#MLA13, DH, and the New Obsolescence of New Media and Historical Form
January 8, 2013 § Leave a comment
The annual MLA in Boston has just finished up.
There was much to distinguish this year’s convention from earlier programs, including the spirit of the convention itself, summarized in William Pannapacker’s observations on how we may be seeing the end of “”MLAlienation.” The feel of the convention signals for Pannapacker a possible turn in the organization’s deep caste system of graduate students, faculty, and “stars,” and a stubborn lack of reflexive perspective on some of the more challenging and radical positions at the peripheries of English studies and Comparative Literature.
While there were many elements to this year’s MLA that lend credence to Pannapacker’s claim, I do wonder about the extent to which his perceptions of this supposed turn were influenced by the fact that he is part of a collective attending the convention connected with “DH” (The Digital Humanities). Tweeting of the convention was at an all time high, and fully integrated with the virtual infrastructure of the proceedings. Yet the majority of sessions that were tweeted had some connection, remote or otherwise, with DH. Conventional English and Comparative Literature sessions were tweeted, but not with the frequency and intensity of those sessions that drew attendance from DHers (based on my consistent monitoring of the feed and the perceptions of others doing the same). Moreover, the digital humanities were meta-present at the MLA this year in an odd way: there was only a slight increase over 2012 in the number of sessions committed to media and DH topics, a trend Mark Sample connects to a possible leveling off of interest, but also potentially indicative of growing resistance to “the hegemony of the digital humanities” (Sample).
The potential “resistance” to the digital humanities at this year’s convention is interesting for a couple of reasons. The first has to do with the presence this year of a sort of “counter-conventional DH” group, present in various guises in the presentations and discussions but officially represented by the panel, “The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities” (#s307). The second has to do with the way in which neither the triumph of dark or light forces related to DH seem to adequately manage to take on the question of historical meaning making amid digital initiatives and similar transformational pressures facing higher education (see Roger Whitson’s “#mla – The Future of English: Digital Work and Composition?”).
Roger Whitson quotes an earlier Chronicle piece by Richard Utz, Chair of LMC at Georgia Tech, in which Utz claims that “hidebound faculty members who continue to assign and study only pre-computer-based media will quickly be on their way toward becoming themselves a ‘historical’ presence at the university.” Whitson takes exception with the sweeping dismissal of this claim, particularly its failure to consider the significance and complexity of historical exploration and its indirect subtleties in maintaining a “difference” to the past at a moment when all difference seems to be funneling at light speed toward the black hole of “now” and the “present” (emergencies of economies, interest, attention, and reform reform reform; the latter usually pointing to the need for more business models (MOOCS) and administration mechanisms of “student need” (customer service))
Yet, Utz’s comment offers up an even more disturbing implication, one that I find ever more present as DH becomes ever more hegemonic: the perception that historical practices are no more than bad content delivery systems. That is, that intellectual content is indeed separate from its form, and that historical practitioners are misguided because they refuse to give up their “pre-computer-based-media” ways and be liberated by the “access” digital media can provide.
I am firm believer in the power of digital media, used well, even as delivery. But Utz’s statements betray a prejudice toward media change that I think only good historical work can remedy. This prejudice seems increasingly persistent, even among conversations and approaches that attempt to dismantle the new altar of Digital Humanities.
The “Dark Side of the Digital Humanities” panel featured some powerful perspectives and provocations, presented by some of the most interesting and significant scholars of media studies over the last decades. A central aim of this panel was to “offer models of digital humanities that are not rooted in technocratic rationality or neoliberal economic calculus but that emerge from and inform traditional practices of humanist inquiry.” The panel’s objectives were inflected a bit by a “charge” they had been given by the organizers: “be controversial”; “be provocative.” Unfortunately, the siren of that charge got in the way slightly of the former objective (shades of the old MLA). Throughout the panel presentations (all of them compelling) was a tendency to elicit a dichotomy between “critique as an end in itself” and practical techne (the “tools” of DH). As the panel moved to a close, a median position had emerged from the panelists that drew into a kind of combative contrast “things in themselves” and “critique as an end itself.” Wendy Chun, I think, attempted to thwart this division by emphasizing not the mechanisms and delivery systems of DH but the persistent need for a conversation between the formalisms of science and the humanities (it should be noted that Chun is connected with #transformdh). As one interlocutor phrased it during Q&A: (paraphrased) ‘are we still not in position now to imagine how creating, making something is a form of critique?’
I would place double emphasis on the word “form.” While I know none of the panel participants would individually endorse a position that drew clean lines around critique and techne, it was almost as if the framing of the panel itself required it: the “be provocative” charge seemed directed at quick and incisive blows to the neoliberal basis of DH and its “tools.” Historical perspective and media studies were not readily on the scene for this takedown.
History has not found a serious place within DH (I would point out that most DH projects that deal with historical frameworks are still mainly premised on digital access and re-distribution of old texts, digital editions and so on). [There are some stunning exceptions, of course, like the work of Martin Foys and Michael Witmore, among others; work that is thinking carefully about form as movable, mutating structures that enable and manifest critique].
I am in the midst of my second major “book” project, a multigraph (defined here) that explores mediated networks. The majority of the “chapters” for this work explore how media forms transmute and reproduce, and each section works across contemporary and historical structures. The project makes use of e-text – in the form of readings, arguments, and critiques – alongside multimodal pieces or exemplars (built in collaboration with a designer/coder). One of the inspirations for (and challenges of) this project emanated from some long-term musing over what precisely the historical can bring to the digital and the digital to the historical – beyond comparisons of y is like/a precursor to x. Beyond updated “delivery systems,” what difference can historical practice make to the direction we are headed in with DH? Any good reviewer of a digital project will ask: Why should this project have digital elements? What about it needs the digital as a mode? Again, this is a question about deep form, and one that I think historical work can speak to in exceptional ways.
In an earlier blog post, I talk about Henry Turner’s recent ISIS essay (“Lessons from Literature for the Historian of Science (or Vice Versa): reflections on “Form” (Isis, 2010, 101:578-589)). In the essay, Turner emphasizes how rich earlier conversations about form tended to be, eschewing the fixity of “things” and “acts” to explore how form was a mutable, in-process event: form means things as it does things. Along these lines, I do think there are aspects of certain early modern/med/ren terms and contexts that have real potential for intervening in DH at this juncture, while benefiting from the distribution and access potentials of DH.
Below are some summary notes on a project where I am exploring earlier notions of form, across philosophy, science, and literature, in the context of networked systems.
For the #mla13 panel on “Age, Obsolescence, and New Media, I presented a segment from my project that uses a science-based understanding of obsolescence to explore networked encounters between media and “life.” Kathleen Fitzpatrick introduced “obsolescence” into the contemporary media studies/DH scene with, Plannned Obsolescence, and while I return to some of this in the chapter, I am principally interested in obsolescence in a biological context, a locus of meaning that I think speaks directly to some of the more challenging questions we face regarding form and media, in DH and beyond. Obsolescence in biology refers not just to the end of useful “life” but also to traces of life (synthetic or organic) that remains vestigial. This model of obsolescence demonstrates not just an eventual “dead end” to a given species, media or form, but the nascent traces of a given organism, some of which fall into complete obsolescence, some of which may flourish as vestigial traces that hover with potential to become something else (traits or characteristics lying dormant but with the potential to flourish anew). I trace this notion, the obsolete life as vestigial and changing form, across a network of connections that begin with the 18th-century anatomist, Fragonard, and his posed corpses; contemporary 2-D and 4-D fetal ultrasound; and The Quay Brothers’ Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies, a stop motion animation film, created at the very edges of the current digital boom era.
An interesting aspect of this project for me has been the extent to which the material we are working with – and in each instance there is an early modern text or context that serves as a kind of strong attractor for the network traced – are powerful forces in inflecting how we begin to think about the appropriateness of multimodal expression. The question becomes not how can I make this accessible through digital media, but how can the digital form further the work of the critical explorations and events?
Katherine Hayles gets at this point in a few chapters of her latest book, How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. In her later chapter on databases, for example, Hayles begins with a challenge to Lev Manovich’s now well- known claim that narrative is falling way, to be replaced almost entirely by database logics. In demonstrating the continued relevance of narrative – albeit often in hybrid relationship to other kinds of informational forms – Hayles offers a more thoughtful reading of not just the idea of the database per se, but of specific kinds of databases and the implications of their structures. She examines how the differences in functional processes and protocols between object-oriented databases and relational databases, for example, have real things to say (through form in process, becoming) about the materiality of the information in question and the historical lineages to the way they intervene in meaning making. These differences often have their origins in differentiated paradigms of time and space (and other crucial ontological and epistemological registers), ones that can even manage to elucidate the “dead ends” of contemporary modernity through alternate formal relationships (see, in particular, her work with Michael Goodchild’s insights on how object-oriented databases have the potential to incorporate alternative models of temporality in more flexible ways). Here is a model of obsolescence that is not derived from some dichotomous notion of now and then, of the “pre” in isolation from the “post.”
There is much to say about this, and I hope to be pursuing these questions, in content and form, as I progress in my project. What is worth noting in summary, however, is that these issues surrounding deep form require a historical trajectory or mediation to really have valence. It is unfortunate that historical framing seems to be a current casualty of the current provocations of DH.
[In late January, I will be posting draft notes for an upcoming article submission on this topic for a special journal issue on the early modern and the digital)
BABEL 2012: doingness, interdisciplinarity, and the digital humanities (as an afterthought)
October 2, 2012 § 3 Comments
During my time as a graduate student at the University of California, Irvine (a “theory school”), we would from time to time extol the virtues of the “public intellectual,” a role familiar, as it was often pointed out, to European intellectuals but rarely embodied in North American academe. The claim was (and is) both true and not true; at once sensationalist and realist. What really makes a public intellectual, anyway?
Yet the re-consideration of the public intellectual did emerge at a moment (my moment in graduate school: late 1990s-early 2000s) when things were on the move in higher education. Or, so it seemed. There was residual scarring from the “culture wars” of the 1980s and 90s; there was the continuing consternation over jobless graduates in the humanities (still consternating); and there was deep concern over the infiltration of modular corporate forms into academic governance and autonomy (still consternating). There’s no question that a tremendous amount of energy came out of this moment, resulting in new organizations for alternative careers for PhDs, along with re-evaluations of how and why the humanities is what it is. [**There was also the answer to the culture wars in the form of the digital humanities, which I’ll re-visit at the end of this post].
However, beyond new organizations advocating for the humanities PhD, and a meta-evaluative stance on the assumed principles that inform the humanities, the most interesting esprit of this moment was the formation of a milieu of “doingness” within academic life. “Thinking” gave way to “thinking and doing.” Doing took on many forms. At my graduate institution, faculty members(Ex 1, Ex 2, Ex 3, ones with established reputations in specialized fields within the humanities) began to promote parallel identities structured around “doingness” and “withness,” a proximity and relationship to knowledge that expanded the boundary of scholarly activity.
While you could argue that doingness is simply a re-constituted version of the public intellectual (perhaps companion to the many re-constituted or re-formed Marxists and theorists of various sorts that have come to the fore), there is something more powerful, productive and interesting about academic doingness. Doingness is action: to make, act, perform, or cause. But doingness is also a delicate and untidy assemblage of form and action. To do something implies a form or a some-thing, but a form or some-thing that must happen in time, through time. Moreover, the time that doing inhabits is not a singular closed time or a time over-burdened by its conceptual finishing point. Consider, for example, the phrase “doing time.” It’s slang for prison. But it also evokes the notion that something else might happen in the doing of the time (think, plan, perhaps escape?). If you’re “doing time,” you’re acknowledging a restrictive form (“yes, I’m doing it), but you’re also playing at the edges of a time that still must unfold, must embrace at least the potential for other futures, deviations, and the emergence of other forms. Doingness also invokes a pedestrian tone for labor or work. Or, more aptly, it hints at the activity of the amateur. The amateur, as Carolyn Dinshaw has examined, employs not just the activity of the non-professional, but is a practitioner of doingness that does it “for love.” Love of what? The mere doingness of it (an object, a feeling, an affect, a thing…? Don’t know yet, still doing it).
My own professional investments (post-graduate school) have evolved in step with the organization, BABEL. If there is an example of a doingness as a mode of becomingness (for the love of…!), for me, it is BABEL. Last week was the Second Biennial Meeting of the BABEL Working Group (Boston), and my experience there reflects how interesting academic (or para-academic) doingness can become.
BABEL is about experimentation. And, of course, there is still enough lingering energy from the old academic guard that anything experimental eventually has to be put in its place (“You just can’t keep doing that…”). BABEL IS an intellectual movement; it has achieved that level of influence and accomplishment. BABEL also has its critics, many of whom claim that BABEL “plays” to much at the boundaries of the professional and the amateur, making dalliances of the hard lines of disciplinary specialization and separation. Or, as it has been put to me directly, “What exactly is BABEL trying to do?”
Some thoughts on the doingness of BABEL, in dialogue with last week’s conference, followed by a brief observation of how BABEL’s doingness can inform (alter the course?) of the most sweeping manifesto for doingness in the humanities at present, the digital humanities.
One of the most interesting pieces I have read of late is Henry Turner’s Isis essay, “Lessons from Literature for the Historian of Science (or Vice Versa): reflections on “Form” (Isis, 2010, 101:578-589). Turner’s essay is relatively brief yet truly rich. It begins as a commentary on a means for reinvigorating what we now commonly describe as interdisciplinary work, examined through a more thoroughgoing and expansive exploration of form, across the humanities and the sciences. He first highlights how the various notions of forms across disciplines imply some truly beautiful and productive tensions (stylistic forms – texture, small-scale; structural forms – large-scale, systems; material forms – modes of expression, appearance; social forms – lived or cognized relationships, traces). However, where Turner ends up in his essay is not arguing for a cross-analysis of how the boundaries of various forms might speak to one another, but to a careful elucidation of the “in-time-ness” of form. He invites into the conversation many of the “formalists” from the early modern period, from whom we now calculate many of our current disciplinary forms, to show how they defy any conceptual or representational boundedness. The early humanist program included not just reading, but “practise”: “you shall doe well to use your hand….” (Philip Sydney, quoted in Turner). As Turner emphasizes toward the end of his essay (in pointing to the importance of Bruno Latour’s work), form should move beyond “reductive notions of ‘representation’ or ‘meaning’ as the ultimate fulfillment of a principle of form and toward a notion of function: form does things, it doesn’t simply mean things” (586). We understand form as a function of meaning; we are less equipped to understand form as a function of time.
Praise and some criticism followed many of the panel presentations at this year’s BABEL for their “performative” attempts. That is, I heard many comments about how both the panels and plenary sessions were directly or indirectly trying for a performative tenor in their delivery. I question this, and I question it because I think the implication to this statement is that these efforts were attempting to “enact” something that could otherwise have been expressed (through a paper, or video, or a discussion). I think this is a misunderstanding, to an extent, of the kind of doingness that BABEL embodies. If we’re talking about “the performative,” in the sense that I imagine thinkers like Judith Butler at least in part initially intended the term, i.e. a temporal disjunction, a break in time-routines, between psychoanalytic, social/discursive, and citational moving forms (transducting, literally), then perhaps. But this is different than imagining that some of the work at BABEL was attempting to re-form, through enactment, a conceptual notion or framework.
There were many terrific, productive examples (too many to cover). On Thursday afternoon, I helped lead a panel on retro-technologies and affect, and there were “found objects,” YouTube videos, and soul-scorching images, all of which chaotically moved against one another. It was temporal chaos at moments: a video scanned against a voiceover (that itself refused timing); there was a tree, a built, made tree that stood while the panelist read; there were words from contemporary Iran and early early English; there were postcards that arrived too late and just in time. On Friday, there were performances of “impure collaborations.” As another conference participant noted, some commented on how variously these performances “worked.” But really, we need a better sense of how they do. For me these performances/performatives allowed me to encounter just how dramatically inherent temporal disjunction is to any real encounter with the substantive movement of form; of what form does (cuteness IS suffering; they’re the same event, just happening at different times; Eileen Joy and Anna Klosowska reminding us how complicated and lovely academic doing for can be).
The doingness of BABEL as an encounter with the temporal disjunctions of disciplinarity really came across for me as well in the plenary sessions (I discuss the first two here; the final I want to work through in a following post, in reference to my new book-in-progress, The Distributed Sovereign). On Thursday night, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Lindy Elkins-Tanton co-presented on doing work with terrestrial material both as a humanities scholar and as a scientist (Jeffrey Cohen is Director of the Institute for Medieval & Early Modern Studies, George Washington University and Lindy Elkins-Tanton is Director of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institute). This talk was a dance – its most affecting impact for me was what it did, not what it said. Both scholars talked about how they are working with the very materials of earth and earth-creation, and both were exploring the extent to which their work opened up (more human-e) possibilities for encountering how the earth is not for us. Yet, this talk was really about an encounter between disciplinary forms that goes beyond what the humanities can share with the sciences and vice-versa. Jeffrey distributed a rock for the audience to touch and press into flesh. We passed it around; we held it. The rock’s presence in the room held its own – its own time and place. This was evident not only in the unexpected thrill one had when the rock arrived in your hand, but in they way that it evinced a kind of discomfort (joking, giggling: an act out of sync with the movement of a conventional academic talk).
Lindy paused her talk with an animated timeline of “catastrophe” on the scale of the universe. This was a fascinating animation piece, one that continually scaled between time as human order and time as it becomes incomprehensible to human perceptual scales. These two “acts” of the talk, moments of doing in time not representing, were powerful and affective demonstrations about not what is said or unsaid between disciplinary forms, but what they each do. To further underscore this, there was a moment after their respective talks were Jeffrey and Lindy asked questions of each other from a disciplinary perspective. This “representational” moment frankly seemed like a weak force in comparison with the strong attractors of the doing moments in the talk — the events that had to cope with time and form all at once. The talk performed what Turner calls, attention to a moving “network of forms,” that really could not have found its form conceptually.
The second plenary, with Jane Bennett and David Kaiser was different from the first, but it too staged an encounter between disciplinary time-forms. Bennett’s focus, in particular, on a “network of impersonal forces,” was a beautiful elucidation of the form of “posture.” She examined “sympathy” as a network of posturing forms that run across poetics, cognition, and organic form (from Walt Whitman to Chicory). At the center of her talk and David Kaiser’s, both structured around the notion of “sympathy as material power,” was what Bennett referred to at one point as, “protean monism,” that is, a substance that is a form in process, a substance in the making, in the doing.
What is significant to me about BABEL’s doingness is that its non-representational energies also manage to be largely non-utopian. One of the charges against BABEL is that it seems to be enjoying itself too much, so my claim that it largely avoids utopian proclamations may seem suspect. Yet, I think of the doingness encounters that I experienced at the conference this past week and I can’t help imagine how much more transversal, moving, and truly disjunctive (critically so!) they are than what I encounter in the digital humanities. The digital humanities makes an appearance here because it is, really, the one form of supposed doingness that has emerged triumphant from the earlier consternating moment in academia I discussed at the opening. In fact, the digital humanities came to its zenith with that now well-known pronouncement that the true digital humanities was about doing things and making things (for a thoughtful overview, “More Hack, Less Yack?: Modularity, Theory and Habitus in the Digital Humanities” and Debates in the Digital Humanities). Yet, for me, the digital humanities has yet to embrace the spirit of doingness that I encountered last week in Boston. Where are the performed/performative encounters between the moving “networks of forms” in the digital humanities? Are digital humanists just “building out” a new disciplinary apparatus, one with computer logics assimilated and couched within its static structures? How can something akin to BABEL’s doingness inflect the now institutionally sanctioned doingness of the Digital Humanities?
From Eileen Joy, In the Middle….(with petition)
August 11, 2012 § Leave a comment
An Interesting Thing Happened to the Digital Humanities on the Way to a Historical Moment in University Leadership (UVa, the traditional university, and “the Internet”)
July 3, 2012 § 1 Comment
An outcome of the widely blogged about and closely tracked UVa debacle — beginning with the announcement of Teresa Sullivan’s ouster as UVa’s president and followed by her relatively rapid reinstatement under pressure from nearly every corner of the academic universe – were the fragments of correspondence and misdirected emails between members of the UVa Board of Visitors (now synonymous with “Dragas,” since the name has a much more sinister and oppressive ring). Among these emails was an urgent directive that positioned Sullivan’s approach to “incremental” change as an immediate threat to the university’s progress in a “world moving too fast” for the kind of leadership Sullivan had to offer. Listed in one email were a few vague specifics that pointed to critical differences between the B of V and Sullivan: the “changing role of technology” and “the Internet.”
We now have a full explication of these terms in the context of the crisis. Members of the board were pushing for a rapid (now read: “reckless”), top-down investment in the MOOC movement (Massive Open Online Courses). Major research universities like Stanford and MIT have just begin to test the waters of this new initiative to provide free (for now – and really, even now, not really “free”) online access to courses. We now, appropriately, have a litany of responses pointing to how fool-hearty any giant leap into online learning is at this moment, and how an emphasis on the online education industry distracts from more comprehensive and incrementally-realized programs (both Siva Vaidhyanathan and Elijah Meeks offered significant correctives to this early on).
Yet, from my perspective, this event has had an even more worrying impact on impressions of the digital humanities more broadly, and its role in informing alternative approaches to learning, publishing, and re-envisioned models of the university itself.
Among the fallout from the UVa event has been a new emphasis on dichotomizing “new technologies” against the virtues and permanence of the “traditional” university. Increasingly, there has been a tendency to conflate the ill-conceived impulses toward online learning with a massive array of materials, theories, and methodologies that fall within the digital humanities. Of late, I have waded through emails and manifestos that declare how the UVa incident justifies general resistance to “internet and web-based technologies,” dismissed as a false panacea to our real ills. Distilled, the line of thought runs thus: Internet and web-based technologies are a threat to the free possibilities inherent in the physical space of the university and our face-to-face interactions within that space. And, moreover, that online technologies, as destroyers of such Real Life intimacy, are a symptom of the newly corporatized and mechanized university. At first glance, there seems little to take issue with here. Who doesn’t lament the increasingly corporate-controlled environment of education: faculty and student publishing, access to archives, bottom-line accountability, food services, intellectual rights and ownership, and so on?
What’s stunning to me, and a bit ironic, is the confusing turnaround at both ends of this argument. The first part – the re-invocation of the “traditional” university— has some pretty interesting history. Indeed, it was the traditional university that spawned many of the initiatives that took publishing, collaboration and education into the digital world in the first place. Many of these initiatives are now accepted developments and improvements to the production and circulation of knowledge, and rarely identified as part of the digital movement. We should also recount that traditional connotes not just a gloriously Edenic face-to-face flow between professor and initiate, but also entrenched attitudes about “how we do things”; the presence of women and others within the academic community; the priority of the lecture over discussion (and other issues of equity and access in delivery); what counts as scholarship, how it’s conducted, and where it must appear; what constitutes collegiality. When I hear “traditional,” I feel the reverberations of these echoes off the walls of the hallowed physical space of the university. What gives with this sudden, wildly reductive romance with the traditional university?
Partial insight can be had from Nathan Jurgenson’s wonderfully poetic take on the “IRL fetish”, the addictive appeal of “decrying the loss of the real” – a nostalgia for a purity that never was:
But this idea that we are trading the offline for the online, though it dominates how we think of the digital and the physical, is myopic. It fails to capture the plain fact that our lived reality is the result of the constant interpenetration of the online and offline. That is, we live in an augmented reality that exists at the intersection of materiality and information, physicality and digitality, bodies and technology, atoms and bits, the off and the online (Jurgenson)
This recent re-enchantment with the traditional university can also be explained by our collective depression over the deep infiltration of market forces into learning and knowledge production, and the overall mechanization of the university as a system; not to mention the ruthless gutting of entire university systems. But are we really comfortable laying this at the feet of digital initiatives on the whole?
The university and its circle have been a system of “mechanistic concern” for a very long time, as Andrew Prescott outlines in a recent article in the Journal of Digital Humanities. One could probably trace this back quite a distance in various guises, but certainly we see it clearly imprinted by WWI and WWII, with the emphasis on standardized education and grading systems that were patterned on practices in part set forth in the early meat industry (see Cathy Davidson’s background and perspective on this). The mechanized university has some parallel lineage with the development of the computer, but is far more a product of the automation philosophies of early industrialism, the re-consolidation of nation-state bureaucracies and war management in the early twentieth century, and attendant assemblyphile mentalities. Assessment, and its many aspects, is the traditional university now, as much as any real or imagined face-to-face Socratic moments. It was on the scene long before “the digital” or “online” were even in our lexicon. The B of V of UVa was working off an insidious intrusion into university governance with roots deep and long, and ones already entangled with the traditional university as we know it.
And it’s important to note that there is no singular strain that represents “technology” in the humanities (or elsewhere, for that matter). The second part of this recently emerging dichotomy between the virtual and the traditional university seems content to conflate the digital humanities with the rudimentary and blunt instrument of technology (See Ted Underwood’s and Martin Mueller’s posts on the problem with labeling in the digital humanities). This is, unfortunately, a still pervasive misunderstanding outside of the field. I have had many conversations, on planes, at conferences, in my office, trying to extract the digital humanities from direct associative musings on Smartphones, PowerPoint (now Prezi), and even, as one college president put it to me once, the Bluetooth in her BMW.
Of course, the digital humanities is not divorced from the utilitarian and cultural interests in devices and technologies, but it has little to do with them in principle. If there is a connection, it is drawn through an “understanding of [how] knowledge is inextricably bound up with the nature of the medium by which it is transmitted” (Prescott). Those mediums are moving and proliferating at present. And the field is incredibly diverse, ranging from the more radically off beat and queer, to the more traditional and conventional. Most significantly, the digital humanities, if there is such a thing anymore given the integration of digital methodologies within the humanities, is now about a series of questions that are about the becomingness, the in-betweenness, of knowledge, learning, and publishing in the present. At their best, these are primarily experimental, playful, and theoretical predispositions. There is as much risk for over-commodification in the digital humanities as there is the traditional university, and neither has history separate from the market forces and mechanizing tendencies that have made both systems possible.
I don’t intend this as a defense of or apology for the digital humanities. I do want to mark a passing concern over how the UVa event is being re-directed in relationship to digital initiatives and practices. Rather than lamenting the loss of the traditional university to online learning and the digital, we might perhaps ask which aspects of the digital humanities promises to re-direct us away from the kinds of programs set forth in those emails. Rather than adopting a luddite-fury that refuses engagement with anything digital or technology-driven, we might ask, what kind of digital initiatives are happening around me? Or, more to the point, is there an ad hoc committee down the hall set to implement an online program without significant staff or faculty input?
It’s also worth mentioning that the full display of support for Sullivan, and the subsequent critiques, commentary and calls-to-action, were in part made possible by a digital network of teachers, scholars, alums, and journalists. It’s reasonable to ask if Sullivan’s reinstatement would have even been possible in a slowed-down, non-digital world.
Word clouds from entries from the Hollins Community Project
March 26, 2008 § Leave a comment
Read about the Hollins Community Project and Installation Cloud from first exercise, narrative entries in the field: Word cloud from narrative excerpts from Ethel Morgan Smith’s From Whence Cometh My Help :
Terror’s Side Effects and Night Sweats
October 14, 2007 § 4 Comments
Susan Faludi’s new book, Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America, is getting serious attention in the last few rounds of Sunday book reviews. I have just begun working through this text, but I can tell already that it is the kind of scholarship that gets my full attention.Terror is a powerfully insightful and accessible reading of contemporary culture that doesn’t shy away from making connections across history — from John Wayne to Increase Mather.
Faludi’s main argument orbits around a common trope in American culture, going back to the early days of the American imaginary:
“What we gather from these books and Faludi’s is that the script America reverted to in the fall of 2001 was the oldest in our literary imagination, our frontier fear that savages (“dark-skinned, non-Christian combatants”) would seize our defenseless women while our girlie men were watching Oprah Never mind that 9/11 had nothing to do with gender politics. If we weren’t invincible, we must have been impotent.” (John Leonard, October 14, 2007, New York Times Book Review)
Like Faludi’s earlier work on American culture, she offers a reading of gender and American esprit as a kind of distributed consciousness that goes well beyond identity politics and the limited frame of epistemological reference that sill pervades much feminist theory. Gender is less a representational matrix in Faludi’s book than it is a wild fantasy, stoked and “confabulated” out of an all-encompassing literary imaginary – more David Lynch than a traceable politics or economy of gender.
She draws from a vast array of texts and cultural artifacts in showing the many ph/fantasies of the “terror dream,” and makes return forays into some popular scholarship that has gone missing from academic radars. For example, she argues for the continued relevance of Richard Slotkin’s work on the “regeneration of violence.” (The work Slotkin does with “biographical performance,” masculinity, and the progressivism of Western myth is intersectional criticism at its best, a point I make as well in my article on the American “progressivism” couched within the rhetorical spaces of Brokeback Mountain (Boyle, “’When This Thing Grabs Hold of Us…:Spatial Myth, Rhetoric, and Conceptual Blending in Brokeback Mountain,” Reading Brokeback Mountain, ed. James Stacy).
In my view, it is not just the Witchcraft trials at Salem that are implicated in this consumptive myth of marauding “others,” arrested masculinity, and women gone wild, but our renewed fascination with the degenerating masculine body. I would include our recent obsession with steroids, honor, and confession within sports culture as another chapter in this cultural dream-myth. Steroid use among athletes now reads as a protracted hunt for Bin Laden: “detection”; “screening”; “penetration” (used to describe the contaminating influence of steroid use on sports communities); the unfair advantage that makes an “outstanding athlete” into a “superman” (Bob Costas). And, more recently, we now can include a tearful confession from Marion Jones that she had used steroids before the 2000 Olympics. When Jones states that, “I want to apologize for all of this… I am sorry for disappointing you all in so many ways,” we get the sense that, at some level, she’s not just talking about hitting the runner’s tape before everyone else. There’s something eerily familiar about Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, Jessica Lynch’s story of survival, and Jones’s confession – women caught up in national narratives and doubly cast as heroines and “captives,” in need of rescue or resuscitation through confession.
Steroids are now the embodied metaphor for the transgressed superhero’s body; of a masculine physicality weakened by an “other”; of a national ethos of manifest destiny trammeled upon by a still largely undetectable “enemy within.” The beauty of this phantasm is that it allows some outlet for our collective and increasing anxiety over a new era of capitalism that makes “labor” into a function of pharmacology (see, Joe Dumitt’s work on this point )
Beowulf, the Movie, appearing soon (Nov 16th). All indications are that once the deteriorated monstrousness of Grendel is dispensed with, it’s all Angelina Jolie, and revenge killing pressed through the prism of the avenging mom.
“How, Faludi wonders, did smoking out Osama bin Laden in his Tora Bora tunnel somehow morph, on the home front, into a ‘sexualized struggle between depleted masculinity and overbearing womanhood’?” (NY times)
The “new” space/time of History
August 12, 2007 § Leave a comment
In a recent interview with Salon, William Gibson aligns himself with the sentiments of one of the principal characters in Pattern Recognition: “I basically agree with Mr. Bigend in “Pattern Recognition” when he argues that our present has become so unutterably brief and ever-changing that we have no ground upon which we can stand and project a future historical arc as H.G. Wells and Robert Heinlein were able to. The short form of that is, none of us know what the hell is going to happen next.”
I find this to be an odd disclosure, in part because I find Gibson’s fiction, despite its appeals to the break-neck pace of emergent virtualities, to be almost classically historical. That is, Gibson manages to crystallize within historical registers moments that have the appearance of resisting, reforming, or recasting historical time. Neuromancer is a perfect example here, a story that in its appeals to the future-present points glaringly to its historicity — students encountering it for the first time focus immediately on its anachronisms. Some of this is a condition of the contemporary, 2.0-generation reader, but some of it results from the novel’s implicit claim to be speaking to and for the “present.” In contrast, “Bladerunner,” a fiction close enough to the present moment to warrant comparison with Gibson’s work, and one interested in similar problems, conventions, and projections, is rarely pegged as “dated.” In fact new readers/viewers in this case often focus initially on the “timelessness” of the master/slave dialectic and the troubled boundaries of the human, ignoring the story’s historically specific perspectives on genre, space, vision, sexuality,and gender (just to name some of the most obvious).
Where is “history” positioned of late on the space-time continuum? This is not a problem confined to virtual and fictional scapes. Bruce Holsinger’s most recent book, The Premodern Condition, is representative of a spate of new academic work on recuperation of “the historical” within the Western critical and theoretical corpus (I admit complicity in this enterprise). Interestingly, much of this work seems focused on putting into virtual suspension the categories of “history” AND “theory,” as opposed to a recuperation of theory as grounded in history (Christopher Pye seems an even more apt demonstration of this than Holsinger). History is treated as its own kind of theoretical enterprise rather than a grounded retreat. While there is tremendous profit in bracketing the very condition of “invoking history now” as its own political and theoretical gesture, time often surfaces in these accounts as a either a condition of duration OR conceptual stasis (Pye happily dodges some of this with the incorporation of psychoanalysis). That is, the focus seems either to be on the way in which history is employed as a (often wholly reductive) concept OF time (“the medieval”) or as a mode of meaning making IN time (ex. Holsinger’s appeals in the opening to his book to how important medievalism was not just to theory, but to post-war French theory in particular, argues for a kind of history-within-history as a model for theoretical reflection; and, moreover, connected to historical traumas that we can clearly acknowledge as such: WWII; post-9/11; and so on).
Is trauma a pre-condition that replaces the condition of “history”, and if so, how?
It is indeed almost as if trauma is becoming a new placeholder for temporality and history itself – a new “grounding” of sorts (I’ll avoid puns on Ground Zero; a neglected element of “In the Shadow of No Towers” is wonderfully satirical play on as much).
Urgency follows this tendency, at once historical and utterly ahistorical. The plethora of “calls” for a consideration of “x,y, and z” in a “post-9/11” universe demonstrates this tendency; but so does the dependency on the “brief and ever-changing moment” Gibson identifies in his view of popular culture. The ever-changing moment seems not so changeable at all, but caught up in a kind of frozen dialectic of fear and progress (we’re either lamenting the catastrophe of a break with “before” or celebrating the open-ended progressivism made possible by this emergence).
I consider another version of this in the early twentieth century (and here I am doing it myself – why Bergson?): Henri Bergson; Henri Lefebvre; Sartre and Beauvoir, all of whom wished to re-visit the concepts of space-time in the aftermath of profound psychical and historical trauma. Bergson wanted to retain a distinction between space and time in revising time. He argued as well for a fundamental asymmetry to temporality and space. Bergson thought it important to think about duration and intuition as related but separate phenoms, a distinction that we seem at odds with at the present moment in our conflation of historical time with trauma (“event” – Is there such a thing as an ethical event within late stage capitalism; or is the event itself an ethical formulation within such a framework?)
Okay, so a brief turn to the pedestrian and the ludic: Mary Flannagan’s Domestic. There’s at least two dialectical frameworks at stake here. On one level, tension emerges between the ludic and the mimetic – play is interplay with the historical narrative of the piece. At the same time, spatial intuition is in tension with temporal consciousness: spatiality unfolds in game environments as both “in time” and “as if;” temporality is both representational and affective. What happens to the affective and conceptual registers of trauma in this case? How does it dialogue with what is happening to the event of trauma in Holsinger’s or Gibson’s sense?
Notes on a theme for The Hollins Community installation for fall; revision of HASTAC article before pub in sept (work for vacation); also, return and fold post at crit/theory blog on Benjamin
By 9/15: begin translation for alternate audience; Immersive narrative and media, new technology panel for AWP
Arkheion/Archon: (“Who” or “What”)?
July 17, 2007 § Leave a comment
At the center of every empire is an archive; either in progress or in ruins .
Matilda/Frankenstein: Psychosexual collecting, conserving, collating
Mary Shelley is best known for Frankenstein, but her short story, Matilda, is in many ways a companion piece to her well-known novel. Both stories are stories of the archive.
Where Frankenstein begins in medias res of the “dead” archive – a series of letters that must be animated in order to animate the voice that will in turn animate the story – Matilda begins with a voice directly from the other side of the archive:
“It is four o’clock; but it is winter and the sun has already set: there are no clouds in the clear frosty sky to reflect its slant beams….I live in a lone cottage on a
solitary wide heath….I am in a strange state of mind. I am alone – quite alone –
in the world – the blight of misfortune has passed over me and withered me; I
know that I am about to die and I feel happy – joyous.”
[“Actually, Archive Fever comes on at night, long after the archive has shut for the day. Typically, the fever—more accurately, the precursor fever, the feverlet—starts in the early hours of the morning, in the bed of a cheap hotel, where the historian cannot get to sleep. You cannot get to sleep because you lie so narrowly, in an attempt to avoid contact with anything that isn’t shielded by sheets and pillowcase. The first sign, then, is an excessive attention to the bed, an irresistible anxiety about the hundreds who have slept there before you, leaving their dust and debris in the fibers of the blankets, greasing the surface of the heavy, slippery coverlet. The dust of others, and of other times, fills the room, settles on the carpet, marks out the sticky passage from bed to bathroom.” – Dust, Carolyn Steedman]
We know the story of Frankenstein (Don’t we?). Matilda literally is about incest. The action is set in motion by a beautiful mother who dies when her child is young. The selfish and distraught father/husband withdraws from society in deep mourning (or…actually, he goes to the East and soaks in the “burning rays” and primitive passions of the archive-less).
He returns when Matilda is sixteen to assist her with her education, which as the story would have it, includes “unnatural passion.” The father poisons himself, and Matilda herself goes into seclusion, surrounded only by “books and nature.” However, since she is a sixteen year old girl who has escaped from the leaves of a romance, she has little more to do than wait for the next philosopher-poet (Woodville crossing the heath on horseback; Shelley returning from Scotland; Caliban waiting on Prospero, and so on).
We run into a problem here in the space between the historical and psychosexual archive: Godwin the “radical philosopher of the 1790s” turns into enraged father when presented with a story of father-daughter incest from Mary. He refuses to publish it and denies Mary’s requests that he return the manuscript. A second copy of the story was not published until 1955. Where did he keep the document? Was it slipped between the covers of a rough draft of Caleb Williams? Or, perhaps, filed away with old correspondence on an “An Enquiry on Political Justice”? Perhaps he burned it in violence.
Where Frankenstein can be thought of as the ‘topside’ – the historical/technological skin – of the archive, Matilda is the marginal, repressed and buried arche of archival consciousness (these voices always at the lip of some phallic tomb: Antigone; Ophelia; Woolf and her pockets full of heavy testes, and so on). Victor Frankenstein lurks about the charnel house looking for a head and a hand to suture together; Matilda is always already an archive. After the father’s death, Matilda’s only utterances are recitations of her father’s ecstatic moment: the counting and re-counting of the moment when the father was on the verge of becoming a lover. Nothing is ever consummated. She sits in her cottage dropping hints to Woodville about the father’s transgressions, like a steward dropping old books from the library windows during the Blitz.
The two stories echo one another in illicit and oblique terms. That is, with the exception of the sturdy oak:
Matilda: “A strange idea seized me; a person must have felt all the agonies of doubt concerning life and death of one who is the whole world to them before they can enter into my feelings – for in that state, the mind working unrestrained by the will makes strange and fanciful combinations with outward circumstances and weaves the chances and changes of nature into an immediate connexion with the event they dread. It was with this feeling that I turned to the old Steward who stood pale and trembling beside me; ‘Mark, Gaspar, if the next flash of lightening rend not that oak my father will be alive.”
Frankenstein: “As I stood at the door, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak, which stood about twenty yards from our house ; and so soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump. When we visited the next morning, we found the tree shattered in a singular manner. It was not splintered by the shock, but entirely reduced to thin ribands of wood. I never beheld any thing so utterly destroyed.”
For Frankenstein, this scene conjures forth the papers and “shades of Cornelius Agrippa.” For Matilda — well, she just goes on dreaming of the death of the Father.
My first trip to the Folger, 2000: You head out in the morning, arriving at the archive just before 9. Sipping coffee, you wait for the doors to the tomb to crack open. A stone likeness of Puck mocks your bookish seriousness from behind a manicured shrub. You deposit your jacket, your bags, your pens at the closet. You enter holding forth one number 2 pencil with teeth marks. When the librarian greets you, she informs you that PT 1202/1793 has come up from below. You get to work with heavy beeds and light touch….
“You think: I could get to hate these people; and, I can never do these people justice” (Carolyn Steedman)
“Archive Fever” (requires subscription to the Chronicle of Higher Education)
Layers of Intentionality and Mirror-ed Stages
July 6, 2007 § 1 Comment
At work this summer on a new media project, “The Hollins Community Project,” made possible initially through an outreach grant from some wonderful researchers at Virginia Tech’s Center for Human Computer Interaction.
The project plays with the boundaries of history, narrative, and place using “marginal” spaces surrounding the Hollins University campus. Just at the edge of campus exist these fascinating physical aggregators of institutional history and its discards and palimpsests — objects, inscriptions, and mappings that sit at the threshold of future/present/past; legitimate/abject; visible/invisible.
The project strives to employ technology in such a way so as not to superimpose gadgetry, but to build a very simple interface and phantom mnemonic that draws attention to the temporal, spatial, and narrative “instituting” of history. To this end, I am involved with some incredibly stimulating conversations with collaborators about structures of technology; absent and present intentions in design; the layering of temporal, spatial, and textual responses; interactions between participants in relation to one another and in relation to the technology…
After a walkthrough at one of the sites today, I went away with Lisa Zunshine on my mind. In “Theory of Mind and Experimental Representations of Fictional Consciousness,” Zunshine talks about the contributions of the new cognitive science to thinking about fictional representation and intentionality in narrative. A focus throughout the introduction is the cognitive “gap” that opens around being able to keep track of more than four levels of intentionality in reading a novel. That is, Zunshine explores how keeping track of the complexity to levels of characters’ intentionality within a novel reaches a crucial threshold at four. Active “mind-reading” of characters (or generating a Theory of Mind in cognitive speak) that reaches beyond four levels becomes a challenge for most contemporary Western readers, according to cognitive research. As Zunshine goes on to explain, this is one explanation for why a writer like Virginia Woolf, and her experimentations with the novel form, make some readers so “uncomfortable:” “Woolf not only ‘demands’ that we process a string of fifth- and sixth-level intentionalities, but she also introduces [complex] embedded intentionalities….”
Zunshine’s research is especially insightful in pointing out how contact between the mind sciences and the humanities is not some throwback to structuralist desires to empiricize the complexity of human creativity and response, but indeed promises to richen the textures of and possibilities to both humanistic and scientific inquiry (her bit on how interdisciplinary interaction between literary studies and cognitive theory could potentially re-figure the very question and concept of “history” is particularly provocative and rich; somewhere between ‘seeing thinking think’ and ‘not seeing the thought of thinking’).
What to leave in, what to leave out, and what to leave open. Some of what will emerge in the process of this piece will come down to the dynamic “intentionality” of the system.
Spinoza, from the third book on Ethics: “No one as yet has determined the limits of the body’s capabilities: that is, nobody as yet has learned from experience what the body can and cannot do….”
And never will (body; nobody; no one; experience?)
and Walter Benjamin, the most mundane moment of storytelling, when we are bored to sleep by the “safety” of the formal structure and mediating rhythm of the “story” itself; a cognitive caesura: a “dream bird that hatches the egg of experience.”
Beowulf as Bildungsroman
June 17, 2007 § Leave a comment
The NY Times has a fairly new section on book reviews for the “young adult” set. I have only of late begun to take more of an interest in books for youth and the marketing campaigns and critical conversations that accompany their release.
The Times offers an overview of recent adaptations of Beowulf in the Sunday Review, and both the range of new versions of the text and the commentary on them are telling. Two extremes prevail. The frighteningly historic-sounding Beowulf is tempered immediately by McGrath’s reassurances that this 3000-line epic poem is really just a damn good blood and guts yarn. Right off, there are the more predictable allusions to the hybridity of “Christian” and “pagan” themes (a hit with ultra-suburbanites negotiating their way around secular malaise and consumerism) ; the “first significant text written in [what will become] English; and so forth. Slightly more interesting (and seemingly un-self-reflexively so) are the boundaries set forth demarcating the jouissance of youth and the epic “elemental” tale. The first group reviewed fits neatly into the new parenting cult of “visceral” transparency. McGrath moves comfortably from images of underwater sword fights, the slowed-down-by-gutters violence of comic strip superhero battles, comparisons to the “dripping” monster in Alien, and, finally, to how all this surfaces as a spectrum of experience intimately related to the beginnings of language: “visceral as the Old English, which was consciously onomatopoeic.” On the other hand, we have Janice Rumford’s edition, which according to McGrath, is decidedly more quiet and “realistic” – in this case, more conspicuously old school bourgeois (“…attention to domestic details of the Danish court – pets, houses, the fire pit the king sits at.”).
Somewhere in all this is a connection to an earlier article in the LA Times charting the decline of audiences willing to pay for the Hollywood horror formula. The article speculates that waning interest in the film horror genre is just a typical slump explained by audience saturation. There is some caution in a lament over the possibility that we have a reached a kind of limit to spectral violence: Over and over again, people are breaking the boundaries of the body, hurting people, chopping people up, ravaging people…. For things to be truly scary, we’re going to have to find new boundaries to tread on.”
Beowulf for the young is a promising trend, but McGrath’s subject matter seems stymied by a rhetorical scene of medieval visceral, “elemental” ooze, and the saturated subject of suburban greed gone wild. What Beowulf can bring to all this is that tremendously complex look at boundaries and bodies re-constituting themselves at every turn. Does it take tearing the bourgeois subject every which way asunder before we make room for something other than the premodern elemental ooze as a counterpoint to the right of violence? Can Beowulf for the younger set stimulate interest in the violence “in” rather than the violence “of”….SHMUMPF! (Beowulf finds himself in the gutter between State and Non-State, Grendel happy for some company).
My favorite line in McGrath’s piece comes from Janice Rumford’s forthcoming rendition, “a deep wound now opened up on Grendel’s shoulder and widened. The sinews were bursting, the arm bones loosening. There was only one way out. The ogre tore himself free and ran one-armed into the night!”
Some exit strategy; Disney’s Shrek married to the allegory, War in Iraq.