Duke University Press is excited to partner with the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture in the launch of Nicholas Mirzoeff's "We Are All Children of Algeria: Visuality and Countervisuality 1954-2011," a digital extension of his recent book The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality. With support from the Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the ANVC aims to lessen the gap between digital visual archives and scholarly publication by allowing scholars to work more organically with visual resources, creating interpretive pathways through the materials and enabling new forms of analysis. Mirzoeff began this project as part of an NEH Summer Institute at USC. In it, he develops and supplements the second half of chapter six of The Right to Look, which looks at cinema in revolutionary Algeria (1954-2011). The piece offers the opportunity to see the films and other visual materials discussed in that chapter and to develop the connections between the decolonial revolutions of the postwar period and the Arab Spring. We are
pleased to introduce the project with an interview between Mirzoeff and Tara McPherson of USC, who heads up the Scalar team.
Tara McPherson: The Right to Look stages a broad investigation of the protracted interplay between visuality and countervisuality in a variety of historical moments. It traverses geography, temporality, and ideology with impressive range and scope. What's to be added by a digital afterword? Why were you interested in producing "We Are All Children of Algeria?"
Nicholas Mirzoeff: Any writer is tormented at the end of a long project by what they've had to leave out. That's especially true for the section of my book that became my Scalar project dealing with the Algerian Revolution (1954-62) and its representations across global media both in the period of the war and in its long afterlife as a symbol of the unfinished debates over decolonization and, more recently, the relationship of Islam and Europe. The digital platform allowed me to explore that complexity in new ways that highlight its openness and the different understandings that are generated from particular viewpoints.
I wanted to make this project because this form is so obviously important for the present and future of publishing in my areas of interest that it seemed indispensable to experience it firsthand.
TM: You've chosen to produce this digital companion in a new authoring platform, Scalar. Why not just use your popular blog for circulating this material? Is there some special affordance of the platform for your particular goals with this piece?
NM: I see the two forms of digital media that I work in as being related but distinct. Blogging is a format that expands how it's possible to write and think in relation to the contemporary. It makes a form over time. Scalar allows me to share a wide range of North African and European cinema, newsreel footage, guerrilla documentary and photography with the reader in a way that is obviously not possible in print. Unlike a blog, or at least one using an off-the shelf template, I have a great deal of freedom as to the look, layout and design of each "page," which can vary from one to the next.
More than that, it allows me to explore a more complex form of narrative in which multiple threads (or "paths" as Scalar calls them) can be developed. This opens up a new set of possibilities for comparative and cross-cultural work that have only just begun to explore in digital humanities work but which I think are among its most fruitful possibilities.
TM: I find this very interesting. It seems you are pushing toward a form of writing that can embrace both linearity and multiplicity. This points toward a real potential for collaborative writing as well, bringing together multiple authors in a manner that can support both commonality and difference. Can you imagine such a mode of writing in the platform?
NM: Collaboration is built into Scalar. Each project is a collaboration between designers, author(s) and other people who are using the platform. The next step, however, is the one you hint at here. What I hope to do with a research project beginning next year is to create Scalar pieces in which a variety of authors work on one collective "book."
My feeling is that, in order for this work, we have to begin the research at the same time as we begin thinking about the outcome in Scalar. If you come with a batch of material primarily generated with a print monograph or solo project in mind--what we might call the Vectors model--then the "mono" part remains paramount.
Technically, the different "paths" in a Scalar project could be assigned to different authors and they could be in discussion so that when a point of intersection is reached in their researches, they co-author a page at that place of intersection, which would then feature in all of their "paths."
It all promises to be a lot of fun!
Once again, here is a link to the project: http://scalar.usc.edu/nehvectors/mirzoeff/index