BMCR 2022.12.24

Is a Digital Review a Global Review?

This paper was first presented at BMCR’s 30th anniversary celebration in October 2022.


Morag Kersel and I both took as our jumping-off point the recent BMCR essay of Brent Nongbri, “The Ethics of Publication: Papyrology,” working from our different disciplinary perspectives. Nongbri’s essay addresses issues around “the damaging legacy of colonial exploitation of global resources” very much in material terms, as one would expect from his focus on papyri. But there are also major philosophical issues at stake.

In the course of his essay, Nongbri quotes from the Nigerian-American archaeologist and anthropologist Akinwumi Ogundiran: “The pursuit of knowledge is intimately connected to the global dynamics of social, economic, and political inequality.”[1]

It is this thought that I’d like to dwell on.

From its beginnings, as we have learned from James O’Donnell in this series, BMCR has been committed to spreading the opportunity to pursue knowledge as widely as possible. On the most basic level—but in a way that was visionary 32 years ago—it has realized this through its digital format and free dissemination. When I first became involved with BMCR when I arrived at Bryn Mawr 20 years ago, I argued that we should publish reviews in languages other than English if we wanted our reach to be more global—and we did, and still do. We proudly boast that our website has traffic from every country in the world except for North Korea—which is, in a way, a very sad statistic, if you think about it from the point of view of North Korea… not because people there have been deprived of the opportunity to read BMCR, of course, but because of what it tells us about the general state of deprivation and constraint, that they do not have the opportunity to pursue independently any form of knowledge.

And that shift of focus leads directly to the questions that I want to pose here: What dynamics have been occluded in the global reach of BMCR? In what ways might we be contributing to the “global dynamics of social, economic and political inequality,” to repeat Ogundiran, however well-intentioned we are? A review that is digitally produced and delivered looks like a transparent mode for the enhancement of global knowledge—but is it? In short: is a digital review also a global review?

Obviously, there are data-driven ways of providing an answer to that question—we can establish who writes our reviews, who reads them, what platforms our reviews can be received on, people’s access to those platforms, that sort of thing, and Camilla MacKay will be examining these avenues in this thirtieth anniversary series. But I want to try to explore the philosophical substrate of the question.[2]

One of the interesting corollaries of the digital revolution is that it has coincided with a fresh emphasis on the opposite of the digital—on materiality, on provenance, on characteristics of old-fashioned analog information both problematic and generative. It’s no coincidence, for example, that the study of the history of the book in all its contingency and materiality has risen and flourished in pretty much precisely the same decades as BMCR’s birth and growth. The attention of Nongbri and others to the materiality of papyri and the ethical problems posed by their recovery and publication is also exemplary of this trend towards the opposite of the digital; Morag Kersel’s contribution addresses some of these issues.

But while we give our attention to the complexity of material traces, are we ignoring the complex ethics of the digital? Are we treating the digital dissemination of information as somehow transparent, uncomplicated, and equitable?

Again: is a digital review also a global review?

As the quote from Ogundiran suggests, the simple invocation of the “global” fails to acknowledge the colonial exploitation of global resources. It sounds straightforward, but it occludes the question: global for whom? The question is whether we at BMCR are in some way perpetuating that colonial exploitation by digital means. Precisely because of the potential reach of digital information, situatedness has never been more important, the situatedness of the individual recipient of information—and by that I mean quite literally, where the reader is in the world, what their political and material context might be, and so on. And the digital delivery of information makes that full notion of situatedness almost entirely invisible—even as the reader’s literal location can be easily traced.

What does it mean for the sources of knowledge to be so deracinated? While the sharing of information is crucial, it is never uncomplicated. If we are somehow recolonizing knowledge through digital means, bestowing our own patterns of epistemology on the world, we need to think about how to counteract that.

One basic issue is to think about the question of in what our implicit claims to share knowledge reside. By that I mean, what concepts are we taking for granted as universal—and what space are we making in those concepts to recognize the claims of others?

To give one small but consequential example: the mode of publication of BMCR, and the comprehensive way in which reviews can be archived, seems ideal for inviting further comments on a given review. Any of you who has ever written a review for BMCR will know that it’s one of the most reliable sources of scholarly instant-gratification that there is: as soon as your review has come out—sometimes even before you’re aware that it’s out—you get a little cascade of appreciative and/or critical responses by email. It seemed a great idea to make that little cascade into something more official and publicly available, and so—a few years ago—the “Comments” space on the archive page was born. The directions are quite clear. I excerpt: “BMCR provides the opportunity to comment on reviews in order to enhance scholarly communication. Comments are moderated. We ask that comments be substantive in content and civil in tone…” – and with that one word, “civil,” we instantly undo some of our goal of enhancing scholarly communication. Because that is one of those concepts that some of us take for granted as self-explanatory and that others find mystifying or forbidding. It is as if, in opening our house to strangers, we have said to them without further explanation, “While you’re here, please follow the appropriate etiquette.” Moreover, a fair amount of research has showed that the concepts of “civility” and “civilization” are deeply embedded in a colonialist and neo-colonialist value system, with all the racism and assertion of cultural hegemony that that implies. So what looks like a generous invitation—and for some people, is one—is liable to instil anxiety and to exclude as much as it invites. Something that looks universal—or global, we might say—collapses in the particularity of an individual encounter.

I have been thinking recently about how to look at the universal, and claims about the universal, from a non-Eurocentric perspective (and in “Eurocentrism” I comprehend also the Anglo-American academy). Trying to think outside my own cultural framework, I have been drawing on the work of the Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu, who died earlier this year. Some of his thinking falls along similar lines to the notion of cosmopolitanism developed by his compatriot Kwame Anthony Appiah, but it comes from a place of significantly less social and institutional privilege. Wiredu’s principal work is entitled Cultural Universals and Particulars—and subtitled “An African Perspective.” As you might guess from the title, Wiredu is committed to the belief that there are indeed such things as cultural universals (he writes at one point, “Stated most baldly, my thesis is that there is such a thing as the objective validity of an idea”[3]). His universals are most notably first, the notion that human morality is grounded in impartiality and sympathy, and second—most relevant here—that there are cognitive universals. However, the fault lines of these cognitive universals may not lie quite where we in the Eurocentric tradition might expect when they are looked at from an African perspective, and specifically from the Akan perspective that is Wiredu’s own tradition.

Consider, for example, Wiredu’s treatment of the Cartesian cogito ergo sum—which has of course undergone interrogation from within the European tradition, from at least Nietzsche onwards,[4] but which receives a different reorientation in Wiredu’s thought. Placing the cogito in conversation specifically with Akan thought, his own tradition, he points out that in the Akan language the statement “I think, therefore I am” is meaningless, or at least incomplete, because “the concept of existence … is intrinsically spatial …; to exist is to be there, at some place.”[5] Descartes’ conception of the cogito, however, “implied that the ‘I,’ the ego, exists as a spiritual, non-spatial, immaterial identity.” Wiredu goes on:

There is, of course, nothing sacrosanct about the linguistic categories of Akan thought. But, given the prima facie incoherence of the Cartesian suggestion within the Akan conceptual framework, an Akan thinker who scrutinizes the matter in his or her own language must feel the need for infinitely more proof of intelligibility than if s/he contemplated it in English or some cognate language.

He adds:

[T]he implications of the Akan conception of existence for many notable doctrines of Western metaphysics and theology require the most rigorous examination.

It makes no sense, for example, to talk about a transcendent divine being. Being cannot transcend space, because it must be somewhere; and so if a god exists, that god cannot transcend space either.

The studied neutrality of tone belies the fact that Wiredu sees the Eurocentric notion of universals as deeply bound up with unexpressed patterns of cultural (or we might say colonial) domination. This interrogation from outside, he argues, will work to refine and nuance these universals, and to expose their truly universal properties. As a recent essay on Wiredu by South African scholar Uchenna Okeja observes:

[Wiredu’s] notion of cultural particulars and universals challenges philosophy in two ways. On the one hand, cultural particulars demand that philosophy should provide plausible justification for its claims to universality in a way that is not parochially limited to the assumptions of particular traditions of philosophy. On the other hand, however, cultural universals demand that philosophy should account for the possibility of dialogue among philosophers from diverse backgrounds.[6]

I find this intellectual commitment to reaching for common ground, while shifting the sense of exactly where that ground might lie, very moving; and I also find in it a potential model for BMCR as it moves forward. I am not saying, of course, that these issues should be explicitly explored in every review. But I am suggesting that reviews should be attentive to the structures of knowledge that they are promoting, given our globally disparate readership; even, that reviewers should think carefully about the grounds for the value judgements they are making. Who are we inviting into the conversation? Who are we leaving out? What perspectives could shift, with a more systematic articulation of assumptions—like Wiredu with Descartes?

None of this is to disparage the extraordinary record of BMCR. On the contrary: it is to see our journal, as it moves into its next thirty years, as a site of wider opportunity. We need to keep moving and expanding our reach—not because of some neo-capitalist teleology of necessary growth, but because of the potential for intellectual expansion that our relatively nimble journal format affords.

The friend and colleague who introduced me to Wiredu’s work is also a Ghanaian philosopher, Caesar Atuire. Caesar wrote in the early confused months of the Covid lockdown a wonderfully clear-headed article called “Black Lives Matter and the Removal of Racist Statues”—and subtitled, perhaps in tribute to Wiredu, “Perspectives of an African.”  Towards the end of that piece, he writes, “This debate is not about statues, it is about how to position ourselves today given the common and unequal past we share.”[7] This is the issue for BMCR too. I’m not talking about reviews as such; I’m not talking about classics and its purview and its boundaries and how to fiddle with those in the name of inclusion. I’m exhorting us to think about “how to position ourselves today, given the common and unequal past we share.”



[1] Akinwumi Ogundiran, “The License of Power in African Art,” African Arts 53 (2020), 18-19.

[2] A set of essays on “Classics after Covid” in this year’s spring edition of TAPA includes one on “Digital Classics” and one on “Global Classics,” but the two are written from rather different points of view and are not in conversation with each other. (Neither, incidentally, mentions BMCR.) My thoughts here resonate more closely with those of Mathura Umachandran in the same issue, who calls for an inquiry into the “critical knowledge-making practices” of the discipline (p. 27). See Mathura Umachandran, “Disciplinecraft: Towards an Anti-racist Classics,” Shadi Bartsch, “Global Classics,” and Joel P. Christensen, “Digital Classics,” all in TAPA 152: 1 (Spring 2022).

[3] Kwasi Wiredu, Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective (Indiana University Press, 1996), p. 51.

[4] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, ch. 1.17.

[5] Wiredu, Cultural Universals and Particulars, p. 141; also the following quote.

[6] Uchenna Okeja, “On Cultural Universals and Particulars,” in Debating African Philosophy: Perspectives on Identity, Decolonial Ethics and Comparative Philosophy ed. George Hull (Routledge, 2019), 182-194; quote from 193.

[7] Caesar Alimsinya Atuire, “Black Lives Matter and the Removal of Racist Statues: Perspectives of an African,” in 21: Inquiries into Art, History, and the Visual 2 (2020), pp. 449-467; quote from p. 466.