DHSI and Urgent Optimism

Two things happened after I returned from DHSI 2014, or, as I like to call it, nerd summer camp. First, I saw a sea otter. In the wild. For the first time in my life. Then, I made a shocking discovery about “the rest of the world,” or the world IRL. These two things don’t seem interrelated, but they are. They are.

When I signed up for DHSI at Matt Jockers’ urging, and had applied for a scholarship and a bursary, I had really hoped to get placed in a “serious” class. None of this gaming stuff for me. What did gaming have to do with my real life? Really. I study American Literature, and literature centered around women’s literary apprenticeships, darn it. I am a serious person. When Ray Siemens wrote to me to let me know that I had received a scholarship, and that I would be in Games for Digital Humanists, I started to reconsider. Why travel out to BC when funds are short and dogs have to be walked and plants watered and gardens tended to and reading lists finalized when all I was going to do was develop games? Or study games? Or play games? Or what? Ray told me to give it a chance.

I went in to the class wary, having spent two weeks teaching myself the Unity game engine and Javascript. I looked like a harassed Hermione Granger. Then. I learned to play. I learned to play with games. I learned about Jane McGonigal, someone I had heard nothing about until Andy Keenan and Matt Bouchard discussed her work extensively in class, and about how what matters, what really matters in solving any problem, but especially global problems that are urgent and desperate and menacing, is what we all learn by playing games. McGonigal points to the importance of gaming in our confidence and perseverance: we learn urgent optimism through the weaving of social fabrics and blissful productivity in projects that have, or seem to have, epic meanings.

The team I was randomly placed with was tasked with developing a game that had the following elements: first daters or a lonely-hearts club,  blocks falling from the sky or the apocalypse, and a tool must be used. In short, we played a game to develop a game. Angel, David, and I stumbled around a bit, but we finally settled on a game that was a queering of the Game of Life. We created a board game called “In the Life,” for high school students in California public schools, that would teach the history of LGBTQ people from the 19th century to today. We were optimistic that our game would work and could be played. After wireframing the game using newsprint and post-it notes, we test played it. Players had to choose whether to be “in the life” and out of the closet as LGBTQ or an ally, or in the closet. As they landed on different squares, they earned money, emotional capital, and love. Our game worked! People could play it, and the mechanism of the game, the “race to the end” and the procedural rhetoric of life being a series of liminal moments where one could come out of or revert to a closet was not lost on any of our players. Even better? None of this felt like “work.” Instead, we were all “blissfully productive.”

Upon my return home, I was listening to NPR’s Saturday’s All Things Considered with Arun Rath. A segment featured Rath’s attendance at E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo. I was please to hear that what digital humanists had been talking about for years, the criticism of video games by gamers, was starting to sift down to mainstream media. Rath commented that, “Looking around at E3, it’s tough to imagine the console players are really half women.” Rath went on to interview Megan Farokhmanesh, who writes for Polygon, and Risa Cohen, a game developer for Tequila Works. Both women stood as audible challenges to the assertion that games, game development, and gaming were male-specific enterprises, despite what Justin McElroy, also of Polygon, posited when he claimed, “Dudes are playing video games. Dudes are making video games. Dudes are putting dudes in the games for the dudes to play. Anything that goes against that is going to be work.” Then, I read the comments.

I broke my rule: never read the comments. You will experience a precipitous drop in IQ. Just don’t. I wasn’t so much shocked to discover the usual troll under the bridge, lying in wait to grab my rhetorical ankle, as I was shocked that I had something to say back to him that would utterly and completely express what I had learned at DHSI: that games and play are not exclusive territory of any gender or false construct of race, and that criticism of games and gaming is part of the industry and is intrinsic to the joy of gaming and writing games. Most of the fun of gaming derives from the lucid playing of the game, the lucid ludicity, if you will. “Brim Stone” mansplained away the focus of NPR’s story about E3 by whining, “White dudes invented video games for white dudes to play. Why can;t [sic] you just let it be NPR? Why do you hate white males? Why don’t you go cover the lack of diversity in the cosmetics industry?” I felt touched by his naivete, and discovered that instead of feeling like, oh god, here we go again, I felt the ability to engage on NPR’s site as a digital humanist who has something to say about gaming. Shocking, at least to me. (The article can be found at http://www.npr.org/2014/06/21/324341624/on-display-at-video-game-showcase-a-struggle-for-diversity .)

Now, I am on the look out for games all the time. I look at my dissertation as a game, my reading list as a game, these objectives that I seek to achieve by willingly engaging in unnecessary obstacles. The sea otter? Well I saw one on a sea kayaking outing during my time in Powell River, BC. You have to keep a sharp eye out for these creatures. And when you see them, you’re so full of wonder. Games can do that.

Thanks, Matt, Andy, and Ray, for putting a sense of play back into my life at Nerd Camp, er, DHSI2014, and thanks to the ACH for making all this possible.

What do you wear when you are late to the party?

Well, if you’re Joshua Clover, you certainly don’t wear socks, or at least that is the wardrobe decision he shared at the last Humanities On the Edge lecture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His question was, do we live in an age of exceptional crisis, and is crisis part of the structure of capitalism. Certainly, modern capitalism is seeded with crisis. Business cycles expand and contract, and during the bust, we are craving the boom, and during the boom, we fear the bust of the bubble. The housing market. Bear-Stearns. Lehman Brothers. Shorted puts. Collateralized debt obligations. All of these things are the poison pills to the economy. We are conditioned to this grasping, desperate participation in an economy that is rather like Fortuna’s wheel. One day we are at the top, the next, crushed under its weight.

Clover yearns for an end or at least a resolution of this continual cycle that enslaves people to its whims. Such a destructive end can be found in the riots and looting of the Occupy movement in 2009-2010. But wait. The port of Oakland was shut down by a strike. And yet it is still functioning today. Walmart has been hit by strikes and protests. And yet we can still buy scads of cheap plastic crap there. What happened to the revolution? Are we just more aware of our enslavement, or is our submission so total that we cannot see a way out?

Nostalgic yearning for a successful revolution forms the backbone of Clover’s collection of poetry, The Totality for Kids (University of California Press, 2006). Here, fueled by OxyContin and Google maps, Clover enjoys a schizophrenic Deleuzian cruise through the streets of Paris, waxing nostalgic for the riots and strikes of May 1968. He wants to join the kids of the Situationist movement, and he conjures their ghosts in one final dérive, drifting through le quartier St. Germain, over to the Eiffel Tower, then to the Rue des Blancs Manteaux, all the while alluding to poets and musicians–Apollinaire, Emily Dickinson, Elliott Smith, Hole, Joy Division. Not only do you feel like he knows them, you feel like he’s judging you because you don’t know them. You feel like you’re stuck at a cocktail party with him where you keep sipping your wine and nodding knowingly, hoping that he doesn’t grock that you think he’s a shameless namedropper. Then you notice that he’s not wearing socks.

The point of reliving May 1968 in this nostalgic wandering is perhaps to point out how impossible it is for such a revolution to happen in Paris today. Paris today is infused with money: money from culture, money from art, money from tourism, money from just being Paris. The transformation of the city by Haussmann in the mid-19th century has made it impossible to man the barricades. What are you going to barricade? The Champs Elysée? The Rue de Rivoli? Everything’s too wide, only the Marais has those labyrinthian streets and alleys that the revolutions of 1830 and 1832 exploited. And besides. Who wants to see the Louvre burned or the Eiffel Tower taken down with dynamite à la Gilles Ivain? The riots? Those are in the suburban ghettos of Nanterre and St. Denis. Why didn’t Clover drift over there? What, is the Place Nelson Mandela not aesthetic enough for him?

During the Humanities on the Edge lecture, Clover assured us, “Hey, cars are going to burn.” I guess you gotta break some eggs if you want an omlette au fromage. His Situationist sentimentality makes him look fake, like a poseur who is all, hey, do you know my friend Chris Nealon who listens to Elliott Smith? Hey, have you heard Hole? Hey, so last week I was up at St. Suplice and. . . Josh. You’re trying too hard. Go meet some of those kids in Nanterre, in St. Denis, in Longwy, in Metz, in Thionville. Start that revolution there, and see it spread, because they’re ready and waiting for you, and they’re not interested in dropping the names of hipsters and profs. The profs don’t like them.

Pulling the Emergency Brake

A Thousand Plateaus, illustrated by Marc Ngui; http://www.bumblenut.com/drawing/art/plateaus/

A Thousand Plateaus, illustrated by Marc Ngui; http://www.bumblenut.com/drawing/art/plateaus/

My class schedule is a mess, and these readings are not making my choices any easier. I am stuck between a desire to do what Douglas Rushkoff advocates in the introduction to his quasi-Talmudic “Program or Be Programmed”, namely, learn to program, and a desire to return to literature texts in an effort to better define my own scholarship. My thoughts are following three movements:

1. Being and not being a servant;
2. Articulating an ethos and a critical stance;
and
3. Fumbling towards a better understanding of the value of digital humanities.

I have seen digital humanists work as servants. They transcribe and encode texts for larger projects, they write software, compose style sheets, and do research for digital archive projects. Our work exists as a service for other researchers and frees information from for-profit websites. The Cather Archive and the Walt Whitman Archive both serve the needs of scholars and researchers, as well as provide research opportunities for young scholars. The Civil War Washington project made emancipation compensation petitions available to the public; the results of this project’s efforts liberated information from behind a pay-wall at the for-profit site fold3.com. While I can understand what Alan Liu advocates in his plea to digital humanists to avoid being “merely servants at the table whose practice is perceived to be purely instrumental”, I can also understand how this instrumentalism is important and indispensable. The trick, it seems, is that the task of the servant in DH is to deterritorialize and decenter the source of criticism and text, of coding and programming, of end-user and creator.

The best role of the servant, then, is not to “only stand and wait”, as Milton admonished, but to go out and criticize and theorize, while creating at the same time. And that’s where the emergency brake comes in.

I want to learn all the things. I want to read Moretti and figure out how to do what he does. I also want to be able to read closely, embracing the values of Stringfellow Barr and Mark Van Doren and Mortimer J. Adler, where all I need is the gray matter between my ears, a few good friends, and a text in common, to make sense of difficulty. I want to be able to move from the plateau of text, to the plateau of code, to the plateau of the internet, to the distant reading plateau of dendrograms, and then move to the nodes of the SGML tree.

A better understanding of the digital humanities comes from a desire to be of service in different ways because of a willingness to be decentered. Decentered from a field and focus (anathema to traditional scholarship); decentered from one’s self; decentered from the hermetic environment of the hallowed halls of academia; decentered from obfuscatory scholarship. Instead, this decentering makes projects in the digital humanities that are of value to the public. Interested in letters and how they both articulate and destabilize ideas of spatial and temporal geography? Then check out Stanford’s Mapping the Republic of Letters. Itching to see how the schizo-affective vision of revolutionary thought works? Take a gander at Marc Ngui’s online Bumblenut Pictures of Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. These sites represent the public value of the digital humanities. Certainly, they are end-user products, but looking at them is a source of momentum, a momentum that destabilizes scholarship and makes me think: what do I want to do? What do I want to create? How much more programming? How much more coding? How much more will I need to do?

I think about Rushkoff’s directive to “program or be programmed,” and I realize that it’s also an invective: he is inveighing us to understand our own limitations if we do not become creators. We will only have at our disposal the resources that others make available to us as scholars. We then want to research more for the sake of showing it to others, not necessarily to show off ourselves, but to show off the works, the data, the structures, the forms, and the designs.

Pulling the emergency brake means being able to stop for a moment to stand on a plateau for a moment, get oriented, scope out the other plateaus, and take a breath before careening forward. The goal is to both be of service, and to have something serviceable. In order to do this, it’s necessary to slow down, look around, and watch the flow.

Coding as Inquiry

Thoughts from a digital humanist on the day to day of DTD

Gabi Kirilloff

Writing, as many of us know, is a form of inquiry. Ideally when we write, and when we teach our students to write, we are not simply enacting an idea we have already had, we aren’t just putting our preformed thoughts down on paper. Rather, writing itself, as an activity, is a process – a process through which we learn, think, reason, create, and adapt. Sometimes this is hard, it is much easier, much more comfortable, to write what we already know. However, writing what we already know defies why many of us were attracted to the humanities in the first place. If we write what we know, how will we learn?

This idea is in fact important enough to merit the creation of a course here at UNL entitled “Rhetoric as Inquiry,” the goal of which is to move students beyond the idea that in order to write successfully…

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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.

From Segedunum to Maya

2012: On Hadrian's Wall path from Grindon to Haltwhistle.

2012: On Hadrian’s Wall path from Grindon to Haltwhistle.

I am a trekker. I have walked from Newcastle to Bowness-on-Solway, 84 miles, retracing the layout of Hadrian’s Wall. When people talk about maps, about any kind of map, about contour maps, the Paris Atlas, Google Maps, I immediately think about that 84 mile walk that I did entirely with the use of hand-drawn maps by Henry Stedman. Each map is drawn not to scale, but to walk. The first time I used the maps, as my dad and I were walking from Segedunum to Heddon-On-Wall, we were getting used to the scale of the map. Steadman’s maps were measures of walking time, not physical distance. And this is what struck me as I was reading Franco Moretti’s Graphs Maps Trees. While I greatly appreciate what his paradigm has done for my understanding of literary forms and movement, I don’t think this guy has ever walked long long distances, and I don’t think that his maps, rather, his diagrams do justice to pre-automobile travel.

Certainly, one can make a diagram of distance. How close are the inhabitants of Three Mile Cross to a cataclysmic shift in their understanding of their being in space? Mary Mitford’s three-volume Our Village are subjected to centripetal and centrifugal forces: the forces of industrialization, of labor and management, of urbanization, of the enclosure laws, of the state. Each diagram of distance will show how these forces are acting upon the production of the text. Mitford, Moretti seems to suggest, is documenting a shift in audience demands for a type of literature: the village story. This force of reader appetite is shaping the diagram of the novel. As the novels move into the third volume in 1832, the genre, at least according to Moretti’s graph in Figure 9, has fallen out of favor. The action of the stories and vignettes of Our Village starts out concentrated and clustered closely around the village in 1824, but by 1832, not ten years down the road, settings are dissipated from the village, and the majority of the stories take place greater than 6 miles away from the village (Moretti 61, figure 26). Moretti’s different diagrams of distance depict not only changing interactions with space (the country walk), but also serve to illustrate market forces on literary genre and production. As England becomes more urbanized, more centralized, so do the literary tastes of the English reading public. The characters themselves move from the village to the city.

I wonder if Moretti knows how long it takes to walk six miles. How long it takes to walk ten? How about 12? What about 15? What if the terrain is undulating? What if you’re walking in bad weather? What about on tarmac? What is your speed if you’re walking on grass, dodging sheep filth? I kept thinking about Tess, of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Ubervilles, as I was walking. She walked to see her estranged husband’s family, and left her walking boots hidden in the bushes so that she could wear her pretty shoes to meet the Clares at the vicarage. She chickens out. In a terrible turn, her walking boots hidden in the shrubbery are espied by Angel Clare’s well-heeled brothers, mocked, and confiscated to “give to the poor.” Poor Tess has to walk back in her dress shoes. If she walks 5 hours, that’s going to be about 12-15 miles. In dress shoes. As I walked from Haltwhistle to Gilsland, a rolling walk, I thought about Tess, and thought about what it would be to walk those 10 miles or so without good hiking shoes.

As I was walking, I also thought about The Return of the Native and the paths in that novel.

http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/~bp10/wessex/evolution/maps/rn.shtml, Courtesy of the Thomas Hardy Collection, Dorset County Library, Dorchester

http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/~bp10/wessex/evolution/maps/rn.shtml, Courtesy of the Thomas Hardy Collection, Dorset County Library, Dorchester


A significant number of encounters and plot developments take place on paths, and people walk hither and thither, missing connections and seeing each other from afar. I wonder what sort of graphing and mapping of walking and paths could reveal about physical displacement in English novels?

For his part, Moretti is looking at the macrocosm of literature. He wants to find overall trends and movements by reading distantly. When maps are removed from the physical setting they represent, the details are lost. Certainly, you can trace trends, market demand, audience engagement, economic forces, even the “genetics” of narrative. What is lost in this, dare I say it, positivist approach, is the attention to the little things that walking makes you notice: the rowan tree bent at right angle over Bloody Gap, the distances from mile castle to turret, to turret, to mile castle, the weathered steel bridge at Willowford. This is the walk, the map as flow, which is, in a measurement of time, short. The contour map? The types of trekkers? The economy of the mode of transportation? This is the form, the mediation between the flow and the structure. The structure is the economic process of carving up of the landscape by enclosures, paths, roads, highways, superhighways, train tracks, and runways. The structure, the movement of people over landscape, or of audience over texts, is necessarily a distant view. The trick is not to lose sight, to be reductive: all plots have already been written, all characters are archetypes created in response to market forces, all sentiments can be graphed. Number crunching leads to literary nihilism.

How to . . .

buy a computer
search Google maps
take a bad photo and make it good
distribute music
disseminate a message
make a music video
create a webpage

All while being completely unaware of the software that commands it.

I was going to post a really cool photo to show how Lev Manovich is right on the money in Software Takes Command (Bloomsbury 2013) when he discusses how software does not keep track of itself–its history is gone with the update. Who would want a 2009 version of the street view of Edith Boulevard in Albuquerque in Google maps? You see, I am a Google maps junkie. I could spend hours looking at different layers of the maps in Google Earth. I wanted to share with you a picture of me canvassing for votes just before the 2008 election taken by one of Google’s cars. Instead, I will entertain you with two photos of the beautiful house in Martineztown that we used to own. One is from 2011, the other from 2007. I am sure you can tell which is which, just by forensically examining the shrubbery.

Copyright 2013 Google

Copyright 2013 Google

The problem is that Google writes its user interfaces the same way that Adobe does: it appeals to our desire to have the newest, the best, the most updated, and the old, outdated images are scrubbed. Who wants to have the oldest version of Adobe Photoshop or Premier? The old software that compiles layers of data and algorithms scrubs the history of the place clean.

Copyright 2013 Google

Copyright 2013 Google

I am replaced by the Madrid brothers who prowl our neighborhood for a hit of heroin.

Copyright 2013 Google

Copyright 2013 Google

What is lost? Well, not only an image of Google Street View that I was in, which was, I have to say, pretty cool, but also an image of a moment in time, canvassing before an election, getting to know my neighbors, and being part of a physical history of a place. The software has assumed that I need the newest information, without anticipating the other information that it has scrubbed away. Manovich laments not only the loss of historical software, but the loss of the products created by this software.

What was I hoping for, besides a droll image of me? I was actually hoping for a remediated experience: “digital computers imitate older media” (58). Remediation is “the representation of one medium in another” (59). Not only can I use a computer to recreate a real experience (a drive through Martineztown), but I can also use a computer running software to simulate a filmed or recorded experience of driving through a neighborhood. And I don’t even have to understand how the software works. I probably wouldn’t understand anyway. This is the simulation machine, but in this case, it failed me slightly.

The medium, software, is the message. We have entered a new world of seamless GUI displays, where we hardly agonize over the software running in the background. Tablet computers, Manovich reminds us, are the ultimate in seamless interface: we are seamlessly linked with our media, but also with our tablets’ purposes. The purpose is to create new opportunities not to create, we are warned, but to consume. In order to create much of anything original with a tablet computer, advanced skills are needed to jailbreak the device and then to reprogram it. The purpose of this, alas, would just be to download more apps that are not on the official stores, not to create anything or write anymore interesting programs. The medium, then of the tablet, has a message: download and consume, but do not create. And make sure to download and consume only remediations of what media already does: show movies, make a bad selfie good, read a book, edit a video.

Leave that hard stuff to someone else.