Research Statement, 2016
Amanda Starling Gould
On September 5, 2015, U.S. President Obama took a photograph of himself while standing in front of a melting Alaskan glacier. In a deliberate attempt to use digital social media to call attention to climate change, he posted his ‘selfie’ on the White House Instagram account with the hashtag #ActOnClimate. Though the post generated a robust exchange of comments, an almost radical incongruity was overlooked: the very devices and networked connections required to use the mobile-only Instagram platform are among the most noxious modern contributors to climate change. Obama and his interlocutors are not alone in missing the environment link; literary and media theories have been slow to displace the popular rhetorical motifs of the digital world as immaterial and ungrounded. My interdisciplinary research agenda is motivated by this absence of environmental thinking and responds by making visible the overlooked intersections of media materiality, cultural reflexivity, eco-social justice, and the environment.
My work combines literary, ecocritical, and media techniques with a mindfulness of the environment to broaden our access to the material realities behind our cultural objects and representations. It is informed by the premise that, in our present Anthropocenic age defined by humans acting as a geophysical force, human bodies, cultural technologies, and the earth are intersecting material practices. I argue this intersectionality is neither cyborgian nor posthuman, as some media scholars may insist, but is something far more natural: it is a metabolic relationship wherein each system is inherently implicated in the perpetuation of the others.
Aligned with the broad scope of my research program, my dissertation, “Digital Metabolisms: Mapping a Digital Environmental Humanities,” questions the absence of environmental thinking from digital theory. In tracing the material origins of our digital technologies and wireless connections, my research makes clear that the daily use of our weightless devices is ethically-charged with heavy issues of environmental health, social justice, and ecological sustainability. It shifts the media theoretical focus from one grounded in computation to one fully planted in the earth by dispensing with standard maps of cyberspace and the social network to replace them with a digital geography of wires, workers, warehouses, and waste. My dissertation opens with a chapter that asks how an environmental humanities perspective, one that takes seriously the physical environmental aspects of digital media’s infrastructure, can contribute to the reconfiguration of media theory’s most prominent frameworks by drawing attention to the discourses that prevent a robust environmental media studies. My second chapter argues we must re-story digital materiality to help narrate unseen relationships and articulate alternate Anthropocene futures. It re-figures the environmental metaphors already present in media theory (e.g. the Cloud, Atmospheric Media, Media Ecology) to embed them concretely within their earthly material contexts. My third chapter brings these physical realities to bear on cultural critique by looking at how environmentally-focused digital artworks can challenge our digital-material (hi)stories and provoke new figurations of the complex relationship between humans and the environment. My final chapter proposes Permaculture—a profoundly interconnected set of ethical design principles that I borrow from natural farming—and EcoCritical DH as models for sustainable scholarly practice.
The best of my research develops from, or into, collaborative critical practice. At the beginning stages of my dissertation research, for example, I co-produced the multimodal Manifest Data research project in collaboration with the Duke S-1 Speculative Sensation Lab‘s Manifest Data Team (Luke Caldwell, Shane + Karin Denson, Libi Rose Striegl, David Rambo). Manifest Data translated my personal internet browsing data into a tangible 3D-printed and hand-sculpted artifact. In a performative gesture, it made manifest the physical nature of my digital data, returning it to the earth. This year, I am experimenting with compost, collaborating on an interactive digital climate change project, co-producing a low-carbon website, and learning to breakdown, and hopefully repair, a broken iPhone. My aim is to use material and digital tools to produce a meaningful engagement with humanities issues.
My dissertation research has generated five conference presentations, a handful of less-formal talks and classroom visits, two gallery exhibitions and three refereed publications, including a multi-modal collaborative essay on research practice. I have also recently published research that departs from the dissertation but maintains a commitment to material ecological thinking. “Invisible Visualities: Augmented Reality Art and the Contemporary Media Ecology,” published in the flagship refereed Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, examined augmented reality art as an ecological practice. “Doing Humanities Scholarship Online: A Case Study for the Literary Digital Humanities Writing Course,” included in special issue of the peer-reviewed HERA Interdisciplinary Humanities, presented digital practice as an emerging research and pedagogical tool.
My next book project aims to occupy a hybrid position asking how environmental humanities scholarship can expand, both physically and digitally, beyond the walls of the academy. In light of recent evidence confirming that we are indeed living in the age of the Anthropocene, today more than ever we need multidisciplinary models for thinking critically about our own personal responsibilities and ethical commitments as citizens involved in global ecological systems. This second project, which I briefly introduced last year in the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy and will pursue this spring in my “Global Ecological Humanities” course and this summer in my “Remaking Nature” digital environmental humanities offering, will be fertile ground for new publications, pedagogical engagements, and research collaborations.
 Image: Screenshot from September 5, 2015 White House Instagram post, accessed September 10, 2015.