The (Digital) Library of Babel

[This talk was delivered as the closing keynote before the Digital Humanities Summer Institute in Victoria, B.C. on June 6, 2014. It was a bittersweet delivery because I had to miss the first day of our Open Syllabus Project conference at Columbia U., but the commitment to deliver went beyond my gratitude to the organizers of DHSI. I dedicate these attempts to say something useful to my guides, Bethany and Jerry.]

SLIDES

exeunt to the world

I feel privileged to be here at the institute with you. When I received the kind invitation to offer my remarks on the subject of a global digital humanities I was elated, and immediately remembered that other marvelous congress, "El congreso" de Jorge Luis Borges.

In that congress, Alejandro Ferri remembers for us, about 20 Argentineans would gather on Saturdays at the house of another Alejandro, the red bearded, wealthy landowner Alejandro Glencoe. Inspired by guillotined Anarchasis Coots, "citoyen de l’humanité," Glencoe had founded El Congreso del Mundo to represent all men of all nations. Sic on the men. Their vast mission, combined with their small numbers, led them to come up with very clever solutions: Glencoe for example could represent landowners as well as men with red beards, or men sitting on a couch.

Naturally, they needed a library of congress. They started small, with a few encyclopedias. Soon enough the classics followed. Eventually, inflamed by Pliny the Younger’s suggestion that no book was without some merit, the congress set about collecting all of them, including 3,400 copies of Don Quixote in different formats, theater bills, and yes, dissertations.

On the day the bankrupted Glencoe ordered the books to be burned, he invited all to take a carriage ride through the night streets of Buenos Aires, declaring with great authority that the real congress of the world was the world itself. All accepted and exited clearheaded unto that largest of tents.

the disangelium of the digital humanities

I for one take dead seriously Jerome McGann’s impossible injunction that the role of the humanist in the XXI century is to tend to the history of our documentary pasts—recorded, written, painted or built—and oversee their remediation for our digital futures. But whose documentary past are we talking about? The world’s documentary past, of course. "Scholars are made," Jerry is forced to remind us in A New Republic of Letters, and we must make whole congregations of them for the task at hand. But who’s we? The world’s current scholars, of course—independent, librarian, professing scholars.

A new philology this way comes to regain its clement place at the center of our κόσμος. Do not hesitate. This is not the first time we build a republic of letters. We memorists have built countless already, each bound to specific mnemotechnics, labor arrangements and ideological charges.

For the first time, though, we have within our reach the means for both the production and dissemination of our own scholarly work at a massive scale. Provided the bloodstained cables, circuits and energy sources that support our digital mirrors clean up their act and survive our politics and commerce, we have an unprecedented opportunity to rebuild our collective memories on a different key. A humanities gone digital brings not the future, but a new past.

I’m sure everyone here is aware of the amazonic topographies of our inherited republic of letters: Canons built on top of nationalist and regional agendas; material traces of the past languishing in the libraries of former and current empires; brittle others crumbling under the pressure of the politicians and booklice of former colonies.

In our diligent present, authors upon theorists sign over their Microsoft Word documents to the serviceable folks of the publishing industry, who will surely PDF them, perhaps stain and bind some paper, then ship the product by donkey or cable off to select corners of the earth. The industrial indexers and bundlers never lag far behind, chock-full of DRM cufflinks. Eventually we end up with an accumulation of our scholarship in large metropolitan or wealthy academic libraries—mostly north, to be clear. On the margins of our inherited republic of letters, the provinces make do with hungry local productions and dark libraries crawling with all kinds of strange critters—trackers, leechers, seeders—as the global (c) wars rage on.

At this juncture, in sight of a new deal, as we slowly break lose from national narratives and the deflating tent of "The Western Tradition," building a global community of scholars who can harness the machines finds its reason and rhyme.

global outlook :: digital humanities

The seeds for GO::DH were planted during a series of conversation at DH2012, Hamburg, among several scholars from North America, Europe and Asia, including Neil Fraistat and Dan O’Donnell, our current chair, on the difficulties of making connections with mainland China. By this point, centerNet had already made enormous strides in connecting centers across the constituent members of the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO), but they had found some difficulties connecting outside of that tent. In 2012 we also see the publication of Melissa Terras’ map, "Physical Centres in the Digital Humanities Across the Globe," which inadvertently calls attention to its absences more than its contents, and Domenico Fiormonte’s "Towards a Cultural Critique of the Digital Humanities," in which he takes to task mainstream digital humanities as detrimentally anglo-centric.

With this backdrop, GO::DH began coagulating in earnest during INKE’s Birds of Feather gathering in November of 2012, in Havana. Many in this room now were there. I joined the conversation around that time. In earlier conversations, the group was dangerously imagined as an advocacy group encouraging ADHO members to seek out scholars on the empty hinterlands of Melissa Terras’ map in order to provide assistance to them. During our fortuitous debates in Havana, though, GO::DH started molding its current ethos for transnational collaboration based on a different gambit: to go global, we would look for intersections within existing practices and networks, rather than replicate or over-valorize the tents that sheltered us. In doing so, we transformed the we. Our we is now a function of our intersections around the world, and WE are now entering our second year. So far, so good.

In practice, GO::DH consists of a mailing list, (which anyone can join), a website, around 250 members worldwide, a series of working groups and an executive board. During our short run we have already drafted our first set of by-laws, successfully ran an international essay contest, helped organize a few tents in South America, the Caribbean and Mexico , added a few new working groups to the mix, tackled several hot-button issues on our list, and all o’ that without drawing the ire of the internet. We are just getting started, of course.

While our online forum is the soul of our special interest group, our hands are the working groups. Each of the groups has their own coordinating executive, which reports back to the GO::DH executive periodically. Working groups are strategic, in the sense that they help us carry out our larger mission in one way or another. THATCampCaribe 2: Cuba, for example, continued the work we started during the INKE meeting; the Translation Commons group embodied our distributed and collaborative approach to language diversity; the Rewriting Wikipedia project provided us with a model of groups working together in different geographies and connecting by telepresence as groups (an alternative to controversial anonymous, individual-centered models of crowdsourcing); our most recent addition, the Minimal Computing group is setting out to imagine a digital humanities conscious of global accessibility questions (bandwidth, hardware, electricity, etc.) If you’re in Lausanne this year for DH2015, make sure to catch our workshop, organized by John Simpson.

arounddh

Of the working groups, my personal favorite is the #arounddh in 80 Days project, which I’m happy to announce will launch one minute before the summer solstice. I promised I’d deliver in Spring, and well…

Turning Jules Vernes’ colonialist fantasy of homogenous space on its head, the #arounddh project, is a vehicle for addressing the challenge of multi-directional and reciprocal visibility in an asymmetric field. Starting June 21 and running for 80 days, the site will take us to different parts of the world to highlight a different digital humanities project every day. Not only can #arounddh allow us to get a sense of the rich diversity of scholarly engagement with digital environments around the world, it can also provide a piecemeal entry for beginners to the digital humanities, refracted now through a broader lens.

The first stage of the project consisted of compiling a master list on a Google Doc spreadsheet of digital humanities projects around the world (n.b. you can still contribute). Using social media and email, the working group was able to accumulate 300+ entries (and growing!) from contributors around the globe. The creation of the master list was itself instrumental in making connections between individual scholars, many of whom became more involved in the activities of GO::DH. The master list has already become a valuable resource in its own right, separate from the web project, and we’re already in discussions with DHCommons, MapaHD and other general directories of projects to find ways to mesh our data.

Production of the web project began in Ryan Cordell’s "Doing Digital Humanities" class in the Spring of 2013. Ryan approached us as collaborator with an understanding that the project would be a great pedagogical tool for introducing graduate students to digital humanities around the globe. Students in the class began work on the project using the Scalar platform, and were able to create a prototype of the project that included mapping and descriptions of the project. Students also made their selection process transparent. Their well-documented experience served as a foundation for the continued development of the project.

The next stage of the process consisted of gathering an editorial board of scholars from around the world to make the selection of the final 80 projects based on the master list. As of this moment, the final website is being designed using Jekyll, a static website generator, and using minimal design, like the SVG map you see in the slide, in order to make the project more easily accessible in areas with low bandwidths.

In the strongest sense, though, this project has been more about the process than the actual product. We have built many important relationships throughout the development stage, and expect to build more; we have also had an opportunity to see the pedagogical benefits of the anthological approach to the Introduction to Digital Humanities course, which is becoming a staple of our collective practices. More importantly the project has helped us broaden our network and put to test many of the ideas discussed in the forum.

decoding English, de-Englishing code

The thorny question of English—la colonialidad del poder—still hangs loose, never quite unraveling the emperor’s clothes, never quite breaking off. More recently, the question has been transposed to the realm of Critical Code Studies, where Roopika Risam and others encouraged us to tease out the role of English norms in Ramsey Nasser’s قلب programming language. The exercise proved that we are still long ways from sorting out how to foster a true babel. I personally have a longstanding love affair with the English language, but it does not blind me to the home court advantage of native speakers in large numbers.

Undoubtedly, many of these problems lie outside of the scope of what we can accomplish as scholars, but we can certainly tend to our own tents. At GO::DH we have approached these issues by foregrounding the role of translation, allowing all languages free reign. While for the most part the community reverts to globish as a lingua franca, our policies promise to be a model for other groups seeking a global outlook. For our essay contest, we decided to accept submissions in any language, with the plucky suspicion that we would be able to find a translator regardless what participants threw at us. Our gambit paid off. We received 53 submissions in seven languages, five of which the panel could easily read ourselves, two of which, Polish and Korean, we had no problems finding readers for.

Instead of requiring a lingua franca or official languages, we open language to the community, where a translation of the website or any forum post depends on the community itself. By allowing speakers to write in the language of their choice, we hope to chip away at perhaps one of the most daunting obstacles facing the global community of scholars to come. And because English speakers are all encouraged to speak in careful globish, we place the burden on the hegemon.

the dance of universals

Allow me to finish with a few maxims for those of you who are about to go out there to the disangelium. Perhaps I can send you off in good cheer.

  1. Do not confuse the dancer for the dancehall.

With In The World Interior of Capital, German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk reminds us that our obsession with dwelling within spheres and canopies is as old as dust, and like dust those celestial figures eventually must return to the ground. The rush for big data and massive surveillance, inevitably reduced to forms, continues an ancient search that could tame, and perhaps generate, the asymmetrical granularities of the real. If you pay attention, you will notice the Sanskrit grammar of Pāṇini is dancing to similar tunes as the Mercator Projection or the Universal Turing Machine.

Our new humanities must not refuse this dance, but we should dance it with our feet on the ground. Presented with a "massively addressable" past and present, we must resist the temptation to ignore what falls out of our buckets. Our task as memorists requires us to return always to a science of exceptions, to the punctum. As Nowviskie returns to Morris, “you can’t have art without resistance in the material.”

  1. Rejoice in the dancers and their dance

Perhaps we have reached a point, saturated with complex procedures for generating figures that mostly elude us, almost mocking us, where we can allow flesh and form to dance in step. Here is a gorgeous example from The Forsythe Company, “Synchronous objects for one flat thing.

Notice the dance easily sliding from choreography to dancers to visualization; form to flesh to form. Each produces an effect without being subordinate to the other. As we begin our global collaborations, we must do likewise. We must certainly have choreographies in place, do the dance, but remain open to wondrous new forms in the process.

  1. Listen to the experienced dancers.

As we invent new dances and write new histories of dance, listen to those who have been dancing for years. The arts we preach are rigorous and demand years of dedication, perhaps lifetimes.

The eternal September of the digital humanities is only bound to increase in intensity in the years to come. Aren’t we ultimately talking about the eternal September of the academy? Let us welcome our students with patience and remind them gradually, but firmly of our disciplinary memories.

Finally, and this one is personal,

  1. Let us be excellent dancers to one another.

The world is a messy place, covered under the big tent of a capitalism flirting with authoritarianism, plagued by AK-47s and countless lunacies; but also agency and promise, the dance halls of communities.

We are a small, if albeit visible, band of hackers and pirates charged with an impossible, but ever so crucial mandate. To reach the promised land, we must not fall into facile Us vs. Thems, especially those of us who are wrestling with the tough questions of race, gender and other charged differences. I see many tents, and tents within tents, big ones and small ones, and clearings too; I walk among many of them and so can you. Let us count beyond twos and threes as we do so, and always err on the side of grace.

Our students and publics are watching us; they have their fingers crossed. Not to disappoint them, let us continue to be excellent dancers to one another as we exit unto the world.

Category: Digital Humanities

8 comments on “The (Digital) Library of Babel

  1. […] Read the full post here: The (Digital) Library of Babel […]
  2. […] all the colleagues who approached me about them afterwards. Also key were to this was, of course, Alex Gil’s talk which received a great response and generated huge interests in GO::DH initiatives, and the […]
  3. […] and the GO::DH essay contest. Similarly, as Alex Gil mentioned, also at DHSI2014, at GO::DH “we open language to the community, where a translation of the website or any forum post depends on t…” These practices really become a community building exercise and show the priceless willingness […]
  4. […] trended internationally (and attracted the spambots!). Building relationships was even a theme in the closing keynote of the week, “The (Digital) Library of Babel, delivered by Alex Gil, who exhorts us to “be excellent dancers to one […]
  5. […] DH communities to a DHSI inspired argument for the MLA Report. On the final day, Alex Gil delivered an exceptional closing keynote that has since received repeated well-deserved attention as a #DHSI2014 highlight. I am writing […]
  6. […] his closing keynote at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute, Alex Gil recounted how in GO::DH “we open language to the community, where a translation of the website or any forum post depends on t…” Following him, of course, the problem of multilingualism in DH is that we can’t all speak […]
  7. […] Finally, I thought of one of my favorite people, Alex Gil, whose powerful 2014 DHSI keynote “The (Digital) Library of Babel” on global digital humanities includes a section on “The Dance of […]
  8. […] take a look at Alex Gil’s DHSI keynote, “The (Digital) Library of Babel,” a vision for the digital humanities, if there ever was one. As the author’s argument elides these […]

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