Pixel Pour and the Eversion

Over on the Tumblr for my forthcoming book, The Emergence of the Digital Humanities, I’ve just posted about Kelly Goeller’s iconic street-art creation, Pixel Pour. A recent conversation with the artist cleared up for me some questions of timing and materials of this “8-bit” installation and helped me understand the viral spread of images of the work, which has become an icon of the eversion.

Pixel Pour
Kelly Goeller, Pixel Pour

Mr. Penumbra and mixed-reality publishing

A recent book review in The New York Times of Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore quotes Kathleen Fitzpatrick on “the anxiety of obsolescence.” As it happens, I’m finishing a chapter that also puts Sloan’s novel alongside Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence. My argument supports and helps to explain an observation made on Twitter by Matthew Kirschenbaum, that Sloan’s book is “quite likely the first novel of the digital humanities” (Nov. 26, 2012). Sloan (who used to work for Twitter) responded to Kirschenbaum, “Dunno if it’s the first, but I definitely had the digital humanities community in mind while writing it.”

Sloan is part of a group of technologically savvy creative types, writers, designers, book people and typography geeks, who have seen themselves as participating in what they call (taking the term from blogger and designer Jason Kottke), “Liberal Arts 2.0.” Carmody and Sloan co-edited a collection of essays in 2009 called New Liberal Arts, which might in fact be understood as a project in the “vernacular” digital humanities. The collection began as a group blog, was printed as a limited edition chapbook (which sold out), and was also made available online in PDF and HTML forms under a Creative Commons noncommercial license. The physical book, the editors said, was meant to be “a beautiful object,” their way “of keeping faith with the past. For all this fuss about new-ness, we know the score: Books are pretty great techne.”

Sloan’s novel is I think truest to digital humanities now in its expression of a desire for a mixed-reality, physical and digital creative culture, a desire also expressed in almost every interview Sloan has given about the book. It’s a desire that grows out of the real physical/digital maker culture (of which Sloan’s a part). This aspect of the technology culture over the past decade amounts to a central ethos, one that’s only recently starting to be widely reported, and that can too easily be misread as mere nostalgia, or as part of an analog backlash. It’s instead, I think, based on a healthy skepticism about the “frictionless” immaterialities of digital publishing, a way of resisting the easy oppositions between “print” and “digital” that have riven publishing in the past couple of decades. This ethos has much to say to emerging digital humanities scholarship as it tries in a critical way to reinvent its own forms of digital publication and scholarly communication while also turning outward, to address developments in the world at large.

What Fitzpatrick’s book on (mostly academic) publishing expresses so well–and what the MLA Commons project she’s spearheading also addresses–is that publishing in the digital age has to begin by recognizing the constraints and affordances not just of “ebooks” or “screens” versus “pages” but of new publishing platforms. Those platforms have to be recognized as social, mixed-reality “stacks,” layered systems that connect writers and readers through materialities of various kinds, for various purposes, and that for now will participate in “book culture” even as they bridge to other forms of communication, other, emergent forms of making public (which is what publishing means) in this era of the eversion. This is true for a variety of digital humanities experiments both inside and outside the academy.

Analog backlash?

There’s an anti-digital backlash going on, tied to an interest in the “artisanal,” and ultimately connected to the maker movement. Or at least it looks like and anti-digital, pointedly analog backlash. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes gets called the “anti-kindle,” for example, because it allows us to remember the tactile and physical qualities of books (by carving them up with a die-cut method). Appeals to paper and boards and glue and thread, and the weight and feel (and smell) of those things, have recently been made in the context of the artisanal turn in general. Partly this is a countermovement in response to the digitization of everything. As Andrew Piper says, “The more screenish our world becomes, the more we try to insert tactility back into it.” He rightly argues in Book Was There that we’re in a transitional or “translational” moment requiring increased humanistic and technical understanding of what is at stake in the different materialities of our different platforms for reading.

In fact, the most interesting instances of the apparent analog backlash, the bookish resistance to digitization, often contain within themselves the evidence of the very translational complications that may seem at first to be trying to escape. Dave Eggers’ McSweeney’s Publishing has produced a number of books with flagrantly physical bindings, for example, not the least of which is Eggers’ own 2012 novel, A Hologram for the King, with a textured, gold-foil stamped cover. It’s a book that says “Book”–no accident, surely, in a novel that tells the story of a crazy boondoggle to set up a hologram-based communication link in the Saudi desert.

McSweeney’s interest in this area is diverse. In December it will publish musician Beck Hansen’s latest “album,” Song Reader, which as the publisher’s advertisement says, comes “in an almost-forgotten form–twenty songs existing only as individual pieces of sheet music, never before released or recorded.”

Complete with full-color, heyday-of-home-play-inspired art for each song and a lavishly produced hardcover carrying case, Song Reader is an experiment in what an album can be at the end of 2012–an alternative that enlists the listener in the tone of every track, and that’s as visually absorbing as a dozen gatefold LPs put together.

If you want to hear the songs, the announcement concludes, “bringing them to life depends on you.” In a digital era when analog synthesizers, vinyl records, and analog tape recordings are retro-hip, Beck has out-analoged the analog fetishists (like the grandson of a Fluxus artist that he is).

Beck’s preface to the album has just appeared at The New Yorker website.

We started collecting old sheet music, and becoming acquainted with the art work, the ads, the tone of the copy, and the songs themselves. They were all from a world that had been cast so deeply into the shadow of contemporary music that only the faintest idea of it seemed to exist anymore. I wondered if there was a way to explore that world that would be more than an exercise in nostalgia . . . .

But the final twist to the project is that (of course) performances of the songs will be recorded, are already being recorded, by known artists and unknown amateurs, using digital technology and the conventions of social media (of course), and selections of these performances will be posted as videos for download on the album’s official website. So the event or happening that the album is meant to cue is very much what Piper calls a translational event, a hybrid, analog/digital affair, and is ultimately dependent on the Internet for its own successful publication, its being made public, rather than remaining many isolated,  individual experiences with ukeleles and pianos.

Agrippa, the Eversion of Cyberspace, and Games

The Oxonian Review has just published today an interview with Kevin Begos, the publisher behind the experimental multimedia artist’s book and transmedia happening, Agrippa (1992). Agrippa the work included at its center a poem, “Agrippa,” by William Gibson, which appeared ten years after Gibson coined the term “cyberspace.” The poem was found on a floppy disk physically embedded in the book, and the text of the poem famously encrypted itself as it was read, disappearing as it scrolled down the screen for the first and last time.

(from The Agrippa Files)

Except that the text of the poem was very quickly released into the wild, out on the Internet, and remains available in various versions to this day, as documented and thoroughly analyzed by Matthew Kirschenbaum in his brilliant book, Mechanisms (the book takes its title from Gibson’s poem), and on The Agrippa Files website on which he collaborated with Alan Liu and others, a good example of what Peter Shillingsburg has called a “knowledge site,” a kind of collaborative, multimedia archive of the larger work that is Agrippa.

Back in the 1990s, the work was represented by many as a paradigmatic example of the immaterial, disembodied nature of the network and its hacker elite–a text that appeared to literally dissolve into thin air! It took Kirschenbaum’s forensic and materialist textual analysis to reveal that it was actually something very different, a prime example of multiply material textuality in the digital age.

I would add that Agrippa as a work–digital poem, physical book including artwork, performance and “transmission,” afterlife on the Internet–is the far-flung network it spawned, something like a distributed game of meaning, a view that would seem to be supported by remarks made by Begos and his interviewer, Courtney Traub, in today’s piece.

Begos: . . . I doubt that there would be any publisher ready to experiment with such innovation, which tends to be driven by artists and designers rather than the companies themselves.

I would contrast this to the enormous investment that online game makers have made. It’s come out of virtually nowhere to become this multibillion-dollar world market. Hypercompetitive but constantly evolving—there’s this incredible competition to make games more realistic and more experimental, and it’s attracting a lot of creative people.

Traub: I think many people might argue that much of the true narrative experimentation is taking place in the games realm. The experimentation people thought would be happening with books is going on more in gaming.

Begos: I think that’s completely true. That’s where the real developments are taking place and legitimate breakthroughs in terms of how people interact with artwork and with each other. They’ve built platforms that will evolve.

One way to further our understanding of Agrippa now, I’d suggest, would be to compare it to games, and especially trans-platform games such as ARGs, which deliberately play with the interpenetration of digital data and physical objects and spaces. Kirschenbaum recently suggested on Twitter that Agrippa anticipated the New Aesthetic. I’d argue that it’s an early harbinger by the inventor of cyberspace of the eversion of the network, its transformation out into the mixed-reality experienced most effectively and widely embodied today in games. Agrippa appeared in 1992, ten years after “Burning Chrome” introduced the term “cyberspace.” But The Agrippa Files, and thus the involvement of the new Digital Humanities with this mixed-reality artifact, went online in December 2005–a crucial moment when, as Gibson was just then on the verge of saying in print, the network was everting. The timeline is meaningful, and the connections between Agrippa, the new Digital Humanities, the eversion of cyberspace, and games, are richly suggestive, as I’m beginning to see.

Codename Revolution podcast (and a new project)

The MIT Press’s monthly podcast series featured our book Codename Revolution for February. Chris Gondek of Heron & Crane Productions interviewed my co-author, George Thiruvathukal, and me over the phone.  Chris was in an Oregon Public Broadcasting studio, I was in my English department office, and George was in the Center for Textual Studies and Digital Humanities across campus, so there was something of a conference call feeling to the experience. (Once I was interviewed by Scott Simon for NPR; he was in D.C. and I was in a Chicago Public Radio studio, but there was at least a technician in the room with me.)  Despite that, the interview was fun, and Chris did a really good job of producing it to reflect the conversation we had in real time.

When I saw the link on the MIT Press podcast page I noticed we were preceded in January by B. Coleman. I took it as a sign, since I’m reading and enjoying her book, Hello Avatar, now as I research my own next book in progress:  The Emergence of the Digital Humanities. Coleman’s concept of  an “‘X-reality’ that traverses the virtual and the real” (3) is consonant with Katherine Hayles’s idea that mixed reality is the current, fourth stage in the history of cybernetics, and with William Gibson’s exploration in his most recent trilogy of the idea that cyberspace is everting, turning inside out and colonizing the physical world. I can’t help but notice that the recent rise of the digital humanities–at least its emergence into public consciousness and a new presence in the academy–has roughly coincided with this eversion of cyberspace, a shift in our collective understanding of the network: from a world apart to a part of the world, from a transcendent virtual reality to a ubiquitous grid of data that we move through every day. It’s not really a coincidence, I think. Digital humanities, in its newly prominent forms, is both a response to and a contributing cause of the wider eversion, and that’s the connection my book will explore.

Kindle edition as first edition

The Kindle edition of our Platform Studies book, Codename Revolution, is just out, a couple of weeks in advance of the hardcopy. It was fun to download it and see it on the iPad and iPhone via the Kindle app–which is what I use to read most commercially purchased ebooks. But it wasn’t a startlingly new experience, since we had composed the book (wrote it and read it and rewrote it) in a string of environments, from early conversations on Google Wave to drafts in Google Docs, then out into MS Word and Apple’s Pages (and I think my coauthor George drafted some portions in LaTeX), from which we regularly exported PDFs for sharing and viewing–and especially for viewing the illustrations on mobile platforms. We’ve experienced the text in various electronic platforms since its inception. We’ve only seen it printed out once, as page proofs. So handling the hardcopy print edition in March will be a much stranger, more exotic experience, in many ways, than downloading and reading the Kindle book was this morning. This is all of course perfectly ordinary for text production of all kinds these days. The usual relatively closed genealogy of electronic texts descended from electronic texts. This is one reason all the talk of ebooks in the popular press sometimes seems so weirdly, willfully idealized.