Rethinking South Asia via Critical Digital A(na)rchiving: Politics, Im/Possible Ethics, and Anti/Aesthetics

RSA-CDA is attempting at taking a step toward decolonizing and depatriarchalizing non/mainstream narratives of archives, digital archives, and digitalism via two intersecting levels: building a digital archive and theorizing it as endlessly as possible to make an impossibility of building ‘organic’ (digital) archive evident. RSA-CDA is performed in collaboration with and support of a South Asian Research Center in Nepal: Center for Advanced Studies in South Asia (CASSA)

More about RSA-CDA:

RSA-CDA research engages in conversation with theories and praxes of digital archiving through decolonial and depatriarchal lenses. Through this work, I am building a critical digital archive of street photography in Kathmandu Valley, Nepal. As I build this archive, I am documenting-theorizing precarities, negotiations, and affordances that encompass digital archiving practices (I am writing articles and dissertation alongside). Through this project, I attempt to both understand and perform methods and approaches of decolonizing and depatriarchalizing the non/mainstream narratives of epistemes, archives, digital archives, design, and digitalism.

My desire to build and theorize a critical digital archive is triggered, especially, by an insistence on theorizing and resisting stereotypes regarding Non-Western countries, South Asia, and Nepal that became even more visible and prominent after I moved to the US. In the US, I encountered multiple episodes of either people not knowing where I am from or concluding things about me in an absolute manner before even waiting to know me, or being surprised when I did not meet the stereotypes that mainstream discourses have constructed about the people and place I come from.

Engendered by this phenomenon, my research emerges through a significant urgency: a desire to build a depatriarchal-decolonial digital archive that can extend and problematize representations of non-Western communities (such as Nepal) in online spaces. This project requires interdisciplinary, cross-cultural, critical and practical conversations and collaborations, particularly when this work is situated in locations that do not have formal infrastructures for supporting Critical Digital Humanities research. This demand and desire for interdisciplinary methodologies are necessary to address the shifting epistemological-ontological-axiological ecologies of knowledge production and dissemination and to create a pedagogical atmosphere that transgresses current pedagogical limitations. To find ways to overcome these institutional and organizational constraints and to bring forth multiple narratives that are easily overshadowed by the dominant and much disseminated algorithmic exotic or damaging narratives, I work through the following research questions:

  • What kind of rhetoric of resistance is embedded in the movements like "digital archive back" and “occupy the digital archive”? What does it mean to say/perform it?
  • What happens when not-so-mainstream locations of resistance attempt at building a decolonial and depatriarchal digital archive? What are those precarities, negotiations, and affordances such praxes of resistance encounter?
  • How can depatriarchal-decolonial digital archive be built in a non-representational manner?

These questions are prompted by the recognition that digital archiving performed through historically marginalized and oppressed locations is not only an act of interrogation from the outside. Rather, this process uses the language and tools of the institution to decenter the same institution. Matthew Kurtz (2006), showing that odd affinity between postcolonialism and archiving, writes that an archive “is a literal re-centering of material for the construction and contestation of knowledge, whereas postcolonialism often works toward a figurative decentering of that same material.” After studying rhetorical theory and practice of decolonial digital archiving for some time now, I came to comprehend that the narratives of resistance of digital archiving performed from and as a location of resistance with the slogans like ‘decolonizing archives’ or ‘occupy digital archives’ are significantly non-linear. And this non-linearity and unavailability of readymade user’s manual to ‘digital archive back’ are opportunities for rhetoricians and compositionists to practice techne – which points to “a heterogeneous history of practices performed in the interstices between intention and subjection, choice and necessity, activity and passivity” (Beisecker, 1992) –of decolonial-depatriarchal digital archiving. My research –which in itself is an attempt to practice that techne –is an interrogation of the possibilities embedded in digital archiving work.

Where is RSA-CDA right now?

As of March 2019, RSA-CDA is in its preliminary stage of building a digital archiving of my street photography in Kathmandu Valley, Nepal. Right now, I am conducting regular user-experience (UX) testing of my digital archive with different non/academic non/Nepali audiences. The prototype of CDA was presented in CASSA Annual Conference on Asian Studies, 25-27 October 2018 (Kathmandu) for the first round of feedback and recommendation. The second round of UX testing was done with the researchers and mentors of Multilingual UX Center at UTEP. The focus was multifaceted. For instance, choosing banner images; writing homepage text; deciding themes for exhibition; experimenting with the nature of metadata (so that even if I am using CMS platform Omeka with Dublin Core metadata schema, I can experiment with the structure without having to completely abide by it). 

I am hoping to build the first prototype of RSA-CDA by the end of 2019. As I have thousands of photographs of Kathmandu streets to be uploaded, the first round of uploading them and inserting metadata will take a couple of years. But the project itself will have no final completion. Creating an archive, digital or not, and giving it a finality is an impossible task. I acknowledge what an impossible task and also a problematic task building a critical digital archive is. But I also recognize what a necessary task it is to weave multidimensional narratives, to challenge existing imaginations, to inspire different imaginations, and also to provoke the knowledge that no imagination should be final imaginations. RSA-CDA is performing through a double bind of: problematizing any claims of ‘organic’ representation any archives and building a digital archive to deconstruct it, to expose the self-destructive forces that are already there in such claims and archives.

The goal is to take journeys that are political, ethical, philosophical, and aesthetic. 

Further Plan:

Through this research, I am also attempting to build a collaborative space between UTEP and two South Asian research centers in Nepal: South Asian Foundation for Academic Research (SAFAR) and Center for Advanced Studies in South Asia (CASSA), where I am the Overseas Digital Humanities Consultant. Hence, as a very important part of my dissertation and an initiation of this collaborative project, I and my professor Dr. Laura Gonzales are going to Nepal to give to a 3-week Digital Humanities workshop in the Summer of 2019. In addition to facilitating these workshops, I will be conducting user-experience (UX) testing of my digital archive and conducting interviews of the Nepal Studies and South Asian Studies scholars and researchers as a participatory approach to build this digital archive. After engaging in UX testing and conducting interviews, I will do another round of the street photography in collaboration with the Urban Studies scholars to incorporate other narratives in my digital archive.

About me: 


I am currently a Doctoral student and Assistant Instructor in Rhetoric and Writing Studies program at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). My research areas are South Asian Studies, Critical Digital Archiving, Critical Digital Humanities, and Philosophy of Photography.

Since 2013, with the supervision of academics of IACER, Columbia University, and Princeton University, I am engaged in South Asian Studies: New Regionalism project. The study is a cutting edge critique of regionalism and area studies with the team-work of front line academics of global significance.

I am also faculty at Institute of Advanced Communication, Education, and Research (IACER), Pokhara University since 2013. And my areas of teaching are Literary Theory, Cultural Studies, South Asian Studies, and Postcolonial Studies.

I am also a Researcher and Honorary Overseas Digital Humanities Consultant at CASSA