“It’s not English, it’s not Anglophone, it’s American. This is the land you’re working on.”
About this Episode
Recorded 27 November 2020. Edited by Aylin Malcolm and Tessa Gengnagel.
Guest: Dorothy Kim
Content: In this episode, Dorothy Kim speaks about her work at the intersection of medieval studies and digital humanities, highlighting issues of race, globality, and national identity and relating her research to work done in other fields like bioarchaeology. She is co-director of the Archive of Early Middle English, a PI for the Global Middle Ages Project, and the medieval editor of the Orlando project. Recent and forthcoming publications also discussed in this episode include Disrupting the Digital Humanities (2018), Alternative Historiographies of the Digital Humanities (forthcoming spring 2021) and Global Medieval Digital Humanities (tba).
Resources and Further Reading
Fatima El-Tayeb, European Others: Queering Ethnicity in Postnational Europe, University of Minnesota Press, 2011.
Jessica Marie Johnson, “Markup Bodies: Black [Life] Studies and Slavery [Death] Studies at the Digital Crossroads,” in: Social Text 36/4 (2018), 57–79, <https://doi.org/10.1215/01642472-7145658>.
Rebecca Redfern and Joseph T. Hefner, “‘Officially Absent but Actually Present’: Bioarchaeological Evidence for Population Diversity in London During the Black Death, AD 1348–50,” in: Bioarchaeology of Marginalized People, ed. by Madeleine L. Mant and Alyson Jaagumägi Holland, Elsevier, 2019, 69–114.
Gloria Wekker, White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race, Duke University Press, 2016.
automated transcription by <https://otter.ai>, manually corrected by Caitlin Postal, Aylin Malcolm, and Tessa Gengnagel
Tessa Gengnagel 0:15
Hello and welcome to Coding Codices. I’m Tessa Gengnagel–
Aylin Malcolm 0:18
–and I’m Aylin Malcolm–
Tessa Gengnagel 0:20
–and we’re both from the Digital Medievalist Postgraduate Subcommittee.
Aylin Malcolm 0:24
In this episode, we’ll be talking with Professor Dorothy Kim.
Tessa Gengnagel 0:28
Dr. Dorothy Kim is assistant professor of English at Brandeis University, where she teaches courses on medieval literature, critical race studies, digital humanities, and gender and sexuality studies. She has two books coming out imminently: The Alt-Medieval: Digital Whiteness and Medieval Studies, and also Global Medieval Digital Humanities, which is co-written with Lynn Ramey.
Aylin Malcolm 0:51
She has also co-edited many recent and forthcoming collections, which include Disrupting the Digital Humanities, Alternative Historiographies of the Digital Humanities, A Cultural History of Race in the Renaissance and Early Modern Age, and a special issue of Medieval Feminist Forum on medieval trans feminisms. On top of that, she is co-director of the Archive of Early Middle English, a PI for the Global Middle Ages Project, and the medieval editor of the Orlando project. We’re very excited to have the chance to talk with you today, Professor Kim.
Dorothy Kim 1:22
Hi, it’s good to see everyone.
Tessa Gengnagel 1:24
Thanks so much for being with us. And okay, so I think I’ll start with the first question. As we’ve already mentioned, you have several very exciting new books coming out soon. Can you tell us a little bit more about these projects and the other work that you’ve been doing recently, that would be great.
Dorothy Kim 1:41
I can start with the digital humanities work. I can say that Alternative Historiographies, it was actually a project I inherited. Originally, it was supposed to be edited by Adeline Koh and I was actually just writing a chapter in it. But then she decided to leave academia and so I inherited the project. In the process, it also meant that I curated a couple of other essay clusters for it as well. So it’s sort of morphed from its original idea. There are a couple of essays that think both about Indigenous and Black futures to kind of round it off at the end. It was really interesting, because I think the thing that clarified, finally, what the project was about, even though I had written my own essay, was actually the peer reviewer. Originally, our project was named Alternative Genealogies, and so I changed it to Alternative Historiographies because his point was like, really what you guys are working on is a kind of thinking through of historiography. And I thought that was like a really interesting point, because I was like, you’re right. Everyone just always assumes we’re so new, or the field is so new, so we don’t have a history. Or talking about longer histories of media, we’re talking about media archaeology, but the digital humanities actually doesn’t talk about its history. I think, for me, the volume really was about, you know, there’s a range of different people writing for it, but it’s kind of thinking through like the second half of the 20th century, and the kind of historiography question and the question of like, fascism and Empire. And when I originally was just writing a chapter, I wanted to write a chapter about Busa, because I sort of thought, you know, as a medievalist, everyone uses him as the father origin story of the field, but no one really wants to talk about his fascism. There’s just no critical commentary about it, even though he’s the one who tells you what he did during World War Two or what he was like. I think this is why it’s an interesting question for this podcast or for Digital Medievalist. The founder of the field is technically a medievalist, is trying to organize a database in relationship to Thomas Aquinas manuscripts. So I think that’s been really interesting.
The Alt-Medieval book is a very odd book, partly because I actually started it before the 2016 election. I’ve had to like revise it multiple times, because everything kept changing. There was just new things that I had to like, constantly update. You know, I thought I had a draft ready. And then Charlottesville happened. And so I had to go back and revise or write a new chapter basically, the one thing that’s hard about writing something so contemporary, but also so like, in some ways, weirdly personal because in the end, it ended up being trauma work, the fact that at a certain point, I had to basically write about myself, and then you know, like, the kinds of questions I have to my publisher about: Will I be sued if I summarize this? Or is it better if I just block-quote it and so we went for block-quoting.
And then there’s the Global DH book, which I’m writing with Lynn. When I joined the global medieval DH folks, they were like, “Oh, you guys should do a thing, right? You two are the ones who are deep in the DH thing.” So we were like matched up. We slowed down our original target date, because pandemic. And I think that’s one of the things that’s really hard about digital humanities. If you are applying for any major grants, one of the things that they ask you to do is an environmental scan. Right? So you actually need to know all the most recent stuff that is, potentially will or will not affect, your kind of project. Some of that stuff is never published, the only way you know is that you’re part of conversations in the field, vis-à-vis several conferences. It’s a sort of scholarly ecosystem that’s very different, not just from the humanities, but possibly also the social sciences. The thing is not peer reviewed articles. It’s actually whether you’re in collections, because usually that becomes a way for people to curate what they think is the really most interesting work in the field. That also only happens if you are actually at these conferences and people sort of hear or see you present about your work or your projects. Lynn and I were like, “Okay, well, we can propose this book.” And we figured out the chapters. But in fact, we need to go and talk to people to find out how do you deal with these questions we have. We did a sort of webinar last month, vis-à-vis the Vanderbilt Digital Humanities Center, where we invited a couple of people to talk to us about the translation and multilingualism and right-to-left and character. And it’s interesting for me as well, because one of the things that I was working out in the Alternative Historiographies volume, is that the digital is actually built as a form of American manifest destiny and Empire. So you can see that by the language, “digital native”, “digital frontier”, that it’s built on the sort of system of transatlantic chattel slavery. So all that kind of master/slave language that only after what happened in Minnesota, people are trying to address, even though people have called this out for a really long time. The deal is that you code in English, that means that everyone when they’re doing translation, they have to do double translation. They have to actually translate or do it through the lens of American Empire and manifest destiny. People are always saying, you shouldn’t be American-centric, but I’m like, well, we built this kind of weird territorial structure. It’s not English, it’s not Anglophone, it’s American. This is the land you’re working on. And then of course, on top of that, the premodern, obviously, if you’re working on a premodern project, often it becomes about national heritage. And that terminology has now become so politically fraught and complicated, because it usually is about nationalism and depending on what part of world you’re in, I don’t know, white supremacist nationalism. So there’s like– I think the questions are really interesting. And I think it would be good to have discussions and one day, maybe we’ll all be in the room, and we can talk about it.
Tessa Gengnagel 8:50
Recently, by the time this episode airs not so recently but right now recently, there was a lecture at the invitation of the Society of Antiquaries of London. It was about this controversy around the term Anglo-Saxon, I think it boils down to “Anglo-Saxon” being, the term being appropriated by white supremacists and this also having a long history; and there’s still resistance within the field to changing the name of the field. And there was a lecture about this and the professor, Professor John Hines, he seemed to suggest that this was primarily an American issue or debate. And so my question was, what your response is to that kind of deflection? I think we can call it that. And connected to that would be the question whether you have often met with this kind of resistance in international contexts where academics might be unwilling or are unwilling to examine their own national histories and complicities, also racist histories, not just in general, but also specifically when it comes to the history of scholarship and the literature and the scholarship that keeps being reproduced without anyone acknowledging that it’s mired in, well, racism, fascism, and so on.
Dorothy Kim 10:01
I mean, I think the John Hines lecture makes clear that there’s also this canard where the European colleagues will always say, “oh, but that’s, like, an American problem.” This is about the history of Europe. Fatima El-Tayeb writes about this in European Others, Gloria Wekker writes about it in White Innocence. This actually goes back to Saussure’s discourse on colonialism that talks about the 20th century and the kind of thing that happens post-WW2 and the sort of vision that Europe tries to put forth that they were not involved in, basically, German genocide. They basically kind of rewrite the historical books about their involvement in various global and I would say colonial genocides, by basically turning their attention towards Germany and saying, “well, you guys were actually the problem only.” This is particularly– I mean, I love Gloria Wekker’s book, White Innocence, because she particularly lays this out in relationship to the Dutch, who had the most atrocious, horrific, racialized genocides happening in other parts of the world, just not on the European continent. And so this is what he is, then Hines is basically recapitulating. You know, the point is that Europe invented race as a part of a system that then they exported to their colonies. I think that part is interesting, because part of the North American discussion of that term has to do with a really long colonial history in relationship to creating their idea of a kind of white nation, right? This is why Jefferson is so obsessed with, like, you know, early England. The University of Virginia is required to always teach classes in Old English, this is what he wrote in. It’s basically the deflection of the Europeans to say this is an American problem. This is in Sumi Cho’s work on post-racialism. It’s like one of the tenets of post-racialism. The term itself is actually used by white supremacist groups in the UK, so he’s not interested in actually seeing the local contemporary evidence. On top of that, it’s not like people use the term in that pre-1100 context very much to talk about themselves anyhow. I mean, this is all, I find so ironic, already anachronistic. And everyone’s always going on about how you can’t use certain terminology because it’s anachronistic, like race or transgender, but you want to fight tooth and nail to like hold on to this, why? Obviously, people can read Mary Rambaran-Olm’s articles about this. She’s written several in public outlets.
Tessa Gengnagel 12:40
It reminds me of something that you would see in German scholarship from the 19th century, which you also saw for a long time, of course, up until the mid-20th century. And then also, there’s a continuity of medievalists who were Nazis still being employed in medievalist jobs, but they sort of changed their language or tried to suppress what they did so at least on the surface it changes and then in the 90s, the sort of reckoning starts, and then from the 90s onwards, there’s a lot of literature that examines how these medievalists were tied up in the Nazi system. I think in some countries, like England, they didn’t have that break, they never had to really take a look at it.
Dorothy Kim 13:29
It’s basically colonial nostalgia. It’s about national identity, it’s so linked to what happened in relationship to the Brexit vote. They don’t teach the horrific history of their colonization. So these things are sort of coming back, or they’re sort of… they’re basically zombies returning. It’s a whitelash, right? I mean, people talk about that in the US. But basically, what you see Hines doing is a version of a kind of whitelash. And a kind of attempt to like hold on. And I don’t know why. I mean, we can all say “oh okay, so we changed the term of what we use, and that’s fine.” So we move on. Now that we know this history, we’ve like reckoned with this, we can just like not use this term in the future or think about what the history shows us.
Aylin Malcolm 14:35
Thinking back to how challenging it can be to keep up with the political landscape, particularly when our training is partly as medievalists or as early historians. In Disrupting the Digital Humanities, which came out in 2018, your conclusion to the book offers actionable suggestions for resisting white supremacy in DH and in the world. But your introduction mentions that much of the book was completed before a lot changed in America and in the world. So I have a couple of questions that come out of this. First, what would your ideal form of scholarship look like in order to be able to be updated and to keep up with issues that are always changing? You mentioned before that you’ve received helpful peer review suggestions but should we modify that? Should we have more collaborations? Should we have more blog posts? And secondly, if you were writing that essay now, what would you identify as the most important ways that we can foster decolonial and antiracist work in this field?
Dorothy Kim 15:30
This is really an interesting question because Jesse and I got the idea for the collection at a certain point and then as we were working on it, yeah the landscape of the US completely went poof, right? And I think we all were sort of dealing with various reckonings. I think if you’re doing digital scholarship, if you’re working also in relationship to antiracism, decolonization. There that– I mean I think that’s the one thing that at least in North American contexts really also be a conversation, if not a collaboration with Indigenous communities. It’s a really difficult and complicated question. Yes, you need collaboration, I think that is really one way to help think about larger questions. I also sort of feel, like, you know, the digital work can be in multiple venues. So I’m interested in multiplicity, right? Like the collections, very easy and inexpensive to get and also will eventually be open access. The historiography one will be published with Punctum, which means you can download it for $5 immediately right. And then at a certain point it’s just going to be free. There’s also like the spaces that are online that are already open access. When I started to publish about social media, it was entirely in online, digital, like, public journals. If we went through regular peer reviewed publications, it would be multiple years later and the whole thing would make no sense. And the interesting thing is like some of those pieces end up being the most cited things that I’ve written. And since I also do journal editing for Literature Compass and the Early Middle English journal, it would be lovely to be open access all the time but there’s also ways in which I don’t know our systems and institutions and academia in general make that more difficult. I had hoped actually the sort of conversation happening in Europe in relationship to having all the journal articles open access would have pushed people because it’s, you know, involved in their assessment exercises now, right? I mean several people asked me when we did the Medieval Feminist Forum special issue about the open access thing and I was happy to report them they have to pay nothing. It was already going to be open access so we’re good. Yeah I think it just depends on outlet and projects in the digital humanities are never done. They’re always in process and iterative, and so you might as well find spaces that allow you to have that.
Aylin Malcolm 18:03
What advice would you give to junior researchers, graduate students, undergrad students, who are interested in the combination of digital humanities and medieval studies that you’ve worked in?
Dorothy Kim 18:14
I mean one of the things is I actually wasn’t trained as a graduate student in digital humanities, even though I went to UCLA. It happened because I had a book history question and you know then it was a question of, like, being able to go to a place like DHSI just sort of starting. There has been a lack of work in thinking about particularly earlier parts of the book history timeline or discussions that really kind of grapple with race and gender and sexuality and sort of all the things, right, disability, so I think that that’s the other thing that I would suggest people kind of look at. We also need to talk about the earlier genealogy in relationship to the transatlantic chattel slave trade in England. And this is because of the bioarchaeologists. The bioarchaeologists wrote an article in the Bioarchaeology of Marginalized People in April 2019; I read it as soon as they published it. Where they talk about these plague grave sites in 1348 England and they reassess data in relationship to the osteobiographies etc of those randomized gravesites to say that the population in England looks to be somewhere between 20 to 29% possibly Black or mixed Black ancestry. A large percentage of that population was formerly or currently enslaved men or women. They are doing an updated article about the population that also thinks a little bit more about Asian population but we’re looking at, if the UK now is 3% Black Britons and the percentage in the US is somewhere, I think it is 10%. These graves are randomized because of the plague, but also they are in an urban area. So you also have to account for that. But we’re looking at at least what we’re talking about with populations now in the UK, if not potentially even in the US. You know, I’m really interested in thinking about that. I gave a talk at MLA, where I basically was– I said, along with Chaucer being a rapist, anti-Semitic, a racist, social-climbing toady for power and white supremacy, right? Tool of Empire. Now, you know, we can’t not talk about Chaucer and race, if he mentions or discusses anyone who’s racialized, it’s not just fantasy, because there are people in London. For me, I feel like we’re going to have to start really digging into the work of the early modernists who work on that early but of the transatlantic chattel slave trade. And the kind of discussions happening there and sort of Black feminism about data. I’m thinking of the really great article in Social Text that just Jessica Marie Johnson wrote about markup bodies, where she actually gives a little historiography about the history of working on the archive of slavery; that originally a lot of that work was by statistical historians. Is this a kind of re-dehumanization of those who were in that kind of horrible system? And I think this methodology question is going to be really interesting. You know, we were all trained really to think of medieval England as just like white space. The people in like Classics and Antiquity, they told us it was multiracial. The Roman Empire was multiracial in Britain. But somehow we like– there’s like a white bubble happening in the Middle Ages, like something happened, people flip the switch, and 500 to 1500, medieval England became, like, white. There are clearly little bits of documentation, but we’ve just sort of imagined it as a kind of special case. And I think the bioarchaeological data will force us to say, no, that’s not a special case. This is just when something actually got into the archive. Right? And I’m sure we’ll get arguments that say, oh, but it was late, so you can’t really talk about earlier in the timeline, whatever, whatever. But still, right. When that article came out, I literally stopped working on another book I was working on because I was like, “Oh, I need to stop, because this completely changes my arguments.”
Aylin Malcolm 22:44
Yeah, you can kind of imagine entirely new projects as a result of that single paper.
Dorothy Kim 22:49
Yes. Right. It’s like, okay, take a step back. I’m thinking of dinosaurs. It’s probably similar to like paleontologists, whoever decided they all have feathers. Now we have to stop, think about all of our images, including Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs with the lizard skin, and like, think of them all feathered.
Aylin Malcolm 23:13
And so about that article that you’re co-writing with a bioarchaeologist on plague gravesites.
Dorothy Kim 23:18
Yes. It’s been very, very interesting. But interesting, also, because I’ve gotten to read a lot about Black feminist archaeology and methodology. They’re having a conversation about race in bioarchaeology that aligns with, I think, the medieval conversation about race. And one of the things that made me happy was that a number of them, their genealogies of working through race are the genealogies I’m comfortable or happy with. So they do the kind of material bio-political turn vis-à-vis Sylvia Wynter and Hortense Spillers. And so I’m like, yes, I’m comfortable with this, because this is where I am. And this is a bit, I will say, that at least for graduate students, who knew that me taking a medieval archaeology graduate class would be useful. You know, I think that advice is you go into the area because you have a research question or you’re interested in something and then that will kind of, like, unloosen a bunch of other things.
Tessa Gengnagel 24:38
Do you think that the field has changed during your career and where do you see it going in the future, maybe also in some other aspects? And then the other question would be how these shifts, if they have happened, relate to American and/or global politics.
Dorothy Kim 24:56
I think that there has been shifts and I think that is entirely tacked on to global and US politics. A lot of the discussion in relationship to white supremacy and fascists, it just became a much more mainstream topic, like all the things that people had talked about in terms of radicalization, in terms of algorithms, in terms of all these things had been discussed but it was always considered this periphery topic. Early work on this kind of 8chan, 4chan, white supremacist radicalization and their targeting of Black Indigenous women of color was published in 2013–14 in Model View Culture, where I published my social media stuff. So like when 2016 happened, people shifted and realized: no it’s not a fringe topic, it’s now actually how we need to think through politics. What’s interesting there is that even as the field has shifted widely to thinking through these questions of fascism, white supremacy, online radicalization, and a whole host of things, I don’t know everyone has quite reckoned with the field’s own history. I think one of the things that there has always been useful for me for digital humanities is that I’ve always thought the kind of discussion of both theory and then praxis as together is this useful model and I’m hoping that this kind of energy moves forward because I don’t think the white supremacy problem is going to disappear. I think there’s a way in which the myth of digital humanities has often imagined that it’s not in any way political but the historiography of even the last seven years, it’s like we’re like weirdly and deeply embedded in national and global politics. Who imagined that Milo Yiannopoulos would think that writing a 13,000 word hit piece on me and like medieval studies would be the way for him to re-up his media empire. People really need to think through their field histories and kind of dig deep and digital is a really complicated field history because so much of it has actually part of the kind of infrastructure of how the white supremacists came to power. Like, the thing is if you’re going to do anti-racism and decoloniality, you have to deal with white supremacy and fascism. So the future means that we’re going to just have to do unending reckonings.
Aylin Malcolm 27:39
Thank you for listening to Coding Codices, a podcast by the Digital Medievalist Postgraduate Subcommittee, and thank you, Dorothy, for joining us.
Dorothy Kim 27:47
Aylin Malcolm 27:49
You can hear more episodes of Coding Codices on our website, podcast.digitalmedievalist.org, or get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Intro / Outro: TeknoAXE, “Chiptune Nobility” (CC BY 4.0).
- Interlude: “Suonatore di Liuto” by Kevin MacLeod, Link: https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/4440-suonatore-di-liuto, License: https://filmmusic.io/standard-license
- Featured Image: Frederick II and His Imperial Subjects (ca. 1230s), Basilica San Zeno Maggiore, Verona, by Jeff Bowersox (CC BY-SA 4.0); ed. by Tessa Gengnagel.