Wednesday, June 4, 2003

The Conference and broader Chicago

The Digital Genres Conference was an interesting inter-disciplinary event and the precious little of Chicago I saw was beautiful. I finally got to meet AKMA, Trevor and Steve - all good men - as well as spend some time with my wonderful friend Molly. The conference was live-blogged (see AKMA, JOHO and KIPlog) and many others' comments and impressions are slowly spreading. Although I enjoyed everyone's presentation, I was really struck by a few.

Both AKMA and Trevor presented on theological considerations around embodiment, virtuality and performativity. AKMA pointed out that our identities are always already constituted non-substantially; this is not new, we just notice it more in our 'net practices. He spoke of "identities we type ourselves into" and asked how we might represent our physical bodies online. Trevor took a perspective I tend to share - that we understand the world by performing it - and also focussed on issues of virtuality and embodiment. He outlined three aspects of social interaction that are, at least in part, located in the body: attention to text (following Austin's speech acts), praxis (acting out texts in particular spaces/times), and attention to feedback (or interactivity). I was particularly interested in his claim that these practices are always full of risk, and not least in the sense of how these words (i.e. blog texts) can and will transform us, each other and the worlds in which we dwell. He argued that blogs allow us to perform online, to become virtual bodies through orality (or words), interaction and connection - performing similar sorts of community as available through the Eucharist (simultaneously virtual and actual). I loved these presentations, and had the distinct pleasure of spending many hours wandering around and taking pictures of Chicago with Trevor, and sipping drinks in the lounge in the Hancock Tower while discussing the finer points of performativity, the virtual and the concrete. But more on that later. For now, I'd just like to say that Trevor's intelligence, insight and gentleness will not be forgotten and I look forward to the papers we will write. (And if I believed in angels, I think they would laugh deeply and brilliantly like Trevor's wife Susan.)

Steve Himmer gave a brilliant paper on weblogs as literary practice, deftly making the case that blogs are created by writers and readers, not merely by tools. Reminding us of the importance of readers in the interpretive process, and in the creation of meaning, he also pointed out that neither do blogs have invisible authors or absent voices. (I'm not too sure about the absent voice part, but I might have just misunderstood him.) And he's been kind enough to post the entire presentation online. (I regret not having had more time to talk with him, but hope to see him in Boston one day.)

Dan Headrick gave a fascinating paper on the history of alphabetical order. I didn't know that the first alphabetical dictionary did not appear until 1604, and encyclopedias weren't ordered alphabetically until 1674 (and neither were common before the early 1700s). For whatever reason, I hadn't stopped to consider that if one couldn't spell then alphabetical order is pretty much useless! And apparently it took over 200 years to somewhat standardise spelling, so early dictionaries and encyclopedias came with very specific instructions for use, detailing the order of the alphabet and giving advice such as the word "cat" would precede the word "child". Now, I've always though that alphabetical order in encyclopedias was a little weird, despite being able to easily find topics, and I learned that I am not alone. Samuel Taylor Coleridge said that the Encyclopedia Britannica was fragmented like a broken mirror, with a thousand stories and none of them entire. OK - I don't actually agree with Coleridge, mostly because he preferred a thematic ordering of knowledge that draws on biblical categories, and somewhat because he dislikes fragmentation. But he understood the difficulty that arises in connecting individual entries to broader events, people, places, activities and ideas. However, like hypertext, cross-referencing was invented in the early 1700s to deal with these problems of (de)context(ualisation) brought about by alphabetical ordering. Dan ended his history with the claim that just as the alphabet replaced thematic and theological categorisation with non-hierarchical secular humanism, the Internet absolves our need for alphabetical order and different forms of order are emerging. Damn interesting.

Seth Sanders presented on early logosyllabic (word signs and syllables) and later alphabetic (character) writing systems, and the role of the signature. He talked about how the history of Western logic and rationalism is tied to alphabetic writing, and how signatures differ from seals and stamps. The seal and stamp are preliterate, and comprise practices like reed etchings (as in cuneiform) and fingernail imprints in clay.. Signatures, on the other hand are tied to different media and writing practices such as ink on papyrus, as used in ancient Egypt. He also made some clever comments about a hand in the text standing in for one's person, and I thought that signatures perform as virtual bodies, as well as serving as boundary practices and documentary evidence. Good stuff. And somewhat related to this was Theo van den Hout's presentation on ancient systems of information management. He described the differences between ancient Hittite archives and libraries; archives held/hold the entire set of documents produced, whereas libraries were/are selective. An interesting distinction.

And while it may sound self-serving, I absolutely loved the presentations in the panel in which I participated. Biella Coleman gave a stunning comparative account of IRC and Caribbean street culture as postmodern practices (calling up Gilroy's excellent book, The Black Atlantic) and she put her draft paper online. I also wish I could have spoken more with Biella, and I hope she blogs more about her research. Molly Wright Steenson called for a return to the imaginary architecture of Bruno Taut and challenged designers to dream again of utopia and think big ideas. AKMA sums up all our presentations nicely, and Trevor reflects on related disciplinary heretics.

I also had the pleasure of meeting many more intelligent and wonderful people with whom I hope to keep in touch. Cheers!

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