Ever since Frankenstein unleashed his monster onto the world in Mary Shelley’s novel from 1818, the notion of “technology-out-of-control” has been a constant worry of modern societies, plaguing more optimistic visions of progress and innovation with fears that modern machines harbor potentials that, once set in motion, can no longer be tamed by their human makers. In this characteristically modern myth, the act of making — and especially technological making — gives rise to monsters. As a cautionary tale, we are therefore entreated to look before we leap, to go slow and think critically about the possible consequences of invention before we attempt to make something radically new. However, this means of approaching the issue of human-technological relations implies a fundamental opposition between thinking and making, suggesting a split between cognition as the specifically human capacity for reflection versus a causal determinism-without-reflection that characterizes the machinic or the technical. Nevertheless, recent media theory questions this dichotomy by asserting that technologies are inseparable from humans’ abilities to think and to act in the world, while artistic practices undo the thinking/making split more directly and materially, by taking materials — including technologies — as the very medium of their critical engagement with the world. Drawing on impulses from both media theory and art practice, “critical making” names a counterpart to “critical thinking” — one that utilizes technologies to think about humans’ constitutive entanglements with technology, while recognizing that insight often comes from errors, glitches, malfunctions, or even monsters. Co-taught by a practicing artist and a media theorist, this course will engage students in hands-on critical practices involving both theories and technologies. Let’s make a monster!
ARTSTUDI 233, FILMSTUD 233/433 — Spring 2018 — Profs. Paul DeMarinis & Shane Denson — Thursdays 3:00-5:50pm
Speculative Data: Post-Empirical Approaches to the “Datafication” of Affect and Activity
Shane Denson, Duke University
A common critique of the digital humanities questions the relevance of quantitative, data-based methods for the study of literature and culture; in its most extreme form, this type of criticism insinuates a complicity between DH and the neoliberal techno-culture that turns all human activity, if not all of life itself, into “big data” to be mined for profit. Drawing on recent reconceptions of DH as “deformed humanities” – as an aesthetically and politically invested field of “deformance”-based practice – this presentation describes several methods by which a decidedly “weird” DH can avail itself of data collection to interrogate and critique “datafication” itself.
The focus is on work conducted in the context of Duke University’s S-1 Speculative Sensation Lab, where literary scholars, media theorists, artists, and “makers” of all sorts collaborate to produce computational and data-driven “things to think with” that blur the boundaries between art and digital scholarship. One such project, Manifest Data, uses a piece of “benevolent spyware” that collects and parses data about personal Internet usage in such a way as to produce 3D-printable sculptural objects, thus giving form to data and reclaiming its personal value from corporate cooptation. Another ongoing project uses data collected by (scientifically questionable) biofeedback devices to perform realtime collective transformations of audiovisual materials, opening theoretical notions of “post-cinematic affect” to robustly material, media-archaeological, and aesthetic investigations. These and other projects, I contend, point the way towards a truly “weird DH” that is reflexive enough to suspect its own data-driven methods but not paralyzed into inactivity.
S-1 Speculative Sensation Lab (with contributions from Luke Caldwell, Karin Denson, Shane Denson, Amanda Starling Gould, David Rambo, Libi Striegl, and Max Symuleski). “Manifest Data: A Kit to Create Personal Digital Data-Based Sculptures.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures 13 (2015): <http://hyperrhiz.io/hyperrhiz13/sensors-data-bodies/manifest-data.html>. Web.
Hyperrhiz 13 is out now. The special issue on “Kits, Plans, Schematics” includes the Duke S-1 Lab’s contribution “Manifest Data,” along with a variety of other great projects utilizing data, physical computing, bodies, and other living and nonliving things. Check it out!