Artifactual Interpretation: Practices of the Material Turn

Posted: March 31st, 2014

MLA 2014, Vancouver | Special Session Submission

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Talk of a “material turn” has been percolating for close to fifteen years now. “It has become a truism in archaeology, anthropology, and the social sciences and humanities very broadly,” writes Ian Hodder, “to recognize a ‘return to things’ over recent years, in contrast to the earlier focus on representation, and to the long scholarly tradition that separated subject from object, mind from matter.” In most instances, this move is seen as a reaction against the first theory, then culture approach in the second half of the twentieth century. In its more radical iterations, the material turn is seen as a potential answer to the exhaustion of critique, challenging us to tinker, observe, and describe cultural phenomena that seem to resist existing theoretical frameworks.

This panel on “artifactual interpretation” takes stock of the situation, in which scholars trained in textual hermeneutics turn their expertise to material artifacts. As literary scholars who reach across long-standing disciplinary divides, we represent a wide variety of methodological approaches to investigating and manipulating materiality, from media archaeology to literary history, archival practice to 3D modeling. Together, we hope to survey the state of the art in practices of the material turn in the humanities.

Grant Wythoff (Postdoc, Society of Fellows in the Humanities, Columbia University) will first give a ten-minute introduction to the topic and speakers. While “interpretation” is usually associated with text, and artifacts are more closely connected with practices of description, what would it look like to outline a hermeneutic for objects? Wolfgang Ernst has described the artifact as a manifestation of the “irritating material presence of the past, which by definition should be absent.” Confronted by “the hard-edged resistance of material objects that undo historical distance simply by being present,” how can artifactual interpretation ever be more than a misnomer?

Richard Menke (Associate Professor of English, University of Georgia), will kick us off by presenting work from his current book project on the invention of media in the late nineteenth century. In 2008, the First Sounds project announced that it had pushed back the history of recorded sound by a generation, playing back sounds unheard since the mid-nineteenth century. The group had uncovered no mute inglorious Edison whom history had ignored. Rather, its researchers had returned to the nineteenth-century archive, to the work of the French printer, typesetter, and stenographic theorist Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, long recognized as an important figure in the history of sound recording. In the 1850s, Scott invented a machine he called the phonautograph (“sound-itself-writing”), a device that responded to sound by etching a wavy line on a blackened sheet of paper. The resulting phonautograms were a marvel of incunabular recorded sound; they took the ephemeral phenomenon of sound and froze it, objectified it, rendered it in a visual medium without resorting to human symbols. But they were created only to translate sound to the page so that it could be examined as a stable entity, without any idea of a post-Edison future in which machines would routinely record sounds and play them back.

Richard’s talk analyzes Scott’s nineteenth-century project and the modern-day effort to remake his phonautograms digitally as playable sound: how they illuminate the relationships among multiple media (textual and nontextual, workaday and “weird,” analogue and digital), how they might help us trace the mesh of ideas and inventions that underlies Scott’s sense of the medially possible—and ours. Menke presents a third way to the distinction set up by Ernst (the most prominent of German media theorists) between the “literary,” “narrative” bias of Anglo-American cultural history and the media archaeological approach, with its “cold” emphasis on devices and technics rather than on ideas and ideologies. By attending to the phonautogram and its playback, Richard suggests the productive interplay between technical analysis and cultural interpretation when it comes to understanding media artifacts in their time and our own.

Stefania Forlini (Assistant Professor of English, University of Calgary) will speak next on an ambitious project to create a series of digital surrogates for the Bob Gibson Collection of Speculative Fiction, among “the most important research archives” of science fiction. Though the Gibson Collection contains approximately 40,000 books, magazines, and — most notably — more than 890 hand-crafted anthologies of thousands of pieces of science fiction culled from a variety of English-language popular magazines and painstakingly compiled, bound, rated for “SF content” and illustrated by the curator himself, it remains a largely untapped resource. Beautiful artifacts in their own right, these unique anthologies promise to revise our understanding of the history of science fiction. Not only do they contain the works of more than 83 previously unknown women writers and numerous little- known illustrators, they also contain more than 2,000 works of science fiction published in general-interest American, British, and Canadian periodicals from 1840-1899—well before science fiction becomes known as “science fiction”. What Gibson has amassed in these scrap- book anthologies is the magazine-based science fiction that is believed to be central to the genre’s formation, but continues to be “readily overlooked” in histories of the genre.

With the support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, we have designed a series of interlinked, interactive visualizations that can help us interpret the importance of these unique artifacts and to characterize what N. Katherine Hayles would call an “expert amateur’s” contributions to science fiction studies. Designed to showcase the anthologies’ distinctive features (including Gibson’s own cover illustrations and his set of symbols designating the “SF content” of every piece he collected), this visualization interface will help researchers track patterns across large numbers of texts, illustrative styles, and fan engagements to rethink the history of science fiction as constituted by more than just texts. Bridging targeted searches and serendipitous discoveries, data visualization offers a creative and customizable approach to unique artifacts.

Finally, Alexander Christie (Doctoral Candidate, University of Victoria) will present a new method for interrogating political arguments embedded in archival objects through 3D modeling and desktop fabrication techniques. The method, known as “z-axis research,” expresses data mined from literary texts through archival objects that have been digitized in 3D. Z-axis research treats the material arrangement of historical objects as an argumentative medium, using warping and deformance to critique the visual rhetoric of those objects. It takes a materials-first approach to data visualization, using data to transform digitized artifacts, rather than digitally reconstructing artifacts as they already exist. This method moves beyond text-based forms of interpretation by treating the material (re)construction of historical objects as an argumentative medium. His presentation will share collaborative work, with contributions from Katie Tanigawa, Adèle Barclay, and the INKE, MVP and Maker Lab teams.

To demonstrate this method, the paper will present a series of warped historical maps fabricated with a desktop printer. These objects are produced from two twentieth-century maps of Paris and Dublin, which are deformed using georeference data mined from modernist novels by James Joyce, Djuna Barnes, and Jean Rhys. As part of his presentation, the paper will (first) outline the workflow used to produce the warped maps and (second) discuss the political arguments these maps express. The Dublin map visually deconstructs the imperial process of triangulation, used by England to demonstrate cartographical control over colonial Ireland through a series of Ordnance Survey maps. The Paris map expresses georeference data for areas frequented by marginalized characters, areas which are shrunk in the historical Nouveau Paris Monumental map series to direct international visitors toward wealthy districts and monuments. In each case, the z-axis method both reveals and visually critiques the politically-inflected design of the historical object at hand. The paper will explain these material critiques in detail before discussing the broader relevance of this method to the critical making movement.

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Richard Menke is an associate professor of English at the University of Georgia and the author of Telegraphic Realism: Victorian Fiction and Other Information Systems (Stanford UP, 2008), as well as various essays on literature, science, and media (published in Critical Inquiry, ELH, PMLA, Modern Fiction Studies, The Henry James Review and elsewhere). His recent publications include articles on late-Victorian fictions of the telephone (Victorian Studies, 2013) and electricity and objectivity in nineteenth-century journalism (English Language Notes, 2013). The material in this talk is part of his current book project on the invention of media in the late nineteenth century.

Stefania Forlini is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Calgary in Canada. Her research focuses on late Victorian literature and culture, with particular interests in science, material culture, and the early evolution of science fiction. Her most recent publications can be found in Neo-Victorian Studies, English Literature and Transition, 1880- 1920, and in the edited collection Bodies and Things in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture (Palgrave). Her collaborator, Dr. Uta Hinrichs is a Research Fellow at the University of St Andrews’ Computer Human Interaction research group (SACHI) in Scotland. She holds a PhD in Computer Science with a specialization in Computational Media Design from InnoVis Group at the University of Calgary in Canada. Her current research focuses on how to support lightweight and open-ended explorations of information collections, addressing both domain experts (researchers in the Humanities) as well as everyday people (museum or library visitors).

Finally, Alexander Christie is a doctoral candidate at the University of Victoria, where he researches in the Maker Lab in the Humanities and the Electronic Textual Cultures Lab (ETCL), working across Implementing New Knowledge Environments (INKE) and the Modernist Versions Project (MVP). His research interests lie at the intersection of modernist studies, textual studies, and the digital humanities. In particular, he uses desktop fabrication and game development environments to craft political interventions in archival materials from the modernist period. Alexander’s proposed dissertation topic explores the procedural and algorithmic nature of modernist inscriptive techniques, implementing procedural rhetoric to craft material-specific engagements with modernist texts online.