[Humanist] 26.704 waiting for God(o)h

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Jan 22 07:29:00 CET 2013

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 26, No. 704.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Mon, 21 Jan 2013 17:32:39 -0700
        From: Daniel O'Donnell <daniel.odonnell at uleth.ca>
        Subject: Re:  Waiting for God(o)h

Domenico sent out some really excellent questions (and warnings) about 
the type of project GO::DH is involved in to both humanist and the 
globaloutlookDH list (if you are interested in the latter, you can find 
out more about joining here: http://globaloutlookdh.org/).

Since Domenico's work has in fact greatly influenced our thinking, his 
challenges are extremely useful in helping as part of the ongoing 
process of defining the project.

For those that are interested, here are the comments I forwarded to the 
globaloutlookDH list.



Hi Domenico,

As you know, I'm really glad you joined GO::DH (and have now provided us 
with a great way of pronouncing it), in part because your work is one of 
the things that really got me thinking about this.

I've got some comments (but not answers) picking up some of your threads 

On 13-01-20 10:29 AM, Domenico Fiormonte wrote:
> Dear all,
> I am sending this message both to Humanist and GO::DH mailing lists.
> So apologies for deliberate cross-posting.
> First I’d like to congratulate all those colleagues that have made
> possible the GO::DH initiative, to which I was very happy to offer
> immediately my collaboration.
> As you perhaps already know I've been critical of the present DH
> scenario (see http://www.academia.edu/1932310/Towards_a_Cultural_Critique_of_Digital_Humanities)
> I’ve quickly drafted a list of reflections and questions that Ithink
> will be of interest to both communties. I am aware that my list is by
> no means exhaustive, and above all does not offer well-structured
> arguments or imply easy solutions to the problems. So I’d be very
> grateful if you could expand/criticize/improve it.
> 1) The first issue I’d like to raise is very well-known, and we’ve
> been discussing it on Humanist for a long time (a probe of the
> Humanist archive will prove useful on this), and that is the problem
> of cultural and linguistic dominance. Despite all the efforts of our
> academic community, a regrettable tendency persists to consider any
> event at which English is spoken as "international" and anything else
> as only "national". Far too many conferences, initiatives, books,
> research projects, etc. which happen outside the “core”countries
> (USA, Canada, UK, sometimes Australia) go unnoticed even when
> presented or written in English. Information only flows one way, and
> too often it appears as if the hidden agenda is to incorporate and
> absorb rather than collaborate.
> My question is: how much are our Anglo-American colleagues aware that
> the lingua franca and its connected scientific discourses are
> proprietary, just like most of the technology (i.e. software, search
> engines, etc.) built upon it? And how can we free ourselves from this
> mutual prejudice and at the same time giving up in our efforts to
> foster a truly “equal” communication?
> To be amicably provocative: shall I claim my universal right, as
> non-native speaker, to speak badly a foreign language without being
> openly or implicitly discriminated? Is it an anarchist’s dream to
> imagine a world free from (the guardians of) Grammar? At the dawn of
> Humanae Litterae, Latin was the non-proprietary lingua franca, and
> cultural authority was built on classical texts (whose authors were no
> longer able to “correct” you…) rather than on the triad
> Finance-Technology-Weapons.

As a native English speaker, I'm not necessarily in the best position to 
comment on what the best approach to dealing with this problem is. I do 
know that it is something that is coming up more and more frequently, in 
part again due to your influence as well as that of others, however.

At ADHO, for example, an issue that has not yet been answered but is 
front and centre at the moment involves cultural normalisation of 
academic discourse: it is not just that English becomes a norm 
linguistically, it is that Anglo-American norms as to how things like 
abstracts are to be composed becomes a de facto norm (see your point 5).

Alex, Marcus, Titi, and I discussed this a number of times during our 
debates about putting together GO::DH. The approach we came up with as a 
start for this list was to encourage people to use the language they 
feel works for the context they are in. We also hope to encourage people 
who share that language to translate or paraphrase contributions as a 
community service when they feel it is appropriate or useful. This can 
be done simply as part of a given thread.

This approach is based on the idea that many of us have some reading 
knowledge of more than one language and can sometimes follow the basic 
sense of what we are reading. If something is particularly difficult, we 
might find a paraphrase helpful, but may not need a full translation. 
And of course sometimes only a full translation will work.

We took this approach to publicising the initiative and are taking to 
translating the website; it's even been used once or twice already on 
the list. Mostly the direction has been English --> other languages; but 
there have been a couple of times already on the list where the original 
language was not English and members of the list have decided whether or 
not things needed translated.

One advantage of this approach, it seems to me--especially when we are 
dealing with material that was not originally written in English--is 
that it at least begins to let native English speakers in on the point 
you discuss above: what it feels like to not be a native speaker of the 
dominant language in a conversation; and it normalises the idea that we 
need to pay attention in our professional language use (whether English 
or something else) to the needs of others who are not native speakers.

I doubt it is a perfect approach and one of the things I've learned 
already at GO::DH is that the mix of experiences /always/ produces 
improvements. But that was our starting point.

> 2) One of the first problems that stems from linguistic-cultural
> dominance is that of institutional governance. I will never reach your
> level of linguistic skills (this email cost me days of work and then I
> asked a native speaker to revise it). So how can I compete with my
> native speaker colleagues when it is time to - for example -
> participate in a public debate or election? Are democracy and
> participation language-proof instruments or rather the essence of
> linguistic practice?

This is a really serious issue and one that I'm not quite sure what to 
do about.

When we put together the call for volunteers we tried to emphasise how 
important linguistic and cultural diversity of experience is for a group 
like this. But that doesn't eliminate the "competition" problem you 
mention and I'm sure it impacts the willingness and confidence of 
volunteers who are not (near) native English speakers.

We discussed this in the very initial stages of putting the original 
proposal together. We thought then that one way of acknowledging the 
issue might be by making cross-linguistic/regional/cultural 
collaboration a fundamental part of our organisation. So now that we 
have an executive, for example, we had been thinking that one proposal 
might be that all offices at GO::DH be led by a pair of people drawn 
from different regions, linguistic communities, and/or types of 
economies. So instead of a single webmaster, we might have two 
webmasters, drawn from more than one region, language, cultural population.

We thought this might get really interesting if, as seems likely, we 
also end up organising things in part by region. Let's say we had a 
Europe working group. Under this principle, it would be chaired by 
somebody from Europe AND somebody from somewhere else--from Africa, 
perhaps, or China. Same would be true of a Caribbean workgroup or one 
focussing on North or South America.

> 3) I think that the Low-Mid-High income pattern adopted by the GO::DH
> group puts on an economic basis something that is not strictly
> dependent on money. In general, culture and knowledge are not directly
> bound to income. Sometimes they generate income, but we do not  treat
> knowledge the same as any other commodity, firstly because it is a
> dynamic concept, and secondly because you cannot trade it
> *universally* (your knowledge on how to fix a Harley Davidson is not
> exchangeable with my knowledge of Swahili, etc.).
> So I think that to say you want to establish collaborations with "low
> income" countries is a risky way of categorizing and stressing
> differences rather than imagining peer-to-peer relationships (as if we
> were speaking of knowledge and not of commodities). I know the GODH
> (forgive us!) group didn't mean that, but I'm questioning the way they
> are presenting the initiative. To an external but old DHer like me, it
> sounds like another attempt to find 'international' legitimacy without
> really tackling the geopolitical issues involved.

This is an absolutely central question, I think. Again, I can only tell 
you what our thinking was. How things play out in the future, we can't know.

The first point is that we are not using income level to describe 
cultures or knowledge. We are using it to map a communications and 
collaborative disconnect. For whatever reason (and I'm not competent to 
say why), the DH world is currently divided along a line that 
corresponds to high income economies vs. all other types of economies 
(this is something I got from your work, in fact); all national 
scholarly societies who are members of ADHO are based in high income 
economies; most individual members of ADHO-supported or acknowledged DH 
mailing lists come from those same economies; funding from the agencies 
ADHO members most often turn to is also generally staying within this 
divide (with an increasing number of exceptions).

A founding premise of GO::DH is that this division by income level 
should not be intrinsic to our discipline or our research practice. In 
other words, the impulse behind what we are doing was in fact to address 
the very fact you note: there is no intrinsic reason why the income 
level of your economy should dictate your ability to work with, learn 
from, and teach others doing similar work (beyond any specific 
infrastructure or political restrictions, of course).

Our second founding principle is that GO::DH is not an aid programme. 
That is to say it is not an asymmetrical attempt by people in high 
income economies to help people in mid and low income economies. Instead 
it is a community of interest for people who want to break down the 
barriers that seem to be preventing us from collaborating as 
symmetrically as possible with each other on a global basis.

Absolutely key to this approach is the recognition that we are peers. 
People have different skills, abilities, resources, and, perhaps most 
importantly, experiences: our idea is that participation in a forum that 
allows us to share these skills, abilities, resources, and experiences 
improves everybody's ability to use technology in the research, 
teaching, art, and advocacy.

In fact I think this is probably the best thing about this list already: 
the exchange is improving everybody's understanding already. The actual 
GO::DH proposal was massively improved and sharpened by the exchange of 
experiences we had at the Cuba meeting Ray arranged; the minimal 
computing group that is starting to form comes directly out of a similar 
sharing of resources, ideas, and especially experience.

So I think you are exactly right about the dangers of both seeing this 
as an aid programme and using income difference as an explanation of 
cultural difference or scientific ability rather than simply a way 
identifying the locus of a communications gap that does not need to exist.

I would disagree, for this reason, with your analogy. We are not trying 
to create a place where knowing how to fix a Harley Davidson can be 
exchanged for a knowledge of Swahili. Rather we are trying to set up a 
place where motorcycle mechanics can help improve each others practice 
by sharing their different experiences and knowledge of different 
models: Harley vs. Hero Honda, for example. Or a place where linguists 
might improve their typological knowledge by sharing knowledge with 
experts in a wide variety of different languages and language families. 
This is why it is crucial that we understand ourselves as peers: we are 
collectively helping each other by sharing our specific knowledge, 
experience, and (different types of) resources.

> 4) Epistemic (in)justice. This is arguably an expansion of point 1).
> People in different cultures have different ways of expressing ideas.
> It is widely known that international journals and conferences reject
> papers because they do not meet certain rhetorical and stylistic
> standards. But where are these standards designed? Too often problems
> are not merely stylistic, but involve cultural, social and political
> aspects. In the last fifteen years, I've edited four collections of
> international essays (3 out of 4 were DH texts) and I became very
> sensitive to this problem.
> As an Italian epistemologist working in France has recently argued
> "among the many epistemic injustices that we commit in academia, one
> of the strongest is linguistic injustice ... . Some of [our] arguments
> may appear less convincing than those coming from an Oxford educated
> philosopher because the style of writing and structuring of thoughts
> we have learned is radically different."
> [http://social-epistemology.com/2012/09/07/gloria-origgi-reply-to-paul-faulkners-comments/]

I think something like GO::DH should make us aware of this and keep it 
front and centre: certainly it seems to me to be part of sharing 
experience. As I mentioned above, this is an increasingly commented upon 
issue. I can't see us hindering discussion of it, at the very least.

> 5) I will spare you the issue of the mechanisms of political
> representation, but as I argued in my Koln paper I think we have much
> to learn from (and experiment with) the treatment of knowledge as a
> commons. Much of the criticism about the cultural biases of DH (i.e.
> how it can benefit or harm the collective good) may be understood from
> this perspective. I suggest you to read Teresa Numerico’s paperon the
> CCEH website: http://www.cceh.uni-koeln.de/files/Numerico.pdf
> In conclusion, I really hope that GO::DH will finally become an
> opportunity to address at least some of these problems in a spirit of
> collaboration, intellectual generosity and cultural sensibility.

I think this is what we are hoping to do. At least it is what I'm 
interested in.

As I say, the above are comments rather than answers: your essay in the 
Koln dialogues was actually one of the starting points for my thinking 
about the specific construction of GO::DH and it has informed my 
contributions to the work that has gone on since then--which is probably 
why there's something for all 5!

But I think it is easy to fall into the traps you point out, and some of 
the most significant may not be open to "solution" rather than simply 
awareness. All you can do is your best!

> All the best
> Domenico
> _______________________________________________
> globaloutlookdh-l mailing list
> globaloutlookdh-l at uleth.ca
> http://listserv.uleth.ca/mailman/listinfo/globaloutlookdh-l

Daniel Paul O'Donnell
Professor of English
University of Lethbridge
Lethbridge AB T1K 3M4

+1 403 393-2539

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