Two science fictiony CfPs: a conference (which I am pretending to co-organise) and an edited collection (no special Lab connection, but looks interesting) — Jo
CfP: Productive Futures
Bloomsbury, London, 12-14 September 2019
Keynote speakers: Dr Caroline Edwards, Dr Joan Haran
Guests of honour: Aliette de Bodard, Zen Cho, Tade Thompson
The history of science fiction (SF) is a history of unreal economics: from asteroid mining to interstellar trade, from the sex-work of replicants to the domestic labour of the housewives of galactic suburbia, from the abolition of money and property to techno-capitalist tragedies of the near future. Read the full CfP.
LSFRC invites abstracts of 300 words, plus 50 word bios, addressing economic themes in SF, and/or exploring how SF can help to widen and evolve our sense of the economic. We encourage submissions from collaborators across disciplines and/or institutions. Please submit to email@example.com by 31st May 2019.
CfP: Technologies of Feminist Speculative Fiction
Edited by Sherryl Vint and Sümeyra Buran
In 1985, Donna Haraway’s massively influential “Cyborg Manifesto” reoriented feminist thought in her call for women to engage with science and technology, to recognize in them and the new worlds they might make new resources for female emancipation and feminist critique. Now, over thirty year later, technology has remade much of the social world, from communications to reproduction to work. Our anthology seeks to bring together cutting-edge scholarship on the contemporary status of feminism and technology, as reflected in speculative fiction. We invite papers for an edited collection on intersections between contemporary technology and both feminist and queer readings of speculative fiction.
We are interested in both works that imagine the future of sexuality and gender in which biological reproduction is policed or controlled as a technology of social reproduction, and those that imagine futures in which women’s bodies are changed or controlled via new biotechnologies. We are interested in articles that explore anxieties about changing demographics, changing gender roles, or the placidity of the body from feminist and queer points of view. Although the examples listed below emphasize print texts, we are open to papers addressing works from any medium. Similarly, our examples focus on recently published work, reflecting our view that this topic is of substantial interest to contemporary writers, but we are open to proposals that address similar themes in earlier texts.
Possible topics include but are not limited to:
Works about how fertility is imagined as a scarce resource in dystopian futures premised on massive sterility and the oppressive control of reproductive women, such as Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks, Meg Ellison’s The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, Sarah Hall’s Daughters of the North or Carrie Vaughn’s Bannerless.
Explorations of dystopian texts which project futures of authoritarian policing of gender and sexuality, that is, compulsory heterosexuality imagined as a police state, such as Maggie Chen’s An Excess Male, Johanna Sinisalo’s The Core of the Sun, Jenna Glass’s The Women’s Waror Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army.
Speculations about the future of assisted reproductive technologies such as cloning, IVF, parthenogenic reproduction, inter-species reproduction, ectogenesis, or machine reproduction, such as Carola Dibbell’s The Only Ones, Mur Lafferty’sSix Wakes, Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time, Jane Roger’s The Testament of Jessie Lamb, Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yoursor Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice.
Works that explore how gender relations are manipulated and/or changed by a changing environment, whether this be new technologies used to control women, as in Christina Dalcher’s Vox, new developments in human morphology, as in Naomi Alderson’s The Power, or gendered experiences of artificial beings, as in Louisa Hall’s Speak.
Please send paper proposals of 500 words to Sümeyra Buran by June 15, 2019. Proposals will be reviewed and full papers invited by August 1, 2019.
Everyone is talking about the season finale. Tomorrow at 3pm in the lab, Sharon Webb and Anna Maria Sichani will be giving the last in this run of Digital Methods Open Workshops, on the topic data modelling. All are welcome, and there are still places available.
Meanwhile, maybe it’s worth a quick catch-up? So here are few no-nonsense notes from Sharon Webb and Adam Harwood’s absolutely brimming SHL Open Workshop in April, on the topic of creating and publishing research data.
What is research data?
Sharon started us off. Who should think about publishing research data? Everybody! Yes, you humanities researcher. Data is not just numbers. Of course, what counts as research data varies considerably across different subjects, methodologies, topics, backgrounds, and habits. Some classic examples of research data-sets might be a set of measurements, or interview recordings and transcripts … but it’s also worth thinking more imaginatively and speculatively about what constitutes your research data.
One working definition of data might be all the relatively raw information you generate as a researcher in your processes of abstraction and categorization. Formally, that might include text documents (PDF, Word, RTF), spreadsheets, databases, posters, slide decks, sound recordings of field interviews, online lectures, recordings of engagement and knowledge exchange events, podcasts. That might include software, art, music. That might include metadata — data about data.
It got me thinking … do I have research data I don’t even know about?
Why publish it?
What do you encounter, and what processes do you follow, that might be useful to preserve and document for future research? Where might there be opportunities for citation, for citizen research, for collaboration, for audit and validation? What new research might it make possible? What new research might it inspire? Even, perhaps, what creative and artistic interventions? There is a slightly subversive and democratic aspect to all this: making the data public benefits independent researchers. This was one of the real revelations of the workshop for me: just how much fascinating information is already publicly available.
There is of course a slightly more straightforward and pragmatic aspect to all this: the UKRI funding bodies now ask for a data management plan. For example, an AHRC standard route grant will require a data management plan “for grants planning to generate data (3 A4 pages maximum).” The AHRC have recently done away with their technical plan requirement. Other funders (e.g. Marie Curie) ask for a technical plan, and there may be an assumption that any data management considerations will be included there.
Funders don’t generally accept the sentence, “My data is available on request.” Of course, there may be legitimate reasons for not making data available. Researchers should be aware of GDPR and the Data Protection Act. “Personal data” means any information relating to an identified or identifiable living individual. DMP Online structures the process of writing a data management plan, drawing on the specific guidance of the chosen funding bodies.
And, fwiw, Sussex also has a policy — “research data should be made freely and openly available with as few restrictions as possible in a timely and responsible manner […] regardless of whether or not the research is externally funded.” That said, there isn’t an actual Research Data Management Police Force roaming campus, as far as we’re aware.
How should I publish it?
One thing to consider is when you will deposit your data. Around grant writing proposal stage, it’s good to build in some time to actually prepare and deposit it. It can be a big chunk of work to get research data ready to be ingested by repositories. It’s not all mindless/mindful gruntwork either: there can be thorny questions around how to curate your data to make it useful for others and for long-term preservation. I can imagine there might be some interesting cross-disciplinary issues arising, and questions about how the framing of data blurs into its analysis and interpretation.
And where to deposit data? “Figshare Sussex probably,” seems to be the short answer. More broadly, it depends who you are affiliated with, and what their policies are. The Research Data Management service (a work-in-progress) may also answer some questions. There are institutional repositories, big generalist repositories, and domain-specific repositories, and there are different governance and funding models (i.e. public vs. commercial). Here are some handy links:
UKDataArchive, funded by the ESRC, is “the UK’s largest collection of digital research data in the social sciences and humanities.”
re3data.org is a database of repositories (incomplete, but filled with good starting points).
FAIRsharing is another database of repositories, with more of a sciences and medicine emphasis.
All Figshare content will be assigned a DOI; CC BY 4.0 is the default license. Figshare also allows you to create and share ‘Collections,’ bringing together relevant datasets (whether or not they’re yours). What you upload to Figshare Sussex will get sucked up to Figshare mothership, which is indexed by Google.
You can also put on an embargo, a fact that for some reason gave me a lovely frisson of melodrama, “My data shall not be available … for ONE HUNDRED YEARS,” etc., and you can generate private links to share VIP access to embargoed data.
Your data will be backed up to Arkivum, which meets another common funding requirement, that the data will be preserved beyond the lifetime of the project. Arkivum keeps your data in three separate geographical locations. It doesn’t do file format shifts yet, but as part of The Perpetua Project (ominous energy), it eventually will do file format shifts as well.
The RCUK Concordat on Open Research Data explains precisely what open research data is, and what researchers can do to make their data open and freely accessible. It’s a long document, and Adam picked out a few key bits. The Concordat asserts the right of the creators of research data to reasonable first use. Support for development of appropriate data skills is recognised as a responsibility of all stakeholders — the university has a responsibility to provide useful services (which in our case is Figshare Sussex, as well as the emerging Research Data Management service).
Adam also touched on the FAIR Data Principles, originally intended for the sciences, but now with much wider adoption. Data should be Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Re-usable. These are criteria you can measure your data against toward the end of a research project.
We ended with a whirlwind tour of metadata from Sharon. ‘Metadata is a (love) letter to the future — it makes explicit how “things” can be used.’ Anne Gilliland: ‘In general, all information objects, regardless of physical or intellectual form they take, have three features — content, context, and structure — all of which should be reflected through metadata.’ We had a little look at the Dublin Core standard, on which Figshare is based (if you’re going to add fields of your own, it would be best practice to align them to Dublin Core) and a case study, the Re-animating Data Project (70+ interviews carried out in 1989).
I left with a grateful heart and and a brimming brain, forgetting to sign in again. And also a vague unease. I got to thinking about all the data exhaust I leave behind, in the course of my research and my “research,” all the behavioural surplus I scarcely control and could never deposit, and yet which is deposited somewhere in the marketplace of personal data.
And I was thinking about how data at scale tends to disclose more than ever intended. Data analytics discover patterns that can be used as knowledge, and whose status as knowledge is often undecidable in the contexts in which they are used. I was thinking of those robots and researchers who can gaze hungrily at the “About Me” section of your social media profile, seeing not your attempt at self-expression, but only trait correlation with lemma term-frequency–inverse document-frequency (or whatever). Tech giants have learned the art of growing tall and fat on data crumbs; what will they do with data feasts?
Last week the Sussex Humanities Lab played host to a pretty special experiment. Alex Peverett and Andrew Duff assembled over twenty gaming systems, spanning over forty years of gaming history.
In attendance, says Alex, were such marvels and horrors as a Sinclair ZX81, Atari 2600, Colecovision, Vectrex, Sinclair 128k, Commodore 64, Atari 800XL, Acorn BBC Model B Microcomputer, Windows/Dos Laptop, Nintendo 64, Super Nintendo, Nintendo Gamecube, Sony Playstation 2, Sega Megadrive, Sega Dreamcast, Nintendo Gameboy, Sony PSP, Sony PS4 and PSVR, and a Speak and Spell … that he can remember.
I am fairly sure there were at least one or two systems from a parallel universe’s timeline (but my memory is a bit blurred by vast steam clouds billowing from the polished brass and stained glass Sega Steamcast, so maybe not).
Tim Jordan, Professor of Digital Cultures at Sussex, kicked things off with a highly suggestive, whistlestop tour of issues in gaming from a broadly media studies, sociological, and cultural studies perspective. Tim used the example of a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game to illuminate at least four themes. First, there was the negotiation of meaning and identity in gaming, especially thinking about race, gender, and sexuality. Second, the co-production of games by players, not only through their in-game behaviours, but also through player co-operation outside of games, and the modification and changing of games by players. Third, there was the media archaeology of games, both in regards to the glittering array of stand-alone games surrounding us, and on the servers of discontinued MMORPG. Some digital ludic worlds have an uneasy, precarious existence, liable to have the plug pulled by the owners of the IP. Then Tim wrapped up by looking at some issues around gaming and the digital economy more generally. The older consoles in the room were built with the expectation that players would purchase and fully and permanently own each new game; more recently, gaming has been reshaped by the economics of free-to-play games (with in-game purchases), subscription models, and so on.
Then we played. I tried out a VR game for the first time (and am presumably still in the game, which was Moss). It wasn’t nearly as immersive as I’d been led to expect by commercial hype and popular culture portrayals of VR, but it was fetchingly unsettling. I liked the way sometimes an invisible object or person in the “real” world got in your way, and you just had to push it or them over to pursue your in-game objectives.
I drew some eldritch granite water lilies up from the deep, and helped my heartbreakingly brave protagonist (a needle-wielding champ with a real Reepicheep / Mattimeo vibe) hop across the water. In the background, the mountainous gloom shifted … it was a deer, stooping to drink.
But although I was there for almost the full three hours, I probably only spent ten minutes on the gizmos, because I just kept having nice chats with people! We talked about gaming — video games, board games, tabletop RPGs, gamification, art with game elements, worldbuilding and storytelling across games and other forms of culture. Networking was part of the event’s rationale:
This event will not only be a chance to explore SHL’s media archaeology resources, reflect on media archaelogical theory and practice — and play some games! — but also an opportunity to meet others across the university involved in gaming, game studies, and game design, and to take stock of the state of the art and the future of game studies at Sussex. […] What are we already doing around games at Sussex? How can we bring together existing research and teaching around gaming to share resources, projects, ideas, and opportunities?
We were here to shoot zombie Nazis, but more fundamentally, to shoot the breeze.
For some reason, I did start to think of Sam Ladkin, Senior Lecturer in Critical and Creative Writing (English), as a sort of console. “You should give this one a go,” I told everyone. “It’s really weird.”
Among other things, Sam and I discussed the new elective undergraduate module he’ll be launching, Video Games: Critical and Creative Writing. It sounds like a really fascinating and exciting mix, which will look at games as both technical and cultural objects, will allow students to be assessed through creative work and/or their critical studies of games, and will place politics at its very heart.
With the launch of Video Games: Critical and Creative Writing, along with what’s already happening on the Games and Multimedia Environments BSc and elsewhere, and the outlines of SHL 2 beginning to wobble on the horizon, we could well be at the dawn of a golden age of game studies at Sussex.
Junior Research Associate opportunity: Digitising SF Fandom History
This is a call for current second year students at Sussex who are interested in applying to be a Junior Research Associate over the coming summer. You can find a description the JRA scheme here. This is a paid scheme, aimed at students who hope to pursue postgraduate research. This could be for you if you have an interest in the history of science fiction fandom and/or digital archiving and preservation. The deadline for the first round is 4pm Wednesday 10 April.
Vector is the magazine of The British Science Fiction Association (BSFA), established 1958 and still publishing today. As the Science Fiction Encyclopaedia slightly snarkily puts it, “Vector has appeared variously as an association newsletter, a typical fanzine, and something like an academic journal.”
The BSFA currently have about two hundred issues of Vector scanned as PDF. It’s likely that the core of the project will be learning to use to learn to use theAtoM systemin order to prepare these as a digital collection, ready for deposit into an institutional repository. You will explore what makes these materials valuable and unique, research and implement appropriate metadata practices, build upon existing (patchy) fan-curated record catalogues, including the ISFDB’s catalogue and Mike Cross’s catalogue, and begin to investigate some of the legal complexities of creating an archive.
We’re looking for somebody who wants to work in an independent and exploratory fashion, defining your own objectives, priorities, and research strategies within the project’s overall remit. So you’ll have the opportunity to shape your own research agenda, with the support of your supervisor. For example, you may want to look at reaching out to institutional holdings and fan communities to try to uncover missing issues; and/or explore the data of the collection using text analysis; and/or come up with novel ways of enriching the digital resource. The JRA could also be a great chance to learn more about the Sussex Humanities Lab and grow more involved in its research culture.
Held annually on the second Tuesday in October, Ada Lovelace Day recognises the accomplishments of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM), while also celebrating Ada Lovelace herself as a pioneer of computing science. The overarching aims of the annual event are to increase the profile of women in STEM, and to create and to highlight role-models, so that we can encourage diversity and representation in computer science, in software engineering, and in the sciences more broadly. In 2018 the Sussex Humanities Lab celebrated Ada Lovelace Day with an event called Beyond Numbers.
Ada Lovelace was born in 1815. She was encouraged by her mother, Annabella Byron, to study arithmetic, music, and French. It’s been suggested that Ada’s strict study regime was a deliberate attempt to suppress Ada’s imagination, since Ada’s mother was fearful of her ‘dangerous and potentially destructive,’ imagination given the eccentrics of Ada’s estranged father, Lord Byron (Essinger, 2014).
By the time she was thirteen, Ada Lovelace had already designed a mechanical bird. At the age of eighteen Lovelace formally met Charles Babbage, who would later be heralded as the father of computing science. She became intrigued with Babbage’s proposed “Difference Engine.” Over the years Ada Lovelace studied and translated the maths associated with both Babbage’s Difference Engine and its sequel, the Analytical Engine, as well as the Jacquard Loom. In 1843, translating and annotating Luigi Menabrea’s paper on Babbage’s Analytical Engine, she developed a formula for computing Bernoulli numbers. On the basis of this work — a program to be executed upon machine that did not yet exist — Lovelace has been hailed as the world’s first computer programmer.
But unlike Babbage and Menabrea, who only saw the number-crunching potential of this machine, Ada Lovelace also proposed that if a machine could manipulate numbers then it could do so for any type of “data.” Indeed, the ‘Enchantress of Numbers’ (as Babbage is credited with describing her) stated that the Analytical Engine ‘might act upon other things besides numbers,’ and that for instance, it might ‘compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.’
The Beyond Numbers event, organised by Ioann Maria and Dr Sharon Webb, coincided with Ada Lovelace Day. It was specifically interested in exploring the potential identified by Ada Lovelace for machines to ‘act upon other things besides numbers.’ The aim of the event was to celebrate women, non-binary, and transgender scientists, artists, musicians, researchers and thinkers whose works are based on scientific, technological and/or mathematical methods.
The event opened with Sharon Webb’s historical overview of the role of women in technology, entitled “When Computers Were People,” which also called out the current gender gap in computer science. She was followed by a session from Kate Howland (University of Sussex, Lecturer in Interactive Design) entitled “Talking Programming,” in which Kate gave an outline of her research on designing voice user interfaces for end-user programming in home automation. Cécile Chevalier, Lecturer in Media Practice at the University of Sussex, spoke on “Automata, Automatism and Instrument-Making Toward Computational Corporeal Expressions.” In thinking of the body, technology and expression in computational art, Cecile offered a retrospective of her own artwork. Brighton-based audio-visual artist Akiko Haruna gave a talk on A/V and electronic music scene touching on “Self-Value in the Face of Ego,” where her focus was on encouraging all women to explore the world of electronic music and audio-visual art. She spoke of her personal experiences and the many ways in which digital sound as a medium has liberated her work. Estela Oliva, London-based artist and curator, spoke of “Hybrid Worlds, New Realities,” presenting her new project CLON in which she interrogates the possibilities of new spaces enabled with virtual and immersive technologies such as gaming, 3D video, and virtual reality. Irene Fubara-Manuel in her talk “An Auto-Ethnographic Account of Virtual Borders” presented her piece “Dreams of Disguise” (2018), a traversal of the virtual border through racialized biometric technologies: a project that blurs documentary truth with science fiction to reveal the ubiquitous surveillance of migrants and the rising desire for opacity. The event closed with Ioann Maria’s “Contra-Control Structures” talk on hacktivism, cyberactivism, and women, with an outline of her first-hand experience in creating physical DIY creative spaces.
The day was a fusion of science and creative arts. It reached beyond the “numerical” and provided a friendly space for the local community to find out about one another — a space to share, to engage, and to collaborate.
As a direct result of Beyond Numbers and the positive feedback this event received, FACT/// (Feminist Approaches to Computational Technology Network) was established by Cécile Chevalier, Sharon Webb, and Ioann Maria Stacewicz. In keeping with the aspirations and goals of Ada Lovelace Day, FACT/// Feminist Approaches to Computational Technology Network seeks to promote dialogue, collaboration, and support diverse voices in transdisciplinary computational thinking and environments. The first FACT/// forum was held on Thursday, 7th March at the Sussex Humanities Lab. For more details see fact.network. FACT/// is aCHASE Feminist Network Award and also supported by the Sussex Humanities Lab.
Sharon Webb is a Digital Humanities Lecturer in the Sussex Humanities Lab and the School of History, Art History and Philosophy. Sharon is a historian of Irish associational culture and nationalism (eighteenth and nineteenth century) and a digital humanities practitioner, with a background in requirements/user analysis, digital preservation, digital archiving, text encoding and data modelling. Sharon also has programming and coding experience and has contributed to the successful development of major national digital infrastructures.
Sharon’s current research interests include community archives and identity, with a special interest in LGBTQ+ archives, social network analysis (method and theory), and research data management. She holds a British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award 2018 on the topic of community archives and digital preservation, working with a number of community projects, including Queer in Brighton.
Sharon is currently running a twelve-month project funded by the British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award (2018), ‘Identity, Representation and Preservation in Community Digital Archives and Collections’. This project is an intervention in three important areas: community archives, digital preservation, and content representation. For more details see www.preservingcommunityarchives.co.uk.
About Ioann Maria:
Ioann Maria is a new media artist, filmmaker, and computer scientist. Ioann’s work is focused on hacktivism, electronic surveillance, computer security, human-machine interaction, and interactive physical systems. In her solo and collaborative projects she explores new methods in real-time audio-visual performance.
Ioann is co-founder of the Edinburgh Hacklab, Scotland’s first hackerspace. She was formerly an Artistic Director of LPM Live Performers Meeting, the world’s largest annual meeting dedicated to live video performance and new creative technologies, and a Research Technician in Digital Humanities at the Sussex Humanities Lab, University of Sussex, which is dedicated to developing and expanding research into how digital technologies are shaping our culture and society.
Digital humanities are at the leading edge of applying computer-based technology in the humanities. Initially called ‘humanities computing’, the field has grown tremendously over the past 40 or so years. It originally focused on developing digital tools and the creation of archives and databases for texts, artworks, and other materials. From these initial uses, and as computation developed, computers offered increasingly sophisticated ways of handling and searching digitised culture. For example, with recent advances in digital imaging, it is now possible to produce very high-quality reproductions of books and artworks that can transform our ability to study them.
The key to understanding the digital humanities is to reject the idea that digital technology is invading the academy. Computers were used for humanist ends from very early on in their history, and not only, as one might expect, as mere storage for large libraries of text. Computer networks, particularly the internet, have also enabled digital files to be used from almost anywhere on the globe. This access to information has had a tremendous effect on the ability to undertake research in the arts and humanities.
Digital humanities incorporate key insights from languages and literature, history, music, media and communications, computer science and information studies and combine these different approaches into new frameworks. More recently, the disciplinary focus has widened to include critical digital studies, as well as fields more commonly associated with engineering such as machine-learning, data science and artificial intelligence. Indeed, as early adopters of technology, digital humanists were prescient in seeing that computation would have an increasing centrality to research in the humanities.
As part of their work, digital humanists have developed new methods, such as computer-based statistical analysis, search and retrieval, topic modelling, and data visualisation. They apply these techniques to archives and collections that are vastly larger than any human researcher or research group can comfortably handle. These methods enable ambitious projects to be created with large interdisciplinary teams that are brought together to work on difficult or complex projects. Digital humanists are transforming the idea of what a humanities research project can be, giving us new ways of seeing past and present cultures.
These new collections of historical or literary artefacts are often publicly available on the web or in digital databases, and the material they contain is more openly available than previously possible with print. They increase the ability for humanists to combine data sets, social media, sound, web and image archives and also to move between them with greater ease. Equally crucial has been the creation of software for analysing, understanding and transforming these digital materials. Digital tools can also be freely accessed over the internet so they can be easily incorporated into other projects, enabling the rapid diffusion of new methods, tools and ideas across disciplinary boundaries. These digital technologies open up exciting opportunities for connecting the humanities to a wider public culture.
However, with the greater diffusion of digital technologies into our lives, new concerns have arisen about the capacity these technologies have to spy on their users, about digital bias and discrimination, and the emergence of ‘fake news’. Companies such as Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google use our data in very intrusive ways, making collection of both public and private data a public matter of concern. Here too digital humanities, with its expertise across many knowledge areas, can help us understand these problems and provide critical interventions and policy insights.
The academy is now much more comfortable with the use of computation across disciplines. It has brought new powers of analysis, comparison and understanding to a range of research areas. The digital humanities have been exemplary in transferring digital techniques and methods into the humanities and by doing so have laid the ground for a golden age of humanities research in the 21st century. In a digital age, the humanities need to communicate humanistic values and their own contribution to public culture more than ever. The humanities continue to ask the important question: what is a life worth living? The digital humanities are part of this tradition, helping us to reflect on this question and expanding our understanding of human culture in a digital world.
David M. Berry is Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Sussex. He writes widely on the theory and philosophy of computation and algorithms. His most recent book is Digital Humanities: Knowledge and Critique in a Digital Age (with Anders Fagerjord). His forthcoming British Academy-supported research is concerned with the idea of a university in a digital age.
Seat number 1 is by far the best in the room. Close to the high window, it is well lit, there is no neighbor to the left and the aisle leaves plenty of space for ones elbow to roam freely. From this seat there is a nice view of the room and the narrow gallery with wooden railings that overlooks it. Each morning at ten o’clock there are at least two people who have decided that this seat will be theirs.
— Arlette Farge, Le goût de l’archive (1989)
Last week Sean Takats visited the Lab to deliver a workshop – about Tropy, a free image management system oriented to the needs of archival researchers – and give a lecture, “Subjectivity and Digital Research.”
Sean’s talk was elegant and stimulating, and the first take-home was this: research is embodied, and the material conditions of the researcher in the archive shape the kind of research they can and do perform. And this really is a take-home all about taking home. Institutional archives are increasingly the sites of photographic data capture. Exploratory and interpretive decisions increasingly take place at home.
Or in the office, or on the train, or another library, or the deepest corner of the More Than Just … Coffee! Lounge on Hoe Street in Walthamstow, or the pay-per-hour workspace into which it will gentrify overnight in the summer of 2023. Research takes place, perhaps, with headphones in. At a different set of temperatures, in different clothes, in fewer clothes, with different levels of caffeine and hydration. With a different set of objects, people, and landscapes in the visual field, in difference ambiences, and with different activity in-between bouts of research.
Consider, for example, Londa Schiebinger in her acknowledgements to Secret Cures of Slaves: People, Plants, and Medicine in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World:
Writing history has changed […] Although one loses the tactile pleasure of eighteenth-century papers and leather bindings, one does not miss the mold, dust, jet lag, and hours waiting for things to be delivered to the reading-room table. Now one can read Jean-Jacques Barthélemy while taking breaks to do laundry (the benefits – physical and intellectual – of interspersing heavy-duty research and writing with mundane chores should not be underestimated).
Such materialities must surely show up in research outputs. But how exactly? We might start by saying that research occurs in a different set of moods, although tracing the affective shift feels quite daunting to me. Another starting point is that non-archive research spaces are all variously wannabe Woolf’s rooms-of-one’s-own. So perhaps we can consider how researchers in those spaces encounter different affordances, stimuli, textures, and impediments according to factors such as gender, class, race, and ability.
Back to the archive: well, it’s full of researchers taking photos. Sean cited empirical as well as anecdotal evidence to demonstrate how practices have shifted. There was a twinkle in Sean’s eye – like a little camera flashing – whenever he spoke about this transformation, and his Tropy project promises to further normalise, elaborate, and refine it. Nevertheless, I don’t think the lecture adopted a fully normative stance. That is, Sean wasn’t here to endorse the transformation, exactly.
His interest was rather – and maybe this is the second big take-home – given that this shift is actually happening, shouldn’t we be alert to the implications? And in particular, alert to the stories we tell about research?
How have researchers’ subjective experiences of conducting research changed? Do we need a new language of archival research in the digital age? Do the explicit and implicit stories we tell about how knowledge is generated reflect and/or support actual practices?
Sean identified a residual discourse of the romanticized archive. Arlette Farge was cited as one example. In fact, Sean suggested, there is even a kind of travel literature of the archive. What happens when you descend into the archive? The archive is a strange and distant land: we journey there, and we bring things back. Along the way we encounter wonders, obstacles, even perils. But mostly we don’t …
The day was very hot; we walked up the hills, and along all the rough road, which made our walking half the day’s journey. Travelled under the foot of Carrock, a mountain covered with stones on the lower part; above, it is very rocky, but sheep pasture there; we saw several where there seemed to be no grass to tempt them. Passed the foot of Grisdale and Mosedale, both pastoral valleys, narrow, and soon terminating in the mountains—green, with scattered trees and houses, and each a beautiful stream. At Grisdale our horse backed upon a steep bank where the road was not fenced, just above a pretty mill at the foot of the valley; and we had a second threatening of a disaster in crossing a narrow bridge between the two dales; but this was not the fault of either man or horse. Slept at Mr. Younghusband’s public-house, Hesket Newmarket. In the evening walked to Caldbeck Falls, a delicious spot in which to breathe out a summer’s day—limestone rocks, hanging trees, pools, and waterbreaks—caves and caldrons which have been honoured with fairy names, and no doubt continue in the fancy of the neighbourhood to resound with fairy revels.
— Dorothy Wordsworth, Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland, AD 1803
… mostly we just patiently make some progress. Sometimes it’s swift and steady, sometimes erratic and embarrassed, filled with stumbles and setbacks. We have good days and bad.
And on some level, we want others to understand all this, and to know that it is what makes our knowledge authentic.
We want them to admire the rituals we recited to gain our safe passage, the amulets we brandished to complete our homecoming.
We want them to know that we’ve been there, man.
To agree that the figure in front of them contains a few molecules from far-flung climes.
To acknowledge our body as a body of work.
To suspect that the faraway glint in our eye, as we wait our turn to speak, is actually a speck — immured in eye-lime by ancient Lucretian optics — of moulted surface-veil of the specimen itself.
To admire us for our professional clarity of thought, sure …
… but more profoundly, to vent visceral awe for our throats as they professorially clear, inviting the infinitesimal yet non-zero possibility that what dislodge and dance in our alveolar folds are secreted atoms of air of that very zone, and that the syllable forming at our lips is a lost-and-found zephyr of the archive itself. Like Swift’s academicians of Lagado, who have to wave around whatever whereof they aver, we suspect that our judgments can only be validated by relations that are physical, even somatic.
Um, okay, Sean put it way more sensibly than that, but I still wasn’t totally sold on any link between archival research and travel literature. Until, that is, he read out an email — from a former supervisor, I think — offering guidance to Young Sean for his first visit to the archive. “It is pretty simple I think. You fill out a form, and have a little interview and a card.” It was pretty simple, and yet the email was remarkably detailed. And although Sean didn’t quite put it this way, there’s no way that it was purely generosity or loquacity or attention-to-detail. There was a real love of storytelling there, and the story was Recollections of a Tour Made in the Reading Room.
So here’s another take-home. If researchers feel that they are laying hands on history through its tangible artefacts, perhaps this goes together with a tendency to conceal the use of digital sources: Google Books, Artful, Gallica, and many others. With a little detective work you can figure out that folk are doing this — Sean mentioned, for example, lacunae: research which claims to be citing physical sources, but consistently cites only the editions of a work that have been digitised in some particular repository. So how do we interpret this silence? Is it professional malpractice if you don’t cite Google Books … when you typed it into your article from Google Books?
Sean’s talk was also about posing a question, or set of questions. If we’re still overly entranced by the old travel narratives, what stories are we neglecting? What stories could we, should we be telling about our research?
One obvious answer is: more accurate stories, rooted in the best available evidence about our real collective experiences. Would such stories still be travel literature, I wonder, or some other genre? Perhaps a descendant of travel literature — science fiction? Perhaps utopian fiction? I’m certainly persuaded that using a database, constructing keyword searches, reading a patchwork of text, needs to become part of the account of doing research. We should give serious consideration, as researchers, to the way that IT conditions our research practices: the practices we proudly theorise and teach as methodology, the practices we feel a bit shady about, and even the practices we don’t notice, but which are nevertheless technologically traceable. How do we leave tracks, trails and traces of our subjectivity? Each researcher is potentially gathering a mass of data about how they gather data.
Sean finished with an open question, which was a callback to Arlette Farge’s Le goût de l’archive (1989). “What, in 2019 — in a dematerialized and iterative archive — is seat number 1?”
There was a lively Q&A. I hardly took any notes and I won’t try to summarise. I think I can just about remember three sort of interrelated questions from Tim Hitchcock, Caroline Bassett, and Rachel Thomson.
Tim asked about how we were imagining archives before this particular wave of romanticization, which he suggested was rooted in the 80s and 90s, just as the archive is starting to transform. He brought up an earlier Foucauldian analysis of the archive as an antagonistic mechanism of order and control: a way of understanding the inescapable web of technology and language in which we are caught and from which we are construed.
Caroline asked about the ways in which the argument was grounded in history specifically, and spoke specifically to the historians’ archive. What is the prior structure that that makes the thing that you set out to collect “history”?
And I think Rachel asked about democratization and authority, and suggested that this argument might be interestingly reframed in terms of loss of historians’ traditional prestige. Could this be a moment of re-territorialization? Might it turn out that people can do history without historians? Might they do it in totally different ways, or do totally different things altogether?
There were plenty of other questions and plenty of answers.
I asked one about zooming out from archival research and thinking about all kinds of academic practice in the same way — especially teaching.
Having mulled it over a bit more, I guess I was really thinking about that gripe you sometimes get about students who don’t do the set reading … or who somehow game the reading. It’s grounded in a recognition that a patchwork of Google Books text fragments isn’t intellectually transformative in the same way substantial linear readings of chapters and books are … and perhaps also a faint recognition that we currently aren’t that good at conveying this fact via formative, summative, and informal assessment.
Speaking anecdotally, reading a whole damn book is a big deal, takes absolutely forever, and it fundamentally changes who I am. I am a pretty bad reader, and perhaps the worse a reader you are, the more it changes you. I can advise a student to be wary of shortcuts, but I know I wouldn’t persuade me.
So perhaps we do need a new language, or a new set of stories, around learning in an era of widely available digital shortcuts. How much do we need to nudge such a discourse along, and how much is it emerging spontaneously? My hunch is that it’s largely emerging spontaneously, and the questions are more around how to steer its growth.
One area might be citation. Citation has connotation, and perhaps the connotation is systematically false. What if we were to experiment with a citation system which elegantly communicates not provenance, but some sense of how the author came across it, and how deeply and widely they have explored the context in which it occurred?
Then again — and this was my follow-up question, a thing I always trot out these days in various guises (I think because of Simmel) — does increasing the truthfulness of the stories we tell about our research, learning, and teaching necessarily always produce more truth per se … or whether it might in some cases be destructive of truth? Might silence, misdirection, equivocation, euphemism, tact, white lies, opacity, deferral validated by uncertainty, and all manner of ruses also be built into the enabling infrastructure of truth?
Creative practice is perhaps where this is most obviously seen: the fidelity between a poetics and a poetry is seldom a descriptive fidelity — why on earth would a poet settle for that? — but is rather a provocative and generative fidelity. The poet represents their practice in ways that enable and modify their practice. Such representations both coheres with and contradict representations capable of communicating their practice.
All this pertains to the tacit validity claims of scholarship. Perhaps to cite a work is to impersonate something, and a linear reading of whatever is in the codex may not be the best way to identify and to inhabit the ‘something’ you are impersonating. For starters, if you haven’t read through the source text in that way, you won’t be alone. Has there been a big DH project to model where citations cluster? Because I have a suspicion that the history of philosophy is the history of conversations between first chapters.
So what kind of poetics ought we aspire to for research? I think my instincts are pragmatic: it would be great if we could recognise and duly weigh the transformative power of longform textual encounter, or could rediscover similar transformative power in more distributed, patchwork formats. So a poetics, or a new travel narrative, that might allow you to take your bearings in that more fragmented reading, without insisting on linearity, to find ways to make that experience more cumulative.
The Tropy workshop was excellent, an opportunity to learn its current capabilities, but also a nice glimpse into its ongoing evolution, and into how the interplay of “nice to have” and “easier said than done” influences development priorities. Speaking personally it was the incidental side quest which really did it for me: arriving late to the Zotero party. Zotero is a free research and citation management system — a bit like Endnotes, if you’re familiar with that — that is oriented toward collaborative research (it integrates easily with Google Docs, for example, although I’m not sure about CryptPad and others). It very zestily searches the web to identify whatever you click and drag into it, and gives you nice titles and abstracts and hooks to hang your own metadata too. Sean even gave me a Zotero sticker, and you know what, I stuck it on my laptop. And then he was gone. Mood: