[Drafting] True Dat(a): A Conference on Race, Digital Humanities, and Culture

Draft: Version 1

A few weeks ago, the Cultural Rhetorics Conference was held at Michigan State University. I couldn’t attend in person and was happy to follow the @CulturalRhet and #crcon (and was even happier to get a couple S/Os from fellow rhetoricians, some of whom I’ve known for a long time, like before Twitter). Referencing my In Vena Veritas project, I made a submission after the fact and in absentia, a gesture meant to demonstrate my wish to be there. From my observations online, it was an important conference, one that helped further legitimize cultural rhetoric, which is a cause to which I’m committed.

Appearing on the “The Future of African American Rhetorics” panel with Drs. Elaine Richardson (@DoctaE1), Gwen Pough, and Tamika Carey (@t_l_carey), Dr. Candace Epps-Robertson (@rhetorista) expressed the need for more scholars who work at the intersection of race and digital humanities—the problem being that there is a dearth in activity where these issues are concerned.

I was still very excited by the conversation I had a few days earlier about metatexts and the rhetorical encoding of blackness with Jessica M. Johnson (@jmjafrx) and l’Nasah Crockett (@so_treu). Made a storify, too, with a soaringly pretentious title: “Words With Friends; Or, Diaspora Rhetoric, Social Media, and the Curation of Notes Toward an Augmented Archive: A Transcript.” (You should also read Jessica’s poignant reflection.)

So when I saw @rhetorista‘s statement, I stood in my office and applauded. Slowly.

A few minutes later, I created @true_dat_a, expanding its scope to include nonacademics and anyone who may be interested not only in having these conversations, but also in seeing where they could lead and on whose behalf they could be put to work. Now, I suppose I should make it clear that although I envision a conference on race, DH, and culture, I don’t wish to consider myself an expert (especially in DH), but more of a researcher and a deep practitioner. These topics interest me a great deal, I rely on their lenses, principles, and methods, and I believe there is much to be gained from their combined study. This is how I orient myself to projects: from the standpoint of inquiry. Inquiry necessitates practice. And so:

True Dat(a), in addition to serving as the face (or avi) for the conference, is also what I would call a digital analog for understanding knowledge-making—it is not “text as metaphor” but a “metonymic text,” and a timely illustration of what drives my need to organize a conference in times that seem designed for the unmitigated undoing of persons. I’m referring, specifically, to erasure and the upsurge in racist, genocidal, mysogynistic, homophobic, and transphobic tendencies in American culture and across the globe. For me, these are issues to which articulations of race and culture in digital humanities are particularly well-suited.

Let me explain a bit of what I mean.

The title is an obvious riff on “True Dat”—an expression that, some would argue, has lost its relevance due to appropriation, overuse, or the tendency of language to simultaneously upgrade and undermine itself. The gesture itself is not too unlike other conferences that try to evoke a certain pop culture appeal. Nevertheless, one of the obvious consequences of the typical recursiveness of language (as it occurred to me at the time, anyway) is that it enables us, as conscious language users (takers, makers, mixers, etc.) to consider the progression of ideas from inception to utterance; through its cycles of use, misuse, disuse, etc.; and ultimately into the memory, or something like the memory, where they may either be preserved or threatened, accessed or forgotten.

Iterations of language use (seen in the examples below as an evolving text) have the capacity to be metacognitive both in nature and expression. That is, when reflected upon, they will at least involve (1) a deliberate thinking about the thinking that goes into the making of a text and (2) an exemplification of the inherently referential nature of texts that call attention to their intent and function.

I like the idea of it, particularly from the standpoint of compositions and their emancipatory potential in a digital age—from conception to coding to design to the actual construction of interfaces.

Pictured in the header image is an untitled 18th Century engraving of an Albino African Woman that I’d acquired as part of the Writing Praxis project I started a couple weeks earlier.

Yes, the image is partially covered by one of my notebooks—Notebook Two, in fact. And yes, my covering of it was deliberate, not merely for matters of decency, but rather to trouble my audience’s presumptions of ownership, authorship, and access to the body—or, in this case, digitized representations of the body. The far-too-easy killability and disposability of bodies brings this into more stark relief—making #BlackLivesMatter more than a trending counterpoint to a troubling trend, but a declaration of life and a constant reminder of what is literally at stake in the face of pressing erasure. That is, the conception of a vernacular self in digital environments. To add context, my creolized invocation of a Fanonian reference to skins and masks operates a coded attempt to emphasize the representational significance of the image and its role in shaping the ethos of the conference (even though this latter assumption may be solely my own).


So, following from this example, an examination of users’ consciousness of their use of language, even in this nascent view, heightens the degree and increases the potential to which these users would not only be self-conscious, but would also be more inclined to recognize the degree to which they are directly implicated (not merely implied) in the outcomes of their language use, not to mention their contribution to the production of knowledge and the texts in which such knowledge may (be) manifest. This, to me, is rhetorical activity.

I am therefore concerned with how these texts and the texts that emerge from the conference can serve as a metonymic bridge between symbolic action and material production. In terms of the manner in which attendees approach that bridge, I was thinking of a somewhat narrow take on access, memory, data collection, archiving and the interplay of technical and numinous elements in the coding and construction of a digital self.

My working claim, and the initial intent of @true_dat_a, draws on the notion that:

An attempt at a comprehensive call follows shortly with date(s), location(s), and other details. In the meantime: