Digital Diasporic Religion

Below please find session abstracts followed by discussion questions.

“Dispersion and the Digital: A Report on Ongoing Archival Work at the Nidhe Israel Synagogue and Museum in Barbados”
Amalia S. Levi (Nidhe Israel Synagogue and Museum)

Recently the non-profit Barbados Synagogue Restoration Project (BSRP) has partnered with the Digital Library of the Caribbean in order to digitize and make available online its records that span 40 years and reflect on its activities during that time, namely a) restoration of the synagogue, b) conservation of the cemetery, c) establishment of a museum, d) discovery of a ritual bath, and e) rehabilitation of the surrounding block. The need to contextualize these records led to a quest for the archival traces of the Jewish community in Barbados all over the globe. Dating back to the early 1600s, the history of the Jews on the island is a prime example of diasporic dispersion and is closely intertwined with European, North American, and Latin American/Caribbean history. Through the community’s ethnic and kin relationships, a vast, transatlantic network of people and goods can be traced in archival documents that exist in collections worldwide. How do we reconstruct this network? Our presentation will focus on the possibilities that new technologies engender for such work, alongside more traditional historical methods. Efforts in archives and libraries, promoting interoperability among collections and placing emphasis on data curation; in computer science, benefitting humanities research, such as machine learning applications on historical documents; and in digital humanities, bringing forth innovative understandings of time and place, are all developments that have great potential for conducting diasporic research. Thus our presentation will also discuss how in a globalized world a synergy among disciplines and collaboration with colleagues is necessary. We will focus on next steps in our work and would like to introduce the idea of constructing a prosopography of the community that will entail name authorities and geographical linked open data, and discuss its value for historians and digital humanists. We will welcome suggestions and comments by the audience.

“Digital Diaspora and the ‘Divine Mother’: The Emancipatory Politics of Social Media for Indo-Caribbean Ecstatic Religion”
Stephanie L. Jackson (The Graduate Center of the City University of New York)

Attempts made by practitioners of ecstatic forms of Indo-Caribbean goddess worship in recent years to access, interact with, and consume new digital media technology are profoundly reshaping the perceptions of so-called “Madrasi religion” which remains largely stigmatized and marginalized within Guyanese, Trinidadian and Indo-Caribbean American popular imaginations. Given the widespread perception of Madrasi Religion among Guyanese and Trinidadians as secretive and occultist, the increased visibility and accessibility of digitized Madrasi religious icons disseminated via global social media platforms, especially Facebook, is a case study in the ways technology affords individuals with sociocultural capital sutured with notions of race and diasporic identities emboldened by neoliberal ideologies (Nardi 2014). On the one hand, I demonstrate how particular social media practices, especially the circulation of devotional songs, prayers, and iconic images, enact spaces with emancipatory effects for Indo-Caribbean ecstatic religious practitioners as acts of self-assertion enabled through virtual interactions, to experience an “infinite expansibility” through virality (Faulkner and Rue 2011) (e.g., “friending” Tamil-speaking individuals who are themselves curious about “Madrasis” of the Caribbean which spark mutual consolidation of a global “Tamil diaspora.”) At the same time, I argue that online platforms and the use of digital technology are a form of labor, rather than simply decentralized and neutral forms of mass communication, which (re)define relations of powers for Indo-Caribbeans who navigate racial and gendered social terrains.

“Transgressive Islamic ‘Brownness’: Disruptive Racial and Cultural Formations Within Feminist Muslim Latina and South Asian Communities” 
Samina Gul Ali (University of Miami)

My presentation examines the racialized intersections of ethnic and religious female identities among South Asian and Latina Muslim communities in New York City and Miami from the 1990s to present. Examining self-archival practices, digital media representations of self-narrative, and literary productions, this project interrogates how two different but overlapping racial and ethnic diasporas of Muslim women reimagine creolized “brown” subjectivities within U.S. politics of pigmentation. The project asks: If these women are not represented in traditional literary canons, how are they expressing their multifaceted subjectivities through digital media (blogs/YouTube/social media.) and narratives of shared experiences or other contemporary social/digital apparatuses used to construct identity? Digital sources for this presentation focus on The Hijabi Chronicles – a Muslim women’s Hip Hop collective that addresses issues of race and gender by showcasing music and dance art forms by Muslim American women, (https://www.facebook.com/TheHijabiChronicles) – and The International Museum of Women Muslima, an online art museum devoted to Muslim women’s creative works (http://muslima.globalfundforwomen.org/). These digital texts are placed in conversation with social media interactions and individual interviews of racially and ethnically diverse Latina and South Asian American Muslim women, analyzing how these Muslim brown women see themselves developing overlapping diasporic formations and where they find or create identity narratives within our globalized culture. This multi-faceted approach to what we consider a “text” highlights under-theorized creative texts that magnify feminist intimacies between Muslim American women of different ethnicities. Multiplicities of racialized Islam, what I consider a new type of “brownness,” open up unexplored terrain for identity politics in these cities that encompass intersections of how adjacent brown communities situate themselves culturally, traditionally, and in a “modern” city landscape.

 

Questions for Reflection
Alessandra Benedicty-Kokken (City College, CUNY)

Amalia S. Levi’s work uses the digital to study the archeological, while Stephanie Jackson’s and Samina Gul Ali’s projects use religious and/or literary studies to study digital and social media. While each of the three projects deals with a distinct religious social formation—Judaism, Indo-Caribbean Ecstatic, and Islam, respectively—they all quite excitingly point to complementary dynamics in the construction of gender, race, and ethnicity, what Amalia Levi refers to as “identity palimpsests.” Given these correspondences across divergent spiritual-cultural identities, how do you read your work as particularly “Caribbean”? Or perhaps this question can be posed more simply: how might the work of Caribbean theorists like Antonio Benítez-Rojo, Maryse Condé, Édouard Glissant, Stuart Hall, and/or Sylvia Wynter inform or resonate (if at all) with your research questions and/or outcomes?

Scholars such as Philomena Essed and Kwame Nimako assert ethnicity as a problematic concept, one that refers to a certain cultural exoticism of the marginalized other and/or implies that the marginalized other has accepted a certain level of assimilation to a white order. By contrast, the use of the word race asserts itself more contentiously, as a concept that lays claim to rights and justice for oppressed communities. In other words, for Essed and Nimako, a white order feels much more comfortable using the word ethnic than it does the word race.

My questions then are:

  • How does the word ethnic function in your work?
  • How does it work differently than the word race?
  • How does the digital world continue to privilege whiteness, or does it? And if it does not privilege whiteness, does it subvert it, or does the digital world allow for a certain autonomy from a repressive racialized order-of-things? Or again, more simply put: how does the digital as an object and/or method of research allow for what Samina Gul Ali refers to as the ability to “reimagine creolized subjectivities?”