Rita Raley: Tactical Humanities

October 16th, 2017 | Category: Headline, Interviews

A professor in English with appointments in Film and Media Studies, Comparative Literature, and Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Rita Raley studies all sorts of things that culminate in interesting intersections. She centers her study of tactical media, a designation Geert Lovink called a “deliberately slippery term,” on disturbance. Her book on the subject, Tactical Media (University of Minnesota Press, 2009), illustrates not only the ways in which media participate in events but also her own nuanced thinking about and through that participation. She and her colleagues have also been busy dissecting Mark Z. Danielewski’s 27-volume novel-in-progress (five of which are currently available), The Familiar, of which Matthew Kirschenbaum calls Raley, “perhaps his best current reader.”

Roy Christopher: What would you say is your area of work?

Rita Raley: Quite broadly, I would say new media (aesthetics and politics), contemporary literature, and what we might call the machinic and geopolitical dimensions of language in the present – by which I mean investigations of the transformations that have occurred in our reading and writing practices in tandem with the development and widespread adoption of computational platforms for everyday communicative use. Concretely, this last has led me to think about machine reading, writing, and translation – alongside of electronic literature, code poetics, global English, and networked forms of expression from spam to picture languages. At the moment I am grouping these forms and practices together under the rubric of the post-alphabetic.

RC: I haven’t read Danielewski since House of Leaves. How would you convince fans of that book to invest in the lengthy journey that he has only just begun with The Familiar?

RR: Life is short, our attention spans are shorter, and the perfect antidote to the sense that the world is slipping from our grasp is deep immersion in a serial narrative that prods us to be self-conscious about historical and planetary time on the one hand and our lived experience in the moment on the other. It rewards deep reading, as Danielewski’s texts always do, and there are ample pleasures to be found in the decoding of the text’s many puzzles and in the following of its lines of reference and inquiry out to other texts and bodies of knowledge, from AI to physics. But its pleasures are not only cerebral: it is at core – I want to say underneath its shimmering surface, which has been meticulously designed and crafted from cover to cover, but what I really mean is at its heart – a fantastic story. What might seem in volume 1 to be a set of stories (told in different genres, voices, and fonts) starts to converge over the course of the first season (volumes 1-5), and it’s clear that everything is moving toward a spectacular convergence that is either going to be apocalyptically destructive or truly regenerative and probably a bit of both. There are many things to say, and many things have been said, about what Danielewski does with and for codex as a medium and all of that pertains to The Familiar as well. What differentiates the project from House of Leaves and Only Revolutions – and I say this with the awareness that they are situated in a shared (or parallel) diegetic world – is the scale. That its planned run is 27 volumes makes this seem obvious perhaps but there is something different in the orientation. House of Leaves and Only Revolutions seem to me to turn in on themselves, opening up and mining abyssal structures or systems by which they then seem to be absorbed. The Familiar rather gestures out and beyond: Its span is Alpha to Omega, and it wants not to plunge us into the trapdoor beneath our feet but to show us the stars.

RC: Is there a such thing anymore as Humanities that are not Digital?

RR: No.

But to answer that more seriously, I would say all knowledge work in the 21st-century university has been transformed (How could it not be?), but computational media are just part of the story. Paradigmatic changes in scholarly methods and practices are evident across the disciplines, and they are all in part attributable to the development of new tools, platforms, and techniques, but understanding the significance of all of this requires some consideration of the evolution of the idea of the university: what is its function and purpose, now; what are its products; which constituencies does it serve; why should institutional culture be defined by vision statements, agenda setting, and entrepreneurial activity. So, indeed, there has been what is often termed a “turn” to quantification, visualization, and making as both the means and end of knowledge production, but this shift is by no means particular to the humanities alone.

To be even more serious, I think that at least some humanities scholars should continue to think about, and with, that which is not-digital – not in the sense of what has been left behind but rather in the sense of what cannot be captured. The accelerations that we seem collectively to sense – in AI research, climate change, and tribal realignments – are in fact real, and we need to put our minds to reimagining a world that is not only inhabitable but worth preserving. How can, and should, we live in common, with each other and with nonhuman things? For these questions the humanities need not only engineering but also the environmental and social sciences.

RC: I want to go back to your work on tactical media. How broadly do you define the concept?

RR: I remain agnostic about what is or what is not “properly” tactical media. If it seems like a nail, use the hammer. If it works – if it gets the job done, whatever the job – great. The only way to guard against the inertia, apathy, and depression that often results from defeat is to act, but at some level we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes a meaningful action. My own view is that now, in 2017, sharing ideas about the future and a common purpose are more important than sharing a definition.

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