Standing on the Edge

Digital Materiality Conference, NUI May 21st – 22nd 2015

In light of the forthcoming (May 2016) publication by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing, I’ve decided to post this review of the Digital Materiality conference held in Galway last year, where Matthew was one of the plenary speakers.  

It is a truth, universally acknowledged by writers of all nationalities, that when one begins to write about Ireland, an introductory paragraph must be filled with clichéd references to Guinness, drinking, dancing, Eurovision and/or Michael Flatley, the beautiful landscape, the friendliness of the people, the wonderful music and the power of the nation’s poetry. If the writers in question wish to be particularly clever, then also expect Father Ted to be in the list too. Down with this sort of thing, I say, as this is, obviously, not the place to make such references even though after spending a few days in Galway as part of NUI’s superb Digital Materialities conference I can confirm that they are all true. Even Michael Flatley.

Galway Cathedral
Galway Cathedral

What, then, is digital materiality and why does it matter? Firstly, as the world is becoming  ever more digital (and digitised ) the question of how the digital affects the material world and how the material world affects the digital is, perhaps, as profound a question that we can ask ourselves working in the humanities right now. Secondly, not only has the digital transformed our culture, but it has also transformed the nature of academic research and the questions we can then begin to ask of that research. For example, if I could produce a 3D printed miniature replica of an early modern playhouse I could then begin to explore and ask new questions about the nature of the theatre-going experience in that period.  By being able to see in 3-dimensional space (as opposed to the 2-dimensional images we are so accustomed to seeing in a book) how a playhouse was designed and functioned we are then able to see, appreciate, and go on to understand implications that may have not been apparent before. Digital Materiality therefore explores the intersection between digital and material cultures in the humanities.

The Digital Materiality conference, organised by Justin Tonra, was revelatory in the sense that it gave a platform to those scholars to present their work who are working at precisely this intersection. It was appropriate, then, that the first plenary speaker on Thursday morning was Jerome McGann. McGann, for many years, has been working at the cutting edge of how we understand the digital and its relationship to print. Indeed, McGann was one of the first academics to fully embrace the digital and to successfully create and establish a digital resource with The Roessetti Archive.

Jerome McGann, giving the first plenary address at the Digital Materiality conference in Galway.

On a more personal level, as well, his work has had a significant impact on my own research and the way I think about digital practice. McGann’s talk, ‘Truth and Method. Humanities Scholarship as a Science of Exceptions’ was a solemn account about the challenges that face us today in the humanities. Arguing that Truth and Method is an ethical problem, McGann used Hans-George Gadamer’s dialectic of enlightenment as a point of reference to try and recover and revise Gadamer’s thought by shifting it from a philosophical to a philological perspective. McGann suggests that with the STEM subjects receiving so much investment through government funding we need a new model of humanist inquiry.

It was a thought-provoking and insightful talk to begin the conference and it actually foreshadowed many of the concerns the delegates had in find finding a new model for their own pioneering work. There is a real sense that the current structures prevalent in academia and the criteria we use to assess academic research are slowly becoming more and more redundant with the rise of digital knowledge dissemination and practice-based research. For this reason, one of the most unintentionally fascinating papers was by Nella Porquedda. Nella wasn’t actually physically present at the conference, she unfortunately was poorly, but she recorded her voice going through her paper and sent that to the conference organisers.

Nella Porquedda apologises to the audience for being unable to deliver her talk in person through the medium of Powerpoint.

Nella’s disembodied (and digitised) voice welcomed the audience, explained why she wasn’t there, and then proceeded to go through her paper which was aptly entitled ‘Digital Materiality and Historical Research’. What I found so brilliant about Nella’s paper was that it told us more about the unsettling and uncanny quality of digital material than any more ‘traditional’ paper could have done. Nella, being present digitally but absent physically, ironically and perhaps paradoxically acted as the embodiment of digital materiality: there-but-not-there. Ultimately, her paper was as well suited to the Tate Modern as much as to an academic conference and as such it confronted us with the appealing prospect that in the digital world, the artist and the scholar are slowly converging.

Another one of the key themes of the conference that emerged was Walter Benjamin’s concept of the aura. In many ways it was disappointing to see this tired old trope trotted out once more, especially as it is so often asked by indignant medievalists who scream at the poor presenter ‘what about the aura?’ to which the presenter will inevitably reply, ‘well what about it?’ It was very encouraging, then, that the discussion had moved on from the rather reductive idea that the digital eliminates the aura to the much more interesting and attractive proposition that the digital actually retains the aura but does something differently with it. This was at the heart of Brendan Dooley’s paper ‘Angelica’s Book and the Lure of the Material’. Dooley demonstrated successfully that instead of the digital eliminating the aura it makes the aura of a text accessible and available to interpretation. What good the aura for researchers or scholars, Dooley asked, if he is the only one who has access to it in his private collection? The aura, then, in the digital world, has been remediated to be less of an unspecified sacred feeling we experience when we look at a piece of art and instead it has become social, plural, and thus extends its potential for meaning.

Extending the potential for meaning was an idea that Benjamin Nicoll, a PhD student from the University of Melbourne thoroughly explored in his tremendous paper ‘Videogame Fan Sites and the Vernacular Curation of Gaming History’. Ben asked us to consider how videogame websites go about curating their own content for obsolete game consoles, in this case the Neo Geo.

Benjamin Nicoll discussing videogame fan sites.

How, he asked is videogame history being curated in these contexts, and how do these contexts give us a better understanding of the meaning of these obsolete formats? The question underlying Ben’s work is fundamentally the one way we deal with time and time again: what is history, who writes it and who has access to it? A player’s memory of playing a certain game and their experience of it is just as crucial to our understanding of videogame history as how many consoles Nintendo have sold. The importance of Ben’s work lies very much in the fact that we only have to look to reader responses from the Victorian era to realise that what ‘official’ history has canonized and deemed important, is not necessarily what the reader, gallery visitor, or video gamer did or does.

Curatorial and preservation concerns were also interrogated by Simon Rowberry (University of Sterling). Rowberry’s paper ‘1984 Redux: The Long-Term Materiality of the Kindle Infrastructure’. Rowberry confronted us with the significant problem that future generations of book historians are going to find it very difficult to do research on Kindle e-books as historical artifacts as Amazon both controls the platform and the content. As such it is also in control of preservation aspects that could be fascinating and valuable for future scholars.

Simon Rowberry on how Amazon’s infrastructure for the Kindle will prove problematic for scholars of the future.

For example, Amazon has already discontinued Kindle Popular Highlights; a service that allowed users to annotate and explore highlighted passages from user’s e-books. If we are indeed living through  a digital revolution in the way we read, buy and consume books then it is imperative that Amazon (and other e-book manufacturers and platform holders) make accessible and understand the vital importance of preserving all this data. It is especially important at this historical time as e-books are still very much in their infancy and are going to evolve into something beyond our current paper-based imaginings. It would be hugely disappointing if researchers could not chart this development in all its nuanced sophistication due to a lack of care being taken with very significant data.

The concluding talk of the conference and one of the best papers I have ever heard delivered was by the second plenary, Matthew G. Kirschenbaum (University of Maryland). Kirschenbaum’s work has fascinated me for a long time: from his regular and astute blog postings to his innovative monograph Mechanisms where Kirschenbaum sought to write an aesthetics of the hard drive, Kirschenbaum consistently reveals himself to be a highly intelligent, original and exciting thinker. His paper here did not disappoint.

Matthew Kirschenbaum discussing his forthcoming book: Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing.

Entitled ‘Green-Screeners: Locating the Literary History of Word Processing’ Kirschenbaum delivered what could only be described as a cultural history of word processing. Beginning form the earliest days of word processing, Kirschenbaum took us on a journey via Stephen King and John Updike to the present where, intriguingly, word processing software has never been more diverse for the different needs of its users. We are moving away, slowly but surely, from the hegemony Microsoft has with Word.  This raised, for me, the important question: in the future will we look back on the era dominated by Word (the last 20 years or so) and begin to understand how that software had an actual affect on how knowledge was created, books were written and how thoughts were allowed to be expressed? If the medium is the message, what restrictions has Word, subconsciously, placed on writers and how has that affected their work? Kirschenbaum’s book on the subject is out in the next twelve months, and I, for one, cannot wait to read it.

The Digital Material conference was a great success: it offered up new and often challenging ideas and concepts and there was a real sense that much of the work we are doing is pioneering, innovative, and highly valuable. The Cardiff team from the Centre of Editorial and Intertextual Research would like to thank Justin Tonra for organizing a wonderful conference and the warmth and friendliness he welcomed us with. Now, where did I put my Riverdance DVD…?

— Michael Goodman




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