This semester, I’m teaching a course for Winthrop University: WRIT 502: Cyber-Rhetoric: Literature, Theory, Technology. It is, in short, a course in digital English studies. The catalog description of the course is as follows:
This class will examine the challenging possibilities now open for literary study and literary theory. It considers works from Blake to Borges to cyberpunk; works with online materials and literary archives; wrestles with modern rhetorical and digital theorists; and experiment with creating online texts and critiquing them.
As I put the course together, I found myself leaning towards incorporating more digital humanities and comparative media studies while addressing how digital technologies are changing our notions of texts and textual engagement, literature, pedagogy, and composition. As I put the syllabus together, I ended up with a fairly long course introduction, but decided to keep it. I thought I’d share it here.
“Any shift in the traffic of information can create not only new thoughts, but new ways of thinking.” – Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid, Rhythm Science
“It is impossible to understand social and cultural changes without a knowledge of the workings of media.” – Marshall McLuhan, The Medium Is the Massage
“It is the first step in sociological wisdom, to recognize that the major advances in civilization are processes which all but wreck the societies in which they occur […]. The art of free society consists first in the maintenance of the symbolic code; and secondly in fearlessness of revision, to secure that the code serves those purposes which satisfy an enlightened reason. Those societies which cannot combine reverence to their symbols with freedom of revision, must ultimately decay either from anarchy, or from the slow atrophy of a life stifled by useless shadows.” – A.N. Whitehead, Symbolisms: Its Meaning and Effect
“As the era of print is passing, it is possible once again to see print in a comparative context with other textual media, including the scroll, the manuscript codex, the early printed codex, the variations of book forms produced by changes from letterpress to offset to digital publishing, and born-digital forms such as electronic literature and computer games.” – N. Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman, Comparative Textual Media: Transforming the Humanities in the Postprint Era
“It is the business of the future to be dangerous.” – A.N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World
In the months of May and June, readers of the New Republic were treated to articles about the end of English Departments, soon to be killed off by technology in the guise of the digital humanities. In his article, New Republic Senior Editor Adam Kirsch decries the doom he believes technology is wreaking. Less alarmist, James Pulizzi also sees the end of the traditional literature department as all but inevitable, not because they must die but because they must shift and adapt to the new digital environment.
It is true, as Pulizzi suggests, that literature departments, especially English departments, are changing, even need to change. But that’s nothing new. English departments have always been changing. We might point to the 1800s where at schools like Harvard one of the most prestigious professorships was the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory, or to the late 1800s when American English departments did not teach American literature – the first American professor of American literature had to jump ship from his literature department for a department of history. Or we might point to the 1940s and the rise of the then New Criticism, or to the 1960s as the start of a series of waves of post-structuralist and post-modernist theories and perspectives including but not limited to feminism, gender studies, New Historicism, postcolonialism, multiculturalism and ethnic studies, ecocriticism, trauma theory, memory studies, New Materialism, object-oriented criticism, and speculative realism. Or we might look again to the 1960s and the revival of classical rhetoric and the beginnings of contemporary composition studies, followed later by the growth of professional writing and technical communication.
Kirsch, however, is right in sensing that something is different. This is not just a change in the practice of theory or the object of study, but a change in the very way we are structuring our culture. We are no longer a culture of print. We are, instead, a transitional culture moving from the print to digital age. In arguing against the study and use of digital technology, Kirsch asks, “Was it necessary in the past 500 years for a humanist to know how to set type and publish a book?”
Kirsch believes that the answer is no, and therein lies the problem with his attempt to defend the humanities from technology. Renaissance Humanism was born within the newly established printing houses of Europe. The first Humanists did not just learn how to set type and publish books, they embraced the printing press; got their hands on as many hand-written manuscripts of Greek and Roman literature, philosophy, mathematics, and science as they could; set them to type; and published, published, published.
Kirsch is unaware of these facts because he is trapped within a catch-22. To be aware of how the printing press gave rise to Renaissance Humanism, Kirsch would have had to have studied the history of media technologies, something which he seems loathe to do because he believes it to be antithetical to humanistic concerns.
As Hayles and Pressman argue, that we are transitioning from a print to a digital culture allows us to more readily recognize that print and its modes of thought, patterns of behavior, and organizational structures were a temporary condition fostered and encouraged by a technology around which we shaped our culture. That era, the Age of Print, is ending, just as the manuscript culture of medieval scholasticism ended with the rise of print.
And that is what this course is about: In recognizing, as DJ Spooky reminds us, that shifts in the traffic of communication will alter modes of thought; in seeking to understand the workings of electronic and digital media, as Marshall McLuhan suggests we need to do, so that we might understand the social and cultural changes around us; in revising the ways we practice English studies even as we maintain our symbolic codes so that we might, as A.N. Whitehead argues, stave off cultural stagnation.
If “the business of the future is to be dangerous,” then the answer is not to hide from it but, as McLuhan suggests, “to contemplate what is happening.” Or, as Michel de Montaigne, the Renaissance writer and inventor of the essay – a genre thoroughly entwined with the rise and logics of print – once wrote, “The thing of it is, we must live with the living.” That is what this course is about: To understand how English studies might live within a digital world.
I’ve been meaning to write for some time about my growing interest in making, specifically in Arduino, Processing, and paper circuits. While I’ve tinkered with coding over the years, I’ve never had an interest in electronics, at least not until last summer. I bought an Arduino last September, sponsored a high school making club during the fall, designed a Making and Writing course before I decided not to teach at the high school this spring, and introduced Arduino-based robotics and Processing into our homeschooling curriculum. (Oh, btw, as of this fall I’ve been co-homeschooling a 9th grader. I really should be better about blogging.) I’ll post more about my making activities and how they fit into my academic endeavors soon. In the mean time, here’s a post on making and the physical-digital interface I’m cross-posting from my Day of DH blog.
As a technorhetorician, a media ecologist, and a digital humanist, I’m becoming increasingly interested in the physical-digital interface of physical computing and interactive programming.
A lot of this interest is playing out in my exploring both the Arduino microcontroller and the Processing programming language. As the Arduino programming language and integrated development environment (IDE) are based on Processing, the two work quite well together. For instance, there’s the example project that interfaces an Arduino with Processing to creating an RGB LED lamp, the color of which is based upon word frequency within an RSS feed, or the much more simple example of simply turning on an LED by mousing over a Processing-created image, which I was able to do in just a few minutes. You can see the results in this Vine. Apologies for the shaky video – I held my phone with my weak hand as I used my better hand to control the mouse.
to Waldek Węgrzyn’s Elektrobiblioteka that uses conductive paint-based silk screen printing and a small embedded microcontroller to create touch-sensitive illustrations that call up and interact with digital content.
While I’m still learning both Processing and Arduino, as a digital humanist I’m often thinking of the ways in which we might use a visualization and generative art program like Processing to process and interact with text. For instance, there’s this fairly straightforward visualization of Goethe’s Faust and this “tube map” that’s created by inputting text. More interesting, however, are things like the codeable objects Processing library and the potential for interactive books making use of paper circuit technologies and embedded microcontrollers.
Three tasks I’m working on today is organizing a session on making, making pedagogy, and critical making and design for CCCC 2015, brainstorming a possible DIY craft and making workshop for the same, and figuring out if I’m ready to propose a paper circuits workshop for THATCamp DC at the end of this month.
And later today, as a last-minute addition to today’s home schooling (as in decided about 10 minutes ago), we’re going to have our first go at programming an ATiny85 chip and using it to make this paper-based microcontroller:
You can find the tutorial at Jie Qi’s The Fine Art of Electronics.
The Variable Media Questionnaire is resource for helping creators think about sustainability and preservation of their digital work, originally designed by Jon Ippolito while working in the curatorial department of the Guggenheim and now faculty at the University of Maine’s New Media Department. The project, in its third generation, is now being developed by the University of Maine’s Still Water lab under the direction of John Bell.
The Variable Media Questionnaire is designed to help a work’s creators and users write guidelines for translating their works into new media once the original medium has expired. This Questionnaire is unlike any protocol hitherto proposed for cataloguing or preserving works. It requires creators to define their work according to functional components like “media display” or “source code” rather than in medium-dependent terms like “film projector” or “Java.” The variable media paradigm also asks creators to choose the most appropriate strategy for dealing with the inevitable slippage that results from translating to new mediums:storage (mothballing a PC), emulation (playing Pong on your laptop), migration (putting Super-8 on DVD), or reinterpretation (Hamlet in a chat room).
Ippolito has a short article on the questionnaire, “Accommodating the Unpredictable: The Variable Media Questionnaire,” which is taken from the book Permanence through Change: The Variable Media Approach.
On May 3, 2013, Collin Brooke (@cgbrooke) took up the challenge of summarizing his book Lingua Franca: Towards a Rhetoric of New Media in a few tweets. The three tweets are as follows:
- Tweet 1: @kristinarola New media require us to acknowledge that technology and rhetoric are inextricable. #LF
- Tweet 2: @kristinarola A rhetoric of new media attends to interfaces (vs objects) that manifest ecologies of code, practice, and culture. #LF
- Tweet 3: @kristinarola The classical canons of rhetoric are an ecology of practices that help us map the affordances of all media. #LF
Collin then captured the three tweets in the pic you see above.
I’m particularly struck by the third tweet which is a nice summary of what I’m doing when I’m working to tease out various conceptions and practices of memoria.
I rant from time-to-time about the use of secondary (or tertiary) orality to written forms of online communication because they represent misunderstandings of Walter Ong’s scholarship. This is not to say that there aren’t oral-like qualities to written online discourse any more than there are oral-like qualities to many kinds of written discourse. (See, for instance, Ong’s use of the term “residual orality.) At its basic level, the error is in trying to define written discourse as oral. While Ong’s “residual orality” works as a term because it refers directly to the carry over of oral features within written texts, he is (mostly) referring to features within written texts that are different from the oral features people find within online written texts.
Lance Strate, in his essay, “On the Binding Biases of Time,”1 gets at the heart of this. While Ong saw a reemphasis on oral communication with the rise of radio and television, Strate notes, Ong referred to it as “secondary orality” because it was not the orality of primary oral cultures. Likewise, Strate continues, while McLuhan argued electronic media were retrieving acoustic space and retribalizing us, these were not returns to the way things had been but new practices and new forms of existence (381). What I like most from this section of the essay, which is really an essay on the concept of time as an intersection of general semantics and media ecology, is the following passage:
We have found a new kind of interactivity made possible by computer-mediated communication, social networking, and social media, and this does seem to provide us with a form of communication that resembles orality in certain respects. But are a series of updates and comments on Facebook, MySapce, and Twitter the equivalent of oral dialogue? Does blogging take the place of epic poetry and public address? Can online groups and bulletin boards replace communities where individuals must cooperate out of necessity, in response to the requirements of material reality? Does the ephemeral nature of electronic communications, with Web sites and people’s profiles vanishing overnight, provide us with the continuity that we so desperately need? (381)
Rooting his questions in social use and practice, the answers to each is so clearly no, and that is the point. Just because two things have similarities does not mean that they have equivalency let alone that they are one and the same. And that, again, is before we set aside the fundamental issue that orality is rooted in acoustic space, that it is oral/aural, and that literacy is rooted in visual space, that it is visual and tactile. And just as important as the issues of medium and sensory perception is the issue of social use and practice. Fundamental to orality-literacy studies and media ecology is the notion that communication technologies exist within social frameworks. They help shape, and their uses are shaped by, the cultures in which they exist.
- ETC: A Review of General Semantics 67.4 (2010): 360-388 [↩]