Decolonizing the Digital Humanities

I was fascinated when my World Rhetoric class started reading and discussing non-western rhetorical traditions and communicative cultures.  In fact, throughout this semester, it has been difficult to ignore the many potential connections to digital humanities present within the various readings we’ve explored. I can’t help but ask… why are these non-Western rhetorical traditions not a major part of the current digital humanities conversation? My scholarly interest with the digital humanities (DH) partly lies in its potential for public engagement and “decolonizing knowledge” (Burdick et. al. 91). Publishing scholarly work digitally allows for new ideas to spread to formally unreached (and ignored) audiences. DH work is inherently collaborative which means that it wields the ability to provide a platform for cross-cultural discussion and previously silenced voices. It is this sort of work that can help to break down the problematic mythology discussed by both Boidin et al. and Baca. In this blog post, I hope to not only discuss my reactions to these three articles, but also to highlight the articles’ intersections with DH ethos.

The offering of “pluriverses of meaning” and Boaventura de Sousa Santos’s “ecology of knowledges” provided by Boidin et. al. in “Introduction: From University to Pluriversity A Decolonial Approach to the Present Crisis of Western Universities” is particularly helpful to my current research. In order to decolonize the Westernized university, the authors stress the need for allowing dialogues between different voices to occur within the academy without silencing those traditionally ignored or “inferiorized” by the Western canon (2-3). One possible method for a university to move towards this sort of inclusive scholarship is to make use of digital humanities work. Social media platforms such as Twitter and Youtube have already proven that otherwise silenced voices can be heard and seen digitally. Scholars can make use of this participatory culture by placing their humanities work within reach of a more public audience and teaching their students best practices for how to engage with digital rhetoric.

Both Boidin et. al. and Baca address the issue of dominant mythology obscuring minority narratives. For example, in the Dutch university system, “minority research” is controlled by “dominant elites” who largely ignore history and often use the research to find methods of managing minority populations. As a result of this silencing, myths about slavery are produced, disseminated, and ingrained within Dutch culture (4). In his article, “Rethinking Composition, 500 Years Later,” Baca adds to the discussion on dangerous mythology by addressing the Western view of the Roman alphabet as both morally and intellectually superior to the supposedly insufficient and demonic Mesoamerican pictographic writing system (230-32, 236). This Eurocentric view ignores the fact that the Mesoamerican culture already achieved a system of advanced literacy long before the Europeans violently colonized their land. The power of rhetoric to produce and ingrain such problematic mythology is fascinating. The belief described by Baca that the Western alphabet is somehow inherently tied to democracy and intellectualism while pictographic writing is attached to less civilized societies perpetuates today. The severe degree to which these mythologies are implanted within Western societies (and universities) is very overwhelming. How can academics and educators begin to remove these deeply ingrained beliefs from national and individual memory? Are there possible methods of exploiting this power of rhetoric for cultural good?

I was very excited to learn that Baca incorporates digital studies within his work! His idea that a more culturally inclusive method of studying history (and the history of rhetoric) can “complicate our understanding of the dominance of digital technologies” is important and displays the powerful potential of including more diverse voices within the academy (234, 237-38). Within digital humanities, there is currently a movement towards helping students (and ourselves) to gain a more comprehensive visual literacy. There is a need for DH students and scholars to be better able to analyze text as well as interface design, sounds, images, and other non-textual modes of communication. The visual aspects of DH projects can enhance or challenge the work’s text (Burdick 11). Humanities scholars need to be taught how to examine the relations and potential tensions between graphics and text, however, methods of teaching this skill are still being debated. Baca’s suggestion to teach the multiple writing practices as they existed across early America provides an exciting answer to this current question within the digital humanities.

Works Cited

Baca, Damián. “Rethinking Composition, 500 Years Later.” JAC. 29.1/2. 2009. pp. 229-242.

Boidin, Capucine et. al. “Introduction: From University to Pluriversity: A Decolonial Approach to the Present Crisis of Western Universities.” Human Architecture. 10.1. 2012.

Burdick, Anne et al. Digital_Humanities. MIT Press, 2012.

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