- Canadian Forum on Bruno Latour's An Inquiry into Modes of Existence
Environmental humanities scholars in Canada have been coming together to explore possible intersections with the digital humanities for several years. First, digital humanities (dh) offer new communication tools that are important for a field like ours with broad public significance and networks of scholars around the world. Second, tools for visualization are relevant in the interdisciplinary context of the environmental humanities (eh), where mapping spatial relationships and constructing time lines can reveal interesting patterns over time and space. Third, digital analysis tools allow for engaging with large volumes of information, so as to get an overview of a field while also zooming in on specific words, details, or nuances.
The interest in bringing together eh and dh was formalized with a two-day workshop at McGill University in September 2013, hosted by Stephanie Posthumus and Stéfan Sinclair, an environmental humanities scholar and a digital humanities scholar, respectively. eh scholars from cultural studies, history, literary studies, philosophy, film studies, and more met with a number of dh scholars to share research projects, tools, and ideas. These people, projects, and tools can be browsed at the workshop's website: dig-eh.org. (The title is a pun on an Anglo-Canadian form of speech, "eh.")
This forum is a direct outcome of that eh-dh network. In what follows, a small group of Canadian and French scholars experiment with a digital project called An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (aime), which is led by French science studies theorist Bruno Latour, an influential [End Page 110] figure for many in ecocriticism. Because Latour's digital project is a bilingual French-English one, we decided to gather a bilingual group and to invite a French scholar to join us. Guillaume Blanc and Stephanie Posthumus read aime's text in French, while the rest primarily read in English. When our group discussed how to pronounce the aime acronym, environmental philosopher and French-English translator Brett Buchanan pointed out that it might best be read in French as "love" (from the verb "aimer").
Collaboration. Experimentation. Open access and open-ended texts. Communities of readers and peer-edited comments. Does Bruno's Latour's An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (http://modesofexistence.org) project suggest possibilities for how digital formats might change the way we approach scholarship, publication, and peer editing in the environmental humanities? How does it provoke? Who does it provoke? What are its possibilities? What are its limits?
Our first engagements with the digital platform of An Inquiry into Modes of Existence were solitary—and often frustrating. After reading each other's commentaries, we assembled as a group on Skype to reflect further on the convergences and divergences between environmental humanities (eh) and digital humanities (dh). English and French were allowed to flow as needed. To adopt the orchestration metaphor that Buchanan presents in "Maestro Latour," even though no strong melodies were composed, we were able to identify some common refrains over the course of the conversation.
First, we identified that a tension arises between the system and its openness to users, collaborators, and empirical agency. Is it a ground-up approach (a description of the Moderns from diverse positions) or a top-down one (an internally coherent system composed by a single author)? Latour is working to build a common world, yet the user can feel thwarted in her or his efforts to become a player or a musician in its composition because of the control exercised by Latour and his team in creating this project. This frustration, however, can actually be an epistemological tool as it draws attention to the difficulties of creating a common world and to the nature of digital tools. The initial user challenges, moreover, also made for interesting experiences; each of us discovered different parts of the digital platform, often by chance or accident. We did not read or experience the "same" text. Finally, we found [End Page 111] that our user experiences were shaped by our own discipline and nationally specific expectations about websites, which tend to be more text heavy in the French context and...