Notes for John Bork “Core Exam Question 1”

I want to use debate between modernist and postmodern positions as a place to comment upon the experience of doing philosophy while programming, and specifically in the second chapter.

(1) 1. A good portion of the core reading list offers an historical account of either texts and/or technology. Yet such accounts differ quite dramatically on whether they take a postmodernist stance in arguing for a “break” with modernity or, conversely, take a stance that argues for continuity with the past. Outline this debate by selecting two or three proponents from each historical “camp,” emphasizing both the merits and the shortcomings of either position. What is at stake in arguing, for example, that digitalization entails an historical rupture with earlier forms of texts and/or technology? What is the argument for historicizing digital texts along a continuum or even evolution?

Many historical accounts of the development of literacy, print, and electronic forms of communication present similar narratives, stepping through nearly identical sequences of inventions, canonical examples, and social adaptations to them, from early forms of picture writing, alphabets, manuscript, mechanical printing, electrified mass production, to the digital codes, virtual environments, and Internet based media. Yet these studies of texts and technology often manifest the tensions between two overall, opposing philosophical positions, broadly referred to as modernism and postmodernism, yielding different assessments of what kinds of media future scholars should study, what techniques to employ and teach others, and even what may be the ultimate trajectory of human beings and machines as a result. These are at stake, implicitly or explicitly. Presenting views on texts and technology reflective of modernism, I will focus on Ong, Misa, and McGann; I will offer Baudrillard, Turkle, and O'Gorman as proponents of postmodern views.

Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy is standard reading in media studies for summarizing the development of writing alongside oral traditions, and the interior transformation of consciousness by long acculturation with alphabetic reading and writing to what is referred to as the modernist subject: the discrete, unity individual, the Cartesian ego. “Print creates a sense of closure not only in literary works but also in analytic philosophical and scientific works” (131). This sense of closure is essential to the modern individual. It is worth noting that the modernist position is not incompatible with theorizing radical, disruptive technological advances. Ong was influenced by Marshall McLuhan's media theories as well as a long scholarly tradition in philology and classical studies, agreeing with McLuhan that we needed the distance provided by jarringly new electric media like radio and television to reflect back on our cultural and intellectual indebtedness to literacy, and in the process, be able to examine dwindling natively oral cultures using similar analytical tools. While Ong appreciates the disruptive, transformative potential of “the electronic processing of verbalization,” he sees digitalization within the larger historical, evolutionary continuum made possible by print (174). The modernist view, therefore, is likely to recommend applying similar methodological techniques to digital media as have been deployed in the study of print, or may resist abrupt changes in the objects of scholarly study. An example especially relevant to my research is computer programming languages. Ong dismisses their study early in Orality and Literacy because they are not like mother tongues, “forever totally unlike human languages in that they do not grow out of the unconscious but directly out of consciousness” (7). Yet his insights into Learned Latin as a language primarily experienced as written rather than spoken seems like an obvious entry point for thinking about how we interact with programming languages today.

As the committee response follows, this is my turning their text into code in a process I call fossification or flossification. The committee takes another response here invoking Maxism example as indicative of digital popular culture and digital humanities studies.

But did the unconscious cleanly break away from the conscious when programming languages were developed? Perhaps, but I would imagine arguments could be developed that find the unconscious had more of a role in the development of programming languages than Ong suggests here.

Actually, Marx gives us something like that. Technology is an element in his metanarrative, and has a place in a cause-and-effect system.

But in fact, this may not be so different from the disruptive effect that Marxist accounts had in a world of functionalist accounts of social structure and change. Functionalism assumes that the elements of society stabilize it, and so explanations are directed at accounting for stability. Marxism assumes a dialectic that undermines stability, and so its explanations end up explaining that. Both are modernist accounts, though, it’s just that the first accounts for something static and the other accounts for something dynamic (but in some sense teleological).

It’s probably worth thinking about computer languages not as a marker of post-modernity (and I’m not saying that you’re saying this), but as an element that may or may not fit into an account. Perhaps more importantly (and we see this with your other answer also), the issue is between explanation and creation.

Open-minded? Correct? What do you mean by “good” here?

It may be more difficult to identify a modernist philosophy of technology, as so much of the debate revolves around technological determinism, and the modernist position is often dismissed as naively endorsing determinism. Thomas J. Misa's Leonardo to the Internet, however, carefully traces the development of many modern technological systems involved in commerce, empire building, industrial production, warfare, and global communications within specific historical, social, and cultural contexts to demonstrate a continuity of situated development similar to Ong's analysis of orality and literacy.

Add reference to Sterne as more detailed account than Misa.

The chapter on “Materials of Modernism” connects the fascination with steel, glass and concrete in art and architecture to “deeper currents of social and economic modernization driven by the science-and-systems technologies” (158). Misa focuses on what Manovich calls cultural conventions, saying little even in the final chapters of technological aesthetics that Manovich attributes to the conventions of software. We could view this as a hesitation to consider the disruptive impact of specific technologies, as Ong resists computer languages, as a weakness of the modernist perspective. Likewise, his discussion of Internet culture and the question of technology in the final chapters reject any monumental break with modernity that the opposing postmodern camp heralds.

McGann as the good modernist who experiments with programming XML.

I want to turn to Jerome McGann as an example of a “good” modernist who seriously engages in pondering the impact of digitalization on traditional humanities scholarship without rejecting the historical tradition or basic notions of human identity and subjectivity that are typical of postmodern theories. In his many comparisons between state of the art scholarly editing and computer programming, he makes the point that, while the tools are changing, the goals of humanities scholarship have changed little since the time of Plato. In developing concepts like 'quantum poetics' and 'deformative criticism', in which he uses Photoshop to transform images of Rossetti paintings, and spending decades on the Rossetti Archive, as a poiesis-as-theory, he certainly does not shy from experimenting with digitalization. To him, “texts and documents are not primarily understood as containers or even vehicles of meaning. Rather, they are sets of instantiated rules and algorithms for generating and controlling themselves and for constructing further sets of transmissional possibilities” (2). Computational, algorithmic views of textuality are consonant with modernism's quest for understanding deep structure, according the Hayles and Turkle. Thus, McGann's view adjusts what may have always been latent in scholarly theories of texts, but only readily revealed through experimentation with digital technologies such as encoding, markup, and creating databases. Importantly, the canon of Western literature need not be dismissed and replaced with electronic literature and video game studies, nor is scholarly editing obsoleted by new media studies. Rather, digitalization provides an enormous opportunities for revamping print editions in new electronic formats, as well as hinting at new modes of discovery through the trial and error of working with them. As he writes of the Rossetti Archive project, “our plan was to use the construction process as a mechanism for imagining what we didn't know about the project” (91). Thus, he seems to be attributing a cognitive role to the evolving archive as an information technology integration, enacting Hayles' human-computer cyborg articulated in Electronic Literature. What came to make sense as iterative changes to the protocols that made the system work better in retrospect reflect the discovery of unknowns as if the result of Socratic self-questioning.

If consciousness and subjectivity evolve slowing in the modernist camp, the postmodernists believe a rupture has occurred that transforms not only human being but the nature of the text into something different. Following up on McGann's reiteration of Socratic questioning by experimenting with software applications, Baudrillard makes the claim that the big change has occurred because technological transformations have been internalized into the core of nature: “This is what happens to us with cloning, no longer only at the level of messages, but at the level of individuals. . . . There is a precession of reproduction over production, a precession of the genetic model over all possible bodies. . . . The prostheses of the industrial age are still external, exotechnical, those that we know have been subdivided and internalized: esotechnical. We are in the age of soft technologies—genetic and mental software” (99-100). McGann is a modernist because he will not concede that technological change has so deeply infiltrated his being that he himself is a posthuman cyborg that cannot be probed beyond a certain depth, and to the extent that inquiry reveals anything, it is repeating patterns of artificial structures imposed by technical models. For the postmoderns, subjectivity, consciousness, and identity must be redefined based on the discoveries of psychoanalysis, and damned to the melancholy of hegemony and nihilism of transparency from the recognition of the immanence of detail. Forceful political rhetoric is often allied to these positions, such as Horkheimer and Adorno, and Feenberg, in part because technological systems are subjected to a sort of psychoanlaysis as well. Revealing the hidden agendas of powerful individuals and groups in seemingly neutral applications of likewise neutral science infuriates those oppressed by them. Postmodern writings are certainly provocative, and have received much attention by texts and technology theorists because digital technologies seem to instantiate their claims.

The committee response to my discussion of McGann invites continuing with programming examples along with their folksonomies. I failed to communicate that I think McGann is a modernist because he relies on writing but perhaps does some programming on the side, and the committee questions where scholarship has gone along with consumer production oriented.

Ok, so in what sense are we calling McGann a modernist then? Is it just that he includes history? Because that doesn’t make one a modernist, necessarily. Subjectivity? Maybe that’s closer, but it still matters what we do with subjectivity here. This could use a little more unpacking Yet we’ve seen very little of these “radicalized” examples of e-text discovery and organization. At least on the consumer end. Amazon Kindle’s X-Ray is one example, but it’s taken *years* for them to figure it out. I guess scholarship has done somewhat more with XML and figuring out “legitimate” attributions of authorship, plus keeping track of the debate within the file’s metadata, etc. But there seems to be a whole lot more potential in terms of folksonomies, groupings of themes, etc., that remain largely ignored in consumer e-text products.

Sherry Turkle started her career as a psychoanalyst, and in France encountered the teachings of Lacan, whose interpretations of Freud have grounded much poststructuralist and postmodern theories, including Derrida and Baudrillard. Life on the Screen is her ethnographic study of computer game players, inhabitants of virtual worlds, and users of social media, all the putative locus of digital textuality and therefore the new corpus for media studies. She carefully develops the split between modernism and postmodernism enacted in changes in the ways humans interact with electronic computers, from a comprehensive, technically adept, deep, designers perspective to consumer mastery of interfaces and surface level controls. The Apple Macintosh is the quintessential postmodern object. She writes, “the tools of the modernist culture of calculation became layered underneath the experience of the culture of simulation. . . . these developments all pointed to a new kind of experience in which people do not so much command machines as enter into conversations with them” (34). Hard mastery of any discipline is no longer possible, and a bricoleur (tinker, handyman) approach is called for computer programming (in Turkle's earlier work) and in our comportment with the technologized environment in general. Thus, postmodern approaches often marshall interdisciplinary methodologies, sometimes in apparently haphazard ways, to produce their commentaries. The consequences for humanities scholarship have been explored by a Ulmer, Landow, Bogost, and O'Gorman among others.

[Since I am running of of time] I will conclude with Marcel O'Gorman's E-Crit, since it argues that new media calls for new majors, illustrating what is at stake for the humanities taking the postmodern position seriously. He rejects the literary canon of McGann as complicit in the Republic of Scholars, who have constructed the humanities to serve their employment needs while excluding the majority of texts and other media as irrelevant. Instead, he considers the 'remainder' of scholarly language, such as jokes, puns, and images, using methods outside the techno-bureaucratic academic culture, leaning heavily on the teachings of Gregory Ulmer, who emphasizing discovery through invention rather than traditional hermeneutics. “What I am attempting to outline in this book is a heuretic approach to discourse that draws on the suggestive power of pictures as a means of generating new modes of writing suitable to an image-oriented culture” (12). Moreover, he revamps the compartmentalized English department such that “E-Crit is an interdisciplinary program that combines English, Communications, Computer Information Systems, and Fine Art” (xiii), with an eye for producing marketable humanities workers. The political fervor of other postmodern writings is obvious in his work, which seems like a good thing for buttressing academic disciplines that are struggling with funding and legitimacy in a higher education environment organized around technocapitalism. Likewise, embracing interdisciplinary, collaborative work fits models common in high tech workplaces. On the other hand, this radicalism may also alienate others from the cause, and the choice of materials for study and the creative forms, such as the Ulmerian mystory, may fail to sufficiently connect with the tradition that holds together the modernist camp. In conclusion, then, I am concerned that the postmodern camp, as it has spread into texts and technology studies, may result in alienation and an inability to produce a generation of scholars up to the tasks the others like McGann envision, such as “the critical and editorial reconstitutions of our inherited cultural archive in digital forms. We need to learn to do this because we don't as yet know how. Furthermore, we scholars need to learn because it is going to be done, if not by us, then by others. We are the natural heirs to this task because it is we who know most about books” (184-185).

The concluding comments from the committee, a true post script.

Yes – this is key, I think. Ah, there we go. That’s what I was looking for. Ok, this makes sense of why McGann could be considered a modernist. So is a psychoanalytic leaning or basis a prerequisite to being a “postmodern” author? Or is it more about dissolving boundaries and having less clear points of separation between content and form? Or at least new pedagogical practices for existing majors.

Good, but needs a bit more clarification as to what O’Gorman means by “remainder.”

Well, and in addition to that, it may well confuse novelty with production, or creativity. Or, more like, sublimate some other imperatives (including corporate ones) to that novelty, without examining them. It’s a short path from the postmodernism of Apple MacIntosh (supposing we follow Turkle) to the consumer-oriented device such as the iPad, which focusses more and more on collecting marketing data, and encouraging shopping. I’m sure there’s still some creativity there, but I do wonder how much of it is just novelty. Agree with Bruce here and he makes a good point. The iPad being designed (and even somewhat marketed, in many instances) as a consumption device rather than an inventive device, plus Apple’s “walled garden” tend to reinforce the idea of a single legitimate copy (of something – whether music, or document, or video) that is policed through some control/surveillance mechanism (in this case, Apple Inc.) then copied and seamlessly transferred to multiple devices. In this case the product is certainly digital, but not in the transformative, remixed way the postmodernists discuss.