I had a forty minute commute to the Computers and Writing conference this year. Here are some reflections begun while tooling down the road:
I struggled with the presentation. The new piece for the session wouldn't gel. I almost just went with older material. The Slow Combers tweet poem, in fact, became the opening piece through a somewhat frantic search for something to perform. A few months ago, the music video in Slow Combers was taken down, ending the ability to (live) compose the poem. Then the video was reposted by someone else, the flv file suggesting all kinds of open-Web and counter-cultural trails. The live tweeting in the poem speaks to prosumer concerns, from composing in public to interacting in commercial spaces to distributed creativity. In performance, the piece tries to enact these participatory questions through the live composing and use of materials.
The version I performed in Raleigh had a bit of remixing in the script for the twitter postings but the piece itself is well represented in this version of the tweet poem.
The piece itself is really nostalgic, about memory. If you didn't know that I grew up in a beach town starting in the late '60s, you'd miss out on much of the personal meaning evoked by the archival/home video aesthetic. And even though my beach childhood is a bit later than the era depicted in the materials, the cultural suggestion of an alternative, spontaneous engagement with the world resonates hard for me and, no doubt, informs the project.
For the second half of my presentation, I performed the piece I had been struggling with for the conference--Sediment, a work in progress. This version pretty closely represents the performance of the piece at the conference--without the in-the-moment deviations and mistakes.
Sediment builds upon what Jason Loan and I have been doing related to screencasting and ambiance. The video that occupies the lower right quadrant of the screen is Jason's piece on layers and ambiance. We've been exchanging videos theorizing approaches that move us beyond sequential or associative perceptions of digital video. We've been experimenting with windowing, framing, layering, ambiance, immersion, and other possible perspectives for thinking about screen-based composing.
Sediment is a metaphor I'm interested in for its geologic sense of time and processes. I have to confess, I tend to distill metaphysics into blended aspects of time and space, which are represented well with the image of accumulating sediment. If anyone is interested, the version of the video that plays in the upper right quadrant of the piece incorporates the sediment motif. This piece casts memory materials as sediment. It also considers looping possibilities for time as layers accumulate in repeated cycles. The geology motifs are all personal (connected to my dad), backward loopings that play out in some of the visual materials.
The other thread that appears in the performance relates to alt-scholarship. The video in the upper left quadrant speaks to the ways in which print modes still haunt even what we might think of as our most digital exchanges (see below). Jason and I want to continue to pressure this default, so we have been writing and responding to one another with (some words but also lots of) sounds, images, and movements.
One of the alt-scholarship moves here is to create materials, and then bury them in ways that encourage their discovery in different contexts. Akin to placing comments in code, the last several of my publications have included submerged materials, a video explaining alt-scholarship might play with the sound down in a process-video in a Web text about yet another video. The idea is to foreground the serendipitous, singular, partial, layered, ambient qualities of reading and explore the ways that scholarly materials can be encountered. Another path through these publications is more random and starts with Vimeo, YouTube, or the Web.
The prosumer aspects of the piece call forth the craft or DIY associations of digital composing. The idea here is that these activities provide a corrective for tendencies to disengage with the material world. (Again, see below.) Origami and lathing represent modes of production and aesthetics of shaping. They also recall the thematics of folding and looping time. Again, much of the accumulation is personal, particularly the references to engine repair and to timing chains and gears. There is much memory work here as I cast back toward lessons learned using tools and riding my bicycle in high school.
I was also able to attend the three keynotes, and enjoyed them all. I felt like Dave Parry, in "Ending Knowledge Cartels," did particularly well in what might be called the tricky rhetorical situation of preaching to the choir. It's easy to misread the audience, lecturing about familiar ground or failing to connect with the interests of the crowd. Dave did none of that, instead casting open access as a moral issue right away. He made concrete the concerns and the stakes. I think this paved the way for the concluding prod to push back against the system. I found it inspiring. A call for piracy in public is a risk, but the moral framework set up to support the call made it more than just a matter of convenience or even protest. Great stuff.
I also very much enjoyed Alex Reid's Composing Objects. The discussion of composing in networked terms and the insights into emergence in digital spaces seemed really helpful for introducing people to these concerns. I also take away much from the concept of the glitch, especially the idea of viewing it as an opportunity for discovering knowledge. In fact, I thought of the glitch when brainstorming about missing audio from Anne Wysocki's keynote. I like how the glitch brings into focus questions about disruption and networked agency. I guess I want to think more about Alex's casting the glitch as an aspect of ontology and about whether the glitch is particular to circuits and current digital conceptions, or part and parcel to the usual failures, successes, and tensions of being in the world.
The other connections I found intriguing are those between computers and writing, the new aesthetic, and object oriented ontology. I need to think about these some more. To me, the new aesthetic feels like saying, let's see just how wild we can get with pushing agency onto objects. I'm all for this kind of pushing. And object oriented ontology feels similar. As a corrective, I really like (and try to practice) these moves, and I think conceptualizing and articulating them is a big part of computers and writing.
I guess I'd want to clarify a few points, though, before closing the loop with computers and writing. Is the new aesthetic just another instance of the messy relationship between humans and machines with plenty of room for human and machine agency? Or is it particular and cantered (see above) to the digital? If so, what gets buried by attributing aesthetics to the digital? Of object oriented ontology, I'd ask: is it not the case that ontologies involve both things and activities, that there is process? If so, then won't any corrective move seek the ability to examine both objects and events? I know Alex is generous here, so I'm asking these broad questions thinking that he can help us bring them into focus.
Another concern I have are potential biases toward discourse and linguistics. Alex was careful to point out that we're not talking about just the discursive world--thus the objects. Still, I feel like the biggest danger is that our default quasi-objects are still linguistic (see Waves). And I worry that too much emphasis on code may in some ways extend these behaviors. The object oriented ontology label points us toward computer code; things still feel pretty wordy, raising two more questions: is it possible that our engagement with code (see below) represents simply moving up or down a few layers in a language stack? And how far can the veerings take us, if any posthuman project still tacks too closely with the linguistic turn?
I was also very glad to have seen Anne Wysocki's Grounding Spaces for Recollecting. I'm sad to say that the recording of Anne's keynote lost its audio feed about three-fourths of the way through. I'm hoping some of that part of the presentation may be retrieved or reworked, but I'm sorry because it was so engaging and I know people want to see it. It was great to see the aesthetic manifestations of Anne's research through the demonstration of the project. The work was a nice reminder of our compositional agencies and deep-rooted human history. Anne offered suggestions for alternative ways of being in time, encouraging people to slow down, primarily through encounters with memory.
I really liked the way that Anne brought a project to the community for feedback--another risky move. I wanted to jump in with questions and discuss possible extensions. As I was talking with Anne later, people kept offering ideas, tossing out solutions for potential problems. I could tell that members of the crowd were thinking hard about the project and the ideas related to time and memory that Anne had brought into relief.
I also had my own moment of recognition related to the "glitch" (a drained battery) that left the last few minutes of the video of Anne's keynote with nothing but a buzzing sound. I found arriving at the buzzing segment to be extremely frustrating. It made concrete many of our calls for and practices related to access. People need to get to these materials, and when they can't it's a problem. This made me think of problems with the practice of filming the sessions in the first place. Anyway, I filmed five or six sessions and will post those videos, but I won't film any more until we can come up with a system for making transcripts or otherwise helping make the recordings more accessible. And I will go back and work on transcribing some of what we already have collected. I hope others will volunteer to help and to help figure out how we can do this work for future conferences.
Sessions and Reflections
As always, the computers and writing community amazed me with its openness. And impressed me with its knowledge of the digital. And humbled me with its willingness to take risks and speak critically. In the Ways of (Sonic) Being panel put on by Kyle Stedman, Steven Hammer, Harley Ferris, and Jon Stone, the presentation was risky and rewarding. And it represented well the long tradition in the computers and writing community of young scholars pushing at boundaries, both of rhetorical knowledge and of academic authority and performance. In all seriousness, the depth and insights they offered into the rhetoric of sound were enacted and amplified by the fact that I got to play a Kazoo.
I also enjoyed the critical engagement that bubbled up from Town Hall II. (I hope to link to this video shortly.) This town hall offered a nice case study of the ways that the borders between computers and writing and digital humanities are beginning to blur. In varying ways, David Rieder, Annette Vee, Mark Sample, Alexandria Lockett, Karl Stolley, and Liz Losh focused our attention on code as text, on humanist approaches to code, on code as material, and on ways of becoming more engaged with programming. I felt an attention to the textuality of code. I saw pragmatic and creative paths toward working with code. There is a history in computers and writing of tempering enthusiastic experimentation with healthy skepticism. To that end, I applaud Alexandria Lockett's reminder about the political dimensions of coding (and all) technologies. And I'll restate my concern about shifts toward code recasting attention to text and language. I still want a larger range of possibilities that might include mixing with digital tools, less discursive modes, more affective movements. I don't presume that a panel on coding needs to cover all of that, but I do want to complementarily keep pushing that focus.
My takeaway response to the digital humanities at this year's conference is a welcome sigh of relief. I enjoyed the presence of those who tend more directly to run in digital humanities circles and clearly saw the overlap in our interests. I enjoyed the discussions of code and of ontologies. I saw many moments of connection, as in Jamie Skye Bianco's questions about gender representation in accounts of digital ontologies. It feels like those working in computers and writing circles can exhale a bit and say that we are being recognized elsewhere; we can keep doing (and better sharing) our excellent work; and we will connect with others and find shared languages and concerns.
All of this is helpful as we try to understand our moment and field. I would reiterate the concerns of representation, especially in terms of differences, gender, and access. I was glad to see Melanie Yergeau, Jennifer Sano-Franchine, Cheryl Ball, and so many others recognized at the conference. I'm always buoyed by our critical perspective. And I know we have much work to do. Our knowledge (and behavior) is so situated within networks. It gives me pause (and heartens me) as I see us still discovering the biases and disparities that circulate within those networks.
Still, at Computers and Writing I always experience overwhelming doses of open-armed engagement and wonder. I love witnessing the energy of young thinkers and tinkerers pushing limits and raising questions. I come here because I know it's still the best place to watch the bubble.