- Switching Codes: Thinking Through Digital Technology in the Humanities and the Arts
As work in digital humanities develops across and among different fields— accompanied by a surge in attention from major funding agencies—scholars are increasingly likely to encounter the term, although they may not necessarily be able to conjure up a clear sense of what such projects entail. What is it that happens when computing technology intersects with the scholarly business of history, literature, philosophy, and the like? Although Switching Codes, edited by Thomas Bartscherer and Roderick Coover, is neither an introduction to nor a handbook for digital humanities, it nonetheless offers curious minds an intriguing set of entry points into probing the sensibilities behind this shift, permitting outsiders and insiders alike to assess what happens when knowledge creation occurs through interdisciplinary encounters among artists, humanists, and IT specialists.
Many of the case studies in this edited collection are embryonic, representing an effort on the part of the editors not simply to showcase new work but to make epistemological interventions that will allow specialists to engage more productively with others outside their areas of expertise. The volume is designed to “model” and “catalyze” cross-disciplinary conversation, given that “mutual incomprehension persists” (p. 2). The editors build in structural guidance by searching out “traveling concepts” that can [End Page 961] be used to “establish common ground for cross-disciplinary conversation and to clarify key differences” in order to facilitate “new lines of thought and more effective forms of expression” (p. 3). As examples of such common ground, they offer “embodiment,” “ontology,” and “code” as useful migratory concepts, and create four thematic clusters into which they slot the chapters: “Research, Sense, Structure,” “Ontology, Semantic Web, Creativity,” “Panorama, Interactivity, Embodiment,” and “Re/presentations: Language and Facsimile.” Specific studies that are placed under these intellectually challenging rubrics include motion analysis and dancing, challenges to AI on the web, creative machines, interactive panoramas and cinemascapes, poetics, creative writing, originality, and artworks.
The main portion of Switching Codes consists of sets of primary essays within each thematic cluster that are accompanied by critiques. As “conversation,” this format has both strengths and weaknesses. The project essays and the critiques are each carefully wrought and thoughtfully considered, and they provide ample material for theoretical and methodological reflection, repaying close analysis and re-reading. Through these essays, the volume offers an all-too-rare opportunity for scholars and artists who may “understand little about the technologies that are so radically transforming their fields” and those in information technology who in turn may have “scant or no training in the humanities and traditional arts” (p. 2) to speak to and hear from each other.
On the other hand, the essays and critiques portion works against a more engaged conversational mode in adopting the conventional conference structure that slots paper presentations and responsive commentary into session panels (although there are some creative twists here, such as one chapter that is structured as a Skype dialogue between a philosopher and a computer scientist). The conference format hampers the emergence of a more natural conversational interactivity that would be less rarefied and more improvisational—and therefore perhaps both more revelatory of and more engaged with the sociopolitical realities of life (and scholarship) than is evident here. More successful in this vein are an “Interlude” by Eric Zimmerman, who has designed a playable card game from snippets of text from the various chapters that reshuffles the cross-disciplinary conversation into “an exercise in the playful creation of meaning” (p. 191), and an “Epilogue” in the form of Richard Powers’s provocative short story “Enquire Within Upon Everything,” republished from Paris Review. Each of these interleavings is worth opening up the book—perhaps indicating the benefits of experimenting even further with tried-and-true academic genres in an age of informational innovation. [End Page 962]
Katherine Pandora is an associate professor of history of science at the University of Oklahoma.