At the same time as I keep working on “Other Networks” (a history of telecommunications networks that existed before or outside of the Internet), I’m pleased to announce I’ve also started working on another multi-part project – a graduate seminar and a book project – that has everything to do with the thinking and doing I’ve done over the last five years on the Media Archaeology Lab, on why I founded it in the first place, what discourses and practices I hope it intervenes in, and on what I hope it will become. While I’ve given probably twenty talks around the world on the lab and written a handful of short pieces on it, until now I haven’t had the chance to fully theorize the lab’s philosophy as well as its place in relation to other arts/humanities media labs as well as Digital Humanities labs.
To that end, starting this week, I am teaching a graduate seminar called “Theory & Practice of Doing // From the Digital Humanities to the Posthumanities.” Our course begins with a classic text, C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures from 1959, to make clear the longstanding, perceived gulf between the sciences and the humanities and the resulting anxiety the humanities have had about how to advocate for their worth. Jump ahead fifty years and suddenly we’re in the midst of he digital humanities as well as various other media studies practices that have made their home in the humanities. Now, the anxieties are perhaps more about the displacement of traditional humanities work, not by the sciences but by a new humanities that’s inflected by scientific practice and, at times, a “spirit” of entrepreneurialism that’s particularly associated with the tech/startup world. We then move from Snow’s text to an overview of the state of the profession in the 21st century, focusing specifically on the ramifications of doing collaborative, interdisciplinary, project-based, hands-on work that engages with or relies on digital media in the humanities. This first part of the course then gives way to the second part, in which we explore more deeply a series of interconnected questions. What does it mean when humanists start placing “doing” at the center of their research agendas? What does it mean to do hands-on work in a digital humanities lab versus a media archaeology lab or a makerspace or a hackerspace? Are these scholars or practitioners appropriating the trappings of scientific labs for the sake of cultural capital or are they in a unique position to critique not only the way labs are often hierarchical, closed structures built around single individuals but also the way the data generated by these labs is too often seen as neutral or necessarily, timelessly true? Can 21st century hands-on work actually work not only to finally close the divide between “the two cultures”, science and humanities, but can it also work to displace the longstanding anthropocentrism at the heart of the humanities? You can see our schedule of weekly readings here.
The second project I’ve started working on with my esteemed colleagues Jussi Parikka and Darren Wershler is a collaboratively written book called THE LAB BOOK: Situated Practices and accompanying website (we haven’t launched it yet but the url will be whatisamedialab.com). In the book, we will provide a critical genealogy of the notion of the media and humanities lab as well as an exploration of some of the affordances labs can offer for the humanities – or the posthumanities – in the 21st century. The project offers a more detailed account of the media lab’s potential to open up new possibilities for thought and action in the present. Besides discussing Digital Humanities, we draw extensively on our own areas of expertise. Sections of the project will focus on sites such as the Berlin Humboldt University Media Archaeological Fundus, and my own Media Archaeology Lab. Other sections will describe the history of the Canadian Film Centre (CFC) Media Lab, the first of its kind in Canada. CFC Media Lab survived until the exact moment that universities started to duplicate it. Since CFC could not grant degrees, it promptly became a startup incubator program so it would produce more revenue than the constant stream of professional artists that were its traditional constituency. This history demonstrates once again the imbrication of creativity, innovation and monetization in the realm of media labs; it also offers an alternative way to investigate what a lab could mean as a cross-section of work in education, theory and critical practice.
While the book will thoroughly document and explicate this significant cultural force, the website will deliver a synchronic overview of contemporary media labs, mostly via interviews. If you take a look at the syllabus for the graduate seminar, you’ll see that graduate students will participate in interviewing people who have played or are playing a significant role in arts/humanities labs and we’ll post these interviews on whatisamedialab.com. Not only is the first time I’ve written a book with two other scholars, but this is also the first time I’ve had the chance to invite students to participate directly in a scholarly project.
I’m looking forward to posting links to interviews as well as updates on the book and website.