Am I An Internet Researcher?

November 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

Good morning, blog. My father, along with some of the people I follow on Twitter, linked me to this today, an NYTimes blog post about “digitally remapping the culture of letters.” I am fascinated, of course, by the concept, although I won’t pretend to spend many of my days wondering about Voltaire’s 18,000 letters, or laughing at the jokes within the Explain the Internet Flowchart for Dickens Fans. I am deeply interested in the ways in which Humanities Scholars Embrace Technology, but more directly: I’m interested in how humanities scholars adapt their research paradigms in order to better understand the world as it is shaped by a partial transposition into digital space. And so, I find myself on the one hand excited by the world of internet research and digital humanities, excited by the possibilities they open up in terms of a potential audience for my work, which tries to take advantage of digital research paradigms born in the social sciences (see especially my dissertation role model Alice Marwick.) On the other hand, I find myself primarily interested in the concept of the fan across media (especially in comics, old-fashioned queer cinephilia, and literature), rather than in the full range of specifically digital fan practices in which I most often engage.

So, there arise two questions. Firstly, I know that it’s important to me not to over-privilege digital culture just because it is a culture in which I have a high level of literacy and access (which are of course connected). This is my “way in,” so to speak, because, in my own literacy narrative, I came of age very noticeably in the mid-1990s homepaging culture (which became journaling, which became social networking, which all intersect). I want to step back from my home territory in order to take a broader view: because even in my interest in my own life, I am drawn to the whole story as it is anchored by my changing identity over time, rather than in the fact that I “became digital” at any given point, or “decided” to start privileging virtual engagements over RL ones. For one thing, I haven’t actually done the latter definitively, nor do I think such decisions are ever really as permanent as they seem. I’m interested in the location of the fan and the way in which an individuated subject steps into and out of the role over time, the way she uses her fandom-born literacy to become a medievalist, or a poet, or an chemist, or a girlfriend. Sometimes the fandom-born literacy was digital, sometimes it wasn’t. When it is and when it isn’t doesn’t strike me as a particularly instructive organizing principle for my work. That said, I think that the overlapping relationship does inform some of my “key issues” with current developments in digital culture, especially those surrounding data mining and privacy, which is why I hope always to keep an eye on when my conclusions are relevant to a discussion of how we can build an internet that’s more attentive to letting difference (aesthetic, sexual, intellectual, political) flourish. Such an internet is ideal to its inherent pre-corporate rhizomatic logic, but I think that it’s also ideal according to concepts born elsewhere, in sites not fundamentally related to digital culture, like comics.

The second question is, does my research take place online, or am I interested in ultimately producing a digitally born document (like I am currently doing)? Does that matter? The answer is that my research takes place online and off. I’m not sure if I can name percentages, because it depends on the chapter. If I’m working on a graphic novel, I’d prefer to spend my day with it and without the internet, so that I can get absorbed in the act of close reading. If I’m looking at an episode of The Guild, of course I’ll watch it, re-watch it, and take notes on it while near my computer. However, once I’ve recorded my observations chronologically, I’m just as likely to print them out and take them to the kitchen table as I am to try to organize them within a txt file. I often find that my writing makes a lot more sense if I do at least 50% of it away from the screen. Again, in this project, I’m looking to perform a sustained analysis of the characterization of protagonist fans in narratives. So, my job is to read and re-read, create timelines of events, screencap facial expressions, compile diagnostic criteria, and read what others have said about these characters. However, I am emphatically not studying either flesh and blood fans or their digital footprints. Rather, I am looking to think about the 21st century fan subject and the ways in which his interactions with the world around him, social and archival, produce and change him over time. I would like to take advantage of some technologies in my written work, especially by embedding screencaps, which are my favorite form of quotation. But the work will not create a digital model of anything, whether an interactive map of the digital archive or a chart of intersecting references from a given fanboy auteur’s oeuvre. In fact, I will argue that such a map can only be made according to a spirit of interactivity from which it would be impossible to generalize. Every point in the research trajectory of the fan subject is illuminated by a connection between archival object and fan subject, both of which are dynamic and change over time.

Perhaps it’s because of this position that I find myself so wary of statements like Cohen’s article opener, quoted below:

“A history of the humanities in the 20th century could be chronicled in “isms” — formalism, Freudianism, structuralism, postcolonialism — grand intellectual cathedrals from which assorted interpretations of literature, politics and culture spread.
The next big idea in language, history and the arts? Data.
Members of a new generation of digitally savvy humanists argue it is time to stop looking for inspiration in the next political or philosophical “ism” and start exploring how technology is changing our understanding of the liberal arts. This latest frontier is about method, they say, using powerful technologies and vast stores of digitized materials that previous humanities scholars did not have.”

First of all, the idea that we have reached a “post-theoretical” moment is of course ridiculous — the best scholarship I can find is inter-disciplinary, not as in superseding, say, both disability studies and modernist aesthetics, but in fusing the paradigms of both in order to make explicit their consequential connections, as well as those which have not yet been realized. “Data” is insufficient to the negative space to I allude to in the latter part of the previous statement, and does not seem to offer any kind of way out of the “grand intellectual cathedrals.” In fact, the organization of data and data systems seems to be little differentiated from structuralism in its attempt to organize the world. Of course, there are some connections between Edelstein’s work and mine (in its glorious negative space of not having been written yet) — both of us are interested in the trajectories of objects and people, in the way in which the shape of intellectual inquiry can be better understood if we take seriously the widespread influence of major players, and think about all of their digital traces as potentially valuable sources for understanding their larger theories.

Cohen goes on to say that “Mr. Edelstein said that many of his senior colleagues view his work as whimsical, the result of playing with technological toys. But he argues such play can lead to discoveries.” Of course play can lead to discoveries — it happens all the time. Again, I find myself back at the limits of social science, thinking about Neil McLaughlin‘s work on the sociology of knowledge and intellectuals, and what this can tell us about the connections between social worlds and methodological paradigms and the historical trajectory of ideas as they are canonized, or fail to be, for socially mediated reasons. But this, still, is a step removed from what I want to look at. My concern is that, once again, we’re talking about findable people who define themselves explicitly as knowledge seekers, and who have significant official culture capital. What I think is so cool about the narratives I want to talk about is that they tell stories that their protagonists wouldn’t tell, to put it simply. Often, within the narrative, they are faced with the choice of whether or not to reveal specific information they’d gone to great lengths to conceal, and it is a plot point whether they do or not. I want to take those decisions seriously, in order to make my case for how much valuable “data” lurks beneath the surface, and therefore why, especially when we are talking about the contemporary cultural landscape, we ought to be careful not to over-estimate the representativeness of various “visualization tools,” which rely on available data. Fiction serves as a repository for data that’s not made broadly available for various reasons, some ethical, some more sinister. If we want to get anything like an accurate picture of the contemporary landscape, whether or not we foreground in our research questions the extent to which it has been digitized, we should not accidentally change our research paradigm into a wholly empirical one without thinking through the consequences. Just because it’s pleasurable to map what we can see, we should value these narratively-bound insights into characterization that are true, if not verifiable. If you haven’t read Monique Trong’s The Book of Salt, and you are interested in what kinds of archival truths have been insufficiently attended to by dominant cultural history, please check it out.

Am I An Internet Researcher? I don’t know. I study 21st Century Literature and Popular Culture, much of which is digitally born and distributed via the internet. I live on the internet much of the time. I was formed by the internet, personally and academically. My lesson plans always contain lists of URLs. But am I contributing to the Digital Humanities? Probably not at this stage, except insofar as I am from a social milieu that assumes that the internet is (or, in any case, is rapidly becoming) the site of research, unless one is doing something esoteric or looking at a far-removed historical period. (Even then, I would never have gotten through my undergraduate Latin courses without The Perseus Project.) It seems to me that the “headline” that humanities scholars are embracing the internet is a living anachronism — I for one am interested in what else people are doing, when they want to understand contemporary life.


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