Apr 182014

from The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque by Gilles Deleuze

The recent issue of J19 dedicated a section to “Evidence and the Archive” without engaging at all with much of the work done in the digital humanities. This absence is of profound importance to me, because I believe that this kind of lack of collaboration inhibits the critical work humanists can undertake when considering the impact of emerging technologies on cultural experience. Ryan Cordell critiqued the warnings by Maurice Lee and Brian Connolly about the “overabundance” of data as necessarily leading to a lack of critical awareness about the truth by pointing to the many ways the digital humanities have altered their methodologies to address this very point. Ted Underwood, on the other hand, pointed out the lack of any reference to people within Library and Information Science, who study these issues as the major part of their research. I’d suggest that the inability of the authors to mention DH or LIS scholars at all points to a kind of willed ignorance comparable to what Marc Bousquet has recently called the “moral panic” in literary studies.

Normally, panic discourse involves real or perceived threats to a group identified with some aspect of the dominant social order (such as literature faculty members facing the declining cultural capital of their work). Reacting with a disproportionate degree of hostility and resentment, the group generates scapegoats and fake solutions intended to maintain its power and influence in the status quo.

Now Bousquet’s argument has an entirely different context, particularly with regard to jobs and rhetoric and composition, but knee-jerk generalizations against the digital humanities have a similar source: i.e. an anxiety (sometimes justifiable, sometimes not) that work in digital modalities is marginalizing traditional approaches in literary studies. This is not to say that there aren’t good arguments against particular ideologies, methodologies, practices, or funding sources within the digital humanities, but that we need and deserve more care in our critical approaches to technology.

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Mar 312014
Nevada Mining diagram from the Comstock Lode, 1877.

Nevada Mining diagram from the Comstock Lode, 1877.

While digital humanities have alternately challenged and invigorated discussions surrounding technology in the past few years at the MLA conference, relatively fewer of these discussions have focused on the implications of media objects for literary history. Media archaeology is a loose constellation of different historical approaches to media, characterized by the synthesis of Foucauldian archeology and media-specific analysis by Friedrich Kittler; the deep time work of Siegfried Zielinski; the examination of the postal system by Bernhard Siegert; the archival research of Wolfgang Ernst; and the viral/insect media of Jussi Parikka. As explained by Parikka in What is Media Archaeology?, these approaches see “media cultures as sedimented and layered, a fold of time and materiality where the past might be suddenly discovered anew, and the new technologies grow obsolete increasingly fast.” Yet, media archaeology is also self-consciously anachronistic. “New media might be here and slowly changing our user habits,” Parikka observes, “but old media never left us. They are continuously remediated, resurfacing, finding new uses, contexts, adaptations” (3). How do we uncover these obscured media histories? What are their implications for nineteenth-century literature, a period of massive technological and media change in which many of the assumptions about information technology emerged? How are media objects sites where memory and futurity are negotiated—technically as well as thematically?

These questions form the basis for our roundtable, which draws from the different periods and nationalities of the nineteenth century to create a transatlantic approach to literary history informed by the materialist concerns of media archaeology. As Richard Menke details in Telegraphic Realism (2008), we seek an understanding of literature that delineates “the deep ways in which new technologies, and the wider understandings that a culture could derive from them, register in literature’s ways of imagining and representing the real” (3-4). Yet we also recognize that technological change often occured in uneven and unseen ways. Along with Shannon Mattern, we insist that media objects are enfolded forms of material infrastructure in which we can “dig up the cables, pull out the wires, analyze the disks—and observe their layering and interconnection.” In consumer electronics, this kind of folding is often perceived in the threading of circuits onto a board or the jury-rigging of existing technologies into what Brian Larkin calls the “bowdlerized copies” found in places like Nigeria (20). The comparatively simpler media objects that are the focus of our study are also products of technological threading, jury-rigging, even path dependency in which different technologies are etched into the urban landscape in similar ways, like the “telephone lines [which] follow railway lines” (Varnelis 28). Indeed, we argue that media objects and literary works have analogous pathway dependencies that help to form their global development.

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Mar 312014
Klaus Burgle's retrofuturist design of an underground complex.

Klaus Burgle’s retrofuturist design of an underground complex.

Science fiction and steampunk have proven quite popular in the past few years of MLA’s national conventions.  The 2014 panel “Steampunk: Repurposing the Nineteenth Century,” had a healthy attendance despite occurring on the last day of the conference. Retrofuturism, those alternate-history futures often invoked by steampunk novels, has a broader tradition that spans cross-disciplinary interests like those in critical theory and the digital humanities. Frederic Jameson’s 1982 essay “Can We Imagine the Future” described retrofuturism as a form of nostalgia and an impoverishment of science fiction’s utopian imagination symptomatic of postmodern “urban decay and blight.” The cynicism often associated with Jameson’s critique of retrofuturism can be seen in the move of producer Ronald D. Moore from the sleek, shiny sets of the Starship Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1988-1994) to the tarnished militaristic tubes and analogue telephones of the Galactica in Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009). In a 2008 interview, Moore describes his work on Galactica as “[t]hings we said we couldn’t do [in Star Trek].” The contrasts between the series parallel two very different historical moments: the optimism associated with the fall of Communism and the comparatively darker period experienced after September 11.

Yet, retrofuturism has applications for critical theory that depart from Jameson’s brand of historicism. As explained by Jussi Parikka, retrofuturist aesthetics inspire “the punk-influenced spirit of tinkering, bricolage, and fascination with mad science, experimental technology and the curiosity cabinets that such worlds offer” (1). Strange fantasy worlds associated with the new weird fiction of China Mieville and K.J. Bishop often incorporate and remix many different technological periods together, forming infrastructures that defy the linear temporalities assumed by some science fiction. The critical making and media archaeology theories of Parikka, Siegfried Zielinski, and Shannon Mattern describe technological infrastructures that are superimposed upon one another, forming sedimented layers of materiality that combine the present and the past. This approach to history is especially important in the practice of retrocomputing, where tinkerers and hobbyists take apart and reconstruct old or otherwise obsolete computing technologies in order to understand the layered history of internet cables, hard drives, and software.

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Mar 272014

[Slide 1]: So, I sketched out some observations on the paper that I uploaded, but I thought I’d give you an “alternate” version of the presentation today. Today, I’m talking about three things: 1) Steampunk; 2) Alternate History; 3) Physical Computing. Here, you have that third  term. Physical computing is the building of any interactive system using electronics and programming. So, this is basically a breadboard (basically a way to put together electronics w/out soldering) connected to a a few LED sensors (sensing light), servos (helps to control electricity by providing feedback), and actuators (converts energy into motion). Physical computing is really about creating objects that interact with the environment, but it is also (I’d argue) a very different vision of computing that insists upon its physical/material existence.
Mar 232014

augustine12Recently, a whole slew of posts and publications caused me to return to a thread of thinking that was central to the coda of my book William Blake and the Digital Humanities. First, Ted Underwood responded to a conversation on Facebook about the difficulty of incorporating digital humanities into literary studies.

If digital methods were embodied in a critical “approach,” like psychoanalysis, they would be easy to assimilate. We could identify digital “readings” of familiar texts, add an article to every Norton edition, and be done with it. In some cases that actually works, because digital methods do after all change the way we read familiar texts. But DH also tends to raise foundational questions about the way literary scholarship is organized. Sometimes it valorizes things we once considered “mere editing” or “mere finding aids”; sometimes it shifts the scale of literary study, so that courses organized by period and author no longer make a great deal of sense.

This question of organization or periodization is foundational to Ted’s great book Why Literary Periods Mattered, I reviewed it here. But there’s another question that I asked Ted, namely – why social science methodologies are mostly rejected in literary studies. They thrive in, for example, rhetoric and composition where they live quite nicely next to more traditionally humanistic methods of study. Alex Reid’s response similarly mentioned the social science aspect, but also turned towards the need for focusing more on digital literacy than print literacy.

What they [literary studies] need to do is respond to the broader digital turn happening around them, which might mean exploring the computational/statistical methods of literary studies DH, but mostly means building a digital literacy curriculum in place of the print literacy curriculum that currently exists. What literary studies should do in this regard I have no idea, but I wouldn’t equate English departments with literary studies.

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Mar 082014
From the Steampunk exhibition at the Oxford Mu...

From the Steampunk exhibition at the Oxford Museum of Science. Flickr data (on upload date): Tags: steampunk, mask, delta3200 License: CC BY 2.0 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Steampunk is often described as “Victorian science fiction,” but its relationship with the Victorian period is complicated by the many settings where steampunk novels occur and the many modalities fans use to engage with the genre. Steampunk novels take place outside of England (Jay Noel’s Dragonfly Warrior and the forthcoming Steampunk World) and in weird fantasy realities (China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station and KJ Bishop’s The Etched City). There are steampunk video games (Bioshock Infinite), vehicles (The Neverwas Haul), and gadgets (Tim Sheely’s Teacup Stirling Engine). Steampunk fans meet at conventions and go to steampunk concerts. There are even chefs who self-identify as steampunk, and see their craft as mixing flavors from the Victorian diet with the gastronomic needs of today.

The sheer diversity of narratives currently emerging from steampunk requires rethinking its relationship to other Neo-Victorian texts which, in the words of Louisa Hadley are forms of “historical fiction” that have both a “Victorian and postmodern context” (5). It is no longer appropriate to reduce steampunk as a cultural phenomenon to Victorian history or literary expression. As an alternative, I’d like to propose interpreting steampunk through the lens of design fiction. Joshua Tanenbaum, Karen Tanenbaum, and Ron Wakkary have previously aligned steampunk with design fiction by examining how its “speculative imaginings and […] material practices are inextricably linked to each other,” and by suggesting that appropriation or “the use of a designed artifact for a purpose different than intended by the designer(s)” is central to the practice (1583-4). I suggest that the definition of steampunk as a design fiction is different than how most scholars conceptualize the Victorian as a historical period, and yet it is also useful in interpreting the creative output of non-literary steampunk. Steampunk customizes the Victorian to enable a wider variety of participants to complicate its ideas, technologies, fashions, and ideologies.

This presentation will look at steampunk design and media art in order to examine how it preserves Victorian culture. I suggest that the customization or modding of steampunk design is a cultural response to contemporary concerns regarding digitization and historical preservation. As Bethany Nowviskie has argued, “we need to develop digitization standards with an eye [toward] the continual migration of digital and digitized works to new discovery and delivery platforms and interfaces.” I show how modding in steampunk design is a form of rethinking our interface with Victorian literature. What does it mean that consulting companies can turn to Victorian technological tropes like switches to develop a cell-phone in India for non-literate users who do not understand Western forms of skeumorphic design? I argue that such practices are essential to understanding Steampunk and Victorian culture as practices extending beyond literary interpretation.

Works Cited
Bethany, Nowviskie. “Reality Bytes.” Web log post. Nowviskie.org. 20 June 2012. Web. 7 Mar. 2014.

Hadley, Louisa. Neo-Victorian Fiction and Historical Narrative: The Victorians and Us. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Joshua, Tanenbaum, Tanen Karen, and Wakkary Ron. “Steampunk as Design Fiction.” CHI ’12 Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human
Factors in Computing Systems.: 1583-592. Web.

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Mar 022014


[Slide 1]
I study nineteenth-century British literature, but particularly how digital media is changing our understanding of literary studies. This is a map of how global warming is increasing the number of cyclone tracks and flooded areas in the Asian Pacific from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Global warming is, as Tim Morton has suggested, a hyperobject, it displaces space and time and leads to “unthinkable timescales.” Because of that, I want to suggest that phenomena like these requires new forms of collaboration between scientists and humanists.

It’s important, in other words to think:

  1. the kinds of hybridities that can be accomplished in literary studies by collaborating with other disciplines
  2. and what literature can do to respond to some of the complexities of our historical moment.

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Feb 262014
English: Final roll call vote in the U.S. Hous...

English: Final roll call vote in the U.S. House of Representatives on H.R. 7152 (the Civil Rights Act of 1964). Page 1 of voting record. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The other day, I came across this article from The Guardian that lamented the fact that Obama seems to have mitigated the second term of his presidency away by drifting from one crisis to another. The author contrasts Obama’s “drift in principle and policy” with LBJ’s response when an aide argued that his desire to pass the civil rights bill was not realistic.

Johnson, who sat in silence at the table as his aides debated, interjected: ‘Well, what the hell’s the presidency for.’ ‘First,’ he told Congress a few days later, ‘no memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honour President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.’ Over the next five years he would go on to sign the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, launch the war on poverty and introduce Medicaid (medical assistance for low-income families) and Medicare (for seniors). That’s what his presidency was for.

The contrast between Johnson and Obama couldn’t be more stark: Johnson saw his presidency as a time to make things happen, while Obama has identified himself so much by compromising with the previous administration that it is hard for many leftists to understand why they voted for him in the first place.

I believe any scholar who beat the odds and secured a tenure-track position has a moral duty to answer a similar question about their institutional appointment.

What is my professorship for?

First of all, let’s be real: those of us who have a tenured or tenure-track position haven’t gotten here because we are metaphysically better than the (in some cases) hundreds of applicants who also applied for our position. Academia isn’t a meritocracy. We got here with a lucky combination of institutional pedigree, publications, privilege (racial, gendered, class-based, ableist, and/or heterosexist, among others),  and simply being in the right place at the right time.

Second, we need to be clear to whom we owe our obligation to answer the question. It may seem like “what is my professorship for,” is similar to a research question or a dissertation thesis. It isn’t. For me, the question is ethical and political. Why am I here when so many of my colleagues from graduate school are still adjuncts? What qualities do I have that will make the lives scarred by academic exploitation better? 

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