The following are my slides for an invited guest lecture that I recently gave at the Newberry Library as part of the Newberry’s public lecture series. In addition to the talk, I also had the opportunity to lead a session of the Fall 2014 Newberry Seminar: Research in the Humanities (“Knowledge and Technology: From Socrates to the Digital Age”), which is being co-taught by Bridget Draxler (Monmouth College) and Hannah Schell (Monmouth College). My thanks to Bridget, Hannah, the Newberry staff, and the absolutely splendid group of students in the seminar. The highlight of my visit was the chance to meet individually with students and learn about their diverse and exciting research projects.
The following are slides to a guest lecture that I delivered on teaching 19th-Century American Literature in the high school classroom. Thanks to Dr. Kate Cochran for the invite, and to her wonderful group of students in English 402: Literature Study for Teachers. I enjoyed talking about the intersection of American literature, digital media, and recent methodological debates in the field of literary studies.
I’m pleased to announce that my essay, “<A> and <B>: Marks, Maps, Media, and the Materiality of Ambrose Bierce’s Style,” has been published in the December 2013 special issue of American Literature (85.4). You can read my essay and the other excellent contributions here.
Send me an email if you’d like to read the essay but don’t have a subscription to Duke University Press Journals. I’d be happy to send you a copy.
Exciting news! I just learned that a panel I’m co-organizing with Blake Bronson-Bartlett (University of Iowa) has been accepted for the third biennial conference of C19: The Society of Nineteenth-Century Americanists.
The panel, currently entitled “Calculating Marks: Media History, Mathematics and Material Practice in Nineteenth-Century America,” aims to reevaluate literature, authorship, and aesthetic values at the “elementary level” of “calculating marks,” or the written notations and techniques that encode (i.e., “markup”) different forms of nineteenth-century cultural expression. It features papers from myself, Bronson-Bartlett, and Thomas Augst (New York University).
Send me an email if you want to read the full abstract.
What does Wi-Fi look like? In these amazing images created by artist Nickolay Lamm, we can finally begin to visualize the mediascape that invisibly surrounds us. This is a perfect example, it seems to me, of what McLuhan was getting at with his enimagmatic turn of the phrase, “The medium is the message.” The content of Wi-fi is secondary to the environment that it shapes, colors, and influences, and these images do a wonderful job of visualizing the “medium” of Wi-fi through colors. They help students visualize a rather enigmatic concept about media.
I could imagine a more detailed comparison of these images to 19th century maps of railroad tracks or 20th century maps of highways, bridges, and roads; or perhaps even maps of the cables that form the infrastructure of computer networks. Today, these are the lines and waves that give color to our lives: pervasively, invisibly, and with consequences that are difficult to trace. What they lack in materiality (there are no iron rails to pinpoint in space and time) they make up for in color, at least on the spectrum.
Perhaps the only way to understand a medium so pervasive as Wi-fi is to treat it like a child treats a coloring book. And this is a great visualization of the problem inherent in the study of media. How does one visualize and make present that which is all around us, wrapping us in the environment that it formally produces? Knowledge begins with a child’s eye, the artist’s gaze, and the innovative spirit of an artist coloring the world with a different palette.
My ENG 400 Senior Seminar on “Literature, Media, Modernity” just finished a week talking about attention, distraction, and media. We started with McLuhan and ended with Ambrose Bierce’s “The Suitable Surroundings,” touching on William James’s dot experiment in the middle. Here’s his description of the experiment in his chapter on “Attention,” culled from his popular Talk to Teachers:
Voluntary attention is thus an essentially instantaneous affair. You can claim it, for your purposes in the schoolroom, by commanding it in loud, imperious tones; and you can easily get it in this way. But, unless the subject to which you thus recall their attention has inherent power to interest the pupils, you will have got it for only a brief moment; and their minds will soon be wandering again. To keep them where you have called them, you must make the subject too interesting for them to wander again. And for that there is one prescription; but the prescription, like all our prescriptions, is abstract, and, to get practical results from it, you must couple it with mother-wit.
The prescription is that the subject must be made to show new aspects of itself; to prompt new questions; in a word, to change. From an unchanging subject the attention inevitably wanders away. You can test this by the simplest possible case of sensorial attention. Try to attend steadfastly to a dot on the paper or on the wall. You presently find that one or the other of two things has happened: either your field of vision has become blurred, so that you now see nothing distinct at all, or else you have involuntarily ceased to look at the dot in question, and are looking at something else. But, if you ask yourself successive questions about the dot,—how big it is, how far, of what shape, what shade of color, etc.; in other words, if you turn it over, if you think of it in various ways, and along with various kinds of associates,—you can keep your mind on it for a comparatively long time. This is what the genius does, in whose hands a given topic coruscates and grows. And this is what the teacher must do for every topic if he wishes to avoid too frequent appeals to voluntary attention of the coerced sort. In all respects, reliance upon such attention as this is a wasteful method, bringing bad temper and nervous wear and tear as well as imperfect results. The teacher who can get along by keeping spontaneous interest excited must be regarded as the teacher with the greatest skill.
Keys contain multitudes. Few things provide access to the physical and symbolic world in such an immediate and unconscious manner. Keys twist and turn their way through the history of storage, media, writing, architecture, privacy, slavery, and so much more. They are the portals to our dream worlds, the objects that we use to open and close doors, conceal and shut out, enslave and punish, hide and reveal.
This morning I walked out to my car with my bag, my lunch, my coffee, and no keys. My wife had taken the car last night to run an errand and had left the keys in her bag. I only realized this when my fingers extended to the door. The absence of the keys revealed their presence. Usually they operate in the background, but here they were brought to the foreground, revealed anew by the fact that I had lost them. Lost and found – even the central metaphor of human experience is beholden to the key.
As media, keys are inseparable from metaphor. It is impossible to write about them without calling to mind symbolic associations. I’m reminded of McLuhan’s insight into the relationship between media and metaphor: namely, that “all active media are metaphors in their power to translate experience into new form.” Keys do exactly that: they translate experience into new forms, opening door A and closing door B; revealing this treasure and concealing that; enslaving this person in chains and freeing another with the generous movement of a twist and turn. They are the stuff that narratives are made up.
(Thoughts inspired by Hannah Stephenson’s wonderfully poetic and playful essay Let Us Now Contemplate the Key: An Object Lesson in Nine Parts.)
The hand feeds the machine, and vice versa. In this remarkable 1936 poster, notice how the left hand is feeding the typewriter paper. The white sheet anticipates the blankness of the screen. It’s even tilted in the appropriate direction, throwing into relief the future history of the laptop on the lap.