About my research, computers and Digital Humanities

In my inaugural post a few days ago, I introduced myself to the world in kind of an oblique way. Some people may wonder what I am studying or what my research interests are. This post is here to mend this omission. In large brush strokes, I will talk about my dissertation and then about some general research interests that connect me to digital humanities. Coincidentally, a brief mention of a computer prototype from the late 60’s will echo for the Praxis folks our last meeting (Sept. 5, 2017) and the lesson on the history of computers.

My current project focuses on three French contemporary authors who are using new technologies to create and disseminate their work, as well as connect with their audience. More specifically, I am looking at the ways in which new technologies expand the boundaries of literature to include practices often reserved to other artistic disciplines. I am also interested in the new online literary communities clustering around the websites of my corpus and in the margins of the print and prize-driven French literature.

Having escaped the pages of the book, literature meets with visual arts, with sound and performance, in new poetic hybrids. The book is always a place where textual content can return to, but it is not the only option. Moreover, various acts of transcoding, made possible through digital technologies, have liberated writing from its exclusive attachment to text. Our contemporary “associated technical milieu” has made the creative gesture a practice available to anyone with a computer connected to the Internet.

“Rather than dissociating consumption from production, as did broadcast mass media (from phonography to global real-time television), today’s microtechnologies and the social networking practices they facilitate connect them: if you can use these technologies to consume, you can also use them to produce.”1

Interestingly enough, the gap between amateurs and professionals is narrowing , which revives Jean Dubuffet’s concept of “art brut” (i.e. art made by people without formal training). Under these circumstances where everything is created by everybody, how does a contemporary author find her place? How does she define her space and the value of her work?

Kenneth Goldsmith dubbed these practices “uncreative writing” and traced their origin to some French avant-garde techniques such as those invented by the Situationists (détournement, psychogeographical drifts) and Oulipo.

“Oulipo, short for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or ‘Workshop for Potential Literature’ was founded fifty years ago, in 1960, by the writer Raymond Queneau and the mathematician François Le Lionnais with the purpose of exploring the possible uses of mathematics and formal modes of thought in the production of new literature. Oulipo sought to invent new kinds of rules for literary composition, and also to explore the use of now-forgotten forms in the literatures of the past. ”2

Georges Perec, one of the most popular authors among the Oulipo group (the star!), has experimented with algorithmic writing, imitating the inner workings of a computer program, in The art and craft of approaching your head of department to submit a request for a raise,3or with extreme self-imposing lipogrammatic constraints in A Void4 (exclusively composed of words that don’t contain the letter “e”), has also written a a very brief enthusiastic text about computers. Published at a time where computers were still the size of a room, Perec anticipated their everyday personal and social use. “Why not us?” he asks, claiming a programmable machine for creative purposes at home, a place already targeted by a horde of appliances: washing machines and toasters, coffee makers and vacuum cleaners, TV sets and food processors.

A dynamic medium for creative thought: the Dynabook

Around the same time, at the Palo Alto Xerox PARC Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg were working on a prototype computer strikingly similar to a today’s tablet. They called it Dynabook (portmanteau for dynamic book) and they imagined it as

“a self-contained knowledge manipulator in a portable package the size and shape of an ordinary notebook. Suppose it had enough power to outrace your senses of sight and hearing, enough capacity to store for later retrieval thousands of page-equivalents of reference materials, poems, letters, recipes, records, drawings, animations, musical scores, waveforms, dynamic simulations and anything else you would like to remember and change.” 5

Dynabook, unlike any other computer of its generation, was not targeting the military or corporate business. It was designed “for kids of all ages”, people who would use it to enhance their learning and creativity. I want to emphasize the last words here: “to remember and change”. If the computer was to become personal, it was not only because of its capacity to store information, archiving one’s files, and consequently exteriorizing and extending one’s memory but also by offering new techniques to process the information stored and eventually to create new. Technology has always been about extending human capabilities.

“The human evolves by exteriorizing itself in tools, artifacts, language, and technical memory banks. Technology on this account is not something external and contingent, but rather an essential—indeed, the essential—dimension of the human.” 6

As a matter of fact, the idea of a mechanical memory storage was not new. Vannevar Bush in his well-known article “As we may think” published in 1945 had already introduced a mechanical memory (memex) for individual use 7. Beyond the scope of the Universal Turing Machine –a machine that could simulate other machines– Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg’s ambition was to create a Universal Media Machine, a machine that could simulate all other media forms, from books to images to films.

“For educators, the Dynabook could be a new world limited only by their imagination and ingenuity. They could use it to show complex historical inter-relationships in ways not possible with static linear books. Mathematics could become a living language in which children could cause exciting things to happen. Laboratory experiments and simulations too expensive or difficult to prepare could easily be demonstrated. The production of stylish prose and poetry could be greatly aided by being able to easily edit and file one’s own compositions.” 8

But in order to achieve this goal of becoming a ”platform for all existing expressive artistic media”, Dynabook had to exceed its function as a storing machine, by adding a new structural level on top of the hardware allowing an easy interaction with the machine. Hence, GUI was born with tools and icons that could help the user perform the same actions across applications, without needing to know the underlying programmatic commands.

“Putting all mediums within a single computer environment does not necessarily erase all differences in what various mediums can represent and how they are perceived—but it does bring them closer to each other in a number of ways. Some of these new connections were already apparent to Kay and his colleagues; others became visible only decades later when the new logic of media set in place at PARC unfolded more fully; some may still not be visible to us today because they have not been given practical realization. One obvious example of such connections is the emergence of multimedia as a standard form of communication: web pages, PowerPoint presentations, multimedia artwork, mobile multimedia messages, media blogs, and other communication forms which combine multiple mediums. Another is the adoption of common interface conventions and tools which we use in working with different types of media regardless of their origin: for instance, a virtual camera, a magnifying lens, and of course the omnipresent copy, cut and paste commands. Yet another is the ability to map one media into another using appropriate software—images into sound, sound into images, quantitative data into a 3D shape or sound, etc.—used widely today in such areas as DJ/VJ/live cinema performances and information visualization. All in all, it is as though different media are actively trying to reach towards each other, exchanging properties and letting each other borrow their unique features. ” 9

The success of the personal computer was therefore due to its structural coupling with software that led –so far– to three major shifts in the way we interact with media. Word processors to movie editors, allowed the user to mix, juxtapose, cut and paste, alter, and eventually produce new media. Using the same machine to perform changes in the stored contents was an empowering new form of grammatization.

Return to kindergarten

I borrow the concept of grammatization from Bernard Stiegler. Derrida’s former student, Stiegler calls grammatization every flow that becomes a process through a series of discrete marks, grammés, that can form a code (grammar) and can be endlessly reproduced in all sorts of combinations. Writing, for example, is the grammatization of speech and it is made possible by the invention of the letters (grammata ) of the alphabet. Alphanumeric linear writing, up until personal computers came along, was the dominant form of recording, from facts (history) to thoughts and ideas (literature). So much so that the activities of learning to read and write were the main literacy focus of a certain humanistic tradition, from grade school to the academy.

In his seminal book Does Writing Have A Future?, Vilém Flusser speculates on the disruption of this tradition brought forth by the computers and their new ways of writing through digital recording and digitization. Without discarding the value of the alphanumeric writing he embraces the possibility of new forms of writing that could lead to a progressive replacement of “the alphabet or Arabic numerals”.

What was once written can now be conveyed more effectively on tapes, records, films, videotapes, videodisks, or computer disks, and a great deal that could not be written until now can be noted down in these new codes. … Many people deny this … They have already learned to write, and they are too old to learn the new codes. We surround this … with an aura of grandeur and nobility.

Flusser foresees with a great clarity what is yet to come when he publishes his book in 1987. What may seem as a radical stance, results from his position not to resist or reject the new technologies, but to discover their creative and pedagogical potential altering and adding new avenues to the the millennia old practices of reading and writing. But the newness of these tools, their sometimes complex inner workings call for a return to kindergarten.

We have to go back to kindergarten. We have to get back to the level of those who have not yet learned to read and write. In this kindergarten, we will have to play infantile games with computers, plotters, and similar gadgets. We must use complex and refined apparatuses, the fruit of a thousand years of intellectual development, for childish purposes. It is a degradation to which we must submit. Young children who share the nursery with us will surpass us in the ease with which they handle the dumb and refined stuff. We try to conceal this reversal of the generation hierarchy terminological gymnastics. While we’re about this boorish non-sense, we don’t call ourselves Luddite idiots but rather progressive computer artists. 10

Isn’t it the “digital turn” that Flusser anticipated with his “infantile games with computers”? And isn’t it Flusser’s kindergarten spirit that lives in labs and DH centers across the academy? Similarly, most recent “making turn” also happens in the same centers and labs.

”As the historian David Staley explains, the “maker turn” introduces “an approach to the humanities that moves our performances off the page and the screen and onto the material world, a hermeneutic performance whereby humanists create non-textual physical objects.” 11

Inspired by Patrick Jagoda’s recent article on “Critique and Critical Making”, this year’s Praxis cohort is set to explore the intersection of DH and the bricolage of physical computing. Taking the cue from Pierre Bayard’s How to talk about books you haven’t read12 , we have been wondering “how to make books you haven’t read talk!” But more about it in the next post. Stay tuned!

  1. Excerpt from Mark B. N. Hansen’s introduction to Bernand Stiegler’s chapter on Memory published in W. J. T Mitchell et Mark B. N Hansen, Critical Terms for Media Studies (Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2010).
  2. David Bellos in his introduction to Georges Perec’s The art and craft of approaching your head of department to submit a request for a raise, (London; New York: Verso Books, 2011).
  3. Georges Perec, The art and craft of approaching your head of department to submit a request for a raise, trad. par David Bellos (London; New York: Verso Books, 2011).
  4. Georges Perec, A Void (London: Harvill, 1994).
  5. Lev Manovich, Software Takes Command: Extending the Language of New Media, International Texts in Critical Media Aesthetics 5 (New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 2013).
  6. Mark Hansen’s Introduction to Bernard Stiegler’s article on Memory, in W. J. T Mitchell et Mark B. N Hansen, Critical Terms for Media Studies (Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2010).
  7. Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, “memex” will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.
  8. Personal Dynamic MediaAlan Kay, Adele Goldberghttp://www.vpri.org/pdf/m1977001_dynamedia.pdf
  9. Lev Manovich, Software Takes Command: Extending the Language of New Media, International Texts in Critical Media Aesthetics 5 (New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 2013). Emphasis mine.
  10. Vilém Flusser et Mark Poster, Does Writing Have a Future?, Electronic Mediations, v. 33 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).
  11. Patrick Jagoda, « Critique and Critical Making », PMLA 132, no 2 (1 mars 2017): 356‑63, doi:10.1632/pmla.2017.132.2.356.
  12. Pierre Bayard, How to talk about books you haven’t read (New York, NY: Bloomsbury USA : Distributed to the trade by Holtzbrinck Publishers, 2007).

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