Welcome to the Pre-Conference Conversations for the New England American Studies Conference. We're writing about the things we'll talk about the conference--join the conversation!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Crosspost: Scholarly Research and Writing in the Digital Age

Hi everyone-- Check out this post on scholarly research and writing on Steven Lubar's blog (he's our keynote speaker): http://stevenlubar.wordpress.com/2012/07/22/scholarly-research-and-writing-in-the-digital-age/

--Jonathan Silverman

Monday, July 23, 2012

Facebook: A 21st Century Scrapbook

While researching scrapbook as an autobiographical medium, I encountered the following Salman Rushdie quote:

"But human beings do not perceive things whole; we are not gods but wounded creatures, cracked lenses, capable only of fractured perceptions.  Partial beings, in all the sense of that phrase.  Meaning is a shaky edifice we build out of scraps, dogmas, childhood injuries, newspaper articles, chance remarks, old films, small victories, people hated, people loved; perhaps it is because our sense of what is the case is constructed from such inadequate materials that we defend it so fiercely, even to the death."

This is, in my mind, the perfect summary of the autobiographical act, a collection of odds and ends, bits and pieces, the random scraps that are stored in one's memory and assigned a degree of importance.  Every bit as significant are those pieces that are are dismissed.  What is held onto and what is cast away, each is a vital part of the construction of one's self-curated self-history.

These parts of a whole were, for centuries, recorded on paper, a combination of text and imagery.  Today, they are uploaded via mobile phones to Facebook.

In October I will speaking about the historical continuity between scrapbooks and Facebook, and time permitting will also venture into the following topics, all of which are in the paper from which I am drawing my presentation:

•The ever changing nature of "new media"

•The role of print culture, mass publication, the rise of "scrap"

•Cellophane tape and the opportunities it offered for preservation or memories

•Polaroid vs. Instagram

If anyone is interested in discussing any of these topics further, feel free to get in touch with me.--Lucinda Hannington

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Tea Time in the Digital Age: Self-Produced Media and the Tea Party Movement

The Tea Party Movement in the contemporary United States thrives on new media technologies. Despite its activists'  apparent inclination toward the past—demonstrated by a predilection for three-cornered hats and petticoats, a veneration of the U.S. Constitution and other founding documents, and the popular slogan“I want my America back"—the movement is actually at the forefront of digital and political modernity. Utilizing social media and a variety of information and communication technologies (ICTs) has allowed the movement to organize, mobilize, and share information much more broadly and rapidly than could have been possible several years ago. This has given rise to a novel organizational structural formation that is neither purely hierarchical nor wholly grassroots, neither truly local nor entirely national in scope. Based on ethnographic fieldwork among Tea Party activists in Connecticut, my upcoming NEASA talk will explore the modes and meanings of digital media production and its impact on the movement as a whole.

Tea Party activists are highly prolific in producing and sharing digital information, including documentation, commentary, and analysis of their own rallies and other events. The production of digital self-mediation is often instantaneous, as activists post photographs, videos, and commentary online with their phones while the rallies are still going on. One Connecticut activist in particular has taken it upon himself to document and publicize almost everything that Tea Party activists have done throughout the state since the movement began in early 2009. His YouTube channel has become a massive digital video archive composed of almost 1,400 videos, with more added every week. Another has begun producing his own TV show which streams live on his website every Thursday night. Other forms of self-produced digital media include analytical or investigative essays posted on personal blogs and shared on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

But the digital revolution's centrality to the Tea Party’s emergence and continued development does not rest only on its capabilities for hyper-connectivity and enhanced communication. In a social world in which the "mainstream media" cannot be trusted—as one Tea Party interlocutor put it: “We're tired of being lied to, and were tired of being lied about”—the ability to represent themselves on such a large scale has been experienced by activists as an important mechanism of rebellion and self-empowerment. In fact, the desire for self-representation and self-empowerment are in many ways equivalent, and constitute a fundamental drive of the movement itself.

In order to better understand these processes, my NEASA talk will investigate the ways that Tea Party political subjectivity is explored and, in many ways, instantiated through media practices in the digital age. It will trace how the ongoing process of self-mediation, largely enabled by digital ICTs, is one of the primary means whereby activists consider themselves to be engaging in meaningful revolutionary action.

--Sierra Bell

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Digital Revolution and the Problem of Context

As a scholar and teacher working at a small university with a limited library, I embrace the worlds that the digital revolution has opened for both researchers and students. The growing array of digitized sources, from political documents to personal letters, and from art to vintage advertisements, has provided a multiplicity of new avenues for creative assignments that engage history students with primary source materials. And for a scholar who slogged through countless rolls of microfilmed newspapers for my first book on holidays, the ability to do full text searches in historical newspaper, magazine, diary, and letter databases is sheer heaven.

Despite all this, I have some reservations about the digital cornucopia. For one thing, the serendipitous find while plodding through a diary or reels of microfilm has been (virtually) eliminated. As a historian, however, I worry most about the loss of both historical context and what might be called the physicality of history. To take the second issue first, just as art historians know that looking at a digital image is nothing like looking at the actual work of art, so looking at a digitized diary or dress is a poor substitute for holding said artifact in one’s hands. I can show my students dozens of digitized calling cards, but it just doesn’t provide the same glimpse into Victorian lives as would seeing and handling the actual cards in the scrapbooks where women pasted them next to other mementoes.

The scrapbooks begin to provide the material context of these historical artifacts. There are many wonderful web sites that do include a good deal of physical, historical, and/or contextual information on their digitized images, but there are, nevertheless, countless digital “orphans” out there as well. Moreover, the methods of online searching can easily slight historical context. For instance, when I can full-text search to find every mention of birthday or wedding gifts in a group of diaries, this is a boon to my research on gift giving. Yet it has the potential to privilege quantity over quality and insight into the larger context of lives. Why did Daniel give Edna a gift for her birthday? Who was he, and how did he fit into Edna’s life? Was he a beau, a brother, a neighbor? Why did he give one kind of gift and not another? To begin to answer such questions, we have to read well beyond the paragraph on Edna’s birthday gifts.

As a professional historian, I am, of course, much better equipped and more motivated than my students to fill in the context of my digital sources, and I also have more opportunities to study actual documents and artifacts. My conference paper will explore some ways to introduce more opportunities for students to experience the physical side of history, as well as ways to help students restore some of the historical context to digital “orphans.”

Ellen Litwicki
SUNY Fredonia

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Roving Mars: The Next Frontier of Space and Media

Mars has inspired dreamers and space enthusiasts as the next logical step after going to the moon. In 1998, the Mars Pathfinder mission captured public attention by demonstrating the first beloved rover (Sojourner) to travel the surface, leading to the later Mars Exploration Rover program (Spirit and Opportunity that landed in 2004).

The Mars Pathfinder mission reveals a significant shift in the relationship between the scientists and the public, which traditionally used science journalists as an intermediary to convey information through the mass media. During earlier missions, the public primarily heard about space news from science journalists; these stories included their spin and any conclusions about why it might be important to the reader. The mission’s public affairs staff also provided a press release and supporting data, as well as photographs, to the journalists for distribution through mass media outlets. Mars Pathfinder made a groundbreaking transition into digital media, becoming a record setting web event with more than half a million hits surrounding its landing. The web event illustrated direct public interest in the mission and would fundamentally reshape how future missions started communicating their news through websites and listservs. The Mars Exploration Rovers would further engage the public though more sophisticated websites and social media.

The following xkcd webcomic provides an excellent example of how the rovers captured the hearts and minds of the public: 

By Giny Cheong

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Digital Approach and the Globalization of Art Historical Discourses. A Case Study: Jackson Pollock in Postwar Europe

The project I will present at the 2012 NEASA Conference is part of Artl@s. Launched in 2009 at the École normale supérieure in Paris, Artl@s aims at promoting a geo-social and transnational history of the arts that meets the challenge of spatial and digital humanities. It brings together scholars eager to embrace digital technology to share, process, and visualize socio-historical data. Artl@s provides them with the tools and support to achieve a dynamic and total history of the arts, namely a database, BasArt; a working space, Artl@s Worksite; a publishing interface, Artl@s Website; and a collection of interactive books, Artl@s Publications. The underlying ambition of Artl@s is to participate in the redefinition of the discipline after the spatial, global, and digital turns, help scholars rethink and adapt their practices in this new intellectual environment, and educate and empower the public. At the core of the project is the belief that a spatial approach is a means to contribute to a truly global history of the arts and to partake in one of the most important characteristics of the digital revolution: learning by sharing.

My own contribution to Artl@s considers the diffusion of American art in postwar Western Europe. Thanks to the generous support of the Vice President of Research at Purdue University, I was able to bring together a multidisciplinary team that includes two of my colleagues Christopher Miller, a geoinformatics expert in charge of the Purdue GIS Library, and Sorin A. Matei, a digital humanity specialist creator of Visible Past, a georeferenced online content management. The project focuses on exhibitions that took place between 1945 and 1970 and that featured works by American Abstract Expressionist and American Pop artists. The results of this research will be featured on an interactive web application that will allow users to view the maps, zoom in on them, select artists or artworks, scroll through dates, and even create their own maps. It will thus be a great tool for scholars, students, and museums professionals, who will be able to use it as a starting point for their own investigations.

At the 2012 NEASA Conference, I will take the reception of Jackson Pollock in postwar Europe as a case study. I will describe the process of transforming the analog information available on this artist into relational database, which is then used to generate dynamic maps and statistics. I hope to demonstrate how those maps and charts not only summarize and visualize information, but also how they expose new information that allow me to challenge the official story of postwar American art.

By Catherine Dossin

Monday, July 2, 2012

Word and Image in the Print Culture of Atlantic Slave Revolt

The paper I will present at the NEASA conference this fall attempts to theorize the relationship between prose narrative accounts of Atlantic slave revolt and the illustrations that often accompanied them. Approaching the Nat Turner insurrection (1831) through the lens of media studies, I examine the tensions that exist between the content of these written accounts, which tend to emphasize the contingent and exceptional nature of violent slave uprisings—and thus the impossibility of their recurrence—and the discursive thrust of their frontispiece illustrations, which often undercuts this attempted containment. The genericized woodblock images that precede these pamphlets often operate by an allegorical logic that undermines the text’s overall efforts to render the Turner revolt a singular phenomenon. Moreover, the images’ technological reproducibility—emblematized by the fact that the image accompanying Samuel Warner’s Authentic and Impartial Narrative (1831) of the Turner revolt is recycled in an account of an entirely different uprising during the Seminole War several years later (the anonymous Authentic Narrative of the Seminole War, 1836)—gives the ultimate lie to claims to insurrectionary exceptionalism.

I am still working to verify my hypotheses about the kinds of printing networks that would have permitted the woodblocks used to create these images to migrate between the different urban hubs of antebellum printing (I have determined that the images are not merely copies of each other). As I do so, it would be very helpful to know if others involved in this year’s conference are addressing similar issues through different materials and how they are approaching them. I would be interested to hear about other projects that attempt to trace the provenance of shared printed matter and then to leverage this information into an argument about the literary or ideological content of texts.

The second question I would like to pose here involves how digital archives are making different kinds of scholarship possible. As my paper will detail, this project would not have been possible without both expansive online research into the visual culture of Atlantic slave revolt (which rendered the recycling alluded to above visible to me) and more traditional archival research (which confirmed it). Likewise, digital remediation will make it infinitely easier for me to communicate my findings at our conference and in the classroom. At the same time, it would be naïve to regard such remediations as substantially different from the ones that take place between the different texts I mention. If the tools of digital literary studies have become sophisticated enough to generate new readings of old texts, how can they also help us to view our own scholarly and pedagogical practices in new lights?

-Alex Mazzaferro