The New Totality for Kids

Music: The unless of a certain series.
Mathematics: Everyone rolling dice and flinging Fibonacci, going to the opera, counting everything.
Fire: The number between four and five.
Gold leaf: Wedding dress of the verb to have, it reminds you of of.

Joshua Clover, The Totality for Kids, U of California P, 2006.

Legends have their uses, as distillations of the wisdom of events, as ways of passing on a knowledge of situations. History as a discipline dissolves the event back into the archive, turning history (event) into history (text), consigning it to the past. The legend is a way of making the summation of past events present to future ones.

McKenzie Wark in Steve Anderson’s “Editor’s Introduction” to Totality for Kids, in Vectors Journal, 17 October 2013, http://vectors.usc.edu/issues/7/totality/#annotation=0;page=1

I decided to do something a little revolutionary and a little scary. I decided to look at some of the texts that N. Katherine Hayles cites in her treatise on digital humanities and academic work and cognition How We Think. What makes this so revolutionary? Well, for one, Hayles is really challenging us to think about digital publication and the digital humanities as something that is more living, more vivacious, more engaging, than traditional print humanities. As McMullen said in his blog, “As far as I know, none of my regular seminar papers are being (frankly, nor should be) used to teach college literature classes.” Indeed, those of us who assiduously revised our graduate seminar papers for publication received not a few letters of rejection, a smattering of revise-and-resubmit, and the rare, coveted acceptance for publication. Who is going to read our publications? Certainly hiring committees. Probably our advisors (we hope). Maybe our friends. Our parents might muddle through them and then send us a gift card to Ben and Jerry’s for a free cone. No one is probably going to read that paper that you publish. Really. It’s probably boring and dry as dust. No one in academia is going to tell you that, though, and if they did, you’d probably do your best to repress the growing panic of ohmygodtheworldischangingundermyfeet, and work on yet another revision of your paper tracing the renegado texts in the literature of the Renaissance levant. Have fun. Better yet, have a scotch.

You know what’s scary? Not knowing. Not knowing enough code. Not knowing enough book history. Not knowing enough about game theory. Hayles saves the day. “As a subversive force, the Digital Humanities should not be considered a panacea for whatever ails the humanities,” she cautions, but then she uses the rest of her book to both reassure us and terrify us at the same time. Digital Humanities are in their nature collaborative and creative. The real revelation comes in the emergence of Digital Humanities as a productive endeavor.

Up until now, my career had seemed limited to either reporting or proposing, but not creating. Sure, I could report on Cather’s bibliography. I could propose a new way to approach her literary apprenticeship. Now, I can see the intimidating prospect of inventing and creating a new way to present or form information. The fear and intimidation is somewhat mitigated by the opportunity to work as a team on a team of similarly minded DH people. Collaboration makes DH less scary.

Let’s go back the beautifully designed Totality for Kids. The work represents design and programming by Erik Loyer, text by McKenzie Wark, illustrations by Kevin Pyle, all accompanied by music by the Love Technology. Wark, a professor of Culture and Media Studies at the New School, has written extensively about DH, including The Hacker’s Manifesto (2004) and Gamer Theory (2007). The article, published just this October in Vectors Journal, speculates in an interactive way, on the effect of the Lettriste International and the Situationist International on the Left Bank culture of 1950’s Paris. Accompanied by music, Wark and Loyer’s interactive illustrations and text allow the viewer to peruse levels of annotation and so experience methodical revelations. As the reader engages with the text, Wark’s thesis starts to clarify: that digital technology is an articulation of the politics of desire; that wandering, la dérive, is crucial to intellectual production that is not a commodity. Should we strip the imagery from the text, and present the text alone, the totality of the interactive essay would be lost. We would no longer be allowed to take part in a structured dérive. Strangely, this work does not appear on his page at the New School. It could be because it is very new, but for a Digital Humanist, this work should be listed and so legitimized. The text would be legitimized. The rich collaboration between Pyle, Wark, Loyer, and the Love Technology would be legitimized. As it is now, is it a curiosity? Does Josh Clover know what Wark has done with totality, how he has extended and modified it, made it more “total”, a gasamtkunstwerk?

This might be the source of my anxiety: the field of humanities scholarship is changing. It is changing at a dizzying rate. The day of the tweed coat and leather patches is over. But when digital humanists do not count their own work as legitimate enough to list on their institution’s site, we are a far cry from becoming a field where blogs, digital publishing, and creative projects are just as important as a monograph or an article in Studies in the Novel. We are pushing ourselves as digital humanists not just to comment on or report, but to create; not just to confer with, but to collaborate with; not just to theorize but to invent and manipulate. My job causes me anxiety: I want to do more than just “turn events back to the archive.” The strange solution to my anxiety is the possibilities afforded by DH: collaboration, intervention, and creation. At this point, anxieties can shift, from the haunting feeling that the article evaporates upon publication, to the urgency of creation and collaboration. Somehow, being part of a team is just as difficult as being alone, but a least I don’t have to face obstacles as a solitary scholar.

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