Surviving Clarke’s Crossing

This piece originally appeared in the June 30th edition of The National Post:

You didn’t have to spend much time in this city before you encountered Austin Clarke. He was a resident figure at the Grand Hotel and Bistro 990, where the staff knew exactly how to prepare his martinis. He was a generous man who regularly hosted young writers, scholars and artists in his home for advice and a meal of bacchanalian proportions. Clarke prepared for such events with visits to Kensington Market, where vegetables, meat and fish were carefully studied and selected. For a time it seemed that Clarke was everywhere: on Bloor, on Church, on Shuter, on Eglinton. This is perhaps why the city feels just slightly emptier, less vibrant, less alive, now that he is gone.

CFP: Neoliberal Tools or New Humanistic Critique? Toronto, May 25 – 27, 2017

“Neoliberal Tools or New Humanistic Critique? Theorizing Class, Race, and Nation in the Digital Humanities”Mikinaakominis / TransCanadas. University of Toronto, May 25 – 27, 2017In recent years in Canada, the digital humanities has enjoyed increasing popularity as a tool for…

Genealogies of the humanities

The controversy in the digital humanities over David Allington’s, Sarah Brouillette’s, and David Golumbia’s recent article, “Neoliberal Tools (And Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities” led to mostly predictable responses from humanities scholars, digital and otherwise. While the authors of this article offer a somewhat compelling account of the rise of the digital humanities — or at least one take on it — their arguments are not particularly novel nor unexpected. Indeed, anyone who has presented digital humanities work at a non-DH conference has likely witnessed a similar brow furrowing from senior colleagues. Furthermore, this criticism of DH work has a long history: Tom Eyers previously made a similar argument and Stanley Fish famously offered his hermeneutic critique of DH (to name only a few).

The authors’ claim, that Digital Humanities embodies a form of neoliberalism that is transforming the humanities into a skills and deliverables-based training ground for the tech sector, is a relatively unsurprising critique. Similarly, the response of DH scholars to this critique, to demonstrate the manner in which DH challenges hegemonic notions of research, knowledge, historicism, and interpretation are all well-rehearsed. I suggest here that both are right and that we should think of the digital humanities genealogically in order to recognize that yes, the digital humanities is a trojan horse, transforming our departments and our knowledge work from within, but that the content of that work and its implications for broader notions of the humanities and humanism more generally remains open to definition. DH work may in fact be a form of creeping neoliberalism as Allington, Brouillette, and Columbia suggest, but it need not be.

All your books are belong to us

In Canada, its never about race

A black immigrant in Toronto waves a household object in a “threatening” manner. Police are called. The man is described as disturbed, unruly, unstable, and most-importantly — dangerous. Concerned police plead with the man to drop the weapon but their cries are ignored. Finally, they are forced to shoot him. He dies. A familiar tragedy.

In 1979 the man was Albert Johnson, a Jamaican immigrant who was killed in his Manchester Ave. home on a Sunday morning holding a lawn edger. His death led to protests from the black community, a high-publicity trial and the acquittal of the two accused officers. The trial of the two officers would eventually result in the establishment of the SIU. In 2015 the man is Andrew Loku, an refugee from South Sudan, who was killed holding a hammer. His death was investigated by the SIU; the officers involved were cleared of any wrongdoing.

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Separated by nearly forty years, both men died unnecessarily at the hands of Toronto police. What is particularly haunting about both incidents is not merely the horrors of police violence nor the similarities of their deaths, but rather the virtually identical responses to both deaths in the white Canadian media. In both Johnson’s and Loku’s cases white Canadian law enforcement, media, and judiciary frame the killings as unfortunate incidents & sad tragedies rather than as the racist behaviour of a racist society. The identical responses to both killings demonstrates very clearly how anti-black racism is at the heart of Canadian public discourse.

Argumentative Game Genie: Rhetoric in the digital humanities

I find that a central challenge of presenting digital humanities work is the need to speak across multiple languages: technical, humanistic, visual, algorithmic. To borrow Susan Brown’s phrase, DH work usually involves working in the gaps between disciplines and these gaps come with all kinds of linguistic and communication difficulties. How do we communicate concepts that we know are important to humanistic inquiry when those concepts rely on analyses of algorithms, data visualizations, geographic information systems and similar obtuse technical concepts and tools? Most DH’ers are familiar with the furrowed brows of our colleagues when we explain that their field of study could be aided with some bizarre and opaque computational apparatus. “Machine learning!?!?!” they say in the  drawn out, pained tone usually reserved for doctor’s describing incurable diseases.

Given this need to speak across the gap of hermeneutics & technical forms of knowledge (setting aside the fact that the two are not really all that separate) communication becomes a critical tool in digital humanities work. Indeed, communicating across disciplines and disourses is no small feat. If we have enough trouble communicating with one another in our ‘home’ disciplines, one need not work hard to imagine the difficulty of trying to communicate in a language that is intellectually rigorous,  technically savvy, and even the slightest bit compelling and engaging.

The excellent work of the Stanford Literary Lab has demonstrated the need to adapt scholarly forms of communication to suit digital humanities research. Their work is both compelling in its content — as it pushes DH work in new directions and poses timely questions that challenge the tenets of the ‘discipline’ — and also in its form, using the ‘pamphlet’ as an appropriate genre for communicating this research. Not a peer-reviewed article in the traditional sense, the pamphlet enables the researchers to be more casual, more compelling, more polemic. All in all, a cooler form.