MLA 2013

MLA 2013, Boston:
Digital Technology, Environmental Aesthetics, Eco-critical Discourse

The objective of this special session is to initiate a conversation about the specific ways that digital technology participates in environmental aesthetics and practice. In particular, we aim to discuss the importance of codework, digital archivization, and digitally-based pedagogical techniques to environmental poetics.

Critical Context
While eco-critical discourse has a robust tradition of considering how “the media,” writ broad, relate to environmental thought—see, for example, Ursula K. Heise’s Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global (2008), Alison Anderson’s Media, Culture, and Environment (1997), Libby Lester’s Media and Environment (2010), and ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies, Literature, and Environment’s frequent focus on eco-critical themes in film, television, and other forms of mass media—the importance and nature of digital media remains under examined in environmental studies.

This absence of the digital is perhaps due, in part, to the manner in which the concepts of digitality and virtuality have been conflated and expressed for the past quarter of a century, both in eco-critical discourse—see, for example, Margaret Morse’s “Nature Morte: Landscape and Narrative in Virtual Environments” (1996) and John Parham’s “Academic Values: Why Environmentalists Loathe the Media” (ISLE 2006)—and in popular culture. From the early 1980s to the early 2000s, in particular, computational technology seemed poised to distance us from the real world, distract us from our physical bodies, and erode the already precarious connection we held to natural spaces. This, at least, was the critical attitude taken toward digitization and virtualization during this time—see, for example, Arthur and Marilouise Kroker’s Hacking the Future, Michael Heim on the “Erotic Ontology of Cyberspace,” and, most influential of all, N. Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman.

As important and persistent as such critical interpretations were and are, it is time to look beyond them to consider how real, contemporary digital practices are already intervening, all the time, in environmental poetics. This panel will consider this burgeoning field of aesthetics from the perspective of researchers working within the digital humanities. Our panel will consider carefully selected examples from a range of digital praxis, in order to discuss the potential digital technology has for environmental poetics. Such works offer novel, technologically sophisticated engagements with natural spaces. As such, they may well provide opportunities for expressing environmental contingency, for blending human subjectivity with natural phenomena, and for demonstrating the agency of natural spaces—but they first require rigorous critical assessment. The objective of this roundtable, then, is to foster conversation between two trails of scholarship that have only fleetingly intersected: digital aesthetics and ecocritical discourse.

Theoretical Framework
Critical writing in both the digital humanities and environmental criticism will inform our discussion, especially in terms of the ways these two fields have the potential to overlap. For example, in ecocritical discourse, we are interested in work that challenges the related concepts of human exceptionalism and—dating back to Cicero—the concept of “nature” as a category separate from human endeavor. Such work includes Timothy Morton’s Ecology without Nature (2007) and Bruno Latour’s Politics of Nature (2004). Additionally, Lawrence Buell’s The Future of Environmental Criticism (2005) will provide grounding for considering the relationship between ecocriticism and literary studies, in particular. In the field of the digital humanities, we will focus our attention upon writing that considers the relationship between codework, political action, and computer “hacktivism.” Such work includes Hakim Bey’s T.A.Z. (Temporary Autonomous Zone) and Rita Raley’s Tactical Media, as well as Florian Cramer’s Digital Code and Literary Text, which considers computer code in relation to literary history.

Mark C. Marino (USC) will begin with his paper on the importance of code: “Decoding the Desert: Reading the Landscape through the Transborder Immigrant Tool.” Created by the Electronic Disturbance Theater, the TBIT is a mobile phone digital art application that helps border crossers, specifically those crossing the desert between Mexico and the United States, survive their journey. The tool sustains them by offering them directions to caches of water, as well as by playing poems intermittently during the crossing. This cycle of prose poems, written by Amy Sara Carroll, teaches the traveler how to read the desert in order to survive. In the process of developing the work, she and the other members of EDT explored the environs of the desert itself, trekking through Anza-Borrego, a state park situated in the Colorado desert of Southern California outside San Diego. The poems, combined with the application, become a system for translating the desert, using digital technology to remove the layers of over-determined political inscription and reposition the desert as text.

Kristen Case (U. of Maine) will follow, arguing for the importance of digital archivization. Her paper, “Thoreau in Process: Reanimating Thoreau’s Environmental Practice in Digital Space,” discusses how digital platforms help recreate the essential intertextuality of Thoreau’s late writing. In his final years, Thoreau attempted to consolidate the detailed observations of seasonal change recorded in the later years of his Journal in a variety of lists and charts he sometimes referred to as his “Kalendar.” Due to their relative inaccessibility, these unpublished materials have received slight scholarly attention, yet they have important implications for the ongoing reassessment of Thoreau’s place in the history of ideas in America, as well as for our changing understanding of the categories of the literary and the scientific, the human and the natural. Thoreau’s Kalendar: A Digital Archive of the Phenological Manuscripts of Henry David Thoreau includes digital images of the manuscripts, along with transcriptions, commentary, and scholarship related to Thoreau’s late natural history projects.

Our third panelist will be Melanie Doherty (Wesleyan), who will address the pedagogical implications of digital technology and environmental poetics in “Networks, Narratives, and Nature: Teaching Globally, Thinking Nodally.” Doherty will focus upon how digital technology helps undergraduates tackle the scope of our global ecological situation. This ambition poses a unique challenge. How do we present ideas that are interdisciplinary, complex and often contradictory? Doherty approaches this problem by using digital technology to illuminate global ecological crises. Using two of her courses at Wesleyan as case studies, Narratives of Nature and World Literature and Globalization, Doherty outlines her pedagogical strategies for demonstrating how tensions between nature and digital technology simultaneously play a foundational role in American culture and complicate pat concepts of a nature/culture divide.

Finally, Alenda Chang (Berkeley) will present on intersections between video games and ecocriticism. Her presentation, “Games as Ecomedia,” offers a consideration of the ecological implications of online gaming and presents a multifaceted appeal to scholars, game designers, and players to consider the tacit ecological lessons embedded in ordinary game play.

About the panelists
KRISTEN CASE is an Assistant Professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, and the author of American Pragmatism and Poetic Practice: Crosscurrents from Emerson to Susan Howe. Dr. Case is editor of Thoreau’s Kalendar: A Digital Archive of the Phenological Manuscripts of Henry David Thoreau and incoming editor of The Concord Saunterer: A Journal of Thoreau Studies.

ALENDA CHANG is a Ph.D. candidate in the University of California at Berkeley’s Program of Rhetoric. Her research interests span film, new media, science, and literature, and her dissertation work address the topic of environment and ecology in virtual worlds and other digital media. Her recent articles, “Back to the Virtual Farm: Gleaning the Agriculture-Management Game” and “Games as Environmental Texts,” appear in Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment (2012) and Qui Parle (2011), respectively.

MELANIE DOHERTY is an Assistant Professor of English at Wesleyan College. Her research centers around the ways that advances in media technology converge with literary production to create dramatic changes in both aesthetic form and narrative content. Dr. Doherty’s recent article, “Non-Oedipal Networks and the Inorganic Unconscious” appears in the collection Leper Creativity (Punctum Books, 2012). Additionally, an article about the connection between Deleuzian philosophy and digital networks is forthcoming in Deleuze and Things (Edinburgh University Press, 2013).

MARK MARINO established the field of Critical Code Studies with his 2006 essay in electronic book review and his talk on the same subject at MLA 2006. Since then, he has gone to create a variety of venues for CCS, including, CCS conferences, two online working groups, and the Humanities and Critical Code Studies Lab ( at USC. Dr. Marino has developed a variety of case studies, published in Digital Humanities Quarterly and Leonardo Electronic Almanac. He was one of ten authors on the CCS reading “10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10” (forthcoming from MIT), and is also reading code in Close Reading Electronic Literature, a Case Study: William Poundstone’s “Project for the Tachistoscope” [Bottomless Pit]” (forthcoming from University of Iowa Press).

LISA SWANSTROM is an Assistant Professor of English at Florida Atlantic University. Before joining FAU, she was a postdoctoral research fellow in the digital humanities in northern Sweden at the University of Umeå’s HUMlab (2009-2010), as well as the Florence Levy Kay Fellow in the Digital Humanities in the English Department at Brandeis University in Massachusetts (2008-2009). Her recent article, “’Terminal Hopscotch’: Navigating Networked Space in Talan Memmott’s Lexia to Perplexia,” appears in Contemporary Literature (2011).

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