Risam, Roopika. New digital worlds: postcolonial digital humanities in theory, praxis, and pedagogy. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2019. viii, 176 p. ISBN 978-0-8101-3885-8. $34.95 (available in cloth and as an e-book)
Anyone with a common understanding of the Internet spaces will not deny that it is dominated by English language, Google search engine, Facebook and similar social media sites produced (or at least bought up) by American companies. Some other European companies join these global players and in some contexts and regions, like Chinese- or Spanish- and Russian-speaking areas, other more or less powerful players emerge, but they also represent what may be called post-colonial powers and their aims to colonise the remaining world.
The mechanisms that are employed by the dominating powers in the area of digital humanities are revealed, deconstructed, and criticised by the author of the New digital worlds Roopika Risam, of Salem State University in the United States. She merges her knowledge of English literature with post-colonial studies and applies it to the realm of digital humanities. The book is not only an exercise in the critical approach to the present situation and development trends in digital humanities, but also an attempt to introduce alternative ways of active opposition to the emerging domination of the Global North and different ways of doing things.
Roopika Risam uses a simple juxtaposition of the Global North and the Global South to explain her thesis of domination of the first over the other. This, of course, simplifies the issue, as one can see from the text in the book itself: the marginalized and disempowered subjects can equally be suppressed in the Global North, as the black population or the first nations in the North America. But this simplification helps the author to emphasise the main idea of opposition and talking back to the dominating cultures, creating awareness of the conscious or unconscious silencing of otherness and erasion of varying cultural expressions by different means. Her main area of focus is digital humanities, but she clearly demonstrates how colonial domination of the past and its cultural legacy impacts and shapes the todays digital realms in general. Moreover, she shows how this inherited and internalized natural order of things penetrates our minds and manifests in the forms of universal human values. As a scholar of communication I cannot devalue the universalism in general as it is a good concept to defend populations whose oppression is justified by arguing the values of our culture. However, just as the cultural relativism, it has the other side that helps in perpetuating the domination of the powers of what the author calls the Global North.
The book consists of an introduction, five chapters and a call to action. The Introduction sets the scene of the post-colonial digital cultural record emphasizing how the discipline existing on the intersection of digital technologies and humaistic inquiry depends on the colonial legacy of both and how it needs to actively resist the reinscriptions of colonialism and neo-colonialism (p. 4). The opportunities of this resistance are numerous from telling new stories, reintepreting dominating histories, creating original digital tools and methods, organizations and educational programmes, funding new directions in humanistic research and to creating new digitisation projects enriching the public sphere. The author also presents the concept of post-colonial digital humanities in a sub-chapter of the introduction and discusses its various aspects. This part is also used to present the existing activities of digital humanities scholars to promote, facilitate and implement post-colonial research efforts and practical projects. The author highlights a number of contradictions emerging and affecting the discipline and practice. She identifies the different approach to knowledge in science and technology versus humanistic studies as one of the most important, which also opens the opportunities for rethinking not only humanities, but the narratives of technological development too. Another and more dangerous contradiction she sees is the conflict of corporative and even non-profit efforts to appropriate and pay-wall sholarly and archival materials of the Global South, thus eliminating them from the global public sphere and restricting their use. As a result the digital public record promotes a biased and impoverished image of the cultural heritage and perpetuates the domination of the Global North as a norm. Roopika Risam also introduces the examples of successful efforts disrupting the domination and constracting alternative world views from the perspectives of multiple others.
The topics outlined in the Introduction are further developed and explored in other chapters of the book. The first chapter follows the attempt to establish postcolonial digital humanities practice and discipline in both areas of technology and humanistic inquiry. She presents and evaluates these attempts and shows the complexities of decolonization of the digital cultural record, which nevertheless shows major achievements. The whole second chapter is devoted to the issue of the representation of different voices and histories in the existing digital archive. It shows how the aggressive elimination and indiferrent neglect have destroyed certain records and how the domination of Global North is reproduced in the new structures governing the digital humanities scholarship and the production of digital records. This chapter also highlights the successful projects of talking back to dominating cultures, creating alternative archives or using the existing ones for promotion of silenced voices. The third chapter develops the topic of contradictions between domination and supression in digital humanities further. The author depicts the constitution of the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations and the efforts to overcome the domination of American and European scholars in this organization, but also the domination of white American scholarship in conferences and journals of digital humanities. I liked especially the tale of two maps representing the spread of digital humanities in the world: one perpetuating the vision of domination of the Global North, the other representing the activities around the world equally and recognizing the effort in different regions and countries. The notion of digital humanities diasporas should be mention in relation to the inclusive image of digital humanities efforts around the world.
The fourth chapter on post-colonial digital pedagogy has provided me with many useful ideas and tools for teaching the course in digital libraries management. As I come from a very small and under-represented nation (on the Internet and elsewhere) and teach an international class of students, the approach that we use in the class is close to that presented in this chapter, as we try to stress the cultural diversity of the digital record, the values of open access and public librarianship. However, I can see that in many ways the course still unintentionally perpetuates the colonial thinking of domination. I will definitely use the means of remixing and cutural atlases to strengthen the development of critical thinking of the students in the course. I read the fifth chapter on rethinking the human in digital humanities with greatest pleasure as it provides critical view of the dynamic relationship among the two constitutive parts of the discipline. The author is oposed to the dichotomy and proves the strength of her position in various ways: using research findings, comparing inquiry methods and approaches, showing how the computerised tools perpetuate the norms of dominating groups, or providing the results of the so-called humanoid test. She is very persuasive in demonstrating the consequences of the assumptions of what is human in computer science and informatics. Their instrumental logic can be detrimental to the diversity of human condition and especially to understanding it.
A call for action suggests that it is worth interfering with the academic business as usual in digital humanities, activating the critical humanistic element in it and renovating approaches to technological infrastructures and tools. It can be done and has been successfully done by different actors inside and outside academia as the author demonstrates in her book.
Each approach has its limitations and I have pointed the controversy of cultural relativism as well as universalism at the start of this review. But in the case of this book, I would like to underscore the position of the author suggesting the necessity of deliberate and intentional action directed to disrupt the existing dominant structures, be they academic, corporate or cultural. It should be done in the name of protecting not only our heritage, but also the future diversity.
This book on post-colonial digital humanities may be useful for a very wide public: academics in technology and humanities disciplines, digital humanities community, students and teachers, cultural policy developers and research funders.
University of Borås
How to cite this review
Maceviciute, E. (2019). Review of: Risam, Roopika. New digital worlds: postcolonial digital humanities in theory, praxis, and pedagogy. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2019. Information Research, 24(3), review no. R670. Retrieved from http://www.informationr.net/ir/reviews/revs670.html]
Information Research is published four times a year by the University of Borås, Allégatan 1, 501 90 Borås, Sweden.