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Speaking Back to America, Localizing DH Postcolonialism

I’ve put off writing this post for a long time, and I’m still not sure about publishing it because I need to keep thinking it through and catching up on some reading on the topic. Perhaps I should also note that readers from New Zealand, Australia, and other ex-commonwealth nations (as well as Britain) might find it bemusing. The backstory is that I’m writing to a North American audience on a topic specific to the digital humanities. Here goes.

When I saw #dhpoco announced I couldn’t get info about it fast enough. My formative intellectual years were spent saturated in postcolonial discourse and I was eager to see it imported into the digital humanities. New Zealand during the 1980s (my childhood) and 1990s (my undergraduate and postgraduate years) was dominated by it. To me it represents the only weapon I’ve had in arguments with racists who abused indigenous people, who complained about the official acknowledgements of the Treaty of Waitangi, who perpetuated historic wrongs. I eventually wrote about postcolonialism in New Zealand in my doctoral thesis, in a chapter on Keri Hulme, author of The Bone People (1984). Postcolonialism underpins what I think is an increasingly (although by no means completely) honourable relationship between Maori and Pakeha, backed by our political and legal system. It provides the intellectual ammunition required to – ever so slowly and inadequately – begin to roll back 150 years of colonial domination. And the job isn’t finished yet, by a long stretch. It never will be. A professor down the corridor from me has written a postcolonial book called The Long Forgetting, pointing out in ascerbic terms the way we’ve managed as a country to forget what happened on our islands, largely in the interests of middle-class geniality. And of course New Zealanders didn’t come up with this approach to postcolonialism on our own. It was informed by theorists across the postcolonial world.

And so to our beloved postcolonial world. My first reaction to seeing what #dhpoco stood for was – understandably according to the colleagues I’ve spoken to – to recoil in confusion. It didn’t represent anything I understood postcolonialism to be, or speak to the postcolonial world(s) I know. Critical Theory, yes. A powerful melange of identity theory and feminisms, queer theories and activist politics, but not ‘my’ postcolonialism. Frankly, my first thought was ‘The US is colonising postcolonialism!’ In the context of recent US invasions of the (actual geographic) postcolonial world this apparent intellectual appropriation was jarring, to say the least. Coupled with what less charitable people view as a global programme of US cultural colonisation it felt at best wrong-headed and at worst an example of (unconscious) neo-colonialism. The baser side of me initally concluded it was simply the intellectual follow-on to Bush’s adventures; an inevitable smothering of postcolonialism by the only remaining superpower. Domination by intellectual appropriation. Then I wondered if maybe I needed to catch up on my reading, that in my years away from academe postcolonial discourse had radically altered. Wikipedia and fleeting conversations with some random colleagues suggested this isn’t the case, leaving me with the view that all I’m seeing is a provincial (I don’t mean that in a pejorative way) US instantiation of the term that requires localization for New Zealand (and probably Australia and the rest of the postcolonial world). Heavy stuff, then, but not overly problematic. I’d be being dishonest if I didn’t admit that #dhpoco prompted a rather hearty WTF when I first realised what it represented, but after more thought I’ve realised all it might actually show is how ignorant I am about US cultural politics.

So let’s reset things. At the risk of appearing hopelessly passive aggressive, rather than merely confused, I want to go on the record by noting that #dhpoco is a wonderful thing, to be celebrated and encouraged. I agree with its values wholeheartedly. DH is largely populated by white, male, straight people. This has to change. Bravo. And as a Pakeha male what right do I have to either speak for indiginous people in my part of the world, or criticize marginal groups overseas engaged in a struggle for their own empowerment? Moreover, on reflection I can see how the antipodean version of postcolonialism might seem a bit radical, a bit exclusive, from the #dhpoco perspective. When a New Zealander thinks about poco in terms of the US, after all, the only possible beneficiaries are Native Americans. Postcolonialism is their tool, the only real tool they have to empower themselves and gain greater legal and political representation. It is inconceivable, in antipodean terms, that a white woman (for instance) would be able to use that tool for her own purposes. But there’s the rub. The differences between #dhpoco and postcolonialism Down Under hinge around 2 issues: timing and the relationship of postcolonialism to intersectionality. The colonisation process started so much earlier in North America, and was so far advanced by the time postcolonialism appeared in the post World War Two era, that Native Americans (apparently – my ignorance might show here, as elsewhere in this post) weren’t able to claim it for themselves. ‘All’ they seem to have gotten (from our antipodean persepective) was the critical theory that went with it. They have to share the most powerful critical tool available to them, in a radically intersectional political and cultural context. New Zealand intellectuals have resisted going down that path because – even though it makes sense in some ways – it would dilute the movement towards postcolonial empowerment for the people that (our) postcolonialism is designed for: colonised people. While there’s an acceptance that the rights of indigenous people to self-determination and political power intersects in fundamentally important ways with the needs of other marginalised groups, that they are natural allies and in many cases people will be marginalised as a result of more than one aspect of their identity, this does not change the fact that a gay man, say, is one of the colonisers rather than colonised. To assert otherwise would be deeply offensive in anything other than purely intellectual terms, wherein the basic critical precepts that exposed colonialism for what it is are generalised in the service of a broader emancipatory project. But even that wouldn’t be news, or viewed as culturally appropriate in most circles. I can say that with some surity because we’ve been having these discussions since the 1970s and I tackled them in my doctoral thesis in relation to a national debate sparked by Keri Hulme’s assertions of what would now be termed ‘intersectional’ identity politics. The intellectual ground is deep, broad, and riven with hidden chasms.

So, time to get out the toolkit: some localization is needed. In fact, it’s urgently needed because we need to ensure that indigenous peoples in our part of the world get to engage with DH as colonised people and have the full benefit of our local postcolonial discourse(s) when they do. The fact is that we’re far enough behind the rest of the world with DH that our indigenous cultures haven’t had a chance to engage with it yet. Ignoring the work that happens in cultural heritage organisations, it’s still a white middle-class activity. I politely submit, and stand to be corrected by someone more schooled in (non-US) postcolonial politics than me, that we reserve the term ‘postcolonialism’ in our part of the world for the cultures who suffered the effects of nineteenth century colonisation and its ongoing associated processes: give them a chance to engage with the digital world on their own terms and in their own time. Let them own postcolonial DH discourse and determine its future in our part of the world. In fact, why not just park it for a while until more appropriate voices than mine can speak up. Maybe they’ll choose to interpret things differently to me. All I can say is that I’m not entirely confident speaking on behalf of all New Zealanders (and perhaps by implication Australians and people in other postcolonial nations) but am equally uncomfortable with the idea that we might undermine indigenous peoples’ future intellectual (not to mention political and cultural) agency if digital humanities is developed without an effort to localize its #dhpoco aspect.

#dhpoco in the antipodes, then, translates (to me at least) as #criticaldh. I run that code in my head whenever I engage with it now. It allows me to support #dhpoco and to draw out aspects of it that will be of huge value to postcolonial cultures when and if they do begin to engage with DH. I can see fundamentally important areas of mutual interest: Critical examination of video games like Sid Meier’s Civilization, archiving and preservation issues related to precious cultural heritage artefacts, copyright and licensing, encoding standards, data modelling, the use of GIS to aid historical understanding, language localization, the development of AI to represent non-Western consciousness….the list is endless. Many of the skills and attitudes needed to engage with these topics in a sophisticated way are being developed within the #dhpoco movement, and it’s crucially important that work continues, but it’s equally important we develop grassroots expertise in our region so we can contribute our own hard-won perspectives. I’ve more thinking to do about this, and hope to produce something more structured, formal, and code-related but I hope it suffices to add one additional caveat to this post – proof that I’ve been mulling over these issues for some time. Three years ago I wrote a post called The Pacific Node, where I finished with:

There’s an element of post-colonialism in this conception of a Pacific-centered digital humanities node, of course. As much as the international digital humanities community are gregariously interested in new ideas and encouraging of equal participation on all levels and by all groups, they cannot conceive of our local needs, because we haven’t articulated them yet. We need to formulate those needs and then engage with colleagues outside the Pacific to bring a new, digital, vision to reality.

The work to build a Pacific Node has hardly started, but I’d like to think the idea represents what the places Down Under have always offered the northern hemisphere: antipodal perspectives.

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Dr. James Smithies

Director | King’s Digital Lab

King's College London

Strand | London WC2R 2LS

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Digital Humanities | History