[Humanist] 26.702 prejudice and ignorance?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon Jan 21 07:47:44 CET 2013

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 26, No. 702.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sun, 20 Jan 2013 18:31:49 +0100
        From: Domenico Fiormonte <domenico.fiormonte at gmail.com>
        Subject: Waiting for God(o)h

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 I think
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

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?

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.

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."

5) I will spare you the issue of the mechanisms of political
representation, but as I argued in my Köln 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 paper on 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.

All the best


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