Reading in Slow Motion at the Networked Humanities Conference

Jim and I gave the following talk at the Networked Humanities conference at the University of Kentucky.

Jillian J. Sayre

James J. Brown, Jr.

Networked Humanities [P]

Reading in Slow Motion: Thinking With the Network

*the [P] marks are Prezi cues

[P] In 2010, Richard Miller, frustrated by the physical restrictions of scholarly publication, posted a .pdf of his new article on digital pedagogy to his website. In the accompanying blog post, “So Much Depends on the Carriage Return,” Miller decries a journal’s refusal to keep his original formatting for the article “Reading in Slow Motion,” insists on the importance of spatial arrangement as an element of composition, and bids adieu to academic publishing as a whole (Twitter). [P] The article itself addresses the tension between print text and electronic environments, and while Miller’s blog post concerned forsaking the inherently limited and limiting venue of print publication in favor of the accessibility and unlimited potential of digital distribution, the article reinscribes the physical environment of the classroom and the text as separate from if not primary to digital tools, that distract us in our daily lives with their constant flow of buzzing and dinging.

The title of Miller’s article recalls (without citing) Reuben Brower’s essay [P] “Reading in Slow Motion,” and indeed they are both locating a similar dilemma. [P] As we read Brower’s essay about the fate of reading in a world defined by a “flood of words and images,” it would be easy to place Brower in the category of someone like Nicholas Carr [P], who wonders if Google is “making us stupid.” But this would be wrong for two reasons. For one, Brower’s essay about [P] “mounting lists of important books” and information overload appeared in 1962, and although the first high level computer language, [P] FORTRAN, was five years old when Brower’s essay was published, the Internet as we know it was far off. [P] The buzzing, beeping, and dinging described by Miller is not equal to the rivers and floods of Brower’s essay, but the relation between the object of the two texts reveals that the proliferation of information is not, as [P] Carr would have it, a digital effect. Secondly, despite being more than 40 years older than Carr’s, Brower’s argument is also surprisingly more progressive. In “Reading in Slow Motion,” [P] Brower promotes a course called “Literature X” that teaches “slow reading,” a course realized as Harvard’s Humanities 6 and made famous by [P] Paul de Man’s reference to Brower’s course in his essay, “Return to Philology.” Brower’s course attends to the ways that reading a work of literature is both a “solitary” and “social” act (Brower was already embracing the text’s inter and intranets, as we will call it, whether he knew it or not) [P] and embraces the mess and risk of reading as thinking. Brower was not interested in a course on the appreciation of literature nor was he aiming at a class that would ask students to report on the content that they had learned. Instead, he wanted to help students [P] cultivate an attunement to language and textual relationships, and to experiment with the text:
Reading a novel forcibly reminds us that literature is [P] embedded in history, that the meaning of the work in itself changes when we view it in relation to other works and to the social situation in which it first appeared. [P] Literature X will move on in its later phases to some experiments in historical interpretation, ‘historical’ being used here to include the relation of a work to its time, especially to more or less contemporary works, and to literary tradition. (14) Brower is already, to borrow from Jentery Sayers’ [P] more recent attempt at this kind of course, “networking the novel” in his attention to the relationality of the text and the work of reading.

Nearly fifty years after Brower, Richard Miller’s “Reading in Slow Motion,” reinvents the central interrogation to account for instead of ignore competition from informational technology. [P] “How does one get students to use the Internet as a tool for thinking new thoughts?” he asks. Miller’s answer, though, is surprisingly similar to Brower’s: a technology-free classroom in which students read one text over the course of a semester. Class meetings are cut off from technological resources in order to focus on the encounter with the [P] “words on the page.” Miller is no Luddite, and his students perform slow reading while also sharing supplementary discoveries on a social bookmarking site outside of classroom. Nonetheless he sees these as distinct practices. Miller says: [P] “I’ll stipulate...that reading a book and reading on the Internet are different activities and that the books are less actively distracting than the Internet is” (2). This division mirrors [P] Katherine Hayles argument about how print-based literacies must grapple with the difficulties of a cultural shift from “deep attention” to “hyper attention.” If the reading of a novel such as Moby Dick requires deep attention, this activity is now in conflict with readers who are accustomed to sifting through multiple information streams and paying attention to a “flood” of data. Miller’s course on “reading in slow motion” is an attempt to get students to do both, to cultivate both deep and hyper attention.

[P] However, what if this sensibility could be cultivated by blurring the lines between digital networks and print texts, hyper attention and deep attention? What if we understand the print text itself as already networked? What if our insistence that books are “less actively distracting” is a trace of the same reverence for material forms that gives rise to Carr’s nostalgia? And what if distraction is productive? What if distraction is not something to be fought off or held to the side in the interest of interpretation or meaning? What if it is interpretation and meaning? Addressing these questions is a way to use networked technologies not only as a tool to be accessed outside of class, but as an epistemology, a way of knowing that presents us with modes of reading, writing, and understanding the world.

Like Miller, we hope to get students to use the Internet to think new thoughts, and our aim is to nudge them in this direction by blurring, instead of insisting on, the boundaries between the network and classroom. Drawing on the idea of the network as theorized by Latour in Reassembling the Social, we can imagine a classroom that encourages students to become something akin to network administrators, attending to reading and writing as an experience of navigating a text’s inter and intranets. To do this, we will use examples from a slow reading course on Moby Dick. The course asked students to mine the text as a site of invention, exploring it as a node in various networks, and our presentation will use an example of a student multimedia project to show how slow reading helps readers and writers create (in) networks.

[P] Essays and Networks

In Reassembling the Social, Bruno Latour invokes the term “network” [P] to describe good writing:

    The network does not designate a thing out there that would have roughly the shape of interconnected points, much like a telephone, a freeway, or a sewage ‘network.’ It is nothing more than [P] an indicator of the quality of a text about the topics at hand. It qualifies its objectivity, that is, the ability of each actor to make other actors do unexpected things. A good text elicits networks of actors when it allows the writer [P] to trace a set of relations defined as so many translations. (129)

Latour and others have discussed the [P] problems with the term network. It is slippery and too often tidies up that which we hope remains a messy web of connections. Some [P] use the term to describe material technological arrangements, [P] others use it as a way to understand complex webs of activity. We recognize [P] these problems, but for now we want to focus on how Latour uses the term to describe writing that “traces a network,” and that is willing to take risks. A network, in Latour’s sense, is a piece of writing that [P] “can easily fail - it does fail most of the time - since it can put aside neither the complete artificiality of the enterprise nor its claim to accuracy and truthfulness” (133). One must live in this uncomfortable zone, between recognizing that we are making a network and understanding that our network is only helpful if others find it persuasive or useful. This kind of work is not separate from the essay, the traditional product of the literary studies classroom. But an essay could only be a network if we allowed it to be messy [P], to explore multiple possibilities, and to refuse the traditional thesis-driven writing that insists that we choose one path at the expense of others. A network does not choose a single actor as the “key” to understanding a situation. A network insists that such a choice is not risky enough.

Thinking with Networks [P]

[P] In a course called “Caught in the Net(work): Reading Moby Dick in Slow Motion,” students were asked to understand Moby Dick as a network and to reimagine the work of reading and writing as the tracing of networks. The course was not just an investigation of an author or a text or a literary period or environment, but also - and more importantly - an investigation, through a prolonged engagement with a single text, of the act of reading itself. In exploring the nature of their interaction with the text, students paired the study of narrative with the concerns of the network. [P] Mirroring Miller’s classroom, the class insisted on an austere and artificial isolation of the classroom experience, focusing solely on the novel, while outside of class students were asked to develop a network of knowledge that would enhance their understanding of the text. Their task was to consider the ways in which digital networks might contribute to their understanding of the novel separate from the limited experience of reading for and in class discussion.

In class meetings, students maintained an aggressive attention on the text and the text alone. The environment cultivated in the classroom was important, and sometimes taxing for the students. As Miller warns [P], students become confused, lost, and even bored when so severely limited in terms of material and amount of material. But instead of refusing or ignoring or working to “correct” these negative experiences, students were encouraged to labor on with the text and to use those negative reactions as opportunities to ask questions: What is going on in the text that drives these reactions? How does the experience of reading provoke these feelings? How might the experience of reading contribute to meaning in the novel?

As Miller prescribes, students were required to work outside the classroom to build a sort of library of electronic resources to supplement and develop their readings. Miller used social bookmarking but I chose to use the Tumblr blogging platform to build their networks throughout the semester. [P] Tumblr's affordances for exploring relations are multiple, but one particularly interesting function is its mobile application. With its mobile capabilities, this tool allowed students to explore not only the possibilities offered by the Internet for thinking new thoughts about texts, but also their everyday lived experiences. Students were encouraged to reflect on how their experience in the classroom affects or calls on them to reinterpret how they move about in the world at large, bringing those extracurricular environments, digital or not, to bear upon the text. One student noted on his Tumblr that while he was walking home and listening to a new album he recognized in the melody the narrative structure of his reading for that week: [P]

    Around these moments Ishmael narration seems chaotic and dissonant, as if he is jumping from one set of opinions and outlooks as it suits his particular situation. Ishmael’s viewpoints always are underscored by foreboding sense of what is to come, but like the phantoms that haunted him, they seem blurry and just out of reach..Likewise, The opening track of the the album ‘Seven Steps’ felt equally ominous and chaotic at points. As a listener I found lost in the noise, until out of it finally have some sort of eerie, slow, yet determinable melody. For me in that moment the song seemed to encapsulated all that I had read up until that moment in Moby-Dick.

What this student accomplishes is building a network that reaches out from the text and connects to the world in which he lives, an inter-net(work) of a distinct type, and in so doing he accomplishes what Miller identifies as the goal of such work: to use the connectivity of electronic environments to think new thoughts about the text. [P] But in our focus on the work of “networking the novel,” what became more and more obvious over the course of the semester was that the practice of slow reading also exposes us to the network of the novel: no matter how ascetic the environment, we were always being called, being “distracted” by the work of the text itself, the ways in which it exposes itself as already multiple, multi-directional, connected. So we started to attend to those ways that the networked sensibilities we had previously exorcised from the classroom could help us read in new ways, even without the technical apparatus that is thought inextricable from the concept of the network. [P] On my instructor Tumblr, I began to explore the way allusion in the text mapped onto [P] a consideration of remix and how, in a text like Moby Dick, a text that weaves (looming!) its narrative through interactions with other texts, a structure of citationality highlights the work of relation as both a theme in and a mode of the text. [P]In short, the practice of slow reading allowed me and my students to engage in rather than eschew distraction because we discovered that the print text already calls for and upon the kind of connectivity highlighted by electronic environments and digital epistemologies.

One of the more interesting consequences of this shift in our reading practice was the way that the students began to think about how the text, as it progresses, refers or call upon itself, folding back on itself in a way that undermines the narrative standard of linear development in favor of a nodal economy that’s significance resides in its connections to other sites of meaning. (on Prezi – squeeze of the hand) [P] We might, for example think of the fatal rope, whose movement at the end of the novel slips by so quickly that we might not have noticed it had the text not already distracted us with the rope some three hundred pages back. [P] Or have the intervening pages only been a distraction from it? A narrative feint to obscure the connection between the object and the subject it will master? Because there, [P] amid Ishmael’s detailed accounts of the minutiae of whaling, he told us the consequences of the line running wrong and now, leading up to the confrontation between the monomaniacal Ahab and his perhaps divine but fully animated foe, [P] the line does indeed run foul. Attending to the rope as node not only draws our attention to the narrative potential of non-human actors (the line), but also requires that we consider, at the very end of the tale, the impossible location [P] of what narratology calls the “chronotope.” The novel, whose motion has always been chaotic (moving in between the present of the voyage, the past of the individual character, the future-past of the narrator, and the present of narration, to name only a few loci, and not including the ancient history of its allusions as well as other temporalities indicated by the external network), this novel moves in more than one direction at any given time, navigating to [P] dispersed points in a sea of information.

[P]One of my students turned this consideration of the rope into an investigation of narrative structure itself, locating in the twinning of the rope’s strands an apt expression of the narrative complexity of Moby Dick. Katie’s network exposes an argument in Moby Dick about narrative complexity. Her remix of her term paper into a presentation allowed her to highlight movement and connectivity, something that was communicated quite differently in the paper itself. Given the argument of the class - that Moby Dick was a network - giving students the opportunity to take risks, to trace networks only made sense. [P] The term paper and its accompanying remix project provided students with an opportunity to see the affordances of each of these types of writing, noticing how they allowed for different engagements with the distractions of the text. A network is not necessarily an argument (though, it could be). Rather, it is an exposition of relationships, and it opens up a site of knowledge that is not traditionally sanctioned by the university.

Distraction [P]

[P] In Connected, Steve Shaviro asks what it means to live in a network society. His answer, as he describes the experience of being online, is that networked life is defined by distraction: “I am continually being distracted. I can no longer concentrate on just one thing at a time. My body is pulled in several directions at once, dancing to many distinct rhythms.” (7). For Shaviro, “the networked consumer...[is] intensely involved, and maximally distracted, all at once” (26). What we have been suggesting here is that distraction is not necessarily tied to the network society or to digital technologies. Moby Dick, as a network, calls for readers to “dance to many distinct rhythms” and to “be pulled in several directions at once.” While we might typically associate the reading of novels with Hayles’s “deep attention,” the practice of slow reading actually demonstrates that the form of the novel carries with it distraction and network connections. As we attend to the networks of the text, we are sent in various directions, and the slow reader learns to follow and trace these paths.

[P] In 1962, Ruben Brower tells parents that the response to the proliferation of information should not be to read more but to read better, and our response to the challenges of engaging with the network is not far from that. However, we imagine that part of reading better is not disengaging with networks but rather explicitly engaging them as a way of thinking and as a way to better understand print texts. If the network thrives on distraction, then we are suggesting that the slow reading classroom gives students permission to be distracted, to follow connections, to trace nodes and edges.

View Prezi in separate page here.