Assemblage Theory digital rhetoric Digital Scholarship

Mobile Assemblages in Digital Humanities: From Backchannel to Buzz

I was scheduled to attend the Rocky Mountain MLA going on this week and deliver this paper. Unfortunately I came down with something that stole away my voice. So here's a copy of the paper I was going to deliver. I welcome your feedback. The paper draws on other work I'm doing, including my recent article in Enculturation and a chapter I have forthcoming in March 2011 in a book titled Teaching Arts and Science with the New Social Media edited by Charles Wankel.  Here's a downloadable version of the text which follows from my page.

Good morning and thanks for joining us. My talk today addresses the role that microblogging is currently serving for academics, particularly in the digital humanities. While I will focus in on specific applications like Twitter, I also want to make that point that our use of microblogging is just one part of a larger constellation of technological developments that are shifting the contexts in which we work. I recognize this is, by now, a familiar argument, not only in higher education but more broadly in our culture. However, despite this recognition we continue to struggle with discovering really productive ways to employ these technologies either as teachers or as scholars. As I will argue today, a significant part of this impasse stems from the way we conventionally understand scholarly discourses. Namely, we need a better understanding of the ways in which the material and technological contexts in which we operate shape scholarly practice.

To this end, I want to speak briefly about the development of the humanistic journal article. Though the first academic journals began with scientific societies in the mid-seventeenth century, the oldest journals in English Studies (e.g. PMLA) date to the 1880s. While certainly there are rhetorical and methodological differences between the scholarly discourses of then and now, the deployment of the technological affordances  and general purposes of the print journal are largely the same. The creation of PMLA was a central topic of the 1884 MLA Convention in New York, where it was agreed that “Whatever should be done to bring us nearer together and give us a sense of centralized power, this Journal idea was thought to be of the greatest importance, as through it every man could have a chance to make his views known, and to have them criticized by the body at large” (1884, v). As this passage suggests, faculty in the humanities have historically worked independently. In part this might reflect disciplinary-ideological commitments to certain views on the relationship between writers, texts, and readers. It also reflects the material nature of our work. That is, while a scientific laboratory may require several people to operate, a book only needs a single reader, and an essay only requires a single author. The solitary nature of English scholarship has also reflected our increasing specialization. As the participants of the 1884 MLA convention realized, at the end of the nineteenth century, the print article was the most effective means for speaking with one’s colleagues (and potentially with a larger academic or public audience).  To a large extent, our legacy scholarly practices from monograph publication down to our daily work in our offices have been founded on the principles that communicating with colleagues in our field is difficult, that access to scholarly information is scarce, and that publication is expensive. 

Clearly the conditions that resulted in the development of the journal article and monograph as scholarly technologies no longer pertain. And yet, collectively, humanists remain bonded to these particular technological practices and the research methods that inform them, as if, our very identities hinged upon them. This can be seen in the response to emerging forms of digital research. In literary circles, perhaps nothing better encapsulates the changes made possible by digital technologies than Franco Moretti’s “distant reading.”  In “Style, Inc.: Reflections on Seven Thousand Titles (British Novels, 1740–1850)” (2009), Moretti undertook a statistical analysis made possible by the growing establishment of a digital collection of literary works. He noted, “in a few years, we will have a digital archive with the full texts of (almost) all novels ever published; but for now, titles are still the best way to go beyond the 1 percent of novels that make up the canon, and catch a glimpse of the literary field as a whole” (p. 134). One can certainly imagine a number of statistical analyses that might be possible in that digital archive. However, there are many critics of the disciplinary future Moretti’s work suggests. In a response to “Style, Inc.,” Katie Trumpener (2009) concluded that 

We are, first and foremost, highly trained readers, and some of what we find, in library or bookstore, will show us new ways to think. We can change our parameters and our questions simply by reading more: more widely, more deeply, more eclectically, more comparatively. Browsing in addition to quantification; incessant rather than distant reading: the unsystematic nature of our discipline is actually its salvation. (p. 171)

Trumpener’s observation that literary scholars are, “first and foremost, highly trained readers” seems accurate. However, I disagree with Trumpener’s assertion that such disciplinary practices are “unsystematic.” While traditional literary studies scholarship may be unscientific and qualitative, it is highly systematized, as evidenced by the broad methodological, material, and technological similarities among curricula, dissertations, journal articles, monographs, and so on. Indeed, if there were not a deeply entrenched disciplinary system of scholarly practice, there would not be a basis for Trumpener’s description of scholars as “highly trained;” there would neither be anything for Moretti’s practice to threaten, nor a discipline that could experience “salvation.”  In my view, the clear error here is insisting that disciplinary identity must be tied to a particular assemblage, a particular set of relations to media and textuality that emerged from modern technologies. That strikes me as an absolutely fatal strategy for the discipline, which quickly becomes little more than intellectual curiosity, a scholarly theme park, the real EuroDisney, French theory and all.

On the other hand, given that English Studies modern disciplinary history is founded on these pre-digital technologies, that indeed the entire movement of humanism is arguably a print technology assemblage, it would be naive to imagine that changes will not occur. As Alan Liu argues

digital technology has caused (and/or expressed) evolutionary changes in the humanities … evolutionary changes incubate within themselves—like the alien in the crew member—an encounter with other disciplines that far exceeds the now domesticated familiarity of “interdisciplinary studies” to become a monstrous exodisciplinarity.

Liu here is discussing the way in which digital projects often place humanities faculty in collaboration with other faculty across the campus in ways that exceed our traditional notion of interdisciplinarity. However, I think his notion of “monstrous exodisciplinarity” is apropos for describing the reaction that social media practices like microblogging have generated in the humanities.

The truth of the matter is that the operation of microblogging among humanists is fairly tame. The recent, mainstream academic attention given to microblogging, conference backchannels has led to several recent studies (McNely 2009, Rheinhardt et al 2009, and Ross et al 2010). Rheinhardt et al (2009) surveyed participants in several academic conferences and concluded “Communicating and sharing resources seem to be one of the most interesting and relevant ways in which one microblogs. Other microblogging practices in conferences include following parallel sessions that otherwise delegates would not have access to, and/or would not receive such visibility. Content attached to tweets was reported to be mostly limited to plain text and web links” (8). However, Ross et al’s (2010) examination of actual tweets related to three digital humanities conferences noted that most of the tweets could not be characterized as participating in a dialog. Instead they analysis led them to consider “whether a Twitter enabled backchannel promotes more of an opportunity for users to establish an online presence and enhance their digital identity rather than encouraging a participatory conference culture” (14). This is not necessarily a criticism of microblogging, though perhaps it is a less idealistic outcome than that suggested in Rheinhardt et al’s survey. What it instead indicates is the operation of social media in the establishment of social relations among academics in a field; microblogging becomes a way of reinforcing the loose social ties that exist among faculty who may only meet once a year but have common interests that may one day lead to a closer, more collaborative relationship. Moreover, Ross et al point out the rhetorical challenges presented by communicating in a new medium: “traditional conversation structures are missing from the Twitter corpus, resulting in a different type of participatory culture; rather than following interactions in an ordered exchange, users are placed in a multidirectional discursive space, where they loosely inhabit a multiplicity of conversational contexts at once” (15). In the twitterstream, tweets go back and forth in dialogue with the @username convention, but these tweets also pass through the public stream and the more limited stream of one’s followers. In addition the hashtag convention, which is typically used to organize tweets related to a particular topic, such as a conference,  creates an ad hoc community. Rarely would one follow the general stream of tweets. This would be analogous to following a general stream of all blog posts or all YouTube video uploads: it would be effectively impossible. Instead one elects to follow a select number of tweeple (i.e people with Twitter accounts) and perhaps certain keywords or hashtags (in academic terms those would be tags related to one’s field). Even still, following several hundred tweeple is difficult enough, especially in the context of an actively tweeted conference. Hence one encounters the multiplicity Ross et al describe.

A twitterstream is monstrous in the classical sense of jamming together disparate objects. However, the notion of monstrosity itself, as Liu introduces the term, relies upon a particular notion of identity from which I argue we need to depart. Conventionally objects are conceived in terms of relations of interiority, where one distinguishes between relations that define identity or totality and those that are extraneous to that definition.  What does it mean to define an academic discipline in terms of interiorized relations? Effectively it means to suggest, for example, that the practices of English Studies, such as writing journal articles, represent some internal characteristic of the discipline rather than representing a historical condition that results from the emergence of the discipline at a particular historical moment. This interiorized notion of identity produce reactions to new technologies that view them threats to identity as potential monstrosities, when I would suggest it might be more accurate to imagine English as always already monstrous. 

Rather than conceiving of identity in terms of relations of interiority, it is possible to conceive of identity as a product of exteriorized relations, and here I am drawing on Manuel DeLanda’s work in his New Philosophy of Society.   In this model, an individual cannot simply be defined by the properties of the parts that define him or her, as parts also are characterized by capacities that exist in a potential or virtual state and only arise through relations of exteriority. Individuals as subjects are not produced through the interiorized relations of the properties of the subject’s component parts; instead the subject only emerges through the exteriorized relations  (or assemblages) between parts that actualize particular capacities. In other words, rather than being threatened by exposure, subjectivity can only arise through exposure to the capacities actualized through relations of exteriority. 

Manuel DeLanda maps the exteriorized relations of social assemblages along two axes. The first axis travels from materiality to expression. In thinking about assemblages of scholarly composition, one would have to consider that the material shift from pen and typewriter to word processor, as substantive at that may be, is minor in comparison to the shift to a networked compositional space or a shift to other media.  These components also play expressive roles, and here I want to set aside for a moment the coded expressions of symbolic communication. Instead here DeLanda asks us to think of affective expression. This axis essentially identifies that which does the marking, that which expresses, and that which is materially expressed upon: the hammer and the nail, if you will. Of course these are not absolute identities. That hammer is the material through which the hand expresses, and the nail expresses itself within the wood, and so on. Plus there is always feedback expression from the wood to the nail to the hammer to the hand. What we are mapping here are relations of force, material and affective.

The second axis shifts from territorialization to deterritorialization. Territorialization is the tendency of a space toward organization and increasing homogeneity. Deterritorialization then is a tendency to disrupt spatial boundaries or increase heterogeneity. DeLanda notes, “a good example [of deterritorialization] is communication technology, ranging from writing and a reliable postal service, to telegraphs, telephones and computers, all of which blur the spatial boundaries of social entities” (13).

Of course one can only go so far without considering code. DeLanda address this concern through a third axis of the assemblage, “in which specialized expressive media intervene, processes which consolidate and rigidify the identity of the assemblage, or, on the contrary, allow the assemblage a certain latitude for more flexible operation” (see fig. 2) (19). The addition of the third axis allows for the investigation of linguistic expressions as secondary processes of territorialization, as codings, or alternatively as decodings intensifying deterritorialization. 

Returning to the subject of microblogging, in the context of social assemblage networks where all objects emerge through relations of exteriority, of exposure, there is no interiorized purity to which monstrosity might be juxtaposed. There is no monster but rather a new potential for being. That said, a “multidirectional discursive space” might present users novel rhetorical challenges. Even as rhetorical practices and styles develop organically within a communication network, the operation of microblogs within the digital humanities remains in flux. As has been discussed, exposure to microblogging mutates the space of the academic conference: presenters can be exposed to immediate feedback (positive and negative); presentations can be disseminated across the web; conversations can be expanded to include people at a distance, both in and out of the discipline in question; and new relations between participants and other interested parties can be formed and maintained beyond the duration of the conference itself. The largely unanswered question that remains is how conferences themselves will respond. Some conferences have created their own Twitter accounts as a way of disseminating official information and engaging in the backchannel conversation. However, it also seems possible that the format of conferences themselves might be reshaped. In the context of blogging and YouTube, it hardly seems necessary any longer for academics to gather simply for the purpose of presenting research and receiving feedback. Instead, it seems entirely sensible that presentation content could be made available online and that the time devoted to panels might instead be spent on discussion, which is the real value of face-to-face meetings. In that context, the productive value of microblogging might be further leveraged to extend those discussions over time and space. 

While the current state of academic microblogging, as detailed in these studies, indicates that the technology is mostly used for establishing an identity rather than developing more collaborative research practices. It may be the case that the specific microblogging applications that are currently available will not develop into the site for scholarly production some imagine it might become. The more recent Google Buzz allows for longer posts than Twitter, but it has not taken off in the digital humanities. Setting these particular technologies aside, however, the many-to-many, mobile, digital media, communications network that is emerging suggests a new space and pace for research practices. It is not difficult to imagine a future of near real-time, digital collaboration in either teaching or scholarship. However, even those who choose to remain in more traditional spaces will find their work impacted. Scholars and disciplines who manage to take advantage of these networks should be able to develop means to compose and share research more quickly and more broadly. Compositional practices will certainly develop in response to these changes. Just as Moretti’s distant reading offers a new way to study a broad corpus of literary works, social media presents new means to examine quickly a broad range of research that builds a network of human intelligence atop database queries. Where the traditional scholar might conduct research by tracking works cited pages in journal articles, social media allows one potentially to track the real time reading habits of disciplinary colleagues. Even though scholars may not collaborate in the traditional sense of co-authoring a text, the traditional conversation of cross-citation, which has occurred at the stately pace of journal publication, can now be accelerated as digital humanistic scholarship responds in real time. What this will mean in terms of a final product is difficult to know, but it would seem likely that a more seamless relationship might emerge between the informal conversations of social media and whatever scholars produce as their research. Indeed it is not difficult to imagine that the notion of final products might be supplanted by a more recursive conversation. 

Microblogging and other social media developments present exciting if unsettling possibilities for the digital humanities.  If, as has been argued here, one recognizes that traditional humanistic scholarly methods emerged through exposure to a particular set of technological conditions, then the defense of those methods as some pure intellectual practice makes little sense. In that context, rather than perceiving the digital as a threat to some interiorized humanistic identity, these new technological contexts offer an opportunity to build new scholarly practices through sustained intellectual engagement with the possibilities rather than simply accepting practices received from a disciplinary past.


Works Cited


DeLanda, M. (2006). A new philosophy of society: Assemblage theory and social complexity. London: Continuum.


Liu, A. (2009). Digital humanities and academic change. English Language Notes, 47 (1), 17-35.


"The Modern Language Association of America." Modern Language Association of America Proceedings 1 (1884): I-Vii. 


Moretti, F. (2009). Style, inc.: Reflections on seven thousand titles (British novels, 1740–1850). Critical Inquiry, 36 (1), 134-158.


Reinhardt W., Ebnerl M., Beham G., Costa C. (2009). How people are using Twitter at Conferences. Retrieved from


Ross, C., Terras, M., Warwick, C., and Welsh, A. (2010.) Enabled backchannel: Conference Twitter use by digital humanists. Retrieved from


Trumpener, K. (2009). Paratext and genre system: A response to Franco Moretti. Critical Inquiry, 36 (1), 159-171.