SHL Priority Areas: Intersectionality, Community and Community Technology research journey 

By Sharon Webb 

In my last blog I discussed the Sussex Humanities Lab’s priority research areas, and the thinking behind their implementation. This time around, I’d like to focus on the priority area that I lead — Intersectionality, Community and Community Technology (ICCT).  ICCT was conceptualised to bring together and to create coherency across a cluster of activities, and to highlight some of the values that inform the Lab’s work and how we operate as a research community. ICCT also reflects the way in which the Lab, its culture, its people, have offered me a focus that has helped develop and broaden my research profile, and the collaborations I am part of.

Since joining Sussex in 2015, I have integrated my work on digital preservation and digital archives with community archives and heritage work. From 2018, and upon reflection motivated by the explicit feminist values of our original leadership team — particularly Caroline Bassett, Tim Hitchcock, and Rachel Thomson — Cécile Chevalier and I have developed research and teaching that incorporates techno-feminism, and intersectional/queer/feminist Digital Humanities, with an investigation of these histories, alongside practical and creative interventions such as coding workshops and creative coding initiatives.

More recently, Irene Fubara-Manuel and Sandra Nelson have joined us in these efforts. Both contribute to our ‘Techno-Feminism: History and Practice’ MA module and have developed a programme of work for our ‘Feminist Approaches to Computational Technology’ network called Reflexive Re-Tooling: Alternative Workflows for the Feminist Researcher. Irene is also Co-I on ‘Full Stack Feminism in Digital Humanities’, alongside Cécile and I. (You can follow each project on Twitter: @FACT_ntwrk, @FullStackFem). Kate O’Riordan, Dean of the School of Media, Arts and Humanities, has also informed the way in which this research, and community, has developed. It’s also important to acknowledge the inclusive intersectional feminist frameworks, networks, and research that already existed at Sussex: my work and the Lab have benefited from these.  

In many respects the ICCT priority area reflects a research journey. It echoes the myriad ways that we build capacity around clusters of research and how we build community, connections, and networks that are valuable not only in terms of research output but research environments and cultures. The ways in which we manifest our research as individuals become part of a larger collective conversation — and that is the point!

Highlighting and centring community in this area was important. “Community” in this context is not, I hope, empty virtue signalling, but instead echoes a long tradition of working with community groups at Sussex and at the Lab. It acknowledges that perspectives outside of our academic circles should be included. These perspectives have a place within academic work, and are equally important, and sometimes more important, than the perspectives of professional academics. It also encourages us to think more about non-traditional research methods, outputs, and ways of disseminating, about the collective benefit of our research, and about new ways of listening and responding.  

In this regard, I was particularly inspired by the artists who took part in our Brighton Digital Festival event in Nov. 2021. ‘Subverting Digital Spaces’ was co-organised by the Lab (under the umbrella of the ICCT priority area), the Full Stack Feminism in Digital Humanities project, and Laurence Hill, visiting fellow at the Lab and Digital Curator of the Full Stack Feminism project. Artists and activists Teresa Braun, and Jake Elwes both spoke to subverting  

traditional digital platforms … [of] … queering datasets and developing digital tools for social intervention. Collectively, they … [draw] … from Intersectional, Black, Feminist, Queer and Trans activisms to create online spaces that challenge normative social constructs and their omissions.

Subverting Digital Spaces

Both artists represent aspects of ICCT and of the ways in which performance within and across digital spaces can subvert dominant narratives around gender, sexuality, and race. Interacting with technology, like machine learning and AI (particularly deep fake technologies in the case of Jake) highlighted not only how these technologies can be “queered,” but also the way in which queer and intersectional feminism have a role to play in questioning, disrupting and challenging digital spaces and technologies, spaces and technologies that often promote or amplify far-right sentiment and ideals of “normality” (or heteronormativity). Both artists investigate drag performance to subvert technical spaces, as a means to disrupt data sets based on normative bodies and normative abstracted models of the world (as represented/propagated through training data sets in AI, machine learning, and/or neural networks, for example).

What transpires from these experiments and performances are powerful interventions that highlight social, cultural, and techno-social inequities, imbalances, accompanied by methods or ways to subvert these. Jake’s work especially resonated – in Jake’s words, what happens when you introduce 1,000 images representing queer expressions, bodies, drag queens, drag kings

into a standard homogenised data set of 70000 images of human faces which is used as a standard to train facial recognition systems … which contain very little of this otherness? … [The resulting output] shifts all of the weight in this neural network from a space of heteronormativity into this space of queerness and queer celebration.

Jake Elwes

Jake questions whether we want to be in included in these systems, or whether we want to break them, to queer them. In this sense autonomy and agency within and over representation merge with questions of technological surveillance and acquiesces (or consent and unconsent). The big questions here are what models of the world are we building, what models do we have control over, and what models are impacting our engagement (or disengagement) with our world? How do technologies (AI, machine learning, neural networks) reduce our world to classifications and binaries, and indeed how do they perpetuate old systems of classification and categorisation? Both artist presentations offer useful and unique moments of reflection about the digital world we live in – or the digital world that is imposed upon us.  

As a research cluster, ICCT (Intersectionality, Community and Computational Technology) brings together and highlights the manifold ways the digital world (imposed on us) has the capacity and potential to be as systemically unjust, bias, and dis-enfranchising as our “analogue” world has historically proven to be. Yet, (on a more positive note) it also highlights the potentials of individual, project, and community interventions, often collaborative, to mitigate this harm and transform our digital environments and spaces. In this regard, the Lab’s open workshop, organised in collaboration with FACT and under the ICCT umbrella, to celebrate Ada Lovelace day (Oct. 2021), Building a Feminist Chat bot, as well our seminar withProfessor Patricia Murrieta-Flores, ‘The future of the past. The development of Artificial Intelligence and other computational methods for the study of Early Colonial Mexican documents’, highlights some of these interventions and ways of working. Both consider the ethics of building tools using AI and machine learning algorithms. In particular, Building a Feminist Chat Bot which stems from an ongoing collaboration between FACT, the Reanimating Data Project, Suze Shardlow and the Lab, centres a feminist ethics of care with relation to building tools and interfaces. It “builds a chat bot” but this is probably the least important aspect of the work –instead the process of building, the collective coding and skills sharing, are more important than the end-product. Centring work around a feminist ethics of care is not always easy. It requires additional resource and can become emotionally challenging – but it is worth it. Values of care are not maternalistic but instead centred on values of listening, of making space, of empathy (for those in the group as well as those you are building “for”), of ethics. It is a way of working that ideally should be embedded in how we do research anyway, but as a method makes these approaches explicit.  

SHL’s ICCT priority area includes intersectionality — not as a diversity-waving add-on (see Sara Ahmed On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012)), but as a means of working in an ethically, feminist, community, and queer informed approach. Full Stack Feminism in Digital Humanities (a two-year AHRC-IRC funded project) explicitly draws upon intersectional feminism and is investigating how we embed these values within and across Digital Humanities practice and research. It explores what feminist DH methodologies look like and how we can develop a framework to encourage their inclusion through the life cycle of digital projects and creations. Intersectionality has become — alongside equalities, diversity, and inclusion — a bit of a catch-all term, but we use it with intention. It outlines our positionality as a lab, as a research community. In many ways, it also recognises our aspirations, and recognises the need to constantly think and rethink who we are and who we, as the Lab, want to be.  

You can find details and some recordings of some of the events mentioned here in the Lab’s past events listing. For more information on our research projects please visit, and for information on other priority areas.

Researcher Guide to Writing a Climate Justice Oriented Data Management Plan

The Digital Humanities Climate Coalition, which began as an initiative between the SHL Experimental Ecologies group, and working groups within Edinburgh, Southampton, and the Turing Institute, has just launched the Researcher Guide to Writing a Climate Justice Oriented Data Management Plan.

This should be of interest to anyone who’s considering applying for UKRI funding (or any funding), or who is already running a project. It’s a slinky little two page guide exploring how we can reframe data management within research projects, to put appropriate emphasis on climate justice. It emphasises what can be done now, within existing frameworks. In an appendix, it also explores how the DMP section might transform in the future.

We expect to iterate fairly rapidly, and welcome all feedback and suggestions, as well as potential deeper collaboration. If you’d like to signal boost on Twitter, here’s James’s tweet launching the guide.

SHL Priority Areas — what are they and why?

A short reflection one year on 

By Sharon Webb 

In 2021 the Sussex Humanities Lab, one of the University’s four flagship research programmes, reviewed and re-evaluated its research structure. In an effort to amplify voices within the Lab, and to attract new voices and contributors from outside of it, we devised eight so-called priority areas that reflect current research and the expertise of our members. These priority areas allow us to highlight our research and provide a structure for our seminar and open workshop series, as well as a way to support strategic research development and grant capture. A year in, we are reflecting on how this structure has or hasn’t worked. Either way, through this structure we have managed, despite Covid challenges, to develop a programme of work which has provided crucial points of discussion, dialogue, debate, and growth.  

Our priority areas aim to further build research capacity across the University and to provide entry points to new Lab associates and to the wider community. We recognise that for some it can be difficult to know exactly what the Lab “does,” and we hoped our priority areas would help demystify that. The fact is, we do a lot: we are diverse, and we work in such an agile manner that it can be difficult to pin us down – this has its advantages and disadvantages!

We define ourselves as a Lab because we are a space of doing, of experimenting, of making (watch this space for a co-authored chapter on this very topic soon). Our collaborations cut across boundaries and as a group we all work in an explicitly transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary fashion. Our work is also value-driven, with a concern for ethics, equalities and diversity work, and by social justice and sustainability issues. In that regard, we are driven by a set of values explicitly written into the fabric of the University of Sussex, and indeed values embedded in our home school, the School of Media, Arts and Humanities. It is probably no surprise then that many of our priority areas reflect these values and concerns, cutting across disciplines and subject areas – such as ‘Philosophy of AI’ or ‘Uncertainty and Interpretability of AI’ , led by Beatrice Fazi (MAH) and Ivor Simpson (EngInf) respectively. ‘Experimental Ecologies’, led by Alice Eldridge (Music), is concerned with developing wider disciplinary understanding our (human and other organisms) environmental relations in the anthropocene, where the biosphere and technosphere are irrevocably linked.  In this way ‘Experimental Ecologies’ aims to foster:

post-disciplinary research where arts and humanities, natural and computational sciences, traditional indigenous knowledge, and everyday local experiences have an equal footing in addressing key environmental issues at human-environment interfaces.

In this area, “an equal footing” is key, and this perspective and outlook informs much of work in other priority areas developed by Lab members. My own area for example, ‘Intersectionality, Community and Computational Technology’ (ICCT) highlights, challenges, and disrupts the way in which computational technology reproduces and reinforces various inequalities in society. It is concerned with, reflective of, and feeds into the value system of the Lab but it is also concerned with research that is driven by perspectives of equity and inclusion. Above all it is community driven, and its foundations are born from collaborative work with queer and intersectional feminist communities and research praxis – community perspectives are on par (on an equal footing) with academic ones. This priority area reflects existing work within the Lab, specifically through the ‘Feminist Approaches to Computational Technology (FACT) Network, the ARHC-IRC funded network grant, ‘Intersectionality, Feminism, Technology and Digital Humanities’ (IFTe), whose overaching objective is to:

‘un-code’ gendered assumptions, question our digital environments and systems, and embed intersectional feminist methods and theory within DH with a view to the creation of new DH futures

And more recently, ‘Full Stack Feminism in Digital Humanities’, a two-year project jointly funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK) and the Irish Research Council and part of their ‘UK-Ireland Collaboration in Digital Humanities Research Grants Call. This project aims to develop feminist praxis, methodologies, and ethics from within and across Digital Humanities projects and research. “Full stack” means we are concerned with issues related to inequalities in DH that span from the infrastructure layer to the representation layer – it reaches, and cuts, across all types of environments. In this sense, the Lab’s priority areas represent critical mass of research that grows through engagement within and across the Lab. 

You can read about all our priority areas and ways that you might get involved here: 

Our priority areas represent things that we care about, things that we want to grow, areas we want to foster and nurture. They are not static or fixed but rather a means for us to articulate our priorities but as we know priorities change as we as individuals, as members of society, as colleagues in a School/University develop. We nurture these areas not for the Lab’s own benefit but for the benefit of those that engage with us.  

So, reflecting a year on, does the structure work? Maybe it doesn’t matter what structure we have if the right conversations are happening, if the right collaborations are developing, and if ultimately our members, our community feel involved. Our research structure can only be judged by the collaborations and research they foster, and in this regard, I think we’re not doing too bad!  

Prepping Robo_Op (2021)

A Brief Backward History of Automated Eloquence

Late in 2020, two SHL researchers collaborated with CDH to run a workshop series exploring the theory and practice of synthetic text. As a follow-on, in 2021 we will be creating a speculative object: a future textbook about the history of synthetic text, blending fact and fiction. Here’s a pre-print version of one of the sections (since it purports to be written in 2070, possibly by an AI, it is a very “pre” pre-print).


GPT-2 language model (via Max Woolf), inflected with training on feminist manifestos
Eureka machine beats poetry-writing bot by nearly 200 years - Arts and  Humanities Research Council
The Eureka. Image (c) The Alfred Gillett Trust-C&J Clark Ltd. See also Exeter’s Poetry by Numbers project.
A plate from Über den Schachspieler des Herrn von Kempelen und dessen Nachbildung (Leipzig, 1789)

CIE Lecture Series

Next week, Thursday 8 October, 1pm BST: Mario Novelli gives the first in a 10-week online lecture series on the Political Economy of Education in times of Conflict, Crises, and Pandemic. Register here. led and Hosted by the Centre for International Education (CIE) from October to December, this series will be:

… openly accessible, free and online and aimed at scholars and students of international development and education, and all those who seek to better understand the complex situations facing education systems around the world in a period of increasing instability, where education systems are challenged by war, environmental crisis, financial austerity and pandemics that threaten the futures of a generation of young people.

Beatrice Fazi at CDH Open Series

SHL’s Beatrice Fazi will be speaking on ‘The Computational Production of the New: On Aesthetics, Creativity and Digital Technologies’ for the Cambridge Digital Humanities Open Series on 24 June at 16:00-17:30 UK time.

Can computation generate the new? M. Beatrice Fazi argues that engaging with such question involves addressing computation aesthetically. Drawing from her monograph Contingent Computation (2018), Fazi will discuss aesthetics as concerning creation and reality’s potential for self-actualisation. This talk will demonstrate that aesthetics is a viable mode of addressing computational systems precisely because such generative potential is inherent to the axiomatic, discrete and formal structures of digital technologies. Novelty in computation is then expressed not by computers doing something strange or unexpected, but by a computational process that does what it is supposed to do.

The Discussant will be Joshua Scannell (The New School, USA) and the Chair will be Caroline Bassett (CDH Director, Cambridge).

Email Karen Herbane to register. More info at Cambridge Digital Humanities.

SHL Environmental Strategy launch

Today we are launching the Sussex Humanities Lab Environmental Strategy.

Sussex Hums Lab Enviro Strategy

This document sets out our current thinking on how SHL stands in relation to the global environmental emergency, and to the demanding and necessary target, set by the current UK government, of achieving net zero carbon by 2050.

It affirms our commitment to explore and mitigate the carbon intensity and ecological impact of our core Digital Humanities work, despite the many uncertainties this entails. Our work can contribute to global heating and ecological destruction, and it can contribute to mitigation and resilience.

It also affirms our commitment to continue to advocate for the wider system change necessary across society, and where relevant, to use our specific expertise to support and to scrutinise, to help ensure that the perspectives of the Digital Humanities are included in these complex transitions.

We believe that these ambitions go hand-in-hand with the small everyday actions that prefigure ecological sustainability. Here’s a snippet from one of the appendices, ‘In Praise of Smaller Actions’:

Smaller actions can demonstrate and cultivate a practical willingness to make changes in our everyday lives. Because the bigger changes of net zero will demand many such changes, it is important that we explore what such changes feel like, and the ripple effects they may have. It is important that we cultivate narratives, skills, and ways of thinking around these changes, so we know what to embrace, what to resist, and what to re-imagine. When done creatively and reflectively, those smaller actions can even be a kind of practice-led research into climate sustainability and climate resilience. They can be ‘cognitive’: they are a way of finding things out, and a form of knowledge in themselves.

Get in touch

This document is a reference point for all Sussex Humanities Lab Members and Associates. But we also hope it will be a way of making connections with the wider world.

The Sussex Humanities Lab includes some STEM expertise, and we frequently collaborate with STEM researchers, including environmental scientists. Our members also include researchers in the environmental humanities. However, we are not the experts on environmental science, policy, or emergency. The SHL Environmental Strategy is a living document which gives current estimation of the situation we are facing. We welcome qualifications, criticisms, and suggested revisions.

We also welcome opportunities to build our own capacity, and to explore future research collaboration with academics and non-academic partners. The Sussex Humanities Lab has an extensive portfolio of externally funded projects, which we continually look to expand. We also host visiting researchers to run seminars and workshops, and welcome enquiries from prospective doctoral students and Visiting Fellows. As set out in more detail in the document, we would be especially interested to hear from those who are working on, or who have an interest in, the following:

  • Covid-19, digital technology, and the environment
  • The materiality of the digital, including the perceived ethereality of the digital
  • Climate futures in culture, policy, and science
  • Carbon coloniality
  • Critical resilience
  • The politics and cultures of offsetting
  • The embodiment of academic research and collaboration
  • Negative emissions and other climate technology
  • Agonistic climate action

Here’s one last snippet:

The world has started to burn. There have been some interesting debates about the usefulness about this apocalyptic idiom: does it really help to convert the urgency of our situation into practical action? But setting aside the complex emotional implications of mentioning it, the world has actually started to burn: the effects of global heating are already being felt around the world through heatwaves, wildfires, drought and famine, as well as wildlife extinction, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, and extreme weather events such as storms and flooding. Enormous economic damage, human displacement, and deaths attributable to climate change are no longer mere forecasts: they are daily news. These are tragedies, not omens.

 

What are the digital humanities?

By David M. Berry

Digital humanities are at the leading edge of applying computer-based technology in the humanities. Initially called ‘humanities computing’, the field has grown tremendously over the past 40 or so years. It originally focused on developing digital tools and the creation of archives and databases for texts, artworks, and other materials. From these initial uses, and as computation developed, computers offered increasingly sophisticated ways of handling and searching digitised culture. For example, with recent advances in digital imaging, it is now possible to produce very high-quality reproductions of books and artworks that can transform our ability to study them.

Pianist Shin Suzuma uses a digital score app for ensembles
Pianist Shin Suzuma uses a digital score app Syncphonia for ensembles powered by Sussex University research funded by AHRC

The key to understanding the digital humanities is to reject the idea that digital technology is invading the academy. Computers were used for humanist ends from very early on in their history, and not only, as one might expect, as mere storage for large libraries of text. Computer networks, particularly the internet, have also enabled digital files to be used from almost anywhere on the globe. This access to information has had a tremendous effect on the ability to undertake research in the arts and humanities.

Digital humanities incorporate key insights from languages and literature, history, music, media and communications, computer science and information studies and combine these different approaches into new frameworks. More recently, the disciplinary focus has widened to include critical digital studies, as well as fields more commonly associated with engineering such as machine-learning, data science and artificial intelligence. Indeed, as early adopters of technology, digital humanists were prescient in seeing that computation would have an increasing centrality to research in the humanities.

As part of their work, digital humanists have developed new methods, such as computer-based statistical analysis, search and retrieval, topic modelling, and data visualisation. They apply these techniques to archives and collections that are vastly larger than any human researcher or research group can comfortably handle. These methods enable ambitious projects to be created with large interdisciplinary teams that are brought together to work on difficult or complex projects. Digital humanists are transforming the idea of what a humanities research project can be, giving us new ways of seeing past and present cultures.

These new collections of historical or literary artefacts are often publicly available on the web or in digital databases, and the material they contain is more openly available than previously possible with print. They increase the ability for humanists to combine data sets, social media, sound, web and image archives and also to move between them with greater ease. Equally crucial has been the creation of software for analysing, understanding and transforming these digital materials. Digital tools can also be freely accessed over the internet so they can be easily incorporated into other projects, enabling the rapid diffusion of new methods, tools and ideas across disciplinary boundaries. These digital technologies open up exciting opportunities for connecting the humanities to a wider public culture.

The social network Facebook has authorised giants like Amazon, Netflix, Spotify and Microsoft to access the personal data of its 2.2 billion users, according to the 'New York Times'. Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images.
The social network Facebook has authorised giants like Amazon, Netflix, Spotify and Microsoft to access the personal data of its 2.2 billion users, according to the ‘New York Times’. Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images.

However, with the greater diffusion of digital technologies into our lives, new concerns have arisen about the capacity these technologies have to spy on their users, about digital bias and discrimination, and the emergence of ‘fake news’. Companies such as Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google use our data in very intrusive ways, making collection of both public and private data a public matter of concern. Here too digital humanities, with its expertise across many knowledge areas, can help us understand these problems and provide critical interventions and policy insights.

The academy is now much more comfortable with the use of computation across disciplines. It has brought new powers of analysis, comparison and understanding to a range of research areas. The digital humanities have been exemplary in transferring digital techniques and methods into the humanities and by doing so have laid the ground for a golden age of humanities research in the 21st century. In a digital age, the humanities need to communicate humanistic values and their own contribution to public culture more than ever. The humanities continue to ask the important question: what is a life worth living? The digital humanities are part of this tradition, helping us to reflect on this question and expanding our understanding of human culture in a digital world.


David M. Berry is Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Sussex. He writes widely on the theory and philosophy of computation and algorithms. His most recent book is Digital Humanities: Knowledge and Critique in a Digital Age (with Anders Fagerjord). His forthcoming British Academy-supported research is concerned with the idea of a university in a digital age.


This post originally appeared on the British Academy blog.

An Ivory Tower of One’s Own

Seat number 1 is by far the best in the room. Close to the high window, it is well lit, there is no neighbor to the left and the aisle leaves plenty of space for ones elbow to roam freely. From this seat there is a nice view of the room and the narrow gallery with wooden railings that overlooks it. Each morning at ten o’clock there are at least two people who have decided that this seat will be theirs.

— Arlette Farge, Le goût de l’archive (1989)

Image result for the allure of the archives

Last week Sean Takats visited the Lab to deliver a workshop – about Tropy, a free image management system oriented to the needs of archival researchers – and give a lecture, “Subjectivity and Digital Research.”

Sean’s talk was elegant and stimulating, and the first take-home was this: research is embodied, and the material conditions of the researcher in the archive shape the kind of research they can and do perform. And this really is a take-home all about taking home. Institutional archives are increasingly the sites of photographic data capture. Exploratory and interpretive decisions increasingly take place at home.

Or in the office, or on the train, or another library, or the deepest corner of the More Than Just … Coffee! Lounge on Hoe Street in Walthamstow, or the pay-per-hour workspace into which it will gentrify overnight in the summer of 2023. Research takes place, perhaps, with headphones in. At a different set of temperatures, in different clothes, in fewer clothes, with different levels of caffeine and hydration. With a different set of objects, people, and landscapes in the visual field, in difference ambiences, and with different activity in-between bouts of research.

Consider, for example, Londa Schiebinger in her acknowledgements to Secret Cures of Slaves: People, Plants, and Medicine in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World:

Writing history has changed […] Although one loses the tactile pleasure of eighteenth-century papers and leather bindings, one does not miss the mold, dust, jet lag, and hours waiting for things to be delivered to the reading-room table. Now one can read Jean-Jacques Barthélemy while taking breaks to do laundry (the benefits – physical and intellectual – of interspersing heavy-duty research and writing with mundane chores should not be underestimated).

Such materialities must surely show up in research outputs. But how exactly? We might start by saying that research occurs in a different set of moods, although tracing the affective shift feels quite daunting to me. Another starting point is that non-archive research spaces are all variously wannabe Woolf’s rooms-of-one’s-own. So perhaps we can consider how researchers in those spaces encounter different affordances, stimuli, textures, and impediments according to factors such as gender, class, race, and ability.

Back to the archive: well, it’s full of researchers taking photos. Sean cited empirical as well as anecdotal evidence to demonstrate how practices have shifted. There was a twinkle in Sean’s eye – like a little camera flashing – whenever he spoke about this transformation, and his Tropy project promises to further normalise, elaborate, and refine it. Nevertheless, I don’t think the lecture adopted a fully normative stance. That is, Sean wasn’t here to endorse the transformation, exactly.

His interest was rather – and maybe this is the second big take-home – given that this shift is actually happening, shouldn’t we be alert to the implications? And in particular, alert to the stories we tell about research?

David M. Berry‘s handwritten notes from Sean’s talk

How have researchers’ subjective experiences of conducting research changed? Do we need a new language of archival research in the digital age? Do the explicit and implicit stories we tell about how knowledge is generated reflect and/or support actual practices?

Sean identified a residual discourse of the romanticized archive. Arlette Farge was cited as one example. In fact, Sean suggested, there is even a kind of travel literature of the archive. What happens when you descend into the archive? The archive is a strange and distant land: we journey there, and we bring things back. Along the way we encounter wonders, obstacles, even perils. But mostly we don’t …

The day was very hot; we walked up the hills, and along all the rough road, which made our walking half the day’s journey.  Travelled under the foot of Carrock, a mountain covered with stones on the lower part; above, it is very rocky, but sheep pasture there; we saw several where there seemed to be no grass to tempt them.  Passed the foot of Grisdale and Mosedale, both pastoral valleys, narrow, and soon terminating in the mountains—green, with scattered trees and houses, and each a beautiful stream.  At Grisdale our horse backed upon a steep bank where the road was not fenced, just above a pretty mill at the foot of the valley; and we had a second threatening of a disaster in crossing a narrow bridge between the two dales; but this was not the fault of either man or horse.  Slept at Mr. Younghusband’s public-house, Hesket Newmarket.  In the evening walked to Caldbeck Falls, a delicious spot in which to breathe out a summer’s day—limestone rocks, hanging trees, pools, and waterbreaks—caves and caldrons which have been honoured with fairy names, and no doubt continue in the fancy of the neighbourhood to resound with fairy revels.

— Dorothy Wordsworth, Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland, AD 1803

… mostly we just patiently make some progress. Sometimes it’s swift and steady, sometimes erratic and embarrassed, filled with stumbles and setbacks. We have good days and bad.

And on some level, we want others to understand all this, and to know that it is what makes our knowledge authentic.

We want them to admire the rituals we recited to gain our safe passage, the amulets we brandished to complete our homecoming.

We want them to know that we’ve been there, man.

To agree that the figure in front of them contains a few molecules from far-flung climes.

To acknowledge our body as a body of work.

To suspect that the faraway glint in our eye, as we wait our turn to speak, is actually a speck — immured in eye-lime by ancient Lucretian optics — of moulted surface-veil of the specimen itself.

To admire us for our professional clarity of thought, sure …

… but more profoundly, to vent visceral awe for our throats as they professorially clear, inviting the infinitesimal yet non-zero possibility that what dislodge and dance in our alveolar folds are secreted atoms of air of that very zone, and that the syllable forming at our lips is a lost-and-found zephyr of the archive itself. Like Swift’s academicians of Lagado, who have to wave around whatever whereof they aver, we suspect that our judgments can only be validated by relations that are physical, even somatic.

Um, okay, Sean put it way more sensibly than that, but I still wasn’t totally sold on any link between archival research and travel literature. Until, that is, he read out an email — from a former supervisor, I think — offering guidance to Young Sean for his first visit to the archive. “It is pretty simple I think. You fill out a form, and have a little interview and a card.” It was pretty simple, and yet the email was remarkably detailed. And although Sean didn’t quite put it this way, there’s no way that it was purely generosity or loquacity or attention-to-detail. There was a real love of storytelling there, and the story was Recollections of a Tour Made in the Reading Room.

So here’s another take-home. If researchers feel that they are laying hands on history through its tangible artefacts, perhaps this goes together with a tendency to conceal the use of digital sources: Google Books, Artful, Gallica, and many others. With a little detective work you can figure out that folk are doing this — Sean mentioned, for example, lacunae: research which claims to be citing physical sources, but consistently cites only the editions of a work that have been digitised in some particular repository. So how do we interpret this silence? Is it professional malpractice if you don’t cite Google Books … when you typed it into your article from Google Books?

Sean’s talk was also about posing a question, or set of questions. If we’re still overly entranced by the old travel narratives, what stories are we neglecting? What stories could we, should we be telling about our research?

One obvious answer is: more accurate stories, rooted in the best available evidence about our real collective experiences. Would such stories still be travel literature, I wonder, or some other genre? Perhaps a descendant of travel literature — science fiction? Perhaps utopian fiction? I’m certainly persuaded that using a database, constructing keyword searches, reading a patchwork of text, needs to become part of the account of doing research. We should give serious consideration, as researchers, to the way that IT conditions our research practices: the practices we proudly theorise and teach as methodology, the practices we feel a bit shady about, and even the practices we don’t notice, but which are nevertheless technologically traceable. How do we leave tracks, trails and traces of our subjectivity? Each researcher is potentially gathering a mass of data about how they gather data.

Sean finished with an open question, which was a callback to Arlette Farge’s Le goût de l’archive (1989). “What, in 2019 — in a dematerialized and iterative archive — is seat number 1?”


There was a lively Q&A. I hardly took any notes and I won’t try to summarise. I think I can just about remember three sort of interrelated questions from Tim Hitchcock, Caroline Bassett, and Rachel Thomson.

Tim asked about how we were imagining archives before this particular wave of romanticization, which he suggested was rooted in the 80s and 90s, just as the archive is starting to transform. He brought up an earlier Foucauldian analysis of the archive as an antagonistic mechanism of order and control: a way of understanding the inescapable web of technology and language in which we are caught and from which we are construed.

Caroline asked about the ways in which the argument was grounded in history specifically, and spoke specifically to the historians’ archive. What is the prior structure that that makes the thing that you set out to collect “history”?

And I think Rachel asked about democratization and authority, and suggested that this argument might be interestingly reframed in terms of loss of historians’ traditional prestige. Could this be a moment of re-territorialization? Might it turn out that people can do history without historians? Might they do it in totally different ways, or do totally different things altogether?

There were plenty of other questions and plenty of answers.

I asked one about zooming out from archival research and thinking about all kinds of academic practice in the same way — especially teaching.

Having mulled it over a bit more, I guess I was really thinking about that gripe you sometimes get about students who don’t do the set reading … or who somehow game the reading. It’s grounded in a recognition that a patchwork of Google Books text fragments isn’t intellectually transformative in the same way substantial linear readings of chapters and books are … and perhaps also a faint recognition that we currently aren’t that good at conveying this fact via formative, summative, and informal assessment.

Speaking anecdotally, reading a whole damn book is a big deal, takes absolutely forever, and it fundamentally changes who I am. I am a pretty bad reader, and perhaps the worse a reader you are, the more it changes you. I can advise a student to be wary of shortcuts, but I know I wouldn’t persuade me.

So perhaps we do need a new language, or a new set of stories, around learning in an era of widely available digital shortcuts. How much do we need to nudge such a discourse along, and how much is it emerging spontaneously? My hunch is that it’s largely emerging spontaneously, and the questions are more around how to steer its growth.

One area might be citation. Citation has connotation, and perhaps the connotation is systematically false. What if we were to experiment with a citation system which elegantly communicates not provenance, but some sense of how the author came across it, and how deeply and widely they have explored the context in which it occurred?

Then again — and this was my follow-up question, a thing I always trot out these days in various guises (I think because of Simmel) — does increasing the truthfulness of the stories we tell about our research, learning, and teaching necessarily always produce more truth per se … or whether it might in some cases be destructive of truth? Might silence, misdirection, equivocation, euphemism, tact, white lies, opacity, deferral validated by uncertainty, and all manner of ruses also be built into the enabling infrastructure of truth?

Creative practice is perhaps where this is most obviously seen: the fidelity between a poetics and a poetry is seldom a descriptive fidelity — why on earth would a poet settle for that? — but is rather a provocative and generative fidelity. The poet represents their practice in ways that enable and modify their practice. Such representations both coheres with and contradict representations capable of communicating their practice.

All this pertains to the tacit validity claims of scholarship. Perhaps to cite a work is to impersonate something, and a linear reading of whatever is in the codex may not be the best way to identify and to inhabit the ‘something’ you are impersonating. For starters, if you haven’t read through the source text in that way, you won’t be alone. Has there been a big DH project to model where citations cluster? Because I have a suspicion that the history of philosophy is the history of conversations between first chapters.

So what kind of poetics ought we aspire to for research? I think my instincts are pragmatic: it would be great if we could recognise and duly weigh the transformative power of longform textual encounter, or could rediscover similar transformative power in more distributed, patchwork formats. So a poetics, or a new travel narrative, that might allow you to take your bearings in that more fragmented reading, without insisting on linearity, to find ways to make that experience more cumulative.


The Tropy workshop was excellent, an opportunity to learn its current capabilities, but also a nice glimpse into its ongoing evolution, and into how the interplay of “nice to have” and “easier said than done” influences development priorities. Speaking personally it was the incidental side quest which really did it for me: arriving late to the Zotero party. Zotero is a free research and citation management system — a bit like Endnotes, if you’re familiar with that — that is oriented toward collaborative research (it integrates easily with Google Docs, for example, although I’m not sure about CryptPad and others). It very zestily searches the web to identify whatever you click and drag into it, and gives you nice titles and abstracts and hooks to hang your own metadata too. Sean even gave me a Zotero sticker, and you know what, I stuck it on my laptop. And then he was gone. Mood:

JLW