Tactical Collaborations (2011 MLA Version)

January 15th, 2011 § 4 comments § permalink

Tactical Collaboration Title[I was on a panel called "The Open Professoriat(e)" at the 2011 MLA Convention in Los Angeles, in which we focused on the dynamic between academia, social media, and the public. My talk was an abbreviated version of a post that appeared on samplereality in July. Here is the text of the talk as I delivered it at the MLA, interspersed with still images from my presentation. The original slideshow is at the end of this post. Co-panelists Amanda French and Erin Templeton have also posted their talks online.]

Rather than make an argument in the short time I have, I want to make a provocation, urging everyone here to consider the way social media can enable what I call tactical collaborations both within and outside of the professoriate.

I’ve always had trouble keeping the words tactic and strategy straight. Or, as early forms of the words appear in the OED, tactick and the curiously elongated stratagematick.

Tactick and Strategematick

This quote comes from a 17th century translation of a history of Roman emperors (circa 240 AD).

History of Roman Emperors

I love the quote and it tells me that tactics and strategy have always been associated with battle. But I still have trouble telling one from the other. I know one is, roughly speaking, short term, while the other is long range. One is the details and the other the big picture.

I’ll blame the old board game Stratego for my confusion. The placement of my flag, the movement of my scouts, that seemed tactical to me, yet the game was called Stratego.


Even diving into the etymology of the words doesn’t help much at first: Tactic is from the ancient Greek τακτóς, meaning arranged or ordered.

TaktosWhile Strategy comes from the Greek στρατηγóς, meaning commander or general. A general is supposed to be a big-picture kind of guy, so I guess that makes sense. And I suppose the arrangement of individual elements comes close to the modern day meaning of a military tactic.


All of this curiosity about the meaning of the word tactic began last May, when Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University announced a crowd-sourced book called Hacking the Academy. They announced it on Twitter on Friday, May 21 and by Friday, May 28, one week later, all the submissions were in. 330 submissions from nearly 200 people.

Hacking the Academy

The collection is now in the final stages of editing, with a table of contents of around 60 pieces by 40 or so different authors. It will be peer-reviewed and published by Digital Culture Books, an imprint of the University of Michigan Press. As you can imagine, the idea of crowdsourcing a scholarly book, in a week no less, generated excitement, questions, and some worthwhile skepticism.

And it was one of these critiques of Hacking the Academy that prompted my thoughts about tactical collaboration. Jennifer Howard, a senior reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education, posed several questions that would-be hackers ought to consider during the course of hacking the academy. It was Howard’s last question that resonated most with me.

Have You Looked for Friends in the Enemy Camp?

Have you looked for friends in the enemy camp lately? Howard cautioned us that some of the same institutional forces we think we’re fighting might actually be allies when we want to be a force for change. I read Howard’s question and I immediately began rethinking what collaboration means. Instead of a commitment, it’s an expedience. Instead of strategic partners, find immediate allies. Instead of full frontal assaults, infiltrate and disseminate.

In academia we have many tactics for collaboration, but very little tactical collaboration.

And this is how I defined tactical collaboration:

Tactical Collaboration Definition

I’m reminded of de Certeau’s vision of tactics in The Practice of Everyday Life. Unlike a strategy, which operates from a secure base, a tactic, as de Certeau writes, operates “in a position of withdrawal…it is a maneuver ‘within the enemy’s field of vision’” (37).

People Running from Police

De Certeau goes on to add that a tactic “must vigilantly make use of the cracks….It poaches in them. It creates surprises in them. It can be where it is least expected” (37).

Guernica Billboard

So that’s what a tactic is. I should’ve skipped the OED and Stratego and headed straight for de Certeau. He teaches us that strategies, like institutions, depend upon dominance over space—physical as well as discursive space. But tactics rely upon momentary victories in and over time. Tactics require agility, surprise, feigned retreats as often as real retreats. They require collaborations that the more strategically-minded might otherwise discount. And social media presents the perfect landscape for these tactical collaborations to play out.

Dennis Oppenheim Artwork

Despite my being here today, I’m very skeptical of institutions and associations. We live in a world where we can’t idly hope for or rely upon institutional support or recognition. To survive and thrive, humanists must be fleet-footed, mobile, insurgent. Decentralized and nonhierarchical. We need to stop forming committees and begin creating coalitions. We need affinities over affiliations, and networks over institutes.

Dennis Oppenheim Artwork II

Tactical collaboration is crucial for any humanist seeking to open up the professoriate, any scholar seeking to poach from the institutional reserves of knowledge production, any teacher seeking to challenge the ever intensifying bureaucratization and Taylorization of learning, any contingent faculty seeking to forge success and stability out of contingency.

We need tactical collaborations, and we need them now. The strategematick may be the domain of emperors and institutions, but like the word itself, it’s quaint and outdated. Let tactics be our ruse and our practice.

Stratego Board Game Box


Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. Print.

Herodian. Herodians of Alexandria his imperiall history of twenty Roman caesars & emperours of his time / First writ in Greek, and now converted into an heroick poem by C.B. Staplyton. London: W. Hunt, 1652. Web. 14 July 2010.

Image Credits

(1) Chase, Andy. Stratego. 2009. <http://www.flickr.com/photos/usonian/3580565990/>.

(2) ;P, Mayu. f1947661. 2008. <http://www.flickr.com/photos/mayu/4778962420/>.

(3) Unger, John T. “American Guernica: A Call for Guerilla Public Art.” <http://johntunger.typepad.com/studio/2005/10/the_guernica_pr.html>.

(4) Oppenheim, Dennis. Reading Position for Second Degree Burn. 1970. <http://www.artinfo.com/news/enlarged_image/21237/14781/>.

(5) Bauman, Frederick. Stratego Family. 2007. <http://www.flickr.com/photos/livingfrisbee/1499088800/>.

Original Slideshow

The Slow Writing Manifesto (From the Future) [English v.3.14]

July 20th, 2010 § 1 comment § permalink


We hereby declare that the 20th century was the century of speed, of swiftness, of get your booty on and move. We likewise hereby declare that the first decade of the 21st century was also 1/10 a century of speed, of swiftness, of get your booty on and move. We furthermore hereby likewise declare, having will had written this in the year 2013, that the first year of the second decade of the 21st century was 1/100 of a century of speed, of swiftness, of get your booty on and move.

Therefore, we declare, in manifesto form, a movement against speed and swiftness. Let the adjectival form of this movement be known as SLOW. In observance of the fact that other movements have already rushed to claim this adjective SLOW—to wit, slow food, slow reading, slow information, slow media—and in observance of the fact that in their haste to claim this adjective these supposed movements have proven themselves to be anything but slow, let this manifesto henceforth be The One True Manifesto of the Slow.

Moreover, given what will turn out in 2097 to be the long history of these failed movements, let us declare that up to and including now, these various slow movements have missed the point of slowness. The value of slowness, of deliberation, of reflection, of listless contemplation and purposeless reverie, lies not in preparing meals more slowly, not in reading more slowly, not in consuming more slowly media designed to be consumed more slowly. The one true aim of slowness is to write more slowly. This nearly unachievable goal, the pursuit of which is made all the more worthwhile for its elusiveness, is the goal of Slow Writing.


We, the manifestoers, have studied this issue for years and have conclusively proven, though not without some pause, that slow writing is the opposite of less slow writing. As the world is full of less slow writing, produced at a frenzied pace by writers who write less slowly, we take it as a challenge to write slow and to write slowly. Slow writing is writing that is savored for every letter written, every word produced. Slow writing requires sustained moments of stillness, of nothingness, of blank stares out the window. To do anything more would be to taint the trickling stream of text that defines slow writing.


The ineffable quintessential fifth essence of slow writing occurs at the level of the letter. Slow writing is the alphabet in ecstasy. To write an entire word at a time is a crime. To write an entire paragraph at once is textual genocide, an annihilation of the single, of the one, of the unique letter. When one writes slowly, one nurtures. When one writes less slowly, one brings death and despair.

Now is the time to decide whether you are a creator or a destroyer.


A speed such as slow is always divisible by half, and every half is divisible again by half. Those who write slowly must now write twice as slowly and half as fast.  If you halve your writing speed you need only to halve it once again to be halfway to writing an eighth less fast. The divide between the halves and halves not is the divide between the acutely slow and the chronically prolific. It is the divide between slow writing savored for every word yet unpenned and fast writing spewed on a screen in the face of a deadline. Let it be said, what everyone knows is true, that the world despises the prolific, while the slow will inherit the keys to the kingdom of the Alpha and the Omega and all the letters in between.


The great Byzantine historian Sokrates Scholastikos tells the story of the Greek monk Demosthenes the Silent, who spent seven epic decades toiling on the island of Leros, researching the greatest treatise never written on the element of æther. For years Demosthenes the Silent observed and tested the essential attributes of æther, identifying in the end 1024 qualities, which he arranged and categorized on an elaborate 32×32 table. The Greek monk was absolutely correct about 1023 of these attributes, only being mistaken about the final characteristic, which was his proposition that words themselves could be written in æther. Steadfast in his faith in science, Demosthenes put the 1024th attribute to test by composing his elaborate table about æther, of which there is no surviving copy, on æther itself.

In the 21st century this tale races ahead of us, a herald announcing the folly of racing ahead. Seven epic decades Demosthenes spent but seven more would have served him well. Beware the 1024th attribute of anything. Beware of finishing anything to completion. Celebrate the beginning and the middle but never the end. Compose quickly and you may find like Demosthenes you have composed nothing at all. Compose slowly in order to compose less than this nothing.


This One True Manifesto of the Slow, written in the century of speed and swiftness and get your booty on and move, is itself a product of a slowness that has neared to stillness. Years it has taken to write. Only in the year 2013 will it have had been finished. And only in the year 2097 will traversal across past and present have been perfected, allowing Time Couriers to deliver this message to you, now, just shy of the first year of the second decade of the 21st century. Read it and heed it well. We who must write must write slowly in order to write at all. The present is littered with the brittle letters of those who have finished their writing, those who have had their say, those who have written less slowly. The future meanwhile belongs to those of us who have not finished what we have started. Our time has not yet come, because our words have not yet come.

Tactical Collaboration: or, Skilfull in both parts of War, Tactick and Stratagematick

July 14th, 2010 § 2 comments § permalink

[Note: See also the MLA 2011 version of this post, which I gave at panel discussion on "The Open Professoriat(e)"]

“Skilfull in both parts of War, Tactick and Stratagematick.”

From Herodians of Alexandria: his imperiall history of twenty Roman cæsars & emperours of his time. First writ in Greek, and now converted into an heroick poem by C.B: Stapylton (London: Printed by W. Hunt for the author, 1652)

I’ve always had trouble keeping tactic and strategy straight. And don’t even get me started on tactick and stratagematick, cited by the Oxford English Dictionary as very early forms of the words in English. I knew that one was, roughly speaking, short term, while the other was long range. One was the details, the other the big picture. But I always got confused about which was which. I’m not exactly sure what the root of my confusion was, but the game Stratego makes as good a scapegoat as any. The placement of my flag, the movement of my scouts, that seemed tactical to me, yet the game was called Stratego. It was enough to blow a young game player’s mind.

Even diving into the etymology of the words, which is how I tend to solve these puzzles nowadays, doesn’t help much at first:

  • Tactic, from the ancient Greek τακτóς, meaning arranged or ordered
  • Strategy, from the Greek στρατηγóς, meaning commander or general

A general is supposed to be a big-picture kind of guy, so I guess that makes sense. And I suppose the arrangement of individual elements comes close to the modern day meaning of a military tactic. (Which leads me to dispute the name of Stratego again; the game should more properly be called Tactico. Unless your father breaks in, commandeering your pieces, as shown on the original game box. Then you’re back to the strategematick.)

In any case, I’ve been thinking about tactics lately. More to the point, I’ve been thinking about the tactics of collaboration. And to make an even finer point, I’ve been thinking about tactical collaboration.

This line of inquiry began in May, amidst the one-week creation of the crowdsourced anti-collection, Hacking the Academy, edited—though curated might be the better term—by Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. The idea of crowdsourcing a scholarly book (to be published, it’s worth nothing, by Digital Culture Books, an imprint of the University of Michigan Press and University of Michigan Library) generated much excitement, many questions, and some worthwhile skepticism incorporated into the book itself.

It’s one of these critiques of Hacking the Academy that prompted my thoughts about tactical collaboration. Jennifer Howard, a senior reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education, asked three key questions that “the forces of change” should consider during the course of hacking the academy. It was Howard’s last question that resonated most with me:

Have you looked for friends in the enemy camp lately? Or: Maybe you will find allies where you don’t expect any. As a journalist, I’m no stranger to generalizations. Still, it’s disconcerting to go to different conferences and hear Entire Category X—administrators/university presses/librarians/journal editors/fill in the blank—written off as part of the problem when at least a few daring souls might not mind being part of a solution. It may not be *your* solution. You might have to venture a closer look to find out. I can’t say what you will discover. It may not be at all what you expect. It might be exactly what you expect. Let me know.

[pullquote align="right"]The enemy of your enemy may be your friend. But your enemy may be your friend as well.[/pullquote] Have you looked for friends in the enemy camp lately? We all know that the enemy of your enemy may be your friend. But your enemy may be your friend as well when you want to be a force for change. I read Howard’s question and immediately began thinking about collaboration in a new way. Instead of a commitment, it’s an expedience. Instead of strategic partners, find immediate allies. Instead of full frontal assaults, infiltrate and disseminate. In academia we have many tactics for collaboration, but very little tactical collaboration:

Tactical Collaboration: fleeting, fugitive collaboration that takes place suddenly, across ideologies, disciplines, pedagogies, and technologies.

I’m reminded of de Certeau’s vision of tactics in The Practice of Everyday Life. Unlike a strategy, which operates from a secure base of its own, a tactic, as the Jesuit scholar writes,

must play on and with a terrain imposed on it and organized by the law of a foreign power. It does not have the means to keep to itself, at a distance, in a position of withdrawal, foresight, and self-collection: it is a maneuver “within the enemy’s field of vision,” as von Bülow puts it, and within enemy territory. It does not, therefore, have the options of planning general strategy…. It operates in isolated actions, blow by blow. It takes advantages of “opportunities” and depends on them, being without any base where it could stockpile its winnings, build up its own position, and plan raids. What it wins it cannot keep…. It must vigilantly make use of the cracks that particular conjunctions open in the surveillance of proprietary powers. It poaches in them. It creates surprises in them. It can be where it is least expected.

Now I understand what a tactic is. Strategies, like institutions, depend upon dominance over space—physical space as well as discursive space. But tactics rely upon momentary victories in and over time, a temporalization of resistance. Because tactics are of the moment, they require agility, nimbleness, feigned retreats as often as real retreats. And they require collaborations that the more strategically-minded might otherwise discount. Recalling some of my recent writings on the state of academia, such as my underconference manifesto and my eulogy for the digital humanities center, I realize that what I have been thinking about all along are tactical collaborations. As I wrote in March,

Don’t hope for or rely upon institutional support or recognition. To survive and thrive, digital humanists must be agile, mobile, insurgent. Decentralized and nonhierarchical.

Stop forming committees and begin creating coalitions. Seek affinities over affiliations, networks over institutes.

I was speaking then specifically about the digital humanities, but I’d argue that my call for mobility over centralization is crucial for any humanist seeking to hack the academy, any scholar seeking to poach from the institutional reserves of knowledge production, any teacher seeking to challenge the ever intensifying bureaucratization and systematization of learning, any contingent faculty seeking to forge success and stability from contingency.

We need tactical collaborations, and we need them now. And now, and now. The strategematick may be the domain of emperors and institutions, but let the tactick be the ruse and the practice of you and me.

[Stratego Family image courtesy of Frederick Bauman, Creative Commons Licensed]

Haunts: Place, Play, and Trauma

June 1st, 2010 § 12 comments § permalink

Foursquare and its brethren (Gowalla, Brightkite, Loopt, and so on) are the latest social media darlings, but honestly, are they really all that useful? Sharing your location with your friends is not very compelling when you spend your life in the same four places (home, office, classroom, coffee shop). Are these apps really even fun? Does becoming the Mayor of a Shell filling station or earning the Crunked badge for checking into four different airport terminals on the same night* count as fun? I hope not. In truth, making fun of Foursquare is more fun than actually using Foursquare.

*The Crunked badge is for checking into four separate locations during a single evening. They don’t all have to be airport terminals. That’s just my own quirk.

Aside from the free chips I got for checking into a California Tortilla, the only redeeming value of these geolocation apps is that they offer the slightest glimmer—a glimmer!—of creative and pedagogical use. While some of the benefits of geolocation have been immediately seized upon by museums and historians—think of the partnership between Foursquare and the History Channel—very few people have considered using geolocation in a literary context. Even less attention has been paid to the ways geolocation can foster critical and creative thinking. So I’ve been pondering re-purposing Foursquare and its ilk in ways unintended and unforeseen by their creators.

[pullquote align="right"]Let’s turn locative media into platforms for renegotiating space and telling stories[/pullquote]Following Rob MacDougall’s call for playful historical thinking, I’ve been imagining what you could call playful geographic thinking. Let’s turn locative media from gimmicky Entertainment coupon books and glorified historical guidebooks into platforms for renegotiating space and telling stories.

Let’s turn them into something that truly resembles play. And here I’ll use Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen’s concept of play: free movement within a more rigid structure.

In this case, that rigid structure comes from the core mechanics of the different geolocation apps: checking in and tagging specific places with tips or comments. What’s supposed to happen is that users check in to bars or restaurants and then post tips on the best drinks or bargains. But what can happen, given the free movement within this structure, is that users can define their own places and add tips that range from lewd to absurd.

This is exactly what Dean Terry is doing. Along with his colleagues and students at the Emerging Media and Communication program at the University of Texas at Dallas, Dean has been renaming spaces and making his own places. Even better, Dean and his group at the MobileLab at UT Dallas are not only testing the limits of existing geolocation apps, they’re building one of their own.

I’m not designing my own app, but I am playing with the commercial apps. And again, by playing, I mean moving freely within a larger, more constrained structure. For instance, within my dully named campus office building, Robinson A, I’ve created my own space, The Office of Incandescent Light and Industrial Runoff. Which is pretty much how I think of my office. And I’m mayor there, thank you very much.

Likewise, when I’m home, I often check into the Treehouse of Sighs. I have an actual treehouse there, but the Treehouse of Sighs is not that one. The Treehouse of Sighs exists only in my mind. It’s a metaphysical Hotel California. You can check in any time you like, but you can never be there.

Just as evocative as creating your own space is tagging existing spaces with virtual graffiti, which you can use to create a counter-factual history of a place. Anyone who checks into the Starbucks on my campus can see my advice regarding the fireplace there. Also on GMU’s campus, I’ve uncovered Fenwick Library’s dirty little secret. And sometimes I leave surrealist tips in public places, like this epigram in yet another airport terminal:

All of this play has led me to think about using geolocative media with my students. Next spring I’m teaching an undergraduate class called “Textual Media,” a vague title that I’ve taken to describing as post-print fiction. My initial idea for using Foursquare was to have students add new venues to the app’s database, with the stipulation that these new venues be Foucauldian “Other Spaces”—parking decks, overpasses, bus depots, etc.—that stand in sharp contrast to the officially sanctioned places on Foursquare (coffee shops, restaurants, bars, etc.). One of the points I’d like to make is that much of our lives are actually spent in these nether-places that are neither here nor there. Tracking our movements in these unglamorous but not unimportant unplaces could be a revelation to my students. It might actually be one of the best uses of geolocation—to defamiliarize our daily surroundings.

I recently participated in a geolocation session at THATCamp that helped me refine some of these ideas. We had about fifteen historians, librarians, archivists, literary scholars, and other humanists at the session. We broke off into groups, with the mission of hacking existing geolocation apps for teaching or learning. I worked with Christa Willaford and Christina Jenkins, and as befits brainstorming about space, we left the windowless room, left the building entirely, and stood out near a small field (that’s not even on the outdated satellite image of the place) and came up with the idea we called Haunts.

Haunts is about the secret stories of spaces.

Haunts is about locative trauma.

Haunts is about the production of what Foucault calls “heterotopias”—a single real place in which incompatible counter-sites are layered upon or juxtaposed against one another.

The general idea behind Haunts is this: students work in teams, visiting various public places and tagging them with fragments of either a real life-inspired or fictional trauma story. Each team will work from an overarching traumatic narrative that they’ve created, but because the place-based tips are limited to text-message-sized bits, the story will emerge only in glimpses and traces, across a series of spaces.

[pullquote align="left"]They’ve stumbled upon a fictional world haunting the real one.[/pullquote]Emerge for whom? For the other teams in the class. But also for random strangers using the apps, who have no idea that they’ve stumbled upon a fictional world augmenting the real one. A fictional world haunting the real one.

There are several twists that make Haunts more than simple place-based creative writing. For starters, most fiction doesn’t require any kind of breadcrumb trail more complicated than sequential page numbers. In Haunts, however, students will need to create clues to act as what Marc Ruppel calls migratory cues—nudging participants from one locale to the next, from one medium to the next. These cues might be suggestive references left in a tip, or perhaps obliquely embedded in a photograph taken at the check-in point. (Most geolocation apps allow photographs to be associated with a place; Foursquare is a holdout in this regard, though third-party services like picplz offer a work-around.)

Another twist subverts the tendency of geolocation apps to reward repeat visits to a single locale. Check in enough times at your coffee shop with Foursquare and you become “mayor” of the place. Haunts disincentivizes multiple visits. Check in too many times at the same place and you become a “ghost.” No longer among the living, you are stuck in a single place, barred from leaving tips anywhere else. Like a ghost, you haunt that space for the rest of the game. It’s a fate players would probably want to avoid, yet players will nonetheless be compelled to revisit destinations, in order to fill in narrative gaps as either writers or readers.

[pullquote align="right"]Imagine the same traumatic kernel, being told again and again, from different points of views.[/pullquote]The final twist is that Haunts does not rely only upon Foursquare. All of the geolocative apps have the same core functionality. This means that one team can use Foursquare, while another team uses Gowalla, and yet another Brightkite. Each team will weave parallel yet diverging stories across the same series of spaces. Each Haunt hosts a number of haunts. The narrative and geographic path of a single team’s story should alone be engaging enough to follow, but even more promising is a kind of cross-pollination between haunts, in which each team builds upon one or two shared narrative events, exquisite corpse style. Imagine the same traumatic kernel, being told again and again, from different points of views. Different narrative and geographic points of views. Eventually these multiple paths could be aggregated onto a master narrative—or more likely, a master database—so that Haunts could be seen (if not experienced) in its totality.

There is still much to figure out with Haunts. But I find the project compelling, and even necessary. The endeavor turns a consumer-based model of mobile computing into an authorship-based model. It is a uniquely collaborative activity, but also one that invites individual introspection. It imagines trauma as both private and public, deeply personal yet situated within shared semiotic domains. It operates at the intersection between game and story, between reading and writing, between the real and the virtual. And it might finally make geolocation worth paying attention to.

Forget Unconferences, Let’s Think about Underconferences

May 19th, 2010 § 9 comments § permalink

In a few days the latest iteration of THATCamp will convene on the campus of George Mason University, hosted by the Center for History and New Media. Except “convene” really isn’t the right word. Most of my readers will already know that The Technology and Humanities Camp is an “unconference,” which as Ethan Watrall explains on ProfHacker, is “a lightly organized conference in which the attendees themselves determine the schedule.” You can’t really convene such a self-emergent event. But 75 or so participants will nonetheless be there on Saturday morning, and we will indeed get started, figuring out the sessions democratically and then sharing ideas and conversation. This format takes the place of “sharing” (by which I mean dully reading) 20-minute papers that through a bizarre rift in the space-time continuum take 30 minutes to read, leaving little time for discussion.

[pullquote align="left"]If you go into a panel knowing exactly what you’re going to say or what you’ve already said, there’s little room for exploration or discovery.[/pullquote]

The unconference obviously stands in contrast to the top-down, largely monologic model of the traditional conference. Most THATCamp attendees rave about the experience, and they find themselves craving similar open-ended panels at the more staid academic conferences in their respective fields. Change is slow to come, of course. What happens for the most part are slight tweaks to the existing model. Instead of four people reading 20-minute papers during a session, four people might share 20-minute papers beforehand, with the session time dedicated to talking about those 20-minute papers. Yet this model still relies on the sharing of prepared material. If you go into a panel knowing exactly what you’re going to say or what you’ve already said, there’s very little room for actual exploration or discovery. It reminds me of Nietzsche’s line that finding “truth” is like someone hiding an object in a bush and later being astonished to find it there. That’s the shape of disingenuous discovery at academic conferences.

So what’s a poor idealistic professor to do?

Let’s forget about unconferences, even as they gain momentum, and start thinking about underconferences.

What’s an underconference?

Before I answer that, let’s run through some other promising alternative conference models:

The Virtual Conference: This is the conference held entirely online, in which the time and space limitations of the real world can be broken at will. The recent Critical Code Studies Working Group, held over six weeks this spring, was a good example, though the conference was, unfortunately, only open to actual participants. The proceedings will be published on Electronic Book Review, however, and at least one research idea seeded at the virtual conference may see the light of the day in a more traditional publishing venue. HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory) has had success with its virtual conference as well.

The Simulated Conference: Like Baudrillard’s simulacrum, this is the simulation of a conference for which there is no original, the conference for which there is no conference. This sounds impossible, but in fact I hosted an entirely simulated conference one weekend in February 2010. It was a particularly conference-heavy weekend for the digital humanities, and since I couldn’t attend any of them, I created one of my own: MarksDH2010. Spurred on at first by Ian Bogost and Matt Gold, the simulated conference turned into a weekend affair, hosted entirely on Twitter, and catered by Halliburton. Dozens of participants spontaneously joined in the fun, and in the very act of lampooning traditional conferences (e.g. see my notes on the fictional Henri Jenquin’s keynote), I humbly suggest we advanced forward the humanities by at least a few virtual inches. As I later explained, MarksDH2010 “was a folie à deux and then some.” You can read the complete archives, in chronological order, and decide for yourself about that characterization.

The Unconference: Do I need to say more about the unconference? Read about the idea in theory, or see it in practice by following the upcoming THATCamp Prime on Twitter.

The Underconference: The virtual conference and the simulated conference are both made possible by technology. They take place at a distance, mediated by screens. The final model I wish to consider is the opposite, rooted in physical space, requiring actual—not virtual—bodies. This is not the unconference, but the underconference. The prerequisite of the underconference is the conference. There is the official conference—say, the MLA—and at the very same time there is an entirely parallel conference, running alongside—no, under—the official conference. Think of it as the Trystero of academia. Inspired by the Situationists, Happenings, flash mobs, Bakhtin, ARGs, and the absurdist political theater of the Yippies, the underconference is the carnival in the churchyard. Transgressive play at the very doorstep of institutional order. And like most manifestations of the carnivalesque, the underconference is at its heart very serious business.

[pullquote align="right"]The participants of the underconference are also participants in the conference. They are not enemies, they are co-conspirators.[/pullquote]

Let me be clear, though. The underconference is not a chaotic free-for-all. Just as carnival reinforces many of the ideas it seems to make fun of, the underconference ultimately supports the goals of the conference itself: sharing ideas, discovering new texts and new approaches, contributing to the production of knowledge, and even that tawdry business of networking. The participants of the underconference are also participants in the conference. They are not enemies, they are co-conspirators. The underconference is not mean-spirited; in fact, it seeks to overcome the petty nitpicking that counts as conversation in the conference rooms.

The Underconference is:

  1. Playful, exploring the boundaries of an existing structure;
  2. Collaborative, rather than antagonistic; and
  3. Eruptive, not disruptive.

What might an underconference actually look like?

  • Whereas the work of the conference takes place in meeting rooms and exhibit halls, the underconference takes place in “the streets” of the conference: the hallways and stairwells, the lobbies and bars.
  • The underconference begins with a few “seed” shadow sessions, planned and coordinated events that occur in the public spaces of the conference venue: an unannounced poetry reading in a lobby, an impromptu Pecha Kucha projected inside an elevator, a panel discussion in the fitness room.
  • As the underconference builds momentum, bystanders who find themselves in the midst of an unevent are encouraged to recruit others and to hold their own improvised sessions.
  • The underconference has much to learn from alternate reality games (ARGs), and should incorporate scavenger hunts, geolocation, environmental puzzles, and even a reward or badge system that parodies the official system of awards and prizes.
  • I have reason to believe that at least a few of the major academic conferences would look the other way if they were to find themselves paired with an underconference, if not openly sanction a parallel conference. Support might eventually take the form of dedicated space, perhaps the academic equivalent of Harry Potter’s Room of Requirement.

Do you get the idea? It’s a bold and ambitious plan, and I don’t expect many to think it’s doable, let alone worthwhile. Which is exactly why I want to do it. My experiences with virtual conferences, simulated conferences, and unconferences have convinced me that good things come from challenging the conventions of academic discourse. For every institutionalized practice we must develop a counter-practice. For every preordained discussion there should be an infusion of unpredictability and surprise. For every conference there should be an underconference.

On the Death of the Digital Humanities Center

March 26th, 2010 § 11 comments § permalink

Two or three years ago it’d be difficult to imagine a university shuttering an internationally recognized program, one of the leading such programs in the country.

Oh, wait. Never mind.

That happens all the time.

My own experience tells me that it’s usually a marginalized field, using new methodologies, producing hard-to-classify work, heavily interdisciplinary, challenging many entrenched institutional forces, and subject to an endless number of brutal personal and professional territorial battles. American Studies, Cultural Studies, Folklore Studies. It’s happened to them all.

Sometimes the programs die a slow death, downsized from a department to a program, then to a center, and finally to a URL. They’re dismantled one esteemed professor at a time, their budgets and their space shrinking ever smaller, their funding for graduate students dwindling to nothing. Sometimes the programs die spectacularly fast but no less ignobly, the executioner’s axe visible only in the instant replay. The recession makes this quick death easy to rationalize from a state legislator’s or university administrator’s perspective. Today’s cutting edge initiative is tomorrow’s expendable expenditure.

Indeed, financial considerations seem to have driven a provost-appointed task force’s recommendation that the renowned film studies program at the University of Iowa be eliminated. Such drastic cutbacks make me wonder about innovative programs at my own university, where the state is sharply curtailing public funding. (The state has funded up to 70% of George Mason University’s budget in the recent past, but now Virginia only provides 25%, a figure that is certain to fall even lower in the years ahead.) And then I wonder about innovative programs and initiatives at other colleges and universities.

And then I fear for the digital humanities center.

There is no single model for the digital humanities center. Some focus on pedagogy. Others on research. Some build things. Others host things. Some do it all. Regardless, in most cases the digital humanities center is institutionally supported, grant dependent, physically situated, and powered by vision and personnel. A sudden change in any one of these underpinnings can threaten the existence of the entire structure.

Despite the noise at last year’s MLA Convention that the digital humanities were an emerging recession-proof, bubble-proof, bullet-proof field in academia, I fear for this awkward new hybrid. Funding is tight and it’s only going to get tighter. Sustainability is the biggest issue facing digital humanities centers across the country. Of course, digital humanities centers are often separate from standard academic units. I don’t know whether this auxiliary position will help or hurt them. In either case, it’s not unreasonable to assume that some of the digital humanities centers around today will ultimately disappear.

The death of the digital humanities center. It’s not inevitable everywhere, but it will happen somewhere.

Let me be clear: I am a true believer in the value of the digital humanities center, a space where faculty, students, and researchers can collaborate and design across disciplines, across technologies, across communities. I cut my own chops in the nineties working on the American Studies Crossroads Project, one of the only groups at the time seriously looking at how digital tools were transforming research and learning. I’m grateful to have friends in several of the most impressive digital humanities outfits on the East Coast. I have the feeling that the Center for History and New Media will always be around. The Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities is not going anywhere. The Scholars’ Lab will continue to be a gem at the University of Virginia.

There will always be some digital humanities center. But not for most us.

Most of us working in the digital humanities will never have the opportunity to collaborate with a dedicated center or institute. We’ll never have the chance to work with programmers who speak the language of the humanities as well as Perl, Python, or PHP. We’ll never be able to turn to colleagues who routinely navigate grant applications and budget deadlines, who are paid to know about the latest digital tools and trends—but who’d know about them and share their knowledge even if they weren’t paid a dime. We’ll never have an institutional advocate on campus who can speak with a single voice to administrators, to students, to donors, to publishers, to communities about the value of the digital humanities.[pullquote align="right"]There will always be digital humanities centers. But not for us.[/pullquote]

Fortunately even digital humanities centers themselves realize this—as well as funders such as the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities and the Mellon Foundation—and outreach has become a major mission for the digital humanities.

And fortunately too, a digital humanities center is not the digital humanities. The digital humanities—or I should say, digital humanists—are much more diverse, much more dispersed, and stunningly resourceful to boot.

So if you’re interested in the transformative power of technology upon your teaching and research, don’t sit around waiting for a digital humanities center to pop up on your campus or make you a primary investigator on a grant.

Act as if there’s no such thing as a digital humanities center.

Instead, create your own network of possible collaborators. Don’t hope for or rely upon institutional support or recognition. To survive and thrive, digital humanists must be agile, mobile, insurgent. Decentralized and nonhierarchical.

Stop forming committees and begin creating coalitions. Seek affinities over affiliations, networks over institutes.

Centers, no. Camps, yes.

Loud, Crowded, and Out of Control: A New Model for Scholarly Publishing

March 6th, 2010 § 6 comments § permalink

Yesterday Dan Cohen, the director of the Center for History and New Media and my colleague at George Mason University, posted a thoughtful piece describing a major problem of scholarly publishing (and of book publishing more generally). Dan suggests that while the “supply” of written work has changed with the advent of digital collaborations, academic blogging, and interactive projects, the “demand” side—what readers, publishers, and rank and promotion committees expect—remains stubbornly resistant to change. To illustrate the dominant attitude of “most humanities scholars and tenure committees” toward digital work, Dan quotes a fantastic quip from John Updike:

[quote]The printed, bound and paid-for book was—still is, for the moment—more exacting, more demanding, of its producer and consumer both. It is the site of an encounter, in silence, of two minds, one following in the other’s steps but invited to imagine, to argue, to concur on a level of reflection beyond that of personal encounter, with all its merely social conventions, its merciful padding of blather and mutual forgiveness.[/quote]

I love this Updike passage. It’s so perfectly stated that I find myself nodding in agreement even as I recoil on the inside. We need go no further than the second sentence to see some of most pernicious misconceptions influencing what Dan calls the demand side of the publishing.

Reading a book, Updike says, is an encounter, in silence, of two minds.

Look at each of these three phrases. (1) An “encounter”? Well, that’s a nice vague noun and seems to include all sorts of interactions between reader and writer, but at its heart it’s an empty word that tells us nothing about the many ways this interaction can proceed: it can be sly, brutal, coy, frustrating, angry, joyous. The encounter can be all of those things, sometimes all at once. But more importantly, in new forms of publishing, the encounter can be something that you wouldn’t call an encounter at all. It can be a dance, an assault, a performance, a collision, a celebration. Using “encounter” to describe what can happen between reader and writer privileges one form of interaction, the most staid, monologic, conservative one at that.

Now what about (2) the “silence” in which this encounter supposedly occurs? Okay, yes, that’s how a lot of people read, but again, “silence” elevates one form of reading above all others. Let’s call it “polite” reading. What Updike really means by “in silence” is that any argument or meaning-making on the reader’s part must occur silently, safely firewalled far away from the writer. Safely firewalled far away from the rest of the world for that matter. The idea of a writer who either coaxes or bludgeons his or her readers into submissive silence would be abhorrent to most academics, yet that is the way the current social contract of scholarly publishing works. Peer review and letters to journal editors are merely other forms of polite reading. We applaud them as civil discourse, but in fact they are mechanisms to maintain a tolerable level of noise—by which I mean relative silence.

Finally we arrive at (3) the “two minds” involved in the silent encounter. Let’s break this phrase down even further. Two? Two? I’m not even going to bother to mention the value of collaborative research and writing, let’s just focus on Updike’s romantic vision of the relationship between a novelist and his or her reader. Two minds? What a sad, impoverished view of the world of letters. Even when it’s a single author and a single reader, more than two minds are always involved. Reading is a social activity. It is always a social activity, even when done quietly at night in an empty house. There are social contexts to writing, social contexts to reading. They are both situated activities—situated within a broader world, both requiring a wide range of supporting structures in order to exist in the first place. As for “mind,” I can appreciate that Updike sees reading and writing as intellectual endeavors, abstracted from our daily existence in the physical world. But I also couldn’t disagree more. We all know that writing is a physical activity, but we forget that reading is one too. Reading is an embodied activity. We read from within our bodies, our itching, bleeding, aging, page-turning, button-clicking bodies. Updike’s focus on the mind merely reflects that common scholarly view of the “life of the mind.” Which is just a way of ignoring the physical world.

I’d like to suggest that one way to begin changing what readers expect from scholarly publications is to deliberately invert each of these aspects of Updike’s formulation. We need texts that are loud, crowded, and out of control. We need to recognize the richness of what could count as a scholarly “encounter.” We need to encourage the opposite of silence—clamorous, public, raucous, messy discourse. We need to remember that two minds means essentially never mind; the true power of scholarly discourse lies in multiple voices, multiple bodies.

Are these changes even possible? Ian Bogost recently notoriously faulted the humanities for despising humanity, but I personally have hope. Even if it’s due to deeply ingrained habits of self-preservation, the humanities will have to change. But doing so requires an engagement with all those facts of the real world that most of us read books and retreat to libraries to escape from. Most of us don’t despise humanity so much as fear it, especially our own humanity. In an odd turn of events, it’s the affordances of the digital world that may help us renew our presence and involvement in the analog world. We have the means now to write in ways scholars could only ever dream about. So, write to be heard, write to be written back to, write to readers who are living bodies with voices of their own. Write to the crowd and let the crowd write back. Write publicly and publicly write. Write.

The Archive or the Trace: Cultural Permanence and the Fugitive Text

January 18th, 2010 § 11 comments § permalink

We in the humanities are in love with the archive.

My readers already know that I am obsessed with archiving otherwise ephemeral social media. I’ve got multiple redundant systems for preserving my Twitter activity. I rely on the Firefox plugins Scrapbook and Zotero to capture any online document that poses even the slightest flight risk. I routinely backup emails that date back to 1996. Even my recent grumbles about the Modern Language Association’s new citation guidelines were born of an almost frantic need to preserve our digital cultural heritage.

I don’t think I am alone in this will to archive, what Jacques Derrida called archive fever. Derrida spoke about the “compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive” way back in 1994, long before the question of digital impermanence became an issue for historians and librarians. And the issue is more pressing than ever.

Consider the case of a Hari Kunzru short story that Paul Benzon described in an MLA presentation last month. As Julie Meloni recently recounted, Kunzru had published “A Story Full of Fail” online. Then, deciding instead to find a print home for his piece, Kunzru removed the story from the web. Julie notes that there’s no Wayback Machine version of it, nor is the document in a Google cache. The story has disappeared from the digital world. It’s gone.

Yet I imagine some Kunzru fans are clamoring for the story, and might actually be upset that the rightful copyright holder (i.e. Kunzru) has removed it from their easy digital grasp. The web has trained us to want everything and to want it now. We have been conditioned to expect that if we can’t possess the legitimate object itself, we’ll be able to torrent it, download it, or stream it through any number of digital channels.

We are archivists, all of us.

But must everything be permanent?

Must we insist that every cultural object be subjected to the archive?

What about the fine art of disappearance? Whether for aesthetic reasons, marketing tactics, or sheer perversity, there’s a long history of producing cultural artifacts that consume themselves, fade into ruin, or simply disappear. It might be a limited issue LP, the short run of a Fiestaware color, or a collectible Cabbage Patch kid. And these are just examples from mass culture.

[pullquote align="left"]Must everything be permanent?[/pullquote]

In the literary world perhaps the most well-known example is William Gibson’s Agrippa (A Book of the Dead), a 300-line poem published on a 3.5″ floppy in 1992 that was supposed to erase itself after one use. Of course, as Matthew Kirschenbaum has masterfully demonstrated, Gibson’s attempt at textual disintegration failed for a number of reasons. (Indeed, Matt’s research has convinced me that Kunzru’s story hasn’t entirely disappeared from the digital world either. It’s somewhere, on some backup tape or hard drive or series of screen shots, and it would take only a few clicks for it to escape back into everyday circulation).

I have written before about the fugitive as the dominant symbolic figure of the 21st century, precisely because fugitivity is nearly impossible anymore. The same is now true of texts. Fugitive texts, or rather, the fantasy of fugitive texts, will become a dominant trope in literature, film, art, and videogames, precisely because every text is archived permanently some place, and usually, in many places.

We already see fantasies of fugitive texts everywhere, both high and low: House of Leaves, The Raw Shark Texts, Cathy’s Book, The Da Vinci Code, and so on. But what we need are not just stories about fugitive texts. We need actual texts that are actual fugitives, fading away before our eyes, slipping away in the dark, texts we apprehend only in glimpses and glances. Texts that remind us what it means to disappear completely forever.

The fugitive text stands in defiant opposition to the archive. The fugitive text exists only as (forgive me as I invoke Derrida once more) a trace, a lingering presence that confirms the absence of a presence. I am reminded of the novelist Bill Gray’s lumbering manuscript in DeLillo’s Mao II. Perpetually under revision, an object sought after by his editor and readers alike, Gray’s unfinished novel is a fugitive text.

Mao II is an extended meditation on textual availability and figurative and literal disappearance, but it’s in DeLillo’s handwritten notes for the novel — found ironically enough in the Don DeLillo Papers archive at the University of Texas at Austin — that DeLillo most succinctly expresses what’s at stake:

Reclusive Writer: In the world of glut + bloat, the withheld work of art becomes the only meaningful object. (Spiral Notebook, Don DeLillo Papers, Box 38, Folder 1)

Bill Gray’s ultimate fate suggests that DeLillo himself questions Gray’s strategy of withdrawal and withholding. Yet, DeLillo nonetheless sees value in a work of art that challenges the always-available logic of the marketplace — and of that place where cultural objects go, if not to die, then at least to exist on a kind of extended cultural life support, the archive.

Years ago Bruce Sterling began the Dead Media Project, and I now propose a similar effort, the Fugitive Text Collective. Unlike the Dead Media Project, however, we don’t seek to capture fleeting texts before they disappear. This is not a project of preservation. There shall be no archives allowed. The collective are observers, nothing more, logging sightings of impermanent texts. We record the metadata but not the data. We celebrate the trace, and bid farewell to texts that by accident or design fade, decay, or simply cease to be.

Let the archive be loved. But fugitive texts will become legend.