From Césaire’s Notebook to the Net

by Nicholas Laughlin on December 13, 2013

Kelly Baker Josephs reports on Legacies of Aimé Césaire, an event co-hosted by Columbia University and Barnard College in New York City to mark the centenary of the Martiniquan poet

Aimé Césaire researchathon in progress

The Aimé Césaire researchathon in progress. Image by Alex Gill (@elotroalex), posted on Twitter

While new media are understood in terms of the older media that precede them, they are nonetheless freed, at least to some extent, from traditional constraints. Having to figure out how new tools work necessitates innovation and encourages a kind of beginner’s mind. New media attract innovators, iconoclasts, and risk-takers.

— Mark Tribe, foreword to The Language of New Media (2001),
by Lev Manovich

November 2013 was a busy — one might say explosive — month in Caribbean and Caribbean-related new media. There were several publications of online periodicals connected to the Caribbean — indeed, the CRB itself published its much-awaited first issue after a year-plus hiatus — as well as various live-streams of conferences and events relevant to the African diaspora. It was a bit overwhelming to see this embrace of technology, especially in the academy, but much of it was quite close to older familiar forms, albeit with key differences in delivery and access.

In addition, there have also been several events this year celebrating the centenary of Aimé Césaire’s birth. These events have taken place mostly in academic and cultural spaces, with much digital announcement, but dependent largely on face-to-face interaction limited to the time and place of the event.

The Legacies of Aimé Césaire event managed to combine both the digital activity taking place in November and the yearlong celebration of Césaire. The event was designed collaboratively by Columbia University and Barnard College faculty: Kaiama L. Glover, Alex Gil, Brent Hayes Edwards, and David Scott. Along with a website launched in mid-November, the physical portion of the event spanned two days, with a “researchathon” on 5 December and a live forum the following day. The site itself went live in mid-November with pieces from the invited scholars, paired along four routes of conversation: “The revolutionary Afro-Americas”, with Millery Polyné and Anne Eller; “Trans-Atlantic networks and contexts”, with Christopher Winks and Carrie Noland; “Whither or whether postcolonial sovereignty?”, with Gary Wilder and Yarimar Bonilla; and “The present-day poetic imagination”, with Erica Hunt and Brent Hayes Edwards. Both the site and the two-day event were in their own way innovative academically and digitally, and presented ways in which the Internet could facilitate collaborative scholarship.

I confess I know little, if any, more than the next person about Césaire or his legacies. But I followed this event closely because of the “new tools” to be applied to Caribbean scholarship. First, the researchathon — a word that seems self-explanatory, but on second glance requires some clarification. The Studio @ Butler space at Columbia University defines it thus: “A researchathon, or research sprint, is akin to a hackathon but focused on research results rather than software or code.” It involves “a research question that a group of ten or more students, librarians, faculty, and technologists could answer working together” over a short period of time, and generally results in a useful online resource for research on the topic.

The primary objective of the Césaire researchathon was to “compile the largest online bibliography of primary and secondary sources related to Césaire.” I was not able to attend the researchathon in person, but like others I could participate online via the research tool Zotero. It was exciting to watch the bibliography grow over the course of the day as dedicated scholars the world over contributed citations. In the end, the researchathon met its objective, compiling a bibliography of over two thousand sources, and growing.

The organisers indicated that the “Césaire researchathon is the first major attempt to bring the researchathon model to research in the humanities at Columbia — or elsewhere, for that matter.” While I find this model inspirational, I remain confused as to how to use the produced bibliography. In its current form, it’s overwhelming. The tagging is inconsistent at best, and so the most viable view is alphabetically by title. Having no experience with this model, I don’t know if this is a useful method of organisation for other disciplines, but it remains less so for the humanities. It’s possible that this is more a fault of less-digitally facile Césaireans than of the method itself. But either way, some revisions are necessary to make this bibliography useful for research on various aspects of Césaire’s work. This certainly does not render this model less exciting as a tool. Instead, it merely indicates that this is the first stage in the development of both the tool and its users for future similar collaborations. (I am already working to convince Alex Gil, the mastermind behind the Césaire researchathon, to help me organise one for Kamau Brathwaite.)

The second day of the event featured panels with the pairs of scholars who had written pieces for the website. (The schedule of panels can be found here.) This was the more familiar part of the event; the “old media” so to speak. At least, that is what I expected it to be. I expected something similar to a seminar style conference with pre-circulated papers. The difference, I came to understand, was in the conversation that had already occurred online prior to the live forum. Because these early written thoughts were public, and because they were open to comments, more attendees were ready to discuss the concepts than is generally the case for a traditional seminar, even one with pre-circulated material. More importantly, the writers themselves came with some idea of how their work was already being received and questioned by their readers, far and near. In the room itself, this led to the type of engaged participatory experience that, at best, only happens on the fringes of traditional conferences: for five minutes during Q&A, or in a small group afterward, as attendees clear out of the room; or perhaps in a post-event social gathering. In this way, I would say, the event was an unqualified success. What Gil calls the “hybrid model” of scholarly presentation allowed for a more useful form of discussion about Césaire’s work.

All the online participants took a risk with this hybrid model. The organisers’ vision depended upon both the bloggers and the commenters making their ideas — ideas essentially still at the draft stage — publically vulnerable to criticism and, worse, indifference. In Kaiama Glover’s post-event summation, one hears echoes of the risk as well as the rewards of such a model:

“The event was quite amazing. It did what I’d dreamed it would from the beginning — put people into real conversation and generate new ways of thinking across disciplines. I was quite astounded at the level of engagement, both online and live, and impressed by people’s willingness to work within a format that was — for so many — out of their comfort zone. It seemed that the participants, myself included, came away from the experience somehow re-charged. Open to possibility …”

In most respects, the gamble paid off, and we now have two new Césaire research resources online. Both continue to grow, as the posts remain open to comments (indeed, the conversation continued online beyond the live forum), and the bibliography remains open to additions. While the results may still look familiar, the process has been, as Tribe notes in the epigraph above, “freed, at least to some extent, from traditional constraints.” In closing the two-day event, Gil requested that we “reflect on the material realities of our new memory machines” and ask: “What does it mean to build scholarly discourses online as opposed to paper? How does the nature of the digital change how we engage with that knowledge?”

Appropriate questions for a celebration of the innovator, iconoclast, and risk-taker who gave us his Cahier d’un retour au pays natal. Césaire’s legacies indeed.

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Kelly Baker Josephs is an associate professor of English at York College, City University of New York, editor of sx salon, and author of Disturbers of the Peace: Representations of Madness in Anglophone Caribbean Literature (2013).

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