SLSA Conference Preview

By Rachael Sullivan

“Reed Coral with Spread Tentacles” by Leni Riefenstahl. Her underwater photographs and films will be the subject of Eva Hayward’s SLSA presentation, “How Like a Reef.”

Around C21, excitement has been building for the SLSA (Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts) Conference coming up September 27-30. The buzz isn’t just about the location—right here in Milwaukee!—or the fact that C21 Director Richard Grusin has had a key role in coordinating the conference. We’re also thrilled that SLSA’s “Nonhuman” theme will extend the momentum from our successful Nonhuman Turn Conference last May. SLSA’s CFP cites the organization’s longstanding engagement with the nonhumanities such as computer science and mathematics, and suggests that approaches such as animal studies and systems theory are “critical to the future of literature, science, and the arts.”  Participants come from a range of disciplines, and the conference promises to be richly provocative in its unsettling and reimagining of the human and humanistic inquiry. If you haven’t had a chance to peruse the schedule yet, or if you’re thinking about making the trip to Milwaukee, here’s a sampling of some panels that caught my eye and might catch yours.

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Crossing Borders

By Ryan Holifield

Some borders are easier to cross than others. This is true of both countries and disciplines, as I and my colleagues Timothy Ehlinger and Manu Sobti have learned in our experience as collaborators on the first Center for 21st Century Studies Transdisciplinary Challenge Grant. During our sojourn in Trieste, Italy this summer for the International Geographic Union’s third Borderscapes conference—for which we organized a paper session and presented papers on our research in progress—I had the opportunity both to sample a diverse array of experiences in international border crossing and to reflect on our ongoing exercise in transdisciplinary border crossing.

Part of the conference was a field trip to the Italy-Slovenia border between the twin cities of Gorizia and Nova Gorica. Just under a century ago, this border lay along the Italian front of World War I; half a century ago, it constituted part of the Iron Curtain separating Yugoslavia from Western Europe. Now, because Slovenia joined the Schengen District in 2007, geographer and prominent border scholar David Newman can stand astride it and pose for pictures (see below).

David Newman standing astride the Italy-Slovenia border

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What is (old about) 21st Century Studies?

By Mary Mullen

The 2009 meeting of the North American Victorian Studies Association opened with an enthusiastic greeting: “Welcome Victorian scholars!”  The audience laughed – they were scholars of the Victorian period, Victorian studies scholars, or Victorianists but certainly not “Victorian” scholars.  Long after Foucault’s “We ‘Other Victorians’” exposed the pleasure people get from opposing a Victorian repressive regime by speaking sex, Victorianists continue to celebrate their supposed difference and distance from the Victorian period they study.  But as Foucault reveals, their oppositional stance masks the way we reproduce ‘Victorian’ forms of power through the discursive structures we inhabit and the questions we ask (“why are we repressed?” instead of “why do we say, with so much passion and so much resentment against our most recent past, against our present, and against ourselves, that we are repressed?”).  Desiring distance from the past, we end up reproducing it in the present.

21st century studies is slightly different, scholars are both 21st-century scholars and scholars of the 21st century, and yet, it also assumes distance from the past.  The proliferation of “new” objects of study and methodologies (new media, new materialism . . .); ruptures and end points that require us to study what comes “after” (9/11, theory, postmodernism . . .); and new terms (post-racial, post-human, post-feminist . . .) mark such distance from the past.  Statements of change are so prevalent that they have become banal.  For this reason, Mark Hansen begins “Living (with) Technical Time” by noting the unoriginality of his opening, “Let me begin by stating a seemingly banal proposition: time has changed in the wake of the computational revolution.”  It as is if Hansen imagines his readers exclaiming, “Of course time has changed – there was a computational revolution!”

Which leads me to the question, what is old about 21st century studies?  Or, more narrowly, what can Victorian studies contribute to 21st century studies?  This question is a personal one for me, for although I study the literature, history, and politics of the Victorian period, I work at the Center for 21st Century Studies.  I accepted a position here in part because I’m convinced that Victorian Studies has much to contribute to 21st century studies.  Victorians thought carefully about many ‘21st-century’ issues such as urbanization, labor, global capitalism, the university, migration, even technology and nonhuman agency.  Although many Victorian theories do not translate to our contemporary moment – every time I read the end of Thomas Carlyle’s Chartism, I cringe – they help put pressure on our contemporary sense of accomplishment, progress, and enlightenment.  So much of what we celebrate as new is actually very, very old.  So much of what we think we have relegated to a distant past is actually quite present.[1] Continue reading

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Amerithrax and the Nonhuman

By Heather Warren-Crow

Let’s begin numerically.

Right after 9.11.01, envelopes containing Bacillus anthracis were mailed to 2 US senators, a news anchor, the editor of the New York Post, and the headquarters of the publisher of Playboy and The National Enquirer.  At least 22 people contracted anthrax.  5 died.  According to the Department of Justice, these attacks are believed to have been perpetrated by Dr. Bruce Ivins, a microbiologist at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (he wasn’t convicted, as he committed suicide before his indictment for the “Use of a Weapon of Mass Destruction, in violation of Title 18…Section 2322a”).[1]  In the decade after this event, officially branded “Amerithrax,”[2] the US Government spent 60 billion dollars on biodefense, including the stockpiling of more than 28.75 million doses of the anthrax vaccine.[3]

An envelope from Heather Warren-Crow’s performance piece sent to C21

I encountered this information as part of my research for the exhibition The Tool at Hand Milwaukee Challenge.  Local artists were asked to make an artwork using only one tool.  My contribution was a performance in which I used my tongue as a tool to lick envelopes printed with the following statement, accompanied by an arrow pointing upwards toward the stamp: “This is worth 1/133,333,333,333 of the total amount of money the United States has spent to counter bioterrorism since the 2001 anthrax attacks via the US Postal Service.”  After inviting visitors to write notes to people of their choosing, I sealed the envelopes and handed them back for participants to put in a mailbox or give to a carrier.

One of my intentions was to use the postal service as an alternate mode of circulating information at a time in which the Internet and television are Americans’ main sources of news.  I wanted to draw attention not only to the facts of federal spending, but also to the materiality of communication—always operative but easy to ignore when it comes to networked media.  Although a full explanation of the goals of my performance lies outside the scope of this post, I will say that the process drew attention to the discomfort many of us feel around mail, especially those who pay bills online or over the phone.  One participant picked up a just-licked envelope by its corner, as if I had given him a used Kleenex for a birthday present.

Info Object #1: more from Heather Warren-Crow’s performance piece

Motivated by the uncanny materiality of things, this post is an opportunity for me to think about Amerithrax as an event with applicability to the Nonhuman Turn.  What follows is more storytelling than analysis.  Focusing on the “Amerithrax Investigative Summary” (AIS), I will re-orient this official explanation towards its nonhuman but nonetheless vital actants.[4]  I don’t mean to minimize the human tragedy of the event or discredit the necessity of locating perpetrators.  On the contrary, recognition of the imbrication of human and nonhuman life can provide a broader context for understanding criminal investigation, which is increasingly dependent on forensic science, as well as bioterrorism, which maximizes affective violence by hijacking preexisting assumptions regarding the supposed ontological and epistemological purity of the human.  The Amerithrax letters exacerbated post-9/11 Islamophobic panic concerning the boundaries between Self and Other with a message praising Allah and directing the reader to take penicillin.  Based on the exact phrasing and the highlighting of As and Ts (believed to stand for nucleic acids Adenine and Thymine), investigators quickly determined that the letters were the work of not a “true jihadi,” but a “home-grown attacker” (“home,” “growth”—two ideas I’ll return to later).[5]

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Academia as Monstrous Puppet

Richard Gruesome

By Charlotte Frost

Within the busy The Nonhuman Turn conference Twitter stream (which was marked by the #c21nonhuman hashtag) there loomed a rather apt entity: a distinctively nonhuman interlocutor by the name of Richard Gruesome. This zombie-esque character, apparently inspired by C21 director Richard Grusin (they both wear the same hat), offered regular tweets that riffed off the conference theme and Grusin’s work. Indeed, Gruesome’s Twitter profile states that before this so-called nonhuman turn he ‘[m]ay have been Richard Grusin, but [is] now just the ramblings of his half-eaten bot-brain’. Building on this nonhuman motif, he appears to follow a collection of objects, animals, dead or fictitious characters and even their dead – as in inactive – Twitter accounts. His blog (linked to from the Twitter profile) contains the fuller content of some of his tweets, as well as a chat function so you can talk to him, and a curious button suggesting you might also clone him. During the conference some people cautiously ‘retweeted’ a few of Gruesome’s tweets, a handful of well-known attendees followed his Twitter account, and many wondered who had created this nonhuman automated ‘twitter bot’. Well, the creator – it might be more precise to say co-creator – of Richard Gruesome was me.

The impulse behind cultivating this avatar links to the work I have been doing here. As the Provost International Post-Doctoral Fellow here at C21, I have been responding to the question: what is twenty first century studies? For me, contemporary scholarship is about a changing academy. There is an increasing amount of inter- or transdisciplinarity which sees the objectives and practices of once discrete disciplines combined to new effect. There are new questions arising out of these blurred disciplinary boundaries and the politics of the contemporary moment. With digital communication technologies there are also emerging modes of production and ‘publication’ and, running parallel to this, a focus on a more makerly approach to academic enquiry. Referred to variously as ‘edu-makers’, ‘multimodal’ or ‘transmedia’ scholars, a good number of media theorists are investigating how we can transcend and augment academic writing by working with different media and exploring in many different directions at once. I am particularly interested in the relationship between the form and content of the art history book and by working critically across media to ask different questions about art contextual scholarship. As part of this practice-based research (see Arts Future Book), I often make the projects, situations and multimodal critical objects I need to advance my thinking.

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How can one capture the excitement, intensity, and enthusiasm of this past weekend’s Nonhuman Turn Conference?  One can point toward the participants’ willingness to continue to think through the ideas discussed during the conference, despite their exhaustion.   UWM English professor, Anne Wysocki, phrased it well in a tweet:  “After 2 good sleep nights, I am no longer feeling nonhuman — but certainly am still (paradoxically?) thinking it.”   Alternatively, one can turn to the numerous tweets from the #c21nonhuman hashtag and examine the words, users, links, and media shared through tweetcharts.  Or, one can take up the invitation of participants like Tero Karppi to watch the plenary talks via video.  Or, one can read the blogged responses to the conference:  UWM grad student, Shawna Lipton, weighs in, as does Shane Denson, James Stanescu, Adrian Ivakhiv, Troy Rhoades, Bruce Sterling of, and, of course, Tim Morton , and many others (after reading all this, you’ll be feeling nonhuman, too).

Which is all to say, a big thank you to everyone who made the C21 Nonhuman Turn Conference the event that it was.  Let’s continue to think through objects, relations, media, ecology, matter, animals, networks, turn fatigue, and affect together.  More blog posts to come . . .

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Dying Breeds at the CIE Conference

By Molly McCourt

In his presentation “On and Off the Grid: Film Narrative and the Text,” Dudley Andrew lamented the death of the “isolated, meditative pioneers like Robinson Crusoe.”  In today’s narratives, filmmakers need to get characters off the grid in order to keep drama alive.  Andrew cited a common trope of horror movies as an example—the isolation of the victim in a remote location.  While this setting was originally created in order to instill a fear of the unknown—whether it be the darkness of the woods, an urban legend, or a rare, flesh-eating disease—the terror now revolves around a dearth of technology.  Forget the site of Jason’s hockey mask; the image of zero bars on a cell phone is much more frightening in this technological moment.  Further, this dependence on electronics makes it difficult to produce any films that feature a quest of any kind.  If someone is “on the grid,” she cannot set off on a soul-searching mission nearly as easily as the revered heroes of road films of the 1970s.  Can you imagine James Taylor and Warren Oates racing across the U.S. in Two-Lane Blacktop with the guidance of a robotic GPS device? Would Thelma and Louise be nearly as thrilling if the cops could stop the female felons by tracking their cell phone signal?

Andrew suggested that the location of the elevator in film battles this interactive web of our world and interconnectivity.  He claimed that the vertical movement of this “magic box for story”[1] directly confronts the swirling motion of this amorphous web.  While I don’t necessarily disagree with this analogy, I want to another idea to this desire to escape the world of cell phones, iPads, and the infamous grid.  Could it be that filmmakers are noticing this lack of narrative in the technological age and combating it with time travel in movies?  Why do we need to isolate the characters thousands of miles from a cell phone tower when we can just make an excuse to revisit the swinging 1960s?[2]  So many people have accused Hollywood of steeping itself in nostalgia lately, blaming this desire for the past for the death of original narratives in film.  Some scholars even criticized Andrew’s presentation as being too nostalgic itself.  Isn’t it possible that this need to escape the grid, to return to a less electronic age is directly causing this era of the remake and retro in Hollywood?

[1] Abbas Kiarostami’s term

[2] This idea is admittedly colored by the fact that I recently saw the trailer for Men in Black 3, and I am okay with that.

[Molly McCourt is a first year PhD student in the Media, Cinema, and Digital Studies track in the English department at UW-Milwaukee.  Her research interests include intertextuality, Bakhtinian carnival, and constructions of gender and sexuality in 20th and 21st century film, television, literature, and pop culture.  She is participating in English 820 this spring (a course where you get credit for attending C21 events, among other things) and continues to enjoy it immensely]

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