Creolization and Chimera Topics

Over the past year I’ve been working on a number of things. One exciting piece of news is that my book is finally coming out (yay!), another is that I’ve been working as a Postdoc at McMaster on a Digital Humanities project focused on Austin Clarke. I’ve been treating this postdoc as an opportunity to stumble around,  think about, and experiment in digital humanities. From both technical & hermeneutic perspectives, in what ways does DH transform our notions of reading, writing and canonicity? Big questions…

Clarke provides a useful test case for thinking about DH not only because his archives are so extensive but also because he writes about humanities, humanism and who gets to count as human in a broad sense. Clarke writes the slave past within the multicultural present – he shows how the social constructs of the colony and the plantation continue to structure life for black people even in post-colonial (post-national?) Canada. In this sense his work brings to bear the postcolonial critique of the black Atlantic onto the discourse of digital humanities. Whose humanities? Whose humanism? This topic – of the latent forms of humanism that lie at the heart of DH – has been raised by Tara McPherson but requires far more discussion and I’m hoping that Clarke’s work will open new ways of thinking about the category of the human within DH.

At the same time Clarke’s work provides a compelling case for testing the technical methods of digital humanities. His archives span 23m of boxed material! How else could you ‘read’ these archives other than by using digital methods!?!?

One of my first challenges in working in Clarke’s archives was to engage in a topic modelling analysis of his work. This involves scanning in his manuscripts — drafts and final editions — and running them through a topic modeller. I actually ended up using MALLET as well as a custom topic modeller built in Python but I’ll save that discussion for another time.

While my topic modelling experiment isn’t done it has raised a number of interesting questions about Clarke’s writing and his place in the Canadian canon as well as about the technical dimension of topic modelling work. I’ve noticed in my preliminary work that Clarke’s topics leak into one another pretty substantially and produce a number of Chimera topics. Instead of neat, discrete, and meaningful topics I am seeing a large number of blended or ‘leaky’ topics. Now I can tune some of the variables in MALLET and change my number of topics to try and generate clearer topics. In another sense though, perhaps this generation of chimera topics is pointing towards something else in Clarke’s writing.

I’ve long suspected that the inability of Canadian critics to place Clarke within the CanLit canon and the relative dearth of critical commentary on Clarke’s work is an effect of his creolization, his blending of the symbols, languages, iconography, and themes of Canada and the Caribbean. Particularly in the heady days of CanLit nationalism, Clarke’s work simply didn’t fit the bill of what constituted Canadian writing. This is partially the failure of critics relying on a narrow definition of Canadian themes and writing. Additionally, however, Clarke doesn’t write in a Caribbean idiom nor does he focus strictly on Caribbean or Canadian themes (whatever those might be) but instead practices a kind excessive creolization — a creolization that doesn’t just combine multiple symbolic registers but renders them inextricable from one another.

If Clarke practices creolization — what I think of as a kind of aesthetics of crossing — then perhaps that works against the intuition of topic modelling. Where topic modelling wants to ‘discover’ topics in a corpus, Clarke’s aesthetic project works in just the opposite way: by blending together seemingly discrete images, themes, languages, and discoruses. Perhaps the chimera topics that I’m discovering as I do this topic modelling are actually evidence of Clarke’s creolization. In this sense, I’m learning more about Clarke’s writing through the failure of topic modelling to find the discrete topics in Clarke’s writing than I am through a ‘successful’ topic modelling.

Sure, I could try and reduce these chimerical topics through a number of measures but I think doing so would be fixing the results of my experiment somewhat. I think this raises the question of how we link distance reading or data analysis to our close reading and our hermeneutic practices — to what degree are we just fixing the data to give us the results we seek? Yes discrete topics would give me intelligible data to work with but would it tell me something meaningful about Clarke’s writing? Would it be more useful to Clarke’s writing than my discovery of these chimerical topics?

These are the kinds of questions I’m continuing to wrestle with as I work in Clarke’s archives and think about topic modelling as a means to understanding his work and his place in the Canadian canon.

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Where is the Nation in Digital Humanities?

The organizers of “Decolonizing DH: Theories and Practices of Postcolonial Digital Humanities” at the most recent MLA have raised critically important questions about the intersection between postcolonial research and digital humanities work. In what ways, they ask, might the new tools and critical paradigms made possible by digital humanities transform postcolonial research and criticism? For instance, what becomes of the colonial archive and its relation to colonial and transnational knowledge production given the proliferation of new tools for archival research and cross-archival analysis? How might new methods of digital analysis offer opportunities to uncover buried colonial histories and expose present-day stereotypes and racism? How can new textual analysis tools remap literary canons to show the relevance of previously marginalized or ignored postcolonial texts? How do digital forms of activism and organization transform our understanding of cross-border solidarity? In what ways does this scholarly turn to the digital pave over local cultures and insist upon the English language as a requirement for membership in digital humanities?

Postcolonial theory and scholarship have always been about critiquing the manner in which the production of knowledge is complicit with the production of colonial relations and other relations of domination and exploitation. In this sense, postcolonial digital humanities work offers a timely and necessary investigation of the value of digital humanities to postcolonial studies. Reading the postcolonial through the digital, however discomfiting, enables scholars to make productive and unlikely connections between two methods direly in need of one another.

One element of the postcolonial that seems absent from a postcolonial digital humanities approach, however, is the continued salience of the nation as an organizing structure and category of analysis. Concern over the nation as the collective will of a people pervades postcolonial scholarship and Pheng Cheah has convincingly argued that “Postcolonial political domination and economic exploitation under the sign of capital and the capture of the people’s dynamism by neocolonial state manipulation signal the return of death. The task of the unfinished project of radical nationalism is to overcome this finitude” (229). Cheah is not, of course, yearning for a return to the days of blind nationalism or unproblematized collective identity of some postcolonial national vanguard. Rather, he acknowledges the failures of postcolonial nationalism to articulate a collective will for freedom while simultaneously demonstrating that “Radical literary projects of national Bildung remain cases of political organicism. They still endorse the idea that a radical national culture of the people contains the seeds for the reappropriation and transformation of the neocolonial state.” The true value of his intervention, in my eyes, is to remind us that the “national Bildung” in its various manifestations still remains a form by which a national culture can put ideas into practice and transform the state agencies that otherwise enable the practices of neocolonialism.

Like Bourdieu in his discussion of the left and right hands of the state, Cheah is unwilling to abandon the nation and sees it as a possible defense against neocolonial and neoliberal forms of domination. As such, postcolonial critics must remember that the “any project of emancipation however rational and realistic … necessarily presupposes the ability to incarnate ideals in the external world.” The nation provides, however flawed, a political framework and a series of material supports by which such projects may be put into practice.


Thinking of Cheah’s critique from a digital humanities perspective, I’m left wondering where is the nation in all of this digital humanities work? Certainly a great deal of our digital humanities scholarship is funded by our respective national institutions. My own work on Austin Clarke’s transnational modernism and the aesthetics of crossing is funded by Editing Modernism in Canada and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. In the US, the National Endowment of the Humanities funds HASTAC, the MLA, and countless other digital humanities projects. Yet despite its indebtedness to state institutions, digital humanities scholarship often appears to be practiced within a kind of transnational space unencumbered by any form of national culture.


Thus is seems to me that one important intervention that postcolonial digital humanities can offer is to ask how national forms persist within digital humanities scholarship? How does is the nation present, in however ghostly or marginal a form, within our digital humanities work? Does digital humanities work operate in a post-national space or is that (as Sylvia Soderlind argues in a Canadian context) just the latest form of nationalism?

I suggest that critics investigate the ways in which digital humanities research is subtly structured by the very state institutions that provide its funding. Tara McPherson has carefully traced the simultaneous and perhaps overlapping emergence of UNIX, object-oriented programming and contemporary forms of race thinking. A similar analysis needs to be performed concerning the indebtedness of digital humanities and critical code studies to the nations that produce these fields of analysis. Do digital humanities and nationalism inherit shared notions of humanism and if so how does that humanism structure our work? Does digital humanities occur in some transnational space, speaking across borders through the power of the internet? Or is our work invisibly yet meaningfully indebted and structured by the very state institutions that fund it? Is digital humanities a form of American hegemony masquerading as transnationalism?

What new forms of subjectivity does digital humanities make possible that circumvent the nation and what forms of subjection does this post-national positioning expose us to? Does digital humanities enable new forms of Cheah’s “radical nationalism” or is it an instance of something closer to Bauman’s liquid modernity: a transnational cultural practice that transcends the nation yet is accessible to only privileged elites physically and virtually jet setting across borders?

Cheah suggests that postcolonial critics, “instead of trying to exorcise postcolonial nationalism and replace it with utopian, liberal, or socialist cosmopolitanisms, … ought to address its problems in terms of the broader issue of the actualization of freedom itself.” These questions go beyond, I think, a politics of location and ask us to confront the national contexts of our work and how it might affect our own place in this struggle over “the actualization of freedom”. I think these are necessary questions for digital humanities that postcolonial digital humanities can begin to raise.

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Canada Reads … Hinterland Who’s Who

The unnamed protagonist in Pasha Malla’s short story, Being Like Bulls, works in his family’s Niagara Falls gift shop long after the falls have been devastated by environmental destruction and are now mere carrion for raiding American corporations. He is faced with a choice: preserve this mausoleum of Canada’s past, full of Skylon Tower erasers, Terry Fox wigs, Niagara Falls snow globes, and smiling beaver press-on tattoos, or sacrifice this inherited national chachka in the pursuit of a new identity in the present? Canadians today are faced with a similar choice.

When Patrick deWitt and Esi Edugyan stormed Canada’s literary awards this year, John Barber asked in The Globe & Mail if “Canadian Writers Are ‘Canadian’ Enough?” Barber joins a long list of critics who have rushed to their battle stations to defend Canada and Canadian Literature as soon as a novel that purports to be Canadian is not set in the Ottawa Valley, doesn’t describe the muted anxieties of a small town, or conclude with a staring competition between a Francophone farmer and Louis Riel, reincarnated in beaver form. From George Grant’s lament for Canada in 1965 to Douglas Coupland’s enshrinement of Canadian kitsch, to John Metcalf’s insistence that the only real Canadian books are scotch-inspired reflections on Anglo-Canadian malaise, Canada has a long list of those who would preserve the trinkets of our national heritage. The Leonard Cohen bobble-heads and Irving Layton urinal pucks are in good hands. Yet these critics and artists merely attempt to stem national and individual change, enshrining a notion of Canada that is no longer relevant to a growing number of Canadians.

Canada Reads

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Expanding Human Factors

I’ve recently landed in a position teaching Engineering and technical Communication to Engineering and Science students. This is a really enjoyable position and has allowed me to uniquely combine my background in Computer Science with my English research. Furthermore, there are a number of unique and effective pedagogical methods that I’ve learned in Engineering Communication that seem to really resonate with students. I’m convinced that English Departments, particularly the more traditional ones, could gain a lot from seeing how Engineering is developing language and critical thinking education.

In our program we teach from the perspective that the design process — the way in which Engineers turn a problem or challenge into a science or math-based solution — shares a number of parallels with the critical thinking process. So as we teach the design process, and the writing and communication that goes with it, we are also teaching elements of critical thinking: the ability to understand a problem from multiple perspectives, to write using neutral and bias-free language, to generate multiple possible solutions, to form arguments to defend one’s solution, and to assess the relative strengths and weaknesses of those solutions.

As I continue to teach in this department I am trying to assess what forms of critical thinking students are being taught and what some of the challenges are to teaching critical thinking in an Engineering environment. My thinking is largely influenced by theories of critical pedagogy developed by Paolo Freire and Henry A. Giroux. Freire’s work is especially relevant to Engineering education, particularly as his notion of pedagogy requires that we critique ‘instrumental and technical rationality.’ In what ways does Engineering education, particularly with its heavy emphasis on technical knowledge, insist on a kind of ‘technical rationality’? In what ways can Engineering education imbue students with a sense of critical thinking and critique that challenges this instrumental form of rationality?

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Coonskin: Redux

What I find surprising in the critical and personal responses I’ve heard to Django Unchained is the unwillingness to discuss what notions of race the film traffics in. What is Tarantino’s vision of blackness and whiteness and how does his aesthetic mode of borrowing from every movie he’s ever seen contribute to his notion of race, cultural difference, and racism?

The feud between Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee is one point of entry for discussing Django Unchained. Lee refuses to see the film arguing that “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them.”

At the heart of Lee’s critique, and much of the debate over Django Unchained are the questions of historical appropriation — who has the right to tell particular stories — and the question of realism. The latter question really asks, how can we tell particular stories? Is it disrespectful, irresponsible, or racist to depict slavery as a spaghetti western or in an unreal fashion?

I find it interesting that the question of race and the representation of racial difference always seems to gravitate around notions of realism. First of all, these forms of representation are haunted by the question of whether race, itself, is real. If we agree that race is not, of course, a scientific reality, then what is it? Secondly, what forms of cultural representation can do justice to the very real historical and contemporary practices of racism without affirming race itself as somehow real?

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