MLA14 Presentation – Decolonizing DH: Theories and Practices of Postcolonial Digital Humanities

“Technology, Colonization and the Humanities: Some Thoughts”
Amit Ray @amitorit
Associate Professor of English
Rochester Institute of Technology

Full Panel Description:

Since becoming institutionalized in the American academy two decades ago, postcolonial studies have helped to undermine the idea of a single, universalized modernity. This has led to revisionist accounts of ostensibly ‘Western’ phenomena. In this way, postcolonialism has provided a better understanding of how these modernist categories, such as the nation-state, or literature, were produced across a network of colonial relations.

And yet, for a variety of reasons, the universalist vessel of the liberal ‘human,’ despite extensive critique from a variety of positions, remains intact. A number of theorists have tried to negotiate this impasse. Postcolonial critics have examined the illiberalism attendant in the work of 1eighteenth and nineteenth century thinkers who defined modernity. For Dipesh Chakrabarty the (post)colonial subject of liberalism faces the ‘not yet,’ of historicism, such as when JS Mill dismisses the peoples of Africa and India as ‘not yet’ civilized enough to partake in modernity.

This idea of the ‘not yet’ continues to animate discussions regarding North-South inequities. And one of the key components that facilitates the universality of such categories is communications technology. As in the past, the concept of the citizen-subject continues to be predicated on questions of ‘reading/writing-based’ literacy. However, as we have learned from a number of different fields, technologies are never neutral, their transfer never without powerful political, economic and epistemological ramifications.
In previous work, I have examined the neo-colonial assumptions that have influenced projects such as Access to Knowledge, One Laptop per Child and Wikipedia. All rely upon the kind of historicism that Chakrabarty outlined in Provincializing Europe. Indeed, such technological quick fixes to structural and systemic inequalities are no less frequent inside nation-states as between them.

As we experience the powerful and broad ranging effects of the computational turn in the humanities, we must keep in mind the particularly American qualities of the digital, facilitated by the Internet and computational technologies in which US corporations and the State have vested interests. Considering the recently revealed arrangements between internet hardware and software companies and the State, we need to ask some very difficult questions about DH methods and tools.

Given how computational technologies, like previous media technologies, are deeply shaped by such consumerist and statist impulses, I wonder as to the limits of employing such technologies for projects that challenge neoliberal and imperial hegemonies. I am particularly wary of the neo-colonial implications of a now very heavily commodified maker-ethos of hacking, paired with a kind of code essentialism that (it is argued) is an essential form of literacy: program or be programmed.

And perhaps this is where the alphanumericity of code becomes essentialized just as writing was (and is) essentialized in the universalist modernity of liberalism and liberal democracy. I continue to worry about the legacy of oralities being lost even as I am thrilled at the prospects of intermediation that may bypass the need for writing as we know it.

I think we need to be careful in how we proceed with the maker ethos that animates DH. The maker industry, as we have all become aware, is commercially exploding, with the promise of new materialities brought about by things such as personalized, 3-D printers. We need to be attuned to the subsequent wave of ‘crapjects’ that will accompany this rush of activity. As humanists, how will we historicize and respond to the creative destruction unleashed through our experimentations using ‘disruptive’ technologies.

The rush to build, to fill in ‘new’ territory, to colonize such spaces, has the potential to do tremendous epistemological violence both within and outside of ‘human’ life worlds. The relative affluence of certain members of this species allows them to rapidly constitute their personal experiences. And consumerism encourages them to do so. Feverishly. This (pathological) individualism lies at the core of my critique of what I like to think of as late humanism. And where I find myself moving into questions of the non-human. Or as I have tried to argue elsewhere, ahumanisms.

As suggested by Benjamin Robertson, the problem is not so much with the digital, but with the human. I think postcolonial theory did for the concept of modernity (by making it heterogenous) as digital postcolonialism might do to the human at a moment when, due to our various social and material technologies, those living consumerist, postindustrial lives are, in fact, constituted elsewhere. To paraphrase a whiskey drinking stutterer, “The problem with our history, here in the US, is that it is occurring elsewhere.”

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