Current Projects

All and Each: Governmentality and Digital Cultural Heritage
Co-Investigator and Co-Author: Elizabeth Stainforth

This multi-part project utilizes the later work of Michel Foucault (19 on governmentality as a tool for examining digital cultural heritage practices. Governmentality refers to the rationale of government, the idea that Western modes of government rely on the limited freedom of individuals for their continued functioning. As a method of examining techniques of government that negotiate and reify power structures, the notion of governmentality identifies the mutually reinforcing relation of all and each, 'to develop those elements constitutive of individuals' lives in such a way that their development also fosters that of the strength of the state'.

Foucault's conception of the state is particularly useful when considering some of the subjects of this research, such as the European Commission's cultural heritage aggregator Europeana. The supranational European Union entity operationalizes techniques of government through the construction and spread of a unifying cultural heritage imaginary, which speaks to the way in which, for Foucault, the state has no essence and is a function of changes in the practice of government. Foucault (1978) says:

What government has to do with is not territory but, rather, a sort of complex composed of men and things. The things, in this sense, with which government is to be concerned are in fact men, but men in their relations, their links, their imbrication with those things.

The language of relational networks that are composed of both humans and things parallels understandings in work by socio-technical theorists (Trist; Law; Latour; Akrich; Van House and Churchill). There is a growing recognition that techniques of government and power structures are inflected in the way new technologies are being developed, practices which are often specialized, opaque and operate on large and distributed scales (Chun; Drucker; Presner); therefore, understanding of the potential ethical and political issues requires greater knowledge of the way technologies work and are deployed. A similar approach informs our analysis of digital technologies in the cultural heritage context, which we describe as an ethical-technical review.

This project has thus far examined subjects including Europeana, particularly its developmental timeline and the 1914-1918 project; digital aggregates; and open-source archive platforms such as Yarn and Scalar.

Opacity In the Digital Archive

I borrow the term 'opacity' from post-colonialism as part of a vocabulary building exercise that seeks for the juxtaposition of dominant and non-dominant perspectives in archives in a way that does not, purposefully or inadvertently, further entrench the power of the dominant perspective. This move explicitly recognizes the power relationship in archives between perspectives and also between types of records and the record makers. In this paper, I talk about the problematic notion of invisibility in archives and the ways in which the term opacity can be used to denote a purposeful and selective hiding or obfuscation that serves to address power disparities between dominant and non-dominant cultures. I explore as a case study the platform created by the New York University Libraries and the Hemispheric Institute for the Hemispheric Institute Digital Video Library project as one method by which archives can work to create and maintain opacity.

Invisibility is a double-edged sword in the realm of the archive. Power can erase from the archive what it wishes to forget as easily as it can choose to remember, and the term invisibility is most often deployed in archives to note the populations who do not appear. Yet invisibility is also wielded to help reify and entrench dominant structures: whiteness, maleness, heteronormativity, and Eurocentrism are allowed to go unnamed and are implicitly assumed as standard. In these cases, their very invisibility speaks to their position of dominance. This suggests that the common ways in which the term 'invisibility' is applied to archives needs careful consideration.

To mediate politics of visibility in archives, I propose employing the term 'opacity' which is derived from the work of Post-Colonial scholar Edouard Glissant. Rather than speaking about what is or is not visible, I assign agency to those being documented by the archive: opacity is the ability of the subject to maintain subjectivity as they are examined by the cultural mainstream through purposeful control over their own representation. Glissant uses opacity to refer to a purposeful hiding from dominant surveillance in a construction of self-identity that resists objectification. In understanding the privileged position of participation in archival spaces, I employ opacity to speak about the ways in which digital archives can be constructed to give visibility to non-dominant communities while preserving the subjectivity of those being documented.