The Origins of #DHpoco and the Art of Play

by Roopika Risam and Adeline Koh


The Postcolonial Digital Humanities website emerged organically over the past few months from a set of conversations that took place between us and a few colleagues on Twitter, in person, and on Tumblr. We are part of a larger group of people–Alondra Nelson, Tara McPherson, Anna Everett, Lisa Nakamura, David Golumbia, Amy Earhart, the #TransformDH collective (including Anne Cong-Huyen, Amanda Phillips, Moya Bailey, Fiona Barnett and more), Alan Liu and Natalia Cecire–who have challenged the digital humanities to explore cultural exclusions and alternative genealogies of the field more deeply.

To begin testing the waters, in October 2012, Adeline and Roopika started playing with the hashtag #dhpoco (sometimes #pocodh) on Twitter to see what conversations would develop. This later led to the postcolonial digital humanities Tumblr blog in February 2013, on which we started to post ideas, images, and videos related to the question of what the postcolonial digital humanities means (or could mean). We also began experimenting with definitions of postcolonial digital humanities through a series of Bitstrips comics.

For example, in the following comic,

we expressed one of the key reasons for the existence of the postcolonial digital humanities. As the newly emergent fields of Critical Code StudiesSoftware Studies and Platform Studies suggest, discourses of computing are implicated in and influence what we receive as ethnic, cultural, racial and gendered norms. We argue that to consider the digital world as something independent of the cultural realm is problematic, and that the relationship between the digital and the cultural needs to be urgently addressed on a global scale.

And in the comics below,

we articulated some of the reasons technologists need humanists, and humanists need to intervene in technology: because technology is rapidly evolving to create new modes of understanding which can either be actively used against marginalized peoples or for their benefit.

Play and the Postcolonial Digital Humanities

In our efforts to think through what the postcolonial digital humanities means, we take Anne Cong-Huyen’s reading of our tumblr as a space of play to be one of the cornerstones of how we understand this new field. In his essay “The Location of Brazil,” Salman Rushdie argues that the Brazil of Terry Gilliam’s film of the same name is not located in South America but in the realm of imagination, in song and cinema. For Rushdie, play is the work of the artist, the poet, the writer, the dramaturg–because by playing, one reinvents the world.

We want to reinvent new possibilities for scholarship by playing with the intersections between postcolonial studies, commonly characterized as a serious, alienating interdisciplinary intellectual field, and digital culture. In Rushdie’s essay, Brazil exists in a space of play that challenges the relationship between the “real” world and the imagined world. Yet, the “real” world itself itself is a product of the imagination, a construct through which we make meaning. Such meaning, as Rushdie reminds us in “Imaginary Homelands,” is “a shaky edifice we build out of scraps, dogmas, childhood injuries, newspapers, articles, chance remarks, old films, small victories, people hated, people loved.” He goes on to say, “Perhaps it is because of our sense of what is the case is constructed from such inadequate materials that we defend it fiercely, even to the death.”

As such, we call attention to the constructedness of both postcolonial studies and digital humanities. Further, we use play to reimagine the postcolonial and the digital humanities. As Rushdie notes in “The Location of Brazil,” “Unreality is the only weapon with which reality can be smashed, so that it may subsequently be reconstructed.” This is how we envision the work of postcolonial digital humanities, and we articulate these goals in both our mission statement and founding principles.

Our first initiative involving meaning and play is the Rewriting Wikipedia Project. Last Friday, we participated in the #TooFEW Feminists Engage Wikipedia event aimed at organizing women and people of color to edit Wikipedia. This event raised public awareness of the constructedness of knowledge disseminated on Wikipedia, and led to concrete results as we pooled collective knowledge from scholars at ThatCamp Feminisms East, South, and West, along with a virtual group of editors. We continue this worthwhile effort with the Rewriting Wikipedia Project, which encourages participants to edit Wikipedia to include more entries by and about people of color around the world, and on subjects which are generally excluded by US and European media outlets.

We once joked that holding a THATCamp Postcolonial would be nothing more than three “dhpoco-ers” sitting in a room talking to each other.  We hope that the Postcolonial Digital Humanities website will invite you to join us in this play, so there could be more than three people discussing this subject in the same room.

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on “The Origins of #DHpoco and the Art of Play
3 Comments on “The Origins of #DHpoco and the Art of Play
  1. Pingback: Weekend Reading: Race and the Global Digital Humanities Edition - ProfHacker - The Chronicle of Higher Education

  2. Having done a bit of research on anxiety surrounding the ‘digital’ aspect of ‘digital humanities’ for traditional humanists, I think the points you raise form an interesting parallel. For instance, many humanists, as Alan Liu notes in his article ‘The state of the digital humanities : A report and a critique.’ (Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 11(1-2), 8–41) have vague fears of the digital encroaching on and consuming the less quantitative aspects of the humanities- artistic interpretation, theory, critical thinking,etc.In doing so, automated processes might supersede traditional academic process by virtue of their relative ‘efficiency’ in much the same way automated processes replaced conventional labor practices during the industrial revolution.

    In a similar way, it seems possible that the hegemonic narratives which technology implicitly adopts- privilege, neoliberalism, as you mention- fallacious and naive utopian claims about technology opening up ‘post-racial/ post-class’ social structures are in direct conflict with some of the more important recent developments in humanistic inquiry- feminism, post-colonial studies, LGBT studies, class studies, and so on. In this respect I am interested in your concept of play, and how it might be the intervention point at which digital humanities can begin to correct hegemonic dualistic narratives before they infiltrate the rich humanistic veins of inquiry. Do you think that play is an inherently human counter to the automated, the industrial, and the remnant of the Modern? Is play counterproductive to the hegemonic impetus of globalization?

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