The 2010 American Studies Association annual meeting in San Antonio, TX has been an interesting site to tackle issues of digitality, electronic textuality and digitally-mediated scholarly practices. Within a conference program that emphasized crisis and change, concerns for disruptive cultural dynamics have often extended well beyond the strict socio-political and historical domains to increasingly address paradigmatic shifts at the levels of technological, institutional and identity (trans)formation. In addition to the outstanding lightning round panel organized by the Digital Humanities Caucus which featured projects exploring unrealized critical possibilities through digital technologies, the ASA 2010 program offered presentations such as Aimee Bahngs and Gabriela Nuezs Hacking Border Technologies, sessions such as Mediating Change: Identity and Activism in Independent Media, and a number of exciting discussions on mixed, dislocative, viral and transnational media. As a result, we felt as if our American Studies as New Media Studies panel (composed of scholars Amy Earhart, Jospeh Tabbi, Matthias Oppermann and Mauro Carassai who were pursuing research straddling between American literary studies and digital humanities) was in conversation with many other timely conversations in the conference.
As our panel has argued, digital culture and technology can often be seen as expressions of a contemporary modernity that too quickly risks erasing the pre-existent in ways that are familiar to the field of American studies: what is presented as new and innovative has a history extending already from the conceptualization of the American continent itself as the "discovery" of a "new world." As a consequence, digitality, however useful and arguably new as a media-specific probe and material support for discourse, can be seen to re-enact (without overcoming) concerns which have defined American critical studies over the past decades: we can see, repeated in digital discourse, all the ways in which American studies have dealt with the conflict of cultures, the interactions of nations and ethnicities and the religious visions and class interests in what is often perceived as a pre-digital world characterized by a pre-New Media culture.
The American Studies as New Media Studies panel has suggested at many levels how digitization, open-access, web archiving and expressive software developed by literary scholars might help to reestablish American studies as a field active in electronic environments. Once situated in new media, scholars can then meaningfully (and consequentially) interrogate the disciplinary limits of cultural studies in general and of American studies in particular. The panels challenge has been to examine whether, by positioning our concepts of electronic textuality, of the machinic, of digital video narratives and of multimedia learning within the frame of literary and cultural studies, it might be possible to reconceive American studies in light of new media, in such a way that the plurality of topics and fruitful discussions now characterizing the field (in print) can be sustained across disciplines and among textual and non-textual expressive categories.
Our mutually interdependent approaches have tried to generate a comprehensive vision on the relationships between our modern idea of literature and text-based culture and the enormous changes America and the world have undergone over the past centuries until the globally hyperlinked present.
Building on W. G. Sebald’s considerations in texts such as Austerlitz or Campo Santo, Jospeth Tabbi has focused on how "presentness" can be configured as an inherent research element in an era when the present becomes a vaster field of research than the past. Connected to the constant renewal of our electronic archives, the "new" of new media is characterized as a technology of forgetting, or (more accurately) of transforming the past so that it carries none of the traditional authority to sanction present practice. In this way, Sebald’s prophetic considerations on memorial practices become merely descriptive of any technological system that operates according to logics of perpetual information regeneration. By relocating the specificities of the written discourse and of print (alleged) stability into a transformed social and cultural environment (one that increasingly incorporates and favors the expressive modalities of non-textual media), Tabbi has set the terms for a revaluation of literary studies and a transformation of Romantic rhetoric in and by new media.
Mauro Carassai has connected practices native to the digital media environment with the multicultural diversity of US literary productions. By drawing connections between selected e-lit narratives contexts and traditional American studies scholarly interests, he has suggested ways to extend strict media-specific models of analysis to paths of inquiry that involve ethnical and cultural concerns. By highlighting the role of hypernarratives non-linearity in supporting national mythologies of geographical reconfiguration of the American space or by extending American literary canon discourses to the current corpus of electronic literature he charted possible re-enactments of Americans experience of lived social spaces in the US. In general, his presentation has tried to suggest how key-terms in American studies such as hybridity, rhizome, transculturation, deterritorialization and othering can enrich current scholarly perspectives in new media studies contributions on e-lit works.
With reference to the productive theoretical tensions between the two fields of American and digital studies, Matthias Oppermann brought such concerns into an insightful reflection on the contemporary media ecology. Building on Paul Lauter and John Carlos Rowe, Oppermann argued that the growing importance of online videos for political communication signaled a new cultural speech act situation that is highly relevant to the American studies project of cultural critique. Oppermanns argument also has important consequences on the pedagogical level since online videos may be one among several new cultural speech acts that support student learning in the contact zones of American studies and the digital humanities.
The nature of our project of interrogation has been not only multi-perspectival and interdisciplinary, but also inherently comparative, and critical. We have been interested in pointing out similarities, affiliations, and reciprocities but also highlighting differences, singularities, and specificities that might not resolve or translate easily in the move from mainly textual theories to methodology and practice in new media environments.
Our approach has been, however, recognizably consistent with the development of an interdisciplinary field such as new media studies. On the one hand, as Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort remind us in their New Media Reader, often breakthroughs in the new media field have come from thinking across disciplines, from rethinking one area of inquiry with tools and methodologies gained from another. (xii) On the other hand, as Matthias Oppermann himself observes, contemporary American studies, which foreground transcultural perspectives and post-disciplinary critical impulses, thrive because the field has benefited from conflicting or even contradictory programmatic and methodological influences. (173) As a result, in a cultural moment in which the United States experience a simultaneous condition of economic instability, unprecedented political changes in terms of presidential leadership and widening social contestation in sites made available by digital communication technologies we wanted to rethink the ongoing process of digitization and hypertextualization of knowledge as generative. What needs to be generated may be not only textual digital artifacts as commodity by-products of the contemporary so-called new media culture, but also models of analysis able to account for the extreme complexity in undertaking social, cultural and political understandings of the American experience as scholars and cultural
critics. If a formal program in American media studies is today still hard to imagine (at least on an institutional level), our panel has tried to suggest how a disciplinary formation able to draw on the richly diverse specificities of American practices of critique of technology and modernity might enrich the current scholarly debate for both digital media and (New) American studies.
I would like to thank the rest of the panel and especially Professor Amy Earhart for her expertise as a panel chair and for her valuable editorial comments on this blog post.
Oppermann, Matthias. Digital Storytelling and American Studies Critical Trajectories from the Emotional to the Epistemological. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 7.2 (2008): 171187.
Wardrip-Fruin, Noah, and Nick Montfort. The New Media Reader.