This year, during a Digital Humanities Summer Institute proseminar I taught at the University of Victoria, Nina Belojevic and Jon Johnson submitted partly analog objects as components of their final projects. Belojevic built a bent NES, and Johnson made a glitch controller for the Super NES. From an instructor’s point of view, this experience (of reviewing and assessing built, interactive objects as forms of scholarship) sparked my curiosity and raised two specific questions.
First, how do screens fail us when determining whether interactive objects and their machine operations are persuasive? In this particular case, both Belojevic and Johnson contextualized, explained, and justified the construction and affordances of their built objects through a combination of video, text, and images in essay form. To be sure, these multimodal essays were astute and engaging, and they conveyed a deep awareness of how this became that (i.e., transduction) in the proseminar projects. Nevertheless, as essays, they faced some specific limitations: they presented particular perspectives on the built objects at hand, and—more importantly—they positioned me as an audience member, not an operator or player. As such, part of the review process involved me experimenting with the actual objects that Belojevic and Johnson made, allowing me to not only determine how I could engage those objects from my own perspective in real time but also experience and assess why being an operator or player matters for humanities scholarship. Here, I began to research how transmedia, interaction design, and game studies practitioners approach these issues. This scenario also made me realize the tremendous degree to which digital humanities scholars can (and should) learn from the arts, especially where making, reviewing, and exhibiting objects are concerned.
Second, how is the programmability of the physical world influencing humanities scholarship? For some time now, research in physical computing and desktop fabrication has underscored the recursive relationships between things analog and things digital, with an emphasis on (to echo William Gibson and Steven E. Jones) the internet turned inside out. Everyday things start to “speak” to each other; they are networked. They see and listen, and they process code. Cyberspace shifts from something “out there” to a fundamental (or instrumental) component of infrastructure and its development. One reason I appreciate Belojevic and Johnson’s work is that it resists fetishizing this phenomenon, or reducing smart objects and their material histories to a state of awe (e.g., wondering at a game console). In place of awe and fetish, it rethinks research in media and technology studies through tacit knowledge production, unpacking the aesthetics and politics of platforms and demonstrating how objects make arguments, explicitly or not. Put this way, it responds to Stephen Ramsay and Geoffrey Rockwell’s question (in Debates in the Digital Humanities): “What happens when building takes the place of writing?” Or, to revise that question a touch: “What happens when building is integrated into writing?” In other words, the programmability of the physical world helps us expand humanities scholarship even further, blending materials design and building with other modes of composition (e.g., markup, video, audio, and programming) in order to ask how the humanities can actively contribute to research about (for example) an internet of things, computer vision, surveillance, biometrics, and (generally speaking) the aesthetics and politics of digital/analog convergence.
What, then, does this ultimately have to do with scholarly communication? On October 22, Maker Lab researcher, Laura Dosky, responded to a MediaCommons survey question with “Digital Publishing in Analog.” There, she highlights how digital publishing platforms and practices reanimate analog resources and thereby resist the all-too-common digital/analog binary. To Dosky’s historically-oriented argument I want to add a sense of futures-directed inquiry. If humanities practitioners such as Belojevic and Johnson (not to mention Kari Kraus, Dene Grigar, and many, many others) are building scholarly objects and “design fictions” that resist reduction to the screen, then we might want to consider how to revise not just what we count or accept as scholarship but also how we operate, review, exhibit, and share that scholarship in object form, across its digital and analog manifestations. In short, after the personal computer, the internet, and the proliferation of webtexts, how should analog objects and scholarship matter anew for the humanities? Or how is our very understanding of analog materials changing after the web?
Within fields like digital humanities, I think questions like these correspond with a growing gravitation toward something like creative humanities (see James English and David Staley) or built humanities (see Trevor Owens), which could be linked to practices in, say, platform studies, speculative computing (see Johanna Drucker and Bethany Nowviskie), hardware hacking (see Nicolas Collins), and experimental history (see Devon Elliott, Robert MacDougall, and Bill Turkel). If we take Belojevic and Johnson’s work as examples of this sort of research, then we might understand creative or built humanities as: 1) a resistance to the digital/analog binary as well as to screen essentialism (see Nick Montfort), 2) an applied media or network archaeology (e.g., digging to then repurpose), 3) a material investigation of the aesthetics and politics of a “programmable world,” 4) a mode of inquiry that blends digital humanities and media studies with (de)manufacturing (see Vikash Yadav), and 5) an investment in making persuasive objects (see Ian Bogost). To be sure, we already have the groundwork for this research, from Simone Browne‘s publications on surveillance technologies and David Berry‘s research on algorithmic culture to the combination of new media, critical theory, and making in the work of Alex Juhasz, Sharon Daniel, Carl DiSalvo, Garnet Hertz, Shannon Mattern, Erik Loyer, merritt kopas, Matt Ratto, Jamie “Skye” Bianco, Mark Sample, Virginia Kuhn, Matthew Fuller, Women Who Rock, #TransformDH, and the Critical Media Lab. Of course, there’s also much to learn from programs in physical computing and computational media, including ITP at NYU. But, in the last instance, perhaps the organizing impulse is constructing processes that not only demand operators but also involve an attention to transduction and its contexts after personal computing and the web.
Maybe we don’t need to territorialize this impulse under yet another umbrella term, like “creative humanities” or “built humanities.” Maybe digital humanities or media studies already adequately encompass points 1-5 above. All of those quibbles are justified, and I have no objections to them. For now, my primary interest is how to handshake the arts and digital humanities. More soon.