Keep Your Distance Close: Maps and Monographs

I grew up moving around. From my birth to my high school years, my family moved at least once every two years. There’s no way to gauge how much that forced mobility shaped me as a person, but it certainly made me unafraid to pick up and go somewhere else.

The day after my last final of my undergraduate studies, I moved out of my parents house, from the bucolic plains of southeast Alabama to the Cascadian coast of the Pacific Northwest. I’ve moved more times than there have been years since then and even more than I did growing up. Seventeen of those twenty-odd treks have been state-to-state moves.

Map Bookshelf by Ron Arad

There are certain things you learn from a life on the road. You learn to keep your life lean (except perhaps for the literary indulgences; books tend to be the bulk of any of my many moves), you learn to pack what you keep efficiently, you learn to make new friends and keep in touch with old ones, and you learn how to read a map.

The Faraway NearbyIn The Faraway Nearby (Viking, 2013), Rebecca Solnit addresses all of the above with the intricacy and intimacy for which she is known. Even the books, about which she writes, “Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone” (p. 61). And in another passage that deserves quoting at length, she writes,

This is the strange life of books that you enter alone as a writer, mapping unknown territory that arrises as you travel. If you succeed in the voyage, others enter after, one at a time, also alone, but in communion with your imagination, traversing your route. Books are solitudes in which we meet (p. 54).

There are several intertwining allegories threading through The Faraway Nearby. One is about a windfall of apricots rotting slowly on the floor of Solnit’s bedroom, and that story is connected to the very dire story of the diminishing mind of her mom. Overall though, the book is about moving, about going, coming, and becoming, the crisis of living where cartographers have yet to tread, losing your way and finding it again. Every time it feels like the story of her troubled relationship with her mother is getting more alienating than engaging, Solnit drops a paragraph like this one:

My survival depended on mapping her landscape and finding my routes out of it. We are all the heroes of our own stories, and one of the arts of perspective is to see yourself small on the stage of another’s story, to see the vast expanse of the world that is not about you, and to see your power, to make your life, to make others, or break them, to tell stories rather than be told by them (p. 29).

Her ability to connect the mundane to the monolithic is time and again why she’s one of the more reliable voices in cultural history and criticism and remains one of my very favorite writers.

Close Up at a Distance

“What size is representation?” Solnit asks, “No size at all, for we get used to seeing satellite photographs of continents the same size as snapshots of babies” (p. 92). If Solnit’s book is about the territory of living itself, then Laura Kurgan’s Close Up at a Distance (Zone Books, 2013) is about the representation, the technologies, the map itself. And it’s beautiful in a completely different way. Kurgan, who runs the Spatial Information Design Lab, directs the Visual Studies program, and is an Associate Professor of Architecture at Columbia University, is not only close with mapping technologies but also quite critical of their shaping how we see the world. “The consumers of generally available satellite imagery,” she writes, “or even the ones who download images for a price from a commercial satellite database, will never know who has tasked a satellite to take a picture (unless they did it themselves) in order to see something close up, but from far away” (p. 20).

The problems of perspective that Solnit mentions above are evident in Kurgan’s critiques. As much as they reveal, remote sensing and imaging technologies remove us from the grit and grind of the realities on the ground. Kurgan investigates these processes through nine case studies, from the images of earth shot from space (i.e., Earthshine and Blue Marble) to satellites over Manhattan on 9/11. Kurgan writes, “The ease with which we can conduct these experiments often hides the reasons for the existence of the images in the first place,” (p. 20), military purposes often being the most nefarious. As Braun (2005) puts it, “…media should never be understood only through their superficial characteristics or merely as interfaces: Certain ideas of reality, society, and subject are always encoded in them” (p. 73). The assumed objectivity of these images is suspect, as they mediate (i.e., insert themselves into) our view, obscuring our ability to accurately interpret what we see.

What the map cuts up, the story cuts across. — Michel de Certeau

However tempting it might be to call Solnit’s book the micro-view and Kurgan’s the macro-, or one about life lived up close and the other at a distance, both are intimate narratives of their subject matter. New books, new stories, new places, new cities can all be a challenge, but dealing with them is manageable and fun. You learn the characters, learn the tropes, learn the plot, learn the map, learn the landmarks, learn the major thoroughfares and cross-streets, and learn when it’s okay to get a little lost.

References:

Braun, Reinhard. (2005). From Representation to Networks: Interplays of Visualities, Apparatuses, Discourses, Territories, and Bodies. In Annmarie Chandler & Norie Neumark (Eds.), At a Distance: Precursors to Art and Activism on the Internet. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, pp. 72-87.

de Certeau, Michel. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, p. 129.

Kurgan, Laura. (2013). Close Up at a Distance: Mapping, Technology, and Politics. New York: Zone Books.

Solnit, Rebecca. (2013). The Faraway Nearby. New York: Viking.

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Many thanks to Ken Wark for suggesting I review these two titles in tandem.

Rotten With Perfection: Deafheaven’s Sunbather

Some of my favorite records are the ones where a band leaps outside the bounds of their past and tries something their fans might not dig. I’m thinking of post-Until Your Heart Stops Cave In (Jupiter polarized their existing fans, while Antenna proved they were onto something new), Corrosion of Conformity’s definitively metal years (starting with Blind, but culminating in the Pepper Keenan-led Deliverance and Wiseblood), and even Kill Holiday’s swan song (Somewhere Between the Wrong is Right, on which they abandoned aggressive hardcore for an energized gothic-pop sound, by turns reminiscent of The Smiths, The Cure, and Ride). Sunbather doesn’t stray from the Deafheaven signature sound but strengthens it instead, and it reminds me of the things I love about the ill-fated albums above. Whether it was growing pains or genre strains, those bands all sacrificed something to pave the path for odd weldings and meldings of metal like this.

Deafheaven

If Mayhem and Mogwai collaborated on a record in some other universe and someone brought it back to ours, it might sound like Sunbather. If Immortal and My Bloody Valentine melted into one smooth mound of blast beats and gauzy guitar, it might sound like Sunbather. If Emporer and Explosions in the Sky had naughty, noisy sex, it might sound like Sunbather. If Taake and Flying Saucer Attack collided head-on in midair at a thousand miles an hour in slow motion, it might sound like Sunbather.

Of course, Sunbather doesn’t and wouldn’t really sound like any of that nonsense, but the marriage of shoegazing and black metal makes a lot of sense. A match made made somewhere south of heaven, both subgenres are about meditation, contemplation, and introspection, in sharp contrast to the pomp and posturing of their rock forebears. While Deafheaven is easily among the best, they’re not the only outfit doing this misfit sound: Wolves in the Throne Room, Altar of Plagues, Light Bearer, Falls of Rauros, Panopticon, Liturgy, Krallice, and Seidr, among many others, are all bashing and bastardizing black metal into something else entirely.

Deafheaven: SunbatherWhen genre-specific adjectives fail, we grasp at significant exemplars from the past to describe new sounds. Following Straw (1991), Josh Gunn (1999) calls this “canonization” (p. 42): The synecdochical use of a band’s name for a genre is analogous to our using metaphors, similes, and other figurative language when literal terms fall short. Where bands sometimes emerge that do not immediately fit into a genre (e.g., Radiohead, dälek, Godflesh, et al.) or adhere too specifically to the sound of one band (e.g., the early 21st-century spate of bands that sound like Joy Division), we run into this brand of genre trouble. Even with a space seemingly cut out for them by a family of description-defying groups, Deafheaven is likely to work loose from any label applied to their sound.

Neither the bands nor the fans come up with these categories anyway. If it moves us, we don’t care what you call it. With renewed focus and fury, Deafheaven moves. George Clarke’s vocals have never sounded more shredded or sincere, and Kerry McCoy’s guitar work is driving, diving, and daring. The addition of Daniel Tracy on drums tightened the trio into an ensemble capable of new leaps, depths, textures, and sophistication. In spite of their often caustic heaviness, there’s a pop sensibility in there that can’t help but shine through.

“You might come across American black metal and see a greater tendency to humanize the terms, which may seem somewhat contradictory,” says He Who Crushes Teeth from California’s Bone Awl, “But I think an unknown goal in American black metal is to level the vocabulary and draw attention to the fact that nothing is outside of humanity” (quoted in Masciandro, 2010, p. 152). Kenneth Burke (1966) defined the human as “the symbol using, making, and mis-using animal, inventor of the negative, separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making, goaded by the spirit of hierarchy, and rotten with perfection” (p. 16). The very Burkean phrase “rotten with perfection” is an apt description of Sunbather, not only in its intent but also in its execution. “The ‘Sunbather’ is essentially the idea of perfection,” Clarke tells National Underground. “A wealthy, beautiful, perfect existence that is naturally unattainable and the struggles of having to deal with that reality because of your own faults, relationship troubles, family troubles, death, etc.” (quoted in Glaser, 2013). Balancing ambitions for more with appreciating what we have is a definitively human struggle.

“If you let go of the idea of perfection,” Anna Chlumsky once said, “a lot of beauty can happen.” Thankfully with Sunbather, Deafheaven endeavor to bring us both.

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Here’s a brief peek into the making of Sunbather, which comes out June 11th on Deathwish, Inc. [runtime: 7:53]:

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References:

Burke, Kenneth. (1966). Language as Symbolic Action. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Glaser, Anthony (2013, March 11). Interview: Deafheaven. National Underground.

Gunn, Josh. (1999, Spring) Gothic Music and the Inevitability of Genre. Popular Music & Society23, 31-50.

Masciandro, Nicola. (ed.) (2010). Hideous Gnosis: Black Metal Symposium 1. New York: CreateSpace.

Straw, Will. (1991). Systems of Articulation, Logics of Change: Communities and Scenes in Popular Music. Cultural Studies, 5(3), 361-75.

Ill Communication: Gary Genosko on Models

“The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place,” playwright George Bernard Shaw once quipped (quoted in Caroselli, 2000, p. 71). Whether Shaw was being silly or snarky, the impossible exchange of meaning and messages is troublesome for communicators and communication scholars alike. Critiquing the standard Shannon and Weaver model of communication, Jean Baudrillard (1981) wrote, “We must understand communication as something other than the simple transmission-reception of a message, whether or not the latter is considered reversible through feedback” (p. 169). The model was originally published by Shannon in 1948 in the July and October issues of the Bell System Technical Journal (and the next year in his book with Weaver), yet it still lingers in communication studies theories, textbooks, and other models.

Remodelling CommunicationIn Remodelling Communication: From WWII to the WWW (University of Toronto Press, 2012), Gary Genosko tackles the Shannon and Weaver model as well as just about every other widely accepted model of communication. Stuart Hall, Roman Jakobson, and Umberto Eco undergo the pressure of scrutiny as well. Genosko also uses Baudrillard to critique other communication theory, from McLuhan and Marx to Deleuze and Guattari. “For Baudrillard,” he writes, “technology’s role is to ‘operationalize’ everything, including philosophical concepts, so that ‘nothing ever really takes place, since everything is already calculated, audited, and realized in advance'” (p. 82). Like the promise of so-called “big data” turned against us, we just become fields in a spreadsheet, bits in a box. Dominic Pettman (2013) terms it a “claustrophically overcoded – thus predictable – world” (p. 63), from which he suggests using a rabbit totem to escape. These collected concerns – of technology obscuring even the possibility of communication – illustrate just how outmoded the models we’ve been using have become.

With my own remodeling aspirations close at hand, I read this book with intense interest. Having read two of Genosko’s previous books, Undisciplined Theory (Sage, 1998) and McLuhan and Baudrillard: The Masters of Implosion (Routledge, 1999), I knew this would be a wide-ranging and deeply thoughtful text. I often find the indecipherable academese of Genosko’s forebears (e.g., Félix Guattari has been the topic of several of Genosko’s books in the meantime) needlessly complex and often downright annoying. Even Baudrillard, whom I rather enjoy, frequently fails at being anything close to clear. Genosko avoids that here for the most part, but, for instance, he writes in his concluding chapter,

The historico-technological arc from WWII to the WWW sketched the transit into a post-representational configuration of communication in a controlled encounter with what might seem to be chaotically de-territorializing, but that ensured no easy recourse to the metaphysical certainties of existing communication models (p. 131).

I realize that sentence is taken out of context, but I can’t help but think there’s a simpler way to articulate those same ideas. This is a book about communication. As lively and interesting as it is, the book falls short of remodeling much of anything. It does, however, provide an excellent survey and critique of existing communication models and a mostly clear parsing of some rather dense communication theory. Genosko is not for the faint of mind, but Remodelling Communication is a perfect introduction to his substantial and growing body of work.

References:

Baudrillard, Jean. (1981). For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. St. Louis, MO: Telos Press.

Caroselli, Marlene. (2000). Leadership Skills for Managers. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Genosko, Gary. (2012). Remodelling Communication: From WWII to the WWW. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Pettman, Dominic. (2013). Look at the Bunny: Totem, Taboo, Technology. Ropley Hants, UK: Zer0 Books.

Shannon, Claude E. & Weaver, Warren. (1949). The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.

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Is the double-L in “remodelling” here the Canadian spelling?

Of Data Sets and Digital Humanities

I began my journey into computer use with the local library’s Apple II and my own Commodore Vic-20. It wasn’t long before I learned BASIC and upgraded to a Commodore 64. As advanced as those machines were for the time, they had no operating systems or internal storage to speak of. I mowed lawns and washed cars to buy accessories for my bedroom setup. First up was a cassette drive to save the programs that would previously disappear when I turned off my computer.
Commodore Datasette
I joined my first user group in the sixth grade. Equipped with my Datasette (Commodore’s cassette-driven external storage device), I was able to trade software with the more experienced programmers in the group. I was one of the only non-adults at those meetings. I distinctly remember the regular appearance of a contrivance called “the Octopus.” This thing connected many Datasettes to the same source thereby allowing the mass copying of whatever was on the master cassette tape. Admittedly, I was mostly collecting old arcade games, but the possibilities were exciting.

Speaking of, the next item on my list of peripherals was a modem. I had no idea what I was going to connect to, but the allure of far-flung databases was the stuff of my prepubescent dreams. The prospect of knowledge coming into my humble machine over the phone line was just amazing. Without a tangible goal or the money for long-distance charges, my interest faded, and BMX and skateboarding took sway over my days. I never got a modem, and my computer-fueled fever wouldn’t return until I started writing for magazines in the early 1990s. Thankfully others bit early by the bug weren’t so distracted.

Debates in the Digital HumanitiesThe history of computing and connectivity since is far too lengthy and eventful to go into here, as are its impacts on academia, but so-called “big data” and the digital humanities have emerged recently as major arenas of scholarship and debate. Integrating new technologies into research is nothing unique, so getting past the buzzwords that often simply repackage old methodologies in new, digital boxes is the first step to figuring out what’s really new and novel. Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), is a solid place to begin. This 500-page compendium interrogates the fledgling field from all angles: what it is, what it isn’t, how it’s done, and where it’s going. And it’s not just about how the research is done but also how it’s reported and shared. Each section in this book includes print versions of relevant blog posts. Everyone from Matthew Kirschenbaum, Alex Reid, and the always critical Ian Bogost to Lev Manovich, Mark Sample, and the inimitable Alan Liu–among many others–get in on establishing and critiquing the field. If you’re wondering what all the tweets are about, this book is definitely the place to start.

Switching CodesIf you’d prefer to dive directly into the deep end, Switching Codes: Thinking Through Digital Technology in the Humanities and the Arts (University of Chicago Press, 2011) is an excellent companion to Debates in the Digital Humanities. Editors Thomas Bartscherer and Roderick Coover and their contributors drill down into the wild, wired, and weird. Each section here has a call-and-response format. Ian Foster, Albert Borgmann, and Bruno Latour and Adam Lowe (whose piece on the migration of the aura is especially interesting) are all here, Alan Liu makes an appearance via one of the responses, and there’s even an interlude card game designed by Eric Zimmerman (“Figment: The Switching Codes Game”)! Fun and games aside, Switching Codes leans toward the philosophical, making it essential for seeing the bigger picture through our increasingly bigger data sets.

My path eventually led me back to both computers and to scholarship, both of which thankfully advanced astronomically in my absence. I still have the Commodore Vic-20, the 64, and that old Datasette, but I now connect to databases with purpose and ease, and my own digital humanities work is informed by excellent books like these two.

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I must acknowledged that my personal hacker history here was spurred on by my current bedtime reading, Bruce Sterling‘s The Hacker Crackdown (Bantam, 1992), which is an excellent history of the darkside of digital humanity.

Vintage Vantage Points: Steampunk and Such

I’m not much of a collector. I move too much to lug around vast amounts of anything except books, but in the last few years I’ve amassed an archive of Omni Magazines. For the uninitiated, Omni was the weird precursor publication to magazines like Mondo 2000 and Wired. It also serves as a bridge between the old order of science fiction (i.e., space ships, interstellar exploration, cold-war oppression, etc.) and the brink of cyberpunk (i.e., networked computers, chip implants, nanotech, etc.), the latter of which emerged during the periodical’s print run (from October, 1978 to Winter, 1995). I hoard and read Omni for the same reason I read old computer books, hacker histories, and science fiction at all, for that matter, and I’m not alone.

Omni Magazines

Besides the sheer historical function of my stacks of Omnis, which provide an archive of thoughts hardly thinkable now, one of the reasons I enjoy digging through them is the alternative futures featured in their pages. Omni often asked Big Thinkers of the time for predictions. Most of the target years for these prophecies have come and gone, so looking back to look forward is fun, funny, and informative. For instance, in the January, 1987 issue, David Byrne is among 14 thinkers asked about technology 25 years ahead, in 2007. Some of the others include Bill Gates, Timothy Leary, and George Will. In the retro-future sprit, Matt Novak’s Paleofuture, another great source of alternative futures, posted Byrne’s pessimistic predictions in 2011.

Vintage TomorrowsLooking back to look forward, speculating about what might’ve happened had history taken a different turn is largely the premise of steampunk. Sometimes called allohistory, sort of a retro version of design fiction, it’s all about exploring an alternative take on how things have happened. In Vintage Tomorrows (Maker Media/O’Reilly, 2013), James H. Carrott and Brian David Johnson, a historian and a futurist respectively, take their opposing backgrounds on a journey through steampunk culture. Though usual suspects China Miéville, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Cory Doctorow all show up in its pages, Vintage Tomorrows is less about the literature and more a global, ethnographic exploration of the whole culture. The gadgets, the costumes, and the reasons are all here in a highly readable, adventure-style form. Oh, steampunk is serious business, but fun is a big part of the focus. “Steampunk strikes me as the least angry quasi-bohemian manifestation I’ve ever seen,” says Gibson, “For god’s sake, it’s about sexy girls in top hats riding penny-farthing bicycles. And they’re all sweet as pie. There’s no scary steampunk.”

With that in mind, here’s an excerpt from my dissertation advisor Barry Brummett’s talk, “Jumping Scale in Steampunk: One Gear Makes You Larger, One Duct Makes You Small,” delivered on October 3, 2012 at our own The University of Texas at Austin [runtime: 4:34]:

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You might think collecting outmoded, outdated magazines is silly, that looking back to look forward seems completely wrongheaded, but, as Henry Jenkins points out in the foreword to Vintage Tomorrows, Christopher Columbus sailed west to get east. Looking back to find paths not taken can yield interesting results. New lands await.