This DH Went to Market

This DH Went to Market

May 29, 2017. | By: Dean Irvine

This post is based on a presentation to the Canadian Society for Digital Humanities, at the Congress of Social Sciences and Humanities, Ryerson University, May 29, 2017. You can also navigate the StoryMap that accompanies this script.

Branding DH

Beginning at Malaspina College (now Vancouver Island University) in 2001 and migrating to the University of Victoria in 2004, the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) has become a kind of UNESCO heritage site for DH pilgrims. As one of those perennial DH travellers returning year after year to the west coast, I’ve landed at the registration table on the edge of the parking lot at the Craigdarroch Residences and traded my name for an ID badge and institute swag. After a decade I’ve accumulated a sizable collection of mass-produced relics: a cupboard of thermal mugs and a drawer of flash drives. All bear the signature brands of DHSI – its unregistered trademarks, or to put it another way, its marks of trade.

The history of DHSI is coeval with the launch and marketing of the digital humanities as a transnational franchise (consider, for instance, the growth of the DH Training Network from this progenitor to DH@Oxford, DH@Leipzig, DHI Beirut, HILT @ UTAustin, Programming4Humanists @ Texas A&M, DH@Guelph, ILiaDS@Hamilton College, Edirom Summer School, Digital Methods Training @ Western Sydney, and the travelling DHSI@Congress and DHSI@MLA roadshows – all modeled on DHSI). Both DHSI and the DH Training Network coincide with the twenty-first-century institutional formation of the neoliberal university. The DH brands that alumni carry around act as ubiquitous advertisements circulating after the event itself through a global dispersion of DH institutions, conferences, and workshops; their trail is the signature of neoliberal marketing, an unfettered access to DH markets. This unregulated discourse of trade and trading, markets and marketing, brands and branding circulates through the economies of DH.

Decolonizing DH Pedagogy

Each year DHSI begins in an auditorium, where the participants gather and, in recent years, university administrators welcome visitors to the traditional territory of the Ws’anec’ (Saanich), Lekwungen (Songhees), and Wyomilth (Esquimalt) peoples. Even so, this welcome and acknowledgement has yet to make a lasting and demonstrable impact on the institute curriculum or the participation of First Nations students, researchers, and instructors. At DHSI 2017, Dorothy Kim and Angel David Nieves are offering a short workshop on “Race, Social Justice, and DH: Applied Theories and Methods,” which “pay[s] special attention to queer theory, critical ethnic studies, postcolonial theory, WOC/Black feminism, Indigenous studies, and disability studies” in an intersectional approach to “challenge the all-white discourse, often dominated by scholars in the disciplines of English and history, that is too often found in digital humanities.” Yet none of the 48 5-day courses offered over a period of two weeks addresses indigeneity; this lacuna is especially telling after a year in which the DH community has been embroiled in social-media fueled controversies about diversity and DHSI (along with other ADHO member-organizations) has issued its own intersectional “Statement on Ethics and Inclusion.”

I’d like to address the productivity of such intersectional modes of disciplinary and institutional practice, but place particular emphasis on the need for public reconciliation of the DHSI curriculum with the dispossession of indigenous peoples and their traditional lands on which the institute takes place each June. This means paying closer attention to local traditions and economies of land use in the area, both indigenous and colonial. It means placing under scrutinty the economic forces that shape the market of DH pedagogy, which polemicists in the LA Review of Books rather reductively aligned with the neoliberal university, where they claim “the acqusition of marketable skills, and the ability to justify those skills [is] integral to the market-oriented evolution of knowledge and education.” And, consequently, it means taking stock of alternative digital pedagogy markets, where teachings about the traditional knowledges of local indigenous peoples are allied with learning about decolonizing mapping technologies and language revitalization apps and where, at UVic, the Ws’anec’, Lekwungen, and Wyomilth (as well as visitors to their territories) can educate themselves about how these skills, tools, and apps are being used to advocate for land claims and resource rights in the courts and to support activist movements to enact social, legal, and economic justice and self-government.

Ethnographic Mapping and Indigenous Cartographies

Consider the exemplary work of Brian Thom, who teaches courses at UVic in Indigenous Cartographies and runs the Ethnographic Mapping Lab. While prospective students reading his syllabi online are encouraged to “develop a set of reflective conceptual tools to be able to critically engage” with cultural, social, legal, and political dimensions of digital ethnographic mapping – such as land title and rights, environmental assessment, traditional land use and occupancy, interpretation, and language revitalization – they are also assured that they will “learn employable skills in this burgeoning area for anthropology grads (including GIS, GPS, … KML coding, and database design and management.” Here the pedagogy of decolonizing practices of “counter-mapping” is advertised to students cast as market-driven consumers of the neoliberal university.

Digital Indigeneity

I have my own pedagogical contradictions to reconcile. Having thought about ways to bridge the disciplinary divide between digital anthropology and the DH curriclum, I worked with Kimberley Christen a few years ago to propose a DHSI course called “Cultural Codes and Protocols for Indigenous Cultural Heritage Management.” Taught by a team of anthropologists and archaeologists affiliated with the Mukurtu CMS, which is designed to curate indigenous archives, the course ran for two years – 2013 and 2014 – and made some inroads into indigenizing DHSI. In 2015, I offered a new course – called Digital Indigeneity – that walked participants through a series of digital repatriation projects – that is, projects dedicated to restoring cultural heritage to indigenous communities by using digital surrogates and participatory web-based technologies to enact protocols for traditional knowledge use and sharing. The course’s focus – on large-scale, multi-institutional, international, mega-grant-funded, infrastructure-building projects developed to construct comprehensive curatorial toolkits and aggregate enormous archives via APIs – communicated quite the opposite of what I had planned: that the market for indigenous cultural heritage was a technocratic, big-data enterprise that needed to leverage vast economic resources. It effectively projected the neoliberal idea that such scholarship needs to operate on the model of the tech startup, with public, private, and philanthropic funding substituted for venture capital. In retrospect, it certainly contradicted the course’s mandate to critique and offer alternatives to Western neoliberal cultural property systems and neoimperial technologies of modernity. The resistance among course participants to neoliberal and neoimperial institutions became apparent when, at the end of the course, I witnessed the curatorial work of a group of Cree and Métis students, whose collaborative decolonial project sought to “organize a paramilitary flash mob to occupy the holdings of the [American Philosophical Society’s] Native American collection, following the great tradition of N8V occupations to piss off colonizers … Our elite N8V hackers gain access to the APS’s site. We tear down their entire system, and rebuild from the ground up.”

Rosebank Farm

I didn’t stage the course again, but I’ve since thought about how I might have rescaled it to be directed at localized, activist, participatory engagement with and by indigenous communities. I might have started the course instead by acknowledging my paternal family’s complicity in the colonization of indigenous lands around UVic. After all, my Scots immigrant family’s original settlement, Rosebank Farm, was contiguous with the properties that became the UVic campus a century later. Estasblished in 1857 by my great-great-grandfather, John Irvine, Rosebank grew to 300 acres across the traditional territories of three indigenous families: the Kosampsom, the Chilcowitch, and the Chekonein. These are the families named in the Douglas Treaties, which were signed in 1850. These are their unceded, contested lands.

The family history that I learned growing up in nearby Cordova Bay, a little further east of UVic along the coastline of the Saanich Penninsula, was not the history of any indigenous families. Rather, it was rooted in the colonialist narrative of a local historian, Ursula Jupp, whose 1975 book From Cordwood to Campus – one of the few books in my childhood home – introduced me to my Scots ancestors who came to Fort Victoria as Hudson’s Bay Company labourers in 1852. Her book gave me Victorian maps to read that cleared the land of its indigenous heritage. It told detailed kinship narratives of fellow immigrant families, but rendered the stories of the Ws’anec’, Lekwungen, and Wyomilth anonymous and generic.

Some distorted fragments of indigenous stories and verbal sketches of Lekwungen territories were recorded in the hand-written memoirs of my great-grandfather, Jack “Long Gun” Irvine. His memoirs (now preserved in the BC Provincial Archives), which participates in the popular early to mid-century amateur ethnographic genre of telling “Indian” tales, provided part of the backstory to Jupp’s history of immigrant settlers. Jack claimed that he was fluent in what he called the “Indian” language. A snippet should give some sense of his character and unreliable narration: “Any how when I was a young kid that is all the mates we had and I could talk Indian like I belonged to the tribe.” What he meant was that he had acquired some competency in Chinook, the trading jargon that facilitated exchange along the west coast among indigenious and European peoples. Its trade currency is deposited in pockets throughout Jack’s episodic script. These stories tell how he learned to hunt game and fish for salmon in the company of Lekwungen boys, who had also taught him their traditional ways to prepare and cook his catch. What he offered in exchange was left unrecorded: he was the recipient of indigenous knowledges, gifts that he inventories in writing his stories, but never reciprocated. His memoirs of the Lekwungen are like section lines on surveyor’s maps: they document colonial histories of intercultural exchange, but only to perform erasures of indigeneity. They leave traces of Chinook, remnants of dishonoured treaties and dishonourable trade.

Lekwungen Family Territories

Given the opportunity to return to DH pedagogy, I might have invited future DHSI participants to collaborate with me on the creation of an indigenous cartography of Rosebank Farm and adjacent lands across the UVic campus, a counter-map of the territories that Jack’s memoirs surveys, a translation from the imperial and trade languages of English and Chinook to the traditional language of the Lekwungen. In fact, this is work that Brian Thom’s students at the Ethnographic Mapping Lab have already initiated. This is the kind of work that – despite its apparent absorption into a curricular marketing machine – has the capacity to resist its trafficking in neoliberal trappings. It’s digital pedagogy that circulates in a localized and indigenized market, an economy adjacent to but disconnected from the globalized DH grid.

But what if a course such as Indigenous Cartographies, with its explicit attention to Ws’anec’, Lekwungen, and Wyomilth peoples and territories, were wired into the circuitry of DHSI? What if other nodes in the DH Training Network were to dedicate resources toward offering variants, with emphases on indigeneity – perhaps with support from the GO::DH SIG in ADHO – but with a particular outlook on local rather than global indigeneities? What if DHSI were to follow the curricular lead of other Canadian institutions – such as Lakehead University and the University of Winnipeg – by mandating a course in indigenous DH studies as part of its graduate certificate program? Given my recent transition from an academic position in which I directed projects that brokered collaborations with indigenous communities to founding a business in DH that continues to facilitate these relationships, I must acknowledge my present limitations as an advocate for such initiatives. It stands to reason that others better positioned in the DHSI, CSDH/SCHN, GO::DH, and ADHO organizations might accept these propositions as a call to action. The ethical imperative to take up this call is not one that needs to be directed at any one organization or institution, however. This is a critical juncture for the DH community in Canada to take responsibility for its colonial legacies and resist its neoliberal institutions. It’s a call to those of us in the cultural-heritage software industry, those whose complicity in market-driven economies is beyond question, those who need to listen and take it just as seriously.

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