the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation (AECID). Ironically, it has been this cultural political branch of a not-so-former coloniser (much more than nation-states) that has played the most active role in promoting and financing Latin American debates on the cultural politics of intellectual property and copyright.

References

Baulieu, P. (2009) ‘Presentación’, in P. Baulieu & A. López Cuenca (eds), ¿Desea guardar los cambios? Propiedad intelectual y tecnologías digitales: hacia un nuevo pacto social. Córdoba, Argentina: Centro Cultural de España. Available at: http://ccec.org.ar/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/desea_guardar_los_cambios.pdf.

López Cuenca, A. & Ramírez Pedrajo, E. (eds) (2008) Propiedad Intelectual, Nuevas Tecnologías y Libre Acceso a la Cultura. Mexico City: Centro Cultural de España & Universidad de las Americas, Puebla. Available at: http://radio-ccemx.org/descargas/propiedadint.pdf.

Priani, E. (2014) ‘Bibliotheca Mexicana: Virtue, Condemnation, Possibility’, blog entry, translated by Glen Worthy, available at: http://dayofdh2014.matrix.msu.edu/redhd/2014/04/09/bibliotheca-mexicana-virtue-condemnation-possibility/. Accessed 28 October 2014.

Ricaurte, P. (2014) ‘Geopolitics of Knowledge and Digital Humanities’, available at:  http://dayofdh2014.matrix.msu.edu/redhd/2014/04/09/geopolitics-of-knowledge-and-digital-humanities/. Accessed 28 October 2014.

Redalyc: Red de Revistas Científicas de América Latina y el Caribe, España y Portugal (2014) ‘México se convirtió en el tercer país de América Latina con Acceso Abierto’, available at: http://redalyc.org/noticias.oa.

Rodríguez Medina, L. (2009) ‘Apuntes para una geopolítica del conocimiento’ in P. Baulieu & A. López Cuenca (eds), ¿Desea guardar los cambios? Propiedad intelectual y tecnologías digitales: hacia un nuevo pacto social. Córdoba, Argentina: Centro Cultural de España, available at: http://ccec.org.ar/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/desea_guardar_los_cambios.pdf.

Suárez, J. L. (2014) ‘Digital Humanities in Spanish?’, blog entry, translated by Élika Ortega, available at: http://dayofdh2014.matrix.msu.edu/redhd/2014/04/08/digital-humanities-in-spanish/. Accessed 28 October 2014.