Wrongdoing, Digital Humanities, on to Cambridge

DONE with jet-lagged, exhausting yet absorbing two-and-a-half day-conference with seventeen speakers from England, US, Spain, and France on Spanish constructions of “wrongdoing”–criminality, deviation–between 1800 and the beginning of the Civil War in 1936. Although the British Library’s Conference Centre is by all means a pleasant space, I was a little disappointed that it’s in a modern building designed in the late 1970s by Sir Colin St. John Wilson and inaugurated in 1998. When I was first invited I pictured myself in a British Museum-like setting, perorating (in a chic Greek peplos and laurel wreath) in a Borgesian library before an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of bookshelves, and flanked on each side by a stone lion, plus a mummy or two nearby (of course, at academic conferences there’s always a mummy or two nearby).

In reality, the setting looked like this:


In the picture, I am being introduced by Dr. Alison Sinclair of the University of Cambridge, lead organizer not only of this conference but of the impressive research project behind it, which over the course of two years has included a number of meetings, workshops, and exhibits in Cambridge, London, and Madrid, as well as an upcoming edited volume and Facebook (!) exhibition.

Subjects were gory indeed… The legend of the sacamantecas (a bogeyman reputed to kidnap and kill children to sell their fat in medicinal unguents), who jumped from myth to reality with a number of real and imagined serial killers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The contrasting media treatment of two regicide attempts occurred in rapid succession in the 1870s. The class anxieties projected by writers and wider audiences alike onto the recurrent character of the Spanish bandit. The ways in which turn-of-the-century Spanish doctors adopted European scientific (or pseudoscientific) theories of sexuality and degeneration to both invent and explain deviant Spanish subjects (criminals! politicians! frigid women!) in reaction to modern urban realities that actually only half-existed in Spain.

I spoke about a late nineteenth-century homicide trial in Puerto Rico whose outcome revealed the contradictions inherent in “granting” peninsular penal and trial procedures to territories that were still colonies (not entitled to full citizenship or subject to constitutional protection). I think it was well-received, if only based on session questions and comments over lunch. My memory of the talk itself is a blur not only because of the jet lag, but because of the enormous concentration effort it took–English not being my first language–to not mispronounce the word “penal” as “penile,” as I am wont to do (probably because I subconsciously really want to).

One of the most stimulating byproducts of the conference was a very suggestive discussion with two colleagues from the Universidad Complutense and Indiana University (the first of whom is in the process of creating a remarkable digital library of rare and forgotten works from Spain’s Silver Age) about how the exploding “field” of digital humanities–which I have steadfastly been refusing to consider a discipline, as opposed to a research support–could very concretely be made to yield new insights in literary and cultural studies. Will researchers go beyond “meta” talk about how the digital age has produced new ways of thinking and actually integrate “distant” reading of contextual “big data” patterns and “close” reading of detail and nuance to produce new interpretations of cultural production that are qualitatively different from earlier scholarship? Or will they just spew out more and more bibliographic e-compilations and statistical rather than analytical studies?

It was a lively conversation over pints (them) and wine (me), and we really would have gotten somewhere had we not been distracted by Germany’s first goal against France (au revoir, mes amis!). My fault, I confess, since there’s a point near the start of certain games when Einstein and Simone de Beauvoir together waiting to reveal to me the secret of brilliance and success could not catch my attention. And BTW, may I just add that though I love me my Neymar and my Dani, I CANNOT BELIEVE Brasil beat Colombia. I could only watch snippets of the game through a pub window on the way back to the hotel, but something in Denmark seems to stink a lot.

I left London without having had a moment to escape conference grounds. But will be back more than once in the coming week for both work and play. For now, it’s Cambridge, where the lovely Miss L has joined me for punting and prosecco


and other adventures. But I leave that post for some other day.



About WRF

New York-based Spanish Cultural Studies professor and academic author venturing (nervously) into new forms of writing: travel and food-logue, cultural commentary, pseudophilosophical speculation, opinion, reminiscence, prophecy, examination of conscience.
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