Blindness: Digital Humanities and a Place for Remembering

** Warning: the content of Ramsay’s post may be uncomfortable for some to read, as the beginning is quite graphic.  Reader’s discretion is advised. **


Though Stephen Ramsay’s blog post Blindness was published in September of 2013, I think the discussion that it provokes is still relevant and intriguing to digital humanities (and academia in general) today.  I must admit that the political science student in me (and not the DHer) was first drawn to this blog post.  Below you will find the opening excerpt of Ramsay’s post, and after reading it, perhaps you will see why.

Just a word of caution, you may find it a bit disturbing.  Bear with me though, okay? I promise this discussion is only uncomfortable for a few moments; it quickly becomes less political and a little more DH-y.  So, this is how Ramsay starts his post:

“A suspected Chinese organ trafficker gouged out the eyes of a 6-year-old boy to steal the corneas for the black market.  The boy was playing outside his home in Shanxi province last week when a woman kidnapped and drugged him.  His parents found him hours later with bloody eye sockets, and the eyeballs were found nearby missing the corneas.”

– The Week, September 6th, 2013

index

Take a moment to come to terms with what you’ve just read.  It’s utterly heartbreaking, and as Ramsay asks, “what response can there be but silence and anguish?”  If you’re like me, your initial reaction was just that – silence, no words.  And maybe another reaction, after absorbing what you just read, was what does this have to do with digital humanities?  That was mine, too.  At first I thought that if I read a little further, it would become obvious; that Ramsay would draw a clear connection between DH and how we as a society, as academics, as humanists, are to react to this kind of man-made atrocity.  He didn’t.

While Ramsay certainly writes a post that makes you think critically about the role that academia has in preserving and s

haring the reality of the world (in all it’s beauty and in all it’s ugliness), he really only focuses on one academic discipline: the humanities.  His point that “the humanities departments of universities are one of the few places where such matters are discussed” may very well be true.  I’ll give him that.  However, knowing from past encounters with Ramsay’s work that he is a DHer, I find it problematic that while the humanities were certainly present in this piece, the digital was not.  And there it is: my biggest criticism of this blog post.

Within this post, Ramsay is able to successfully and convincingly situate atrocious acts of “man’s inhumanity to man” within the humanities discipline; he is able to subtly make a political call to action for addressing the issue of access to post-secondary education; and yet… in a post that pivots around the humanities, he fails to highlight the role that the digital humanities has in preserving and sharing the stories of human suffering that still occur all too often in this world.  In other words,  he does not pose a call to action for DH scholars; he does not even recognize the place that DHers  (and those institutions and infrastructures that support DH scholarship, such as the library) may have in creating a space in human culture for remembering these tragic events of suffering.

To his credit, he does provide an answer to the question he poses at the very beginning of his discussion: other than with silence and anguish, how are we to respond to the evil and senseless suffering in this world? His answer is very simple but very powerful: we should remember.  As he says,

“That little boy needs it, I think – which is to say that we need some place in human culture where we can remember his suffering.”

While it may not be a novel idea, I find this to be a very simple yet poignant solution.  I do not disagree with it.  In fact, I agree whole-heartedly with it; after all, that is why we as Canadians celebrate Remembrance Day each year, and why we take the time to recognize anniversaries such as 9/11.  So we can remember; so we can learn from these moments in history; and so we can remember to be a little more human, a little more kind, in the way we live our lives.

With that being said, I think that Ramsay takes too narrow of an approach by limiting his discussion to the ways in which the humanities can help facilitate this remembering.  Or perhaps he takes too shallow of an approach; he does not dive deep into the nature of the humanities.  If he did, he would see that the digital humanities (a particular niche within the humanities discipline) can play a vital role in creating a place for remembering in human culture.  I’m not disputing the fact that a traditional humanities approach plays an important role in remembering; the very nature of disciplines such as history are founded upon the act of perpetual remembrance.  As Ramsay points out,

“I didn’t need a college degree—let alone a doctorate—to bring forth tears in the face of such terrible realities. But without the humanities, I’m not sure I would have the reference points with which to transform that grief into action.”

My point is that the digital humanities can help to create deeper, and perhaps more tangible, reference points in which grief can be transformed into action.  DH projects can add interactive components to the events we seek to remember.  They can provide us with very real, very visual insights into these moments of human suffering, and they can help breathe life (and humanity) into the stories we want to preserve.  (See below for a few examples of DH projects that focus on remembering).

So while I was surprised that DH was not included in this discussion, perhaps the obvious absence of the digital humanities in this post serves as an opportunity for academics (or anyone, really) to explore further the ways in which the humanities can help us remember the suffering of our fellow human beings.  Perhaps Ramsay knew what he was doing, because I felt compelled to go searching for examples of digital humanities projects that aim to create a place for remembering in human culture.

The first project that automatically came to mind was the Dublin Tenement Experience: Living the Lockout, a DH project that was introduced in class at the beginning of the semester.  This project seeks to help us remember the time in Ireland’s history when Tenement life existed.  It does so through interactive timelines and maps, and also through digital storytelling; the project encourages members of the public to submit their own stories and accounts of Tenement life, however they experienced it.  It is through storytelling that I think we remember best.  As such, I think that digital storytelling has a huge role to play in creating a human culture that remembers – an opportunity that Ramsay fails to recognize.

Likewise, my mind drifted to Rwanda Stories (I discovered this site while investigating DH projects in the field of Peace Studies, which you can read about here).  Just like the Dublin Tenement Experience, Rwanda Stories helps to foster remembering, as the project encompasses digital storytelling.  Rwanda Stories shares  personal testimonies and stories told by those who were victims and witnesses of events of human suffering during the Rwandan Genocide.

So while both these DH projects create a place for remembering in our culture, DH projects such as George Clooney’s (yes, you read that right) Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP) demonstrate the way in which remembering can be turned into action.  For Ramsay, the humanities is key in turning remembrance into action.  For me, the digital humanities further intensifies our ability to invoke action.  And Clooney’s SSP project does just that.  Basically, “SSP finds out the facts, and monitors what’s really going in in Sudan.  Satellites imagery uncovers evidence of alleged atrocities.  Stories that alleged war criminals don’t want told.  Then SSP sounds the alarm.  The world is watching because you are watching” (SSP, Our Story, 2014).  It is a project that documents the ways in which action is being taken in Sudan as a result of grief and of remembering.

While these are only a sample of DH projects that pay tribute to and allow us to relive human suffering, they demonstrate that DH scholarship can provide us with the tools for storytelling, while also providing us with tools for taking action.  Interestingly enough, when I tried to narrow my search to DH projects about human trafficking in general, and the trafficking of children in particular (the focus of Ramsay’s blog post), I came up short.  Maybe I don’t know how to successfully search for DH projects (likely).  Or maybe they simply don’t exist yet (also likely).  In either case, the fact that the only DH projects I could find were ones that I was already familiar with, indicates to me a need for DH scholarship to undertake the task of helping us to remember.  It indicates an opportunity for DH to assert itself as relevant and essential to academia, and for humanity, too.

So, while I was disappointed that Ramsay denied DH a role in helping to creating a place for remembering, I think that he, on the heels of a very sensitive and difficult story of violence, was able to tactfully bring to light the importance of the humanities discipline as a whole in preserving the human realities of our world.  And for that, I think he should be applauded.  He provided us with yet another reason as to why the academic world cannot afford to overlook the humanities discipline.

Thanks for bearing with me,

– K


References

Irish Heritage Trust, Dublin City Council, & Irish Congress of Trade Unions.  (2013).  Dublin Tenement Experience: Living the lockout.  Retrieved from http://dublintenementexperience.com

Ramsay, S.  (2013, September 25).  Blindness.  [Blog post].  Retrieved from http://stephenramsay.us/2013/09/17/blindness

Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP).  (2014).  Our story.  Retrieved from http://satsentinel.org/our-story

Vanishing Point.  (2012).  Rwanda Stories.  Retrieved from http://rwandanstories.org/

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