Haiti and the Digital Humanities
Panel on Haiti and the Digital Humanities
Panelists: NATHAN H. DIZE, JULIA GAFFIELD, MARLENE L. DAUT
Part of Conference: Enduring Questions, New Methods: Haitian Studies in the 21st Century
MODERATED BY KAIAMA L. GLOVER
Scholars in Caribbean Studies...offer a particular perspective from this archipelago, where so many people and groups from all over the world came together through various forces, including violence and greed enabled by technology...People have seen through an object’s intended use and shape[d] them for their own needs. Of course, repurposing is not unique to the Caribbean, but it does happen with a certain degree of obstinacy and persistence that it can be considered a strong enough cultural resistance to planned obsolescence. In addition, we never backed away from understanding the legacies of the plantation society and still struggle with it. Scholars understand the role in which these plantation societies were themselves socio-technical developments that involved industrial machinery, labor management, and explicit violence. We operate in a world where violence is now hidden, but it is still apparent within seemingly gentle working environments. Caribbean scholars can see things like this because they are steeped in a history that perpetuates itself in the strangest ways until today.
– Alex Gil for HASTAC
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Nathan H. Dize is a PhD student in the Department of French and Italian at Vanderbilt University where he specializes in Haitian theater, poetry, and revolutionary poetics during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 2014-2015, Nathan was a lecteur d’anglais in the Centre de Langues at the École Normale Supérieure de Lyon where he taught Master 1 and 2 courses in 21st Century World Literature as well as courses on written expression and TOEFL preparation. At Vanderbilt, Nathan teaches introductory French language and is a teaching assistant for introductory Haitian Creole. Nathan’s other areas of specialization are Digital Humanities and Translation Studies. He is a content curator, translator, and editor of A Colony in Crisis: The Saint-Domingue Grain Shortage of 1789. He is also the co-editor of the H-Haiti series “Haiti in Translation.” Nathan has published articles, reviews, and translations in journals such as sx archipelagos, the Journal of Haitian Studies, Contemporary French Civilization, and sx salon.
My entry-point into the Digital Humanities (DH) was by way of the plantation society of colonial Haiti. Trained in French Studies, I first saw the machinery, tools, and technologies to which Alex refers as elements of Diderot and Dalembert’s Encyclopédie, as visual representations of violence and colonialism. It was not until we began working on A Colony in Crisis: The Saint-Domingue Grain Shortage of 1789 that I began to fully grapple with the written archive of French slavery. By building this site, through project design and collaboration, DH became for us the means of ‘repurposing’ a French language archive to tell a Caribbean story. Working as an undergraduate student, I saw the elements of the archive from a unique perspective. I was in charge of compiling the spreadsheet to catalogue the 12,000 pamphlets in the archive for the project entitled “Revealing La Révolution”; essentially, I saw the Haitian Revolution eclipsed by the French first-hand. Our goal from the beginnings of A Colony in Crisis was to intervene in 18th century French Studies to recount Haitian history. DH was our vehicle for critique, decolonization, and access to archival power. To achieve these three aspirations, we sought to bring the archive to as many people as possible in translation––this started out as French to English and has since shifted to translation in Haitian Creole. As a literature student my only exposure to primary source work was with Laurent Dubois and John Garrigus’s Slave Revolution in the Caribbean, a volume that brought together some of the most important primary and secondary sources in Caribbean history from the Code Noir to Haitian independence. With the non-historian reader in mind, we sought to translate and curate the colonial archive of Haiti in order to involve as many people as possible in the telling of this tale. The open-access website enables anyone with an Internet connection access to professionally curated content and historical sources. For me personally, the Digital Humanities gave me a field; it introduced me to Haitian Studies. Interfacing with reviewers, sharing work and references via email and Twitter, was how I met most of the invitees to this very conference. In a sense, DH oriented me towards the field of Haitian Studies as a result of collaborative co-working. The Digital Humanities is, for me, the 21st iteration of konbit. Annou mete tèt nou ansanm!
Julia Gaffield is a historian of the early-modern Atlantic World at Georgia State University. Her research focuses on the early independence period in Haiti and seeks to understand the connections between Haiti and other Atlantic colonies, countries, and empires in the early 19th century. She is the author of Haitian Connections in the Atlantic World (2015), winner of the Mary Alice and Philip Boucher Book Prize, French Colonial Historical Society in 2016, and is the editor of The Haitian Declaration of Independence (2016). She is the editor of the website Haiti and the Atlantic World. @JuliaGaffield
In Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995), Michel-Rolph Trouillot posited that historical silencing occurs at four moments in the production of historical narratives. Each of these moments represents an instance of historical violence in “seemingly gentle working environments,” to use Alex Gil’s phrasing: 1) when sources are created, 2) when these sources are collected in archives, 3) when the sources are retrieved from the archives by researchers, and 4) the moment of retrospective significance (making history). Today, all four are increasingly becoming digital moments that amplify their consequences in multiple ways. Moreover, new technologies are foregrounding a fifth important moment of silencing of the past and that is the preservation and accessibility—or lack thereof—of the archives. Which nations or communities get to preserve and make available, physically and virtually, their historical record? Whose sources are beautifully preserved in acid-free boxes and digitized according to international standards? Whose records are organized and made accessible at repositories and online? And whose evidence gets literally eaten by bugs, destroyed by fire, lost in earthquakes before any work is done to ensure their future? Whose history is uncataloged and therefore inaccessible to scholars and to publics because of chronic underfunding? As illustrated by the example of Haiti in the larger context of archives in the Atlantic World, digital technologies offer unprecedented ways both to lessen and increase these disparities, thereby profoundly affecting the “retrospective significance” of each historical narrative.
Marlene L. Daut specializes in early Caribbean, 19th-century African American, and early modern French colonial literary and historical studies. Her first book, Tropics of Haiti: Race and the Literary History of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World, 1789-1865, was published in 2015 by Liverpool University Press' Series in the Study of International Slavery. Her second book, Baron de Vastey and the Origins of Black Atlantic Humanism, appeared in fall 2017 from Palgrave Macmillan’s series in the New Urban Atlantic. She is also working on a collaborative project entitled, An Anthology of Haitian Revolutionary Fictions (Age of Slavery). Daut is the co-creator and co-editor of H-Net Commons’ digital platform, H-Haiti, and she has developed an online bibliography of fictions of the Haitian Revolution from 1787 to 1900 at the website http://haitianrevolutionaryfictions.com. @FictionsofHaiti
The vast majority of the books about Haiti published outside of Haiti today are about the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) or about the U.S. Occupation (1915-1934). What this means is that those looking to learn about Haiti have comparatively few opportunities to encounter the Haiti and Haitians who sit between the Revolution and the Occupation. Although, on its face this may seem benign, what this has meant for scholarship produced outside of Haiti (and in the popular imagination) is that we are often incapable of fully thinking about the kind of Haiti where Haitians appear as people, individuals, with political dreams and desires all their own. In other words, a Haiti that is not over-determined by its past colonial relationship to France or to its future/current neo-colonial subjugation in the U.S. and European world-systems.
But we have arguably never found ourselves in a better position to think about Haiti’s development and contribution to the history of American hemispheric sovereignty. In 1983, David Geggus penned an article entitled, “Unexploited Sources for the History of the Haitian Revolution.” In this article Geggus focused upon describing the “vast quantity of neglected manuscript material [in Spain, Great Britain, the Caribbean, and the United States] that concerns” what he called, “this unique and profound event.” Archival recovery work of the stripe that Geggus promoted so long ago is as equally critical to preserving, learning from, and contributing to the archive of Haitian sovereignty, or Haiti after the Revolution, as it has been for Haitian revolutionary studies.
Archival work, then, is crucial work, but it is also dangerous work:
Abdul JanMohamed and David Lloyd have written that “Archival work, [i]s a form of counter-memory that is essential to the critical articulation of minority discourse.” However, because archives, like other kinds of texts, reflect the worldview of both their creators and those who write about them/use them as sources, the archivist working to articulate “minority discourse” must be careful not to reproduce patterns of domination or cultural exploitation (to use with much irony the word from the title of Geggus’ essay).
For Haiti, this means that we must work against the idea that the abundant historical resources now made readily (and often freely) available by various digitization projects (including HATHI Trust, Gale’s Slavery and Anti-Slavery Database, BNF, BPL, archive.org), means that Haiti represents “history’s new frontier” for research, to quote Philippe Girard. Seeing Haiti as a “frontier,” not only calls forth the terrible legacy of the conquest of the Americas, but encourages the notion that the country is “open for business” (of course, this is the language of Haitian president Michel Martelly), reflecting the economics of disaster capitalism that have so plagued Haiti in the twentieth century, and especially since the 2010 earthquake. (Indeed, Bloomberg TV aired a special on January 12, 2015, called Haiti: Open for Business?). In her remarks at the 28th annual meeting of the Haitian Studies Association in Montréal, Canada, Nadève Ménard astutely reminded us, however, that Haiti has always been open for business where the world powers are concerned.
Thinking about how to approach this vast archival terrain with respect for the peoples and cultures of Haiti as I complete my own digital archiving projects (see, http://lagazetteroyale.com) has led me to think about and question the vocabulary that we are using to describe this moment in Haitian studies (where the digital collides with renewed interest in Haiti) and how our efforts (those of outside of Haiti, I mean) to illuminate Haitian contributions to the world-system might be framed differently, so as to generate new, decolonial ideas about Haiti rather than merely rehashing the age-old, colonial ones.