Surface Tensions

10 June 2013 Surface Tensions Symposium: Sydney

These are  brief notes, not intended as a reflection of a deep engagement with the material,  but mere talking points.

The starting point for this symposium was a paper by Joseph Tabbi on electronic literature: Electronic Literature as World Literature; or, The Universality of Writing under Constraint. This paper constructs electronic literature as a “literary practice of writing under constraint” that does not form or rely on a canon but is a process, a method and also a place of writing and reading. The paper “presents a freestanding network of authors as precursors to, and models for, this potential world literature, namely, the Oulipo.”

Joseph Tabbi spoke to his paper and drew out the potential of “databases” to extend a publication. He felt that “the conversation” stopped once publication occurred. Publication also removes a paper from the conversations, sources etc that went into making it. Technology, such as databases, have the potential to reveal and extend the conversation. In this sense Tabbi is seeing it as a network, whereas what he describes as ‘bound’ publications are merely a point in that network, separated from all other points. I feel the use of ‘database’ as the overriding shorthand for ‘digital’ and ‘electronic’ is limiting: it implies a certain way of organization and casts limits around what is possible. It may well be a database that stores the information on the backend but perhaps to provide an interface that goes any way towards fulfilling the potential of the digital you need to separate the front end from the organisation of the backend.

For Tabbi, digital humanities (DH) is a “trading zone” (and he spoke of the idea of a ‘cognitive economy’ at length). DH is liminal and this is an important and defining factor.

Overarching thoughts:

Do you need to ‘make’ if you’re a digital humanist?
There was contention among the participants about the necessity of ‘making’. Some feel that you can’t “do” digital humanities if you are not making. For some this means coding. Others took a broader view of it: they saw “making” as happening within a collaborative environment that would include coders but that those who were not coding brought other skills and experience that was necessary.

Tied into this was the idea that the digital humanities has a large part to play in re-building technology from the ground up. Anna Gibbs referred to Johanna Drucker with regard to this and it was clear later on that there seems to be some tension between those who can code and those who want to play a role in rebuilding but can not code. Willard McCarty was particularly forceful in his assertion that coding was absolutely necessary as it enables you to see and understand the constraints. I don’t agree with this: surely the whole point of collaborative work is to bring multiple disciplines with their attendant skills together and part of the work is to understand the constraints of the other. Otherwise it becomes a service provision relationship with no real understanding of what the other does and can bring to the table.

Do digital humanists forget their history?
The acknowledgement of history and the contextualization of DH thought within it was seen as missing by a number of participants. McCarty felt the invention of the web swamped everything to the point where DH scholars had neglected to study or even acknowledge the work that came pre-web. “Computational humanities” existed long before the web but has been forgotten by many. He also felt there was a lack of inter-disciplinary awareness. This was connected to his point about coders/non-coders. He felt digital humanists were “poaching” rather than  truly engaging across disciplines. In a similar vein, Tabbi felt that DH doesn’t contextualise itself with literary work and what has gone before.

Where is digital humanities?
Locating DH within the university and across disciplines is still contentious. Maria Angel made a clear call for literary studies and English departments to grasp their part of DH, to assert their knowledge and to play a role in the development of it as a field. It is very much in flux and this can been seen in much of the writing on the nature of DH. It was also evident in this discussion.

Design: not prominent here.
There is space for designers to work and it was acknowledged that design research is attractive in that it looks forward, rather than backward. It looks to create, to solve problems (and ask questions). It also provides a way in which to research (through making). Some hinted at the role of ‘interface’ but there was no overt recognition of work being done with designers and unfortunately I didn’t get the chance to question those working on projects currently whether they are working with visual communication designers or other.

The book battle is over
Adrian Miles from RMIT spoke about his projects but the thing that Miles said that raised most comment, even if some of it was lip-pursing and somewhat silent, was his belief that books were now only of interest as a fetish, to academics and librarians. He felt the book was “already gone”. The war was already over. It was obvious this statement, even if said only to raise a hackle, was being debated in the heads of those sitting around the table, even if they didn’t want to fully engage.

Of course, I don’t necessarily agree. I do acknowledge that I probably do not represent an average sample of the population but his example – that 50 Shades of Grey on the Kindle outsold the print version – is not enough to convince. I could give my own example: I have a ten year old boy who prefers to read books. On paper. And he has his own iPad and access to a Kindle.

Also: Manuel Portela presented the project PO.EX 70-80: A Digital Archive of Portuguese Experimental Literature.


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