I Heard You Like Academic Training

Back in 2016, during those heady days of viral culture when meme meant image macro, at least in the popular imagination, I designed a meme curation assignment for a freshman-level course on digital culture. The assignment asked students to trace the history and variation of a particular meme by compiling ten-to-twenty exemplary instances. Each student wrote an introduction to their collection, then organized their memes with explanations of what each one illustrates about the meme’s use or broader social meaning. I asked them to credit the source of each example by linking and using the now-defunct Curator’s Code to provide attribution. I hoped students would learn to think more critically about the casual media they consumed on a daily basis and, at the same time, think more broadly about how creative works circulated online quite often without crediting their creators. For my part, I learned a lot about popular media, what sort of allusions had currency, and the sorts of jokes and political issues that occupied young adult minds.

Classic example of the Xzibit meme.

One macro in particular captured my imagination. It features an image of rapper Xzibit with text that identifies some sort of excessive cultural practice. The first one seems to have appeared on 4Chan in 2007 with text reading, “Yo dawg I herd you like cars so we put a car in yo car so you can drive while u drive.” The joke is a reference to Xzibit’s MTV program Pimp My Ride, a reality show for restoring beat-up cars with hilariously decadent features. One episode presented a surfer who got a clothes dryer installed in the back of his Volkswagen. The meme generated similarly hilarious jokes about everything from excessive food and fashion to absurd political circumstances to redundant academic practices. The formula lends itself to recursive jokes and metacommentary. These days the most common examples make fun of the meme itself, as in, “Yo dawg! I heard you like Xzibit memes, so I put an Xzibit meme in your Xzibit meme…” In other words, the meme has consumed itself into cultural irrelevance.

A good example of the recursivity of Xzibit memes.

And yet, it still pops in my head anytime I read a recipe that calls for four types of cheese or, in recent weeks, when a politician suggests combating an escalating pandemic with more hand-washing. Am I the only one still giggling? Probably. However, I find the meme useful for thinking about the absurdities of professionalization at a moment when the future of our profession looks precarious at best. It came to mind last spring while I revised a Research Methods course for new graduate students I’d taught once before, mostly as a class on professional praxis. “Yo dawg,” I imagined Xzibit saying to the incoming cohort, “I heard you like academic training, so I put some academic training requirements before your academic training so you can train while you train.” Although I haven’t given up on the idea that grad students can benefit from reading canonical theory and learning to write conference proposals, I have begun to wonder if they need to take a course that, more or less, uproots instruction in those skills from the context of more topical courses. In other words, I’m beginning to think methodological training gets the most traction in seminars that help develop a framework for students’ research questions.

My thinking derives in part from the circumstances of my department. We distinguish between creative writing, literary and cultural studies, composition and rhetoric, professional writing, folklore, and linguistics at the graduate level. At the undergraduate level we add moving image arts, which includes film studies and film production. Those areas each have their own concentration and faculty who support them. But our research methods course is required regardless of concentration. My charge, at least potentially, is to teach professional praxis to a group of students who hope to pursue very different professions, from academia to social media management to writing instruction. Obviously, these students do not need the same sorts of professionalization. And I’m less convinced than ever that apprenticing as literary scholars will garner them any professional payoff.

To move beyond the methods course as a guide to producing seminar papers, I started to think of it as a collaborative project, with a collaborative project as its main outcome. I ended up organizing my second iteration of the course around a digital, public-facing exhibit. More on that in my next post. For now, I’m wondering how I’ll design a third iteration of the course for next fall. I’m returning to some of the lessons I learned teaching undergraduate courses organized around digital projects and thinking about what those might look like at the graduate level. And that process of reflection has reminded me there’s a strong record of interesting projects to draw on, going back nearly a decade now. Lauren Klein and Jentry Sayers worked with students to create the Fanzines Archive. Margaret Konkol built an online exhibit of the John Ringling Rare Book Collection with student researchers in an interterm session. Partly inspired by their efforts, I’ve tried similar assignments to build Omeka exhibits, including one on data visualization and one based on study abroad experience. And I know there are many more examples out there that have grown from the conviction that we not need have a Stanford Literary Lab at our disposal to make digital humanities methods productive for undergraduate researchers. (See Caitlin Christian-Lamb and Anelise Hanson Shrout for more on that issue.)

Example from the data visualization project. This student, Cesar Rubio, used tape string to visualize his listening habits.

My efforts to create digital exhibits with undergrad classes have oriented around some of the same teaching goals that motivated my meme curation assignment. I wanted students to think about curation as a creative practice and a research process; I wanted them to think about how digital media circulates and how its social meanings change with different contexts; and I wanted them to think more critically, historically, systematically about the media they consume. Using Omeka, I pushed some of those objectives toward more rigorous standards with Dublin Core metadata vocabulary and more formal audience expectations. I think the results justified the means because students finished those courses having practiced new technical skills and with a better sense of curatorial work. But I wouldn’t say any of that adds up to professional training. While the study abroad students learned how metadata standards aid collection management, they didn’t get training in PastPerfect, which they would probably need to get a museum job. I’m okay with undergraduate studies focusing on fundamentals precisely because anyone aspiring to work as a museum professional will need at least a master’s degree.

Where does that leave a research methods course for new graduate students in English? In many ways, these courses act as the first step toward professionalization in graduate programs. If only a handful of these students will become professional academics, what sort of research assignments will benefit the entire cohort most? I’ve scaled the question down to the level of assignment. Clearly, the underlying concerns give rise to questions scaled up to query the future of the profession. For instance, in a report for the Mellon Foundation, Robert Weisbuch and Leonard Cassuto frame professional identity and career aims as two of twelve major concerns for reforming graduate education, in part because of the dismal academic job market. Despite the many people with graduate degrees who will not find tenure-track employment, “the structure of doctoral education often presupposes a faculty career rather than developing forms of expertise with versatile applications across the social sectors” (iv). Untethering graduate training from that assumption will require systematic change, of course, but also relatively minute reconsiderations of what happens in the classroom. Revising course assignments presents one way that faculty can begin this work, even as institutional momentum pushes toward the professionalization of professionalization.

MLA 20

I had my very first MLA experience in Seattle in 2011, nearly a decade ago. I wasn’t on the market, I wasn’t presenting, I really didn’t have any urgent reason to be there. So, as a cash-strapped grad student, I neglected to pay the registration fee. I recall feeling very much on the outside of the profession as I hovered around the margins of the conference. Everything about it awed and frightened me, from the nervous energy of job seekers to the guards checking badges. Entry there felt impossible. And not only because I couldn’t show a badge I didn’t have. Even then, amidst the gloom of recent economic catastrophes, the job market for literature presented staggering odds. Nearing the end of the decade now, it looks like the stock markets have recovered while the MLA-based job market has continued to contract to the point of near extinction.

Anyone attending the MLA convention will already have suffered some exposure to the professional despair of declining jobs, declining majors, declining academic support of all sorts. I rehearse the glum circumstances here as a personal reflection. When I return to Seattle for MLA 2020, I will participate as a dues paying member on the tenure track, in attendance to present new research. By the metrics I assumed as a graduate student outside looking in, I’ve made it. Yet now I can’t help but ask, made it to what? Is this the same profession I set out to join? Does it enable the same intellectual projects and exchanges that I admired so much as a young person? Of course the news ain’t all bad. Looking at the program, I remain as excited as ever by the ideas on offer. And I’m thrilled to be on a roundtable with such impressive folks (see below). It’s just hard not to wonder what will become of a generation of young scholars who won’t have full academic employment as a condition of possibility for their work.

Visiting Seattle always reminds me that intellectuals do not suffer degraded working conditions alone. The prevailing winds of capitalism have blown away what little cover we had managed to protect, through relative privilege, from market logics. As our partial autonomy recedes, we can see more clearly how all workers suffer increasingly brutal labor markets and income disparities. The northwest hub of tech industries makes those disparities crystal clear in much the same way that MLA crystallizes prestige differentials among academics. With so many resources arrayed in one place, there’s no mistaking who has access to what or who answers to whom. Amazon, Microsoft, and Boeing all make their homes in Seattle, which is one reason for the city’s housing crisis. What world is this that concentrates jobs in places too expensive to inhabit while desolating the economies of smaller, more affordable areas?

The same world that refuses to make even moderate investments toward averting climate change catastrophes. The same world that slashes investment in educational institutions trying to solve some of our most challenging problems. The same world that makes it possible to endlessly enumerate truly daunting crises and irrevocable losses. Suffice it to say, it’s a bleak world. Come January 9th, that bleakness will be overlaid with enthusiasm for novel arguments, promising research projects, energetic exchanges, edifying pedagogical lessons, good food, intoxicating drink, and excellent company. I’ll cheer up enough to be good company, I swear. Have a drink with me! Let’s figure out what new obligations we share in a profession pivoting from decline to desolation.

And if you’re free, come to this roundtable. It’s going to be good. I’m including my abstract below the details.

Contemporary Poetry and the Archive

Friday, 10 January 5:15 PM-6:30 PM, Issaquah (Sheraton)

What are the methods, stakes, and effects of recent poetic engagements with the archive? How has poetry itself advanced archival theories?

Presiding: Chad Bennett (U of Texas, Austin)

Speakers: Jayme Collins (Northwestern U), Rebecca Hamilton (Rensselaer Polytechnic Inst.), Ryan Sharp (Baylor U), David Squires (U of Louisiana, Lafayette), Alexander Streim (Johns Hopkins U, MD), Heather Vermeulen (Wesleyan U).

Signs of Intimacy: Susan Howe and the Telepathic Archive
David Squires, University of Louisiana at Lafayette

The archive appears in theory as the seat of authority for historical, legal, and political regimes. At least since Michel Foucault defined the archive in The Archeology of Knowledge as “the law of what can be said,” disciplines across the humanities have treated it as a system of intelligibility which excludes the marginal, the unfamiliar, the illegible. In that sense, we can regard poetics as the frontline of struggle over cultural authority because, as critics such as Marjorie Perloff and Charles Bernstein have argued, the avant-garde of poetry has worked hard to break the law of what can be said. Perloff explains that work as a form of resistance to archival and poetic norms in Unoriginal Genius by showing how recent conceptual poets use “citational or documentary prose, drawn from a variety of source texts…to defamiliarize poetic material.”

Yet one of her primary examples, Susan Howe, describes a far less agonistic way to engage with archives. Rather than understanding Howe’s work with archival materials as aggressive defamiliarization, this paper elaborates a strain in Howe’s work that figures her experience in terms of intimacy. As she puts it at the end of her poetic essay, Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of the Archive, “The inward ardor I feel working in research libraries is intuitive. It’s a sense of self-identification and trust.” The telepathic archive enables a kind of meaning that relies less on the conventions of citational authority and more on an encounter with material traces of history. Instead of authority, exclusion, and systematization, Howe describes an experience of the archive as passionate, intuitive, and intimate. To better understand that experience, this paper proposes a reading of Howe’s archival engagements that takes seriously her sense of material relation as telepathic transmission.

MLA 19

I had a great time at MLA 2019 in Chicago. Between old friends and really, really good pirogi, I also managed to see some great panels, meet new colleagues, and catch up with the smartest folks in my field. I know a lot of people hate MLA, and for good reasons, but I look forward to it as a place to see all the people I miss seeing on the regular.

Below is the panel proposal that got me to Chicago this year. Looking forward to Seattle 2020.


The MLA Bibliography and Scholarly Editing Forum and the Libraries and Research Forum propose the collaborative session “Archaeologies of the Catalog” for the MLA 2019 Convention.

Throughout their history, catalogs have functioned in a variety of different capacities: they serve as access points to library holdings, document publishing or reading histories, or perhaps they detail exhibits or bookseller offerings. However, as scholars adopt newer data-intensive research methods, they are repurposing these catalogs and their digital descendants as sources of research data. Catalogs are consumed by scholars, not only to discover and access individual sources, but to mine their aggregate data in order to explore/expose patterns undetectable at human scale that might shed light on the history and sociology of texts and other catalogued materials. In this context, examining the work of cataloguing within its cultural, political, ideological, and technological contexts is crucial for situating the scholarly outputs of more data-intensive research methods.

Many scholars and cataloguers are approaching the work of cataloging as an opportunity to repair or (re)create publishing, reception, and cultural histories.  This work builds upon work of early activists such as Sanford Berman, an early critic of biased Library of Congress Subject Headings. Although it hasn’t always been the case, librarians, archivists, and scholars today are less likely to make assumptions about the neutrality of our records, whether bibliographic or archival. We have finally reached the point where we, as a profession, recognize that the choices we make (whether structures, standards, descriptions, or what to include) are in fact non-neutral and carry assumptions, agendas, and biases.

In this session, our panelists continue this tradition and, in the process, echo what Foucault describes in his Archaeology of Knowledge: they consider artifacts that were included as well as those that we excluded, to examine the knowledge systems at work in order to re-map the whole. By exploring lacunae, erasures, and biases in catalogs and in the work of cataloguing, they seek to reconstruct and repair access as well as the historical context.

In her paper “Caribbean Periodicals and the Catalog: Toward Increased Accessibility and Impact,” Chelsea Stieber (Catholic U of America, DC) will illustrate the issues inherent to Caribbean periodicals in the catalog through her work with the the Revue de la société haïtienne d’histoire, de géographie et de géologie (RSHHGG), Haiti’s oldest and most prolific social science journal. Stieber reveals that this crucial repository of Haitian scholarly research remains opaque to traditional searching practices because the journal is not indexed, and thus rarely used and cited by scholars outside of Haiti. Stieber offers some new solutions to this problem with an interactive indexing project she developed in conjunction with the Labs program at the Library of Congress and National Digital Initiatives called the RSHHGGlab.

David Squires (U of Louisiana – Lafayette) will show how anti-lynching activists combated mob violence by achieving bibliographic control over ephemeral materials, ranging from local newspapers to real photo postcards. His paper, “Catalogs of Violence: Lynching, Bibliographic Control, and Black Modernism,” argues that the work anti-lynching activists did to reconstruct lynching records belongs to a genealogy of Black Modernism. Key figures such as Alain Locke, James Weldon Johnson, and Arturo Schomburg used bibliographic and documentary methods to establish the fact—and historical depth—of African American aesthetic achievement. Their documentary strategies worked to construct a positive archival footprint for marginalized Black cultures by drawing on bibliographic methods and a discourse of factuality that anti-lynching activists developed for recording violent erasures of Black life. The urgency of establishing bibliographic control over lynching records continues into the present, as the Equal Justice Initiative attempts to create a comprehensive inventory of lynchings in the United States. By turning to the earliest efforts to catalog lynching violence, this paper illustrates how bibliographic control can wed documentary and imaginative cultural practices.

Laura Helton (U of Delaware) will discuss the cataloging work of Dorothy Porter, curator of Howard University’s “Negro collection” from 1930 to the early 1970s.  Entering Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, one still passes through the “catalog room,” a small antechamber filled with neat stacks of wooden card catalog drawers—the kind most libraries have long since discarded.  Inaugurated by Porter in 1930, this catalog room served for much of the twentieth century as one of the only portals to black print culture in the United States. The rise of electronic databases and full-text search has obscured the intellectual and imaginative infrastructure condensed in those 3×5 cards, but this paper will pause to consider such cards as critical artifacts in the history of information.  For librarians like Porter, the card catalog was a site for challenging the routine misfiling of blackness in systems of knowledge. Understanding how Porter hacked the catalog–and how she rewrote Dewey Decimals and Library of Congress classification–has much to tell us about the way whiteness continues to shape information architectures and reading practices.

The session will be begin with a brief (~5 min) introduction to the topic by the session chair, including panelist introductions. Each panelist will then have 15-17 minutes to present their papers, followed by 20 minutes of unstructured discussion and Q&A.

Modernist Studies Association 2018

I’m looking forward to returning to Columbus, OH for the first time in a few years. Jeni’s Ice Cream, here I come. Below is the panel I put together with Ronan Crowley, Shinjini Chattopadhyay, and Damien Keane.

Libraries Across Borders: Over the Airwaves, in the Stacks, on the Page

Chair: Damien Keane, University at Buffalo

“Hours in a Library”: The Public Library as Public Sphere in Virginia Woolf’s Non-Fiction
Shinjini Chattopadhyay, University of Notre Dame

Ulysses on the Cards: James Joyce’s Zürcher National Library of Ireland
Ronan Crowley, University of Antwerp

Collections on Air: Library of Congress Outreach During WWII
David Squires, University of Louisiana at Lafayette


The institutional turn in modernist studies has shown how archival heritage played as contested a role in the cultural formation of modernism as aesthetic innovation, network affiliation, or critical consecration. Yet the institutional turn has done less to displace the national framework that isolates Anglo-American modernisms from the transnational networks of exchange that made internationalism a tenet of the modernist moment. We still speak of national traditions in isolation, of libraries as geographically inert institutions bound by place. In their historical moment, however, the archival organizations at stake in the institutional turn developed in a context of international cross-pollination even as they supported local and national communities.

This panel will explore how archival institutions embraced modernization projects that shed the idea of libraries as monastic spaces of place-bound study. From building standardized cataloging systems to supporting broadcast radio programs, libraries served heterogeneous reading publics. For that reason, this panel proposes to join analyses of the library as modernist institution with another productive strain in recent modernist studies: the transnational turn toward studying circuits of cultural transmission.

The transnational turn clarifies how publics existed beyond and between national borders. For instance, in “Hours in a Library,” Shinjini Chattopadhyay shows how Woolf depicted the reading rooms at the London Library and the British Museum as public spheres comprised of men and women who engaged in a pan-European network of knowledge. In addition to undermining an all-male hegemony in intellectual discourse, the public library offered a counterpart to Woolf’s more hermetic vision of writers in rooms of their own. Chattopadhyay leverages Woolf’s writing about library reading rooms to correct reductive readings of Woolf as an isolated elitist.

Access to a transnational republic of letters required access to research materials, as further confirmed by Ronan Crowley’s paper, “Ulysses on the Cards.” Crowley examines the institutional makeup of the Zurich central library, which simplified retrieval processes for library patrons through the use of a card catalog modelled on American practices. This bid for increased accessibility found a receptive user in James Joyce, who used the library while writing Ulysses. The paper reveals how developments in continental information management circa 1917, themselves indebted to American models, enabled and complicated the novel’s portrayal of the National Library of Ireland at the turn of the century.

The American library scene developed various strategies for reaching new readers during the early twentieth century, as David Squires shows by reconstructing the history of Archibald MacLeish’s radio play The American Story. Produced while MacLeish was Librarian of Congress, the play intended to promote hemispheric solidarity during WWII. He reimagined a single America across continents by reimaging access to the Library of Congress in terms of broadcast. While expanding outreach beyond the United States, however, the Library simultaneously restricted its number of on-site readers, bifurcating reading publics by modes of access. This paper argues that those different modes of access furthered imperial goals under the guise of Pan American solidarity.

Information + Humanities Conference

I’m looking forward to heading to Penn State’s Center for Humanities and Information next week for their annual conference, Information + Humanities. The schedule is available online and, I have to admit, my anticipatory excitement betrays a new level of geekiness for me. All the titles look great. I’ve followed a lot of these folks from afar and am looking forward to an opportunity to interact in person. I’m including my abstract below the diagrams of a 1909 book stack at the Library of Congress.


The Bulk of Knowledge: Collection Management at the Library of Congress

Archival theory has shown how our institutions for conserving historical memory operate, necessarily, by negation, exclusion, loss, even amnesia. As Eric Ketelaar writes, “The memory of man and of society cannot retain all: they both can only remember some things, by forgetting a lot.” The specter of archival exclusion looms over collection building in the form of an unruly abundance. All those materials our collections cannot contain represent a profusion of information that exceeds control, memory, and theorization. This paper attempts to apprehend that abundance by examining the work to build a comprehensive collection at the Library of Congress. Recalibrating archival theory to weigh a collection’s bulk rather than its paucity will better prepare us to recognize problems related to infrastructure, personnel, and the materiality of information management.

Senior Thesis Projects

There’s a cliché common among teaching statements that finds instructors pushing students to become authorities in their own right, experts in the minor fields of their term papers, critics confident in their own assessments and voices. I’m guilty of writing such things about my own pedagogy, despite creeping doubts that pushing students to take on the voice of authority doesn’t do much more than teach them to parrot academese. The tension between the cliché and the doubt grew taught a couple generations ago in the divisive debates carried out between David Bartholomae and Peter Elbow. It continues in contemporary guises using different buzzwords, assuming different stakes. And so too continues the ideal of professors training students to become self-possessed and authoritative thinkers.  I have to admit, though, as competent and confident as I’ve seen students grow, before last semester I’d never had my own authority in the classroom balanced against fully realized student expertise.

Spring 2018 brought me the pleasure of teaching a section of my department’s senior capstone course. The class gave me a glimpse at the sort of talented, ambitious, congenial, and very bright students who study English at UL. Without question, the most beguiling moment of my first year as new faculty here unfolded when they engaged in an impromptu debate about what makes a good villain. Drawing on a wide range of examples—from Caliban to Judge Holden to The Joker to 45—they resolved their different perspectives in suspended ambiguity. Literature teaches us, they agreed, that villainy has as many nuances and complexities as love. I wanted to insist love might arrive in our lives simply, unfated, “like books that change us,” as Adrienne Rich once wrote. Honestly, though, the students were doing just fine without my interjections, without a tangential line of inquiry. So I enjoyed their spirited discussion without adding my two cents.

Much of my experience teaching the senior capstone had to do with relinquishing control. I prepared the course thinking that most students would write article length essays on issues in literary and cultural studies, or maybe in rhetoric and composition. The syllabus laid out a program in designing research projects. My most ambitious goal was pushing students to think in terms of projects, not essays, with the hope that they might use digital platforms to present media-rich scholarship they could share with friends, family, maybe even potential employers. I suggested Scalar and Omeka as possibilities. And I had no takers.

It turned out that seven out of nine students intended to write creative theses in fiction or poetry. Many of our majors pursue a creative writing concentration; I should have imagined such an outcome. Given my inexperience teaching creative writing, certainly I should have given more thought to how to handle such projects. The first step was reminding myself that each student had a right and an obligation to design their own project, to ensure the project brought their studies to a meaningful culmination in whatever area of English they decided to study. Asking students to design their own projects pushed me to work with them in areas unfamiliar and uncomfortable to me, but also forced me to let them take the reigns from conceptualization to execution. My role became that of distant reader, cheerleader, test-user who could help catch problems in the drafting stages, and eventually, interlocutor.

Looking back over the semester, I can’t think of a better set of relationships I could have occupied in relationship to independently directed senior capstone projects. Because I could not act as expert guide, students had to assume that role for themselves and for the class, as they learned to articulate their main ideas and goals to the group. I’m confident in calling the class a success, even if some of the projects fell short of what students originally planned. One sign of expertise is being able to craft feasible projects, defining plausible lines of inquiry, pursuing manageable research questions. One student, for instance, planned a collection of ten stories that dramatized different personality disorders recognized by the DSM. She published them online using ReadyMag, but has since shuttered the website. She wasn’t entirely happy with how the project turned out, in part because she wanted to use hover icons to connect particular characters and events in the stories to research on personality disorders. The semester just didn’t allow enough time to write ten new stories and do the design work, although the final project was a worthy attempt at her vision and a strong creative writing thesis.

I’m happy to say that a couple other projects built with Wix are still available online:

Jada Doucet wrote a collection of persona poems based on interviews she conducted with twenty different people in her community, including friends, family, and classmates.

Erin Trahan wrote a history of contemporary journalism to document how the profession has been represented in popular culture and how it has changed with new technologies, giving readers some sense of how we arrived at the age of “fake news.”

I’m looking forward to revisiting this course in the future, hopefully with a better plan for helping creative writing students and a more persuasive pitch for using non-commercial web platforms to feature research in our local special collections.


American Literature Association

I’m looking forward to be participating in ALA’s annual meeting for the first time. We’ll be in San Francisco May 24 to May 27. The Digital Americanists Society has put together an exciting panel focusing on critical interventions in DH. I’ve included the panel details below along with my paper proposal. In addition to all the regular conference excitement, I’m thrilled Ishmael Reed will reading on the first night. It promises to be a fun few days.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Session 21-B
Digital Interventions: DH Perspectives on (Dis)ability, Feminism, and Ecology.
Organized by the Digital Americanists Society
Co-chairs: Stefan Schöberlein, University of Iowa; Stephanie M. Blalock, University of Iowa; Kevin McMullen, University of Nebraska—Lincoln.
  1. “Computer, But More So: Autism and Artificial Intelligence,” David Squires, University of Louisiana at Lafayette
  2. “Cyberfeminism: Exploring Feminist Rhetoric and Digital Literacies in New Media,” Cristen Fitzpatrick, St. John’s University
  3. “Magazine Ecology: Network Theory and Nineteenth Century Environmental Periodicals,” Braden J. Krien, University of Iowa


“Computer, But More So: Autism and Artificial Intelligence”

Cybernetics emerged during World War II as an interdisciplinary field at the forefront of theorizing and building computational systems. Thanks to the work of eminent figures such as Alan Turing and Norbert Wiener, theories of artificial intelligence and autonomic computing grew influential beyond scientific circles to capture the imagination of post-War cultural producers. As Orit Halpern explains in her recent study Beautiful Data, cybernetics influenced developments across the humanities, arts, industrial design, and urban planning, marking “a radical shift in attitudes to recoding and displaying information that produced new forms of observation, rationality, and economy based on the management and analysis of data.” The beginnings of digital computing not only created tools to aid human cognition but changed the way people represented and understood cognition as shared by humans and machines.

Building on Halpern’s work to document the social construction of contemporary cognition, this paper shows how cybernetics laid the groundwork for what now appears as the stratified classes of neuro-typical and neuro-atypical subjects. Starting with popular representations of autism, I explain how mainstream and literary fiction has conflated autistic intelligence with computational technologies. The paper then shows how architects of modern information systems relied on the brain as a descriptive metaphor, giving rise to mechanistic theories of intelligence that continue to inform cognitive science. Tracing the emergence of “mechanical brains” will clarify how autism has become the testing ground where cognitive science wrestles with an intractably dichotomous view of material intelligence: at once mechanical, schematic, and robotic as well as chemical, synaptic, and organic.

American Society for Theatre Research

I’m looking forward to visiting Atlanta this weekend to participate in ASTR’s annual conference. I will be participating in a workshop titled “Violent Bodies, Violent Acts,” organized by Vicki Hoskins and Nic Barilar. Our session will be on the first day, Thursday, November 16th from 5:15 pm – 7:15 pm. After that, I’ll be eating my way around the ATL while looking for members of the Dungeon Family. Here’s my paper proposal:


Facts of Violence: Documenting Lynching as Performance

Performance studies scholars such as Koritha Mitchell and Harvey Young have demonstrated how spectacle lynchings between the 1890s and the 1930s functioned as popular American theater. When a mob lynched Sam Hose just south of Atlanta, Georgia in 1899, for instance, the local newspapers ran dramatized accounts of his alleged crime, set a $500 reward for his capture, and even chartered trains from the city to the rural site of his murder so that crowds could gather to watch as mob leaders tortured and eventually burned their victim. The more theatrical the lynching, the more papers the Atlanta Constitution could sell. For such public performances, however, spectacle lynchings proved challenging to document. The souvenirs that Mitchell and Young point to as material evidence of theatrical violence—photo postcards and body parts, respectively—passed into the shadows of historical memory without assembling a proper archive. Even in the historical moment of spectacle lynchings, the theatricality of mob violence overwhelmed the facts of any given case so that the performance of lethal race relations took center stage while the mob’s motivations, members, and pre-meditated coordination tended to go unremarked. Despite all the pageantry, lynching victims appeared to suffer “at the hands of parties unknown,” as coroners’ reports put it.

This paper demonstrates how early information sciences filled an important documentary gap in lynch reports. Anti-lynching activists used documentary methods such as bibliography, cataloging, and statistical tabulation to organize the available information on lynching in a way that put popular narrative accounts into question. I draw on Diana Taylor’s foundational distinction between the archive and the repertoire to argue that, in the case of mob violence, archival methods provided an alternative perspective to the embodied performance of racial domination. Documentary methods proved especially useful in establishing the fact of mass violence. As the NAACP noted in one bulletin, 3,436 people were lynched between 1889 and 1922. Documentation let anti-lynching activists scale their intervention to systematic and historical conditions of violence that revealed a perspective altogether different than the individual lynching stories that newspapers characterized as anomalous to Southern law and order. Using Taylor’s terms, I argue that activists successfully leveraged an archive of lynching data to change the repertoire of public violence, effectively ending spectacle lynchings by the 1940s. I conclude by showing how the success of that documentary strategy influenced Harlem Renaissance figures such as Alain Locke and James Weldon Johnson who sought to document Black aesthetic achievement, especially in genres of performance that eluded the print record.

New Article Out

Very excitedly I received the May 2017 issue of PMLA last month. In addition to a guest column on disciplinarity from the inimitable Jeffrey T. Schnapp and a timely Theories & Methodologies forum on Franco Moretti, it features my article “Roger Casement’s Queer Archive.” I’m grateful to have had a chance to present versions of the article at “Queering Ireland: Queer Irish Diasporas” and at the first Gender & Sexuality in Information Studies Colloquium.  I’m also grateful for the very generous comments I received from mentors, friends, anonymous readers, and the folks at PMLA. It’s a much better essay for their feedback.