Assemblage Theory Digital Scholarship

atemporality in the digital humanities

Wired has a transcript of a Bruce Sterling talk at Transmediale 10 in Berlin early this month titled "Atemporality and the Creative Artist." In it, Sterling seeks to describe a shift he sees in research, if not intellectual practice more generally

Step one – write problem in a search engine, see if somebody else has solved it already. 

Step two – write problem in my blog; study the commentory cross-linked to other guys. 

Step three – write my problem in Twitter in a hundred and forty characters. See if I can get it that small. See if it gets retweeted. 

Step four – open source the problem; supply some instructables to get me as far as I’ve been able to get, see if the community takes it any further. 

Step five – start a Ning social network about my problem, name the network after my problem, see if anybody accumulates around my problem. 

Step six – make a video of my problem. Youtube my video, see if it spreads virally, see if any media convergence accumulates around my problem. 

Step seven – create a design fiction that pretends that my problem has already been solved. Create some gadget or application or product that has some relevance to my problem and see if anybody builds it.

Step eight – exacerbate or intensify my problem with a work of interventionist tactical media. 

And step nine – find some kind of pretty illustrations from the Flickr ‘Looking into the Past’ photo pool.’ 

(If you don’t get what atemporality is by the end of these few images, I probably can’t help you.)

I have to say that I get it, but I'm not so sure why it is "atemporal." Actually Sterling's point has something to do with the collapse of historical narratives and that as such we are not situated in a particular historical moment. The kinds of networked activities that Sterling describes reflect the opening of connections across media in a way that is very different from the more internalized, problem-solving processes of traditional scholarship. I see this as rethinking the productivity of the problem where problems are not meant to be "solved" but rather to generate intellectual activity, to spur invention.

I want to connect this with something Alex Halavais has suggested: 

there are long-standing historical precedents to many of social functions of modern mobile devices, and that our tendency to think in terms of physical environments has blinded us to these long-term social uses of mobile technologies. Moreover, it is useful to understand a range of worn technologies, from sidearms to spectacles, as inherently information, communication, and control technologies. By providing an outline and taxonomy of worn technologies, it is possible to more easily distinguish dimensions along which change may be occurring.

What are the connections? Well I'm thinking of digital scholarship as the mobilization of problems, as worn technologies. Halavais juxtaposes this perspective with the more common one of "understanding communication technologies and networks through the lens of the built environment." Our typical response to problems is to situate them in a field and build a discipline around them in both physical and abstract terms. It is a territorializing process. 

Now, of course we are already familiar with the "network as deterritorializing" trope. In fact what Halavais is suggesting here is that we ought to be able to find historical precedent for such matters (which, actually, I think Deleuze and Guattari do). What's going on in my mind is only tangentially related to Halavais' interest here, but it got me thinking that one way of understanding what Sterling is talking about is to conceive of "the problem" as a wearable technology, as a technology of mobilization. What maybe both Sterling and Halavais are describing are nonlinear histories. 

In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari write the following about technological development: 

Some of them,
phylogenetic lines, travel long distances between assemblages of various ages
and cultures (from the blowgun to the cannon? from the prayer wheel to
the propeller? from the pot to the motor?); others, ontogenetic lines, are
internal to one assemblage and link up its various elements or else cause
one element to pass, often after a delay, into another assemblage of a different
nature but of the same culture or age (for example, the horseshoe, which
spread through agricultural assemblages). It is thus necessary to take into
account the selective action of the assemblages upon the phylum, and the
evolutionary reaction of the phylum as the subterranean thread that passes
from one assemblage to another, or quits an assemblage, draws it forward
and opens it up. (407)

Perhaps this is the kind of atemporality that Sterling is seeing, and maybe this is the kind of history that Halavais is describing. Either way, I see the the problem in Sterling's atemporal digital age as mobilizing us down phylogenetic lines and assemblages away from the territories and fields we have known.

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