reconstitute the world

rare book school poster[The following is the text of a talk I gave (with changes) as “Reconstitute the World: Machine-Reading Archives of Mass Extinction,” in two different contexts last week. First, I opened the summer lecture series at the University of Virginia’s Rare Book School, where I’m privileged to be a faculty member and supporter. Next, I closed the first week of the 2018 Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) at the University of Victoria and opened a Digital Library Federation (DLF) unconference on social justice and digital libraries, DLFxDHSI. I started my UVic talk by noting that we met on the unceded, traditional territory of the Lkwungen-speaking peoples of that part of the Pacific Northwest, and I therefore acknowledged the Songhees and Esquimalt, and also the WSÁNE? peoples who are among the First Nations with historical and enduring relationships to that land. I note this here, because the talk I gave is relevant, I think, to the need for humility, respect, and reparation and to the celebration of endurance and renewal (or, better, reclamation) that such statements, still uncommon in the United States, suggest.]

This is a talk on digital stewardship and heritage futures at a strange confluence. Now, I’m more used to saying “cultural heritage”—cultural heritage futures—and I will certainly be addressing those today: possibilities for the strongly future-oriented digital stewardship of human expression as we encounter it in transitory, embodied performances, as intangible culture, and of course in ways that leave more lasting, material traces. But I use the broader phrase “heritage futures” deliberately, because this is a talk that moves me beyond my training and my various cultural comfort zones in two big ways.

First, I’ll step out of the humanities to gesture at projects in preservation, access, and scientific analysis that address our broader, global heritage of biodiversity. That’s a heritage we share with all living things. And where we’ve failed in stewarding living environments, I think it’s fair to say that we’ve only moderately well succeeded in documenting them—which in this case are two radically different things. Our success is particularly mixed—though improving—in documenting them with an eye toward the activist, artistic, or reflective work we may soon wish to do in radically changed ecosystems.

Next, I’m here to speak, frankly, far beyond my own expertise, but I hope with some imagination, about how we might connect these concerns to our present revolution in machine learning and artificial intelligence. I particularly want to think about how to do so in a way that leverages the skills and deep-seated understandings that a background in the humanities, librarianship, or in post-custodial and community archives almost uniquely provides. It’s important for me to say, though, that that there are some lenses or comfort zones that it is difficult for person coming from a settler background to drop and exit, particularly when talking about library and museum collections “acquired” and maintained in colonialist contexts. I’m trying.

I draw the title for this talk from Adrienne Rich—from part of a 1977 poem she called “Natural Resources.”

My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed

I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,

with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.

Sounding through today’s talk—alongside a bit of ecological despair that is still echoing, for me, from my last attempt to address these issues in front of a DH audience—you may hear the undertone of a feminist ethic of care, and also of that utterly commonplace and yet counter-acting power of reconstitution or repair that Rich evokes in these lines on the screen.

But my basic argument is simple, and it has to do with stuff. What I want you to take away from this talk is an understanding that the constitution—the very make-up and organization—of our natural history and cultural heritage collections becomes vastly more important when we accept two truths. The first is that we assemble them at the end of things. All “archives” of the Holocene (and therefore not just of print and manuscript culture and their digital sequelae, but indeed our archaeological and more recent paleontological records, and the stories we read in landscapes and ice cores)—all are archives of diminishment: of a shift to plant, animal, and human monocultures. They are archives, in fact, of the 6th great mass extinction of life on our planet. And accompanying that sobering thought is a second necessary understanding. The very make-up (again, the contents, the structure) of our heritage collections likewise becomes a matter of critical concern, when we realize that we no longer steward them for human readers alone. This is the strange confluence of our present moment.  Continue reading “reconstitute the world”