durable mutations in digital scholarship

In his TED talk, Scott McCloud goes in search of “durable mutations” in the world of comics as they move toward the web.One of the things he notes in his talk, and this is developed in his book Understanding Comics, is the relationship between time and space in the graphical representations of comics. On a certain level, we can think of film in the same way as a series of frames going by really fast (though that isn’t technically the case for digital film, even if digital video can be represented as frames like in iMovie). The difference with comics, as McCloud notes is that we are asked to fill in temporal gaps between frames in a way that is more consciously active than the gap filling we do with film or video. We also control the spatial-temporal flow in a way we don’t with film (rewind and fast-forward notwithstanding).

I am also interested in durable mutations… in digital scholarship. What lasting shifts will we see in the movement to non-print media? And I think there are some relevant connections to McCloud’s observations about comics. He asks us to think of the computer screen not as a page (which is a dominant metaphor, as in web page) but rather as a window. (As an aside, this connects in useful ways to some of the things Lev Manovich talks about in his analysis of the development of the screen in The Language of New Media.)

Maybe the most useful way to do this is to think about the “durable mutations” of print scholarship. These were also designed to address space-time problems. Scholars adopt writing technologies as a way of communicating over space and time, both with their contemporaries and for posterity. In a sense, writing begins as a means to address the limits of speech but then develops its own cognitive affordances. Similarly digital scholarship emerges to address the limits of writing, and in some ways recaptures some of the advantages of real-time communication. The limits of writing, as we probably know, are

  • it’s relatively slow (in terms of distribution and arguably in terms of consumption)
  • it’s relatively expensive (particularly for scholarly publication)
  • it lacks sensory appeal
  • it lacks interactivity

As such, we might imagine the screen as a window into a digital scholarly ecology where authorship is downplayed and the intersections are highlighted (in comparison to print), where knowledge is offered to us in a variety of media, but most importantly where we are able to recapture the intellectual conversation that we never really had but have always pursued.

And this is where I come back to McCloud, who envisions web comics as comics only more so, who sees emerging technologies as enabling comic artists to pursue their aesthetic goals more fully beyond the limitations of print. If we recognize that fundamentally scholarship is about communicating and building knowledge with our colleagues, that it is about the conversation, then we can recognize the durable mutations that print technologies offered in the past, and we can recognize the limits of print and the ways in which digital media networks might allow us to pursue our ongoing intellectual goals beyond the limitations of print.