Seeing Ourselve(s) Through Technology

Jill Walker Rettberg’s book was a really interesting read and has a particular resonance for me as I move toward the summer working on my bibliography for affect and sentiment analysis, the cultural side of algorithms, and think/feel my way through the new punctum that data can provide. I really enjoyed Rettberg’s use of Roland Barthes’ studium and punctum, concepts (and a text) that I hold dear; in Camera Lucida, Barthes’ described the concept of studium as an average effect, a cultural connotation in figures, faces, gestures, settings, and actions and punctum as a sting, speck, cut, little hole, prick, a cast of the dice, the accident that pricks, bruises, and is poignant (CL 26-27). I paged back through CL for other descriptions of studium and punctum that I thought interesting in reading Rettberg’s text:

  • “the studium is always coded, the punctum is not” (51)
  • the punctum as revealed after the fact
  • the punctum as a subtle beyond
  • the punctum as a “detail”; a “partial object” (43)
  • “last thing about the punctum: whether or not it is triggered, it is an addition: it is what I added to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there” (55)

Rettberg’s idea that self/simple data (elements like location and time) as a new sort of punctum is intriguing, particularly in her discussion of it alongside N. Katherine Hayles’s concept of an active cognizer as a distributed cognition between human and machine. I’ve been thinking about quantifying myself and the way data can both speak of and for my experience this semester. Disclosure (though through media it has been exposed in slivers): at the beginning of the semester my mother was diagnosed with advanced stage v ovarian cancer. From a distance, my reaction was an impulse for documenting, collecting, gathering, expressing. Some of this has taken post in my blog with posts about my mother, or on Instagram with photos; but also unexpectedly through my iPhone’s locative capacities, and in apps I use for self tracking. I am dwelling in the active cognizer effects of my phone: looking at sleep apps that note my restlessness and insomnia and odd cycles; the most played tracks in my Spotify that show the repetition of two songs (Purity Ring’s “shuck” and The Microphones “my roots are strong and deep”); the geolocational data that follows the paths my parents take from home to around the hospital (or in odd moments, when the pictures taken there register as taken here) in photos my father sends me—this data is a beyond, not just a representation; to me it has affective, punctum qualities that reveal the partial object of my mother’s cancer. I’m interested in thinking further about Rettberg’s concept of filter: what is taken out of this experience and what colour is added in (I wrote this post in January about what it means to visualize disease; I’m interested in returning to it by thinking of what it means to visualize seeing ourselves).

What does this quote from Johanna Drucker

“Rendering observation (the act of creating a statistical, empirical, or subjective account or image) as if it were the same as the phenomena observed collapses the critical distance between the phenomenal world and its interpretation, undoing the basis of interpretation on which humanistic knowledge production is based.”

make available to us for thinking about human(istic) data? About the punctum of data gathered and visualized?

Representation of Interpretive Research Methods

I took particular interest in the readings “A Crisis of Representation in the Human Sciences” and “Ethnography and Interpretive Anthropology” due to their discussion of the construction of knowledge made im/possible by how research (the process, the paradigms, the forms of evidence and text) was constructed. The conversations reminded me of readings from Debates in the Digital Humanities that are taking as matter of concern defining, theorizing, critiquing, practicing, and teaching digital humanities—a similar moment of crisis in representation. Its blurring/blending/breaking of disciplinarity and thus genre conventions for how research is constructed (form, methodology/epistemology and process) and its emphasis on interpretation (due to the plethora of tools that can be used to read and represent data sets) resonated with the concerns and even justifications articulated in developing interpretive anthropology as research method and moving away from working from/applying top down models of paradigmatic structure in researching.

In one of the framing works in DitDH, Johanna Drucker, in “Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship”, questions of humanities scholars what impact the humanities have had on the digital environment, and the possibility of digital platforms and interfaces that are created from humanistic methods instead of the borrowing of methods from outside of the discipline, which she describes as at odds with the cares and concerns of humanities work. She explains that humanities work has encountered digital tools, but what of humanities tools in digital contexts? I see this as deep concern with methodology—how and what researchers are doing for what reasons, for whom or what. A humanistic approach, she explains,

“means that the premises are rooted in the recognition of the interpretative nature of knowledge, that the display itself is conceived to embody qualitative expressions, and that the information is understood as graphically constituted”.

Although Drucker is concerned with humanistic approaches to developing digital tools and interfaces (forms and models to study and re-present information), her concerns for accounting for the complex and the dynamic (that is re-situatable, re-interpreted) is akin to the call for a “jeweler’s eye of the world is thus urgely needed” in cultural anthropology (15). The model of cultural anthropology’s research (ethnography) has long been focused on problems of the recording, interpretation, and description of closely observed social and cultural processes—not models, but self-conscious frames of reflexive mediation (Marcus & Fischer 42).

systems of seeing

systems of seeing

How can writing come from instability and durations of temporality in reflexivity and interpretation? In this same collection, Jamie Skye Bianco asks “does DH need an ethical turn?” to which she responds yes because it operates through webs of people, institutions and politics in uneven networks of relation. People and institutions are a part of DH work: they have/n’t access to texts to research, are/n’t represented in texts, have/n’t access to tools for research, and have/n’t access or representation in what is created. Texts are contextual, they are heterogeneous and dynamic; but reading them for their semantic parts and rendering them as visualizations of selected parts that are oft negligent of situating in the whole being can run the risk of de-emphasizing the human element of the humanities. This risk may come from separating the methods of doing DH work (the tools) from the theories that give impetus to the work. This separation of theory and method risks flattening context by not revealing difference; “the constellation of context, affect, and embodiment must remain viably dynamic and collaborative in digital and computational work” (Bianco, “The Digital Humanities Which is Not One”). Because digital and computational work “documents, establishes, and affectively produces an iteration of real worlds” that are “multimodally layered” (Bianco), not losing context (and its embedded elements) becomes matter of concern. The challenge is to shift humanistic study from attention to effects of technology to a humanistically informed theory of making of technology – considerations of affect, the constructivist force of knowledge as observer dependent and emergent (Drucker, “Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship”).  Digital work needs to consider the realms of the digital, and the context that are digitized and situated around digital materials, need to be envisioned as “shared knowledge, culture, and semantic content” (Bianco). This is similar to concerns taken up through experimental ethnographic writing’s response to inadequacy of existing means to represent authentic differences of other cultural subjects and the charge that interpretive anthropology, if concerned with cultural subjectivity, achieves its effects by ignoring or finessing in predictable ways issues of power, economics, and historic context (44).


reading traces:

  • human sciences: extends beyond conventional social sciences to include philosophy, art, law, architecture, literature, and the natural sciences (7)
  • paradigmatic style in which ideas – not the ideas themselves – that has come under attack (7)
  • “Blurred Genres” Clifford Geertz: fluid borrowing of ideas and methods from one discipline to another (7)
  • present conditions of knowledge are defined not so much by what they are as by what they come after (8) as the postparadigm
  • key feature of this moment is loosening hold over fragmented scholarly communities of specific totalizing visions or a general paradigmatic style of organizing research (8)
  • crisis of representation: arises from uncertainty about adequate means of describing social reality (8)
  • happens in alternate swing of a pendulum between periods in which paradigms are relatively secure and periods in which periods lose their legitimacy and authority when theoretical concerns shift to problems of interpreting the details that elude the capability of the paradigm to describe it or explain it
  • emplotment, argument, ideological implication (historical work exhibits this framework from Hayden White’s Metahistory) (12)
  • during 19th century efforts to find a realist mode of description ended in irony because there were a number of equally comprehensive and plausible yet mutually exclusive conceptions of the same events; need to overcome the unsettling, self-conscious ability to have faith in itself (referring to ironic consciousness) (14)
  • task is not to escape suspicious and critical nature of ironic mode of writing but to embrace it and use it in combination with other strategies (as well as paradox, contradiction, and uncertainty)
  • interpretive anthropology – grew out of cultural anthropology work in the 1960s, which gradually shifted its emphasis from the attempt to construct a general theory of culture to a reflection on ethnographic fieldwork and writing (16)
  • ethnography: a research process in which the anthropologist closely observes, records, and engages in the daily life of another culture and then writes accounts of this culture, emphasizing descriptive detail(18)
  • modern anthropology: ethnographic research process justified by capturing cultural diversity and a cultural critique of ourselves (20)
  • “the essence of holistic representation in modern ethnography has not been to produce a catalog or an encyclopedia, but to contextualize elements of culture and the make systematic connections among them (23)
  • experimental ethnographic writing and the antigenre – tool in the development of theory/theoretical insight (42)

reading threads:

  • is experimental ethnographic writing still developing? in what forms/media?
  • what do these experimental texts look like?
  • are there examples of more open/ongoing/dynamic/interactive ethnographic projects?