Making Plain the Labor of the Digital Realm

• June 2019

My venture into online publishing came by way of an innocent conversation with the founding editor of this publication; as Kelly Baker Josephs was commenting on putting together an issue of sx salon, she said out loud that spring day, “I wish I had a book review editor.” I immediately jumped at the opportunity, unintentional though it may have been. Beginning with sx salon 18 (February 2015), then, I served as the editor of the reviews section, liaising with reviewers and publishers, soliciting reviews and editing them, and completing postreview e-mails and social media announcements. In that initial logistical conversation about the position, which took place in the summer of 2014, I made two requests: first, the opportunity to expand the reviews to include coverage of the hispanophone, francophone, and Dutch Caribbean, alongside the anglophone, and second, to increase the pool of reviewers to include more graduate students and tenure-track faculty, alongside more established writers. For me, then, the digital space has served as an opportunity for increased accessibility in knowledge production. My awareness of its potential to be utilized in this way came from a sense of responsibility to do my part in helping to increase equity as well as influence, in a small way, in how we think about the region that we all study.

I have trouble calling myself a digital humanist: I work under the umbrella of a project that includes peers who are literally creating and pushing this new field forward, who since 2014 host an annual gathering that brings together those who are doing the work with a focus on the Caribbean. I have been unable to write this piece for months, partly stymied by my hesitation to use digital humanist; the reality is that while I may not be comfortable embracing the term, I have overseen some changes in one of the leading publications in Caribbean digital studies. The impulse to oversee reviews of studies focusing on the Caribbean of which I am a specialist, the hispanophone, as well as that of the francophone, stemmed from a desire to fill in the gaps. As a college student, I would attend Caribbean events, only to find myself asking, Which Caribbean? Whose Caribbean? As a graduate student, in the midst of being trained as a comparatist across Latin American and the (Hispanic) Caribbean, I longed for learning that would encompass the whole region rather than follow empire’s dictates. My work took a more obvious African diasporic turn when I came to realize that studying for my advanced degrees meant being comfortable with the toolbox provided: the knowledge that I produced in the form of my dissertation was not a means to an end in and of itself but instead a sample of what I could do. A long-form exercise in research. Nothing more, nothing less.

I would continue learning, not only through my own research but also via the book reviews that I wrote. I have written previously in this publication about the potential value of book reviews: four years later, I recognize I did not go far enough to stress the work that a book review does. While it admittedly ushers an author into the world of dialogue within a field, it is also one way that we can show our regard for each other, as scholars and colleagues. We, all of us, form these communities: all of us, each one of us, are/is a gatekeeper. We decide, with every service commitment we take on in this profession, what is important not only to us personally but to the fields about which we care. Each of us carries this charge: not just the dissertation advisor or the senior scholar but also the junior scholar trying to figure out how to revise for their first book and the graduate student just coming to understand the discipline. The book review serves another purpose, too. The conventional view is that writing one allows you to get your foot in the door, to have a line on your CV—which, of course, it does. But it also allows you to find your authorial voice in a form with lower stakes—not an article, not a book.

The digital platform allows for this kind of play: in the twelve years since I graduated with my doctorate, the world of academic publishing necessarily now includes digital spaces, such as this one, that are recognized as valuable. Publishing schedules have been truncated so that issues go live with more frequency. Having reviews of studies about as much of the Caribbean as we could cover (the Dutch Caribbean continues to prove difficult to reach, owing to a lack of translation of texts) in one space has meant that even the casual reader of sx salon could learn something about Martinique and Puerto Rico and Barbados in one sitting. The subject area that we covered, the what, expanded.  In a small way, then, we scholars, as an audience, were offered the chance to engage with a model that challenged how all of us have been trained; the organization of sx salon reviews could encourage readers to learn beyond that training.

The second change was equally as important to me: addressing the who that would compose the reviews in this space that I viewed as more flexible than the print environment. Prior to my arrival, reviews were solicited more from noted scholars in the field; Kelly took great care to match the book under review with a prominent academic in the area. While junior scholars and graduate scholars did contribute prior to my arrival, it was a priority of mine that we grow that pool of reviewers even more. In one sense this was a practical consideration: the number of potential writers from which we could draw to write a thousand words would be larger and deeper. More important to me, though, was expanding the venue for those who were early in their careers, some of whom had social media accounts where they shared extemporaneously their views on a given topic and so who were more comfortable with this realm. Print continues to convey gravitas; this digital space, which has ramped up the speed with which one publishes, could be approached with more levity, perhaps—one that freed the writer in a way that writing an article for a print journal, be it academic or trade, does not. This also speaks to my thoughts as a creative, a term that I take to be synonymous with the academic that I am: it is possible to play here. And who better to play than those for whom the ways of the academy remain negotiable, who may be inclined to consider different models.

The digital realm provides safety. I don’t mean solely for the anonymous who wish to spew negativity and hatred but also for those for whom interpersonal relationships and human interaction in person is difficult, for whatever reason. The digital platform is a haven where one can express ideas, laugh, and joke—connect. For academics, particularly those who know how to navigate these waters, digital platforms are almost ideal: they, we, can engage in a knowledgeable exchange with strangers who over time may become something resembling friends, if not more. We draw new contours of human interaction, of what discussion and dialogue can be. I admit to writing nothing new with this observation: the rise of chat rooms decades ago came with the inherent and distinctly human promise of defying geographical space and time in order to connect with another. For academics whose social skills are less developed than their considerable intellects, the world of the digital allows them, us, to maintain a foothold in a realm that has been deemed normal.

Granted, the safety the digital realm appears to provide is at best ephemeral: on a whim, an owner of a server or of a site may come and erase all that has been done, as was the threat to the archives of Gawker until they were saved two years after the digital imprint had stopped publishing by the Freedom of  the Press Foundation. A recent report from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism indicates that the practice of archiving is a low priority for most publications, be they print or digital. Though I believed at first that there is the promise of work existing in perpetuity in this space, certainly with platforms such as Archive-It, the reality is that here in the United States, we depend on the largesse of the public, which continues to lobby and vote for net neutrality. Perhaps we digital practitioners are not so different, then, from the magistrates, the original caretakers of the municipal archives of the city-states of ancient Greece, that Derrida referenced in his famous article on the archives. We, too, provide shelter for that which we deem valuable, except that now there are more of us who can claim authority on a given subject, more of us in positions to decide what is valuable. Each time we post on our perhaps multiple social media platforms, we curate our existence, making it more palatable, possibly, to viewers to whom we have granted access to our lives. The internet is the single most important factor in flattening space on this planet, providing us access to forms of knowledge previously inaccessible without stepping on an airplane, and before that, a locomotive, a boat. Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s frank assessment of the production of the archive and its role in the creation of knowledge in Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History means that none of us can approach these questions as innocents.1 Instead, we are charged with interrogating those gaps, understanding that they are neither inevitable nor insurmountable, as most vibrantly seen in work by Caribbeanists Marisa Fuentes, Anne Eller, and Dixa Ramírez.2

It is seemingly a human desire to live in perpetuity, to leave a legacy; indeed, this piece is my own attempt at sharing what some who are close to me know: my approach to The Work, my beliefs about equity here, in this realm. It is also my endeavor to make clear some of the decisions made behind the scenes during my time with this publication: to emphasize that while happenstance occurs, it often does not in publishing—not even here in the digital—which in my opinion, sometimes obscures the labor involved. It is my hope to convey my belief in the capacity that each one of us has for making dents in our respective fields: fifty years from now, maybe no one remembers my contributions. Hell, one year from now it may all be forgotten by our audience, as sx salon begins a new era. But for those who got a line (or several) on their CVs during my tenure because they published, or because their book was reviewed, or because their press was mentioned here, maybe they won’t forget. This online platform supported those achievements, with its accessibility, with the speed at which we published, and with the international reach of the Small Axe Project that has facilitated the growth of Caribbean studies in no small way. It was a pleasure to learn and grow as a part of this team.

 

Vanessa K. Valdés is the outgoing book review editor of sx salon and a member of the Small Axe editorial board. The director of the Black Studies Program and a professor of Spanish and Portuguese at the City College of New York–CUNY, she is also the series editor of Afro-Latinx Futures Series at SUNY Press. Her most recent book is Diasporic Blackness: The Life and Times of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg (SUNY Press, 2017).

 

1 Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995; repr., Boston: Beacon, 2015).

2 See Marisa Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016); Anne Eller, We Dream Together: Dominican Independence, Haiti, and the Fight for Caribbean Freedom (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016); and Dixa Ramírez, Colonial Phantoms: Belonging and Refusal in the Dominican Americas, from the 19th Century to the Present (New York: New York University Press, 2018).

 

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