English 508 @UVic

Digital Studies | Prototyping Texts

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In both theory and practice, this seminar brushes against four popular assumptions about digital humanities: 1) as a service to researchers, the field merely develops digital resources for online discovery and builds computational tools for end-users; it does not interpret texts or meaningfully engage with “pre-digital” traditions in literary and cultural criticism; 2) digital humanities is not concerned with the literary or aesthetic character of texts; it is a techno-solutionist byproduct of instrumentalism and big data; 3) digital humanities practitioners replace cultural perspectives with uncritical computer vision; instead of privileging irony or ambivalence, they use computers to “prove” reductive claims about literature and culture, usually through graphs and totalizing visualizations; and 4) to participate in the field, you must be fluent in computer programming, or at least be willing to treat literature and culture quantitatively; if you are not a programmer, then you are not doing digital humanities.

During our seminar meetings, we will counter these four assumptions by examining, historicizing, and creating “design fictions,” which Bruce Sterling defines as “the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change.” Design fictions typically have a futurist bent to them. They speculate about bleeding edge technologies and emerging dynamics, or they project whiz-bang worlds seemingly ripped from films such as Minority Report. But we’ll refrain from much futurism. Instead, we will use technologies to look backwards and prototype versions of texts that facilitate interpretative practice. Inspired by Kari Kraus’s conjectural criticism, Fred Moten’s second iconicity, Bethany Nowviskie and Johanna Drucker’s speculative computing, Karen Barad’s notion of diffraction, Jeffrey Schnapp’s small data, Anne Balsamo’s hermeneutic reverse-engineering, and deformations by Lisa Samuels, Jerome McGann, and Mark Sample, we will conduct “what if” analyses of texts already at hand, in electronic format (e.g., page images in a library’s digital collections).

Doing so will involve something peculiar: interpreting our primary sources by altering them. We’ll substitute words, change formats, rearrange poems, remediate fictions, juxtapose images, bend texts, and reconstitute book arts. To be sure, such approaches have vexed legacies in the arts and humanities. Consider cut-ups, constrained writing, story-making machines, exquisite corpses, remixes, tactical media, Fluxkits, or détournement. Today, these avant-garde traditions are ubiquitous in a banal or depoliticized form, the default features of algorithmic culture and social networks. But we will refresh them, with a difference, by integrating our alterations into criticism and prompting questions about the composition of art and history today.

Instructor: Jentery Sayers
Office Hours: Monday, 12-2pm, in CLE D334
Email: jentery@uvic.ca
Office Phone (in CLE D334): 250-721-7274 (I'm more responsive by email)
Mailing Address: Department of English | UVic | P.O. Box 3070, STN CSC | Victoria, BC V8W 3W1

Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it. —Karl Marx