Elizabeth Povinelli on Digital Archives

Last Monday I had the good fortune to hear Elizabeth Povinelli lecture at Duke University. The opportunity arose through another piece of good fortune, my recent acquaintance with Jane Anderson, who is doing a post-doc this year at Duke after a year at NYU where she worked with Fred Myers and Faye Ginsburg. Jane is a scholar of intellectual property (with a Ph.D. in law from the University of New South Wales) with an emphasis in her work on legal systems and indigenous knowledge. She has worked for many years at AIATSIS, and was responsible for much of the research that went into the Native Title Business exhibition and catalog (Keeaira Press, 2002). On our first meeting about a month ago, Jane charmed me right out of my socks. So the chance to meet up with her again, in a forum that focused on a shared interest in digital archives, and right after the elections–well, there was too much to celebrate and every reason to skip out of work early.

Nor did Dr. Povinelli disappoint. Povinelli, Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University, is the author of (among other works) Labor’s Lot: the power, history and culture of Aboriginal action (University of Chicago Press, 1994) and The Cunning of Recognition: indigenous alterities and the making of Australian multiculturalism (Duke University Press, 2002). (I wrote about the latter a year ago in a couple of posts, “The Burdens of Multiculturalism” and “The Economics of Aboriginal Work.”) Both of these monographs explicate the ways in which non-indigenous knowledge, discourse, and systems conflict with and seek to control indigenous self-definition in Australia. For the purpose of illustration, let me reduce her thesis in The Cunning of Recognition, a vast and complex work, to a single sentence: Australian Aboriginal land rights law requires Indigenous people to prove their Aboriginality and their connectedness to land in terms defined wholly by the requirements of non-indigenous Australian law.

Povinelli’s talk at Duke on Monday was entitled “Recognizing Digital Divisions, Circulating Socialities.” It is a chapter-in-progress from her latest work, and is concerned with the means by which indigenous knowledge is currently being captured, encoded, and preserved in web-accessible digital formats. 

There’s a lot of this going on right now. Desart is exploring means of preserving the activities and records of its art centres, and has recently completed work on two pilot projects. One of these had as its goal digitizing the certificates of authenticity created over the last two decades for paintings created under the auspices of Warlayirti Artists in Balgo. The other inventoried the records of Mangkaja Artists in Fitzroy Crossing: when I visited in July, the project archivists were poring over scrapbooks of photographic prints of the painting of the Ngurrara canvases.

Other digital archives incorporate materials relating to Aboriginal culture into more widely defined projects such as Picture Australia, wherein a search for the term “aboriginal ceremony” will retrieve photographs that Povinelli pointed out are probably not properly seen by most of the people who can access them in this online medium. (At the very least, the archive provides no information about the circumstances under which many of these photographs were taken, who authorized them for what purpose, and offers only the most standard of “cultural warnings” about viewing the images of deceased persons.) 

In terms of giving due consideration to Indigenous protocols, more successful digital archive projects include Ara Irititja, whose aim is “to bring home materials of historical and cultural significance to Anangu” people of the Central Desert. Another newly launched endeavor is the Mukurtu archive created by the Warumungu community at Tennant Creek with the assistance of Kim Christen, Craig Dietrich, and others. (For a glimpse of this project, check out the Digital Dynamics Across Cultures site.)

In approaching the topic of digital archives, Povinelli is concerned here ultimately with questions of what happens when two modes of “sociality” meet. Concretely, here is the intersection of Indigenous knowledge and cutting-edge technology. The two have vastly different fundamental structures and underlying assumptions, and Povinelli is intrigued to discover what happens when they intersect: will they produce new, intercultural forms of social interaction, will one come to dominate and potentially extinguish the other, or will the interaction of the two transform the form and structure of each?

She noted that archives, and now digital archives, are usually framed by issues of preservation, circulation, and access to the materials contained in them. This indeed looks to be the intentional focus of sites like Mukurtu and Ara Irititja. These archives want to hold material for the Indigenous communities out of which they grew; they help to keep history living and may also aid in reaching out to younger generations, providing a way for young enthusiasts and computer literate teenagers to involve themselves in culture. In the case of the Ara Irititja project, the developers are making the software available to other communities beyond the APY lands. Indeed, the software has been adopted by theNorthern Territory Library’s and Knowledge Center Model

A key feature of both these projects is the ability to control access to their contents. In Povinelli’s words, they force the viewer or user to have a “social skin” that enforces rules about the circulation of knowledge, and highlights awareness of cultural protocols.

But these Indigenous protocols are not the only ones at work in the digital arena. Povinelli spoke repeatedly about the collaborative nature of the development of these projects and about how much depends on having “the right people” around the table as development proceeds. (And she noted that part of the challenge is determining who “the right people” are in the first place.) Intellectual property protocols on both sides of the indigenous/non-indigenous boundary come into play, as do capital, legality, and more. 

During the Q&A period that followed the lecture she told of a software developer whose work could hold great promise for mapping projects relating to Indigenous knowledge of land and sea. However, his strong commitment to the notion of the the notion that “information wants to be free” would cause serious strife in the sphere of restricted Indigenous knowledge protocols.

Characteristically, Povinelli went deeper than this, delving into the logic of digital means of communication as it is expressed in the programming code itself. She described the ways in which programmers who create the software are bound by the conventions of the languages themselves, and by the concepts that underlie the expression of content through their code. In the javascript coding that underlies these websites, there are events (digital objects such as text and graphical files) and “gateways” of Boolean logic (and,ornot, and other logical operators).

These gateways can be exploited to control the circulation of information in both Indigenous and non-Indigenous spheres: given the “social skin” of the user, certain gateways can be open, or they can be blocked. The world outside the community that owns the information, or that created it, can be given only limited access to viewing some of the information, and can be denied the ability to modify or contribute information. Or people outside can contribute information, but only in ways that affirm the rights of the community to accept it or modify it or place restrictions on access to it. 

Thus in the end, these logical programming structures that enable digital storage, retrieval, and circulation emerge from a decidedly non-indigenous context built upon a framework that fundamentally assumes, for example, that everything can be reduced to a binary opposition, yes or no, open the gateway or keep it closed (or open it if a certain condition can be established in a binary fashion—true or false). It is important that people involved in the creation of these archives hold this fundamental truth about the nature of the information system in mind as they adapt it to profoundly different arenas of Indigenous discourses and systems of thought. Sometimes, Indigenous knowledge cannot be adequately represented in such a framework of binary oppositions.

Ultimately, Povinelli dreams of digital archives that move beyond the realm of merely circulating, preserving, and providing access. She would like to someday see digital archives that enhance social obligations, build responsibility, and create attachment. While freely admitting these things are not “programmable,” she nevertheless spent some time speculating on how such conditions might be simulated. 

She asked, for example, what if the purpose of “coming to knowledge” were not to gain information. What if gaining knowledge from a digital archive were instead a means of creating social attachments to other people? 

She illustrated this in a material-world sense by describing the ways in which time spent with elder women near her research locus of Belyuen, during which she gained much information about the seasonal variations in climate and insect life, tides and fish, gradually brought about a sense of attachment to country and to individuals that survived the passing of some of these women. The physical experience of being in country afterwards was sufficient to revive a palpable sense of attachment. 

Clearly, the current state of digital archives—which represents a huge advance over only a year or two ago—is far from providing the locus for social relations that Povinelli imagines. Internet technologies promise to deliver ever-increasing approximations of sociality via, for example, gaming simulations and virtual reality applications, which have their own fraught implications, as the controversy over Telsta’s representation of Uluru in Second Life has already raised. 

And Povinelli recognized that digital media will never really be able to reproduce the corporeal element of social experience. She described the stress of nearly drowning as she and a group of women tried to negotiate tidal waters at the mouth of a creek near Melik Beach, and alluded to the negotiations with the Dreaming that can calm those waters (described beautifully in Labor’s Lot). But she dreams, a bit puckishly, of ways that programming might effect such experiences.

In these notes I have glossed only the simplest of the ideas Povinelli floated in her lecture at Duke. Her thinking is subtle, complex, and challenging; her ideas are still very much in development, as she quickly cautioned several times. It was undeniably exciting to watch a great thinker in action as she speculated about what the future might hold. The inspired thinking is Elizabeth Povinelli’s; the mistakes in representing it are wholly mine.

Courtesy of Nicholson Cartoons, 2007.

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