Bethany Nowviskie

alternate futures/usable pasts

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[While I’m cleaning up the text of a talk I gave at Harvard’s Hazen Symposium last week (see #HazenatHarvard or Merrilee’s Storify for tweets from many great presentations), I thought I’d share just the prelude and final paragraph to one that preceded it, and was really a first stab at the concept. This is from Marquette University Library in late September.]

[Update: “Speculative Collections,” the talk that followed, is now available.]

It wasn’t until I took a job in the library that I became unstuck in time. I thought I knew what time was, in that way that you think you know things, now, when you’re just out of your 20s and it’s possible you could have it all together. I thought I knew time as a young mother: how it drags and loops with repetition (sleep and milk and laundry); how quickly it passes, as little bodies grow and reach and change. I thought I knew it as a scholar. My academic training had been in classical archaeology, on the one hand, and poetry and textual criticism on the other—the meter of lyric verse and the history of print culture—with a weird stop-over in the middle to teach the design and aesthetics of video games. Each of these disparate fields has its own ticking metronome, its particular largo or accelerando. They have positionality as disciplines and different ways of positioning the objects of their study, all splayed out on timelines of their own making.

I thought I knew time, too, because I’d designed software to model it. Part of my dissertation work around (ahem) the turn of the century, in which I was grappling toward something I called Speculative Computing, had been to collaborate with a small team (Johanna Drucker, Jim Allman, Petra Michel, and many generous colleagues) in prototyping a tool for humanistic timelines. These were timelines not governed—as nearly all digital interfaces to time were then and still are—by the mechanical ticking of a scientific clock. We were funded, oddly enough, by a grant to Johanna from the Intel Corporation, which was interested in hardware requirements for the Don Draper-like transcendent moments they hoped you might have with the digital equivalent of your family’s slide carousel. They wanted to sell computers that were machines for memory, rather than just memory-machines. So they offered money (time is money) to some humanities scholars (who come cheap), to tinker with stretchy, squishy timelines, to imagine interfaces and interaction modes for the personal and uniquely human experience of time.

We created timeline tools for fiction and memoir and contested historical events, lines on which nothing could be pinned precisely, tools for sketching ambiguous causes and imprecise moments. Our Temporal Modelling Project made timelines for causal relations and visions proleptic—acts of revision and retrospect, anticipation, prediction, self-illusion, and regret. We modeled time that zips by, and time that drags its feet. We also built branching timelines, my specialty, in which the subjective observer’s standing-point—the moment of the now, my experience necessarily very different from yours even in the same instant—was like a bead: any number of beads, really, all valid imaginary nows—which could move freely back and forth along unraveling threads of time—concentrating them for a moment, maybe, into a contingent view of past, present, and future—but always in motion and part of a fabric of observation and interpretation, being perpetually unmade and made.

So I guess I was primed to look beyond progress narratives and linear conceptions of time. But a few things in recent years have untethered me more and more from time’s arrow, with regard to our collective cultural heritage mission. Four things, in fact. I will share them this morning to prompt you to consider whether these ideas, or similar emerging ones, might unsettle the connection of time to your work, too—and whether there is something valuable for scholars and librarians in that feeling—something we can use in a constructive way as we re-imagine, to better ends, the fundamental temporal orientation of the next generation of digital libraries and digital scholarly projects.

Most of all, my goal is to suggest a great (though sadly, mostly latent) capacity in digital scholarship and digital librarianship—and that is the capacity for our work to fuel the conceptualization and the realization of alternate futures. The question I want to ask is this: can we design digital cultural heritage platforms that help to break the sense of fatalism, inevitability, and disaffection from the historical archive that our dominant narratives and systems provoke in so many of the people our work means to empower? Can we position our digital collections and digital scholarly projects more plainly not as statements about what was and is, but as resources for the building of different, better worlds?

“The unbearable whiteness and patriarchy of traditional archives,” Princeton archivist Jarrett Drake tells us, “demand that new archives for black lives emerge and sustain themselves as spaces and sites for trauma, transcendence, and transformation.” This is a statement from a brief essay in which Drake describes his experience, in the summer of 2015, in helping to build a community archive of police violence in Cleveland. The project was begun in a grassroots way, when the Society of American Archivists held its annual meeting in a reeling city. It was in that sense as much an attempt at transcendence on the part of archivists unsatisfied with consumerist academic conference culture as it was a processing of trauma for the community in whose service they worked. I take much of my inspiration from practitioner-driven and community-based archives like this, created in partnership and out of overlapping trouble.

Alongside what Drake calls the necessary emergence of such archives, I want to share what I take to be the core message of another emergent and transformative and necessary movement. And that is the cultural and aesthetic movement of Afrofuturism. I’ll discuss this concept in greater depth in a little while—but to distill its message now, we might simply say that the clearest marker of agency and therefore deep-seated freedom in any community—any community, but most especially one that has suffered the obliteration and co-opting of its history—is that community’s ability to create independent philosophical infrastructure, and to use that infrastructure to imagine futures that diverge from the dominant historiographical timeline. The implications for libraries and the academy here are, I think, profound.

And they place a requirement on us. We—the professions that come together in the shared enterprise of digital scholarship and cultural heritage—need to find a way to step back from patriarchal, colonial, heteronormative, and white mediation, and from its sense of control over time, in order (as Afrofuturist thinkers would have it) to make a new space-time in which broader and more diverse publics can assert that agency and imagine alternate futures. I think one way to cultivate the will to step back, among those of us who steward and share the past—who are in love with the past, when it comes right down to it—is to try to unsettle our fundamental orientation toward it.

The first of my own four un-moorings in time was the realization of the degree to which a retrospective, memorializing and even embalming impulse seems to govern library and digital humanities collection-building. That impulse is evident even now, in the wildest moment of evolution imaginable for our inherited archive: that is, midstream in mass digitization—the great remediation project of the present day. The second came in watching the academy’s response (or sometimes our lack of response) to those neoliberal challenges to mission, funding, and scope that have sharpened since the last recession, and that discourage scholars from devoting time to speculative thinking just as surely they do librarians from collecting for the long haul and speculatively, “on spec.” (Indeed, we are all focusing now on shorter and ever more precisely quantified timescales, and on the paying customers who stand before us rather than on generations unknown. We’re all asked for faster and more evidence-based return on investment. Those demands have consequences on imagination.) The third temporal unsettling I came to feel is what I’ll call the vertigo of the Anthropocene—which is extreme and is slowly filtering out over more academic disciplines. This is shorthand for the scientific understanding and humanistic theorizing of our place in deep time, in geological time, where all of modernity can be both a nothing of a blip—a little plasticine-and-H-bomb layer in the rock—and simultaneously this planet’s great, destructive prime mover. And finally, to return to where I started, I came to better understand how counter-insurgencies to inevitability function in Afrofuturism, and to appreciate the potential for scholarly projects and cultural heritage organizations to contribute positively to this crucial work at a moment when we must all assert that black lives matter.

I know that’s a lot. Too much for one talk, maybe, but it seemed important to lay out a broader context for temporal unsettling and alternate ways of thinking about time. I’ll dig into these four areas today to differing degrees—beginning with the first of them.

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So I end with questions, rather than answers, and will look forward to your thoughts.

How can we, as digital scholars and platform-builders and people who steward the content of digital libraries, better support the explorations of groups like Rasheedah Phillips’ Community Futures Lab, groups that combine community archiving with speculative thinking? How can we trouble the temporal narratives our collections and methods of organization and interpretation imply? Can our digital archives and digital humanities projects fuel the conception and realization of alternate futures? What about problems of surveillance, of bias in black box systems, of the lack of perspective of a library profession that is pervasively, unbearably white? How might we and our scholarly projects and archives become generatively unstuck in time, too—and if we can’t, how can we get out of the way?

Creative Commons License This site uses a heavily modified version of Bryan Helmig's Magatheme. Work at by Bethany Nowviskie is always CC-BY. Want to know why? The falling letters are by Wayne Graham. He kindly made them to replace a set I designed in Flash in the late 1990s and had in place for more than 17 years. Not a bad run! Ave atque vale.