Making as Method

Here are abstracts for the Making as Method MLA 2015 panel, organized by the Division on Methods of Literary Research. The panel seeks to highlight critical making as a methodological approach to understanding literature and culture.

Time: Sunday, 11 January, 8:30–9:45 am
Place: 210, VCC West
Presider: Lauren Klein, Georgia Institute of Technology

1. Warped Modernisms: Making the City in the Work

Jentery Sayers (speaking), Alexander Christie, Stephen Ross, Kathryn Tanigawa, Adèle Barclay, and the INKE-MVP Research Team

Applying existing scholarship in film and game studies to literary criticism, this talk explores the remediation (Bolter and Grusin 1999) of modernist fiction from 2D to 3D. It draws examples from “z-axis” research conducted by the INKE-MVP research team at the University of Victoria, where a group of scholars is warping historical maps with georeferenced word counts drawn from 20th-century novels, such as James Baldwin’s Another Country (1962), Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood (1936), and Jean Rhys’s Quartet (1928) and Good Morning, Midnight (1939). Presented as 3D models, these warped maps can be interpreted as rehearsals of the modernist avant-garde. Against isomorphism, they react almost dogmatically to any rationalist treatment of space as objective, immediate, or stable by expressing the deeply subjective, cartographic imaginations of novels. Here, space is biased, value-laden, and even material. Warped, it is where psychology and society permeate form (Vidler 2000). But another interpretation of the maps renders them neither subjective nor objective, neither street level nor bird’s eye. Instead, they are views from nowhere, emerging through post-cinematic aesthetics whereby all space is treated digitally, quantification becomes a compositional (not a representational) technique, and spatial continuity is eclipsed by morphing, layering, compression, and dilation (Deleuze 1986; Shaviro 2010). Put differently, post-cinematic vision flattens cities, novels, and screens into actionable spaces (Galloway 2006). While these two interpretations read against the grain of standardized vision, the avant-garde rejection of rational space entails a humanist dialectic (subjective-objective, real-imaginary), not to mention an investment in autonomous literature, where any visualization of a novel is relegated to secondary status, a mere re-presentation of the original. Meanwhile, post-cinematic aesthetics imply a posthumanist blending of human and machine vision, along with a radical intermediation of cultural forms that complicates the primacy of originals. With such a distinction in mind, this talk concludes with two key points. First, it suggests that both interpretations at hand involve making as method, which, for better or worse, may be understood broadly as experimental media studies doing literary studies: arguing about the literary city through its actual production (McPherson 2009). Second, the talk details how the z-axis approach is at once appealing and limited, looking specifically at its reduction of scholarly artifacts to a base layer of digital encoding (Manovich 2001), its surface readings of literary geography (Markus and Best 2009), its articulation of elliptical visualizations, and its investment in fabricating 3D maps for tactile apprehension.

For more about Implementing New Knowledge Environments (INKE), see http://inke.ca/. For more about the Modernist Versions Project (MVP), see http://mvp.uvic.ca/. For more z-axis research, see http://maker.uvic.ca/category/zaxis/. (Special thanks to Arthur Hain for giving the z-axis project its name.)

2. Printing Fictions: Notes Toward a Method

Kari Kraus, University of Maryland

This talk posits that the mocking up and fabrication of notional objects in fictional narratives can potentially enrich and expand our literary interpretations. Using Philip K. Dick’s “Pay for the Printer” (1956) as a test case, I explore how 3D models, prints, and diagrams of the defective objects described in the story’s post-apocalyptic world open up new avenues of inquiry.  Offering a bleak foreshadowing of 3D printing technologies, “Pay for the Printer” is stocked with melted, “puddinged,” and otherwise deformed watches, mugs, buildings, vehicles, and other artifacts. As such, it provides an object lesson in what Steven Jackson calls broken world thinking. I’ll draw on research I recently conducted at UMD investigating how individuals identify the constituent parts of objects—including broken, obsolete, and semantically ambiguous objects—to distill a set of design principles and interpretive frameworks for approaching Dick’s work. The talk will close with a set of questions this type of exercise opens up when applied to literature more broadly.

3. Bots are Machines for Words

Mark Sample, Davidson College

William Carlos Williams famously defined a poem as a “machine made out of words.” In this talk I propose that bots—small autonomous programs that generate text, images, or data—are similarly machines made out of words and that these machines can provide new insights into literature and culture. Operating at the intersection of what Jerome McGann and Lisa Samuels call “deformance” and what Nick Montfort calls “exploratory programming,” bots revitalize texts even as they break them. After examining several computer-generated variations of Modernist poems as case studies, I shift towards a mode of humanistic inquiry that Steven Jackson calls “broken world thinking.” I show how one bot in particular thematizes breakdown, maintenance, and disrepair—all states of being we must necessarily grapple with if we truly want to understand the way the world works, and the way it doesn’t.