EBR post: January 2018

Happy new year! We at EBR wish you all the best in 2018.

This month, we publish reviews by Gregor Baszak and Leiya Lee. Baszak’s observations of Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies are timely: his musing “reconsideration of the Internet” occurs in the midst of recent political debates about net neutrality, for instance. Lee’s review of Akira Mizuta Lippit’s text Cinema Without Reflection offers a reflective, counter-reflective, Derridean theory of cinema.

Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right (2017) foregrounds political controversy, as hardly a day passes without another big Trump headline: nuclear war is approaching? Both sides were to blame? Meanwhile, these conversations and controversies are mirrored in online culture wars, predominantly on Twitter, where Trump keeps a very active account.

In his review, Gregor Baszak extracts from Nagle’s text the various efforts of categorization in the alt-right, white ethno-nationalism, or conservatism. One wonders if these categorizations, perhaps interesting in etching out some kind of toxic taxonomy and genealogy, are useful for the netizens at risk from their collective spew. What does a harassed teenaged Tumblr user care about the difference? Or: is it in fact necessary for said user to be able to identify what they are dealing with?—to be able to identify differences and similarities of the discourse of political spheres.

In particular, Baszak identifies Nagle’s negotiation of the alt-right and the left’s “online variant of ‘Tumblr liberalism’” that has arguably resulted in a battle between online left and academe. She describes subcultural cliquishness—the idea of an authoritative, “true and enlightened few” that reign in political discourse. This political intensification of Lyotardian expert culture we might otherwise today call “fake news.”

To this, I ask: in the era of fake news and the need to reclaim the Internet, where is the place of the critical academe? For scholars, cliquishness is also not helpful. We are not trying to shape a critique for an ivory tower academe. In fact, we share even with “fake news” noise ever-growing skepticism of buzzwords—including “fake news”—that I believe is a symptom of what Bruno Latour described in 2004 as critique’s “running out of steam.” In May 2017, I participated in a roundtable at the Canadian Comparative Literature Association entitled, “Revisiting and Renewing Critique,” during which our conversation turned to critique’s failure: do non-academics understand critique and why we need it? It is more imperative than ever that we ask how the rhetoric of critique has been exploited and appropriated by academics and non-academics under the guise of expert culture or subcultural cliquishness.

Also this month, Leiya Lee reviews Cinema Without Reflection (2016) by Akira Mizuta Lippit. Lippit’s argument is wholly Derridean in nature: by exploring a series of appearances by Jacques Derrida on film, Lippit ponders how the cinematic performance of philosophy through Derrida’s phantom-like form—phantom-like because cinema can only offer us the captured image of Derrida, and also phantom-like because Derrida has since passed away—can constitute a Derridean film theory. Put in another way: on screen, embodying his own philosophies, Derrida performs (rather than articulates) a Derridean theory of cinema in cinema: an enactment of his own concept of the trace.

It is clear that both Lippit and reviewer Lee are familiar with Derrida’s ouevre—as well as the unavoidable connections to Gilles Deleuze’s Cinema I and 2. Lippit’s text, especially through Lee’s careful handling, comes across as exciting in its theoretical contributions to the areas of film, image, psychoanalysis, and Derrida’s own work. Lee writes: “since Derrida is no longer with us, which is to say the image has lost its original object, for Lippit, this is a ‘reflection in reverse’, which in turn puts a new spin on the Lacanian mirror image utilised in traditional psychoanalytic film theory.” In addition, drawing upon Roland Barthes’ work on the dynamicism of self that occurs in front of the camera, by which Barthes described “transform[ing] myself in advance into an image” (qtd. in Lippit 18), the controversial argument is made that “even when Derrida was alive, Derrida was always-already not himself. More precisely, he was playing himself, a spectral version of himself, a second person.”

Added note that was not featured in my EBR post:
Here, I might offer a difference of this dynamicism compared to the photographed object of Barthesian study. Whereas the photographed inanimate object leaves a trace (note: clear links to hauntology here), I would argue that the trace of a photographed person contains the contingent depth of this dynamicism—a temporal depth that is not as simple as the contingent object, because memory must be accounted for. In this sense, this depth of dynamicism recalls Deleuze’s
Cinema I indeed—an aeon of eternal past and future presence (Nietzschean eternal return)—leaving us with a cinematic image of Derrida that does not capture him as a subject, but rather, as an embodiment by way of virtual image.

In this Derridean theory of Derridean film theory in action, Lippit focuses on Derrida’s recurring exploration of the myth of Echo and Narcissus. Lee’s pondering of Narcissus’s auto-eroticism highlights the self-embodiment in the cinematic trace—Derrida as a virtual image that is simultaneously not there and that ripples inwardly; similarly, one recalls his performative slippery negotiation between “l’amour” echoes and “le mort” absence in the documentary Derrida (2002).

Derrida in this documentary performs himself in all the ways that have continued to endear him to me as a thinker even now that he is gone. For all of us who have libraries of books that “will be read one day”—present ghosts—he offers a virtual image that is embued with Derridean philosophy. The interviewer asks of a stuffed library, “You’ve read all the books in here?” Camera panning over the clutter, the awkward walk among form and materiality, Derrida says quickly, “No, no, three or four. But I read those four really, really well.” A quirkly performance—but it leaves a trace.

–Lai-Tze Fan
Associate Editor, EBR

EBR post: December 2017

This month, we’re delighted to publish two pieces that complement each other through a mutual focus on intellectual property. Dani Spinosa’s review of David S. Roh’s Illegal Literature: Toward a Disruptive Creativity (2015) and the essay “Information Wants to be Free, Or Does It?: The Ethics of Datafication,” by Geoffrey Rockwell and Bettina Berendt, both deal with the treatment of content in an age of information.

We are also delighted to hear from digital artist and scholar Jhave Johnston; Jhave was kind enough to respond to Theadora Walsh’s review of his book Aesthetic Animisms (MIT Press, 2016). You can find Johnston’s “riPOSTe” (aka EBR response) here.

To start things off, in her review of Roh’s Illegal Literature, Dani Spinosa describes circumstances around literary works that sample from, mimic, and otherwise appropriate cultural texts. Calling Roh’s book “a literary and legal study of authorship and copyright,” Spinosa notes the long history of contention between creative authorship and the publishing industry and economy.

The legal battles explored in Roh’s text ask us to reconsider how readership, creativity, and book culture can be understood in relation to ideas of property, creative control, and copyright. It is an important distinction that the “illegal literature” that Roh describes and to which Spinosa links “plagiarists, parodists, and disruptive literature in general” is not the sampling of intertextuality’s past. Indeed, when Spinosa observes the shift from writing about authorship theoretically à la Barthes and Foucault to writing about the author in law and economy, I think she points to the transformation of how we understand content today. Content, creative or otherwise, is here framed as information, and the especial ease with which this is done so in an age of digitization (or, as Rockwell and Berendt describe it, “datafication”).

Such a crucial shift in how we think of creative content is tied to our treatment of texts, for instance, by way of copies and copy making. Mechanical and then digital reproduction have made us struggle to define, in scholarship as well as in law, what, in what forms, belong to whom, and as defined by what criteria.

I think of Henry Jenkins’ work on participatory cultures for his description of the consumer as an active producer in their own right: shapers of media products and entire media empires through fan-made art, fiction, and online/offline communities. These consumers, understood also as readers, are not passive, Spinosa holds. What is disrupted in one way, then, are the green light-granting figures of content production, discourse shapers, and canon makers.

In the vein of an imbalanced creative economy, Spinosa notices in Roh a tendency to idealize disruptive creativity: “we cannot praise the polyvocality and ‘gift economy’ potentials of networked computing (21) without also conceding that not everyone has access to this common.” Who is it, we might ask, who’s being left out?

Spinosa is correct that a further exploration of “bad disruption” is needed, and towards outlining one, I identify two kinds. Stealing content that is treated as information, content that is easier to steal because it has been abstracted from original forms as well as from the conditions of production, is not the same as stealing content through privilege—such as when minority individuals and groups have their work or even identities stolen. While there are many examples of this kind of theft throughout creative history, one of note is white American poet Michael Derrick Hudson, whose poetry became well-known after he began to publish under the pseudonym “Yi-Fen Chou”—the name of a Chinese woman that Hudson went to high school with. It is absolutely necessary to make these distinctions in “bad disruption,” which we could otherwise call uncritical disruption; the rhetoric of a gift economy of content sharing and sampling culture risks blurring the lines between proposed equal access and a system of privileged access indeed. The fact is that a gift economy cannot wax equality in the same breath that it is omits so many from producing. Who gets to publish disruptive work?

To truly not “disrupt for disruption’s sake,” there must be a reason to disrupt. There are particular groups that could benefit from this kind of work more than others—and they should be allowed to tell their own stories.

The ethics of sharing information and storytelling is explored in detail in Geoffrey Rockwell and Bettina Berendt’s essay, “Information Wants to be Free, Or Does It?: The Ethics of Datafication,” which also comes out this month in EBR. Rockwell and Berendt, two notable figures in the digital humanities, inquire into the creation, surveillance, and ethics of data when so much content—including the data that we produce of ourselves—is subject to a system of “datafication.”

A culture of sampling is posed here as a culture of sharing, particularly of sharing knowledge. Writing humanistically about new media technologies, Rockwell and Berendt take care to express their concerns surrounding the datafication of content about people and communities in particular. Stories, they argue, are in this sense not individual property at all—an interesting claim vis-à-vis the Roh text. Rather, by Rockwell and Berendt’s view, stories “belong to communities and are passed within the community.” The quality of stories as shared knowledge makes their datafication particularly circumspect: “What right have we to digitize these stories and store them up outside their context of telling?” The liveliness of the act of storytelling seems to oppose datafication, as that which is dynamic is difficult to store.

Please look forward to a review of Rockwell and Berendt’s essay in the near future!

As the term comes to a close, we at EBR wish you happy and restful holidays.

–Lai-Tze Fan
Associate Editor, EBR

EBR post: November 2017

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Remember, remember, the fifth of November, the gunpowder treason and plot.

Today, I make my first post as an Associate Editor of Electronic Book Review—and for this, I owe much thanks to Davin Heckman (for recommending me) and Joseph Tabbi (for brainstorming with me).

Much has happened since the last public post, including an annual congregation in July at ELO 2017 in Porto, Portugal, as well as our welcoming of Will Luers as our new Managing Editor of the EBR site. As I reflect upon some of the events in these last few months, I am thinking of some of what is to come in the communities of EBR, ELO, as well as the Electronic Literature Directory. The location and theme of ELO 2018 have been announced: hope to see you all in Montréal, Canada, from August 13 – 17, for “Mind the Gap!”

In the world of experimental writing, on Monday, November 6, Rob Wittig and Mark C. Marino are launching their next Netprov (Internet improv narrative) venture, “One-Star Review.” As the name suggests, you can join in on the creative writing online by creating a fictional character (I am thinking for myself perhaps “Boaty McBoatface”) and writing one-star reviews in a Reddit forum. A few samples have already been posted, including a gem by Marino himself (moonlighting as “Paolo Fairhair”) on the board game Don’t Lose Your Marbles.

“One-Star Reviews” will run through the month of November; more information can be found here.


Also this month, we publish Theadora Walsh’s essay on Jhave Johnston’s Aesthetic Animism: Digital Poetry’s Ontological Implications (MIT Press, 2016). We’re delighted to share that Jhave’s text received the ELO’s N. Katherine Hayles Award for Criticism of Electronic Literature, awarded at the annual ELO meeting.

As today is Guy Fawkes Day, I thought about critique as an explosion of sorts and about what sort of writing (or subject) makes for explosive critique. As Guy Fawkes’ failed explosion of the British House of Lords in 1605 resulted in a long cultural tradition of performative punishment (his effigy is burned on this day), I consider that the act of disturbing “the one” (the nation, the self, the singular) is met with a restoration of an imaginary balance between corpus and mind or else the revelation of the balance as a false construction. Reading Theadora’s essay about Aesthetic Animisms, I noted the explosive upset of the balance by Jhave’s move away from binaries.

Theadora quickly makes known Jhave’s doubled task of writing as both a digital poet and scholar: where some content resists classic form, writing about content that is itself dynamic may require an especial treatment—a question of representation that many e-literature scholars must consider. The form of Aesthetic Animisms is such that Theadora describes it as “fragmentary, forum-like” and “like an index or dictionary for the practicing reader.”

Printed book form aside, Jhave’s shift away from anthropocentric notions of language, consciousness, subjectivity, subject-making, and creativity warrants further exploration of its own aesthetic gestures and shapes, which give to it animisms (beauty that imbues life). The ELO judging committee for the N. Katherine Hayles Prize describe that the text “argues persuasively that it is in the convergence of literature and computation that language truly comes alive, proliferates, ‘rolls over’ and wriggles through data space.” The liveliness and life-giving of language is one such theme explored by Jhave, as Theadora describes his sensitivity to articulations that circumlocute towards defining a thing, into what he calls “just-enough suchness—moments where the ‘is’ shines in all its routine richness, and objective precision cultivates a presence that is independent of transcendence.”

Responding to Jhave’s effort to project forward a thing as is, as it becomes, Theadora cleverly offers the example of Marcel Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema (1928). Her reading of the film’s spiralling cycles and text recalls to my mind how Mary Ann Doane describes in The Emergence of Cinematic Time (2002) that the recorded image attempts to capture the “thisness” of an original referent. Yet, photography and cinema’s failure to be those referents is shared by poetry’s grasping to become, making techniques of gesturing towards difference (montage, intertextuality, and so forth) relevant in much of twentieth century art and literature. “Suchness” and “thisness,” or, vitality and contingency, come to a head again as we consider how digital renderings—as images, as language—can utter poetically.

And here Jhave’s text finds task: what is this utterance, where does it come from, how does it be or become? Theadora cites Jhave’s own project Big Data Poetry in order to demonstrate the poet’s ability to weave strings of poetry even of rendered big data, asking an important question: “If natural beauty or emotional devastation can send poets stumbling toward summation, why not the way big data feels?” Lev Manovich, speaking to information overload in The Language of New Media (2001), has described how big data can make the writer feel. Not big data as a paradigmatic bandaid for task-based operations, but rather, the terrifying noise of a postprint era, where one dreaded question is: what remains left to write about among a hundred thousand million options?

Information overload can feel terrifying for a writer overwhelmed by choice—perhaps even more ungrasping of life than a poem. At least in printed prose and poetry, we have a form that helps us give shape to a moment, for a moment, maybe. Out of informatic chaos, Theadora describes how Jhave “improvis[es] a path”—finding a way by making one, illuminating and shaping “suchness” through the gesture of a stride. And stride, and stride: and suchness forms as an utterance of digital vitality.

But not to be held up against one. Not only one path.

I still resist the linearity of single paths myself, especially if I follow Jhave’s understanding of a consciousness that is not anthropocentric and an utterance that is even decentralized from human reflexive churn. That is: why must there be a notion of poetry that expands beyond the binary of self and work? Because poetry straddles this line—and suddenly the “meta-Anthro” utterance confronts the digital poem and the line itself slips as tectonic plates: so many slippery slates where there had been ekstasis. Thus Theadora asks, “If we cannot tell that a software is generating writing, how is that writing different from something composed by a human?”

Theadora draws upon Lisa Nakamura to restate awareness of the human whenever we ask about inscription (see: Nakamura’s 2003 interview with Donna Haraway in EBR). Rightly, Theadora says that “the world writes upon our bodies”—she necessarily reminds us of the Other. To this, I would suggest an extra step away from binaries: not human and post-human, but also a consideration of the Other in the non-human from the field of media archaeology, which includes the invisible ontologies of plants, parasites, and planet, and which throws off the centre of the pendulum swing. This seems to be Jhave’s point too, noted in his quote that Theadora closes with: “digital work does not confirm selfhood as poetic literacy did. Instead it distends selves towards collectivities that remind it of oblivion.” Jhave sounds hopeful about the oblivion of one, the swelling of the mirrored face and the burst when it is replaced with a thousand voices.

If to write poetry is to know oneself by bouncing against a mirror, if we purposely hit limits so that screams return echoed substance, the screen would be sterile: it is that through which light shines (rather than on which, as with paper). The digital poem as a thing for aesthetic animacies is therefore indeed a distension: a chiasmus that decenters Cartesian duality through a two-way mirror. Four. Eight. Sixteen towards infinity. A multiplying of animacies upon animacies and mediations upon mediations that move away from only two, the poet and his work, and that sprout multi-limbed Athenas out of Zeus’ tired, old mythical brain.

No, no, there are no longer only two. Not only good and bad, tradition and avant-garde, (poetic) justice and (gunpowder) treason. With multiples, the gap among word, code, and meaning is the tri-lectic that does not speak from human lips only. It’s the anarchism of an aesthetic animism through a “digitally-enhanced living language,” as Jhave calls it—the artistry of the blowup as a honing in of attention and as an explosion of the two of one.

–Lai-Tze Fan
Associate Editor, EBR

The Play and Politics of Pokémon GO: A No-Go?

TAG’s third Shinposium invites you to come discuss Pokémon GO: from where it came, its politics, and where the futures of similar locative and AR games are heading.

On Friday, March 31, 2017, from 10:30 – 12:00pm, this Shinposium will build upon the critical lenses and interests of the first two Shinposiums on the genealogy of VR and locative media platforms, once again asking TAGsters to engage in playful and critical questions with regards to an app that has had a major impact on how everyday users, gamers, and scholars think of the creative, community-based, and research possibilities of digital tools and platforms.

Hosted by Concordia Postdoctoral Fellow Dr. Lai-Tze Fan and Professor Jill Didur, and joined by our special guest Professor Adriana de Souza e Silva (North Carolina State University), we will discuss how the release of Pokémon GO represented a major turning point in the popular understanding and engagement with locative and AR games.

The cultural phenomenon of the AR mobile game Pokémon GO in the Summer of 2016 came as a surprise to gamers, scholars, and everyday people. Prior to its incredible success and impact, locative media games and AR games had not yet pervaded the general public, sharing with early experiments in VR and hypertext similar issues of limited audiences, limited technological freedoms, and limited financial backing that saw each of these early histories fade off until recent surges in interest and participation.

Perhaps the difference with Pokémon GO is due to its cultural memory and established fanbase. The game comes out of the popular 1990s franchise of anime cartoons, playing cards, and video games targeted at children; it imagines a world in which humans can catch wild, magical creatures that dwell in everyday spaces. At the same time, the ubiquity of mobile devices as part of our digital lives allows for the adaptability of the Pokémon franchise through familiar map interfaces and quotidian spaces (you can, for example, find a Drowzee in your bed and an Abra sitting on your toilet).

With this combination, Pokémon GO easily merges everyday technology and spaces with the delivery of a magical world that touches our imaginations and memories. Which of us did not want to enrol at Hogwarts, search for dragon balls, or find our very own Pokémon? Pokémon GO makes such fantasies “real.”

Very quickly after its release, the game became all anyone could talk about, with news articles of people discovering dead bodies while looking for Pokémon and viral videos of stampedes of people in Central Park all looking for rare Snorlaxes and Vaporeons. What is maybe not such a surprise is the burst of this trend—and the swell arguably began alongside pertinent critical questions about access to the app, the politics of locative technologies, and the ethics of the game in relation to globalization, enslaving wild animals, surveillance, inclusivity, and so forth.

Less than a year after the launch of Pokémon GO, and as developer Niantic released the next generation of the game in February 2017, where do we stand in terms of the appeal and fan culture of Pokémon GO, and in terms of its politics? Also, how do we negotiate the ties between these areas that may seem separate to everyday gamers but that are, in the ways that scholars and researchers know, absolutely intertwined through gaming and popular industries, communities, and infrastructures?

Early critical engagements with the game gathered scholars’ reflections in a special issue of Mobile Media and Communication in January 2017, edited by mobile media expert Larissa Hjorth. In this issue, Professor de Souza addresses the factors of mobility, sociability, and surveillance as they pertain to Pokémon GO. We encourage interested participants to read this four-page purposeful reflection prior to the Shinposium.

Possible topics of discussion include:
– heightened interactivity with our everyday devices
– narrative storytelling
– nostalgia and the gaming market(ing)
– locative media, privacy, and surveillance
– location accessibility and privilege
– in light of Pokémon GO potentially being a Summer 2016 fad, what is next for locative media games and AR games?

Developing games for kids with asthma

I’m spending my weekend at Concordia University in a game jam with Breathing Games. Our goal over the next two days is to develop a prototype mobile video game (non-profit) called “Lung Launcher.”

Early designs for our interface and interaction.

“Lung Launcher” (working title) will help children aged 6 to 11 with chronic asthma to understand, engage with, and live with their illness. They will explore the environment of human lungs while fighting evil asthma triggers such as viruses, irritants, and allergies.

To start and move through the game, children must use a device to enter their “peak flow”–an exercise in which they breathe out as fast as possible in order to measure airway obstruction and lung function capacity. Children must also answer short questions about how they are doing with the asthma, including whether or not they have remembered to take their medication each day. This data is recorded as part of the app and can be used as feedback for parents, physicians, and researchers.

For more detailed information, see my real-time notes on the Game Jam.

CFP: “Research and Precarity in the Humanities”

“Research and Precarity in the Humanities”

Joint Panel between ACCUTE (Association of the Canadian College and University Teachers of English) and CSDH-SCHN (Canadian Society for Digital Humanities-Société canadienne des humanités numériques)

2017 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences

Toronto, Canada (May 27 — June 2, 2017)

Current discussions on precarity in the Canadian academe respond to the economic structures of university labour. The increasing dependence of universities on temporary teaching staff and the paucity of “alt-ac” positions have dominated conversations about precarious labour and the changing nature of early career researchers.

However, early career researchers in precarious situations frequently win grants and lead major research projects. Research also happens in the precariat. Addressing this gap in the conversation, we propose to examine the means by which research in the precariat contributes substantially to the body of original, essential research in academic professions.

ACCUTE has been at the forefront of discussions on the precarity of academic labour. In turn, the digital humanities community, spearheaded in Canada by CSDH-SCHN, has concentrated on alt-ac positions and collaborative work as possible responses to the crisis of academic labour. These associations constitute a vibrant community of early career researchers whose experiences provide insight into how research is accomplished in the changing academy.

We seek papers that respond to these and other topics:

  • access and use of resources, including digital and financial;
  • the impact of changing modes of publication and dissemination;
  • recognition, honours, and rewards for researchers across labour categories;
  • extra-institutional support.

Please send the following required documents by November 25, 2016 to: Emily Murphy (5em18 (at) queensu (dot) ca) and Lai-Tze Fan (laitze (dot) fan (at) concordia (dot) ca).

Please note: the CV shall have no bearing on the selection process except to ensure that the panel meets the diverse concerns of early career researchers. Also, the CV will not be disseminated to other parties.

Vision and representation

I have done some damage to the cornea in my right eye. I have only told two or three people, but now here it is for all of you to know: while my sight is fine again, I now possess — and presumably, will permanently possess — a tiny black dot in my right eye’s field of vision. Everywhere I look, in the middle of my view is a tiny dot resembling a flitting fruit fly. This phenomenon is called a floater, and I say that it is presumably permanent because it is caused by a small bit of dead cells in (the Platonic cave of) my eyeball that is, as my ophthalmologist stated, “best left alone.”

While I proceed in getting used to my new field of vision, I realize that this black dot is like a laser pointer that aims at anything I look at; I feel like a cyborg with a scanning and processing mechanism implanted into my eye. But more than this, I am suddenly hyperaware of my ability to pinpoint, focus on, and study the objects around me. My focus is not merely mental or visual anymore, but insofar as this dot is a material mass of dead cells in my eye, my ability to focus has become physical.

I am still coming to terms with what this means. Mostly, it’s terrifying to be aware of the fact that I am aware. I am reminded of William Wordworth’s The Prelude, in which he writes about his childhood memories, then steps back another moment and writes about his act of writing about his childhood memories. In this way, the materiality of the ink on paper is another physical focus. Perhaps this blot and stain in my eye is some invocation for me to write the world again. Or perhaps you think me self-indulgent.

And perhaps I am. But the fact of the matter is, the way I look at things has just changed.