Jul 082014
 

 

[Slide 1] So, this is a different version of a presentation I’ve been developing about the relationship between so-called twitterbots and literary studies. I decided to focus most specifically this time on questions about the digital archive, forms of what is called ‘critical making,’ and the very different ways Blake’s work appears online. I’m a proponent of the idea that — oftentimes — literary history is preserved in the most unlikely of ways and not exclusively by professional critics or archivists. And I argue that this unintentional form of preservation has implications on how we understand William Blake, his work, and his legacy.

[Slide 2] This is a letter Blake wrote to Reverend Trussler in August of 1799. Jason Whittaker and I used this quote in William Blake and the Digital Humanities to argue that Blake saw his creations as not belonging to him, but as things that were passed from one creator to the next. Similarly, Ian Balfour contextualizes Blake’s work as a form of prophetic citation or an “echo” that resounds with others. I feel this understanding of creativity is extremely important, particularly as we consider what it means to preserve the past.
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Jun 032014
 

I’m writing this post for a number of reasons, not the least of which is an MLA report that recently gained a number of detractors from various circles within the English Department. Rhetoric and composition scholars are (rightly) pointing out that writing pedagogy has long adopted a number of these reforms. Graduate/adjunct advocates are wondering how students can prepare for all of these requirements. Scholars in literary studies are wondering what their field even means after the reforms. Let me say at the outset that I do not think that the MLA report is perfect.

But English departments really need the MLA report.

I was astonished to find this exchange on Rebecca Schuman’s critique of the report, which underlines precisely why it is so urgently needed. Schuman critiques the stipulation on the report to “Reimagine the Dissertation,” with the idea that new forms of the dissertation can only be condescending. “You should not be expected to write a Real Dissertation either. Why don’t you just do an interpretive dance? That sounds neat.” One of her commenters, Carlotte Canning, said the following:

I. Dance. Why is dance the “go to” field when one wants to sneer at something? There’s no such thing as “interpretative dance,” but there is a lot of excellent work in that field. It might be better to ally yourselves with those of us in the arts, instead of using us to make a disdainful point.

Schuman responds that dance “would not–and should not–qualify as a dissertation in English Literature, because it is NOT THE RIGHT FIELD.” And yet, this response strikes me as precisely the wrong way to approach the challenges English has in the twenty-first century. Our discipline should be encouraging experimentation, not quashing it under assumptions of what the field “really” encompasses. Such rhetorical moves, as Ted Underwood has recently and painstakingly pointed out, are often the product of sheer neoconservative fantasy rather than any real understanding of the historical dimensions of our discipline. We certainly should not be ignoring the potential insights that could be found by directly confronting how a University might evaluate original research delivered as a performance.

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May 252014
 

I decided to write a quick piece about what I’m bringing to #dhsi2014, both because I love the community and because I’ve decided to become as portable as I can when traveling to conferences. I also wanted to crib together Brian Croxall’s amazing post on his conference tech-stack with some things I learned from Lifehacker and my own experiences. AND, it’s fun to write a post that isn’t arguing about some controversy in my discipline once in a while. Here’s a pic of what I take on conferences.

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May 152014
 

The following is a response crafted by the Washington State University English faculty regarding the revelation that WSU is among 55 schools currently under Title IX investigation over the handling of sexual assault allegations. The administration reported and responded to the probe on May 1, and The Seattle Times covered it on May 2. I am proud to be part of a faculty who is passionate about ending both sexual violence and the secrecy surrounding it. Both problems are all too common on American college campuses.

Dear President Floyd,

The U.S. Department of Education recently released a list of universities under investigation for their handling of sexual assault allegations by students. We were dismayed to find Washington State University on that list, and as faculty members we are ready and committed to transforming our campus and its culture.

The large number of sexual assaults on American campuses—the vast majority of which are unreported—has devastating consequences for not only individual victims but also the campus community as a whole. According to the AAUP’s report on Campus Sexual Assault: Suggested Policies and Procedures, co-authored by Professor Donna L. Potts of the WSU English Department, “Sexual assault may affect students’ academic achievement as well as their capacity to contribute to the campus community. [...] Along with decline in academic performance and social withdrawal, long-term outcomes may include increased risk of depression, substance abuse, self-harm, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress, personality disorders, and suicide.” These consequences are only magnified when victims are met with official disregard.

We therefore applaud the administration’s decision to comply with the investigation, provide information, meet with representatives, participate in OCR’s “voluntary resolution” process, and state unequivocally that WSU “does not tolerate any form of sexual harassment, sexual assault, or other sexual misconduct.” We hope that WSU can immediately implement procedures identified in new federal guidelines for responding to campus sexual assault: adopting effective prevention programs, gathering more accurate data on campus assaults, and striving for greater transparency. We would also like to see an expansion of bystander training (such as WSU’s Green Dot program) and continuing efforts to ensure that officers who respond to allegations are properly trained to do so.

None of these measures, however, will be as effective without the full engagement of WSU’s faculty. As faculty members, we are especially well-positioned to lead this fight against sexual assault, and we are committed to doing so. Those of us in English, for example, teach the majority of first-year students, and we are ready to explore co-curricular opportunities to combat directly not only the problem of sexual assault but the larger social and campus culture that enables it.  Along with colleagues in other departments, many of us regularly research and teach about issues of gender and sexuality, sexual violence, and prejudice, and we are ready to work to improve the materials and other educational experiences—speakers, readings, campus conversations—that address these issues.

We are especially committed to moving outside our classrooms and working with our counterparts in Student Affairs and advisors and members of student groups to develop a more comprehensive and integrated approach. Along with the Dean of Student Affairs and CCGRS, we have arranged for Laura Gray-Rosendale, author of an award-winning memoir on her rape, College Girl: A Memoir, to come to campus next year to speak and conduct workshops.

We are ready to work with you, Provost Bernardo, and all other members of the university community—faculty, students, and staff—to transform the climate at Washington State. Changing the culture of assault and silence demands the attention of all of us—men and women; faculty, students, and staff; and individuals of all sexualities.

Anything less than our full commitment to create an assault-free campus would effectively  disempower and victimize the members of our community who have experienced assault. It would, in short, make us complicit, and we will not be complicit.
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May 022014
 

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I’ve recently come across a very interesting review (apologies, it’s behind a paywall) on my article “Digital Blake 2.0″ in the most recent issue of Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly. Let me say at the outset that I am particularly thankful for the generous and extended consideration of my work. Grant Scott carefully grapples with the book, and comes up with a variety of useful responses. Yet I’d also like to take the opportunity, as Kathleen Fitzpatrick suggests, to review the reviewer: to respond and critique Scott’s approach to critiquing Blake 2.0.

Grant F. Scott, “Review of Clark, Whittaker, and Connolly’s Blake 2.0: William Blake in Twentieth-Century Art, Music, and Culture.” Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly. 47.4 (2014). 
Scott’s review of Blake 2.0 begins by “grumbling” about the fashion of declaring everything “2.0.” The 2.0 fad was in full swing when I began “Digital Blake 2.0″ in 2009, and I meant to position the title as a riff off of both Web 2.0 and J Hillis Miller’s 2006 essay “Digital Blake.” Of course, “2.0″ has lost its luster in the 5 years between now and then. Perhaps this development underlines Scott’s point about fashionable scholarly jargon. It might also support the idea that a “filter then publish” model of scholarly communication represented by Scott’s review can’t keep up with the development of ideas on social media as they proliferate much more quickly than journals and books. I was approached by the editors of the collection to write the article in 2009, it received a contract in 2010 (relatively quickly in the publication world), appeared in 2011, and then the book waited three years to be reviewed by Scott. And yet, Scott writes his criticisms of the articles as if they responded to the unmediated thoughts of the authors in the collection. [edit: An editor at BIQ informed me that Scott finished his review in 2012, and it is only now appearing. It doesn't change my critique, since I wasn't faulting Scott for the time difference between when I wrote the article and the appearance of his review. But I do believe that it gives another glimpse into the difficulty of traditional modes of scholarly communication -- even online ones -- to compete with the pace of social media.]

I’m not criticizing Scott per se — how could he or any other reviewer approach a review differently? I do feel his blindness to the mediality of the critique complicates some of his reactions to the collection. Scott writes that the essays “do not ‘present a radical challenge to reception studies,’ as the editors claim (4), because their message is wed too closely to the medium they inhabit—the codex book—and to the academic disciplinary practices the authors have internalized. It’s a bit like reading a transcript of a performance by the Rolling Stones. The collection needs (bravely, riskily) to embrace and implement the web practices it describes.” I’d agree with Scott’s suggestion if his criticism recognized the wider institutional context that mediates these decisions. Digital scholarship is going to, as Bolter and Grusin would argueremediate older models of publication. Why? Because in order to justify itself and be recognized as scholarship, digital work has to take on the look of older media forms.

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Apr 182014
 
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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. [edit: Paul Erickson's piece does engage with library and information science and talks about how librarians might see archives as fundamentally different from literary scholars.] I’d suggest that the inability of most 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.