I finally found it. A real architectural structure of sound. Muttering and uttering voices, music and speech along with an ever-present echo of static.
There is nothing quite like a moment of inspiration. It is childish glee: Christmas come early. That moment you realise there is someone else who has made that same connection. Rather than worry about the lack of original thought, it is affirmation and excitement that sparks my brain into action. It is moments like this when I remember why I study.
Recently, I have been playing with the idea of ‘visualising the invisible’, considering the architecture in Chaucer’s The House of Fame dream vision to be structures built of sound. It was Cildo Meireles’s Babel (2001) which – when I visited before the June re-hanging – was positioned in the centre of its own room at the Tate Modern, and sparked so many ideas.
Meireles’s piece explores ideas about the unity of humanity despite language barriers, paralleling the story of the Tower of Babel. The work is an imposing structure made of hundreds of radios tuned to different stations in many different languages. I was most struck by my reaction to take a picture of this architectural structure of sound. Pressing the shutter-button, I realised that this was not an experience to be captured as a still image.
The hearer/viewer moves around the structure; the eye is looking for something that is not there. I took in the barely audible noise, the music I recognised and started to hum too, the languages I cannot speak and wondered at this at once static and constantly moving piece of architecture, like the House of Rumour in Chaucer’s dream vision. It was a moment of connection, with the music and speakers, with those in the room moving around me and the tower. It was a moment that will never happen again. And yet a memory of it lives on in the sonic space of the room.
The sound is heard and disappears and it is held in the sonic structure. While Meireles is concerned with exploring ideas of overcoming barriers and unity, I question how do we deal with the transitory nature of sound? Do the radios demonstrate a fixity? Or simply a way of transmission? The room was almost overwhelming with the various sounds and yet most of the people around me where silent when experiencing Babel (2001). I, however, was speaking rapidly to my very bemused friend. Sound can become tangible in these moments, for language, for communication, for the artwork; adding another layer human radios.
Charlotte Rudman is a second year PhD student in the Department of English at King’s College London, researching sound and sound representations in medieval dream vision poetry, @charrud.
On April 21 2016, The Still Point Journal, that is, we, published a new blog post:
We invite creative responses to the experiences of working across analogue and digital, and between real and virtual worlds…
Two little words in our call for submissions for Digital Selves in Research – “across” and “between” – held more meaning than we realised at the time. So much of what our contributors have expressed, and so much of our own experience in organising this symposium, hides within those words. We seem to be recognising, in so many nuanced ways, that exploring the digital and the real isn’t about choosing one position or the other. We’re the hybrid generation, the researchers learning how to use the internet for scholarship. Is this what a period of transition feels like?
Our invitation provoked myriad responses, but they all avoided this digital/IRL binary we could not help but set up. Our own vocabulary during this symposium has felt increasingly useless, out of time and place. We are still grappling with how to talk about the experience of being human, being researchers and practitioners in 2016 – but we hope this symposium has pushed our language further.
This symposium was organised through a disorderly mix of whatsapp, google docs, email, face to face meetings, twitter, facebook — but then, so are most offline events, ‘nowadays’. More peculiar is that most of the organisers, contributors, participants and readers have never met each other, and perhaps never will. As editors, we know our contributors through a few emails, static profile pics and tiny bios.
You, the attendees, the delegates, are even stranger for us. Our virtual symposium has had a virtual, largely invisible audience.
Is there really anybody out there?
In her interview on Footnotes on Wednesday, PhD student Rachael Kent described this phenomenon facilitated by social media, of “privately viewing and not publicly feeding back”.
We’ve seen the stats counter ticking upwards on the blog, we’ve seen tweets gaining impressions, and ‘followers’ have gone up. But it’s strange not being able to make eye contact, to share tea and biscuits after each session.
We’d love to see and hear you all in a lively question and answer. We almost wish we could see some of you dozing off during the last speaker/writer of the day, or skipping out to get the train early, or putting your hand up at the end, “this is more of a comment than a question…”. It’s that strange longing that comes from being “across” and “between”, not comfortably “in” or “without”.
And maybe you find us strange too. We are clearly in time, but not quite in space.
Where are we? Who are we? We asked ‘Does the internet knew who you are?’, but do you know who we are? Or does the internet know who the The Still Point is?
We worry a little that we seem like a machine. We schedule with faceless efficiency. We think in hashtags. We anticipate the vibrations of notifications. Do you believe we are real? Can you touch us?
But, we do not want to end with existential crisis. The symposium has also done what social media is so famous for: brought us together regardless of our GPS positions. We heart the tweets, the likes, the feedback from readers. We’d love to know whether we’ve missed a conversation, or if our contributors have made you think again. This was never intended to be fixed or total.
As we post this (or as the wordpress robot releases on schedule), we’re preparing ourselves to be holed up in the King’s library, with friends and twitter-friends, for our Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon. We’re hoping to enter into and create new conversations, and embody the openness that we have loved to hear about this week. Join us — wherever you are in the world!
A final word of course has to be tapped out in ‘thank you’, to you lot, our readers, whether you’ve been a lurker or given us a like or an RT. And to our contributors and keynote speakers, who have been so generous with their time and ideas, and shown us so many ways of thinking about being a researcher, maker, and writer, in a (post)digital world.
You can read and listen and watch the whole symposium here: https://thestillpointjournal.com/digital-selves/
Editors’ note: In his video keynote, Dr Matt Hayler discusses the ‘relationship between us and our things, the entanglement between our minds, bodies, objects and environments’, how ‘to be human is to be wrapped up in a life of stuff that often does its most potent work when we forget about it, and we think that we are working alone.’
Technology – digital, analogue, yet to be invented forms – he argues, can never be neutral. ‘Politics is built into the structure of things and the way they are used’. But this led us to think: are these politics built by the user, or by the creator? We feel like we make spaces ourselves, curating friends’ lists on Facebook, following the right people on Twitter. But remember how Facebook owns our content, how Twitter is notoriously slack at cracking down on abuse? How much can we shape the technologies we use?
Dr Hayler also reflects on how our media is changing the way we consume the written word. He reminds us of Jane Austen’s appeal to her reader, ‘that we might note from the tell tale compression of the pages before us’ that Northanger Abbey is coming to a close in our hands. He asks us to wonder, ‘what new signifying forces based on the materiality of phones and tablets might come to be referenced by third, fourth of fifth generation’ of writers and users? What new forms of reading and writing might emerge, prompted, forced, or suggested by our new ways of looking, of holding? Digital does not mean ‘not-embodied’, after all.
Share your ideas, reactions, and questions below, or on twitter @stillpointldn.
Dr. Matt Hayler is a lecturer in post-1980 literature at the University of Birmingham specialising in bringing together insights from the digital and cognitive humanities with (post)phenomenology and object-oriented philosophy in order to better understand the entanglement of humans and their technological artefacts. His work tends to use e-reading, contemporary experimental literature, and transhuman body modification as case studies for exploring how cognition, knowledge, and materiality become intertwined across human and non-human actors.
Matt spent two years as Network Coordinator for the AHRC-funded Cognitive Futures in the Humanities research network and now acts as a UK Management Committee Member and Working Group Leader for the COST-funded European E-READ research network. He is also CO-I on the AHRC-funded Ambient Literature project and has worked with the Royal Shakespeare company on developing a digital “Theatre Book” with support from the AHRC’s REACT programme. His first book, Challenging the Phenomena of Technology, came out in 2015 and he has since co-edited two volumes on Research Methods for the Digital Humanities alongside Professor Gabriele Griffin, Research Methods for Reading Digital Data in the Digital Humanities and Research Methods for Creating and Curating Data in the Digital Humanities (EUP 2016).
I began researching Marshall McLuhan on the internet to explore Marshall McLuhan’s ideas about how the internet effects research. The symmetry was pleasing.
One thing the internet tells you pretty quickly is that McLuhan did not say or think anything about the internet because he died in 1980. But Amazon customer Mark B. Cohen assured me we could still learn something.
You can be a scholar on the internet, but why be a scholar when customers get better treatment? Sometimes it’s easier to treat the object of your research as a commodity.
McLuhan certainly looks and feels like a commodity. But you can get bits of him for free all over the place.
McLuhan is a kind of hyperobject – “an entity of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that they defeat traditional ideas about what a thing is in the first place.” It is impossible to grasp the totality of McLuhan, because the internet has done what it does to most people and things: obliterated his spatio-temporal specificity. Lost strands of his being are now buzzing around my hard drive.
I can speak to him anywhere with a wifi connection, a prayer by proxy. But encounters with recordings of the once-local-and-fixed McLuhan are unnerving. I find him speaking mystically in greys and browns about Television in 1977 – before I pause him and close his tab.
Then I download his books. The Medium is the Massage [sic] becomes rather tragic: the window on my screen keeps telling me it is a book, but it is manifestly not a book. It sincerely thinks I’m turning its paper pages with my finger and thumb. It seems blissfully unaware of its current status as a .pdf file and rehearses the same joke about a medium it transcended long before. Mediums mutate and betray their messages.
So what about McLuhan and The Digital Age (not the band)? Google lends me the pixels of Paul Levinson.
After a few scrolls I find out that Levinson knew and worked with McLuhan. Here he is describing his experience of learning from him in person:
Park walks. Dinner talks. Hall whispers. These words bring me to a halt. The title promised me “Digital McLuhan” but this McLuhan feels most un-digital. My screenshotting superpower is horribly diminished. Instead of marvelling at the infinities I can access I am reminded of the other infinities I can’t. There are hours of recordings of the man online, but now I’m wondering about the unrecorded halls backstage. I don’t want him to be a dead prophet, but a living contact on whatsapp. Think of the emojis.
This is another thing the internet does: it manufactures nostalgia for non-hyper, everyday objects. This is close to what McLuhan said about the relationship between new and old technologies, media, or ways of being: we can only begin to see old media properly as media once they have been superseded, when form becomes content. Walks, one-to-one conversations, and books take on new meanings as they are re-experienced and re-presented through new technologies. McLuhan thought old technologies became art forms, ‘just as handwriting became the art of calligraphy in the age of print’.
And outmoded technologies become subjects of research. It is no coincidence that the “history of the book” emerged in the latter half of the twentieth century (stimulated by McLuhan) when electronic media allowed us to truly see the contours of print technology for the first time.
This is what I do with my own research. Digital tools allow me to study and manipulate old books in ways no book could ever manage. I cast my eye along thousands of shelves and flick through millions of pages in an instant. I see their shared yearnings and failures. The form of books has been rendered pure content to me. Just like McLuhan.
James Fisher is a PhD student at King’s College London researching the historical relationship between agricultural books, knowledge and labour in early modern England. Follow @JamDanFish.
On my knees, in an art gallery in a bohemian district of Lima, with my head inside a large rock, I thought: “How did I get here?”
I was being shown around an exhibition by an artist whom I wanted to interview. I had the impression at the time, and still do, that this preliminary meeting was a sort of test. I was being judged on how open I was to the artist’s ideas, how I would talk about their work and what the benefits to them would be.
Placing my head in the rock was an extension of this test; it was about my willingness to embrace certain elements of spirituality and of the artist’s vision (which I had quite possibly shown some scepticism towards). However, it was also a demonstration to me that the methods for introducing myself, gaining a person’s trust and setting up an interview in the UK, simply did not apply in Lima.
The purpose of me placing my head inside the cavern at the back of the stone was to feel the energy passing through it, the hum of modernity permeating this ancient stone, whilst closing myself off from the same outside influences.
In a roundabout way, I see parallels between that act and my experiences of conducting fieldwork in Peru, during which time it was regularly necessary to alter my approaches, and adapt my digital self, in order to get things done. As a historian who works closely with ideas from spatial theory and critical geography, it is perhaps no surprise that I claim to see the shadow-work of spatial structures influencing my research at every stage.
However, as students who conduct research abroad will be aware, many common habits and methods of research which are assumed to be, and taught as “good practice” in the UK sometimes don’t apply elsewhere. Whilst some of these problems occur due to different cultural protocols and practices, others arise from differing levels of access to, and differing applications of, technology. In this sense, as researchers our digital selves are constructed on a certain level of geographical contingency.
For a start, it was not uncommon to wait up to two weeks for a reply to an email, if I was lucky enough to get one at all. This meant devising new strategies to harass people; usually it involved a quick phone call, but at other times it meant attending a seminar, book reading or theatre performance in which my potential interviewees were involved and introducing myself afterwards.
At times it was frustrating to be travelling all over the city, reassuring academics that I had read and understood their work and shared their perspectives, all in order to set up an hour long conversation. It took days, weeks, sometimes even months to set up interviews when in the UK I would have usually set up the same meeting over a handful of emails in a day or two.
In a world where it is almost assumed that digital technology has made us all interconnected, I found that those superficial connections were not enough.
This process was less about getting in touch with people and more about reassurance, creating a comfortable environment in which to conduct the interview, and demonstrating a willingness to jump through a certain number of hoops to get it done. At times, it felt like I was being deliberately delayed. At others, reading an additional article, or attending a theatre performance, dramatically altered my approach to the interview. Afterwards, I understood that I wasn’t simply being fed the answers in my interviews; I was also being taught how to ask the right questions.
Outside of library campuses and cafes in tourist areas, very few places in Lima had WiFi (certainly not the archives which I visited daily). One interviewee was highly suspicious of my wish to record our conversation with an iPad, as his previous experiences suggested that this meant I was probably an undercover policeman.
Working in archives was even more complex; a Cerberus-like gatekeeper guarding the shelves in each one. It seems incredibly naïve of me (afterwards, that is) to have turned up to several archives expecting to be allowed to browse through everything they had. Quite often this was without a catalogue, and without an internet connection to look up what I needed. In this scenario, technological skills are useless and it is vital that you are able to communicate what it is you’re there to look for without being too squeamish about asking. Instead of negotiating a catalogue or database, you have to negotiate Cerberus, and work out how to work together to further your research.
Sat at home in London, I am endlessly swiping right. My archival research has left me with almost 1000 photographs of documents, many of which I have no idea what they are referring to because I have not mentally processed them in the same way as if I was taking handwritten notes. On the other hand, the old newspapers, leaflets, posters and exhibition guides I have collected which are not online feel hugely valuable for my research. These items refer to events, artists and organisations that I didn’t know existed; it is difficult to Google things of which you haven’t heard. Beyond the information they provided, the materiality of these objects is evidence of moments in time that will never be digitised.
I can attribute each of these to an experience: an event programme from an exhibition I was asked to attend; books bought whilst waiting to meet people; documents from a clandestine Communist bookshop recommended to me by one of my most demanding interviewees.
With each one I know that I have a source I wouldn’t have been able to find sitting at my desk in Gordon’s Square. Each one a reminder that it is not enough to be connected; you must be immersed.
Put your head inside the stone. Feel the vibrations.
Daniel Willis is a second year PhD student at UCL Institute of the Americas. His research utilises approaches from history and critical geography to explore memory and political violence in Peru’s internal armed conflict in the last two decades of the twentieth century. Daniel is studying for his PhD with support from the London Arts and Humanities Partnership. Follow @not_DJW.
From online facsimiles of manuscripts to social media profiles, PhD students from across King’s College London explore how they work with, analyse and are shaped by the digital. Thank you to Colleen Curran, palaeographer and historian; Anna Khlusova from Cultural and Creative Industries; and Rachael Kent, whose PhD spans the Digital Humanities and CCI as a member of the Ego-Media project.
The Still Point Journal‘s blog editor, James Fisher, also joined the panel to discuss all things ‘real’ vs ‘virtual’.
We chat about the way the digital environment shapes us as individual scholars, challenges academic traditions and offers new opportunities for ‘Open Access’ in humanities scholarship.
Dr Caroline Edwards is a Lecturer in Modern & Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck, University of London. Her research and teaching specialisms are in 21st century literature and critical theory, science fiction and post-apocalyptic narratives, Marxist aesthetics, and utopianism. She is currently completing her first monograph, Fictions of the Not Yet: Time in the 21st Century British Novel, and has recently co-edited two collections on contemporary writers – Maggie Gee: Critical Essays (Gylphi, 2015) and China Miéville: Critical Essays (Gylphi 2015).
These are all creations inspired by the hectic digital life doing my masters Cultural and Creative Industries in London. The name of each painting says it all. Every time I was doing an activity/ attending an event, if I have a strong image in my head, I feel that I have to bring it to life on canvas. So these four were inspired when I was feeling that the digital had constructed me in such a subtly important way. When I was DJing alone, posting online, studying alone, I felt too that I was somehow connected but also disconnected. I was so intrigued to search and explore for the inner self.
Tianmei Chen is an explorer, constantly looking for the passion of her life. She was born in a small village in Hubei, Central China. She has worked in fashion and advertising as a producer and blogger in Shanghai since 2008. She also co-founded a flower brand named Flowerbox and created Queen’s Art spot, a painting studio for beginners in 2013 because her self-taught experience of oil painting inspired many more Chinese young women who wanted to join her. She believes that art is for everyone and everyone can paint. Her experience encouraging young Chinese women’s development made her stand out in the Chevening Scholarship selection among over 36000 applicants in over 170 countries funded by FCO, UK, which sponsored her to study Cultural and Creative Industries at KCL. Now, she is in love with this amazing city, London.
Instagram @maychenyolo // Chinese Blog on Wechat: MAYCHENYOLO
Books – in the form of tangible, material objects that collect in vertical and horizontal arrangements on my shelves and desks – are my most conspicuous possessions. In the context of my research, which looks at the publication of sixteenth and seventeenth-century history plays, and draws on bibliographic studies and the (affectionately dubbed) ‘New Boredom,’ my attachment to the printed text is perhaps understandable.
I relish the feel, texture, dimensions and physical presence of a printed book, and the ways in which my books contain little histories of my reading experiences. Pages are downturned in the corners and covered in markings and marginalia, recording my thoughts, ideas and tangential observations, many of which I have silently ‘updated’ to improve upon the inarticulate musings of my undergraduate days. Rather than replacing my worn editions, I am still drawn by these old, faded texts bearing layers of comments and providing a context for nostalgic reminiscences, as well as the occasional insight or grimace.
Given this attachment, as a researcher and reader, I rarely use digital editions of texts when there is a printed alternative available – and increasingly, I print out my typed notes, EEBO (Early English Books Online) texts, and JSTOR articles to regain a connection to the material and ‘permanent’ printed text. Shunning the evanescence of digital annotations, I favour my hastily scribbled, spontaneous and indelible markings that surround my notes and texts.
But since starting to work on a new digital edition of Edward III for Internet Shakespeare Editions, my experiences and views of digital texts are undergoing something of a revolution. Aside from providing easily ‘movable’ texts (worthy of consideration when dealing with the weighty Shakespeare canon and apocryphal plays), digital editions are adaptable, malleable and essentially unlimited in the resources and different versions they can offer. They encourage and reinforce the pursuit of layers of readings more smoothly – one of the aspects that most fascinates me within the field of book history and when looking back at my own reading histories. Unbounded by the practical restrictions of length and format, digital editions can easily present multiple versions of a text, and multiple interpretations of those texts within a variety of media, making it possible to appreciate a wide range of variants and responses.
For me, preparing a digital edition places in juxtaposition the experiences of working with a selection of rare books in their material forms and the processes of presenting my findings within a strikingly non-tangible, electronic medium of HTML tagging. I am currently preparing the modern-spelling edition of Edward III, and during this process, I use photo facsimiles from the earliest text of the play (dating from 1596) to compare variants from later play editions. I produce an annotated paper copy that (through a dense web of my own marginalia) records all the varying choices and conjectures from different editors and which I use to create the HTML version.
This process involves working with about a dozen editions of Edward III spanning over four centuries, each providing slightly different ‘readings’ of the play through the editorial decisions they make. My desk in the Rare Books Reading Room of the British Library bears the evidence of these centuries of responses, as I methodically work through the earliest surviving texts of Edward III from 1596 and 1599, as well as later editions from the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
As I input my findings into an HTML format, ready for publication on the website, I make my own editing choices for the new edition, adding my readings to the little histories of converging and diverging responses I have uncovered in the previous editions.
Providing some respite from the dilemmas and difficulties of doctoral research, I have come to savour the methodological precision (and occasional pedantry) of creating a digital play edition, and conjoining the seemingly disparate processes of handling rare books and creating web-based resources.
I am fascinated by this transformation of empirical evidence from the physical books, including their watermarks, typography and mise en page, into a series of codes – but codes that will offer further immediate access to a range of texts and interpretations, from printed playbooks to subsequent films, photographs and recordings. Considering my affection for the microcosm of reading histories contained within my own personal library, I can see why I enjoy tracing the minutiae of differing responses to Edward III and using the digital format to create a resource that enables others to experience this multiplicity of interpretation.
Through this project, I have come to see digital editions as not just an alternative – and transportable – way of presenting information, but as a means of transforming texts and the ways in which they can be used and studied. Paralleling the wider position of digital humanities, which often seems, paradoxically, to be both ubiquitous and yet unacknowledged within early modern studies, working on Edward III has helped me to appreciate that, while I still relish the printed text, my research is bound to digital editions and is enhanced by them.
Amy Lidster is a second-year PhD student in the English Department at King’s College London. Her research examines the influence of repertory companies, stationers and patronage networks on the development and transmission of early modern history plays. When not confined to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, she can be found (or not found) travelling, exploring museums, galleries and theatre spaces, and occasionally rambling @amy_lidster
If I was to try to unravel the journey of this work or rather the journey of thought around this work, I suppose it begins with a rash of scam emails I received, professing love in an outpouring of questionable prose. This fed into a series of work questioning our sense of truth and relationship with truth.
The digital world has unlocked the gates to a playground where identity is no longer a fixed entity and each of us can inhabit a persona far beyond the constraints of the world we trudge through, in our familiar, somewhat worn, habit day-by-day. Suddenly our societal structures and frameworks are tossed aside, superfluous in a virtual landscape where the idea that ‘the truth is black and white’ couldn’t, ironically, be further from the truth.
As most of us have come to appreciate, the truth can be fluid, untethered, full of nuanced shades, organic in matter, amorphous, unfixed and changeable. Moulding itself to the hand that holds it. Teething issues arise of course, in this transitional period, when those native to a pre-digital age perhaps carry real life frameworks with them into an online world. This landscape of human communication, so overwhelming facilitated (and seemingly boundless, albeit within it’s own subtle behavioural constraints: from 140 characters to ready-made emojis) by social media, is littered with the casualties of this foray.
I find it fascinating that, at times when men and women have been victims of online romantic scams, and are then presented with the truth about the scammer by the authorities, they have chosen to reject the undeniable evidence offered to them about their fictional lover and instead choose to continue to believe wholeheartedly in this virtual relationship. This opens up an interesting conversation as to how truth of any sort is a decision, invested in and embraced by the believer through subconscious choice or otherwise.
Some time ago an email from a Mrs Nenny William arrived in my inbox . From the far flung shores of the Ivory Coast, she reached out to me in her strangely compiled turn of phrase, the widow of a former Archdeacon, bullied by her money grabbing relatives, the mother of two soon-to-be orphans, asking me to become the controller of her wealth.
I took a simple experiment. I chose to believe Nenny. I took her offer to ‘become the controller’ but rather than her wealth I claimed control over this truth. I embraced it and I went online to find her. My journey to own this truth brought me in contact with others who, in turn, took on this truth in one form or another for themselves. And a strange exchange of power took place. Identity and truth, at times, lost their footing. Once or twice I experienced a strange and fragile state which is difficult to convey in words, a tremulous, fluctuating hold if you like on my surety of what was real or otherwise. Before long, I began to converse, less and less in my own dialect and increasingly so in the alien language of such social encounters.
I learnt much. Our digital selves are new beings, new skins, with possibilities we have never had to grapple with before. Identity and truth are quite loosely tethered in a virtual world, but their multifaceted online form is perhaps merely an outward manifestation of what always has been. In a moment, as I discovered, our selves can be cut free, so effortlessly, from their moorings and allowed to float freely down stream.
Susan Francis is a Belfast born artist now based in the South West of England. Her work moves between object, installation and film, with an increasing focus on film as a means to tease out momentary narratives, uncomfortable histories and fragile exchanges. Past work has included solo shows both within the UK and abroad, residencies in a number of countries, including The Bemis Centre for Contemporary Art in the United States, and work held in public and private collections internationally. http://www.susanfrancis.com