Fall Teaching: Cyber-Rhetoric:

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.

Tools, Technologies, and Infrastructures

Last December, a discussion regarding the differences between tools, technologies, and infrastructures took place on WPA-L, a listserv for writing program administration. Late in the conversation, I offered the following as a first stab at the issue after someone suggested that the term “technology” was introduced in the 20th Century. I’m posting my response here, slightly edited, as a placeholder to return to at some point.

While I understand the desire to tease out the differences between technology, tool, and infrastructure, I don’t believe there is a simple way to do so. Technologies can be tools and tools can be technologies. A glance at the OED, as Rich Haswell suggested, is instructive here. First, we learn that the OED lists its first known usage of the word technology back to 1612 in the context of a discourse or treatise on an art or arts. Second, if we just limit ourselves to entries 4a-c, we learn that technology can encompass a body of knowledge; the application of that knowledge; a process, method, or technique; and specific objects such as a machine or a piece of equipment. The definitions, along with their earliest recorded usages, are:

4.a.: The branch of knowledge dealing with the mechanical arts and applied sciences; the study of this. (1787)

4.b.: The application of such knowledge for practical purposes, esp. in industry, manufacturing, etc.; the sphere of activity concerned with this; the mechanical arts and applied sciences collectively. (1829)

4.c.: The product of such application; technological knowledge or know-how; a technological process, method, or technique. Also: machinery, equipment, etc., developed from the practical application of scientific and technical knowledge; an example of this. (1898)

While literacy is a technology, pens and paper can also be technologies. Writing and rhetoric, too.

So, what is a tool? The OED lists 4 major definitions with a total of 11 distinct meanings. We can, I think, be selective and just look at definitions 1.a and 2.a:

1.a: a mechanical implement for working upon something, as by cutting, striking, rubbing, or other process, in any manual art or industry; usually, one held in and operated directly by the hand (or fixed in position, as in a lathe), but also including certain simple machines, as the lathe; sometimes extended to simple instruments of other kinds (c.888)

2. a: Anything used in the manner of a tool; a thing (concrete or abstract) with which some operation is performed; a means of effecting something; an instrument. (c.1000)

A tool, then, can be something – physical or abstract – which we use to perform an action to make something happen. A pen can be a tool, and so can language. Literacy and writing, too.

Does this mean everything is a technology? No. Our naturally occurring vocal cords are not technologies; however, as we use them to perform actions to make something happen, we could call them tools. That said, I’d invoke Marshall McLuhan here and limit tools to extensions or products of our physical and mental faculties. So, while an idea – the product of our thinking – could be a tool, our vocal cords are not.

For infrastructure, the OED gives us “A collective term for the subordinate parts of an undertaking; substructure, foundation.” As such, infrastructures are made up of technologies and tools as well as other things. For instance, the infrastructure of literacy within a particular context would include one or more languages and scripts as well as the writing materials used in that culture, all of which are both technologies and tools. The infrastructure of literacy would also include the means by which it is learned and taught, as well as the social, political, cultural, and economic forces that support, promote, and reward literacy within its particular context.

Therefore, we can’t say categorically that a pen is a tool and writing is a technology. They’re both. The distinction between technology and tool isn’t determined by what something is but by how it’s being considered and discussed. We think of something as a tool when we consider an object (physical or abstract) as an instrument by which we may effect change. We think of something as a technology when we consider the object as the application of mechanical arts and applied science to make things (including processes – processes are things) and when we think of something as the product of the application of mechanical arts and applied sciences.

Oliver Sacks on the Unreliable Nature of Memory

Or, if you prefer, the creative nature of memory. We are populated selves, as Kenneth Gergan might say.

It is startling to realize that some of our most cherished memories may never have happened — or may have happened to someone else. I suspect that many of my enthusiasms and impulses, which seem entirely my own, have arisen from others’ suggestions, which have powerfully influenced me, consciously or unconsciously, and then been forgotten. [Read more.]

Day of DH: Making and the Physical-Digital Interface

An Arduino with BOE shield

Parallax BOE Shield and Arduino – the brains of our BOE robot.

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.

And then there’s these digitally interfaced physical books, from the basic MaKey MaKey + graphite + Scratch to Jie Qi’s Circuit Sketchbook

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.

Of Black Holes, Maelstroms, McLuhan and Poe

A simulated black hole.

A simulated black hole from Ute Kraus’ “Step by Step into a Black Hole.”

An article in the MIT Technology Review reports that researchers have found that vortices in the south west Indian Ocean and in the South Atlantic are mathematically equivalent to black holes. Cosmology in general and black holes in particular have long been an interest of mine. I believe I did my first report on black holes in elementary school and as an undergraduate I took two astrophysics courses on stars and galaxies, the upper division course essentially a course in cosmology. In that course it was six or seven physics majors and me, and I for the course I researched the possibility of mini-black holes making up dark matter in galactic halos.

While this article is fascinating in and of itself, I’m particularly draw to its referencing Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Decent into the Maelstrom” which so captured McLuhan’s own imagination:

The vortices that can form in turbulent water are a familiar sight. Edgar Allan Poe described just such a whirlpool in his short story “A Descent into a Maelstrom” which he published in 1841:

“The edge of the whirl was represented by a broad belt of gleaming spray; but no particle of this slipped into the mouth of the terrific funnel…”

In this passage, Poe describes one of the crucial feature of these rotating bodies of fluid: that they can be thought of as coherent islands in an incoherent flow. As such, they are essentially independent of their environment, surrounded by a seemingly impenetrable boundary and with little, if any, of the fluid inside them leaking out.

If you’re thinking that this description has a passing resemblance to a black hole, you’d be right. Haller and Beron-Vera put this similarity on a formal footing by describing the behaviour of vortices in turbulent fluids using the same mathematics that describe black holes.

Surfing business man from The Medium Is the Massage

Page 150-151 from McLuhan and Fiore’s The Medium Is the Massage.

While McLuhan first makes use of Poe’s “A Descent into a Maelstrom” in the Preface to The Mechanical Bride, he returns to it time and again throughout his writings and lectures. (( As can be seen in the image above, on pages 150-51 of The Medium Is the Massage, McLuhan and Foire juxtapose an image of the surfing business man with McLuhan’s claim that Poe’s story “The Descent into the Maelstrom” can serve as “a possible stratagem for understanding our predicament, our electrically-configured whirl.” For more context on McLuhan’s use of Poe’s story, see this segment from Kevin McMahon’s documentary McLuhan’s Wake and “Lobby” and “Chapel” from Paul Guzzardo’s “BuildBetterBarrel,” a series of nine new media events that takes its name from McLuhan’s use of Poe’s story. ))

Based on this MIT article, I’m now thinking about what McLuhan doesn’t pay attention to in Poe’s story, that is the description of the broad belt, what the MIT article calls “coherent islands in an incoherent flow.” What might the media/environmental equivalent of this belt of “coherent islands in an incoherent flow” be? Or is it even relevant because McLuhan clearly positions us within the maelstrom, inside the black hole, and, therefore, beyond the belt?

Preserving Digital Work: The Variable Media Questionnaire

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.