In this address, I liken ICTs or digital technologies to what we in West and Central Africa have the habit of referring to as juju. I invite you as scholars of the digital humanities to see in the African belief in the compositeness of being human, as well as in the capacity to be present everywhere at the same time an indication that we have much to learn from the past on how best to understand and harness current purportedly innovative advances in information and communication technologies. The future is firmly in the past, even as we continue to claim and provide for creative innovation. The African tradition of self-extension through creative imagination that privilege cosmologies and ontologies of interconnections in myriad ways, holds great promise for theorising the intersections between humans and ICTs.
Juju as used in this address is a technology of self-activation and self-extension – something that enables us to rise beyond our ordinariness of being, by giving us potency to achieve things that we otherwise would fall short of achieving, were we to rely only on our natural capacities or strengths. It is true that our bodies, if well cultivated, could become phenomenal juju, enabling us to achieve extraordinary feats. But even such technically trained, programmed or disciplined bodies are likely to encounter challenges that require added potency. In other words, while our bodies have the potential to be our first juju, they eventually require additional juju for us to be efficacious in our actions. My address draws on the writings of Amos Tutuola and the universes he depicts to make this argument.
The future of digital humanities depends on its ability to survive within the multiple complexities of intellectual and institutional ecologies. Early intellectual ambitions of the field–to transform the humanities through an encounter with computational methods–seem to be lost in the use of standardized tools and platforms that foreclose critical inquiry through black-box procedures. Theoretical challenges from cultural studies, feminism, queer theory, critical race perspectives have raised additional questions about the extent to which digital humanities has a retrogressive effect—or is even complicit with neoliberal agendas within the university. Critical inquiry and discovery are caught between the commitment to decolonize long-standing knowledge practices and increased dependencies on environmentally costly infrastructure (often with reliance on corporate and proprietary systems). Unacknowledged contributions by information professionals, student workers, and other essential personnel depend on asymmetrical power hierarchies within academic and cultural institutions. The international supply chains on which digital infrastructure depends are involved in exploitative labor practices and damaging ecological activities in the global system. Is this ethically and intellectually sustainable?
Reflections on the Development of Digital Humanities
emeritus Sapienza University of Rome
Digital Humanities, also known as Humanities Computing, developed slowly between 1946-1980, accompanied by a deep and attentive analysis of its principles and significance; while its rapid development in the following period was characterized by the utilization of the new technologies in software and communications.
We cannot but register satisfaction regarding the remarkable results obtained recently in university teaching. A large number of (mainly) European and American universities offer Digital Humanities, or some of its specialisms, as part of their curricula.
From this point of view, one may affirm that the Digital Humanities has won its struggle to obtain official recognition. On the other hand, despite this achievement the impression remains that many of the methodological discussions of the first decades have not been sufficiently digested, and have not generated some kind of general agreement — a kind of “Kuhnian paradigm” of the discipline. The main scope of my lecture is to get back to the old discussions, with the benefit of new hindsights, to see what we can learn from them to address today’s problems, if properly evaluated.