I have enjoyed reading Laurie’s and Ellie’s posts, and viewing Sheila and Kevin’s clip on their Maymester work. In trying to think of a shared place among these posts to start my own comments, I’ve come up with the issue, baldly put, of process versus product, a distinction important to Helen Burgess and Jeanne Hamming in their article from our bibliography, “New Media in the Academy: Labor and the Production of Knowledge in Scholarly Multimedia.” In this article Burgess (a colleague of mine at UMBC) and Hamming argue that the view, expressed as recently as 2004 by Deborah Anderson, that “digital scholarship [should be] define[d] as independent from the medium in which it is produced” weakens the value of work in digital humanities, and fundamentally fails to understand the relationship of the means of production as itself an act of scholarship. Anderson fails, Burgess and Hamming say, to understand “the substrates upon which information patterns depend.”
Far from its being solely a means to “capturing, cataloging and indexing” texts, Burgess and Hamming seek to reframe the work in digital media in terms of the labor of production (the “process” I mentioned above) by focusing on the two aspects of such work, material labor and embodied labor. The first, admittedly broad, addresses the kinds of actions “necessary to provide an infrastructure for digital media”, including the networking of human and machine and software with other humans, machines and software. The second, embodied labor, which the authors define as performative, encompasses the more self-conscious interaction of the human user with the machine as a physical object. Essentially, then, my reading of Burgess and Hamming leads to seeing work with new media as in itself capable, perhaps inescapably so [pun intended?], of the stamp of the users in unique and discernible ways which themselves illuminate the medium used along with the content entangled with it, rightfully claiming merit and distinction for the means of their making.
Burgess and Hamming’s purpose is avowedly to address the confused matter of awarding tenure for new media work in the humanities, but their focus on the labor(s) of digital production addresses questions raised in Alan Galey’s article “Networks of Deep Impression: Shakespeare and the History of Information” from Katherine Rowe’s edition “Shakespeare and New Media” for Shakespeare Quarterly 61:30 Fall 2010. In Galey’s fascinating tour through selected articles dating back to cultural changes in information history engendered by World War II, he makes clear the problem of “essentialism” in both information history and Shakespeare’s works. In post-war ideas of communication, “Noise” could be defined as physical interference by the machines involved, and perhaps was initially intended as such by Warren Weaver in his 1949 essay “The Mathematics of Communication,” quoted in the article. The “noise” of the message’s transmission was a problem to be eliminated in order to hear the real or “essential” message through an ideal and unimpaired “essential” process, something which might then have been seen as attainable. For us now, digital media, like Skype, which Kevin and Sheila and the students in Bengal performing Shakespeare’s work for them use to great effect, are apparently much freer of the kind of noise Weaver could easily point to as distortion. In fact, the astonishing “clarity” of imagery and sound, the ease of manipulation, and the speed of production in digital media can be seductive and stunning. Thus, Galey notes, after employing a wry example from Twain’s book Is Shakespeare Dead? (in which a young river pilot is buffeted by his captain’s both reciting Macbeth and directing the pilot’s actions at the helm), “What we call noise may be only a function of competing intentions and agencies.”
Can we determine how to measure our use of these tools? Can we determine what constitutes the performative, or is all usage of such tools in some sense performative? Can there be such a thing as a scale for such measurements?
Galey’s article demonstrates ably that our culture has been struggling to understand and evaluate the role of transmission in digital/electronic media for over fifty years. There’s comfort in recognizing the depth of the problem, and perhaps we will eventually see the germ of an answer in the struggle itself. Brett Hirsch, in “The Kingdom has be Digitized: Electronic Editions of Renaissance Drama and the Long Shadows of Shakespeare and Print,” also from our bibliography and also discussed by Laurie Osborne (as of this writing) on our wordpress page, points to the role print media have in restraining the availability of editions of Renaissance drama other than Shakespeare. Randall McLeod, Hirsch notes, declared that pedagogy drives what editions are commissioned and perpetuated; whatever students will buy in sufficient number pays for the production of the editions and determines what those will be. The article clearly points out that as we reassess publishing models both print and especially digital, we will necessarily leave behind simply digitizing primary source materials (though problems still exist within this process) and move toward critical editions. It cannot be a simple transformation, as matters of copyright still confound internet users, never mind authors of internet content and digital media. Media outlets that have migrated to the internet (notably newspapers) struggle to find ways of supporting what so many users regard, at least in their practices, as free materials. But Hirsch clearly envisions that on the other side of these issues lies the opportunity for an expanded canon through different cost distributions. When (rather than if?) this becomes the case, the implications for the long-contested notion of the canon become more deeply layered.
Ellie Rycroft added notes about her experience teaching with new and social media, and I have to agree that our experiences in the classroom necessarily both inform and complicate our work to understand just how we should regard the making of materials in digital form. For seven years I have experimented with using a custom-designed wiki in my classroom (this year, for lack of IT support, I switched to googlesites). I find using a wiki liberating and full of potential. As I wrote to my students this week, in advance of our beginning spring semester “a wiki allows pages to be continually created as we classify and name our discussions or activities. We can decide how various aspects of the course, both knowledge and process, relate to each other by moving materials we’ve created onto new pages, or adding new material that changes the context of what we’ve begun…” Some students over the last few years have responded enthusiastically, others have withdrawn from it, using it only as an online syllabus. In an extended discussion with my students last semester, one student said, “I know [what I need to find] is on the wiki, but I forget about it. I need to see it in class.” Even directed to post and work with specific assignments on the wiki, for him the classroom was the authoritative heart of the course. Assignments, of course, can be redesigned; perhaps this need for redesign is a correlative of reducing the “noise”, or clarifying the nature of the embodied labor expected in the course with respect to the online site. But his comment reminds us that understanding exactly how to evaluate the place of digital media eludes even those, our students, whom we imagine are most used to it. We may be getting closer, as Burgess and Hamming’s definitions suggest; we may have a sense of the possibilities once we get closer still, as Hirsch demonstrates; but we must also decide, as Galey points out, whether and how to choose between “competing intentions and agencies,” within our own use of the media.