Anthropocene Digital Humanities: A MLA 2017 Proposal
In her keynote for the Digital Humanities conference in 2014, Bethany Nowviskie challenged DH practitioners to think about how their scholarship might change when confronted with the ecological challenges of the Anthropocene: a planetary epoch that — to paraphrase atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen—coincides with human-driven forces fundamentally changing the chemistry, biology, and geology of the planet. Nowviskie, confronted with the coming extinction of numerous species and the loss of ecological habitats, wonders whether the digital humanities should change its global sense of scale to embrace larger temporalities, to teach its practitioners to memorialize and live differently, and to pursue an active, engaged praxis that connects technology, the environment, and the “ethical conditions of our vital here-and-now.”
Despite the urgency of Nowviskie’s talk, few scholars in the digital humanities have taken up her call for an ecologically-informed DH scholarship. Similarly, despite numerous panels on book or media ecologies in popular MLA sessions on the digital humanities, none of them have addressed the relationship between DH and ecological thinking or the Anthropocene. This is particularly strange since the digital humanities is uniquely positioned to address the ecological concerns of climate change. As Wendy Hui Kyong Chun argues, the humanities has a duty to model critically-informed approaches to interpret the vague and numerically-driven climate visualizations presented to the public, including their otherwise “unimpressionable risks” (703). Further, media archaeological work by Jussi Parikka, Nicole Starosielski, and John Durham Peters have shown that our media devices have—themselves—material connections to deep temporalities and complex ecologies that need to be teased out due to their political, cultural, and non-human implications. Such work illustrates how the digital humanities can intervene to produce what Nowviskie calls a “capacious” thinking capable of responding to Anthropocene-age challenges by operating simultaneously across scales, disciplines, and institutions.
It is this type of capacious thinking that motivates the presentations in our panel. Each of them is informed by the premise that, in our present Anthropogenic age defined by humans acting as a geophysical force, human bodies, cultural technologies, and the Earth are intersecting material practices. Collectively we ask, and diversely answer, how Anthropogenic DH might embrace broader topics and ideas about technology in order to produce creative, critical and constructive interventions. How might we live (or, as Roger Scruton provocatively insists, learn to die) as scholars, instructors, makers, digital humanists—in this new age of extinction, erosion, eclipse, environmental injustice, and eco-material ethical ignorance?
Panel in Brief
Each of the presenters engage with the various implications of human and non-human actors participating in climate change, while also engaging with a capacious understanding of the digital humanities that includes film and visual art along with twitter/printerbots, distant reading methodologies, and the carbon footprint of digital networks. Appropriately, we consider the digital humanities not as a field, but as an assemblage or ecology of connected methodologies and concerns.
Shane Denson’s “Post-Cinema, Digital Video, and Envisioning the Eclipse of Human Experience” begins our panel by looking at post-cinematic media. Materially and technologically, post-cinema emerges as a set of aesthetic responses to the real or imagined extinction of film qua celluloid or to the death of cinema qua institution of shared reception. Significantly, however, such animating visions of technocultural transformation in the wake of the demise of a formerly dominant media regime are linked in complex ways to another experience of extinction: that of the human. That is, post-cinema is involved centrally in the (pre-)mediation of an experience of the world without us – both thematically, e.g. in films about impending or actual extinction events, and formally, in terms of a general “discorrelation” of moving images from the norms of human embodiment that governed classical cinema. The presentation will explore particularly the ways that digital scholarship and creative computational methods—including videographic techniques, databending and glitch aesthetics, and distant reading (or viewing) practices—might be employed to highlight and explore the cultural, material, and phenomenological relations between post-cinematic moving-image media and current environmental transformations associated with the Anthropocene.
This attentiveness to distant reading continues in Amanda Starling Gould’s “Restor(y)ing the Ground: Digital Environmental Media Studies & Eco-Critical DH,” which shifts the primary focus of digital theory and practice from one grounded largely in computation to one fully rooted in the earth. Though digital technology has been sold as the ‘green’ alternative to material-intensive analog machines, it most certainly is not: the digital sphere now has a carbon footprint that rivals, and may soon overtake, the aviation industry; our wirelessness requires heavily wired infrastructure; and even our Google searches and spam emails have a carbon footprint. Our digital network of connected things and connective infrastructure—what environmental engineer Peter Haff terms the technosphere—is now profoundly entangled with Anthropocenic environmental concerns, and DH theory has a role to play in creating new narratives to capture these emerging relations. Indeed, there is a compelling opportunity for digital practice to engage environmental issues such as climate change, environmental justice, and new scales of thinking in the Anthropocene. By making digital material stories the stories that we tell when we talk about digital media and DH in theory and in popular rhetoric, we make inroads in the project to restore, and re-story, digital materiality so as to bring attention to its physical impact on the biosphere and geosphere.
Envisioning the complex assemblages of technologies and environments is also a concern in Roger Whitson’s “Steampunk as Anthropogenic Design Fiction: Technological Infrastructure in the ‘Flooded London’ Exhibition,” which turns to a 2008 art exhibition by the film and media firm Squint/ Opera to model different technological infrastructures emerging in the Anthropocene. The effect of Squint/ Opera’s exhibition is that of a post-apocalyptic environment where the ruins of former London landmarks are repurposed to new uses. One of the more interesting images shows two older people in a room building gadgets with various repurposed parts. In the middle of the image, the woman pedals at an exercise bike connected by two serpentine belts to a bicycle wheel and a vacuum-cleaner motor, which powers a light bulb held by the man. Such visions are indicative of the quirky design ethos found in steampunk, which intervenes in Victorian designs and mechanisms in order to imagine technological infrastructures where older parts and making methodologies are spliced together into new configurations. I argue that such an ethos is a fundamental provocation for the digital humanities, a field that relies upon complex technological infrastructures that may or may not survive the changes brought about by climate change. For me, it also encourages the digital humanities to stop imagining itself bound by the model of computing and archiving and start imagining how different materialities, energies, and temporalities are connected to larger ecosystems—while also exploring how these connections impact our relationship to the various non-human agents surrounding us.
The weird connections between the human and the non-human informs our final presentation, Helen Burgess and Anna Coluthon’s “Machine Dream Anthropocene.” One of the driving forces of the Anthropocene is the (hidden) resource-intensive nature of computing. This phenomenon is evident (or, more precisely, non-evident) in what Bruno Latour calls the “lengthening of networks” that has taken place as computing migrates simultaneously to the big-data cloud and the little-data Internet of Things, with all the consequent proliferation of objects, services, and energy consumption that such a lengthening demands. This presentation will consist of a performance/conversation between a human and a live-tweeting live-printing thermal printerbot, on the topic of internet connectivity, lengthening networks, and the language of ecological desire. What does a machine want? Let’s ask it.
Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. “On Hypo-Real Models or Global Climate Change: A Challenge for the Humanities.” Critical Inquiry. 41 (Spring 2015): 675-703. Print.
Crutzen, Paul. “The Geology of Mankind.” Nature. 415 (2002): 23. Print.
Haff, Peter. “Technology as a geological phenomenon: implications for human well-being,” Geological Society special publication, vol 395 no. 1 (2014): pp. 301-309. Print.
Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993. Print.
Nowviskie, Bethany. “Digital Humanities in the Anthropocene.” Web log post. Nowviskie.org. 10 July 2014. Web. 4 June 2015.
Parikka, Jussi. A Geology of Media. U of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 2015. Kindle File
Peters, John Durham. The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2015. Kindle File.
Scranton, Roy. Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of Civilization. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2015. Print.
Squint / Opera. “Flooded London.” Web log post. Squint / Opera. Web. 4 June 2015.
Starosielski, Nicole. The Undersea Network. Durham: Duke UP, 2015. Print.
Helen J Burgess is Associate Professor of English at NC State University. She is editor of Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, and coeditor with Craig Saper of Electric Books, a multimedia monograph series in conjunction with Punctum Books. Her research interests include electronic literature, multimodal composition and digital humanities. Her most recent book is Highways of the Mind (Penn Press, 2014) with Jeanne Hamming.
Anna Coluthon is an independent artist residing in North Carolina. She eats Python for breakfast and comes out to play in Twitter. Her print publications include “Our refrigerators are crucial components” and “We do not merely separate people into the printer” (2016). Official MLA member as of March 2016.
Shane Denson is a DAAD postdoctoral fellow in Duke University’s Program in Literature, an associate of the Duke S-1 Speculative Sensation Lab, and a member of the interdisciplinary research unit “Popular Seriality—Aesthetics and Practice” (based at the Freie Universität Berlin). He is the author of Postnaturalism: Frankenstein, Film, and the Anthropotechnical Interface (Transcript-Verlag / Columbia UP, 2014) and co-editor of several collections: Transnational Perspectives on Graphic Narratives (Bloomsbury, 2013), Digital Seriality (special issue of Eludamos: Journal for Computer Game Culture, 2014), and Post-Cinema: Theorizing 21st Century Film (REFRAME Books, 2016). His blog can be found at: medieninitiative.wordpress.com.
Amanda Starling Gould is a James B. Duke Scholar and PhD candidate in Duke University’s Program in Literature. She is a member and lead project designer in the Duke S-1 Speculative Sensation Lab, a HASTAC Scholar, a Duke PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge mentor, a member of the Franklin Humanities Institute Digital Humanities Initiative Advisory Board, and an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Humanities Writ Large Environmental Humanities Emerging Networks Fellow. She is on the editorial boards of the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy and the forthcoming journal Media Theory. She is currently finishing her dissertation, Digital Metabolisms: Mapping a Digital Environmental Humanities through Digital Materiality, which maps the complex intersections of digital media and the environment, and questions the absence of environmental thinking from digital theory. More about her publications, teaching, and digital projects can be found on amandastarlinggould.com, on HASTAC, and at @stargould. Her work can be found in bot form at @stargouldbot.
Roger Whitson is Assistant Professor of English at Washington State University. He is author (with Jason Whittaker) of William Blake and the Digital Humanities: Collaboration, Participation, and Social Media (Routledge 2012), along with numerous articles on Blake, the digital humanities, critical making, steampunk, digital pedagogy, and comics. Roger is editor (with Anastasia Salter) of “Comics as Scholarship” for Digital Humanities Quarterly. He is also editor (with Andrew Burkett) of the forthcoming “Blake and Pedagogy” for Romantic Circles. He’s currently at work on Steampunk and Nineteenth-Century Digital Humanities: Literary Retrofuturisms, Media Archaeologies, Alternate Histories, which is under contract from Routledge.