Between Literature and Data: Defoe in the Digital Archive

The following presentation was delivered at Denison University in Granville, Ohio on 5th October 2017 at the invitation of the Department of English and Information Technology Services.

I began putting together this presentation by considering two questions that sit at the heart of digital literary studies: How might digital archives be curated to make the intersections of colonialism and capitalism in culture more apparent? How might literary critics create and use data to explore questions of racialization and representation? In posing these questions, my intention is not to prescribe a method for how digital literary studies ought to be done, but rather, to gesture towards points of beginning. How do we start to do digital literary studies? The question of beginnings resonates with me as someone just beginning his doctoral studies because it allows me to reflect on my own introductory experiences in this field and then theorize possibilities for moving ahead.

The fact of digitization has broadened the field of literary-critical analysis by making remotely available documents that were previously locked away in special collections or kept at a distance in museums. Moreover, the remediation that entails digitization permits recontextualization and reinterpretation, allowing us to question how our objects of study signify in different contexts and how they might be reshaped to bring new cultural relations and patterns to light. Beginning to do digital literary studies, as a result, calls on us to engage digital archives as well as explore the use of computational tools and quantitative methods to rethink, test, or refine our theories and present our views in different forms.

My focus here is with curation, which in the museum and library world, involves not only making sure that artifacts are tended to and cared for, but also concerns itself with presenting these artifacts in a manner that endows them with meaning and relevance. Similarly, in digital literary studies, curation involves both the digitization of books, ephemera, and other material objects, as well as their re-presentation in formats that provides a framework for their interpretation. In my talk today, I am going to bracket the discussion of the digitizing aspects of curation, that is, I am not discussing tasks like scanning books, creating metadata that makes these objects findable in databases, and other technicalities of building digital archives and developing related tools. This is an important dimension of curation that directly affects the ways in which the digital object can be used and I welcome the opportunity to talk more about building digital archives in the Q and A. What I am particularly interested in is in the use of existing digital archives and tools. What might we do with the materials that have already been digitized to call attention to the ways in which colonialism and race signify in these archived materials?

I arrived at an answer to this question via my interest in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world and its historical and philosophical context of liberalism, capitalism, and slavery. Through my research and coursework, I observed that in the long eighteenth-century, as genocide and enslavement in the New World and Africa enriched Europe’s metropolitan centers, far-flung territories became entwined with central sites of political and economic power in Europe. As an emerging public sphere in the imperial metropole consolidated notions of citizenship and society along the lines of political liberty and popular sovereignty, a contradictory legitimacy of systems of enforced labor and violent dehumanization marked colonial life and its administration. Print culture played a crucial role in negotiating and mediating this paradox between liberalism and racism, where the colony was frequently represented as being crucial to economic enrichment and social mobility, but the colonized labor that underwrote much of the basis of this wealth was dehumanized and legally enslaved for being “naturally” inferior. As Lisa Lowe argues in her book The Intimacies of Four Continents, the aesthetic forms of liberalism are complicit in racism, slavery, and genocide.

Discourses of freedom, individualism, civility, mobility and free enterprise also innovate new means and forms of subjection, administration, and governance. Lowe cites John Locke, as an exemplar figure, who despite all his talk for natural agency and human equality, owned stock in slave trading companies and was the secretary of the Lords Proprietors of the Carolinas, where he purportedly had a hand in writing a constitution that specifically permitted slavery. In the quotation I have on the slide, we can see his justification for settler colonialism that is expressed via his mixture of agency and labor. Lowe argues that it is precisely such forms of liberal reasoning that provided for colonial settlement, slavery, and indenture.

In a metropolitan center like London, newspapers and periodicals became crucial sites for the negotiation of colonial relations because they directly responded to these contradictions between liberalism and slavery on a regular basis. In discussing the opportunities for gaining wealth in the colonies, in advertising the sale of slaves, and in popularizing views that articulated the nature and scope of English colonial dominance in the pan-European struggle for power, eighteenth-century newspapers and periodicals directly raised questions of agency and enslavement, nationalism and trade, as well as colonialism and national security.

With this context in mind, I began to read English newspapers and periodicals from the eighteenth-century to get a more detailed understanding of the ways in which colonialism and enslavement were justified to uphold notions of socio-economic betterment and forge a national identity that valued liberal freedom and capitalist enterprise. As I scoured digital archives for eighteenth-century newspapers, I came across a collection of Daniel Defoe’s periodical, A Review of the State of the British Nation, which immediately struck me as an interesting find.


Defoe, was a popular writer and participant in the English public sphere. His liberal aesthetics are captured in the formal shape of his popular fictional narratives, where a protagonist-driven plot points towards new forms of individual freedom and political agency, and where his realist settings often depict slave and bonded labor in colonial America and the Caribbean. However, while I was familiar with Defoe’s career as a novelist, I had no idea that prior to writing fiction, he had edited and published his own periodical too. As I glanced through the issues of Defoe’s Review, I noticed that he spent a lot of time discussing the international politics of the slave trade and the crucial role of slave labor in keeping the New World settlements profitable.

I also realized that I had stumbled across a seldom discussed publication of a widely discussed author, and I wanted to think of a way to present this periodical in a manner that facilitates a greater engagement with it. I wanted to enable modes of reading this text that bring the contradictions of liberalism and slavery to light and show how the peripheral colony shaped discourse in the metropolitan public sphere. Moreover, I wanted to use this text as an invitation to the digital archive, to give readers an opportunity to see firsthand the weird conventions and uncanny familiarity of eighteenth-century print culture and public discourse.

And so I began digitally curating Defoe’s Review.

At this moment, I would encourage you all to visit the link on the slide to see and futz around with the exhibit that I made. I built this exhibit using Neatline, a suite of tools developed by the Scholars’ Lab at the University of Virginia, to create an interactive online exhibit. Neatline allows users to tell stories or make arguments using maps and timelines, which suits my purposes very well. In my map, I showcase the many links between Africa, Europe, and the New World found in the Review, and the associated timeline builds a sense of chronology into this exhibit by curating issues of the Review based on their dates of publication. The circles on the map refer to colonial territories and nation-states, and the lines connecting these circles are hyperlinks to specific articles in the Review that bring questions of colonialism and slavery to light. The direction of the lines are based on the places being discussed in the article. As you can see, the design of the exhibit centers our attention on the Caribbean, ultimately seeking to bring an anti-eurocentric perspective to what Defoe might have considered an avowedly Eurocentric text. In establishing the Caribbean as the area of focus, I strive towards placing disparate geographies in relentless relation and highlighting the operation of a transnational political economy based on slavery that shaped public discourse.

Clicking on any one of the lines in the exhibit, or clicking on the dates in the timeline below, opens an additional window that contains an image of a page from the Review discussing colonialism, race, or slavery as well as a short quotation from the article. So if we click 3 January 1712 in the timeline, it pulls the issue of the Review that was published on that date and provides an excerpt from the article. Defoe writes, “The absolute Necessity we are in to encourage this [African] trade, for the support of that most Inestimable Article of the British trade OUR PLANTATIONS. These can no more subsist without Negroes, than England could without horses.” In a succinct two sentences, we see these intimacies between global capitalism, slavery, and racialization that I had discussed earlier. Defoe’s writing shows how liberal forms of public expression like the newspaper or periodical article were used to promote trade and free enterprise, but they also perpetuated the dehumanization of non-white peoples and legitimized their enslavement as being in the national interest. The other articles that I have curated from the Review tell a similar story. If a reader might be further interested in reading more of the Review, then clicking on the page image opens a new tab that redirects to the HathiTrust Digital Library, from where I sourced these images. Once in the HathiTrust, the reader can download or read more issues from the Review, or search and explore this digital archive’s massive collection. My exhibit thus strives to work as a gateway to this amazing free resource, inviting readers to take their own trip down the rabbit hole of the archive.

Curation allows us to closely read objects in digital archives and then present our findings in multimodal and interactive ways. It is an approach towards framing archival contents to audiences who might be unacquainted with their historical and philosophical contexts. Curation begins to do digital literary studies by bringing literary historical theories to bear on digital objects. It communicates ways of reading these objects through a heightened sensitivity to the affordances of digital media, allowing us to reach publics in inviting ways.

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