December 20, 2013

Renewal, Re-imagination, and Re-inspiration— “Irene Klaver’s Meander Model Meme: River as Bridge”

by ejbasa

The Meander River was the most important river in cultural antiquity. Serving as “the Silk Road of water” according to Irene Klaver, her presentation grounds itself in the potential of water as a “bridge, rivers as a bridge, a link, a mediation, not just bringing one side of the river to another side but actually intertwining domains, intertwine human culture and human cultural domain with a larger ethos, cultural practice and mentality.” Irene Klaver’s “Meander Mode Meme: River as Bridge” outlines her work in considering how water mediates the ways in which we live and exist with nature.

For Klaver, the domains range from local to global connections between those spheres and how they interact with water. She argues for a new method of understanding water and its influences on our local communities, ways of living and human relationship to nature. Klaver hearkens back to antiquity, to use the Meander River as a model for re-shaping our imaginations and aspirations for an ethos of living. Moreover, she invokes Herodotus’s work to re-invigorate our use of water as inspirational on a local and global level. She contends for a new way of seeing water, not just as a physical presence but one that embodies our present time and space. For Herodotus, the Meander River provided a source of inspiration and encouraged cultural and ideological exchange. Although it is no longer a prominent river, the Meander River once provided a cornucopia of food, resources and pathways for sharing culture and ideology from the East to the West. It also allowed for a more organic and less rigid form of growth and progress.

The Meander River

The Meander River

Much like its physical shape, Klaver suggests that the Meander’s meandering can certainly be a visual representation of how we might shift our imaginations: lending ourselves enough space, time, and movement from one idea to the another to generate new pathways (such as tributaries). Despite the diminution of the Meander River’s promise to civilization since Herodotus’s time, the Meander has still produced extraordinary gifts to humanity. In this same way, Klaver asks for a closer examination of how our waterways and systems depict our time, one of climate instability and waning resources, and how we might be able to change it.

Meander RIver influence on Ancient Greek aesthetics.

Meander RIver influence on Ancient Greek aesthetics.

To me, Klaver’s call to action is one that is compelling, as climate change and global water scarcity become a harsh reality. In many ways, her suggestion to allow us to be come re-invigorated by water and our relationship to it is a type of reframing of our failure to consider the climate and our environment more fully. When viewed in respect to JJ Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure, Klaver’s work acknowledges our failures but re-frames our intrusion into the environment as an acceptable mode of being but only in so much as we consider how we might live harmoniously with nature. Moreover, it allows for a bit of fumbling from one idea or resolution to another while still maintaining a type of optimism. Thusly, failure does not become the result of our toil towards meeting our goals, but rather a step or bend in the process towards resolution and re-engineering our relationship with nature.

December 20, 2013

Rocks, Lakes, People and Maps– Robert Markley and the Mapping of the Great Lakes

by ejbasa

Robert Markley’s “Mapping the Great Lakes: Computational Analysis and Climate History, 1680-1850” is an excellent reflection of interdisciplinary scholarship around climate science and visual analysis. Markley and his team have utilized supercomputers, literature, and over 400 British and French maps of the Great Lakes to begin understanding the water levels, climate, and shape of the Great Lakes through the Little Ice Age (1680-1850). In this presentation, Markley focuses specifically on research and information gathered from Geogian Bay and Manitoulin Island. This area is only a portion of the studies they are conducting in the Great Lakes, specifically Lake Huron. Additionally, this area was chosen because of the Great Lakes’ large role in shaping weather patterns and can divulge information about culture and modes of being as well. (See picture of little girl at Georgian Bay. The lake’s shape and water level determine how people interact with the environment.)

Water levels recede from 1994-2013 at Georgian Bay.

Receding water levels between 1994-2013 at Georgian Bay.

The intent for Markley and his team’s research is to provide additional information about the Great Lakes’ transformations over time and how that might lend insight into the Little Ice Age. Markley explains that there is much research on biodiversity, plant life, etc. but not enough is done on the shape of the Lakes, rock (granite) outcroppings, water levels, and their potential to elucidate on climate change within the Great Lakes.

The team’s working hypotheses include:

  • Higher lake levels and/or ice cover can alter the coastlines of Huron dynamically on short and long-term scales
  • Complex cycles of changing water levels in the Great Lakes can have substantial geological effects
  • Data from pre-1850 maps can contribute significantly to scientific and cultural analyses of the region

In analyzing old maps and texts written by explorers, each team member was required to contribute their skills and knowledge to be incorporated into data collection, analysis, and narrative that creates a more thorough understanding of the Great Lakes relative to the Little Ice Age. For Markley and his team, maps enable them to conduct this research (along with supercomputers and superpixel technology—see example map) because maps encode forms of knowledge that incorporate:

  • Accounts and sketches from French explorers, traders, and missionaries that incorporate indigenous knowledge and practices
  • Accounts and sketches from British traders and explorers
  • Mapmakers can integrate multiple sources into a single map
  • Graticules and scale bars indicate cartographers’ efforts to provide precise locations and accurate geospatial representation
  • Climatological conditions that may shift over the time and could produce seemingly erratic representations of the Lakes and islands
Supercomputing is used to map the outline and shape of the Great Lakes.

Supercomputing is used to map the outline and shape of the Great Lakes.

Markley’s work is currently at its early stages and hopes to add to the body of knowledge on the Great Lakes and the surrounding region. Reflected in the comparison of the picture of the girl at Georgian Bay across time, the potential for mapping the Great Lakes can improve our understanding of the past, as well as, providing potential predictive value to the future of climate, culture and living.

December 20, 2013

I Am Product (or rather) We Are Product: Jose van Dijck’s Social Media and the Culture of Connectivity

by ejbasa

Jose van Dijck’s presentation, “Social Media and the Culture of Connectivity” argued that social media has transformed from the former culture of connectedness to one defined as a culture of connectivity. Van Dijck takes great care in outlining the methodology for her work. She articulates that her argument comes from focusing on three particulars of social media: the growth and evolution of social media between 2001-2012, the normalization of social media within our lives, and the implications of transforming microsystems for larger ecosystems of connective media. Moreover she conducts her social media platform analysis within two primary categories: the socio-technological (e.g. technology, users/usage, and content) and the politico-economic (e.g. ownership, governance, and business models,) components.

In specifying the distinctions between a culture of connectedness and one of connectivity, van Dijck reveals the monetary potential imbedded with social media platforms, like the more recently publically shared Facebook. For van Dijck, connectedness can be seen as actions performed by social others such as participatory culture and creating human-to-human connections. Connectivity on the other hand does not rely on human agency to make connections: algorithms and other mathematical approaches generate the connections via the social media platform.

This differentiation between the two cultures addresses the fine line between asserting oneself and identity on social media platforms versus the platform interjecting its power to standardize our modes of being and interacting within its confines. Take Facebook for example, its users interface with a format that allows Facebook to cultivate and mine information about you and your network. Rather than translating your use of Facebook as one defined by you and your will alone, Facebook funnels and categorizes your activities so that it can glean information more readily and fully to increase its resale value to marketing firms, companies and other entities that have a vested interest in creating a larger client base.

The conversion from connectedness to connectivity also suggests a shift from the platform being the product to people. Van Dijck remarks on this as part of the “gradual formalization, normalization, and commercialization of social activities such as sharing, liking, friending, etc.” We are Facebook’s product as they begin to monetize our social activities.

For me, the “hidden” structure behind Facebook’s platform problematizes individual and social agency. Once Facebook monetized our sociality, the space that was once a part of a public sphere governs our modes of communication and disseminating information about ourselves to others. Messages are no longer only defined by users without Facebook’s interloping and mediating our communication – thereby altering its substance. So, are we really using Facebook or is it now mostly using us?

December 19, 2013

Irene Klaver, “Meander Model Meme: River as Bridge”

by johnpcouture

In her “Meander Model Meme: River as Bridge,” meander has a special importance for Irene Klaver, both as an actual place (a river in southwestern Turkey) and as a metaphor. Historically, the Meander River was one of the significant watersheds in the ancient world, connecting the west with the east, and, among other things, was the birthplace of philosophy. As Klaver is a philosopher who has done important work on rivers and water, the Meander River as the birthplace of philosophy is very fitting. The Meander River for her is a “model for thinking about water issues.” The river is always changing (Heraclitus is one of her favorite ancient Greek philosophers), and “change is always implied in any socio-political complex.” As a metaphor, meandering signifies “how things keep moving along and re-instantiating themselves.”

I was struck by Klaver’s emphasis on relations and relationships in the work she presented. We must continuously think, live, and be with the water, she asserted: “water is about relations, on multiple levels across multiple dimensions.” Water “[reconciles] the conservation of biodiversity with socio-economic development,” and it is a “connecting element, relating biodiversity with cultural diversity.” It also “connects engineered hydraulic space with cultural experience and everyday practice.” The “dynamics of a watershed (land use changes, soil erosion, land degradation, infrastructure development, etc.)…are affected by cultural beliefs and practices.” We must change our thinking about rivers and water, and “the way water surfaces in our cultural imagination.”

Climate change is the most pressing issue of our time, and there has been a great deal of very significant work which has been sounding the alarms for life on this planet. It is all too easy to be filled with pessimism and doom when confronted with this work. Yet one of the things I took from Klaver’s talk was a sense of hope, even, perhaps, when this hope might be cautious. Klaver wants to think and talk about culture in the future, not just in the past, as in “cultural heritage.” She wants us to “re-imagine ethics as well as our way of living with water.” “Re-“ words were abundant in her talk: revitalize, renew and renewal, re-imagine, re-adjust, re-think, reconnect, reclaim. As a prefix, “re-” can mean a going back, returning to a previous state, as well as again, anew, over again. While we cannot return to a previous state (whatever and whenever this state might be), we can learn from the past, from our cultural heritage, if for nothing else than to recognize (to re-cognize, think again) where we might have gone wrong, or even to carry something from the past into the future.  But to think, live, and be again, anew, over again seems particularly appealing, as it indicates an eye to the future, where hope is always located.

December 19, 2013

Robert Markley, “Mapping the Great Lakes: High Performance Computing Visual Analysis and Climate History, 1680-1850.”

by johnpcouture

“No one person is going to be able to figure out everything that is going on here,” Robert Markley stated during his talk entitled “Mapping the Great Lakes: High Performance Computing Visual Analysis and Climate History, 1680-1850.” Markley’s talk provided an excellent example of transdisciplinary research and work in the digital humanities, as well as the nature and possibilities of collaborative research. The work he showed was part of an IACAT Fellowship Project from 2012-13, and involved a computational analysis of more than 300 map images of the Lake Huron area. The team needed to develop tools to analyze irregular shapes for similarities and differences, all in an effort to “allow cartographers, environmental historians, and climatologists to explore previously unexamined connections between map-making and contemporary understanding of short-term weather patterns and larger-term climatological conditions between c. 1680-1850.”

The Great Lakes, and specifically, Lake Huron, were chosen for a number of reasons. They play a significant role in shaping weather patterns over a period of years and decades, and a mapping of future climate patterns can be improved by a better understanding of pre-1850 climatic conditions. Climatological records, however, are problematic prior to 1900, and are virtually non-existent before 1850. Water levels and ice cover vary significantly from year-to-year, and over decades. Maps of the Great Lakes before 1850 can supplement proxy data and be helpful in understanding the area’s climate. These maps, produced by French explorers, traders, and missionaries, and British explorers and traders, can be helpful in understanding water and land representations and how these representations change over time.

Markley and his team’s work to date have produced a few working hypotheses. First, higher lake levels and/or ice cover can dynamically change Lake Huron’s coastline both short- and long-term. Second, the 30-40 year and 160-year cycles of changing water levels can have substantial geological effects. Third, “data from pre-1850 maps can contribute significantly to scientific and cultural analyses of the region.”

During his talk, Markley noted that we are at just the beginning stages of understanding Great Lakes hydrology. The kind of transdisciplinary, collaborative research that scholars like Markley are doing is developing this knowledge. As the work of Markley and his team indicates, the digital humanities can play a significant methodological role in this type of research. In this case, the digital humanities allowed them to look at hundreds of digitized maps all at once and to do interpretive comparisons.

December 18, 2013

José van Dijck, “Social Media and the Culture of Connectivity”

by johnpcouture

José van Dijck’s talk “Social Media and the Culture of Connectivity” was based upon her latest book and guided by three research questions. First, “How have social media platforms (individual microsystems, ecosystem as a whole) evolved and transformed between 2001 and 2012?” Her analysis of these platforms involved both socio-technological and politico-economic dimensions and took its cues from the work of Bruno Latour and Manuel Castells. Second, “How have social media become normalized in everyday gestures in such a short time span?” This question is informed by Foucault and de Certeau. Third, “What are the implications of transforming microsystems for the larger ecosystem of connective media?” These three questions provided what I thought was an impressive framework for her study of a phenomenon that is evolving rapidly.

The most significant aspect of her work that I have seen thus far is her articulation of the evolution in social media from connectedness to connectivity. Connectedness is identified with participatory culture and human connections, while connectivity is identified with algorithmic connections via platforms. In van Dijck’s expansive notion of sharing, she identifies different aspects of sharing and contrasts what each looks like under connectedness and connectivity. Under connectedness, users are “produsers” and share with friends (people they know); under connectivity, users are “frustomers” (a conflation of “friend” and “customer”) and share with “people they may know.” The users’ interests are paramount in connectedness, in which sharing is a social activity with those one consciously selects as friends; in connectivity, it is the owners’ interests which are most significant, and where sharing is an “algorithmic activity to be engineered and steered.” Under connectedness, sociality is defined by its social capital, whereas economic capital defines the commercial space to be found under connectivity.

After showing an excerpt from the Facebook IPO video, van Dijck noted that “Facebook uses the rhetoric of connectedness in order to sell that pitch of connectivity, of sharing.” This observation struck me. In doing this, Facebook is transforming, through conflation, connectedness and connectivity. The social capital of informal space is becoming the economic capital of commercial space. This terrifies me, because I think this particular transformation is part of a larger socio-cultural transformation that is ongoing, and makes me wonder we are going.

December 18, 2013

Cannon Schmitt, “Technical Maturity in Robert Louis Stevenson”

by johnpcouture

Cannon Schmitt’s “Technical Maturity in Robert Louis Stevenson” was a fascinating talk in which Schmitt focused on the significance of paying attention to the literal, denotative, and technical language in literary study, and, more specifically, on three of Stevenson’s novels which can be classified as examples of bildungsroman. Stevenson’s use of technical knowledge works to distinguish these three novels from traditional notions of the bildungsroman, as his protagonists “do not cross over into adulthood, but hover on its threshold.”

As I am not a scholar of British Victorian fiction or of Stevenson, I was most interested in the wider contexts of Schmitt’s talk and its implications for literary history and study. Schmitt notes:

Literary history has traditionally valorized the figural, non-technical, intransitive aspects of novels that might be approached otherwise, as though a novel should not do, but mean. And literary study as such has insisted that something other, in fact, something more, than technical knowledge is at stake.

To recognize Stevenson’s “technical maturity” allows for the possibility of realizing “another history of the novel,” one that “would take stock of novels engaged with work and the technical” as a “love for the extra-fictional world in all its particularity and intractability.”  It also allows for an “alternative vocation for literary study.” In what may have been my favorite part of his talk, Schmitt explains what he means:

That vocation would involve an attempt on the part of literary scholars to realize…the facticity of fictional worlds. This entails recognizing the degree to which fictions, even romance, science fiction, fantasy, and magical realism, are structured…by an appeal to such things as geography, physical laws, and the denotative capacity of language. But it also requires attentiveness to the facticity of and in fiction in a more Sartrean sense: the constraints imposed on characters and readers by the there-ness or the it-ness of a diegesis.

To me, to recognize the facticity of fictional worlds is examine the “form” and “rules” of a fictional world, whether or not the form and rules are grounded in “reality” or a “realism,” however these terms may be defined. It means to examine the construction of these worlds and to see how the form and rules of these worlds work, what they do, how they do it, and whether it makes “sense.” It is interesting to note that attentiveness to the literal, denotative, and technical in literary texts also works to collapse the distinction between “realistic” fictions and those of science fiction, fantasy, the supernatural (such as in romances), and magical realism.

October 7, 2013

Technically Mature and the Not-so Nonhuman

by ejbasa

Technical maturity as a spoken term is, more often than not, followed by trepidation from developers who endeavor to make ready technology for use and is met with anxiety for many of its users. While technical readiness was not the focus of Cannon Schmitt’s “Technical Maturity in Robert Louis Stevenson,” one can argue that he spoke to the latter, one’s own technical maturity—a person’s capacity for successfully utilizing a piece of technology and thereby accomplishing one’s goals by being technically savvy.

Schmitt’s presentation intentionally coupled technical maturity with the practice of literal reading in Robert Louis Stevenson’s works, particularly Kidnapped. Schmitt articulates that through literal reading, one can glean an understanding of the novel and its particulars by focusing on what is typically ignored by the reader and relegated to scenery or setting. Schmitt links a thorough investigation of the “literal, denotative and technical” in Kidnapped to the theories of the Bildungsroman as he asserts the value of technical maturity as a part of David’s personal growth into manhood and the ways in which technology allows him to undergo his developmental process. Schmitt opines that literal readings of the technical is a method of reading through which the audience can begin to pay attention to the often elided content of a novel such as the landscapes, everyday house items, and in this case, a compass and the ocean tide surrounding the Island of Earraid.

For Schmitt, paying strict attention to the technical details of a novel can improve one’s insight and understanding of the work; it does so by orienting the reader within an appropriate space for critical interpretation and empowers the reader with an account of the action and setting through informative technical detail. For instance, David could have spent his time more effectively and lived with more comfort on the Island of Earraid had he integrated knowledge of the tidal currents to his survival methodology. Schmitt discusses how David’s ability to use the compass focuses on its technical function and is described with an amorous gesture by comparing the compass face to that of a “letter from a sweetheart.” David’s response to the face of the compass replaces the type of love experienced through a correspondence with a sweetheart and emphasizes the relationship between a human and object, more specifically the magnetic technology of a compass. For David, his so-called Bildungsroman symbolic rite of passage is not accomplished through marriage, rather it is his increased self-agency in using technology and knowledge of tidal currents that signify his maturity.

Schmitt’s proposal to engage in literal readings of the technical has ramifications for the changing climate of literary studies and the non-human turn. Could such a close reading of the technical revive the “human” portion of the non-human? This question is posed to reflect on literal readings of technology as a type of close-up, in that an object’s faceification (a la Gilles Deleuze) returns to it the potential for exuding human affects.

May 17, 2013

Dr. O’Dair: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Digital

by 3m72

While I had a hard time deciding among the four promising panels during the Saturday morning breakout session at the C21 Dark Side of the Digital conference, my roots in literature pulled drew me to Curtin 124. My previous degrees are in English literature and I recently took a class with Stuart Moulthrop that opened my eyes to the world this panel promised to address: “Literature in the Digital Age.”   While Joseph Tabbi and our own Rachael Sullivan presented interesting papers on electronic lit and the curious nature of the comments within code, Sharon O’Dair’s talk “Why 1984 won’t be like 1984: because 2014 will be?” had me from her hook: “Act 1: Super Bowl XVIII.”  I have discovered that that I have a soft spot when it comes to conference presentations that can succeed in playing with the typical format and invoke smart pop culture references, and this is what O’Dair was doing from the start.

O’Dair began “Act 1” by drawing a parallel between Steve Jobs and Bruce Springsteen, claiming that in 1984, both men were working on monumental projects at the same time.  O’Dair’s negative feelings about Jobs’s creation of the Macintosh personal computer and his alliance with Ronald Reagan became clear by her deep praise of Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” album, a voice for decency and dignity in a time of great recession.  From here, O’Dair spoke of the meaning of freedom a la Janis Joplin’s Kris Kristofferson cover of “Me and Bobby McGee.”  If “freedom is just another word for nothin’ left to lose,” O’Dair seemed to ponder, then how is freedom defined today?  Her final move in this first act was to invoke the television series Portlandia, focusing on the sketch featuring singer Aimee Mann as Frank and Carrie’s cleaning lady.  While part of me was psyched at O’Dair’s reference to yet another favorite item of pop culture, I started to understand why she chose that particular clip revolving around a musician who is now subjected to maid’s work due to illegal downloads of her albums.  O’Dair was mourning the loss of a certain style and craft within the humanities—a point she made clear in Act 2.  “We have allowed our discipline’s lack of discipline undermine the discipline” she claimed.  O’Dair ended her talk with a call to action, urging the audience to bring reverence back to the craft of writing and literary studies.

While O’Dair’s desire is a noble one, I find it very difficult to reconcile her excessive use of media objects as tools to argue for a return to an analog world.  During the question and answer portion of the session, O’Dair’s feelings regarding the “tiny” nature of electronic lit and her declaration that “we’re going to be like Aimee Mann in ten years” made clear this urgency to reclaim the world of physical books and literary studies.  This conviction was so strong, in fact, that she seemed to dismiss digital literature  and most media objects altogether.  O’Dair’s paper was well done and of course, she has a right to feel passionately about preserving, even resurrecting a certain way to study English.  However, I walked out of Curtin 124 knowing that O’Dair and I—while sharing a love for the Boss—have a very different view of humanities in the 21st century.

May 17, 2013

McKenzie Wark: The Dark Side of the Digital Conference

by johnpcouture

McKenzie Wark, “Telesthesia: How Class and Power Work in the Post-Internet Age”

Although I am unfamiliar with McKenzie Wark’s work (a situation I want to remedy as soon as possible), I have heard a great deal about him and was really looking forward to his plenary talk at The Dark Side of the Digital conference. Wark did not disappoint me, and now the desire to examine his work has only increased for me.

Wark appears to be quite the contrarian, as evidenced by the answer to his opening question: “Is it possible to describe the social formation differently?” Claiming that he is bored by the totalizing gesture made by the category of “neoliberalism,” he wishes to call our age the “vectoral age.” Vectors deploy action at a distance, and if I understood him correctly (as again, I am unfamiliar with his work), his notion of “third nature” involves this type of action at a distance in a media environment.

Telesthesia, this third nature, involves perception at a distance, and vectors are the means by which telesthesia can happen. Wark sees the three phases of the capitalist economy as pastoralist, industrialist, and vectoralist, and, in what made me shudder, claimed that in many ways, the great capitalist age is only just beginning. In our world, Wark asserted, the vectoralist class is replacing the capitalist class. Information is the new property, and there is a spatial and qualitative change in how commodity production works.

There is a great deal that I was intrigued by during Wark’s talk. The numerous examples he included helped to ground his talk for me, and I found it easy and enjoyable even to focus on just the examples. I found his talk difficult at times to follow, but this is because of my unfamiliarity with his work. He seemed to bring up notions he developed in his previous work. The question and answer period was lively, and Wark’s talk was a wonderful to close a fascinating and thought-provoking conference. 


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