Current Projects

All and Each: Dialogues in the Digital Archive
Co-Investigator and Co-Author:Elizabeth Stainforth

This international collaboration, on-going since 2014, examines key characteristics of digital archive platforms and investigates their impact on the relationships between cultural organizations and individuals or communities who archive. The book argues for the importance of understanding these platforms and the ways in which they increasingly mediate and structure the relationships between individuals, communities and organizations.
This project utilizes the later work of Michel Foucault on governmentality as a theoretical framework for examining modes of digital cultural production. 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. 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). 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.

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.

We interrogate the values embedded in digital archiving platforms and bring their different imperatives into dialogue with the Foucauldian relation all and each, or the mutually reinforcing tendency of modes of government, suggesting strategies for negotiating the power relations implied therein. Recognition of these power relations also provides the grounding for exploration of the spatially dislocated politics of digital archives in the second half of the book.

All and Each: Dialogues in the Digital Archive(s) explores a number of case studies including Europeana and the DPLA, in addition to digital heritage projects that seek to utilize open source archival tools and engage in more inclusive forms of memory-making in marginalized groups and communities. These include Scalar, SAADA, Mukurtu, and Documenting the Now.

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.