“News” is a generous term. More accurately, this is an infrequently updated blog-notebook-commonplacebook-journal where I keep track of projects, conferences, conversations, ideas (of mine, of others), news, rumors, gossip, and events related to digital culture, science fiction, environmental practice, electronic literature, digital art, the history of science, the concept of nature, and many other weird and wonderful things under the sun.

The End of the Digital Humanities

I just read Roger Malina’s  compelling blog post: “Yes again to the end of the Digital Humanities.”  I found myself agreeing with most–but not all–of it. Like Malina, I fervently hope the term Digital Humanities is transitional, for a number of reasons: It’s an awful umbrella term that can mean nearly anything (as Malina’s link to this site suggests) that is also syntactically confusing (is it singular? is it plural? is digital an adjective or a hyphen-challenged compound noun?).  But especially problematic to many humanists is its at once colonizing (resistance is futile) and divisive (you are an anointed member of the technorati or you are a luddite) stance within the academy–a rhetorical stance which borrows more from the cornier conventions of science fiction than anyone, on either side of the fence, might want to acknowledge.

Scholarship within the field hasn’t done much to help.  Early “cyberstudies” varied little except in the degree of their bombastic import, from broad-sweeping claims about the GUI’s role in destroying the modern subject to libertarian fantasies of intellectual emancipation.  These, at least, were cleanly written, if overblown, treatises.  The language of contemporary digital humanities  work, although not as dramatic in tone, is alienating in a different way, having introduced an entirely new vocabulary, imported from information technology and computer science, which, to the uninitiated, rivals the opacity of anything that emerged from the twisting, linguistic, Freud-haunted corridors of French poststructuralism.

I  also admit that I am sick of the term, even as I have benefitted from its current cultural cache, and even as I am grateful for what it’s accomplished.  And it has accomplished a lot–an enormous amount, in such a short span of time. Before DH became “a thing,” the practice and theory of computational humanities work were wholly divorced. Humanistic work on large data sets was excluded, de facto, from humanistic inquiry, and opportunities for technological training were excluded, de facto, from humanities curricula. This was a false separation, and DH has been enormously successful in challenging this divide.  Yet perhaps it’s been too successful. Broad-tent DH has engulfed Humanities Computing to the point that someone who writes about the aesthetic implications of digital technology (as I do) is via the DH descriptor lumped together with someone who does the programming, site development, and data structure of, say, the Perseus Project.  Is this a useful taxonomy?  Or, rather, is there a taxonomy? Or has the term DH, so amorphous and blobular, swallowed it?  Like the Blob, it seems to be all consuming.

Like Malina, I hope that the tools and methods that are emerging from humanities computing will get folded into to every-day humanistic research so that we will no longer treat them as threatening interlopers to be singled out for praise or scorn. This is already happening, thanks, in no small part, to the Chronicle’s popular band of  Professors Hacker, the NEH’s ODH, and the general success of DH efforts.

But I disagree with Malina’s hunch that “digital humanities” is “not a conceptually or theoretically useful term,” a conclusion that he comes to through a recap of his experience as an astronomer during the days of “digital astronomy,” which has now, thankfully, been subsumed into, simply, “astronomy.”  In the 1980s, he states, digital technology had a glossy newness to it, which necessitated a brief transitional period of assessment.  What this assessment revealed to astronomers, Malina states, was that “the ‘digital’ nature of the information was not conceptually useful but rather that the development enabled new astronomical research agendas.”  The only thing that remains of this brief period of DA is the “Astronomical Data Analysis Software and Systems (ADASS) conference,” which “provides a forum for scientists and programmers concerned with algorithms, software and software systems employed in the acquisition, reduction, analysis, and dissemination of astronomical data.” Digital Humanities will follow suit, Malina predicts.  They should be folded up into the regular humanities so the humanities can return to the business of being the humanities.  As a bonus, we would never have to hear this awful term again.

This argument seems compelling at first.  The Digital Humanities are in their early days, still grappling with the relationship between digitization, culture, and the arts.  And we can even see a parallel between the ADASS and the ADHO. But comparing DH to digital astronomy sets up a false analogy. The practice of “digital astronomy,” at least in Malina’s brief account of it here, does not seem to have called into question the conceptual foundations and objectives of the discipline. That is to say, astronomers may have been shaken up–a bit, briefly–by the tools they used to study stars, but, in the end, they were still in agreement that their object of study was sidereal. Star-stuff.

The same cannot be said of the humanities. Humanists are no longer in agreement about what constitutes their object of study.  Truth be told, they haven’t been for some time, well before DH lurched onto the scene.  You don’t necessarily realize this as an undergraduate or even a graduate student.  It doesn’t become clear, perhaps, until you’ve been in a few different Universities, seen how wildly the culture can vary from place to place, department to department, state to state.  Basic foundational assumptions about what it means to be a humanist, and the ethical implications they build up to, are fraught, fractured and contradictory, all across the academy.

What the digital humanities have done is put these contradictions into relief.

So as terrible as the term “Digital Humanities” may be, it does crucial conceptual work.  Would I like to see the term go away?  Yes.  But there’s a lot more work to do before that happens.

Beat the Devil

It doesn’t get much better than this:

“Satan’s Computer–Doug is an ace arcade player-he always seems to make the winning moves. Then he is faced with the ultimate test, an incredible computer game called Beat the Devil, in which much more than his ego is on the line. It’s the most exciting-and the most dangerous-challenge of his life. First his sanity, then his closest friends, and finally his very soul are at stake-as he competes against a monstrous, mind-shattering code—programmed by the prince of evil…” (from Goodreads).

Elizabeth Agee Manuscript Prize

Animal Vegetable Digital” has won the Elizabeth Agee Manuscript Prize from the University of Alabama Press. I am grateful and honored.

“Awarded annually to the manuscript chosen as representing outstanding scholarship in the field of American literary studies, the Elizabeth Agee Prize was established in honor of a longtime Birmingham bookseller who described herself as “a reader and lover of books.” The prize includes a cash award and full publication of the work. The Agee Prize has recognized books on such diverse topics as Wallace Stevens, James Wright, John Steinbeck, Flannery O’Conner, Emily Dickenson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Walt Whitman, and it demonstrates the Press’s broad interests in American literary culture.”

Website for AVD

Animal, Vegetable, Digital is “in press” and scheduled for a spring 2016 publication (so long to wait! so far away!). In the meantime, with the help of some very talented students, I’ve made a web page for it, not merely to promote it, but to keep track of artwork, news items, insights, and events that relate to the intersections between digital and ecological aesthetics that the book explores. Once the book’s closer to publications, I’ll make the site a little less bloggy and (I hope) more useful and interactive for people who share an interest in eco-digital culture.


Singing Trees

This semester I’m teaching a class on Literature and the Environment, and when I was reading John Muir’s descriptions of the pines in “A Wind-Storm in the Forests,” I noted the following passage: “The waving of a forest of the giant Sequoias is indescribably impressive and sublime, but the pines seem to me the best interpreters of winds. They are mighty waving goldenrods, ever in tune, singing and writing wind-music all their long century lives” and this next one shortly after:

I drifted on through the midst of this passionate music and motion, across many a glen, from ridge to ridge; often halting in the lee of a rock for shelter, or to gaze and listen. Even when the grand anthem had swelled to its highest pitch, I could distinctly hear the varying tones of individual trees,–Spruce, and Fir, and Pine, and leafless Oak,–and even the infinitely gentle rustle of the withered grasses at my feet. Each was expressing itself in its own way,–singing its own song, and making its own peculiar gestures,–manifesting a richness of variety to be found in no other forest I have yet seen.

Both passages reminded me of a trip I took to San Diego a couple of years ago, and an unusual series of artworks I encountered when I was there: Terry Allen’s TREES, a gorgeous installation at UCSD, part of the Stuart Collection. It also reminded me that I’d taken some pictures and video, which I’m sharing below.

The Singing Tree
Talking Tree
The Quiet Tree

Effulgence of the North

The last time I was in Los Angeles, I visited the Velaslavasay Panorama, which is located right off the 10 at the Hoover exit, which is pretty close to where I went to grad school at USC. On display was “Effulgence of the North,” a fantastic, fully-immersive, decidedly *not digital*, audio-visual experience. I look forward to returning, and not just for the panorama. They also had a petite camera obscura located in the back, as well as a garden full of carnivorous plants.