#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)


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.

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