OWN YOUR PARADIGM: Epistemological Mindfields

The theme linking this week’s readings: KNOW YOUR BIASES. As Klein succinctly states, we must “examine the underlying assumptions and biases embedded in the research methods, database structures, and modes of display that we, as scholars of America’s archive, employ” (678). The importance of this can not be overstated, as eventually “the entirety of our cultural inheritance will be transformed and reedited in digital forms” (Earhart referencing McGann, 72). DH is at the front lines of this battle and the stakes are exceedingly high.

In “The Image of Absence: Archival Silence, Data Visualization, and James Hemings,” Lauren F. Klein discusses a) the types and impact of archival silence, b) the importance of moving beyond traditional methods of analysis and critique to rectify these silences and c) how new digital methods (as exemplified in her James Hemings work) can render visible the previously invisible.

In her elegant digital work unearthing Hemings in the Jefferson Papers, instead of focusing on what’s missing, Klein targets specific connections between people. In so doing, she reveals glimpses of Heming’s complex and tragic life. Her simple graphics powerfully display Heming’s “ghost.”

Klein’s work also uncovers several of Jefferson’s biases as well as his deep dependence on his slaves. Jefferson was simultaneously capable of objectifying his slaves and envisioning himself as “a benevolent force for liberty” (682). Furthermore, Jefferson used data visualization as an empirical form of political control–he believed his data should be accepted as true AND used to “cultivate a uniform set of behaviors and beliefs” (678). 

Klein argues the importance of reinscribing “cultural criticism at the center of digital humanities work” (665). The crux lies in epistemological considerations – that DH must focus as a field on not only WHAT but HOW we know.

In “On Decimals, Catalogs, and Racial Imaginaries of Reading,” Laura E. Helton tells the amazing story of Dorothy Porter, a “regular” librarian who single-handedly managed to shift the paradigm of blackness by authoring a novel infrastructure. Flipping the existing decimal system on its head, her meticulous organization unleashed a previously unknown/unseen world, forever shifting blacks from the false dichotomy of slaves/immigrants to full categorical equality. Porter understood it as an epistemological battleground where one could remap knowledge structures that erased or flattened blackness (102). 

I found it fascinating that she routinely directed people at a distance to check out books available to them of which they had been unaware. This shows that the decimal system obscured references – another way of denying access. 

In her 2012 chapter “Can Information Be Unfettered? Race and the New Digital Humanities Canon,” Amy E. Earhart chronicles the major shifts in DH. The early 1990s held promise to recover lost voices as well as democratize the intellectual landscape but ultimately did not deliver. The late 1990s and early 2000s featured two types of projects: small scale/individual and large scale/institutional, of which the small scale dominated, focusing on recovery projects. However, only a portion are still online. Large scale/institutional projects were more likely to survive but also more likely to reflect canonical bias. Earhart notes that DH advancements have focused disproportionately on technology rather than diversity. She concludes that given the importance of the role of digitization for future cultural representation, we have to look at our biases and ensure we are not exclusionary.

Every DH project reflects an underlying worldview. If we are ignorant of our paradigmatic bents, we do the field an injustice. Critical epistemology lies are the core of advancing DH.

About Karuna Maddava

Graduate student in the Jazz History and Research program at RUN
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