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  • Translatio Studii and the Poetics of the Digital Archive:Early American Literature, Caribbean Assemblages, and Freedom Dreams
  • Elizabeth Maddock Dillon (bio)

1. Introduction: The Coloniality of Knowledge and American Literature

Translatio studii—literally, the "transfer" or "translation" of knowledge—speaks of Western imperial triumphalism, from the medieval origins of the term to its eighteenth-century association with the movement of the seat of culture from Greece and Rome, to Europe, and ultimately to America. Closely associated with translatio imperii—the celebration of an imperial movement of power from east to west—translatio studii resonates both with respect to the turn to the archive in US literary studies and with respect to the histories of colonialism and empire embedded in those archives. In short, the notion of a transfer of knowledge in the Americas is deeply enmeshed with a politics of empire.1 The intimate relation of the two—translatio studii and translatio imperii—makes visible what we might call the coloniality of knowledge, the extent to which forms of knowledge and power are deeply related to one another in American archives and in our uses of them. The large-scale remediation of archival materials into digital form that marks the latest turn [End Page 248] in US literary scholarship must also—as I argue in what follows—be viewed in relation to both translation and imperial domination.

The assertion that power shapes the archive is not a new one: theorists of the archive, from Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault to Saidiya Hartman and Michel-Rolph Trouillot, have persuasively described how power informs the archive and the extent to which the archive itself manifests the entwined nature of knowledge and power.2 Yet, as Ann Laura Stoler points out, the knowledge/power nexus is forged both by way of the contents of archives (the decision as to whose lives and records are deemed worth preserving) and their form; an archive is not an "inert site of storage and conservation" but is rather a "site of knowledge production" where we can trace "the grids of intelligibility that produced … 'evidential paradigms' at a particular time, for a particular social contingent, in a particular way" (90–91). The coloniality of knowledge is lodged in this grid of intelligibility—in the ways of framing information that determine what constitutes facticity, what constitutes (and does not constitute) the human. The form of an archive—what comprises an item, how the coordinates or metadata of an item are defined such that the item can serve as a unit of knowledge—speak of and construct the "legitimating social coordinates of epistemologies" (95).

In the case of US literature's turn to the archive, the issue of coloniality is particularly pressing, not simply because of the colonial origins of the US, but because of the ongoing nature of that history in the present. "Coloniality" (as opposed to "colonial") names the way in which colonial forms of power and knowledge extend from the period of the European colonization of America into the global present. Following Sylvia Wynter, we may put an even more exact point on the nature of colonial power: colonial power works to implicitly or explicitly distinguish human life that is worth sustaining from "life unworthy of life"—a division used, in turn, to justify and enact the extraction of labor and resources from colonial sites for the purposes of capital accumulation (Scott and Wynter 180). Furthermore, the colonial modes of racialization and dehumanization that operate in the service of capitalism are not simply a thing of the past: as Lisa Lowe argues,

The operations that pronounce colonial divisions of humanity—settler seizure and native removal, slavery and racial dispossession, and racialized expropriations of many kinds—are imbricated processes, not sequential events; they are ongoing and continuous in our contemporary moment, not temporally distinct or as yet concluded. In this sense, the coloniality of world history is not a single brute event but, rather, one that governs and calibrates being and society in an ongoing way.

(92) [End Page 249]

In sum, while the colonial period may be stored away in the past, coloniality has the capacity to shape both how archives were created and how they are...


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