Before it’s obsolete…

Two weeks ago I attended the Digital Africas Symposium at Amherst College. Since then, I’ve been trying to make space to process some new, and some returning, questions connected to my research and scholarship.

First, the experience itself was wonderful. The more I attend small, thematic conferences and symposia like this, the more I finally see the point of all of this travel we do as academics. The large, annual meetings of our disciplinary associations of course have their purposes—and in fact it was a connection made at MLA almost four years ago that eventually led to my attendance at Digital Africas! But it is so easy to get lost in the massive program books, the long lines for coffee, and the hundreds of attendees, it’s often difficult to find those who are (literally) speaking our language. But I digress…

My own talk was partly about the idea of obsolescence, and there were several moments where I felt resonances with other scholars and our concerns on this idea. Jennifer Bajorek spoke about visual artist Fatimah Tuggar’s mixed technology works, like the Fai-fain gramophone, mixing raffia disk-LPs with an old turntable. Forms of technology we think of as passé in fact still have cultural significance, and I love how Tuggar’s work plays with this. Marisa Parham referenced a digital project she is working on with an outside partner, an interactive, online exhibit of African-American music that is dying because the support for it, Flash, is going away. Her solution to preserving this valuable archive? Return to the data, store it in spreadsheet form that becomes endlessly malleable in whatever new platforms come along.

Our final conversation of the weekend brought up concerns about obsolescence for me again, both practical and theoretical: what form will our scholarship take to be shared with the world? Can we find a form or method that will be 1) accessible (particularly to those on African continent), 2) stable (when then next Flash meets its demise), 3) accepted by the conventional academic gatekeepers (for us junior scholars needing to build a tenure file), and 4) published while all of our ideas are still relevant? A tall order. We find ourselves bumping up against very real practical considerations of structural pressures inherent to our academic positions.

Despite fears of obsolescence, I leave these inconclusive thoughts here, in a space that I hope has the time to grow and fill up with lots of ideas before blogs are too démodé.

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