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Erik Champion: Digital Culturalist

Erik Champion’s WordPress site https://erikchampion.wordpress.com/ displays the form of a true digital humanist. Champion is the current professor of Cultural Visualization at Curtin University in Perth, Australia. His forthcoming work, Critical Gaming: Interactive History And Virtual Heritage focuses on game play and the digital humanities, as well as the intriguing idea of ‘critical play.’ A chapter by chapter rundown exists on the page of the same title https://erikchampion.wordpress.com/2015/01/15/looking-for-suitable-cover-image-critical-gaming-interactive-history-and-virtual-heritage/. Check out the Mindmap at the DH tab, and explore a PDF of Champion’s Doctoral thesis “Evaluating Cultural Learning in Virtual Environments.” Champion is major player in the European digital humanities field with an impressive list of work in the data visulization and digital culture areas. The work in screen warping and biofeedback are worth the visit.

The Trolling Edge

The ‘Web’ is a problematic non-space, this we all know. Or, if you don’t, spend a few minutes reading Youtube comments, another non-space where racial epithets and homophobic speech seem to breed and thrive. At times it appears as if some valve holding back the flow of all the petty self-reflective hate has been cranked wide open. Natalia Cecire tackles this space, and intellectual writing’s place there, in her “Everybody’s Authority,” naming the specific concern among analytical writers that their carefully wrought arguments mix with these comments. A proverbial statement goes as such, ‘when one argues with a fool, at a distance it becomes impossible to tell who’s who.’ And it doesn’t take scads of imaginative prowess to envision an academic hesitating to publish work, real work, and risk even sharing the slightest space with the ever-present storm of irresponsible language. Quoting Jodi Dean, Cecire notes the “[b]loggers’ ability to remove certain physical barriers to access” and the “confrontation with the intractability…of other, less arbitrary barriers” (Cecire 455).

 

Cecire is correct in bringing attention to yet another reason why…well, everyone, not just scholarly writers, should pause before publishing anything that’s separated from anyone at any time by a mouse click, thumb tap, or Enter key. If I, for instance, speak of race, or roll around the age old question of a Mark Twain’s, or Zadie Smith’s for that matter, use of those words that feel like knives in the ear canal, will some bodiless set of ten fingers take me for some Neo National Socialist shining light, because it doesn’t understand what I’m critiquing, how I’m critiquing it, or (stay with me) WHY I’m critiquing it?

 

As Cecire makes a clear, “the fantasy of a universal, context free civility…is ultimately unavailable to the semipublic intellectual” (458). So this is how it is. Just as freedom means risk in the physical world, so goes the non-space, revealing itself to be more and more like the flesh-and-blood world as it evolves. An upside exists. Somewhere, amidst the flow of never-ending 1’s and 0’s, we as opponents to the illness, the anti-knowledge of hatred and persecution, need to work to discover Cecire’s new “poetics” and move forward (458).

 

Works Cited

Cecire, Natalia. “Everybody’s Authority.’ PMLA 130.2 (2015): 453-458. Print.

Sharon Marcus, in “How to Talk About Books You Have Read,” labels the work done on the online review Public Books as being “Janus faced, attuned to the academy and to those outside it who are interested in scholarly ideas and research” (476). Before I decided to go to college in my thirty-somethingth year, I was one of those “outside it” yet still interested in the literary world. I’ve always possessed the desire to at least know what the world of literature is focusing upon or what philosophical thought is being bandied about amongst the life-of-the-mind crowd. You know, has anyone figured out this human-being business yet, that sort of thing.

As Marcus and her fellow contributors at Public Books seem to be furthering, the proliferation of public intellectualism and the Digital Humanities is filling a very specific void in the world, one that arguably has existed for quite some time. When we ask ourselves about the efficacy of the Public Humanities and the shift to readily accessible scholarly work, aren’t we being a bit short sighted? As Marcus notes the “fantasy of an indefinitely free and open Web,” sites that promote public interest in the Humanities already pull advertisers while being perused by hundreds of thousands of visitors (479).

A common myth of our atavistic society, a myth that is a symptom of our adoration of the wealthy above all, is that those that work with their hands, blue and gray collar workers, are chained to rocks they call jobs in purgatorial mind-numbing wastelands. This simply isn’t true and amounts to logical fallacy. The educated/enlightened man standing above the barely literate grunt, the vocational school certificate holder suffering from a disastrous choice, is also more stereotype than truth. In fact, we know well what miniscule percentage of the population could benefit from a little horizon broadening. The success of sites like Public Books reflects the truth about those outside of the super book-geek crowd and their need for knowledge and willingness to look in the direction of the Humanities. The human being is a curious animal, always attempting to dissect instinctively whatever can be pulled apart or pondered over, and this movement of scholarly work from the relatively small circulation of specialized-and expensive-academic journals into cyberspace underscores this willingness to learn, or at least look.

 

Works Cited

Marcus. Sharon. “How To Talk About Books You Have Read.” PMLA 130.2 (2015): 474-480. Print.

Critical Mystique and the Dangers of Disappearing Evidence

In the recording industry, certain unspoken rules govern what reaches the ears of the public. It’s considered damaging to an artist’s image to release demos and other raw forms that are, in truth, necessary steps in the creative process, steps that are rarely skipped even by those considered geniuses. Lili Looofbourow and Phillip Maciak debate in “Introduction: The Time of the Semipublic Intellectual,” whether or not this same feeling of mystique, and its power, extend to the academic and public realms, as well as where the two overlap. The Evgeny Morozov New Yorker article http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/10/13/planning-machine the one cited for its questionable reliance on Edin Medina’s research, is used to ask whether the need for detailed research in academic writing needs to be streamlined for the ‘public.’ And while Loofbourow and Maciak continue on to argue where and how the lines between academic and public scholarship exist, noting several frighteningly totalitarian instances of the guillotine blade of inoffensiveness-above-all falling on an intellectual’s professional neck, I argue that we stop at Morozov’s justification for this omission of detailed citations of Medina’s work (the link provided shows that Morozov does refer to Medina within the article), to pose some important questions.

We all, as readers, understand the mystique of genius. We would like to believe that inspiration descends upon the blessed, or perhaps we entertain our own ideas of how concepts are born or what they mean in relation to our own lives We also know the tinge of disappointment we feel when we find out that works we thought were rife with symbolism and insight are actually as literal as they can possibly be. The ‘mystique’ as it’s known in show-business terminology adds to the legendary status of the creative mind. Recently, poet Austin Cleon, during his Tedx talk “Steal Like an Artist,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oww7oB9rjgw  revealed the ways we all, in one form or another, incorporate others work and the persistent voices prepared to jump at the opportunity to quickly label someone’s work as stolen, no matter the intention. As what was once cloistered becomes popular, and as Harold Bloom believes critical writing to be just as much a creative endeavor as any, do we streamline this need for painstaking citation? Do we apply the ‘immature artists borrow, mature artist steal’ logic to the realm of public intellectualism?  Does the level of research and the need for ethical use of sources turn off those readers we hope to reach? Loofbourow and Maciak write of the “reactionary” stance that feels like the new normal standard regarding responses to scholars’ blog posts and nontraditional writing, leading to consequences we must address before they become standard practice (442).

If we can, at the present time, conceptualize of a future without paper or an infrastructure-free research community, now may be the perfect time to address these issues of research integrity. As Loofbourow and Maciak ask, “[c]an scholarship exist at…two speeds, can these modes be complementary?” (442). They are asking, in short, if what remains will be entertainment dressed up as true research, with the authorial mystique intact and the many hours of others spent in libraries and databases lost in the shuffle, and more importantly, is the need for–and benefit of–verifiable evidence in danger of becoming an issue of little importance.

Works Cited

Loofbourow, Lili and Phillip Maciak. “Introduction: The Time of the Semipublic Intellectual.” PMLA 130.2 (2015): 439-445. Print.

Don’t Look

Combatting the anti-intellectual forces of the world is a strenuous task, not one that doesn’t, in itself, exist. Believe it! And, no, this isn’t elitism speaking. The downturn in an interest in the humanities doesn’t STEM from the ivory tower-ness of the Academy. Thinking is still thinking, just as reading is still reading. The human eyes haven’t changed, just as the human brain hasn’t. Yet, a certain force holds sway now. The kind of malevolence generally witnessed through the perfect 20/20 of hindsight when a society stops to ask: How did things get like this? Can the intellectuals be blamed when political leaders call for more plumbers and less philosophers…when those very voices could neither install a toilet main nor properly define ontology? Ian Bogost’s “The Turtlenecked Hairshirt” cites the incorrect “only possible answer” when he claims that the problem is us? And BTW who’s us? How do we not want to change when our business is itself change: changing the hidden into the revealed, the unknown into the known, the esoteric into the deconstructed?

 

A severely undervalued point is missed with the accusation that “we have chosen to be marginal”. No one chooses marginality. We as scholars, whether admittedly liberal or otherwise, especially in literature studies, lack the luxury of turning a blind eye or a deaf ear to those pushed to these margins, and that’s why we are there, clanging together pots and pans for the voiceless. And, yes, I understand that we ourselves are in danger of becoming ironically marginal, but the cure-all for this is not to forgo those that need our powers of interpretation and theorization, for the cool kids who are going to be OK anyway. It isn’t a choice to be the pointing finger, always looking for a new way to say that something here doesn’t look or smell right, it’s our duty as those with opened eyes to link the bottom to the top and the center to the margins.

 

History has shown us the dangers of conceptualizing intellectualism as some exclusionary, nefarious plot to….I don’t know…go blind reading books, suffer silverfish infestations, or be generally awkward at social gatherings. In all seriousness, intellectuals are the first against the wall when totalitarianism grabs power, as in Germany in the 1930’s or Venezuela in the 1990’s, and we know the score. ‘Don’t look to the margins, don’t look toward the marginalized’ and with ease, they are lined up in front of ditches, shackled, or, in many other ways, transformed from the marginalized into the liquidated.

 

Make no mistake, a grave danger exists in pretending these margins are nonexistent or unimportant, and that the mainstream needs more attention than it already insists upon forcing us to relinquish. How easy should it be to “burn way the dead wood” due to that dead wood’s unpopularity, or in fear that someone, somewhere doesn’t understand the terminology I use to describe the dead wood’s plight? Why not burn away everything we don’t like or understand? We are the “masochists” that the world desperately needs now and will always need. Research isn’t fashionable, and demolition and deconstruction are not synonymous.

 

Works Cited

Bogost, Ian. “The Turtlenecked Hairshirt.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Web. n.d. 26 March 2016. http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/12

*image courtesy of religioustolerance.org

Big Digital Deal

The Living New Deal https://livingnewdeal.org/, part of the Berkeley Digital Humanities Project, provides digital mapping for over 10,000 public works made possible by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s plan for American recovery from the Great Depression. The Living New Deal site offers views of art, architecture, and infrastructure that the second tier of Roosevelt’s legacy enabled. Interactive maps of Works Project Administration projects spread across the United States document the whereabouts of these post offices, water towers, public parks, and libraries that are probably unknown by many and in danger of being forgotten altogether. Sewer systems and streets, bridges and dams, are also a part of the many more practical facets of this set of laws and executive orders that made the U.S. government the single largest employer at the time. Many airports and national parks are a direct result of New Deal work incentives and projects. The site places an importance on the role the WPA played in the art world by sponsoring Willem De Koonig, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollack, and Milton Avery to name just a few. The Diego Rivera-inspired murals are worth the visit to The Living New Deal’s site, as you may also learn there that the New Deal is literally responsible for the ground beneath your feet.

*image of Rudolph Weisenborn’s “Contemporary Chicago” courtesy of glogster.com

As a fledgling English instructor, I immediately began thinking of how I might adapt the ideas of Lynda Barry’s Syllabus, those of repetition and the construction of groups of images. How can Barry’s ideas be be adapted for an English class, for the creation-spurring, understanding of text’s constant presence in our world? This has been on my mind for quite some time now.

Here I’ll present a loose idea for a composition notebook for strictly textual items and the subsequent writing about these found instances of text in our daily lives. Students will be urged to choose from texts they know well, so well in fact they’ve probably overlooked their very existences, as well as favorite instances where text itself is used as a design element–logos and trademarks, for instance. Some texts will be replicated and others added to the notebook permanently. One objective of having students build a book like Barry’s is the physical act of seeking the text and the conscious choice to engage with the words and the writing, as well as the juxtaposition of the imagery of their fonts and the hidden power of the word-as-image.

This idea is still under construction, and I am still working toward activities based around text in our environment, and the commentary or meta-commentary of the journal writing. Now the list consists of texts, tweets, facebook posts, advertisement text, packaging, instructional texts and owner’s manuals, descriptions of youtube videos and google site descriptions, favorite Bible verses photocopied, song lyrics, the list literally grows larger the more one simply looks at his or her environment.

Having students interact with texts that have, in one form or another, been produced by human beings, may better show those who have never given any thought to what exactly writing is, cause to reflect.

 

What does the way in which we use the vast resources of the internet say about us as a species? According to web lore, the internet was created for the purposes of sharing research material and data across impossible distances. From this need, the ability to transmit binary code across phone lines was eventually refined, and today we skype, Tweet, and rack up credit card debt at the speed of light.

As I attempt to refrain from engaging in “cursory reading” while moving through Nicholas Carr’s “The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains,” I find it difficult to not ask this larger question, to in a sense deconstruct Carr’s issue with focus, the internet, and the human brain (1). What does this choice we have made toward frivolity, with the help of the greatest pedagogical and educational resource ever known to mankind, say about our core desires and needs? Do we need information and efficient minds, or distraction from our condition?

At the center of Carr’s argument lies the “highly plastic” human brain, and, in turn, his message becomes one of speculation. It is not a question of the path we have chosen to push our collective grey matters down, but the path we have avoided, the reasons being what they may. The computer has changed our world, changed the abilities and personalities of the common man born and raised with the world at his fingertips. Furthermore, as Carr reports, this new world is one of “skimming and browsing,” even with matters that need thorough attention. And provided the medium of perspective, this discovery and consequent change is akin to man finding fire, protein, the ear of corn, the wheel. The difference being we have no model of the pre-fire, pre-agriculture neural map to reminisce about and bemoan the lost attributes that we cannot fathom and do not miss.

The truth is that we only understand the way our brains were through our lens of being the current technological masters-of-the-universe, and we are far too close to ourselves, too self-examining of each detail, too locked into staring down our bleak futures to fret for our lost attention spans. The internet’s negative effect on the human brain is a topic for future generations to evaluate, but we do have the power of choice. For instance, what do you think the ratio is between things you have discovered through the internet versus things you have yet to discover? And, are not all studies such as this subject to those chosen to participate? Somewhere, at this very moment, someone is working to cure cancer, to discover or construct garbage-eating microbial life-forms, or building models to de-carbonate our atmosphere, using both the computer and an internet connection.

 

Works Cited

Carr, Nicholas. “The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brain,” Wired 2010. Print.

 

On the brink of artificial intelligence’s arrival, I pose a question. Will machines read? Will they move past programming, either that which is given to them or that which they construct at their own behest, into the same choices we make as readers? Will they form areas of interest that drive their decision-making as human beings do? Will artificial intelligence not only replicate but also reflect the nuanced workings the human brain? How about the human heart?

I ask these questions before making a stark confession: I have text mined for the purposes of literary research at a personal level. There, it’s done. During a certain hectic three month period, a time of shifting theses and the bottoms falling out of ideas, I used my kindle to search for passages pertaining to my thesis, one involving Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts and a frothing Afghan hound. The terms ‘dog,’ ‘canine,’ even the vague ‘animal’ were systematically pulled from the text and lined up on a separate screen (if you’re thinking ‘big deal,’ I’m thinking ‘run a check on your bookgeek street cred’). Why do I feel as if I cheated, or at best robbed myself of what Gaston Bachelard labels the ‘true reading’ of any novel, the second, third, and fourth passes, when the work’s genius and beauty leap out, when you move past the narrative into the connections and symbols you can’t believe you missed the first time through. Did I cheat? And, if I did cheat, who fell prey to this specific, brand new breed of corruption? More importantly, in the spirit of Michael Witmore’s addressability, what can we learn from this difference between the human reader and the machine pulling the same passages from a text? And, where does the guilt come from and what does it mean to the future of literary research-by-machine?

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