Critical Making in Digital Humanities: A MLA 2014 Special Session Proposal

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@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.

Digital Printing presses

We borrow terms from Robert Essick’s description of William Blake’s artistic practice. As Essick says of Blake, “there can be no conception without a medium of execution to conceive in.” Those who disagree believe either in “concepts […] that transcend all media,” or “processes […] that try to suppress eruptions of new conceptions within acts of execution” (163). Building or making can take many different forms, all of which are critically and theoretically engaged. As Jean Bauer has argued, databases are “steeped in theoretical implications,” and we add, so are programming languages, data models, interfaces, algorithms, and the heads, spindles, platters, motors, and plastruders found in hardware and printers. In short, methods, tools, and applications exist in recursive relationships with discursive practices. But beyond that, makers are passionately involved in critically assessing and intervening in culture. For instance, consider Peter Krapp’s Derrida Hydra Online Bibliography, Matt Ratto and Stephen Hockema’s FLWR PWR, and Hugh Crawford’s Thoreau House, all of which engage digital humanities, maker cultures, and critical theory. Further, by mentioning Blake as well as combining different disciplinary interests from digital rhetoric and book printing to desktop fabrication, physical computing, and augmented reality, this panel corresponds with Paul Fyfe’s observation that the digital is not restricted to programming or database management, but is “something to get your hands on, to deal with in dynamic units, to manipulate creatively.” To this observation we add the perspective that dynamic creative manipulation happens in the articulation of theory. Our panel combines the theoretical investments of our presenters with their critical practices to show how each is informed by the other.

In collaborative pairs bookended by Whitson’s introduction and Hertz’s response, panelists connect their specific projects to the institutional, cultural, ontological, medial, and technological shifts occurring in the humanities. They also explain how the process of making inhabits their theoretical practice.

Roger Whitson’s “Introduction: Some Pre-Histories of Critical making” introduces the panel by examining the illuminated printing of William Blake, the craft socialism of William Morris, and the artistic mathematics of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace as possible pre-cursors to maker culture, in the process questioning what critical theory might be ignoring by looking at concepts and finished cultural products rather than processes.  Amaranth Borsuk and Dene Grigar, in “Theorizing Collaborative Making: Between Writing, Programming, and Development,” show how collaboration in the digital humanities theorizes new approaches to  authorship, teaching, and literary production. Autovation, created by undergraduate students in a senior capstone course at Washington State University Vancouver, is on permanent display at the Oregon Museum for Science and Industry and is the winner of a 2012 Rosy Award in the category of “experiential.” Between Page and Screen, created by two artists located in the Seattle area, is a work of electronic literature that has been exhibited nationally at the Modern Language Association and the Library of Congress. Kari Kraus and Jentery Sayers’s “Toward a History of Critical Making in the Humanities” combines a humanities history of critical making with emerging methods in speculative design, physical computing, and desktop fabrication. Kari Kraus discusses how she and a team of collaborators created a collection of counterfactual artifacts, documents, logos, and concept art for the Arcane Gallery of Gadgetry, an educational Alternate Reality Game funded by the NSF from 2009-2012. With students and co-designers, she also merges low-tech prototyping with qualitative research to develop new approaches to design fiction, often using printed books and textiles as platforms for playing with computation. Sayers focuses on his ongoing use of physical computing and desktop fabrication techniques to interpret, remediate, and exhibit Anglo-American modernist literature and culture, including novels such as Ulysses and old media from the first half of the twentieth century. Garnet Hertz concludes the panel by responding to the presentations and discussing his own work at UCI’s Concept Lab.

Amaranth Borsuk is Senior Lecturer in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington Bothell. She is the author of several award winning chapbooks and collections of poetry including the hybrid digital/print artist’s book Between Page and Screen (Siglio Press, 2012). She is the 2011 recipient of the Gulf Coast Poetry Prize for “A New Vessel,” selected by Ilya Kaminsky, and her poems, essays, and reviews have appeared widely in print and online.

Dene Grigar is Associate Professor and Director of The Creative Media & Digital Culture Program (CMDC) at Washington State University Vancouver.  Along with numerous works of mobile media, multimedia performances and exhibits, and net art, she has authored over 40 publications on the topic of digital media and technology. She is also Associate Editor of Leonardo Reviews and Vice President of the Electronic Literature Organization.

Garnet Hertz is Artist in Residence and Research Scientist in Informatics at UC Irvine, faculty in the Media Design Program at Art Center College of Design, and Assistant Director of the EVOKE Lab at UCI. He is an artist, maker, builder, and theorist whose work explores themes of DIY culture, technological progress, creativity, innovation and interdisciplinarity. He has shown work at several notable international venues in thirteen countries. His research is widely cited in academic publications, and popular press on his work has disseminated through 25 countries including The New York Times, Wired, The Washington Post, NPR, USA Today, NBC, CBS, TV Tokyo and CNN Headline News.

Kari Kraus is an Assistant Professor in the College of Information Studies and the Department of English at the University of Maryland.  She is also an affiliated faculty member with the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at Maryland. Her research and teaching interests focus on digital humanities, digital preservation, game studies and design, and textual scholarship and print culture.  Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in venues such as Digital Humanities Quarterly, The Journal of Visual Culture, The International Journal of Learning and Media, and The Cambridge Companion to Textual Scholarship. Her research has been funded by the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the National Science Foundation, and the UMD ADVANCE Interdisciplinary and Engaged Research Program. Her book project–Hopeful Monsters: Computing, Counterfactuals, and the Long Now of Things–is under contract to the MIT Press.

Jentery Sayers is Assistant Professor of English and Director of the Maker Lab in the Humanities at the University of Victoria. His research interests include comparative media studies, digital humanities, sound studies, and computers and composition. His work has appeared in Digital Studies; Kairos: Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy; Computational Culture; The Information Society; Collaborative Approaches to the Digital in English Studies; ProfHacker; Sounding Out!; The New Everyday; The New Work of Composing; Off Paper; The Digital Rhetoric Collaborative; and Writing and the Digital Generation, among others. His research has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Simpson Center for the Humanities, Implementing New Knowledge Environments, the Nebraska Digital Workshop, and HASTAC. His first book project, How Text Lost Its Source: Magnetic Recording Cultures, is under construction with the University of Michigan Press.

Roger Whitson is Assistant Professor in the English and Digital Technology and Culture (DTC) programs at Washington State University and is the author of many articles on the intersections of nineteenth-century literature, adaptation, and digital media. His most recent book William Blake and the Digital Humanities: Collaboration, Participation, and Social Media (Routledge, 2012) examines the history of the digital humanities in relation to the study and adaptation of Blake’s work in twentieth and twenty-first century visual art, music, film, and social media. He is currently working on a second book project titled Steampunk: Critical Making and the Varieties of DIY Nineteenth Century History.


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  1. Very cool panel, and a great round up of links. I’d already been using some of them to help foreground my thinking about the book-making project and you’ve given me a number of things to add as well as reminded me of some sources to relook at.

    1. Thanks John! Garnet, Jentery, and Jussi are great sources for this kind of work. I’m just starting to scratch the surface of what it could mean to my own scholarship.

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