"Periodical Cicada Transformation" from Insects, their way and means of living by R. E. Snodgrass (1930)

Muss es Sein?*

*An associative joke, best written in the nodal assertions of the hypertext. That is to say, get lost, maybe go here.

I think one of the exciting developments in the messy venn intersections of what we throw under the umbrella of "digital humanities" and what UWM's C21 called "the nonhuman turn" is the increased attention to medium as it forms and deforms (clarifies and limits) scholarly production. This is medium considered not only as an artifact or object of study, but also in its perhaps more slippery deployment as the means of scholarly labor. In short, we tend to look at medium if it falls in our purview of scholastic inquiry, but then we look through it when called to communicate our ideas or findings.

(Collin Brooke talks about this blindness in "Discipline and Publish" and while I use Bogost to focus my ideas below, scholars of writing like Brooke who ask us to "attend to writing more closely" by thinking through the networked structure of writing itself also inform the ideas and work that follows.)

In Alien Phenomenology, or What It's Like to Be a Thing, Ian Bogost asks scholars to (re)consider the assumed medium of scholarly production (writing). The question to ask, he says, is "why do you write instead of doing something else":

Certainly particular materials afford and constrain different kinds of expression, but why should it be obvious that the choice of writing over another way of inscribing and disseminating ideas is a standard, or even desirable one?

Writing is, as Bogost points out, only "one way of being," and so our reliance on writing limits what we can communicate about our objects. Indeed, the weight of that assumption bears upon our encounter with our artifacts themselves, and so limits not just what we can communicate about them but also what we look at in the first place (and how we look at it).

This is not only a concern for those who, like Bogost, are interested in exploring the world of objects under the assumption of a flat ontology, but also those who, maintaining their focus on the human, are interested in questions of excess (exceeding language) like silence, introjection, affect, identification (constitutive of the grammatical "I"). In other words, while I remain primarily concerned with the human (although not exclusively) in my research, because my larger questions attend to, at their foundations, the question of relation, and because language is only one of the ways of structuring (affirming, disavowing, blithely assuming) relations, then what might I discover about this question of relation if I left it unmoored from the constraints of traditional scholarly writing?

Bogost offers the alternative of "carpentry," or the making of artifacts that practice or perform the interrogatory work of scholarship (and here I use interrogatory to draw out that idea of "questioning" or "working through" -- as various thinkers have framed it -- instead of and perhaps in opposition to the more violent deformations of an interrogation). In the idea of carpentry Bogost is emphasizing the "stuff," the fabrication of artifacts rather than (text-based) arguments that require us to attend to creation as negotiation rather than self-sufficient act. This emphasis also asks us to think about how this "stuff" affects, modifies, or contributes to scholarly discourse as a discrete entity (not merely as an example or first step in the road to traditional publication). The goal is not seek validity in writing.

[I]deas will, inevitably, become professionally valid only if written down. And when published, they are printed and bound not to be read but merely to have been written.

The artifacts here don't seek "merely to have been written," but rather, to reverse Bogost's description of traditional scholarly production, "to be read," to pose new questions of or challenge our assumptions about the ideas we think are important enough to dedicate our own time and energy examining.

So I'll be posting some projects here that I've been working on as well as some work that my students have agreed to share. And the latter is important: I see this kind of carpentry as an important pedagogical tool, a great way to show students two things at once: 1. that scholarly writing as they have learned it, while wonderful and productive and important in certain contexts, is limited and limiting: there are ideas that they could talk about more effectively if they free themselves from the restrictions of a single medium and related is 2.exploring an idea (rather than arguing about it) can be generative and important and that while it is important for me as a teacher that they outline goals for their projects, much that is meaningful in terms of their exploration is produced in negotiation with the environments, materials, etc. that they require or encounter along the way. Being sensitive to this interaction will help them be better listeners, readers, thinkers, and makers.


Click on images for further reading, tracing, witnessing, listening, watching, and maybe even a bit of doing

Archaeological Writing: Tracing Scar Tissue
K-T boundary
The Albatross: Silence and the Space of Community
Speaking trumpet from whaling ship
The Leviathan: A Digital Humanities Sandbox