Digital Technologies and the Call for New Genres of Theory

From Sharon J. Harris, PhD Candidate in the English Department and HASTAC Scholar.

I recently attended a panel discussion at the NYU Center for the Humanities to kick off the release of a new book, Theorizing Sound Writing, ed. Deborah Kapchan (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2017). The book explores the relationship of writing and aurality (the study of listening) in order to pursue two aims: It theorizes how to write about sound, and it uses its premise of listening to point toward compassionate scholarship. Kapchan, the volume’s editor and chair of the panel cites philosopher Jacques Attali’s pronouncement that theorizing through language and mathematics is insufficient because “it is incapable of accounting for what is essential in time—the qualitative and the fluid, threats and violence.”[1] From this criticism he calls for new “theoretical forms” that can better respond to temporal experience. Kapchan points out that thirty years later we find a similar call from theorist Lauren Berlant, who identifies the need “to invent new genres for the kind of speculative work we call ‘theory.’”[2]

I wonder what these new genres could be. I don’t wonder, however, whether digital technologies will be a part of them. They will, but how? Two examples illustrate the potential roles that digital technologies may take in theorizing our past and current experiences, even if the role is one of absence. In his chapter “Acoustic Palimpsests” J. Martin Daughtry lays out different iterations of his process of writing the article, beginning with a Russian poem by Anna Akhmatova, followed by the first draft of his introduction to the chapter but entirely crossed out like so. He moves through multiple other layers, each marked as a separate section of the chapter, that include a subsequent introduction draft written in 2009; a passage from Jorge Luis Borges; sonic accumulation in recordings of Iurii Kirsanov; photographic examples of street art palimpsests composed of accreted layers of pasted advertisements, graffiti, and partial decomposition from weathering; and various marginalia. In the penultimate section of the chapter Daughtry admits to doubts and asks,

Having inscribed this layered text, this meditation on erasure, can I erase what I’ve written so far? Can I wipe out my treatment of Kirsanov, and Filon, and soldiers in Iraq, and iPod users, only to try again to capture their essence tomorrow? Like a medieval scribe with a scraping knife, can I unwrite this text? In doing so, can I compel you, dear reader to unread it?

Of course I cannot.

[Delete all.] 

[Restart.][3]

Daughtry even does restart with one more brief section following this one, a transcription of pencil scribbles on the “back of the last page” in multiple hands that does not identify the authors, the document scribbled on, or the context of the scribbles.

I couldn’t help wondering what such an experimental chapter form would look like in digital format. In a video or audio version these layers could be shown individually, but then they could also be entirely stacked on top of one another at the end to show the cumulative palimpsest Daughtry creates. The potential for these digital technologies is because of their ability to capture events in and across time. But Daughtry’s sections are not equal in their textual length, and so if they were stacked, how would a digital format temporally deal with their varied lengths? Some layers might finish far before others. I.e., if the text was read at the same pace for each section (another formal and interpretive decision in and of itself), Akhmatova’s poem would finish long before the analysis of Kirsanov’s recordings. Although palimpsests are created over time, digital technologies show, by capturing moments in time, the singular, instant-like nature of palimpsests as well. If we consider different genres for theory, Daughtry’s experimental chapter exhibits the limitations of the standard text or book-based form and offers promising potential for foregrounding his ideas and for raising new ones through digital genres.

But another contribution, “Sound Commitments: Extraordinary Stories,” by Tomie Hahn, shows the limitations of digital formats. She begins her chapter with a warning that it is a performance and is to be read out loud. She entreats the reader, “Join in the performance. Explore the presence of text, the vulnerability and ephemerality of embodying text, by listening to each sound formed by your voice. In this way you will be sharing the text while also experiencing and altering Hahn’s fieldwork experiences.”[4] How would a digital format affect this chapter? The chapter itself asks to be performed, to be sounded. But a digital performance would remove the experience of personally performing the text. A digital performance risks pinning it down to a single, authoritative performance, like sticking a pin in a butterfly to preserve it, and this is antithetical to Hahn’s goals for the chapter. In this respect digital technologies can act as a collection (no doubt Hahn uses them in her fieldwork referred to above), but in tracking temporal performance, as Attali asks, textual forms may lose the potential of their timelessness and openness to multiple performers.

In this volume’s project of more mindful listening digital technologies allow us, on the one hand, to do so in a more somatic sense. If theory needs new genres, digital genres may help to develop more sympathy from physical experience and help to better account for the lived and sensed experience of being human. On the other hand, digital formats will, as we continue to learn, also open new questions about the limits of mediating the human experience no matter what technology we use and argue for occasions when they, like analog technologies, come up short.

 

[1] Jacques Attali qtd. in Deborah Kapchan, “The Splash of Icarus: Theorizing Sound Writing/ Writing Sound Theory” in Theorizing Sound Writing (ed. Deborah Kapchan (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2017), 2.

[2] Lauren Berlant qtd. in Ibid.

[3] J. Martin Daughtry, “Acoustic Palimpsests” in Theorizing Sound Writing, 79.

[4] Tomie Hahn, “Sound Commitments” in Theorizing Sound Writing, 138.

Interdisciplinary Teaching and the 1 or 2 Rule

From Sharon J. Harris, PhD Candidate in the English Department and HASTAC Scholar.

Interdisciplinary work has a kind of X-factor. Perhaps because it inherently crosses or defies boundaries, we tend to view interdisciplinary work as innovative and insightful. But for all its buzz, we risk underestimating the demands of such work. At the end of the academic year I have reflected on the processes of a newly designed course I taught this semester that made use of several different forms of media. I’ve taught two courses now that blend literature and music, and each time I reach a point in the semester, usually an otherwise nondescript Wednesday, where I am gobsmacked at how much work it takes just to prepare class materials.

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Besides the lesson planning, grading, reading, note-taking, typing, copying, printing, and student-email-responding I expect to do in the workload of teaching a course, I’m also listening, vetting music tracks and YouTube videos, reading three different kinds of background material (because of three different disciplines), scanning readings (because no single textbook has all the material I need), uploading files, figuring out delivery of electronic materials, writing playlist listening guides, researching technology platforms, and on and on. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying interdisciplinary courses aren’t worth it. They’ve been some of my most rewarding teaching experiences. But I do think that we, as teachers, need to approach the demands of designing interdisciplinary courses with our eyes wide open.

ScalarMaybe this is just an old-fashioned question of form vs. content. The content is exciting, full of new connections. But the form is new too. Are we ready for it? When we push and straddle boundaries of various disciplines, we must be accountable to not only the content of more than one field of study but also the form that information takes. For example, I have assigned my students to create annotated playlists. This project helps them to read music closely, using many of the same skills of literary analysis but applied to a different medium. I have to think through the best format for completing and turning in this kind of work. To do the assignment the students need to learn to use music platforms that can create and playlists and then share them. They also then need to annotate those playlists and find a way to turn all of it in together. The software Scalar advertises that “anything can do anything to anything,” meaning that any media format can comment on and annotate any other. I have also considered SoundCloud because it allows users to place a comment at a designated timestamp in the music. Scalar, however, works best with long-form text-based work and has a slightly steep learning curve. And the drawbacks to SoundCloud include limits on how much music a user with a free membership can post, and a comment format that does not lend itself to longer analyses.

The pros and cons that I weigh to determine what form my students’ playlists should take lead me to the 1 or 2 Rule. I have adopted this rule for myself to manage the labor involved in interdisciplinary courses. The Rule is Pick 1 or 2 new aspects to add to or change about your teaching each semester. As you decide what to add or change, consider the following questions:

  • What is new about this semester? Do you already have big changes happening in your personal life?
  • Have you taught this course before? Do you have a textbook/are the materials already gathered, or will you be creating them from scratch?
  • How many other courses are you teaching?
  • How often will assignments and/or lectures and classes require you to curate multidisciplinary material?
  • Do you need to learn a new technology?
  • Will your students need to learn a new technology?

youtubeIn my case with the annotated playlist assignment, I was developing a new course, which already took quite a bit of work. So I decided to have my students create the playlist on Spotify or YouTube, technologies they most likely knew (but I have also learned not to assume that my students know even what seem to be the most common technologies!), and email their annotations typed in Microsoft Word. This system isn’t as compact or seamless as the other technologies might have been, but it had the benefit of being familiar and easy to communicate as they took on the challenge of thinking and writing about a new discipline.

As I develop my courses more fully, I will be in a better position to expand the forms and formats of my interdisciplinary content. This means that it may take a few years to develop these courses in the way that I would like, but it also helps keep me from burning out so that I can continue to create them. It turns out that learning new technologies takes time, both for me and for my students. We shouldn’t be surprised though: These new technologies are new forms of literacy, and becoming literate takes time. Literacy is worth it though. Twenty-first-century literacy can build skills and knowledge with new content and new forms through interdisciplinary teaching.

Roundtable on Structured Data

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Text of Poster Follows: Graduate Student Digital Humanities Roundtable: Structured Data. Come join us to discuss how information from humanistic sources can be structured, for effective analysis with digital tools! Monday, October 24, 1:00-2:00 pm, Dealy 102. Bring your own sources, projects, or project ideas to discuss! Coffee and donuts will be provided.

 

 

 

 

DH Annotation Tools: Out of the Margins

Come join us to learn how digital annotation tools could be applied to your research!

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Text of poster follows: A Practical DH Workshop Sponsored by Fordham’s Digital Humanities Working Group and Graduate Student Digital Humanities. Thursday, 20 October, 2016. 1-2 pm Walsh Library 047. DH Annotation Tools: Out of the Margins. An introduction to Annotation Studio and Lacuna Stories, web-based research and learning tools. Led by Shawn Hill, Instructional Technologist for Digital Scholarship, Fordham University. Practical DH is a series of short, one-hour workshops meant to offer concrete, specific information and hands-on introductions to a variety of digital tools and approaches for research and pedagogy. The next workshop will be in November on mapping (likely an introduction to CartoDB). For more information, contact kowaleski@fordham.edu.

Digital Day 2016

For the second year, GSAS futures and the Center for Medieval Studies will be presenting a Digital Day, with sessions on Photoshop and WordPress. If you weren’t able to attend the Digital Day last year, come join the mighty throng! If you were, join the throng anyway, for a refresher!

Digital Day 2016

Monday, August 29, 11:30 am – 3:30 pm

Faber Hall, Room 445

Phone: 718 817 4656

Email Registration: hafner@fordham.edu

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