Erin Dickey

Archives, Digital Humanities

DAH Post #3: Humanities after Deconstruction


With his “Real Faces of White Australia” project, Tim Sherratt proffers an alternative method for accessing the National Archives of Australia’s records on people classified as “non-white”, living in Australia in the 20th century. At the same time, the interface he built, by foregrounding for the user the faces within the photographs of a series of records within the archive, humanizes each individual represented. Sherratt’s interface serves as a radical critique of the National Archives’ own interface, which represents those individuals in its online system by the travel certificates issued to them by the government. Rather than foreground the metadata attached to a government document (an abstraction from an abstraction of a once-living person), Sherratt makes the human face the point of access. The individual photographs realize for the user the persons represented in the records, but they also serve as signposts to the system that dehumanized them both symbolically through marking over and writing on their photographed faces and in reality through racist policies. Through his act of reorganization (and redesign), Sherratt amplifies the possibility for radically different readings of this history, while also presenting a model for other projects that might similarly intervene in the traditional power structures implicit in a more standard digital interface of a government archive.

Screenshot from
Screenshot from
Screenshot from sample search record at the National Archives of Australia website
Screenshot from sample search record at the National Archives of Australia website

In “It’s All About the Stuff: Collections, Interfaces, Power, and People,” Sherratt describes other projects that similarly open up possibilities for alternative narrative constructions of history (Unknown No Longer, Remember Me) These projects use digital media as a means of wresting interpretive authority from the archival institution–authority that is typically concealed or otherwise implicitly denied by the institution, as Derrida famously suggested in Archive Fever.[1] Projects like Sherratt’s are entries within a new landscape of scholarship, hewn out of deconstruction and digital media. In this landscape, interpretive contexts are endlessly reconfigurable (potentially spawning a new narrative with each new interaction), with both archivist and user/researcher exchanging roles, maintaining transparency about their respective positions, and working towards multiplying interpretations, rather than consolidating.

With this in mind, I attended last week’s Digital Salon on “Speculative Digital Humanities” in Sloane Art Library with Stewart Varner, Digital Scholarship Librarian at Davis Library, and Whitney Trettien, Asst. Professor in English and Comp. Lit. at UNC. Varner raised the question,”What can digital humanities be?” (a welcome respite from the usual, existentially freighted “what is digital humanities?”). In a kind of answer to this question, Trettien presented and summarized some of her projects, examples of ways to reconfigure scholarship and our ideas about scholarship in a digital context. In my mind, the examples she presented were a “digital” rather than “digitized” humanities, to use Drucker’s dichotomy. Trettien is, in her words, “disbinding from the codex”: working towards a form of presentation of scholarship that is native to the digital realm by virtue of using new facets for interfacing with a text/object that web design makes available. Some examples:

As with Sherratt’s “Real Faces of White Australia” project, these examples illustrate that, to quote Trettien again, “restructuring the interface is a potentially activist enterprise.” These projects, with their destabilization of the role of author, their explicit potential for the multiplication of possible interpretations of the work presented, and their intervention in traditional power structures both inside and outside of their own specific communities, could appear to be more akin to web-based artworks than traditional scholarship. Though it is likely that that undermining of art as “art” and scholarship as “scholarship” is something that the creators would welcome, and which would be dependent on the user.


[1] Jacques Derrida, “Note”, in Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), vii-6.



  1. Hey Erin, I am loving this idea of critique through user-generated interface and the conscious or unconscious choices that are made about how to represent a person or a community in history. It opens up the possibilities to take any official interface, manipulate it, and tell a completely different, hopefully more humanizing, story with the same data, or as you have concisely stated it, “as a means of wresting interpretive authority from the archival institution – authority that is typically concealed or otherwise denied by the institution.” That second part is important to – the design of these interfaces, though they do reflect this institutional authority, are often made to look as cold and objective and authorless as possible. I think you make a good theoretical connection in tracing this new scholarship, exemplified by Sherratt’s project, to Derrida, deconstruction and multiplicity of meanings. I’m sorry to have missed the Digital Salon last week, so thanks for providing some key points from that. I agree with you in that the “What IS digital humanities” question feels heavier than it needs to — what about “How are we using it? What are the new possibilities?”?!

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