Event: Past's Digital Presence, Session 1

This is the first in a series of blogposts to feature sessions at Yale’s upcoming Past’s Digital Presence Conference.  Registration is open. If you are unable to attend, be sure to follow the #PDP2010 twitter feed.

Saturday, February 20
10:15-11:45 a.m.
Whitney Humanities Center

Digital Politics and Society

Chair: Joseph Yannielli, Yale University
Moderator: David Blight, Yale University

The Jefferson Digital Archive, hosted by the University of Virginia Electronic Text Center, contains nearly 2000 letters written to or from Thomas Jefferson, an annotated bibliography of scholarship about the President, a virtual tour of the UVA campus he helped to create, and more. By most measures, the Jefferson Digital Archive appears to encompass the full range of his life and work. But much like his own written records, the Jefferson archive merely hints at the presence of his many slaves. Using the example of James Hemings, whom Jefferson took to France and had trained as his personal chef, and yet whose contributions go unrecorded in the Jefferson archive, this paper asks: How does one account for absence in the digital archive? What are the techniques of interpretation that are required in order to move “from sense to reference” in online research? How can—or should—a digital archive supply the critical context for such interpretive techniques? And is there an ethical responsibility to acknowledge absence on the part of the archive, itself? Synthesizing scholarship on the ethics of literary criticism with my own experience of using the Jefferson archive for my dissertation research, I will demonstrate the ways in which the traces of James Hemings can be detected in the Jefferson Digital Archive, and illustrate how his historical shadow both exposes the “ethical dimension” of the digital archive and suggests a model for an ethics of electronic research.

This paper describes the challenges and successes involved in launching OutHistory.org, a MediaWiki website on LGBTQ US history hosted by the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS) at the City University of New York, Graduate Center. OutHistory.org’s most radical feature is not its subject matter, but its message that people outside of academia can contribute to the historical understanding of sexuality: OutHistory.org invites everyone to be an historian. This aspect of OutHistory.org has raised some resistance from scholars who fear that community-created histories are unreliable and insubstantial. At the same time, building a community of active users who contribute to OutHistory.org has been much harder than its creators imagined. Digital humanities are often described as capable of democratizing knowledge production. Using OutHistory.org as a test case, this paper will examine how the democratic potential of the digital humanities is, in practice, very difficult to achieve.

The emergence of digital media has revolutionized the functions of authorship, knowledge production and communication, and the processing of information in a manner that demands attention be paid to the medium as agent. Integrating art, technology, and reporting in the artistic production, the digital medium itself functions as a creative and dynamic producer, not just reporter, of knowledge. As a relatively new form, digital media’s contributions and potential in the field of knowledge production have neither been examined nor assessed fully in other disciplines. R-Shief, the project proposed in this paper, serves as an application of the theoretical premise concerning the agency of the medium, thus providing a case to illustrate its contribution in the production of knowledge. [full abstract]

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