Genealogies of the Digital Humanities: The Avant-Garde and the University of Florida

I’m still processing Tara McPherson’s and Craig Dietrich’s wonderful visit to Washington State University this past week. One thing I wanted to talk to both of them more about is the way their work reinscribed the avant-garde and critical theory back into the digital humanities. Several people have successfully applied analyses of race, gender, sexual identity, and class back into DH (particularly Natalia Cecire, Jacqueline Wernimont, Jentery Sayers, Nadine Belojevic, Roopsi Risam, Alex Gil, Lisa Hager, Dorothy Kim, Alexis Lothian, Lisa Nakamura, Lisa Gitelman,  Richard Grusin, and many, many others), but McPherson and Dietrich particularly underscored how traditions of the avant-garde made their way into — for instance — Kim Christen-Withey’s Mukurtu system, and the early years of Vectors — along with more recent work with Scalar and the newly announced Tensor.

McPherson was interested in shifting the genealogy of the digital humanities away from textual processing and towards various sorts of screen histories. I don’t necessarily believe that the choice has to be that stark, nor do I agree with what seemed to be an aside by McPherson that computers don’t read and merely process — an aside I’ve heard Johanna Drucker making in some of her talks. Those are minor quibbles, though, because McPherson’s history was extremely compelling in its ability to align making methodologies with both popular and scholarly traditions. One of the more interesting moments was McPherson’s discussion of Eames Laboratories, a company that created films giving their audiences the ability to, in their words, “think in a more analytic and open way about how things might be different in their lives.” Charles and Ray Eames are best known for Powers of Ten — a film that zooms out at a rate of 10 to the tenth meters per second, going from a park to the North American continent, to the Earth, the solar system and beyond; then it zooms in at the same rate, going back to the individual body, to organs, cells, atoms, and quarks. McPherson focused on the Eames project “Men of Modern Mathematics,” a 50-foot infographic the Eames office developed for the 1964 Worlds Fair in New York City. For McPherson, such a project anticipates not only our current infographic design culture but, as she pointed out, the layers and three-dimensionality of the exhibit provided design ideas that proved useful for the development of hypertext. Incidentally, IBM created a free iPad app to honor the Eames exhibit in 2012 called “Minds of Modern Mathematics.”

The presentation and Dietrich’s workshop the following day was fascinating due to recent conversations I’ve had around the different genealogies of the digital humanities. Amy Earhart’s Traces of the Old, Uses of the New is particularly useful in this respect. Her second chapter traces a genealogy of the digital humanities interested in digital archives by looking at its origins in critical textual editing and new historicism. Citing the work of Fredson Bowers in chapter 1, Earhart locates an obsession with the purity of the text that’s transferred over to some parts of DH. According to Bowers, “the most important concern of the textual bibliographer is to guard the purity of the important basic documents of our literature and culture . . . One can no more permit ‘just a little corruption’ to pass unheeded in the transmission of our literary heritage than ‘just a little sin’ was possible in Eden.” We can see remnants of the bibliographical ethos in digital humanities work concerned with metadata categorization and archival preservation, where the question of how cultural artifacts are preserved and accessed are of a crucial value. Of course, Jerome McGann’s transformation of critical textual editing with new historicism was no small feet in this context. For Earhart, writing in chapter 2, new historicism enabled “[t]he notion of a scholar’s purview as broad and diverse, interconnected and social rather than limited to a particular author or literary text. […] As digital archivists began to interrogate code and connectivity they were implicitly arguing for an expansion of study akin to the interdisciplinary interests of new historicism, or the big tent of digital humanities.” Earhart imagines the shift from the critical edition to the digital archive in the new historicist model whereby a primary text is surrounded by an expanding set of secondary sources — and indeed the question of what constitutes a primary and a secondary source is also questioned.

Still, I find Earhart’s alignment of digital archival theory and the “big tent” of the digital humanities to be very revealing: both in the way that DH positions itself as open to various methodologies and in the way the tent might (however unconsciously) marginalize alternative genealogies of the field. New Historicism was notable for its inclusivity and diversity, and yet the degree to which it held history as THE primary form of knowledge also marginalized research that didn’t think historically. As much as new historicists in my graduate program echoed notable non-new-historicist Frederic Jameson’s imperative to “Always Historicize,” I found myself empathizing more with Eve Sedgewick’s deconstruction of the phrase: “Always Historicize? What could have less to do with historicizing than the commanding, atemporal verb ‘always’?” (125). More generally, though, McPherson and Dietrich’s presentations reminded me that my brand of digital humanities is also very different from those who practice digital archives or envision their work as intervening in the institution of cultural heritage. As someone who got my degree from the University of Florida, I too find my work rooted in the theories of the avant-garde. Gregory Ulmer, who teaches at Florida and has influenced generations of media scholars, sets out this relationship starkly in the beginning of Heuretics: The Logic of Invention: “artists demonstrate the consequences of the theories for the arts themselves, generating models of prototypes that function critically as well as aesthetically. The vanguardist does not analyze existing art but composes alternatives to it (or uses it as a step toward achieving alternatives)” (xii).

In Ulmer’s work, the avant-garde proposes an elegant solution to the “hack/yack” and “critical making” debates of the past few years: artists make in order to create alternatives to the existing social order. Ulmer’s presence in our department provided a fascinating elision of the all-too-common debates between literary studies and writing studies. In particular, he inspired me to think beyond the archive as something that could only be represented by literary or historical work — and enabled me to envision the artists who called upon Blake’s work in their own as an absent but essential part of his archive. One of my earliest opportunities for teaching the poet William Blake came not in a Romantics Seminar, but in a course Ulmer created called “Writing Through Media.” In that course, I had students read poems and articles by Blake and scholars reading Blake, but I displaced those with the semiotic theory of Roland Barthes — including theoretical works like “From Work to Text” and “The Third Meaning,” and “The Death of the Author.” The implication, at least for me, was that Barthes’s work is a powerful precursor to both hypertext theory and the digital humanities because he was sensing a fundamental transformation of knowledge occurring even during his life. I had students create a Blake MOO (Multi-User Dungeon Object-Oriented) and transform a Blake poem using links and images from the web. The goal of the course was to “introduce students to the transition underway between literacy and post-literacy (electracy) in contemporary culture. This shift is approached through its rhetorical implications, with the students as makers (and not just consumers) of new media effects. Hence this course is best taught in a computer classroom, in the context of which its more ‘writerly’ assignments seem less experimental than they do in a conventional setting.”

Ulmer’s influence to my thinking was matched with the aging infrastructure of the Networked Writing Environment (NWE). Begun with an IBM PowerPC Division Grant to the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) in 1994, the NWE was featured in issue 1.3 of Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy, in  article by Anthony Rue and Jane Love titled “Electro-Pedagogies: An Overview.” Rue and Love’s article anticipates many of the debates that would later surface in the digital humanities and underscores some of the innovations that would characterize Florida’s program.  For instance, Rue notes that the pedagogical goals of the different instructors didn’t precisely align with the original goals of the grant — which wanted them to look at a “comparative study of writing errors.” Rue continues that “[w]hile the [University of Florida English] program does offer a required course in argumentative and expository writing (ENC 1101), the majority of classes offered are in media and literary genre, period, or theory. The pool of instructors who offered to teach 1101 in the lab during the first semester of the project came from diversely different backgrounds, ranging from poststructural film theory to medieval literature. None were strictly defined as specialists in composition and rhetoric.”

That last sentence seems like a small point in the context of the essay, but it provided an opening for me and many other literary scholars to practice what was essentially media studies with literature inspiring it. Blake was a prominent figure in the story Ulmer told: he inserted himself into every part of the production cycle of his illuminated books and did so specifically to contest a professionalized editorial capitalism that was emerging in Britain during the Romantic period — along with a division of labor that separated conception from execution. But more specifically, Blake’s presence in the Florida program resonated with the work of Donald Ault, and his students like Ron Broglio, Marcel O’Gorman, Bill Ruegg, Jason Snart. Several of these students were also students of Ulmer’s. Ron’s work was a particular inspiration for me. In “Digging Transformation in Blake: What the Mole Knows about the New Millenium,” a piece I returned to several times and which made it into my “Writing Through Media” course, Broglio with O’Gorman and Ruegg, discuss a “strange correspondance between contemporary work on the web and Romantic work on print texts” that enable them to “rethink textual instability” and invent “the new practices of the screen.” I think, likewise, that strange correspondences between Ulmer and Ault’s particular brand of deconstructive media theory explains my approach to digital humanities, tied as it is to Jussi Parikka’s media archaeology and the materialist interventions of Karen Barad and Jane Bennett. In this sense, I do not contest Matthew Kirschenbaum’s articulation of a “modal ideology” in new media studies work — that, commonly, new media theories are inspired by science fiction stories or critical theory. But I respond that such theories at Florida were practiced with the intention of not explaining computational mechanisms — but creating aesthetic responses to stark transformations that were happening before our eyes. And these aesthetic responses also gelled with materialist theories. I read Spinoza, Deleuze, and Mark Hansen during my graduate years and their invocation of a distributed materialist agency continues to inspire my work.

Most of Ulmer’s students either identified as “new media” or “rhetoric and composition.” I, myself, was too focused on Blake and thought I needed to advertise myself as a literary studies scholar. For me, though, Ulmer’s place between literary and composition studies complicates what I see to be Tara McPherson’s new media focus. To be sure, new media scholars like Manovich and Kittler were both huge figures in my own education and the influence of film and media studies cannot be understated. Still, the foundation of rhetoric and composition in the conversations involving new media in many English Departments like mine also helped to create the institutional infrastructure that many digital humanities scholars use even today. Recognizing these influences, while also adding to and complementing the essential genealogical work begun by McPherson, Earhart, Kirstyn Leuner, and Steven Jones can help invite those colleagues of ours who have understandably felt marginalized by a big tent that presumably doesn’t include them. Likewise, it’s important to underscore that the digital humanities isn’t a field, at least not in any traditional sense. It’s more an assemblage of various interdisciplinary experiments and practices from very different historically-situated institutions.




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