Saturday, December 7, 2013

Engagement and Revision

The last assignment of my "Writing as Inquiry" class is a research paper in any discipline of interest, i.e. my students can choose to write about engineering, food science, archaeology, philosophy, or whatever else. This seemed bizarre to some of them, but overall, students liked it because it enabled them to do research on the areas of their majors. I decided to do this because I firmly believe that the purpose of the course I taught this semester was not that of filling my students with a specific content, but rather to teach them methods of inquiry through the practice of writing and methods of writing through the practice of inquiry. In other words, what I have tried to do as a teacher is to guide my students to practice attitudes of questioning and interpreting that are typical of humanistic formae mentis. Perhaps Alan Liu would call this an instrumental teaching approach quite typical of humanities scholars. Perhaps I am being wrong and delusional to let my students step away from English and from literature and creative writing, and embrace their usually "more scientific" or even more "useful" disciplines for their final writing assignment. But I am convinced that only when they realize that they can very productively apply forms of inquiry typical of humanistic methods in their different areas of study, will they 'understand the lesson' of my course. Honestly, I don't even care they get this conscious understanding, I just care they can write and think provocatively, whatever the field is, whatever the life they live. So, yes, I am (instrumentally?) preparing my students to go off pursuing their majors and apply a humanistic approach to the writing (and, therefore, thinking!) they will be producing in the years to come. 

Now, the problem described by Johanna Drucker, that of the reification of information offered by new digital media, evidently seems to be connected to the philosophy that animates my teaching. As humanists, our contribution is that of avoiding this reification. Just as we teach students how to question assumptions through writing and to learn methods of revision of the current state of thinking regardless of the topic, we need to mobilize rigid and static (re)presentations of knowledge as offered and framed by forms of digital information visualization. "The primary strategy for undoing the force of reification is to introduce parallax and difference, thus taking apart any possible claim to the self-evident or self-identical presentation of knowledge and replacing this with a recognition of the made-ness and constructedness that inhere in any representation of knowledge", Drucker writes. In other words, Drucker calls for both an exposition of humanistic methods and an application of them to digital scholarship and to the production of knowledge in the digital realm, more at large. Which means that humanities need to infiltrate and work from within the digital, and not outside of it. Which means humanities cannot help but being digital, at this point. But this does not imply a corruption, or an alignment with the globalizing digital status quo. In fact, hopefully, it can mean just the contrary.

I like the use of the word "proleptic" by Liu, which exposes the fragility of the current moment: we are understanding the need of digital humanities, we are working to make them real, and we hope we are doing our best, but we are still at the very beginning. At the same time, we are not doing anything very different from what humanists have always been doing: design knowledge, preserve knowledge, revise and disrupt knowledge and its social and political implications. The acceptance of this continuation of our task implies inevitable modifications which we should embrace with perplexity and yet excitement, at the same time. It's a question of participation and of resistance, but most of all, it's a question of intellectual honesty and political engagement. We can only remain "servants", as Liu observes, if we stay in our protected microcosmos, which, by the way, does not exist any longer, anyway. The real game of knowledge creation, preservation, disruption, is played in a realm called internet, and we can not only participate in it, but even help to redefine and revise its rules.

Saturday, November 30, 2013


I found Katherine Hayles' How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis to be a perfect book to guide our course on DH toward its conclusion, since Hayles is able to summarize and balance out many questions and debates that we have taken into consideration in these months: what Digital Humanities is/are, whether it is/should be a separate field or discipline, how reductive the idea of 'mere tools' can be, the transformative effects of our interactions with, and creation of, digital cultural objects.

I was particularly pleased to find, in Hayles, a good answer to the perplexities I had about Moretti's theories of distant reading. Hayles shows us how different modes, such as close, hyper and machine-based, readings, can, should, and do, inevitably, interact, instead of excluding one another.  This whole book calls for a dynamic synergistic interaction, and an hybridization, rather than a rigid separation, between TH (Traditional Humanities) and DH; among close, hyper, and machine-based readings and among the pedagogies based on these types of reading; between narrative and database; between spatial and temporal visualizations and representations; between analysis and interpretation. One of the crucial moments of the book is when Hayles, on page 81, argues that the right attitude toward the technogenesis she describes is not that of understanding it as progress but rather, that of adapting to it, and, most of all, to intervene in the activist sense discussed by Anne Balsamo in her call for humanist scholars to develop new tools, and even in the resistant and opposing anti-dominant ideology sense, in Malabou's idea of neural plasticity vs. flexibility. Hayles's book is in this sense, both very lucid and visionary, close to reality and flirting with utopias. It's also a very brave attempt to explore the questions of the redefinition of the boundaries of cognition and perception, their unconscious mechanisms, and the questions of their extendedness and embeddedness. In this sense, this book is an overview of the main questions and problems that crucially regard DH. I think its merits also lie in the curiosity toward multimodal electronic novels such as TOC or toward the spatial aesthetic of OR. I have not read extensively in recent DH theory, but it seems to me pretty rare to find this interest in digital-born literature as conjugated with the praise of algorithmic and computational thinking and operating within DH.

Hayles is even able to discuss code and related visions of it as a lingua franca, and even has time to dig into the changes brought about by telegraphy and its bearing on the understanding, and the practicing, of language and writing. Indeed, Hayles is successful to show, or at least to indicate the path of, the changes that the "technogenetic spiral" is bringing forth, and its "strong aesthetic dimension as well as neurocognitive and technical implications"(247). I would have not been happy with this book if I felt it was only about showing that there is no other option but adapting to, or aligning with, the digital technogenesis. This book is, more importantly, about intervening within it and, possibly, against it. In this sense, the proposed object of study of Comparative Media Studies seems to me to be a good counterpoint to Manovich's theorization about the dissolving status of the very concept of media. Yes, Hayles call for the hibridization of forms of reading and of cognitive patterns of imagination and representation, but she also argues that the materiality of different media (and not only of software!) and its interactions with human understanding should be studied, while differences between and among media should be emphasized and observed in their evolution. In other words, she proposes synergies and ruptures, continual transformation but also resistant identities. And, most of all, she helps us develop an awareness of the reciprocal causality between the human and the technological, to  accept of the coexistence of the old and the new, and, possibly, to create fruitful interactions between the two.  Hayles' book is both cynical and hopeful. It refuses simplistic explanations, and proposes complex questions, it shows how much is unconsciously happening to us but also how much we can actively do, how much we can consciously try to make happen. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Graphs, Maps, Trees and... Language

". . . In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied an entire City, and the map of the Empire, an entire Province. In time, these Excessive Maps did not satisfy and the Schools of Cartographers built a Map of the Empire, that was of the Size of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. Less Addicted to the Study of Cartography, the Following Generations understood that that dilated Map was Useless and not without Pitilessness they delivered it to the Inclemencies of the Sun and the Winters. In the Deserts of the West endure broken Ruins of the Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in the whole country there is no other relic of the Disciplines of Geography.
Suárez Miranda: Viajes de varones prudentes, libro cuarto, cap. XLV, Lérida, 1658."
J. L. Borges, "Del Rigor En La Ciencia", El Hacedor, 1960 (translation by Diego Doval)

"Texts are certainly the real objects of literature [...] but they are not the right objects of knowledge for literary history" (76), writes Moretti in Graphs Maps Trees. Moretti is calling for a renewed formalism without close reading, and for a "materialist conception of form" that could save comparative literature from its decay: "take a form, follow it from space to space, and study the reason for its transformations" (90). A renewed literary history capable of taking into account not only the canonical list of works of Western literature, but to study and compare the literatures of many a country and many a class, and to go "from the extraordinary to the everyday" (3), from "the form of an object to the forces that have been at work" (57). Wonderful. But let's go back to the first quote: texts. Moretti invites us to try and go beyond them, to develop strategies and techniques that allow us to take a comprehensive overlook at them and to look for cycles, patterns, clusters, within them and, most of all, among them. Thus, we can abstractly "explain general structures" (91) instead of continuing with the classic "interpretation of individual texts" (91) which, for Moretti, usually corresponds to that scholarly practice for which we tend to ask "only questions for which we already have an answer"(26). Texts.

Texts, and literary markets, and politics, and economics, and questions of readership and reception, and questions of influence and divergence. Moretti's perspective is provocative and inspirational, because it calls for new (more scientific, if we want to call them so, but certainly more complex, in terms of the socio-contextual interconnections they are interested in) approaches to a historicized and neomarxist study of literature. Moretti acknowledges at the beginning of the book how, while "the quantitative approach to literature can take several different forms - from computational stylistics to thematic debates, book history, and more"(4) he is only dealing, at least in this book, with book history. And perhaps this latter is a 'safer' and potentially more successful area for experimenting with the study of genres, of chronotopes and of stylistic mutations, because it depends less directly on the primary material that constitutes texts, i.e. language. But in the case of stylometrics or thematic debates, there come some problems, I think, because texts are made by language and by a 'literary' use of it, with all the rhetorical strategies of allusion, symbolism, lyricism,  etc., and with all the secret codes that this use of language implies, and I am not sure that a distant reading can grasp that. I feel that language, and texts, have an ultimate capacity to escape any categorization, and to prove them wrong. Or perhaps it's us, readers, it's what is born from that reading, that escapes the singularity of patterns and of explanations and remains open to the plurality of our interpretations. Because texts belong to a historical context, participate in the making or unmaking of a political agenda, embody a marketing strategy, and imitate one another or diverge from one another, but texts are made of language, and language is constantly being made and remade by us, who are constantly being made and remade by it. There is always something that escapes the logic of explanation and the logic of communicative linearity which some quantitative approaches are necessarily based upon: the logic of the "from me to you, with no misunderstanding". But in that path "from me to you", there, I find impossible to give up on the value of reading, closely, and of re-reading, even (because the questions do stay open, no matter how we try to close them down, even through our impeccable scholarly writing).

Still, I agree with Moretti. Comparative literature does need to go beyond the boundaries of national canons, and western canons, and finally study the Weltliteratur prefigured by Goethe and by Marx and Engels. We do need to be more aware of the socio-economic embeddedness of literary genres and trends, and of the stylistic mutations related to them. (This is something that not only Moretti, but also other literary historians and comparatists, such as Gayatri C. Spivak or Claudio Guillen, have been arguing for years, although from quite different perspectives.) In this sense, I am really excited to see what can be done for literary history through the use of computational approaches. But I hope that, precisely because we claim the importance of having a "materialist conception of form", we do not forget that the first material of literature is language, and that we consider not only its socio-politico-economical referentiality, but also that intrinsic, rhetorical capacity of what we call its 'literary' usage, i.e. escaping from mere communication and open up new domains of creative redefinition of the world. Now, on this last note, one could argue that, in fact, quantitative approaches to literature do not usually regard poetry. But who says that prose never uses (and redefines) language in the way poetry uses (and redefines) it? How can we draw those limits?

Sunday, November 17, 2013

What a Softwarized World

I have read Manovich's account of "the secret history of our software culture" (5) quite voraciously. I believe I have already taken some of the questions posed by Manovich into more or less conscious consideration, multiple times, as I think most of the people living nowadays, already have. But even if the questions of this book are not particularly new or original, the inquiries into them are absolutely refreshing, because Manovich comfortably faces, explains, plays with the complexities of a softwarization that we all perceive and yet most of us feel intimidated to explore in real proximity. I do find both the history of softwarization and the call for software studies illuminating: "we have to address software itself (if not, it means we are dealing with effects rather than causes)" (9). I also agree with the idea that "software development is gradually getting more democratized"(17), although I still, frustratingly, feel part of that “not-fish-nor-meat,” as we say in Italian, category of users/maybe not merely consumers/ but certainly not programmers, that Manovich relegates to a parenthesis on page 31 "(Being able to read and modify HTML markup, or copy already pre-packaged lines of Javascript code is very different from programming)". But Manovich also acknowledges, on page 108, that Kay and Goldberg’s idea(l) of having “everybody develop new tools” (104), since “the task of defining new information structure […] was given to the user, rather than being the sole province of designers” (83), seems to be today pretty far from being real. The problem of easy-device-passive-consumerism is there, but only for a few lines (and this is perhaps the most evident flaw of the book), same for "the need to study the cultural and social forces that are shaping the development of software itself" (11).

I am very interested in the comparative connections opened by Manovich between software culture and modernist avant-gardes, although I tend to look at these latter as less media-specific, than he does (I am convinced, for example, that Whitman's poetical experimentalism was directly inspirational for many avant-gardes film makers, and that Russian futurists were not all about sound, and that Gertrude Stein was not all about language.) Manovich's narration indicates that a shift from documents to performances, pure, independent media to hybrid meta-media has taken place only and fully within the realm of software culture. More importantly, he talks about an imaginary database finally turning real within software culture, and a destabilization of the conventions of cultural communication, and about a “human understanding not limited to language” (233). All true things, cose sacrosante. And yet, I think Manovich could have been a little more generous in acknowledging the importance of Modernism’s anticipations. I am referring, here, specifically about Jacques Rancière’s ideas on the redistribution of the sensible as enacted by, as he calls it, the pre-modernist and modernist aesthetic regime of art, whose motto was that of ‘shuttling’ between art and life, and representing a common sensorium based on their permeability. Modernist art operated a perceptual rupture and a perceptual reframing of reality, which was inevitably political, since it corresponded to “a dissensual reconfiguration of the common experience of the sensible” (Dissensus 140). (The modernist (re)distribution of the sensible becomes, in this sense, the level where the question of the relationship between aesthetics and politics can be raised: “the level of the sensible delimitation of what is common to the community, the forms of its visibility and of its organization.” [The Politics of Aesthetics 18]) (How) can software culture be aesthetically, and therefore, politically, dissensual?

Manovich book does not pose nor it answers this question. At least not directly. Instead, it focuses on taking us beyond the old conceptual framework of media and the old materials, off to algorithms and data structure, data structure and algorithms, and to the necessity of the development of an adequate software epistemology that can help us understand how software is shaping our culture, and vice versa. And to thinking of a new massive number of species, as obtained by deep remixability, by continual change and permanent expandibility. We are off to recognize, and imagine, new aesthetics, and collective creations, and to the “opening of an unbounded space of creative possibilities” (330). Software is a new thinking, a new designing, therefore it implies a series of new languages and meta-languages, and more than that. I see software do amazing things with language(s), I see translation finally take place as an unending process of cultural contact, a space of foreignization and poetic electricity. I see searchability, linkability, modularity, become the new bones of the interconnected skeleton of any text. I see arts hybridize, and lands connect, and concepts and assumptions being revisited, new knowledge being made. Can you really make it new, software?
“I hear babies cry...... I watch them grow
They'll learn much more.....than I'll never know
And I think to myself .....” 

Friday, October 25, 2013

Kirschenbaum's Mechanisms

"Textual studies should be recognized as among the most sophisticated branches of media studies we have evolved" (16), provocatively argues Kirschenbaum at the beginning of the book, a book whose "forensics"is a "theoretically and technically rigorous account of electronic texts as artifacts - mechanisms- subject to material and historical forms of understanding" (17). What a fascinating and complex topic! The encounter of 'traditional' philological and textual studies with electronic editing and digital storage and preservation is undoubtedly one of the most exciting challenges for digital humanists.

Kirschenbaum makes us rediscover the materiality of texts in their digital realm, and makes us ask questions about versioning, variations, volatility that are central not only for digital born literature. His argument that "forensics is a signature discourse network of modernity at the juncture of instrumentation, inscription, and identification"(250) invites me to ponder about the work of the Walt Whitman Archive, with which I have been collaborating for a couple of years. The epochal watershed for Whitman Studies was represented, by the appearance on the site, by April 2005, of all six, full length American editions of Leaves of Grass as XML files but also in facsimiles images, freely accessible to general readers: something that had never happened before in the same printed volume collecting Whitmans' work. The internationally widespread tendency to read, study, write about and translate Whitman's writings almost exclusively by using the first (1855) or last edition (1891-1892) of Leaves, which are also the editions usually published – a tendency that heavily overshadowed the extremely evolving nature of Whitman's creative work – was in this way seriously, and finally, undermined. As argued by Prof. Price, the constantly expandable nature of the electronic Archive seems to be particularly suited to Whitman's work, since this latter  “defies the constraints of the book. Whitman's work was always being revised, was always in flux, and fixed forms of print do not adequately capture his incessant revisions.” (“About the Archive”) The opportunity to collect the editions in the same, digital space is also paralleled by that of offering high-resolution images and the corresponding transcriptions of Whitman’s manuscripts (not only of poetry, but also correspondence, annotation and notebooks materials) otherwise scattered at over 100 different repositories across the world. 

Are we doing it in the 'right' way? What is the 'right' way, anyway? Is one of the keys to do it 'right' that of profoundly understanding the tools we use for our digital representation and preservation of what we call 'texts'? In these days, I am in the process of starting to work on an electronic bibliography of Cather's works: the aim is to reproduce a bibliography printed on paper and to trans-port it and trans-form within the digital Cather Archive. How do I do it? How can I use the different resources I have, in comparison to what the author of the printed bibliography had? How can I do an old job in a new, more thorough scholarly way? How can I engage, acknowledge, and favorably apply the renewed materiality of my philological act of textual preservation?

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Beyond the Aura. On Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"

I read "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" as Benjamin's draft of a prognostic theory of cinema within a larger reconsideration of the role of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Benjamin historicizes the changing role of art in different ages and studies "the developmental tendencies of art under present conditions of production" (2), for he is convinced that "during long periods of history, the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence. " (2). Before the advent of technological reproducibility, the value assigned to art was a cult and ritual value and/or an exhibition value, and art was relegated to a dimension completely separated from that of politics, but mechanical reproduction has destroyed the idea of art's aura, i.e. the traditionally idealized authenticity and precious uniqueness assigned to art creations, which originated from concepts such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery.

But Benjamin sees beyond the aura, beyond the realm of art pour l'art (and its Fascist instrumentalizations) that the concept of aura implicates. He sees a series of redemptive (and Communist) potentials in the new conditions of art creation and fruition. He sees that the technological reproducibility of the artwork "changes the reaction of the masses toward art” (15) by substituting the old "unique" experience with a mass, simultaneous experience, and also by altering the usual distinction between author and public and by altering the type of receptive attitude traditionally expected from the audience. In this sense, Benjamin is far from, if not opposite to, Adorno's rejection of the fruition of art by masses and from his defense of art's autonomy and disinterestedness, and "The Work of Art .." can be taken as a theory of cinema that deals with questions such as the transformation of our perception of the world through cinema, the audience's identification with the camera, the collective reception-in-distraction. But it is also, more largely, a draft of a new theory of an art that "instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice - politics" (9).

No more cult, but politics, then. And if Fascism tends to re-introduce the cult function of art (i.e. to aestheticize politics) in order to create a mass politics for which the status quo remains untouched, Communism responds by politicizing art, by formulating "revolutionary demands in the politics of art" (2). Ok, Benjamin's ending is controversial, but perhaps it is useful to consider these categories as less fixed than what they seem to be. Perhaps it is useful to consider the regressive/progressive understandings of art's function that Fascism and Communism respectively embody in Benjamin's famous formulation. Perhaps it is still useful for us to go back to this text to strengthen our understanding of an art finally beyond the aura, of a technological art of the masses that can help us change (instead of escaping from) social reality. 

Post scriptum: I went to watch Alfonso Cuarón's "Gravity" yesterday, and I suspect Benjamin would have hated it. But I'll let you guess why.