RedHD and Latin American Contexts: Self-representation and Geopolitics in DH 21

Word cloud generated using Voyant from the paper abstracts presented at Segundo Encuentro de Humanistas Digitales in May 2014.

In this post, published simultaneously in Spanish to RedHD, Isabel Galina (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM)), Élika Ortega (University of Kansas), Ernesto Priani (UNAM), and Paola Ricaurte (Tec de Monterrey), discuss the diversity of DH work in Latin America and the efforts and goals of RedHD, in response to a recent criticism of Latin American DH as focused on patrimony, or in service to nationalist or technoscientific aims.

In the last few years, few fields of inquiry have given way to so much debate as the Digital Humanities (DH). DH has come to be known as a locus of discussion for the place of the Humanities in private and public universities and other public institutions, as well as of the place of the book in the digital world and the worldwide editorial crisis, the scientific turn in humanistic inquiry, among others. Up until now, many of these debates had been contained in the Anglo-American academic context that has pushed forward the DH field in the last couple of decades. A global turn, discussions about the North and the South, and the very growth of the field of DH, have impacted these debates positively and opened up the floor for discussion. RedHD (Red de Humanidades Digitales) and other organizations from the global South have been key contributors. Furthermore, Spanish and Portuguese speaking DHers across the globe have bonded together as the emerging “peripheral” community producing exciting projects, initiatives, and organizations. Some examples are Asociación Argentina de Humanidades Digitales, Associação das Humanidades Digitais (AHDig), Humanidades Digitais, GrinUGR, Humanidades Digitales Hispánicas. Sociedad Internacional, Día HD/Dia das Humanidades Digitais 2013 and 2014, MapaHD, to name a few. We have recognized institutional, economic, social, and other contextual differences through fruitful debates.

The latest issue of Culture Machine (CM) entitled Viva Culture Machine! Latin American Mediations published towards the end of 2014 includes Gabriela Méndez Cota’s article “Digital Humanities: Whose changes to you want to save?” which deals with DH work done in Latin America. The visibility and inclusion of DH scholarship produced in the many Spanish speaking countries can only be productive and conducive of farther reaching dialogues in the field, especially in well-regarded journals like CM. Thus, we celebrate the fact that an issue is dedicated to Latin American scholarship and in particular to Mexican scholars. The article, however, has overlooked much of the key work done in Latin American DH and, though not representative of the area, the work done by the RedHD, therefore painting what could be considered a somewhat distorted landscape of the current situation. We welcome the opportunity to engage in a fair and diverse dialogue and now take advantage of this space to foster it.

Méndez Cota’s article claims to provide a “critical review of the Latin American Network of Digital Humanities” (p. 2) even though there is no Latin American network known as such. Despite never having used that name or claimed such a designation, we can only assume that the author is referring to RedHD. Beginning with this oversight, we feel the depiction of RedHD through the choice of sources, and the different DH practices mentioned in Méndez Cota’s article is partial and lacking in context. Thus, her critique, in our opinion, requires some rebuttal, and we would like to point out a few precisions that skew the article and paint a partial picture of what DH work done in Mexico looks like. Furthermore, we take this opportunity to broaden the references used by Méndez Cota so as to contribute to the outline of DH in Mexico and Latin America, and to offer, from our practice in the last few years, a wider context for her critique.

[pullquote]we have been working for almost four years to “promote and strengthen work on humanities and computing, with special emphasis on research and teaching … better communication between digital humanists in the region … [and] promote regional projects and initiatives on an international level”[/pullquote]

As the archives in the RedHD blog show, as an organization we have been working for almost four years to “promote and strengthen work on humanities and computing, with special emphasis on research and teaching […] better communication between digital humanists in the region [… and] promote regional projects and initiatives on an international level” (RedHD, “About”). Although largely based in universities and other academic institutions, in that time, the network has grown and greatly diversified in interests, expertises, and expanded location wise. We have also established collaborations with DH groups in Latin America like AAHD, AHDigitais mentioned above, and global South initiatives like GO::DH. RedHD has had many achievements over the years, but we are widely aware that there is still much work and reflection to do around the place/relevance/role of Digital Humanities in Mexico and other Latin American countries, beginning with the question, what is our place in Latin American DH? This is a concern we continue to work on at RedHD both within Mexico and abroad.

One of the issues in Latin American Digital Humanities pinpointed by Méndez Cota is a lack of critical engagement with the very concept of Humanism, which lies in the fact that it “has not been philosophically ‘deconstructed’, and much less has it been politically discredited. This is what emerges from the contributions of a number of digital humanists to the Latin American Network of DH blog” (p. 2). Our place in the DH field and the ontological, epistemological, theoretical, and methodological fundamentals defining our practice from a heterogeneous point of view are part of our collective work. Thus, we believe that Méndez Cota’s statements require much more field work to have a solid foundation. Moreover, the sources used by the author for her critique are not only limited, they also do not belong to RedHD’s blog as she claims, but rather to entries from the RedHD in Translation blog which we worked on during the Day of Digital Humanities in 2014––a separate international project. Since we collectively embarked upon RedHD in Translation as a way to give international visibility to some of the foundational articles produced by Spanish language DH practitioners, we believe the genealogy of Méndez Cota’s sources should be part of the argument and further expanded to our work available in our collective RedHD Spanish language blog as well as our individual articles published elsewhere. RedHD in Translation was an exercise of engagement between DH practitioners chiefly in Mexico and those around the globe and was helpfully supported by colleagues in “the North.” More importantly, these entries, with the exception of one, are actually translations of articles previously published elsewhere.

[pullquote]For RedHD the very exercise of translating our work into English (and other languages) during Translate DH in 2014 was a strategic move of self-representation[/pullquote]

Méndez Cota systematically claims that the RedHD in Translation works she references were published in 2014––later than they actually were. For example, Juan Luis Suarez’s “Digital Humanities in Spanish?” was originally published in 2010 in Insula 762, while Ernesto Priani’s “Bibliotheca Mexicana: Virtue, Condemnation, Possibility” was published in 2012 in the Gaceta del Fondo de Cultura Económica. Only Paola Ricaurte’s “Geopolitics of Knowledge and Digital Humanities” was actually published in the RedHD blog in the referenced year. Although the year of publication may seem like a minor point, in the ever-moving field of Digital Humanities even a couple of years make a difference in how projects are articulated either conceptually or in practice. The context in which each specific article was published matters especially because many of the issues pointed out in them have been the focus of our work and debates in the last few years. A trajectory that goes unacknowledged by Méndez Cota’s critique, thus unfairly rendering our work static and anachronistic. This is even more meaningful as CM appeals more than anyone else to an English speaking readership. For RedHD the very exercise of translating our work into English (and other languages) during Translate DH in 2014 was a strategic move of self-representation seeking to open up the debates in the genealogies of DH from our specific experiences as individual scholars and as an organization, which may or may not be representative of a Latin American perspective. We see a strong connection between RedHD’s exercise and Culture Machine’s own Collective Editorial that states:

We can therefore perhaps see these thinkers from Mexico and other locations in Latin America as offering the gift of their work, understanding, language and translation to English-speaking readers of Culture Machine all over the world. For this particular issue, the Spanish-speaking writers have all made their texts available in English, in recognition of the present readership of the journal – but also in recognition of the fact that a number of scholars based in the Spanish-speaking world are already part of the mainstream discourses and debates in the global west and north, precisely because so many of them are able to navigate comfortably between different languages and different academic conventions. (The willingness and ability to do so is unfortunately not always reciprocated, we are ashamed to admit.)

Yet, the very same practice on our side goes unacknowledged by Méndez Cota, who is not only the author of the article, but the editor of CM’s 15th volume.

[pullquote]Mendez Cota’s insistence on the importance of digital humanists, and all humanists for that matter, questioning the concepts of knowledge production from the Northern ‘expert’ have been in our focus since RedHD was first founded[/pullquote]

As any other field of inquiry, DH is uniquely characterized by the context in which it is practiced. The affordances and limitations of the resources, facilities, and institutions where we work are a constant reminder of it. The author refers the importance of Mignolo’s argument, via Ricaurte’s text, on the need to abandon the universalist conception of knowledge and how these should be “applied in the first place to the ‘local’ understanding of the field DH” and suggests that this “interrogation is likely to be pursued across Latin America in the coming years” (p. 7). We couldn’t agree more. Mendez Cota’s insistence on the importance of digital humanists, and all humanists for that matter, questioning the concepts of knowledge production from the Northern ‘expert’ have been in our focus since RedHD was first founded in 2010-2011––some of the specificities of DH in Mexico is, in part, the subject matter of Isabel Galina’s “What are the Digital Humanities?” (2011) translated into English and published in the RedHD in Translation blog in 2014. Ricaurte herself questions what the mechanisms of legitimation of knowledge production are in the field of Digital Humanities. However, the author suggests that these questions will probably arise outside of the traditional university. Méndez Cota is right, but only partially. Considering the relative superficiality of the research shown in the article, it is ostentatiously unfair to suggest that university-based DH is unequipped to contribute to it.

Part of Méndez Cota’s critique lies in the fact that pioneer Latin American-inflected DH projects like Corpus del Español and the Bracero History Archive “have involved the participation of US universities which have links to state and private enterprise” (p. 3) failing to put them side by side with resources that have been based in Mexico all along like Priani’s own Biblioteca Digital del Pensamiento Novohispano, Universidad Veracruzana’s Biblioteca Digital de Humanidades, Libros del Baubo or Seminario de Tecnologías Filosóficas. Moreover, rather than a disadvantage, a sort of submission to the North, as Méndez Cota seems to imply, we see international collaboration (with “the North”) as one of the strengths of the work done at RedHD. Strong ties with DH communities in the US, Germany, Canada, the UK and other countries far from hindering our relevance as Mexican practitioners has made it stand out and given us a place to ask hard questions, provoke, and propose. Similarly, we have also questioned the scalability of our practices based in Mexico in the face of DH around the world. A key aspect that seems to escape Méndez Cota’s critique is the ethos of collaboration embraced by DH practitioners around the world––we are not the exception. Far from constituting a rhetoric of practice only, collaboration––local and international––has been the building blocks of all of RedHD’s work.

Furthermore, Méndez Cota’s impression that “university-based digital humanists align their task with nation-building, socioeconomic ‘development’, the creation of tools for patrimony conservation and rigorous academic standards […] which unproblematically reasserts broken narratives about the nation, knowledge and technology.” (p. 7) is likely a result of the limited sources included in the article. Though some flagship projects led by RedHD members, such as the newly released Mendoza Codex do have a patrimonial objective and is sponsored by a government agency, as shown by the examples above, the diversity of work published in this blog, the projects included in our database, and our relationship with organizations like Wikimedia México, the profile of our work and, indeed, our position in regards to open knowledge, free culture and the commons, the institutional struggles to open up DH spaces at different levels, and our reflections on the role of DH in the geopolitics of knowledge can hardly be considered patrimonial, nationalistic, or technoscientific. The collective extent and variety of the work carried out can hardly be characterized in a one-size-fits-all way.

It is precisely because of the diversity of the work done by RedHD members, and even more so by the work done all over Latin America, that we can’t agree with Méndez Cota’s overarching critique. Her vision and the questions she poses are, nonetheless, extremely worth pursuing. The idea she draws from Leonardo Rodríguez Medina to “develop a material and symbolic structure that allows for the expression of a local knowledge which, once channelled, makes possible a dialogue with other areas” (p. 10) is, indirectly, the space we have strived to build in this and other venues. Similarly, she’s also right to point out “that dialogue is not a natural consequence of any encounter, but rather a contingent result of social, political and economic exchanges”; and, later on, to ask “Could the digital humanities be one of these areas?” (p. 10).

[pullquote]DH in Mexico (or anywhere for that matter) was not born all-knowing and whether inside or outside of academia, it should not be mistaken with an overarching solution to the problems of North/South knowledge production[/pullquote]

We don’t believe there is one single way of doing DH in Mexico. There is, therefore, not a single way in which DH can answer these questions and/or contribute to the opening of debate spaces, but it is one other place where “the complexity of setting up a dialogue between incommensurable cultural and historical intellectual traditions” (p. 9) can––and does–– take place. DH in Mexico (or anywhere for that matter) was not born all-knowing and whether inside or outside of academia, it should not be mistaken with an overarching solution to the problems of North/South knowledge production. It has taken us years to get to the point where we are now as an organization––where we can look at the work we individually published three or five years ago and recognize aspects or concepts that have changed along the way. It has been a lot of work to sustain debates amongst RedHD members and engage with others in Latin America, the global South as well as the North, but they have led us to grasp a broader understanding of what we do in the face of the work done by others. It will surely take us time to elaborate these dialogues and make them fruitful, but this can only be done if everyone is given their due and the space for self-representation.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

About the authors

This post was co-authored by Isabel Galina (UNAM), Élika Ortega (University of Kansas), Ernesto Priani (UNAM), and Paola Ricaurte (Tec de Monterrey).

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