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Author Archives: Mary Catherine Kinniburgh

Bob Stein, “A Unified Field Theory of Publishing in the Networked Era:” Readers, Community, and the Future of the Book

Just as think-pieces on “what is the definition of digital humanities” have proliferated in recent years, textual scholars are increasingly invested in the question of “what is the future of the book.” A final paragraph on the possibilities of digital textuality is now almost ubiquitous in books and articles on the topic, which is productive and necessary, but can often feel like a gesture towards a topic–the book in the digital age–that in fact deserves a deeper dive.

To that end, I appreciate the format of Bob Stein’s “A Unified Field Theory of Publishing in the Networked Era” for its transparency–bullet points suggest ideas-in-progress, steps to be debated, questions ready for answers. The robust comments section, too, suggests the very communities of readers that Stein believes are the key to understanding potential forms of publication in a networked age

For Stein, the networked era requires a shift in consciousness from bibliographic, or physical forms of books to practices of readership, or as he states, “how [books] are used” (1). In his list of key questions, he asks how we might “account for the range of behaviors that comprise reading in the era of the digital network,” and goes on to consider ways to engage readers with the author’s conclusions at a deeper, more satisfying level” (2). Ultimately, his answer rests in the idea of communities of readers and authors that exist in a publishing business model. He suggests “a new formulation might be that publishers and editors contribute to building a community that involves an author and a group of readers who are exploring a subject” (4)

In the comments section, Michael Jensen wonders about the time aspect of the in-depth reader-meet-author, communities of reading that Stein suggests, noting that “most of us simply have too little time to really investigate/explore/expand out” to participate and read in the way that Stein describes. With this, I wonder, what other facets of a community of readers might we examine to determine a better way of producing sustained engagement? Should we be looking at reading practices, but also what readers do generally as embodied beings with obligations, lives, schedules?

Thinking also of the balance between readership and physical form, Stein’s vision of the future indicates that “novels will not continue to be the dominant form of fiction” but rather, participatory games will based on their narrative capacities (5). In considering the futures of the book, it stands that Stein’s turn from content or appearance towards reading practices also suggests that we should look to other non-book forms that are “read.” Of this idea, I might ask, what other media, beyond games, shed light on narrative and reading practices today?

I was surprised (and okay, a little excited!) to see Cory Doctorow, of #ITPCore1 syllabus fame, in the comments, too. He points out moments in Stein’s argument that fall prey to what he terms the “futurismic fallacy,” and states that “tomorrow will be like today, but more so.” I have been thinking about that phrase since I read it. I’ve found that in articles and books on the future of publishing and the potential of hypertext, that authors will readily list off statements about what technology might be able to do in the future–as Vannevar Bush illustrates, this is ultimately productive–but these anticipations often feel impossible since they are not well scaffolded onto our current technologies of reading. In short, it can feel like chasms between Point A and B. But the idea that “tomorrow will be like today, but more so” calls for a re-examination of what exactly constitutes reading practice in our current moment–and the answer to this will be the basis upon which we can envision the types of new forms that books and reading will take. So, what does characterize reading and books today, and how might we distill these characteristics into principles for future publishing?

Steve Jones and the Humanities, Everted

Steve Jones was a Distinguished Visiting Professor for the Advanced Research Collaborative at The Graduate Center last year (2014-2015), and as a result, I had the chance to hear him speak a few times. One of the features I admire about his work is the way it traces beginnings to moments of critical mass–certainly a goal of the introduction and first chapter of his 2013 book, The Emergence of the Digital Humanities. As I understand, Jones is now working on a history of Father Busa, the so-called founding father of digital humanities-type research who produced a concordance of Saint Thomas Aquinas using IBM’s computers around the 1950s. This project, like his others, suggests a common methodology: return to historical roots for new ways of thinking, uncover institutional forces that shaped movements, and interrogate these systems to highlight their current digital and networked instantiations.

Something that has struck me throughout this course is the intense relevance of science fiction, and thinking to Cory Doctorow, young adult versions of this genre, to imagining digital futures. Jones uses the work of William Gibson–who also coined the term “cyberspace”–to refine the term “eversion” (also Gibson’s word) for conceiving of our relationship to technology anew. For Jones, “eversion” is the idea that we no longer tune in to digital worlds, or engage with networks by booting up or down a computer, but that the omnipresence of the network creeps outward into our daily lives and physical space. The WiFi waves that surround our bodies when we’re in networked buildings, the GPS in our phones (GPS is a huge turning point for Jones’ argument about eversion, perhaps worthy of classroom discussion) that tracks our location on grids, gaming devices like the Wii, all indicate that we are surrounded by the stuff of digitality and can no longer contain it in a tiny screen or device. This idea dovetails with Hayles’ argument from How We Became Posthuman that information is material, suggesting, in part, that what’s at stake in Jones’ argument–although he doesn’t necessarily pick this up–is what it means to be human in an everted age. Perhaps Haraway might have something to add!

Jones covers much ground in the first two sections of The Emergence of the Digital Humanities, but by far the most resonant and applicable idea that I’ve extracted is that of “eversion.” Since this term is also the organizing principle for his book, in lieu of a blow-by-blow of the readings, I’ll trot right to the provocations:

***The introduction ends with Jones’ statement that “the digital humanities is the humanities everted” (16). As evidence, he suggests that “DH has the potential to facilitate…productive breaches, to afford the kinds of cultural exchange that have shaped the new DH since its emergence” both inside and outside of the academy (16). Do you agree with his assessment of DH constituted an everted humanities? I’ve been chewing on this one a while.

***Related to eversion, Jones suggests that “the new DH starts from the assumption of a new, mixed-reality humanities” (32) that functions “less like an academic movement and more like a transitional set of practices at a crucial juncture, on the one hand moving between old ideas of the digital and of the humanities, and on the other hand, moving toward new ideas about both.” Looping about around to Haraway and Hayles (very poetic at the end of the semester), how might we build further nuance into this argument? Are “mixed-reality humanities” depending on either student or institutional economic stability/wealth, ideological systems, or perhaps combinations of other factors?

***Jones makes an important distinction in his definition of eversion by noting that the network doesn’t turn “itself inside out,” but rather “human agency” accomplishes this task–just how “games require players” and “digital humanities research requires scholar-practitioners” (36). Many of our course themes have attempted to account for human elements in digital research and pedagogy–it always comes back to the embodied self. How do we continue to negotiate the balance between concepts and theories like eversion and the human elements that are inherent in their animation?

Visualizing Impossibility: Thoughts on Lauren Klein

In Lauren Klein’s “The Image of Absence: Archival Silence, Data Visualization, and James Hemings,” we search alongside her for ghosts, silences, and absences in the archive. Over the course of the article, she seeks to illuminate the life and contributions of James Hemings within the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, a digital archive made available through ROTUNDA, University of Virginia Press, and in doing so, discusses the possibilities and pitfalls of data visualization in this process. For Klein, digital technology has the capacity to render visible the invisibilities of archival gaps, and at the same time expose the limits of our knowledge as productive space with which to think.

Recalling last week’s conversation about narrative and database, Klein suggests that archival silences can be produced, in part, by metadata and data structuring decisions (663). This claim dovetails with Lisa Brundage’s suggestion that the most essential word in database theory is the “you,” or human agency responsible for decisions regarding information. In the context of Klein, the locus of “you” as human interacting with or producing an archive becomes a space for determining the nature of archival imbalances, power, and structure—particularly when Klein asks, “How does one account for the power relations at work in the relationships between the enslaved men and women who committed their thoughts to paper, and the group of (mostly white) reformers who edited and published their works?” (664)

This same question of the “you” that must be accounted for appears in the data visualists’ role in rendering information visually, and is part of Klein’s call for a greater theorization of the digital humanities. She states, “the critic’s involvement in the design and implementation—or at the least, the selection and application—of digital tools demands an acknowledgment of his or her critical agency” (668). In Klein’s scholarship, qualifying and elucidating the role of “you” is paramount to understanding the archive, the visualization, and the data collected.

Critique without suggesting an alternative is all too easy, and I admire the way in which Klein posits data visualization as antidote to archival silences and also deeply engages the fraught history of its practice (665). She engages visualization’s vexed history through the figure of Thomas Jefferson himself, who underwent training in early forms of data visualization with William Small at the College of William and Mary. In this section of the article, we gain a sense of how complex it is to engage these forms: can the same tool that Jefferson was so fond of also be a tool for scholars to resurrect the memories and presence of the slaves he owned, centuries later?

Klein also explores the ways in which Jefferson’s note-taking and records use representation in diagrams, charts, and tables to suggest that he was engaged in using data visualization as a “form of subjugation and control—that is, the reduction of persons to objects, and stories to names,” which points at the reductiveness and potential for violence in types of visual display (679). Klein’s portrayal of Jefferson here, as an unthinking white man who recorded Hemings as empirical evidence, to be charted and claimed as thus, is emblematic of the central question of her piece: how can we visualize without appropriation, acknowledge incompleteness, and in a paraphrase of Marcus and Best, let ghosts be ghosts without claiming them for our own purposes or meanings?

Evoking Stephen Ramsay’s idea of “deformance,” or the creative manipulation and interpretation of textual materials, Klein ultimately suggests that rendering Hemings in an act of visual deformance makes legible “possibilities of recognition” that the actual textual content of the Papers of Thomas Jefferson resist, while “expos[ing] the impossibilities of recognition—and of cognition—that remain essential to our understanding of the archive of slavery” in contemporary studies (682).

Provocations

When confronted with archival ghosts, Klein seems to suggest that the best policy is: illuminate, not explicate. How do you negotiate the difference between these two words, and can you share with us the ways it influences your pedagogy and scholarship?

Is there ever truly a safe way to visualize data, particularly regarding people and especially those who have been silenced, ghosted, or violated, in a way that rhetorically privileges stories and narrative over names and numbers?

To what extent does digital technology provide solutions of access for archival materials, but at the same time reproduce power structures that perpetuate silences? Can digital technology increasingly address this question through innovation, or is this a question of institutional change?

Klein’s argument regarding silences in digital archives seems to address the question of mark-up and encoding, whose granularity is often determined by institutional funding. In a recent conversation, Erin Glass (of Social Paper, an amazing platform for student-centered writing that you should check out!) and I noted that the first invisible document of any archive, institution, or project is often a grant. This document lays out the rationale, timeline, and required resources that shape the development of the project, but it is rarely discussed once secured for an institution, and is often invisible except in gestures towards sponsorship or funding. ROTUNDA is an organization that is part of University of Virginia Press, but whose digitization work is funded through grants. It is likely that decisions of encoding granularity were built into the grant itself and the time requirements of the project.

So, at the roots of the process of creating digital archives, how might we conceive of the entire process–from grant onwards–as a new space to intervene in inclusive, even collaborative, editing processes that produce richer metadata? Does this help address archival silences, or instead offer more opportunities to reproduce them?