Author Archives: Kevin Pham

Blog Post 2: On Speculation

A key point of inspiration for my final project is Danielle Brathwaith-Shirley’s “BlackTransArchive”: In this work, Brathwaith-Shirley, who is a Berlin-based Black trans artist and game developer, creates a digital, interactive archive in the form of a video game, designed in collaboration with Black trans coders and artists as a way to center Black trans lives and fight against the erasure of their history. Here, she attempts to ensure that the Black and trans people who enter her virtually-created world on the archive are given a dedicated and safe space, by presenting a series of initial questions to the user, which then designate the parameters of their interaction and accessibility to the content, depending on their identity and the levels of privilege they are afforded. The BlackTransArchive entangles difficult concepts such as opacity, consent, and other ideas by indexing different lines of play, prompting user interaction, and creating fantastic digital imagery that prompt the user to question where they lie in contemporary structures of power, and how that affects the way they experience both the world and Brathwaith-Shirley’s work itself.

I read BlackTransArchive less as a an expansion or reconfiguration of the archive than as a mode of critique that ruptures the traditional conceptions of the archive, whereby the latter’s epistemological and political contribution tends to be marked by empiricism. To read this work as a kind of critique is to heed David Kazanjian’s call in “Scenes of Speculation”: To attend “less to the wills, desires, and voices of the historical subjects in question and more to the speculative work done by the textual traces they have left in the archives… that which might not be the expression of a subject’s will, desire, intention, or voice but might still be readable by us, today, as a powerfully political text.“ For I would argue that by refusing the familiar tropes that characterize the archive as a repository of of information and evidence, Braithwaith-Shirley, in the BlackTransArchive, calls not only the archive itself but also the liberal notions of justice—inflected with assumptions of “expressions of humanity understood as willful, desirous interiority” that follow the longue durée of post-Enlightenment thought (see: Towards a Global Idea of Race by Denise Ferreira Da Silva)—in question/speculation. The artistic production of this work, as such, can be read as a speculative theory of justice. The BlackTransArchive’s series of questions (“Are you Black & Trans, Trans, or cis?”; “How will you help us?”) and demands (“Use your privilege to help us”, “You must agree to center Black Trans lives”) read to me as less a gesture to empathize with Black Trans lives as to reach towards liberal inclusion that it is a speculation on what reparations, allyship, and memory means and should politically positioned.

With all this in mind, I wonder the following: Given the rise in speculative fiction and literature as a mode of imagining new possibilities, what is speculation’s impossibilities and limits? Here, I am thinking of Saidiya Hartman’s warning in Scenes of Subjection regarding the “difficulty and slipperiness of empathy”: “Empathic identification… cannot be extricated from the economy of chattel slavery with which is at odds, for this projection of one’s feeling upon or into the object of property and the phantasmic slipping into captivity, while it is distinct from the pleasures of self-augmentation yielded by the ownership of the captive body and the expectations fostered therein, is nonetheless entangled with this economy and identification facilitated by a kindred possession or occupation of the captive body, albeit on a different register.” With this in mind I cannot help but wonder the ways in which Kazanjian’s mode of reading the “scenes of speculation” in the archive is always-already enmeshed in the humanist entanglement of political desire and an objectivist logocentric project, whereby speculative works are incessantly assumed to be acts of resistance and agency—not to productively configure a political project, more than it is to feed into, what Frank Wilderson describes as, “the kinship, or communal, structure of feeling that [is presumed] to exist ab initio.” What are the ways in which liberal hegemony paradoxically requires resistance as a signifier of human singularity? I appreciate Kazanjian’s essay a lot, which is why I surface these concerns.

Blog Post 1: On Recovery

This is a reflection of our readings coming from the 2016 issue of Social Text, that probe the possibilities and impossibilities of recovery as both historical method and ethico-political act. In Helton et. al’s “Questions of Recovery,” the authors flesh out a brief history of historical recovery and the expansion of the archive as prominent and, at the time, essential practices, whereby “the consolidation of a global color line” and “in the wake of efforts to forge black internationalism in the 1920s and 1930s” seemed to necessitate attempts to “to preserve and narrate pasts that could be used to contest global inequality.” Foundational to these attempts are the fundamental belief “that one of the most pernicious manifestations of racism was the exclusion of Africans from narratives of historical progress“ (emphasis mine). However, as the authors go on to explain, contemporary thought regarding the relationship between blackness and the archive—especially among those who take seriously Patterson’s “social death” thesis—call into question the supposed utility and political purpose of historical recovery (and thus, archives) by understanding the archive as “subject” instead of source”, in light of “the discrepancy between a present marked by racialized forms of social negation eerily similar to those of slavery, and conventional frameworks for understanding the black past that revolve around the progress from slavery to freedom.“ In this sort of analytic, the archive is a “mechanism of racialized discourse and governance” as opposed to a “storage mechanism” that can provoke, say, a flat and impossible empathy by revealing the “humanity”—or, in da Silvian terms, “transparency”—of the racialized subaltern. As such, the ongoing exploitation—as opposed to exclusion—becomes the primary signifier of anti-black violence in this critical move, paralleling the call to unpack what Hartman has dubbed “the afterlife of slavery.” Historical recovery, here, must reconfigure its political purpose against desires for liberal inclusion, and reconsider, then, what “justice”, “freedom”, and “democracy” should mean and look like.

I appreciate the authors uptake of the “social death” thesis not only because the idea is heavily contested and disregarded in the academy (especially as it’s taken up by Afro-pessimists), but also simply because I personally see it as the most apt analytic in a moment where historical recovery and archival expansion/reconfiguration has seemingly been unable to produce even adequate conceptions of “justice.” As I elaborate in my own project regarding the uptake of archival practices in light of recent movements against “anti-asian violence”, the recovery and documentation of anti-asian violence—in an effort to produce public empathy in opposition to “hate”—has led to carceral (which is to say, anti-black) notions of justice, producing legislation and public desires for increased policing and surveillance. I don’t think it would be far off to claim that this uptake of historical recovery, in the context of recent “never forget, never again” recovery projects within the Asian American community, is inextricable from earlier movements for global racial justice, which include 20th-century Black social movements, as well as the global confrontation of the Holocaust and the intense memory practices that followed it. However, as Valentina Pisanty asks in The Guardians of Memory: “Is it really sufficient to remember past events to guard against the eventuality that something similar might happen again?“ Given the continuation of anti-black violence and terror in our contemporary moment despite the now extensive documentation of anti-black violence in the US, it would seem that “progress” is called into question.

Thinking off of Helton et. al’s “Questions of Recovery,” I’m also considering two other things. The first is the relationship between “recovery” and of “humanity” in the first instance, whereby both may be considered liberal humanist projects. Lowe elaborates on this relationship briefly in “History Hesitant”: “To focus the inquiry on recovery mobilizes the different valences of the term: a sense of the retrieval of archival evidence and the restoration of historical presence, on the one hand, and the ontological and political sense of reparation, on the other, that is, the possibility of recuperation, or the repossession of a full humanity and freedom, after its ultimate theft or obliteration.” Here, Lowe draws a connection between the ethico-political act of recovery to a desire to be included in—yet reveal the always-already being-of—the ontological status of “Human.” However, as Lowe seems to gesture towards but doesn’t fully elaborate through Hartman, Fanon, and Mbembe, the notion of “The Human” and “humanity” is a racialized project in and of itself. Recovery, then, is also an attempt at an ontological intervention. Without going too much into it, I’m wondering then, in what ways does “dehumanization” fall short as an analytic for recovery? How does this play into liberal hegemony?

The second thing is the fetishization of the archive as a gesture towards global justice. While Helton et. al, Lowe, and Rusert acknowledge the racialized history of the archive as contingent upon the sovereign goals of a select (white) few—and as such, an understanding that “recovery” also (perhaps inevitably” leaves things out—I think what could be useful in corroboration with this acknowledgement is a comprehensive understanding of how the archive becomes fetish: What are the ways that, perhaps, that liberal hegemony is entangled with humanist desire, such that “never forget—never again” becomes a political go-to and an ethical imperative? As Dominick LaCapra explains in History and Criticism, “The archive as fetish is a literal substitute for the ‘reality’ of the past which is ‘always already’ lost for the historian. When it is fetishized, the archive is more than the repository of traces of the past which may be used in its inferential reconstruction.” What makes the archive so seductive, especially within the academy, and how might this understood through material understandings of the state? These are the sorts of questions I think, might be helpful in future work re-considering the political possibilities and limits of historical recovery and archival research.

Colored Conventions Project

What need or opportunity motivated the creation of the digital archive or collection?

The Colored Conventions Project (CCP) aims to document and bring to “digital life” the seven decades-long history of nineteenth-century Black organizing, through both the utilization of digital archival practices and the production of digital exhibits that bring a variety of stories to “digital life”. Inspired by the “Color Conventions”—a series of nineteenth-century political gatherings that offered opportunities for free-born and formerly enslaved African Americans to organize and strategize for racial justice—the CCP centers its work around Black life, specifically the victories and tensions in attempts to build community and protest racial injustice that, when placed in conversation with one another, materialize a diverse and complicated picture of Black intellectual/cultural production. Highlighting the centrality of Black women in nineteenth-century Black political organizing is key for the CCP, and they make that clear in both its core principles, as well as its exhibits. In doing so, the project manages to not only bring to light the biographies of forgotten Black women in these movements, but also provides new ways of thinking about what constitutes political action.

Who is the intended audience, and what technical or design choices make that audience explicit?

The CCP explicitly describes itself as collective and community-centered, wherein scholars from both within and outside the academy are involved in its production. As such, the intended audience would be any member of the public interested in learning more about nineteenth-century Black life, political practice, and intellectual production. The project’s site UX and design choices reflects this inclusive idology, wherein the site’s central feature is its exhibits. While the CCP provides access to digital records alone, these digital exhibits are interactive, navigational, and informational sets of pages that curate the project’s records to narrate significant events and moments in nineteenth-century Black political organizing. As such, these exhibits weave together graphics and text to create an interactive educational experience with accessible language, simple navigation, and straightforward information hierarchies.

What is the relationship between the creator of the archive project and the materials?

The project started from a graduate class the University of Delaware, and expanded into an interdisciplinary group of people both within and outside the academy. Over 2,500 people have contributed to the archive. Those working on the project center their work around their principles, which are modeled after the Colored Conventions themselves. Indeed principle 1 of the CCP’s principles is “CCP seeks to enact collective organizing principles and values that were modeled by the Colored Conventions Movement.” Thus, the project’s theoretical and political hinge grounds itself with its material, in a way.

What are the technologies used? What skills would you need to develop a similar project?

I couldn’t find any information that pointed to specific technologies utilized for this project, but I presume technical and digital data collection, scraping, and visualization tools were used in this process, along with an understanding web development and WordPress. I think that not only would one need to know how to perform this different methodologies, but also be able to have strong collaboration and communication skills.

What could future projects learn from this example?

The way in the CCP is able to curate accessible and informational digital exhibits, as opposed to laying out digital records, is a particularly interesting and helpful way to disseminate historical information and educate members of the public, who may not have the intellectual skills or background to produce insights from records alone. I think this way of curating information to make particular arguments, and highlight particular insights, is pertinent for digital humanities scholars, for it not only provides net outlets for educating, but also inherently requires the formulation of political goals.