#dhpoco and Political Citizenship




By Roopika Risam

A recent thread at Postcolonial Digital Humanities Summer School raised the issue of political citizenship and Digital Humanities. The thread has generated a range of responses about intersectionality, critical race studies, feminist studies, affect, and more. However, it led me to think deeply about the nature of “citizenship,” particularly when Postcolonial Digital Humanities (#dhpoco) engages with DH.

When I consider the term “political citizenship” and its relationship to DH from a #dhpoco perspective, I wonder whether it’s just a fallacy. I am referring to the citizenship of people who practice #dhpoco in relation to DH – our “citizenship” within DH, if you will. Here’s my proposition: this citizenship does not exist.

Scholars within postcolonial studies have spent years complicating claims to citizenship. I’m thinking specifically of Malini Johar Schuelller, Rajesweri Sunder Rajan, Kavita Daiya, and Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt, but there are many others. We might go so far as to claim that postcolonial studies has exploded the concept of “citizenship.” This is different from questions about “digital political citizenship” raised at the beginning of the thread, but it’s worth considering “political citizenship” in relation to DH (and #dhpoco) practitioners. Something that drew me to postcolonial studies is the way it has illuminated the constructedness, elitism, and exclusions of political citizenship. #dhpoco practitioners must draw on this theme from postcolonial studies when we consider our relationship to the rest of DH.

What does this mean for #dhpoco? For one, it means we must reject the idea that there is “citizenship” for us within DH, a citizenship that will be granted to us by some authority. Just as postcolonial studies identifies problems of the rhetoric of citizenship, let’s avoid replicating them in our DH practice. We are not outsiders of a sovereign nation to which we aspire inclusion. There are (and, perhaps, aren’t) ways we are DH practitioners, so we must claim our similarities and differences, and move forward.

Moving forward means ensuring we aren’t giving in to a narrative of victimization and exclusion. How could we, after all, if we reject the very basis of citizenship? I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t be critical, shouldn’t be theoretical, or shouldn’t bring to bear our knowledges and experiences on DH. In fact, that is what we are here to do. Yet, we need to see #dhpoco not as a reaction or a response to DH but a radical player, putting out our own projects and pushing against the definitions and boundaries that shape DH.

Those of us who live and work legally in the United States, whether citizens, permanent residents, or on paths to citizenship, are particularly susceptible to mainstream narratives of citizenship and belonging. Considering the nature of public discourse in the United States, these narratives can be hard to shake. Moreover, it’s easy to speak from the privileged position of our own legal statuses within the United States without thinking about everyone who is denied citizenship or remembering that our position vis–à–vis the United States government is nothing more than an accident of history. Elsewhere in the world, many people don’t have the luxury of viewing citizenship in such a way. If anything, postcolonial studies reminds us of these facts.

Taking cues from postcolonial studies, #dhpoco needs to move away from retrograde notions of citizenship and accept that they are exclusive and unequal. How do we do this? First of all, we don’t bemoan our relative position to DH. We build our alliances and plan strategically. Worried we don’t have R1 resources? Look at Adeline Koh, who created a ProfHacker open thread on SLAC DH and is starting an SLAC DH consortium. Worried DH isn’t representing your interests? Start your own groups, like #transformDH or #dhpoco did. Embrace what Alex Gil terms #guerillaDH. The beauty of DH is that there is space for all of these ideas. There are people to help, social media networks to leverage, Facebook groups to join, and journals to read. Yack, hack, and yack some more, but make it happen.

We can’t ask for citizenship within DH. We can only embrace the idea that citizenship is illusory, write our own narratives, and create our own DH work.

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