The “‘Poor Sinners’ Pamphlets'”

“‘Poor Sinners’ Pamphlets’” is a history of the evolving relationship among body, text, and technology from the perspective of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European criminology documents. Developed in my joint graduate and undergraduate seminar in the digital humanities (AL 340 / AL 891, Spring 2016), this site offers scholars a collection of 101 French and German-language execution pamphlets from 1740 to 1850 alongside a set of digital analyses and critical reflections that contextualize these documents in ongoing debates over how power is exercised through media technologies. The digitized pamphlets are part of MSU Library’s Criminology Collection and belong to a genre of sensationalist literature produced and sold in conjunction with public executions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with the word “Armsünder” (“poor sinner”) being a euphemism for the condemned in wide usage since the Middle Ages. Our project seeks not just to make these materials available to the public. The aim of this site is also to help scholars, students, and the public understand how technology not only enhances the production of texts and the reproduction of bodies as texts, but also deforms text and body in the process.

A broadsheet from 1771.

The critical question linking the “‘Poor Sinners’ Pamphlets’” as an online collection with the reflections and digital analyses presented on the site is how technology enacts violence on texts and bodies in both print and digital media. Violence is a central element, as Derrida reminds us, of archivization, which both conserves and destroys, which preserves but allows us to forget its contents. Engaging a similar set of questions, the reflections on the “‘Poor Sinners’ Pamphlets” argue that, however unconsciously, this violence also extends to the digital realm – if not to the methods of the digital humanities themselves. In the digital humanities, data is “extracted” and “mined” at the same time that textual corpora are “split” for and “modeled” by computational tools. Indeed, digital humanists, such as Miriam Posner and Lauren Klein, have recently called attention to the ethical dimensions of working with data and the politics of representation that digital projects and processes entail. “‘Poor Sinners’ Pamphlets’” explores how the digital medium can itself become an index that reflects this negativity – of violence, destruction, and death – by not just recording, but rather thinking through the digital techniques and decisions that produce this violence. The sites’ set of critical reflections serves as this index, complementing the archival materials, and point to the decisions that went into creating our digital archive (and the consequences of such decisions). Furthermore, the site explores this violence through textual analyses that chop up, rearrange, and reconfigure texts and exhibits on criminals that explore the ambivalent effects that these pamphlets had in both condemning and sensationalizing the figures they depict. The project thus suggests that the digital humanities represent a dialectical return to many of the humanities’ central concerns: the violent construction of the archive, the problem of loss in the process of representation and reproduction, and, ultimately, the advantages and limits of technology. As the reality of the digital world increasingly fails to live up to the democratic and egalitarian hopes once invested in it, the pamphlets and the reflections presented on this site demonstrate that the ways technology exert power over texts and manipulates bodies are not archival relics of the past, but rather very much still the problems of the present.

You can visit at <http://go.cal.msu.edu/psp>. Presentations of this project:

  • “‘Poor Sinners’ Pamphlets’: AL340/891 and the Global Archive at MSU.” LOCUS Talk at Global Digital Humanities Symposium. Michigan State University. April 2016.