The Past's Digital Presence, February 19-20, 2010


03 - Digital Politics and Society: "Towards an Ethics of Electronic Research: Accounting for Absence in the Jefferson Digital Archive"

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The Jefferson Digital Archive, hosted by the University of Virginia Electronic Text Center, contains nearly 2000 letters written to or from Thomas Jefferson, an annotated bibliography of scholarship about the President, a virtual tour of the UVA campus he helped to create, and more. By most measures, the Jefferson Digital Archive appears to encompass the full range of his life and work. But much like his own written records, the Jefferson archive merely hints at the presence of his many slaves. Using the example of James Hemings, whom Jefferson took to France and had trained as his personal chef, and yet whose contributions go unrecorded in the Jefferson archive, this paper asks: How does one account for absence in the digital archive? What are the techniques of interpretation that are required in order to move “from sense to reference” in online research?[i] How can—or should—a digital archive supply the critical context for such interpretive techniques? And is there an ethical responsibility to acknowledge absence on the part of the archive, itself? Synthesizing scholarship on the ethics of literary criticism with my own experience of using the Jefferson archive for my dissertation research, I will demonstrate the ways in which the traces of James Hemings can be detected in the Jefferson Digital Archive, and illustrate how his historical shadow both exposes the “ethical dimension” of the digital archive and suggests a model for an ethics of electronic research.[ii]

[i] Paul Ricoeur, “The Model of the Text,” Social Research 51.1 (1984) 214.

[ii] Derek Attridge, The Singularity of Literature (New York: Routledge, 2004) 130.

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This Article is Open Access