Here’s audio of a talk I gave with Ernesto Priego and Aaron Kashtan at the “Comics and the Multimodal World” International Symposium in Vancouver last week. I’ll post the other talk once it is available.
I want to thank everyone for this wonderful, and overdue, conference on the connections between comics and media technology. I approach things specifically from a digital humanities perspective, and so I thought I’d take this conference as an opportunity to start thinking about how DH and comics will impact the future of humanities education. What, in other words, are the digital humanities doing to comics scholarship and, conversely, what can comics (as a medium of communication) offer the digital humanities? I want to start briefly with this image by Nick Sousanis. Lots of people associate technology, and sometimes the digital humanities, with industrial modes of standardized production. That’s wrong on a number of levels, and I’m here to show you that it creates unnecessary anxiety and conflict.
This is part of a longer book project I coauthored with Jason Whittaker called William Blake and the Digital Humanities: Collaboration, Participation, and Social Media. I wanted to look at Blake as a test case for understanding how digital modalities can impact what literary studies means to us. In other words, I wanted to think about the digital humanities as more than a set of practices, but as something that changes how we understand literary reading and literary reception — in other words, literary studies.
In a online comment to a 2007 Wired article, Derek C.F. Pegritz includes a satirical pitch for what he called “blakepunk.” “William Blake,” Pegritz narrates, “is an angel-possessed warrior in the post-nuke remains of London, leading a crack squad of cybernetic poet assassins to eliminate the Mad King George’s army of interdimensional Mechano-Hessian soliders.” Pegritz’s comment is largely tongue-in-cheek. Yet the combination of angelic imagery, lasers, gothic horror, cybernetics, and H.P. Lovecraft-styled weird fiction paints a picture that parallels the attitude involved in what Jussi Parikka calls steampunk’s embrace of “alternatives,” “quirky ideas,” and “novel paths that fall out of the mainstream” (“What” 2). Steampunk is often seen as “Victorian science fiction,” but it also acts as a genre that retrofits new technology onto the nineteenth century. Many popular steampunk novels draw inspiration from William Blake, including the the appearance of William Blake in R.F. Nelson’s Blake’s Progress, the noted-influence of Blake on Felix Gilman’s Half-Made World, and the use of Blakean concepts in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.
Parikka’s brief discussion of steampunk in What is Media Archaeology? celebrates the ability of the genre to repurpose and reprogram the past by encouraging fans to create iPod decks that look like gramophones or laptops constructed to seem like they were sold at a nineteenth-century craft fair. For Parikka and Critical Making advocate Garnet Hertz, repurposing “is concerned with media that is not only out of use, but resurrected to new uses, contexts and adaptations” (“Zombie” 429). Blake’s own investment in repurposing technology, mythology, and history is clear from the work of Mei-Ying Sung, Saree Makdisi, and Jason Whittaker, but few scholars have investigated Blake’s critical making methodologies in the context of steampunk practice. This presentation will show how Blake’s approach to history and technology creates a model for critical making in the humanities, culminating in a study of Blakean artifacts read in the context of steampunk. In particular, I will examine Viscomi’s printing experiments, Edwardo Paolozzi’s Newton sculpture, and Graham Harwood’s London.pl as critical making and historicist methodologies that parallel the DIY-spirit of steampunk. My purpose is to tease out a critical punk culture present in Blake and work inspired by him in order to implicate both in an emergent scholarly practice inspired by steampunk and devoted to repurposing.
I just recently participated in William Hart-Davidson’s workshop for teaching rhetorical moves in multimodal composition classrooms as part of the Washington State University series “Composing the New Classroom.” Of course, Hart-Davidson had many useful things to say about teaching both writing and multimodal composition to freshmen. I found his rejection of modalities for rhetorical “moves” the most exciting. From his slides, Hart-Davidson notes that outcome statements should “zero in on what makes a message meaningful, persuasive, compelling, and accurate across media” and that students “improve with guided practice.” As evidence, he cites Kellogg and Whiteford’s 2009 psychological study of advanced writing classrooms in which they analyze the “uniquely intensive demands that advanced written composition place on working memory.” Deliberate practice is important, Hart-Davidson argues, because students need time to practice the appropriate higher level rhetorical moves that make writing successful. He demonstrated in the workshop that multimodal composition is the best form of deliberate practice because students have to translate specific rhetorical demands (audience, purpose, appeals) from one modality to another — forcing them to become more adept at paying attention to those demands.
For me, the moment was particularly compelling because I sense that many of our majors and graduate students in the literary studies track struggle with the purpose of their work. Courtney King, one of our brightest masters students, notes a
cynicism about the future of the humanities that runs rampant in our department. This has not worn well on me, and has caused me to spend many sleepless nights pondering my own worth. In departmental meetings, in the halls, and over coffee, my colleagues and I have engaged in endless conversations about how disposable our field, and by proxy, we are. I have not spoken with one of my cohort members who is completely certain that they made the right decision by getting this degree. Seeds of self-doubt and self-hatred have been planted not by people in the sciences or the media, but by our own mentors and friends.
These are my notes for “teaching, researching, doing,” a short talk I gave to the Washington State University English graduate student series on “Literature Pedagogy.” I was asked to present with Augusta Rohrbach on the “futures” of literary study, and I decided to focus on pedagogy as — itself — the future of literary study.
Leeann and Aree have been wonderful in putting together this series, mostly because I think it is both an urgent discussion and one that isn’t really taking place in campuses across the United States. Literary studies doesn’t have a strong connection to pedagogy or critical reflection on teaching, and I’m happy to see this program take a leadership role in starting these important conversations. I’d also like to thank Augusta, who is really a pioneer in this field as well. She’s a really great advocate for things I feel are on the horizon in literary studies and the digital humanities.
Science fiction and its fan cultures have become increasingly popular topics at the MLA’s annual conventions. In 2013’s convention alone, panels were devoted to the intersections of science fiction with everything from ecoterrorism and race to dystopias, religion, and feminism. Still, the MLA has yet to sponsor a panel on the alternative history genre known as steampunk. Steampunk is often seen as “Victorian science fiction,” but it also acts as a genre that retrofits new technology onto the nineteenth century; increasingly, steampunk provides a platform and paradigm for fans to engage with the Victorian period in multimedia environments. Such engagement, and its investment in material culture, is apparent in media like steampunk blogs, where you can find iPod decks that look like gramophones, or laptops constructed to seem like they were sold at a nineteenth-century craft fair. These intersections – Victoriana, science fiction, DIY culture, anachronism, and more – render steampunk an ideal locus for portable and cross-disciplinary insights.
Further, steampunk offers some interesting challenges to traditional acts of historicizing the nineteenth century. Some researchers have associated the genre with nostalgia, or as Frederic Jameson notes, a “historical and dated” version of utopia mixed with the “urban decay and blight” of postmodern life (151). On the other hand, Jussi Parikka has noted steampunk’s rejection of older modernist versions of historicism and embrace of a do-it-yourself (DIY) tinkerer’s attitude towards “alternatives,” “quirky ideas,” and “novel paths that fall out of the mainstream.” (2). Steampunk has also become emblematic of newer theories of history and memory that respond to advances in digital archival technologies that make the past more physically accessible. As Wolfgang Ernst puts it, digital memory is not, “as in traditional archives, clearly separated from present operations [...] but becomes cybernetically a feedback ingredient of present operations itself, its basic condition” (101). The constant presence of accessible historical knowledge made possible through mobile devices, wifi, and other forms of ubiquitous computing means that the experiences of the present are aligned with the past in ways never before imaginable. Parikka and Ernst see the digital presence of the past requiring a historical approach that incorporates repurposing, creativity, and tinkering as essential scholarly activities. To the extent that these actions are represented in steampunk literature, through steampunk culture, and on steampunk objects, this rapidly expanding subculture/subgenre offers a mode—and often an instantiation—of these new figures for history and memory.
@mkirschenbaum – “While we’re acknowledging writing theory as making stuff, can we also acknowledge making stuff as doing theory?”
A central debate in the emergence of digital humanities has been the relationship between the ostensibly discursive practice of critical theory and the apparent tacit knowledge of digital humanities—a form of knowing by doing described by Stephen Ramsay as “building or making” and by Bethany Nowviskie as a practice informed by “traditional arts and crafts.” At the “The Dark Side of Digital Humanities” panel during the 2013 Modern Language Association Convention in Boston, Richard Grusin mentioned an “invidious distinction between making things and merely critiquing them [that] has come to be one of the generally accepted differences that marks DH off from the humanities in general.”
Yet many scholars in digital humanities make things as part of their critical and theoretical activity, and—in so doing—refuse the knowing-doing dichotomy that Grusin projects. From the artist book practices of Johanna Drucker, the heuretics of Gregory Ulmer, the serious games of Ian Bogost, and the critical race coding of Tara McPherson to the performance work of electronic literature, the artisan materiality of DIY culture, and the speculative character of design fiction, digital humanities has a long history of what, following Matt Ratto, we might call “critical making.” For Ratto as well as practitioners such as Stephen Hockema, critical making “is an elision of two typically disconnected modes of engagement in the world—‘critical thinking,’ often considered as abstract, explicit, linguistically-based, internal and cognitively individualistic; and ‘making,’ typically understood as material, tacit, embodied, external, and community-oriented” (52). Following Ratto and Hockema, this panel asserts a hybrid making practice that sees no sharp distinction between programming and making, conception and execution, cognition and embodiment, the hand and the mind.
I’ve been following the ongoing conversation about civility on Twitter. Initially, I did not agree with the assessments about bullying on Twitter that I read from my colleagues. Then I read this article from Lee Bessette, yesterday:
I think we, as a community, need to firmly take a stand against bullying. We cannot just rely on the institution (who, let’s face it, has allowed this kind of bullying to happen, but behind closed doors) for a long, long time. If we, as a community of connected academics, don’t stand up for Tressie and stand against this kind of behavior online, it will keep happening. Too many academics from traditionally unrepresented demographics have been silenced (through fear and intimidation) in the institution, and we cannot let the institution re-create that environment online.
She was reacting to a recent post by Tressie McMillan Cottom, in which the latter details how a U of Chicago graduate student threatened her with blackmail. I’m as disgusted as Lee. As an educator, I’m a big believer in having my students engage in public discourse. But if Tressie, one of the most ethical and thoughtful public scholars I know, can have this done to her – what about my students? Should I continue to have them engage in work that shows up online when they – too – can be blackmailed by any bully who comes along?