blurry, distressed, weather-worn portrait (possibly oil painting) of two children in red
20
Jan
2016

Interactive Criticism and the Embodied Digital Humanities

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Written by
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Reviewed by Chris Friend and Sean Michael Morris
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Kids” by DaveBleasdale; CC BY 2.0

“The tenacity of / writing’s thickness, like the body’s / flesh, is / ineradicable, yet mortal” (87).
~ Charles Bernstein, “Artifice of Absorption”

Critical analysis is visceral. When I write it, the tips of my fingers tingle. When I speak it in a classroom, the hair on the back of my neck stands on end. When I deliver it to a roomful of strangers, the work feels heavy in my gut. These public encounters with text have been the punctum of pedagogy and scholarship for me, the curious awe my work as a writer and teacher has circled around.

Roland Barthes defines “punctum” in Camera Lucida: “It is this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me…. A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (and also bruises me, is poignant to me)” (26-27). It is usually not the obvious subject of the photograph, but the strange oddity or distraction that continually draws our eye. Susan Sontag suggests something similar in On Photography when she says that “Photographs objectify: they turn an event or person into something that can be possessed. [They are] a species of alchemy” (81), turning an ephemeral substance (images) into a tangible one (the churn in our stomachs and slow creep of goosebumps across our skin). In The Cinematic Body, Steven Shaviro takes this a step further, saying that “images literally assault the spectator, leaving him or her no space for reflection” (50). As with Roland Barthes’s concept of the photograph’s punctum, which “pierces” and “pricks” (59), Shaviro recognizes that our engagement with a photograph, or any text, results in real physical, and often violent, effects.

As more of our scholarly and pedagogical work moves into digital space, it’s important to reinvest ourselves in the materiality of the text and the materiality of the reader/viewer. As the text and what we do with it becomes increasingly virtual, we must turn simultaneously in two directions, embracing digital modes of scholarship, while addressing ourselves even more directly to the (literal and figurative) flesh of the text. This is what Laura U. Marks, in Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, calls “haptic criticism” and what I’ve called “interactive criticism.” I write in “Toward an Interactive Criticism: House of Leaves as Haptic Interface”: “Interactive criticism is […] dependent upon collaboration, both between reader and text and among a cacophony of readers.” And in “The Pedagogies of Reading and Not Reading,” I describe reading as “an encounter.” In short, interactive criticism: 1) recognizes that media is haptic and that we engage even seemingly intangible media in a visceral way; 2) is an encounter with a text in which we do something to the text and the text does something to us; 3) acknowledges that looking away and theorizing that looking away is a critical gesture; 4) is always unfinished, the start to a conversation not a reservoir.

Hopeful Monsters and Monstrous Code

Digital media is transforming how we read and view texts. This is not mere aphorism. In “Books in the Age of the iPad,” Craig Mod writes, “The seemingly insignificant fact that we touch the text actually plays a very key role in furthering the intimacy of the experience [of viewing media on the iPad].” Words on a standard computer screen might have texture (a shape they take in our mouths or brains), but they have no weight. Words (and images) on an iPad, for Mod, have both texture and weight. (The motion sensors of the iPad even simulate gravity, allowing words and images on the screen to drift from one side to the other as the device is turned and tilted.) Mod also makes the distinction between formless content and definite content: “Formless Content is unaware of the container. Definite Content embraces the container as a canvas.” Formless content, according to Mod, can be transferred easily (and losslessly) from one media to another. Literary texts born in or of digital environments traffic in both, but more importantly they muddy the distinctions between formless and definite content.

And this isn’t work that happens only on screens. When Kenneth Goldsmith writes in Fidget, “Facial muscles relax. Swallow. Tongue moistens upper lip” (15), he is keenly aware of the way words in a sequence press up against one another in an explicitly tactile way. When Gertrude Stein writes in Tender Buttons, “The kindly way to feel separating is to have a space between. This shows a likeness” (23), she illustrates how two words in a sequence can bridge the gap between their letters. And, I think, it isn’t just that the words “kindly” and “way” are next to one another for Stein, but that every word in Tender Buttons is next to every other word. Thus, the book defies linearity, compelling the reader/viewer to use her finger to flip randomly from one page to another. Goldsmith’s Fidget does the same. No matter its container, the content of these texts is (hyper)linked, held together by the playful way one idea, one word, one chapter brushes against the next.

The hyperlink (both as a device in digital texts and as a metaphor) turns otherwise paradigmatic relations into syntagmatic ones. Whereas paradigmatic relations work by drawing a connection between things at a conceptual distance (e.g., metaphors), the hyperlink has the ability to bring things (no matter how disparate) into direct physical contact. Everything on the internet is metonymic. In digital space, everything is next to everything else: people, ideas, high-culture, low-culture, art, trash, literary texts, plagiarized texts, etc. A haptic device like the iPad makes this all the more tangible. To get from page 1 to page 9 in a printed book, we physically turn each of 4 leaves. To get from page 1 to page 9 in a digital text, we can often press (or “click”) a single button. So, in a digital text, pages 2 through 8 are not between pages 1 and 9. Every page is, rather, touching every other page.

In Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary, N. Katherine Hayles writes,

Electronic literature is a ‘hopeful monster’ (as geneticists call adaptive mutations) composed of parts taken from diverse traditions that may not always fit neatly together. Hybrid by nature, it comprises a ‘trading zone’ (as Peter Galison calls it in a different context) in which different vocabularies, expertises, and expectations come together to see what might emerge from their intercourse.

In commenting on the hybridity of electronic literature, Hayles offers a hybrid sort of criticism herself, borrowing (in two relatively short sentences) from geneticists, a physicist, and alluding to the deconstructive monstrous birth that emerges at the close of Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, and Play.” The opening of Hayle’s book is a theoretical portmanteau, an only sometimes explicit mashing together of various takes on the field of electronic literature. And the entirety of her text is itself a hopeful monster, a disciplinary portmanteau, drawing from various fields to make its sometimes shifting and unstable claims.

In electronic literature, media blur one into another. A single piece of e-lit might draw on the literary tools of fiction, poetry, painting, photography, film, etc. The best works, though, force us to question the distinction between media altogether, reminding us of the tactile and interactive nature of all texts. In an even more fundamental way, we are asked to rethink how a medium is constituted through its unique grammar and syntax. The question “what is a poem?” gets overwritten by the question “what (if anything) does the medium or its grammar tell us about a work?” Because the very concept of the artistic medium is troubled from the start, the close-reader of work born on the web has few predetermined analytical strategies or tools to bring to the work. We are, instead, forced to either draw on techniques used in the analysis of existing media or to adamantly discard those techniques and turn to uncover new ones. It seems most sensible to do a bit of both.

When Flesh Fights Back

In 2010, I wrote a blog post about Andy Campbell’s “Spawn,” a “digital fiction” that explores our novel (and sometimes strange) engagement with digital texts. Campbell’s “Spawn” offers a seemingly simple image of an upside down jar with little bits of poetry that appear as we move our mouse across the frame. Leonardo Flores describes the jar as “a terrarium seeded with an alien species.” As I wrote in 2010,

My experience of “Spawn” is an emotional one, a sensuous one, a flirting with the slimy textures of the image, as my mouth bends around the words and my hand fondles the mouse in an attempt to reach deeper and deeper inside the poem. But “Spawn” doesn’t frustrate my attempts to read it — doesn’t resist interpretation — as much as it demands a proliferation of interpretation. Even as the sound acts as a sort of barricade (for me), the constant dance of the image and bite of the text lure me in. I thus find myself edging closer to the screen and reaching out, as if I could read the poem with my fingers.

Works like “Spawn” or Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves or Mod’s “Books in the Age of the iPad,” ask us to bring to them the language of excitation and frustration — a prose less bound by the conventions of its various containers. The apparent rigors (the stiffness) of academic reading practices must give way to a more tactile, more interactive, kind of reading, a rigor of a different color. Loss Glazier writes in Digital Poetics: The Making of E-Poetries,

It is as if we have been given a huge, brand-new, conceptually revolutionary operating system. The question then becomes, do we simply Laplink our old files to the new machine, or do we use this opportunity to reinvigorate, pluralize, and fortify our intelligence? What places us in that uncomfortable position between the Academy and a hard drive? … The hard choice before us is to identify new forms of literature, expand our habits, and not be restricted to old forms in new clothes. (178)

The hard choice before us is also to identify new forms of scholarship, to expand our critical reading habits, and not be restricted to old forms of Academia in new clothes. Glazier hints at these implications when he uses the phrase “between the Academy and a hard drive” and when he speaks of “perception” and “literary practice.” The work of the reader and the work of the writer should be coterminous on the page. What we write about literary texts, and especially electronic ones, must move between intellectual, emotional, and physical registers. From awe to disgust. Out of mud and into guts. Our literary criticism must be both intrinsically and instrumentally rigorous.

In his poem “pity this busy monster,manunkind” (1944), E. E. Cummings writes, “A world of made/is not a world of born–pity poor flesh” (9-10). The poem is about the dangers of progress — physical progress, intellectual progress, industrial progress. He laments the fact that the bodies he sees are made and not born — that identity is constructed — that bodies simply do rather than are. Cummings singles out “flesh” as the victim here, as though it is a substance (a medium) that hasn’t been done justice by the buildings and factories and billboards and suburbias he sees rising up around him. The word “flesh” suggests both the edible part of something and the substantial part. For Cummings, our flesh is being lost in the post-industrial age, but it is, first and foremost, a thing to be lost. The sound of the word “flesh” itself evokes this. Where “pity” and “poor” shoot out of the mouth in a fleeting, alliterative rat-a-tat-tat, the word “flesh” sounds meaty, forcing the lips to curl around it, as if it’s caught between the roof of our mouth and tongue, just before our teeth close around it. We eat the tail end of the word even as we say it. The irony of the poem is that flesh is ultimately not pitiable at all. It proclaims itself, interrupting the line with an abrupt dash. For Cummings, our bodies and flesh have become materials, food for the industrial and social machines. But even in the face of “progress,” our flesh fights back.

When we engage in interactive criticism, we bring ourselves into more direct physical contact with our sources, and with our readers, dismantling hierarchies of critical thought, turning critical paradigms into critical syntagms. In Digital Manipulability and Digital Literature, Serge Bouchardon and Davin Heckman write, “Control of the user and control by the user are not only intimately linked, but their inter-relations seem to be a specific mode of writing in digital works. Their constant co-presence results in a tension that produces interactivity.” This same tension should be reflected in our critical reading practices, a play of dialogue and manifesto, ebbing from provocation to community. In this, our criticism must be defiant, not contained or obedient — it must break the containers of page and screen.

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