Decolonizing the Archive: Digital Remix and Reassembly

 

Archives are repositories of knowledge. But all repositories are created and maintained by individual people located in time, place, and history, who made (and make) choices about what counts as knowledge, what belongs in a particular archive, and why it belongs there. Every archive is embedded in systems of power that delineate what constitutes knowledge as well as non-knowledge. In the case of the early Caribbean, most existing archives are deeply entwined with colonial European capitalist modernity and a knowledge regime that racializes bodies with the aim of extracting labor, land, and capital from indigenous peoples and enslaved Africans.

But the digital archive, we believe, offers new possibilities for re-archiving (remixing and reassembling) materials from existing archives as well as archiving new materials. This is not just the promise of recovery--not simply a question of finding materials that have been hidden in the past. Rather, this is a formal possibility--one linked to the new affordances of the digital archive which invite (if not require!) us to disrupt, review, question, and revise the knowledge regime of coloniality that informs the archives from which we draw most of our materials.

What are digital “affordances” and how might they enable decolonization? These are complex questions--and there is a lot of interesting scholarship on them--but at a very basic level, a digital text is not a paper text: it is not written on paper in an alphabetic language but consists in coded material. The form of the digital archive is not sequential (and reading it is not a matter of turning pages, moving across text in a linear fashion, as the codex form of the book directs one to do), but recombinatory--it involves bringing pieces of coded text and images into relation with one another anew at each viewing. This means that portions and aspects of analogue texts are always being recombined in order to appear in digital form--and this, for us, is an invitation to explore the nature of textual construction (and knowledge construction) in existing analogue texts and in our digital re-presentations of them.

What does this look like in practice? For instance, instead of (only) reproducing the authorial status of “Bryan Edwards” as it has appeared on the spine of his well-known book, History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies (1793) for more than 200 years, the ECDA  has also extracted the story of an enslaved woman named Clara from that text and placed her name--Clara--in the identifying category of author of “Clara’s Narrative” in our archive. We are collecting a growing number of similarly “embedded slave narratives,” extracted from texts written by European colonial authors, which we have recombined to form a new digital anthology of narratives that speak to one another (beyond the context of the words of Bryan Edwards or similar texts) in new ways and across new contexts.  

The embedded slave narrative collection is one example of our practice of “remix and reassembly”--and we are working on others as well. The ECDA is an experiment in decolonizing the archive using digital means.  We view this as a collective and creative project in remapping the lines between knowledge and non-knowledge. We invite you to explore and to remix and rethink the early Caribbean materials found here and elsewhere. We welcome your contributions to this project.