In recent years, scholars from across the humanities, including literary critics Stephen Best and Saidiya Hartman, have theorized about how best to account for the silences endemic to the archive of American slavery. These critics call for a shift away from what Best has described as a “logic and ethic of recovery” to a new focus, instead, on animating the mysteries of the past. With the example of James Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved chef (and Sally Hemings’s older brother), this essay shows how a set of techniques associated with the digital humanities—in particular, techniques that derive from the fields of computational linguistics and data visualization—can further illuminate these mysteries. It also describes how the unique demands of the archive of slavery pose challenges to the field of digital humanities as it is currently conceived. By contrasting a set of visualizations of Hemings’s archival trace with Jefferson’s own charts and tables, Klein demonstrates how we must rethink the empiricist epistemology of the visible that endures to this day. After a brief discussion of data visualization as it relates to the construction of race, Klein turns to the issue of labor, and concludes that Hemings’s culinary labor, when considered as techne, can inform discussions of digital labor today.
1 December 2013
Lauren F. Klein; The Image of Absence: Archival Silence, Data Visualization, and James Hemings. American Literature 1 December 2013; 85 (4): 661–688. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00029831-2367310
Download citation file: