Caribbean DH: An Interview with Alex Gil

Caribbean DH: An Interview with Alex Gil

Alex Gil is the Digital Scholarship Coordinator, Humanities and Digital Scholarship Coordinator, Humanities and History Division, Columbia University Libraries since 2012. He is also Co-Editor of sx archipelagos and a HASTAC Steering Committee member. Alex earned his Ph.D. from the English Department at the University of Virginia, where he was also a fellow of the Scholars’ Lab, NINES and the Praxis Program. His research focuses on Caribbean Literature in the twentieth century.

I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Alex Gil via skype, a few months after the successful #prmapathon in October 2017.

How did you come into the field of Digital Humanities? 

The seeds of my career started when I was a kid coding on my Commodore 64. Back in those days storage was not what it is today. A lot of our games came printed in magazines and we had to transcribe the code in order to play—one error meant no game! This was my first exposure to programming and scholarship if you will. Fast forward a couple of decades to 2005: I was already an English Literature graduate student at the University of Virginia (UVA) interested in Caribbean Studies when I noticed the lack of online resources for some of the writers, poets, fiction writers I was interested in. I proposed a digital library of Caribbean literature—around the same time Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC) is emerging in Florida, unbeknownst to us in Virginia. We put together a successful grant with the Rockefeller Foundation to go their Bellagio Center in Italy, where we spent a week with scholars from the U.S., Europe, and the Caribbean, including a scant couple of digital humanists who knew what they were talking about. Soon enough we were talking at cross purposes between scholars and those digital humanists working for the library. It was around this time that I realized that I had to learn how to do-it-myself if I wanted my Caribbean digital dreams to ever come true. No one was going to make my dreams come true for me. Why would they? At the same time, I realized the benefit of belonging to teams of people who also know how to make things. I started learning XML/TEI. TEI—the encoding mechanism of choice for literary documents—is a very common entry-point for people coming from literature departments, and I was no exception.

Despite these traditional starts, it wasn’t until I became a part the Scholars’ Lab—first as an intern, then as part of the first Praxis cohort—, that I really dove in the deep-end of the digital humanities pool, and started pursuing a full-time path for it. At the Slab, I saw a range of approaches that put emphasis on the socio-technical rather than the technical production of the scholarly record. That focus places us at the center of the scholarly record—actual people with real communities, backgrounds, and stories. For a curriculum on DH that would expand a bit on the work of the Slab, I would add Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s work, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, as well as readings by Sylvia Wynter and Aimé Césaire. These readings have shaped me as a person for this larger enterprise in a way that now includes the raced history of emancipation and agency of our people. That training in Caribbean Studies, Post-Colonial Studies, and Anti-Colonial studies, just adds that extra kick to our thinking on technology, and how we go about producing the scholarly record today, and specially, the way we go about interpreting the past through that production.  

You organized a Mapathon in 2017 after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. Can you tell us about that project? 

The first event was organized by Columbia’s Group for Experimental Methods in the Humanities & Columbia University Libraries. The #xpmethod group meets every Friday from 3 to 5pm, and its moderators come from a range of backgrounds, either all immigrants or PoC. Our philosophy is “rapid prototyping of speculative ideas.” Though we believe in the big DH projects, we wanted to carve a space for rapid projects—with or without digital technology—that did not involve big resources or commitments. Community, agency, and a critical edge were the most important resources to us. This has been very important to the way we approach technology and the digital humanities. This is also the background for the #prmapathon. Three days after Hurricane Maria, the group wanted to figure out ways to work together to address this disaster quickly and with the most impact. We thought open-source mapping was a practical solution, and one that at least Manan Ahmed had tried during the 2005 Kashmir earthquake. We picked an ask from the Red Cross in the OpenStreetMap Task Manager, and decided to build around that. We promoted this event quickly and widely through social media and other networks. Within a period of ten days, we set up shop and had over one-hundred people at the event. Next thing you know we have a full house at Columbia and 25 other academic groups across North America—usually DH centers—running their own efforts.  After the event, a few of us have been working to put together “The Nimble Tool Kit,” which lays the foundation for how to address threats and disasters as a community. The early version has also been translated into French and Spanish, and we are hoping to continue growing it in the months ahead. 

Tell us about sx: archipelagos and some other DH projects you are working on. 

The Small Axe Project, a collective dedicated to Caribbeanist intellectual and artistic work, including the 18-year-old namesake journal, established sx archipelagos in 2015. Kaiama Glover, Associate Professor of French and Africana Studies at Barnard College, and myself are the co-editors. sx archipelagos serves as a peer-reviewed publication platform focused on digital studies, media, and technological studies. We won a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant for the platform. The platform has three sections: scholarly essays; digital scholarship projects; and digital project reviews. We think this combination is where we can have the most impact. Besides the content, we are a journal that constantly thinks its own materiality. sx archipelagos takes into consideration, for example, that half of our audience is in the Caribbean and might have bandwidth and data flow constraints. We wanted to be in complete control of the production of the journal, in order to address these and similar issues, and we are in control. Through our “minimal computing” design approach, we have reduced the complexity of the overall production stack, and with it the cost of the journal as well. We have done almost everything we can to connect to existing distribution mechanisms (WorldCat, Google Scholar, etc), short of partnering with the big business of impact factors. For preservation strategies, we decided to go with a combination of approaches including repositories, LOCSS, and the overall gambit of publishing the archival version. We also do not use a database to generate the website, which means we have low maintenance and security costs. This all reduces the complexity of a fully formed academic journal. We literally took the means of production of our scholarship into our own hands—I like to think in a way similar to anti-colonial thinkers such as Aimé Césaire, Suzanne Césaire, and the group producing the journal Tropiques using the colonial press during the Vichy regime in Martinique.

Another project I am working on is In the Same Boats, which traces the movement of 20th Century Caribbean, African, Latin American, European, and Afro-American intellectuals. We wanted to map the intersections and trajectories of a select number of historical figures, intellectuals, artists, etc. from the Black Atlantic world in the 20th Century. Our impetus for the project was to break down the artificial institutional boundaries set up in the U.S. These figures existed in a fluid world. It allows us to see the places in which Caribbean thinkers coming from different nations and different language traditions find themselves in the same places at the same time throughout the 20th Century.  We are in the final round of implementation for the platform itself. The data collection is still in progress and only about six individuals have made it so far to the public map. To get data, we ask people who are already working on a particular historical figure to put the biographical information they gather into a spreadsheet that is organized in a particular way that makes our code happy. These figures are then represented graphically though a map linked through our interface. Needless to say, working together and combining our research is as important to the scholarly record, as it is for us to help us nurture that community of Caribbean digital scholars. The choices in themselves are interesting. Rather than a canon, the results of the project are ultimately more of a representation of our interests as Caribbeannists in the 21st Century, than an actual map of the intersections of black intellectual life in the 20th Century. Of course, we also hope that our own research will become useful to those who come after us.

What can Caribbeannists contribute to the Digital Humanities field? 

Scholars in Caribbean Studies have plenty to offer the field around the world. We have been learning and exchanging information from our colleagues in Africa, Europe, and Asia, North and South America. We 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. That history produced societies with peculiar relationships to technology. In my own work, I have been influenced by the technological disobedience of Cubans, as Ernesto Oroza describes it. Here’s an example to illustrate the concept: after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Cubans repurposed aluminum trays handed out at the comedors to use as TV antennas. People have seen through an object’s intended use and shape 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. We perhaps can help others outside the Caribbean understand how the plantation society is ruining their workspaces. We also bring the importance of oral tradition to bear on recording practices, and how we understand history to pass through our gossip networks in ways that are parallel or intersecting with the textual record. We fought these fights a long time ago intellectually and we can find ways to leverage this scholarly technology for similar emancipation goals and inform each other’s ideas on what that would mean today. Ha! Imagine that. We bring gossip back as a healthy phenomenon against abuse.

As a Steering Committee Member, what is your vision for HASTAC and do you have any advice for current digital humanities scholars? 

I hope that HASTAC continues to be an environment that supports and encourages students, a generous community built around helping emerging scholars. HASTAC should also be that space that encourages critical discourse—the discourse of doubt, of reclamation and truth-to-power, but also of fierce love—and it does a great job with this already, we have to admit. HASTAC is a place where difference has not been a disadvantage. It also continues to be a very welcoming space that opens up to the world outside of North America. I would caution that we should not be a global organization extending neo-colonial relationships, but we should establish dialogue and build bridges through collaboration, not absorption. My advice to HASTAC scholars is: find friends, stick with each other, persevere, and remember to save room to teach those who came before you!