Global Perspectives: Interview with Alex Gil

[Para una versión en español de esta entrevista, favor de hacer clic].

Alex Gil
Alex Gil

Ernesto Priego: Can you describe who you are and what you do?

Alex Gil: I am @elotroalex, the other Alex. I take to heart Sartre’s admonition that we are nothing and add Borges’ insight that we are someone other to the world. Columbia University employs me at the moment with the ambiguous title Digital Scholarship Coordinator to help bridge the widening gap between libraries and researchers. Part of my duties include preparing the subject and reference librarians to become the consultation arm of the Digital Humanities Center. Another big chunk of my time goes to consult and train graduate students and faculty in History and Humanities in a variety of subjects which I like to divide into three broad categories: remediation and curation, computational methods and scholarly communications.

I hear in your question another question: who have I been? A scholar, an editor, a conferencier, a digital tinkerer, a writer of tales and poems, an architecture student, a pre-med student, an odd-jobber. No wonder I am attracted to the digital humanities!

I finished my dissertation at the University of Virginia‘s English Department on the francophone poet and statesman, Aimé Césaire. I was lucky enough to find the rare manuscript of a play he wrote during the Vichy occupation of his native land, Martinique. He later transformed that play into an oratorio and back into a play for different audiences at different points in his career. I used what we could call algorithmic thinking to sort out the complexities of that transformation.

In the years leading to my defense, I became more and more involved with the life of NINES and the Scholars’ Lab, eventually becoming a fellow of both. In the latter I was also part of the first run of the Praxis Program. In all honesty, I would not be who I am today without those experiences.

Caribbean Literary History, Textual Scholarship, Digital Humanities and now a Librarian. What a mix!

EP: We share various common interests, including a background in English literature. You are are also a fellow HASTAC scholar. Can you elaborate on how you perceive the interconnections/relationships between literary studies and digital scholarship?

AG: Literary studies has much to offer digital scholarship and vice versa. I learned early on in my training that interpretation, understood as repetition-with-a-difference, was the sine-qua-non of our experience as human beings. For all the genre pieces “against the digital humanities” claiming we are naïve about data, I knew that DH’ers with a literary background had always brought that sensitivity to texts; that only a small number of us were under the spell of naïve empiricism. The rest of us are still primed to ask the big questions from the machines.

I have been lucky to cut my teeth at the University of Virginia, where the tradition of textual scholarship and digital humanities are both strong and getting stronger. I was even luckier to become a researcher at a time in which we are wrestling with the difference between distant and close reading, between heuristic and algorithmic thinking, confronted with a new sense of textual enormity. These are questions that go to the very heart of interpretation.

Yes, I’m attracted to digital scholarship because I can get better search results, publish quicker and more openly, automate much tedious work, etc., but the reason that really carries my heart at the end of the day is the possibility of teasing out the human from the mechanical. Before Turing we had only one universal machine to worry about. Now we have two, and we are being asked to name the difference. Aha! A task for the literary scholars who command the machines!

As fundamental as the question of our humanity vis–à–vis the machines may be, an even more important contribution for literary scholars in the digital age is the creation of a reliable digital archive. I have already gone on record on this, and I will say it again: The most important task of the 21st century scholar is remediating our past and opening it up to the world. Literary scholars, in particular have kept the tradition of textual scholarship alive (as opposed to Historians, for example), and now that we face a monstrous task of repetition, we are the ones who can lead the crowds we need to make sure we have a reliable past to offer future generations. For some marginal archives our task is urgent and spells the difference between survival or oblivion. I’m thinking here of archives in the poor and medium income countries, where governments can’t or won’t do much to preserve our documents from the elements.

EP: Not all humanities departments or schools have frameworks, resources or even inclinations towards engaging in the theory and practice of digital scholarship. When did you first become attracted to it, and how have you experienced this transitional phase in which digital scholarship is not yet the openly-accepted, homogeneously self-described way of being a humanities scholar, at least not everywhere in the world?

AG: I became attracted to the digital humanities about 8 years ago when I found a dearth of digital resources on Caribbean scholarship and its primary sources. I had the ambitious, if naive, idea at the time that we could build an archive of canonical Caribbean literature. I approached a professor of Caribbean literature at the University of Virginia who was supportive, and we set to work. We got as far as organizing a stay at the Bellagio Center in Cuomo, Italy with some top Caribbean scholars and a team from the e-text center at UVa. We realized there that we had many challenges ahead, and the veil of naivete dropped in a period of 10 days. When I came back to the US I started learning skills, starting with TEI. I was lucky that UVa has always had a strong DH presence on campus, and the rest is history.

Interestingly enough, the English Department is a very traditional department and much of the work I have done in DH has happened outside of it. Realizing that even at a place like UVa, DH is marginal to the departments is eye-opening. Things might be changing now, and we’re starting to see more buy-in from departments. We have to also acknowledge that computational methods does not encompass what we do under the banner of DH, and if chances are most scholarly communication will eventually transition online, algorithmic approaches to literature will remain theoretical—one theory amongst many. In the years ahead I imagine we will continue to negotiate that difference. While future generations of scholars will probably be comfortable with online venues of publication for their research, I don’t see us all doing topic modelling or network analysis. In that sense above all, I think the biggest change will come in the form of multi-modal, multi-media approaches to publication.

We must not forget either that these changes will not happen evenly across the world and even within national borders. I for one expect that some countries outside of the rich north will produce very innovative and striking forms of digital scholarship because they are not bound by the same institutional histories. For that to happen, though, we must overcome the same assimilationist forms of thought that anti-colonial and even postcolonial thinkers have combated. Perhaps those forms of scholarship will come from citizen scholarship, a secret hope of mine.

EP: Can you discuss further what you understand by “citizen scholarship”?

AG: In the Caribbean, for example, most scholars/writers/artists don’t work for the academy. Many have affiliations to cultural groups of different sorts or freelance. A great deal of them work at banks, advertisement agencies, you name it. Beyond them, though, we have a cadre of aficionados, a wiki-like crowd that engages with the preservation and critique of our cultural heritage. Citizen scholarship refers to the aggregate activities of these groups and individuals. I know of very good scholars who never had a PhD.

What we count as a scholarship is also important here. Sonya Monjar for example directs a great project in Puerto Rico, “Esta Vida Boricua,” which focuses on life narratives. Some may say that this is mostly biographical work, but I see it as archival synthesis. Her’s is just one example of many outside of our traditional fields of vision that push the boundary between citizen engagement and scholarship.

The reason I hope to see more of these kinds of projects and the growth of scholarly interest from the part of the populace stems from the enormous need we have to remediate our material past. When Walter Benjamin warned us that the past was in danger, he spoke from a moment in the history of media where the work of curation and critical investigation was too expensive to be truly popular. Our moment is different, at least when it comes to the medium. The two things stopping us from rescuing that past that Benjamin favored–the one that is obscured by propaganda, profit interests and/or hegemonic ideology–are time and will. The average person in the Caribbean and other medium- to low-income countries needs to spend their time scraping up a living. Scholarly pursuit becomes a luxury under those conditions. Many things need to happen before a true public scholarly culture comes to life, but I’m reassured by the fact that the medium is there already to facilitate it.

EP: Finally, what strategies would you recommend to scholars (in academic institutions or not) interested in contributing to an international public scholarly culture?

AG: Start collaborating with someone who lives very far away from you. We have great tasks ahead of us. If remediating our archive responsibly is our most pressing need, as I argue above, then we have a great opportunity to collaborate on digitization projects that transcend boundaries. The rule, rather than the exception, archives are usually scattered. This creates many opportunities for us to build bridges between communities. At the moment I am involved in the Global Outlook DH initiative, a brand new Special Interest Group of the ADHO.

Our shared goal is to shed more light on the state of our global union and build bridges whenever possible. We are just starting out, but we hope to foster precisely those forms of shared archive building and playing that will lead to a global public scholarly culture. We have already started making wonderful progress in Cuba, where next year we will host the second THATCampCaribe. In the summer we hope to roll out Around DH in 80 Days, a tour of digital scholarship and curation around the world. I see other groups making great efforts to truly go beyond the rich countries: HASTAC and 4Humanities, to name two of the most visible ones. For these reasons and more, I predict this will be a year of many breakthroughs for digital scholarship on a global key.

The Internet was close to a blank slate at some point. Now it’s quickly becoming the dominant image of our cultural heritage. When it comes to the narratives we tell about our cultural and political history, at least in the West, in this our new mirror, we have an image that takes us back to canonical ideas of the West that have long been undermined in the Gutenberg galaxy. If the image of a shared cultural heritage is to be a non-hegemonic, honest reflection of ourselves, we must understand we are at heart working on a shared archive. True international collaboration around digitization and the play that they enable is a sine-qua-non of this archive. If I’m right, I hope the question on everyone’s mind will be not if, but who are you collaborating with?

About Ernesto Priego

Researcher at the Centre for Human-Computer Interaction Design, City, University of London. Editor in chief of The Comics Grid: Journal of Comics Scholarship. Affiliated member of the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities.