18 January 2013

Circuit-Bending Digital Humanities

Below is the text of a talk I gave this week at the Research and Innovation Institute of Centre Pompidou in Paris. Thanks to Alexandre Monnin for inviting me to the seminar, and to the other presenters Aurélien BerraAurélien Bénel and Alexandre Gefen for sharing their fascinating work.

Note that the text of the talk is based on (and incorporates sentences from) a chapter I wrote for a forthcoming MIT Press volume on digital humanities, edited by Patrik Svensson and David Theo Goldberg. I kindly request that, should you wish to quote this text, that you don't quote from this post but from the chapter once it's published. Thanks to the editors for allowing me to post this mashed-up, remixed oral(-ish) rewrite of the original. 

* * * 

In 1939, at the height of America's Great Depression, five square kilometers of ashen wasteland outside New York City transformed into this –

– the magical wonderland of the New York World's Fair.

This World's Fair was the first explicitly future-themed World's Fair, and everything about it gleamed with visions of a clean, streamlined techno-utopia. At its center, towering over the landscape, were the iconic Trylon and Perisphere – an enormous sphere-and-spike structure, featuring the world's longest escalator, going up into the spike, and a utopian diorama of "Democracity," a future suburban metropolis, inside the sphere. Spiraling out from its center were various visions of the "World of Tomorrow," where corporate innovation in transportation and communication technologies transformed every aspect of modern life. Colorful Ford Zephyrs drove visitors along the multi-tiered "Roads of Tomorrow"; General Electric showcased the air-conditioned, automated "Homes of Tomorrow," full of novel gadgetry like dishwashers and laundry machines; fairgoers lined up to make their first long-distance telephone call at AT&T's pavilion, or, at RCA's pavilion, to see their first glimpse of clunky mirrored projection cabinets called "televisions." Even sex and burlesque was automated in the World of Tomorrow. As the official guidebook described the theme:
The eyes of the Fair are on the future – not in the sense of peering into the unknown and predicting the shape of things a century hence – but in the sense of presenting a new and clearer view of today in preparation for tomorrow.
Debuting alongside television sets and long distance telephony was – oddly enough – this rare book, a 310-year-old Biblical concordance:

Produced in 1630 at Little Gidding, an Anglican commune just outside Cambridge, this book was made by cutting apart printed books and images related to the Four Gospels of Christ, then pasting them back together into a cohesive, linear narrative. In other words, while it look s printed – and indeed one nobleman who visited Little Gidding could not believe the group was not secretly hiding a printing press – in fact it is composed entirely of the bits and pieces of other books that have been dissembled, sliced apart, then pasted back together to form a new artifact, called, most appropriately, a Harmony. Later Little Gidding Harmonies exploit the form and function of differing typographies and colored inks to construct multiple reading paths through the story, acknowledging textual variance in their material design while nonetheless synthesizing these differences.

What (I wonder) did 1939 World's Fair visitors see when they looked at this book? I'm not asking for a description of the artifact itself; I mean what did the book signify to them -- what kind of conceptual or ideological structures framed the object they saw before them, in 1939, at a future-themed World's Fair?

There's a few ways we could answer this question. One way is to ask someone who was there in 1939 – a conceivable task, since many of our parents or grandparents were adults at the time, and some of them may have visited the British Pavilion at the World's Fair, and may even – though this is of course a stretch – remember seeing this somewhat odd book. Of course, if we found someone who was in fact there, and did remember the book, we'd be asking them this question in 2013, a good 74 years after the event – so the memory transmitted would be distorted by the ripples of time, especially by experiences of later times in which technologies proclaimed as "the Future" in 1939 had already slid into the past.

Another way to answer this question would be to attempt a form of time travel using the various mechanically-inscribed memories we have of the event. In other words, we could watch footage from the World's Fair, read the World's Fair Guidebook and newspaper accounts, sift through photographs of the British Pavilion, searching for some mention of this unusual book.

Of course, the problem with this kind of time travel is that we can't step outside our own sense of what 1939 was like – our knowledge of what became of its techno-utopian visions. In other words, this video doesn't come to us "live, from 1939!" – as if it were a direct transmission from the distant past – but comes to us here, now, in a room in Paris in 2013. We watch it in the stubborn, intractable, intransigent present, at a moment when the futurism of the 1939 World's Fair has become retro-futurism: a form of kitsch nostalgia. In fact, we laugh at GM's Futurama, or the "Democracity" diorama, precisely because the peaceful, prosperous, freedom-loving techno-utopia that the visionaries of 1939 projected onto this, our own moment, never actualized. We're not driving hovercraft vehicles, or driver-less cars; talking robots don't do my laundry, or wash my dishes.

Our bemusement comes from more than the failure of their vision, though. In the 74 years between then and now, the charge that certain technical objects carry, their magnetism, has changed; and when those poles shift – the poles that orient us to our own media ecology – then "the future" as such changes, too. And when our sense of "the future" changes, so too does our relationship to the past. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Little Gidding Harmony, an object that debuted with little remark, at least none that has been left to posterity. In all likelihood, the British government thought it interesting enough to showcase it at the British Pavilion not because of its innovative cut-and-paste composition but because it was annotated by England's ill-fated King Charles I. In other words, it was an artifact to be marveled at not because of what it was, or what it depicted, but because of who handled it. It carried the charge of royal hands. Looking at the book today, though, I'm less struck by Charles I's annotations (as historically impressive as they are) than I am by the fact that the women of Little Gidding seemed to have engaged with a form of what we would today, anachronistically, describe as "remix culture." Not only were they remixing paper objects, a good 350 years before digital culture brought us the concept of "remix," but they had developed an extraordinarily sophisticated hypertextual reading system that encouraged the kind of multimodal, multimedia interaction that we now think of as the hallmark of twenty-first century technical episteme. Indeed, my interest in understanding our digitally-inflected episteme – an episteme, by the way, shaped by the futurism of the 1939 World's Fair – has caused me to see this book with new eyes, eyes crucially different from those seeing it in 1939.

We marvel at the people of the past marveling at now mundane technologies, trying to imagine what it was like to see television for the first time, or to make the first long-distance telephone call; trying to imagine what they imagined we would be, and calculating the gap between that and what we have become. There seems to be no exit from this infinite loop of history, no way to break this moebius strip of retro-futuristic wonder. Despite, or perhaps because of, the proliferation of inscriptive technologies – technologies that record, store and transmit history – a seemingly insurmountable gap yawns between the past and our present.

I wanted to start with this example today, at a seminar on digital humanities, for a few reasons.
First, and most simply, because this moment that I've dwelled over was, in many ways, very like our own. In 1939, a decade of worldwide economic recession was squeezing institutional budget lines, with the arts and humanities (predictably) feeling the most pressure. Sweeping in to fill this vacuum were corporations like IBM and RCA, who partnered with scientists and engineers at relatively newly-founded polytechnical institutions like MIT and Caltech to develop the most advanced corporate laboratories in the world – laboratories that drove innovation in computing and communications technologies.

Exploiting this flurry of new electronic technologies, academic libraries began transferring the Western world's cultural heritage to a radical new medium called "microfilm," fitting entire libraries onto a collection of small spools that took up no more space than a few filing cabinets. Some decried the new medium -- in fact, if you want some fun bedtime reading, I suggest the minutes from meetings of library associations during this period, which are (quite humorously) replete with complaints from grumpy librarians, resistant to microfilm. Meanwhile, societies like the National Microfilm Association cropped up to promote the new medium, countering complaints by arguing, in part, that microfilm would help preserve cultural heritage artifacts and offer wider access to rare, inaccessible materials. (Sound familiar?) One thinker, Vannevar Bush, was so inspired by the possibilities of the new medium that he imagined it as the basis for his now-famous Memex, a new collective memory machine by which users could mechanically traverse massive, interlinked libraries of information, storing their individual pathways through this microfilmed data. You might say Bush envisioned a kind of "microfilm humanities" of the 20th century.

So, on the one hand, I wanted us to stop thinking about the newness or future of digital humanities and instead pause over the deep, complicated history of technologically-inspired "movements" within the scholarship.

But, more broadly, I wanted to focus this talk on history as such.

Our sense of time – its ebb and flow between a recorded past and an imagined future – is one aspect of our research and indeed our everyday lives that digital technologies are transforming most. Yet, surveying the digital humanities literature, you wouldn't think this is the case. With the notable exceptions of the work of Bernard Stiegler (whom I know shares a special affiliation with this institute) and several exciting thinkers within the subfields of media archaeology and media history – none of whom, I think, would primarily identify as "digital humanists" – few scholars affiliated with what loosely might be termed "digital studies" have delved into the temporal significance of digitizing our historical record. But it is significant nonetheless. One way of understanding these changes is to turn back to a concrete example: the Little Gidding Harmony.

I've been studying the Little Gidding Harmonies for several years now, and am in the very early stages of a project that I hope will eventually lead to the digitization of each Harmony in a richly interlinked, high-resolution digital facsimile edition, showing the source texts used to cut and paste together each page. (I expect that this project will build on the wonderful work of Paul Dyck, whose web-based edition of one Harmony is in fact, appropriately enough, an edition of a digitized copy of the book's microfilm.) The Little Gidding Harmonies, and editions like these, are, as I see it, the "bread and butter" of digital humanities, helping to provide universal access to books or other documents which – because of their highly multimodal, multimedia form – simply cannot be reproduced in print. Bringing these objects to a wider research audience in turn shifts our understanding of, for instance, early modern women's writing, as suddenly artifacts previously buried in the bowels of the archive become visible to us in this new medium (even as other documents become invisible). We might liken this remediation of our cultural heritage to a shifting spotlight: one platform elucidates a certain subset of documents from a particular period, another offers a very different perspective on the same historical moment.

This aspect of digital humanities as an Enlightenment project, shedding new light on old documents, is widely known and now widely accepted; few would dispute the value of such projects, and granting institutions, at least in the US, are eager to fund them. I want to zoom in, though, and consider what it means, historically and materially, to produce and disseminate a digital facsimile as the primary representation of a document. In other words, how are electronic facsimile editions transforming our experience of texts as material objects? What will be the material existence of this electronic representation of a seventeenth-century collage?

First, and most obviously, this edition will include high-resolution digital photographs of the book – photographs that are, it's worth noting, frozen moments in the life of that book, mediated by both the lens of the camera at the time the shot was taken and the screen on which I view the image later. These digital photographs will be stored on a server and posted online for others to access.

Though I have never seen or touched these servers, there is a noisy weight to them: they suck up electricity, blow out hot air, spreading sound and heat into their surrounding environment.

The more web users access the images, the more the servers work and thus the more energy they use – a fact which, in aggregate, has a global impact on the planet's environment but no impact on the digital artifact itself. In others words,while my physical handling of the Little Gidding Harmony at the Houghton Library inevitably left minute traces of that moment on the book – of my body, the bodies surrounding me and the room we inhabited together for a brief afternoon – my online examination will leave the digital artifact unaltered in its appearance; yet it will still leave its trace on the globe by contributing, in a small way, to climate change and the depletion of the planet's natural resources, both fossil fuels for electricity and the metals and minerals used to manufacture the servers. (Note also that server racks do not have a particularly long life, but would require replacing anywhere from every three to every twenty years to avoid bit rot and technical obsolescence – yet another way digital storage temporally and spatially defers its material impact.)

While the environmental impact of these images concerns me – and is also far too little mentioned or studied within digital humanities – the key point here is not that one form of interaction is less environmentally damaging than another (for the climate control required to preserve rare artifacts arguably has an even greater carbon footprint than viewing a digital facsimile online). Rather, I want to underscore that this deferral of a physical impact away from the object or the moment of interaction indicates a major shift in how we experience and perceive history. Viewing the Little Gidding Harmony in the Houghton Library, I am witness to its existence across multiple centuries – to its physical aging and preservation – as well as to its co-presence in a "now" in which it continues accrete the material stuff of its environment. Viewing the digital images, though, I observe an eternally returning present moment, the moment when the book was photographed. The representation is not subject to the same now as me, then, but rather drags its own frozen moment in time across a multiplicity of nows.

To state that digital facsimiles present an eternally-returning frozen "now" is more than ethereal philosophizing. If I download a page image from the digitized Harmony to my local hard drive, or even just access it online, the date and time of the download become the "date created" in the photo's metadata or the date accessed in my cache, giving the appearance of an image updated with every viewing.

Thus while the image as a representation remains frozen in time, the image as information is temporally on the move, copied from my server today to the local disk drive of a website visitor tomorrow, to another set of storage hardware next month in a constantly fluctuating rematerialization of data. (These fluctuations occur even without my intervention as my hard disk drive shuffles data, cutting and pasting new over the old – a palimpsest of frozen moments in the history of my storage device.)

Almost a century ago, Walter Benjamin identified "reproducibility" (Reproduzierbarkeit) as a key feature of modern media, a concept updated by Lev Manovich as "variability," the idea that new media objects "can exist in different, potentially infinite versions"; such terms, though, do not capture the temporal dislocations that occur when a digital representation of an historical artifact becomes a primary access point into the past. By hoisting entire archival collections online, digitization projects transform history into a series of recursively-updated, selfsame snapshots.

This sounds like I am launching a critique of digital humanities projects, and to some extent, I am. But hidden in every critique is a manifesto, the potential for change. Instead of treating these micromoments of temporal and physical remediation as insignificant or hidden bits of metadata, I suggest that we embrace these temporal transformations in how we conceive of and design digital humanities projects.

In other words, I suggest we approach the process and outcome of digitization as itself a creative act of mediation, allowing our knowledge of both digital materiality and the materiality of the artifact being digitized – its provenance and production – guide us in how we conceive of and design digital work. What would such a project look like?

I have (or have attempted, at least) a few digital projects in this vein; I'll share one quick example of a completed and published one to show you what I mean. A few years ago I stumbled across this quote in a The Anatomy of Plants, a late-seventeenth-century book on plant science by a fellow named Nehemiah Grew, the first botanist to use a microscope to study the intricacies of vegetal structures.

Basically, Nehemiah Grew here is analogizing the structure of plant life to the structure of a book – an odd analogy, even for one of England's oddest centuries. I became (one might say...) mildly obsessed with this quote, and began tracking down every bit of text, from the four centuries preceding it, that might plausibly relate to or help me understand why Grew used this (to my eyes) delightful analogy. In the process, I realized that I was doing to the archive what Grew did to plants – that is, dissecting it piece by piece, and subjecting it to a microscope, looking not at large-scale cultural or historical transformations but at micro-moments, all the way down to single quotes. As I was conjuring my research into an article, I realized I wanted to capture the syncronicity between my archival journey and Grew's scientific experimentation, and wanted to do so in a way that gave readers access to at least a visual sense of the material history of these investigations. This was the result.

My approach to wanting to produce a digital edition, or digital project, about the Little Gidding Harmonies has been very similar. That is, the more I learn about how the women of Little Gidding remixed printed materials to produce their Harmonies, the more I want to honor these cut-and-paste methods not just by presenting a static facsimile, but by inviting visitors to participate in some form of remix themselves. After all, my own research process has been not unlike that practiced at Little Gidding: I've gathered their books around me, cutting and pasting them apart (conceptually – not physically!), identifying source texts and prints down to the level of individual cut-outs using a massive spreadsheet of color-coded information.

I'll then paste all this data back together into a cohesive narrative that tries to make sense of the history and culture of these unique books.

The point here – the point, that is, of blurring scissors, wheat paste and CTRL-X – is not to be insensitive to the differences between "then" and "now," but to engage in a purposeful and intentional anachronism. This temporal dislocation is tactical, designed to dredge up protocols of earlier "remix" cultures that were lost to later centuries. I want to ask: what do book historians learn by dragging the mechanisms of remediation across material history like a raking light, pulling its texture into sharp relief?

The most immediate lesson pertains to our own moment in time. Though less prominent in recent discussions, remix culture has been central to how many in the digital humanities have defined themselves against traditional humanities methods, with UCLA's "Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0" claiming that "anything that stands in the way of the perpetual mash-up and remix stands in the way of the digital revolution." Many scholars have (as well-trained humanists are wont to do) sought precedents for cut-and-paste criticism in experimental practices like the cut-ups of Bryon Gysin and William Burroughs or, more recently, Alfred Jarry's pataphysics, thereby rooting digital humanities in the perpetual avant-garde of the twentieth-century.

Yet "remix" is a capacious concept. Though composed as a multimedia mash-up of printed materials, the Little Gidding Harmonies did not use cut-and-paste methods to disorder but to harmonize meaning, weaving the many narrative threads of the gospel into a single tapestry. Situated within – in fact remediated by – the context of the web, the seemingly conservative aesthetics of this unusual seventeenth-century book (ironically) unravel the intellectual ethos of radical experimentation woven around slicing, dicing and mashing up media objects in our own time. In doing so, this juxtaposition encourages those interested in historizing digital humanities to hone the meaning of "remix" and, perhaps more interestingly, invites alternative histories of creative, cut-and-paste criticism.

Bringing the Little Gidding Harmony into a playful digital space also elucidates otherwise invisible moments in the book's history, such as its appearance at the 1939 New York World's Fair. As I mentioned previously, the book's appearance at the fair seems to have gone largely unnoticed in the scholarship on these books, indeed seems to have left little impact on fairgoers themselves, overwhelmed as they were by the more glamorous sites and sounds of the "World of Tomorrow." Yet  I was fascinated when I first learned this little factoid. Why? As technological innovations today invigorate an interest in these early modern examples of remix, the book's presence at the first future-themed World's Fair suddenly seems newly significant. Remediating history can thus powerfully change its topography.

Of course, this holds for the study of Little Gidding itself. While Little Gidding and its founder Nicholas Ferrar have long been lauded within Anglican histories, and even saw a brief spat of public fame in the late nineteenth century, scholars have long neglected the community's remarkable Harmonies. One twentieth-century critic even described them as "dreadful monuments of misdirected labour" – ! However, the rise of digital humanities – a field which argues for the value of process over product, collaboration over individual authorship, and "maker" culture in general – has reinvigorated interest in these unique, amazing works of cut-and-paste scholarship, helping people like me build the argument that manual labor (labor of the hands) can be a unique form of intellectual labor, whether performed with scissors and paste or at a programming terminal; and that this form of materialist making is worthy of study in its own right. In this way, a shift in disciplinary values cuts new pathways into the past.

What I've been describing here is a form of recursive historiography – that is, a method of journeying from the present to a related moment in the past, then back to the present, allowing each stop, each iteration of a particular topos like "remix," transform our relationship to all others in the series. (I'm borrowing this term, by the way, from Markus Krajewski, through the work of Geoffrey Winthrop-Young.) Think of it as a form of circuit-bending the humanities. Rather than history as a narrative form of time travel, in which the historian enters into and communes with the timeless vacuum of the archive in order to pinpoint our origins, a circuit-bending approach to history short-circuits the technological residue of earlier centuries. Garnet Herz and Jussi Parikka describe such an approach in a fascinating recent article on media archaeology, writing that, in circuit-bending, "the black boxes of the historical archive and consumer electronics are cracked open, bent, and modified" in order to disturb, renew, or otherwise intervene in their operations.

I think it's important – and I suspect Hertz and Parikka would agree – that we take this statement literally. Rather than metaphorical actions, verbs like "cracked open, bent, and modified" describe the circuit-bending acts of the hacker (an)archaeologist, rewiring the past to hear or see or read or perceive something new.

An example (again drawing in part from the work of Winthrop-Young) may help explain what I mean. In a recent essay, Wolfgang Ernst describes seeing a low-cost 1930s German radio in the basement of a museum. Collecting dust in an archive, the radio offers little insight into the culturally and politically significant role that this cheap, widely available technology played in disseminating Hitler's voice to the German people. Switching the radio on, though – listening to contemporary broadcasts of Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber pumped through this aging system – brings the relationship between cultural and technological functionality into focus, showing that, as Ernst puts it,
there is no ‘historical' difference in the functioning of the apparatus now and then (and there will not be, until analogue radio is, finally, completely replaced by the digitized transmission of signals); rather, there is a media-archeological short circuit between otherwise historically clearly separated times.
Although Ernst did not physically re-wire this radio, the result was similar to the circuit-bending art described by Hertz and Parikka: namely, through the creative reactivation of a device, our sense of history, as delineated by the physical archive, changed. The radical and intellectually jarring juxtapositions that occur in such acts of "t(h)inkering" spark a deeper appreciation of the presence, the material weight, of history, as well as its significance to our own moment.

A focus on late nineteenth and twentieth century consumer technologies, like radios, has occluded media archaeology's connection to trends in digital humanities. Yet I would argue that an inverted form of Ernst's radio experiment occurs every time, for instance, a medieval manuscript is digitized and posted online in the framework of web-based software.

For (to state an obvious but still under-appreciated fact) an online e-book platform is, like a radio, an operational apparatus, such that certain aspects of it cannot be understood unless it is switched on; and though Ernst may not agree, so, too, is a medieval manuscript: it must be opened, used, for it to "disclos[e] its essence." When the former mediates the latter, it alters the operations, the "codes" of the medieval codex, physically and temporally rewiring it according to the software's designed logic. What represents the "past" and the "present" in this modified, mashed-up digital artifact? Scholarship abounds on the social transformations engendered by such tools; much remains to be said on the material transformations they enact, and even more on how their tactical deployment might spark new historical devices.

The ability to transform not only how we study but what we see in the past is perhaps the digital humanities' greatest potential. Whether or not practitioners in the field can mobilize this strength, though, hinges upon their insistent awareness of mediation, its effects and affects. As Johanna Drucker has forcefully argued, too many projects employ digital mapping tools and information visualizations as if their interfaces were transparent, self-evident reifications of data, rather than contemporary graphical conventions. This blind adoption of "tools" ends up taring history against our own media ecology, such that the present becomes the inevitable outcome of a past in which Western culture has always/already traversed the routes constructed by Google maps, or Western thinkers like Newton always/already "intended" their writing to be read through highly mediated digital transcriptions.

Rather than projecting the past onto the present, a "circuit-bending" approach to the digital humanities uses our present media ecology as a map for discovering the neglected corners of history, then plugs them into our own moment. It is powered by a recognition of "the made-ness and constructedness that inhere in any representation of knowledge" (as Drucker puts it) and, as such, exploits the rich potentials of electronic media without compromising the transformative power of the humanities to think and perform new ways of perceiving, experiencing and being in the world. Pursuing this approach also helps bridge the perceived divide between building and thinking, making and theorizing; for here, a material engagement with objects enacts a theoretical relationship between past and present, reconfiguring our historical coordinates in the process. It is critical and creative, interpretive and interventional. Its potential is fully realized not as a method for producing narrative histories so much as a kind of electronic schematic that diagrams the historical junctions where our sense of what is "old" both meets and diverges from our perception of the "new."

The Communications Building at the 1939 World's Fair featured Symbolizing Man, a twenty-foot plastic head, linked by a gleaming light to a thirty-foot globe. Between them, a multi-paneled mural showed (according to the Guidebook) "the acceleration of inventions in communications from primitive beginnings to the ‘World of Tomorrow'," including "postal service, printed word, telegraph, telephone, motion picture, radio and television." Of course, an object like the Houghton's Little Gidding Harmony fills no gaps in this list, forms no missing links in the evolutionary process connecting plastic sphere to Symbolizing Man. Its inability to fit into this technological history speaks volumes on the ideologies that shaped the exhibit, and which still shape how we conceptualize newer technologies in relation to older ones. The current hinging of "digital" and "humanities" has the power to short-circuit this narrative, if we deploy the former as a tactical re-wiring within the strategic devices of the latter.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this, Whitney - I really enjoyed it. I find it interesting how this cut-and-paste physical format corresponds with the cut-and-paste nature of the content of many early modern texts.

- Jillian

Anonymous said...

This is, on many levels, brilliant.

Whitney said...

Thank you for reading!