Fiormonte, Chaudhuri, and Ricaurte (eds.), Global Debates in the Digital Humanities
University of Maryland Baltimore County
Citation: Tucker, Jackson. “Fiormonte, Chaudhuri, and Ricaurte (eds.), Global Debates in the Digital Humanities.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 26, 2023. doi:10.20415/hyp/026.r03
Keywords: global studies, digital humanities, OCR, text mining, cartography, disciplinarity, decoloniality.
Fiormonte, Domenico, Sukanta Chaudhuri, and Paola Ricaurte, eds. Global Debates in the Digital Humanities. (The University of Minnesota Press, 2022).
The editors of Global Debates in the Digital Humanities – Domenico Fiormonte, Sukanta Chaudhuri, and Paola Ricaurte – have set out to incorporate decades of decoloniality studies and research from and about the global south into an academic discipline that’s been seen largely exclusive to American and Western academies. They have succeeded in accomplishing this task by focusing entirely on non-Western scholars carrying out digital humanities projects and scholarship pertinent to the academies of their home countries. This decision may render the text only partially useful as an overview of all global debates in DH – because the audience has no perspective on the U.S. and Canada region, Western Europe, Japan, South Korea, and Australia – yet it accomplishes the goal of filling in years of gaps created by those same colonial academic systems that have excluded Africa, China, Eastern Europe, Central and South America, and South/Southeast Asia. As the authors state, regarding their editorial strategy, “though often technical in nature, these challenges [presented in the chapters] extend to broader linguistic, bibliographical, and epistemological issues, or to issues of cultural history” (xxii). Thus, the exclusion of these regions from previous discussions is a major oversight that the editors seek to correct, first by localizing and contextualizing global DH, then by sharing best practices currently working in the global south, and finally by considering the future of global DH.
To build a bridge between their likely Western audience (after all, the book was published in English by a U.S. university press) and the work of global DH the editors position context and history at the forefront so that even novices to the field have a broader understanding of the discipline decolonized. This includes philosophical conversations on epistemology (well-trod territory for western philosophers and humanities scholars) and invisibility (a relatively new concept for scholars outside of decolonial and interdisciplinary studies) as well as global reflections on well-known conflicts within the Western academy that our colleagues in the global south have long contested: such as the positionality of the subaltern, queer representation in historically conservative settings, and ways that digital social sciences (DSS) and DH both conflict and work together to develop critical discussions beyond the traditional non-interdisciplinary centers of knowledge (and power) within which they historically lie. In this way, the text serves a dual purpose of both providing a window into the unique non-Western cultures from which they stem while also engaging with the fully global concerns of a still-relevant interdisciplinary field. As the authors note, José Medina, in Epistemology of Resistance, explains that “social injustice breeds epistemic injustice; or rather, these two kinds of injustice are the two sides of the same coin, always going together, being mutually supportive and reinforcing each other” (Medina, 27).
Once the audience is nestled in the context of the labor and knowledge production of the broader global DH space, the book explores global DH in practice including mining verbal data from archives, including ways to do this outside of the Greek alphabetic typography (a truly novel approach to a common Western DH practice), analyses of representation – a nod to the approach of critiquing media in the age of corporatized media dominance, and ways to develop new literacy skills and digital scholarship infrastructures. What’s particularly interesting about the end of this section of the book is that the authors, because of their position in the global south, discuss the ways they tackle insurmountable odds with real world applications for millions of potential students and scholars with issues of both accessibility and representation always kept front and center of the conversation. I would argue that these same strategies for overcoming infrastructure (and political) hurdles are much more relevant in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe than we like to think. Consider, for example, that several mid-sized cities in the U.S., such as Jackson, MS, don’t have clean drinking water, or that the average cost of home Internet is $60/month (according to the FCC). Similarly, some smaller countries in the European Union, such as Hungary, frown upon its citizens’ activities on the Internet (Tharoor). In other words, the West is neither as sophisticated, developed, or morally superior as it likes to believe.
With eyes on the future, the editors found numerous authors to explore the ways that we, as DH scholars, can go beyond the digital humanities to cultivate social applications; here, then, the authors and editors give the audience the opportunity to see the social value of DH. The purpose is not to take account of the history of social movements, but to connect people, “the masses” (not exclusive to the colonial academy) to a greater purpose for our work: resistance to dominant power structures as a service to the public. This serves as a justification-after-the-fact, one that anyone working in the digital humanities, regardless of their location on the globe, could adapt and develop further for their own purposes, making this text a much-needed contribution to DH in the third decade of the 21st century.
No longer tossed aside as an afterthought at the end of U.S./Canada-centric or Eurocentric anthologies, scholars in Global Debates in the Digital Humanities get the opportunity to stretch their legs and share a wide range of exciting and cutting-edge scholarship; among them are several chapters that deserve specific attention. Ernesto Priego, in “Can the Subaltern ‘Do’ DH?” asks the question, given how elitist the colonial academic system functions (even for college and universities that operate compliantly within those systems), how can any scholar attempting to share important scholarship in the global south do so without first developing either the global and/or digital community it takes nowadays to get people to care about such work? (31) As Priego notes, “It is possible to create new representations that are critical of the colonialist ones, that address in practice the need to interrogate the latter and, in doing so, offer an example of how to do it differently” (31-32). This denotes a direct tactical move against the elitist, white supremacist motivations used to undermine scholars/hip in the global south. Here the reader may already be thinking of current linguistic norms still often used, dichotomies to express these relations, such as “first world/third world” or the more insidious “developed/developing”; that’s another value of this text: it can both interrogate these terms while changing the language we (in the U.S., Canada, and Western Europe, etc.) use to talk about our global academic peers.
Nuria Rodríquez-Ortega’s chapter, “Digital Social Sciences and Digital Humanities of the South: Materials for a Critical Discussion,” might be especially valuable to the interdisciplinary scholar for her concise and critical engagement of the use of the term ‘digital’. The students we teach now, mostly digital natives, might understand this well-written chapter better than professional scholars who’ve been in the field for decades because Rodríquez-Ortega understands that in a world where digital and nondigital boundaries are blurred, intertwined, or different than they were five minutes ago (because of a new social media acquisition or a new artificial intelligence), we have to consider the viability of the term and its relationship to our scholarship. The answer is similar to that of others in the book: representation and identity scholarship and the “role that DH can play as a critical discourse and an instrument allowing emancipation from the single, hegemonic, and legitimizing way of accepting technology as unidimensionally shaping the world, culture, and humanity” (102).
The book’s editors also provided space and attention for scholars currently working with OCR (optical character recognition), which allows scholars who use the Internet (but not the Greek alphabet) to do more with the Internet in all disciplines. By offering more than one approach to the same topic, the editors allow the audience to discover two unique approaches to the same fundamental issue; one on Bengali script, where “its representation on the Internet and in DH is not proportional to its number of speakers” (117) and the other on hitsudan, or “brush talk,” which is the historical root of the “mutual characteristic in the form of writing” for Chinese, Japanese, and Korean (127); both of these developments are useful for historians and history-adjacent disciplines. Again, a common theme emerges that feels universal: a desire for both representation and connection which leads to meaning making. One might ask, as several others do, what secrets lie in these non-Western scripts that digital technologies and software might unlock for historians and humanists alike if only we had access? It is telling, for example, that when I put the word “hitsudan” into a Google search, a popular TV movie and related paraphernalia return in my results feed, rather than information on this ancient communication system.
Finally, across the many chapters that asked the audience to consider what lies beyond DH, “Borderlands Archives Cartography” by Maira E. Álvarez and Sylvia Fernández Quintanilla stood out for the developmental discussion questions it asked the audience to consider. These questions were driven by an honest interrogation of the colonial academy within which we all operate and could be easily adapted by many DH scholars to broaden the purpose and meaning of the work we do, acting as an invitation for broader awareness of and justification for the discipline. These questions (222) consider institutional accessibility, facilitation of transnational collaboration, ethics as it relates to highly personal community scholarship, and the need to practice a curriculum oriented toward independent student projects (rather than having them under the thumb of advisors). As an instructor of first-year and technical writing, living in the U.S. thousands of miles from any human-made border, I considered these specific issues faced by “borderlands” institutions just as resonant for me at my diverse institution.
New scholars and students interested in learning more about global DH will find Global Debates in the Digital Humanities to be useful, but even more-seasoned scholars looking to make their own DH work more global (or to do what’s called “decolonizing” their DH classroom/scholarship) will appreciate the myriad references to well-grounded scholarship in both DH and Decoloniality. For DH, you’ll find Peter Bloom, Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein, Alan Liu, John F. Barber and Ray Siemens informing many of the chapter authors. In decoloniality studies, the scholars referenced include: Elizabeth Hill Boone, Frantz Fanon, James Holston, Audre Lorde, Achille Mbembe, Walter D. Mignolo, Ngugi wa Thiongo, and many more. While the reference lists at the end of each chapter will be of value to students and scholars alike, I’d be remiss to leave out my disappointment that Global Debates in the Digital Humanities, a text focused so much on bringing two cutting-edge interdisciplinary realms in conversation with each other, lacks an index. In my reading, I found multiple areas of overlap in the discussions the authors participated in and the references they were making, and an index would be one way to increase the usability of the printed work.
Medina, José. The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and Resistant Imaginations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Tharoor, Ishaan. “Hungary’s Spyware Scandal Is a Crisis for Europe.” The Washington Post. July 19, 2021.