Reasserting Thing-Power: Roughness as a Response to Antimaterialism

Here’s the talk I gave at the 2013 DH Forum at the University of Kansas today. It was a well organized conference. Many thanks to all who attended, tweeted, and asked such great questions. Here are my slides, if you’re into that kind of thing.

In a typical scene of multitasking—i.e. procrastinating one thing by half-working on another thing simultaneously—I was drafting this presentation while prepping for a class I’m teaching this semester. In an unexpected moment of clarity, the two came together in this passage from Walt Whitman’s “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads,” first published in 1888:

My Book and I—what a period we have presumed to span! those thirty years from 1850 to ‘80—and America in them! Proud, proud indeed may we be, if we have cull’d enough of that period in its own spirit to worthily waft a few breaths of it to the future! (382)

The line “My Book and I” really caught my attention. I couldn’t get over the question, how would we have to revise this line if we were to imagine Whitman—or a student in one of our classes—speaking it today? My Blog and I? My E-portfolio and I? Or—and this sounds dreadful to me—my Facebook and I? Whitman’s passage makes me wonder about issues like digital longevity, preservation, and any medium’s capacity to bear history forward. But mostly I am struck by the way the passage expresses such a complete identification of a writer with his text as a living, breathing, independent, at times gnarly and surprising thing. The book is not the vehicle, but rather it’s the companion sitting in the passenger seat, sometimes taking a turn to drive now and then. Moreover, the passage makes me wonder—and worry—about the current state of composing in and for digital media.

If Whitman had grown up with a Commodore 64 instead of typesetting and ink, he surely would have been at the center of trends and creative practice in new media. Whitman self-published and literally produced his books, maintaining involvement with them from start to finish. His conception of the composing process is material, through and through. In Re-Scripting Walt Whitman, Ed Folsom and Kenneth Price capture this claim in precise terms: “Ideas, Whitman’s poems insist, pass from one person to another not in some ethereal process, but through the bodies of texts, through the muscular operations of tongues and hands and eyes, through the material objects of books.” This thoroughly materialist approach to writing fits Katherine Hayles’ criteria for media-specific literary practice. If we take into account the broader scope of Whitman’s lifelong writing project, what Folsom and Price call an “extraordinary conflation of book and identity,” Hayles’ term “technotext” seems apt. Composer, composing medium, and composition: a “dynamically interacting whole” (Hayles “Print Is Flat” 86).

But what would it take for Whitman to achieve that technotextual conflation and make the same statement today—“My Book and I”—with a digital medium taking the place of the capital-B Book?[1] It would take knowing a markup language and maybe one or two programming languages. And/or it would take familiarity with a software platform and an operating system to run it. And/or it might also take a devotion to staying up-to-date with changing web standards and new mobile devices. I could envision Whitman being quite fond of commenting his code—he would mark up his HTML body as if it were his own. Yet—and imagine he continuously revised and updated the same digital text over and over for thirty years—it would take an incredible amount of technical skill, support, and ambition.[2] For Whitman—or here I could even say students in any writing-intensive class—getting the digital material apparatus to embody the process of its own creation would be / is difficult. It’s hard work made even harder not only by (1) institutions and programs that aren’t structured to afford the time or resources to teaching coding or new media practice in-depth, but also (2) a trend in digital culture towards preferring a smooth user experience, even if that means making the back-end functionality hostile to users who want to understand how it works. The first factor is important, but so is the second, and that’s the one I want to focus on today.

The receding presence of digital materiality, specifically in web applications that see users as consumers (Amazon, but also Facebook), is largely a result of antimaterial sentiment intertwined with digital devices that are explicitly designed and marketed to not be noticed. I take the term “antimateriality” from the political philosopher Jane Bennett, who argues convincingly that the separation of inert, passive object from purposeful, active human subject is neither ethical nor accurate. Her 2010 book Vibrant Matter champions “a vitality intrinsic to matter itself” (10). For the vital materialist, antimaterialism is not simply ignorance of matter but an accelerated sweeping-aside or aggressive disposal of matter and its messy complexities. She invokes antimaterialism in the context of consumer culture: “It is hard to discern, much less acknowledge the material dignity of the thing when your […] thoughts are scrambled by the miles of shelving at a superstore. […] Too much stuff in too quick succession equals the fast ride from object to trash” (351). Through the lens of what she calls “thing-power” objects or debris (“stuff to ignore” [4]) become lively things (“stuff that [commands] attention” [4] or fear).

While Bennett’s subject matter is metal crystals, fatty acids, and electrical power grids, it’s easy to see how the concept of antimaterialism can translate to digital culture. Think of the app store, where for 99 cents or $1.99 or even for nothing, you could have a little program that does its job and nothing more or less. If you don’t like the app or it doesn’t do what you want, you can just delete it or forget it and choose a different app from the vast inventory. For a number of years, I’ve been in the habit of jotting down striking quotes from tech industry TV commercials, and here’s one I wrote down during an iPhone ad in 2008: “iPhone: solving life’s dilemma’s one app at a time.” This appification of computers (i.e. the process of turning a complex and error-prone technology into a Swiss Army knife) is a marketing sensibility that sells readymade fixes for problems, trumpets ease over struggle, and speeds along the recession of digital materiality in the process.[3]

Ease and forgetability are somewhat paradoxically the clearest beacons of complication and obfuscation. Latour is my touchstone for this point, especially when he describes the automatic door-closer as a technology that disappears until it fails to work on a cold February day. That’s when someone must affix a note reminding new arrivals to close the door behind them because the trusty device “is on strike” (Latour, “Missing Masses” 153). As Jentery Sayers paraphrases the general argument of Latour and other theorists concerned with nonhuman agency and critical media awareness, “with imperceptibility comes the naturalization of ideologies, where only input and output matter.” Imperceptibility, which often qualifies as ease in our use of interfaces, is an enemy of creative practice and pedagogy. Ease conceals opportunities for intervention and resistance. Such opportunities are actually easier to identify when a particular medium has rough edges and takes something other than ease-of-use as its primary goal. In this way then, we might think of rough media as actually being more teachable than easy, squeaky clean, well functioning media. Contours, bugs, and surprises yield a deeper and less hierarchical critical engagement than we might otherwise discover in things that “just work” seamlessly and solve dilemmas. Thinking with thing-power helps us remember that all of our writing technologies have a little self-aware ROOMBA in them.

Let me put this another way—and this might be stating the obvious: it’s easier to see the materiality of paper. Not just to see it, but to experience it—to smell it, stain it, live through it. If you’ve ever gotten a deep paper cut, that slice is given but a tiny red measure of you is also received by the paper. Think of your oldest book. The book you took with you on your semester abroad, the book you packed and unpacked with each new apartment lease, the book you’ve repaired or let fall apart. I know this is starting to sound nostalgic, and I tend to be a nostalgic person – but I want to insist that this is more than nostalgia. It is a radical identification of the agency of writing materials and it is the claim that Whitman’s degree of identification with a text is simply harder to achieve in digital code than it is in script. Because “most users will simply not have entrée to the mechanisms governing their interactions with […] electronic information” (Kirschenbaum 58), the access point for the functionality of paper is just a much bigger target than it is for computers.[4]

It wasn’t always that way. Prior to the 1970s, the general public would have almost immediately associated computers or “electronic brains” with heaving, noisy, hot physical matter. The word “digital” went through a gradual process of becoming tied to a sense of fluidity and ease more than to a sense of roughness and presence. To make this point, I’ll briefly trace the word “digital” as it unfolded from hands to computers in journalistic accounts.

Mentions in 1920s and 30s American newspapers hew close to the Latin etymology of “digital,” referring to the dexterity of fingers: a pianist’s maneuvers during a successful (or abysmal) recital, for example. This 1937 article features a photo of a bridal party guest giving “digital attention to her coiffure,” according to the caption. dhforum2013.008 In the 1940s, the military began publicly revealing bits and pieces of the computing technology it had used during the second world war, and computing pioneers emerged from behind the scenes to be interviewed by The New York Times and other papers. At this point, “digital” was beginning to take root in the public imaginary as binary data—fast, efficient, easier than adding machines and paper. Yet, importantly, it was still tough to ignore the materiality of computing. In a 1946 article, the ENIAC, a tremendously large early computer that occupied an entire room, was depicted alongside human “programmers” or “attendants” adjusting wires and controls. The article reports on speed right alongside brooding complexity and architectural, creature-like features: “The Eniac has some 40 panels nine feet high, which bristle with control and indicating material” (Kennedy). dhforum2013.009

However, as computers got smaller and as the field of interface design established itself as a profession and area of study, the principle of immateriality as a user experience emerged. Most historians locate the beginning of this emergence in the mid-1960s when the focus of computer scientists expanded from military applications to encompass “affordable interactive computing” (Abbate 38). In the 1950s, “the interactive style of computing made possible by random access disk memory would force IBM, as well as the rest of the computer industry, to redefine itself” (Ceruzzi qtd. in Kirschenbaum 77). In the mid-60s, interactive computing meant time-sharing, the technique of distributing a single computer’s processing power across multiple users. Time sharing was more efficient than batch processing, which required paper punched cards and magnetic tape and which distanced programmers from the actual computer. According to Janet Abbate, “time sharing was seen by its proponents as the innovation that would liberate computers from their punched cards and allow direct and easy interaction with the machine” (35).

Donald Davies’ notion of a national packet switching network in the UK furthered the goal of interactivity and user friendliness. Davies wanted his network to appeal to business workers and recreational users, and he “was one of many researchers who hoped to improve the user friendliness of computers” (Abbate 34).[5] This meant that communication, to be as easy and immediate as possible, had to allow “the user [to be able to] ignore the complexities” of the computer’s operation, as Davies writes in 1966 (qtd. in Abbate 38). The operating system further “[removed] the inscriptive act from the direct oversight of the human user, screening it first by the command line and then by a graphical user interface,” according to Kirschenbaum (84). As he and other historically minded media scholars have illustrated, the deliberate engineering of immateriality resulted in the user growing apart from operrations (often called “black-boxing”).

What we now refer to as “digital culture” bears few meaningful reminders of the paper, wood, tangles of wires, “18,000 vacuum tubes [and] thirty tons” (Kennedy 1949) which all were once unforgettably, irrepressibly, and even impressively in the picture. While paper insists on its materiality and it’s not good at hiding its age or covering over mistreatment, most modern digital applications are generally really good at the opposite: they are designed so that the user doesn’t think about materiality—indeed, proprietary software makes it difficult or impossible to feel close to the code. Facebook’s code is intentionally distancing—it uses confounding class names that combine strings of numbers and letters that make no sense to outsiders. Networked digital applications are also designed to be resilient. The practice of “patching” hints at this self-healing process.

In saying that we can more readily approach the materiality of paper than we can the materiality of digital composition, that’s not to say that paper is a more natural or more human medium than a website. In the first edition of Leaves of Grass, in fact, we find a sentiment that’s utterly opposed to the “conflation of book and identity” which Folsom and Price describe as a central quality of Whitman’s work:

I was chilled with the cold types and cylinder and wet paper between us.
I pass so poorly with paper and types . . . . I must pass with the contact of bodies and souls.

These lines stayed put more or less unaltered through four revisions of what would eventually become “A Song for Occupations” in 1881, when the poet took the lines out entirely – although the “chilled” line did acquire parentheses in 1867. These lines betray a desire for a warmth of immediate nearness that could somehow pierce the cold interface. The paper book, as a support for writing, is indeed a contrivance, a screen, “a little machine for two hands” to use Derrida’s great phrase (PM 50). Whitman’s authorial persona in these lines acknowledges that. But somehow, with time and age perhaps, things changed for him. Plainly, this is not the same attitude that confronts us in the 1888 essay “A Backward Glance.”

The Whitman chilled by the mediating presence of “cylinder and wet paper” is a Whitman who’s stumbling over friction in the means. In her MLA address last year, Bethany Nowviskie made a distinction between friction in the means and friction in the materials. Friction in the means is “disenfranchising resistance […] unhealthily located in a toolset.” Friction in the materials, in contrast, is “positive resistance”—the kind “that makes art.” Those who encounter friction in the means are mere users, detached or somehow removed from full engagement with the creative process. Those who encounter friction in the materials have an active, generative capacity to get their hands dirty with the labor of production. For Nowviskie, these two types of resistance translate to two potential futures for the digital humanities: (1) DH as “a generative research activity in its own right,” and (2) “commodity tool-use for the classroom.”

What does this latter future look like? Last October, a DMCA violation notice from Pearson over a single piece of content turned into the equivalent of a kill-switch for the Edublogs network. After receiving Pearson’s take-down notice, web hosting firm ServerBeach, which hosts not only Edublogs but also some content for, pulled the plug on Edublogs. The whole blogging network was down for about an hour during the day in the U.S., or 3AM in Australia where Edublogs is based. As the system admin and CTO at Edublogs told Ars Technica, “[we] watched, in horror, live as our Web servers were shut down one-by-one.” Clearly, when 1.45 million blogs become 404 error pages, we’ve got friction in the means. The source of resistance, for Edublogs employees and users, was literally inaccessible. “It’s pretty hard to believe that a hosting provider would […] take an entire network offline over one piece of content,” said intellectual property attorney Evan Brown. It might be hard to believe, but it’s also hard to understand unless you’re familiar with copyright law, web server caches, database lookup, the difficulty of human communication via email, and other factors that probably have nothing to do with the post you were writing… which just vanished into thin air.

So yes, it can help to learn to program. It can help to roll your own website. It can help to have your own server. All these things are full of DIY goodness. But it’s also important to acknowledge and actively foster learning situations that nurture risk-taking and are hostile to material forgetfulness and uncritical tool use. Because you never D.I. 100% Y. If we take seriously the tenets of thing-power, getting closer to materiality is not about reclaiming control and enforcing one’s subjectivity in the midst of technological struggle. Rather, “the ethical aim becomes to distribute value more generously” (Bennett 13) and to acknowledge the agency inherent in our so-called tools. Different from resistance in the materials and resistance in the means, what Bennett calls “thing-powers of resistance” (13) bypass the user/maker divide and reimbricate human and nonhuman actors in a network of relations. The resistance of thing-power shines a certain slant of light on digital materiality, and the lesson I learn is that whether we assume a role of maker or user, whether we program or are programmed, there’s no escaping the invasion of various actants that we cannot control nor predict. If it hadn’t been a DMCA take-down notice, it could have been a power loss and failed backup generator (which wiped out UWM’s website for almost an entire day last spring) or “the site ran out of memory” (the explanation given for UWM’s CMS landing page triggering a 404 error for an hour on the first day of classes this semester).

To wrap up, I want to ask: why did Whitman remove the “wet paper” lines in 1881, at around the same time he composed the richly materialist “A Backward Glance”? Although I don’t claim to be a Whitman scholar and I haven’t pored over his manuscripts, I can speculate that as his text endured and accrued a life of its own over the drafts and decades, Whitman began to acknowledge “contact” not just between writers and readers (“I must pass with the contact of bodies”), but also between writers and writing technologies. I believe the stumbling block of means—that is, the wet paper which is akin to the flawed interface or rough user experience—became an allowance or portal for agency in the materials. What he experienced is not a transfer of control or conversion from “passive tool-user” to “capable artisan” (Nowviskie). The removal of those lines doesn’t signify, I don’t think, his discovery of a maker’s agency or a reclamation of control. Whitman had always been a maker. Rather, what I see is a concession—near the end of his life, a coming to terms with the lively agency present in his writing materials: “thing-powers of resistance” (Bennett 13). The question “How do we extricate ourselves from Edublogs and commodity tool-use?” quickly becomes “How do we humanize ourselves in the face of cold types and wet paper?” Yet, both questions make little sense in a world where humans are humans because they interact with objects.

I am not saying be suspicious of easy interfaces. I am saying be captivated by them, in the way that a child’s first inclination upon receiving a multi-part toy for Christmas is to take it apart. (At least, that was the first thing I always did, to my grandmother’s dismay.) Respond with surprise, engagement, and a touch of abandon—not distance and suspicion.

[1] In making such a big deal about Whitman’s capital-B book, I know I am treading dangerously close to a print-centric ideology of the divine Book of Nature—the ideology of gathering and boundedness—of a linear, ordered, and planned universe. Here Book means law. The absolute, ubiquitous book. Or a dialectic circling toward resolution: “the onto-encyclopedic or neo-Hegelian model of the great total book, the book of absolute knowledge linking its own infinite dispersion to itself, in a circle” (PM 15). Elsewhere, Derrida has identified the distinction between capital-B Book and little-b book as a contrast between “divine or natural writing and the human and laborious, finite and artificial inscription” (G 15). Writing, Derrida points out, here is a metaphor: “that is to say, a natural, eternal, and universal writing, the system of signified truth, which is recognized in its dignity” (G 15). That doesn’t really characterize the capital-B Book that Whitman’s talking about. His book is not about order, resolution, totality, or dignity. The “human and laborious” is a more fitting description. His poems continuously revel in disorder, incoherence, and—famously—contradiction.

[2] A conversation about the New York Times webtext “Snow Fall” on the TechRhet listserv (2012) captures some of the technical demands of truly innovative and boundary-pushing digital production. My point is that I’m guessing Whitman would not have been content to publish Leaves in a traditional way, digital or otherwise, if he were at the forefront of experimentation in today’s culture. And in trading book for computer, he would have encountered a host of logistical difficulties. As Hayles (2004) notes, “Whereas computers struggle to remain viable for a decade, books maintain backward compatibility for hundreds of years” (84).

[3] I owe this point to Jonathan Zittrain. In The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It he makes a distinction between sterile media, which includes computers that are treated as appliances, and generative media that invite tinkering.

[4] For example, it takes Kirschenbaum nearly 50 pages of close reading and deep, sleuth-like research to root out the forensic materiality of the early text-based computer game Mystery House. He draws on specialized knowledge and a willingness to participate in a discourse that might be unfamiliar to humanist readers. Such effort is not readily encouraged—in fact, it is increasingly discouraged—in everyday digital media use, but also in many humanities classrooms.

[5] This attitude marked a departure from previous experiments with packet switching in the U.S. When he was introduced to Paul Baran’s work on packet switching (Baran called this the “Distributed Adaptive Message Block Network” [Abbate 29]), Davies felt the Cold War logic of “highly connected networks” was unnecessary: “If the watchword for Baran was survivability, the priority for Davies was interactive computing” (Abbate 34). In following, Davies spent a great deal of time designing the interface for his communications network: “The NPL designers therefore focused mainly on providing as easy-to-use terminal interface to the network” (Abbate 42).

Works Cited
Abbate, Janet. Inventing the Internet. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000. Print.

Bennett, Jane. “The Force of Things: Steps toward an Ecology of Matter” Political Theory 32.3 (2004): 347-372. JSTOR. Web. 10 Sep. 2013.

– – -. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke UP, 2010. Print.

Brodkin, Jon. “How a Single DMCA Notice Took Down 1.45 Million Education Blogs.” Ars Technica (15 Oct. 2012). Web. 10 Sep. 2013.

Folsom, Ed and Kenneth Price. “Re-Scripting Walt Whitman.” The Walt Whitman Archive. n.d. Web. 10 Sep. 2013.

Hayles, N. Katherine. Writing Machines. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002. Print.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew. Mechanisms. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008. Print.

Latour, Bruno.“Where Are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts.” Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992. 225–258. PDF file.

Nowviskie, Bethany. “Resistance in the Materials.” Modern Language Association Convention. Boston, MA. 2013. 4 Jan. 2013. Web. 10 Sep. 2013.

Sayers, Jentery. Dissertation abstract. Dec. 2010. Web. 10 Sep. 2013.

University of Pennsylvania. “John W. Mauchly and the Development of the ENIAC Computer: Technical Description of the ENIAC.” Van Pelt Library. n.d. Web. 10 Sep. 2013.

Whitman, Walt. The Portable Walt Whitman. ed. Michael Warner. New York: Penguin, 2003. Print.