#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.

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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)

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