Blog Post

Interviewing Mark C. Marino: HASTAC, Digital Humanities, and Critical Code Studies

Image of Mark C. Marino in pink shirt standing near pink flowering tree

Mark C. Marino is a writer and scholar of electronic literature living in Los Angeles.   His scholarly collaborations include 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10 and Reading Project: A Collaborative Analysis of William Poundstone's Project for Tachistoscope {Bottomless Pit}.  His creative works include “a show of hands” (http://hands.literatronica.net), “Living Will” (http://markcmarino.com/tales/livingwill.html), and "The Ballad of Workstudy Seth" (http://www.springgunpress.com/the-ballad-of-workstudy-seth).  His recent work includes Mrs. Wobbles and the Tangerine House (http://markcmarino.com/mrsw/), a collection of interactive stories that he is writing with his children.  He is the Director of Communication of the Electronic Literature Organization.  He currently teaches writing at the University of Southern California where he directs the Humanities and Critical Code Studies Lab (http://haccslab.com), a collaboratory exploring the explication of computer source code. Mark has been on the Steering Committee of HASTAC since 2013.

 

How did you come into the field of the Digital Humanities?

I was drawn to the digital humanities through the entry of digital literature.  At Brown, I studied hypertext theory, as it was known, under George Landow and in the vicinity of Robert Coover, and learned of the early experiments with electronic narratives by Judy Malloy, Shelley Jackson, Michael Joyce on Mark Bernstein’s Storyspace platform.  Later I would join the Electronic Literature Organization (http://eliterature.org), an international coalition of scholars and artists of digital literature.   I began exploring this mode of writing with “Stravinsky’s Muse” (written in Flash, which was then the medium of the moment: http://markcmarino.com/stravinsky/). As I wrote e-lit and critiqued it, I found myself seeking additional methods of analysis that followed Kate Hayles’ call for Media Specific Analysis.

In my doctoral work, as I was analyzing conversation agents (chatbots), I wanted to look at all of the features of the software, including the code.  That meant finding a way to interpret this particular semiotic system.  Not finding many examples, I proposed Critical Code Studies (http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/electropoetics/codology).  That led me to work with the Software Studies group then at UCSD.  In 2008, they held a conference called Softwhere Studies (http://workshop.softwarestudies.com/), at which Matt Kirschenbaum invited us all to participate in the forthcoming Digital Humanities conference at MITH.  We had all held wildly divergent notions about DH, but Matt assured us that there would be room under the big tent of DH.  When we got there, we found what seemed to me a community in transition due to very rapid expansion, at a tipping point, if you will, with plenty of room for scholars like me.  Software and code studies were more than welcomed, along with more traditional DH practices, such as TEI.  That was back in 2009, before DH fully arise in more general-interest conferences, such as MLA.

 

What role do you see HASTAC (and similar organizations) playing in addressing some of the opportunities and challenges in digital humanities?

HASTAC is such a versatile group, led by such visionary directors, and the HASTAC Scholars program offers an uncommon opportunity for emerging scholars to join in academic discussions as peers with the established scholars in the field.  Because HASTAC has a very grass-roots structure, it can be far more agile than other existing orgs.

Because of this perpetual renewal of its participants — think waterfall, with new scholars constantly pouring in and stirring things up — HASTAC tends to challenge conventional wisdom as well as the status quo.  As one example, I see HASTAC at the forefront of the transform DH movement.  

HASTAC also does an amazing job at responding to emerging trends.  A few years ago, when Arielle Schlesinger had stirred the hive by raising the possibility of a feminist programming language, it was HASTAC that hosted the conversation (https://www.hastac.org/blogs/ari-schlesinger/2013/11/26/feminism-and-pro...). Here was an undergraduate who had exposed a sore in the world of computing — the residue of not just a gender balance but a cultural exclusion of women. In response to her proposal, she had been attacked by online communities, 4chan to be specific, but in HASTAC she found a collegial, safe but productive, high-profile academic venue to host a continued discussion of her ideas.  That moment epitomizes the powerful work HASTAC can do in the form of swift and forceful intervention in creating space for dialogue for challenging and yet crucial conversations.

 

Has HASTAC altered your conceptions of online community? Where do you see the most potential for growth in this area?

As you can see from my answer to the first question, my own digital work has relied heavily on networks of scholars and artists drawn together over shared objects of study.  HASTAC is exemplary in this category.

For an organization that exists primarily online and at conferences, HASTAC has a very tangible existence in online discourse. From its DML challenge grants to its discussion forums, HASTAC drives discussion on issues of contemporary digital humanities as well as, through Cathy Davidson’s leadership, the education revolution, if I can call it that.  

As an online gathering of scholars, from veterans to new grad students, HASTAC has been a model for me for productive online discourse.  HASTAC was an inspiration to our Critical Studies Working Groups and HASTAC Scholars hosted one of the most high profile CCS events (https://www.hastac.org/initiatives/hastac-scholars/scholars-forums/criti...).  

HASTAC has begun to move into the realm of collecting innovative teaching materials, and I am interested in the expansion of that project.

However, I believe it is in the exploration of collaborative scholarship that HASTAC has the most to offer, and I look forward to it becoming a platform for even more collaborative writing in the digital humanities.

Of course, as we continue to transform our notions of educational institutions in the 21st Century, I suspect graduate (and undergraduate programs) should begin to think creatively about how communities such as HASTAC can play a more integral and integrated role in their graduate programs.  I dare say, particularly advanced PhD candidates gain insight and access the kind of rich discourse from HASTAC that their home departments cannot produce merely because of the wide dispersal of research specialization.  These departments should see HASTAC in a partner of their educational charge, particularly in the graduate context.

10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10 is a fabulous project that has emerged from your work at the Humanitices and Critical Code Studies (HaCCS) Lab. Are there other collaborative projects of its scope and nature on the horizon, and how do you view the role of collaborative work in CCS?

My second collaborative book, Reading Project (http://www.uiowapress.org/books/2015-fall/reading-project.htm), took up the charge of 10 PRINT, though its inception preceded 10 PRINT.  In that book, Jessica Pressman, Jeremy Douglass and I read a work of electronic literature by William Poundstone.  Similar to 10 PRINT, we all bring our respective specializations and go to approaches.  However, unlike 10 PRINT, rather than writing in one voice, we have used a braided approach in which one person’s question leads to another’s answer which raises yet another question for a third.  In that book, I use CCS not as the end of the discussion but as a means of enriching the other approaches.

At the same time, in the Critical Code Studies Working Group, we have been conducting collaborative readings of code.  I’m working to move these discussions into ACLS Workbench (http://scalar.usc.edu/aclsworkbench/), our fork of ANVC Scalar, a USC-built tool for multimedia scholarship.  We’ve got several large-scale discussions ready to move in that direction.  Workbench builds on Scalar’s native affordances for multilinear, multimedia analysis by adding the ability for scholars to easily “join” and even “clone” existing collections of scholarship.  That means, anyone can take our work on Reading Project (http://scalar.usc.edu/aclsworkbench/reading-project/index), copy it, and create their own arguments out of the assets and texts we’ve already aggregated and analyzed.  In this way, we are inviting others to extend the discussions which began as collaborative scholarship.

These works of code are assemblages, often written by teams of programmers and developed over long periods of time.  Likewise, the reading of code benefits from teams of scholars with a variety of levels of expertise.  But these readings are not ends in themselves but can become ways of opening other discussions of software and digital culture and can be seen as building blocks for broader analyses.

As Critical Code Studies has matured as an area of study, how have your interactions with software developers and Computer Science types evolved? Is CCS allowing the humanities to reach across disciplines into CS  in ways that allow them to understand our concerns and issues?

When I began Critical Code Studies, I was entering straight out of my doctoral studies in critical theory and literature.   I found theory to be key — perhaps the only key — to unlocking semiotic texts, but I soon found that not everyone shared my enthusiasm with these modes of analysis.  In the ebr essay, I called for literary scholars to charge into the world of CS and interpret everything — well, that’s how my manifesto has been portrayed at least.  Needless, to say, that image evoked a bit of pushback.

From that interaction, which I’ve discussed in Debate in the Digital Humanities (http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/64), I recognized the way that we who come to interpret and conquer appear to people who program every day for their livelihood, how the tools of literary criticism (such a deconstruction and post colonialism) can seem to be impositions rather than expositions.  However, at the same time, I have had to recognize that some of the reticence toward interpretation comes from the digital humanities itself, interpretation appears to be radically unfundable.  

Nonetheless, interpretation is a core contribution of the humanities, and it is in complete concert with the kinds of analysis and discourse that already goes on in the world of computer science about code, even within the code itself, in the form of comments on code.

Since then, I’ve changed my way of entering the realm of code.  I’ve learned how to be a guest in someone else’s domain, how to respect the interpretive work that computer scientists already do, and how to see through the artificial separation between the so-called two worlds.  A lot of what computer scientists already do involves if not interpretation then interacting with software as a mode of discourse. In other words, in order to speak code, one needs to understand its registers of meaning in to achieve that one must spend time chatting with those who speak code as primary language.  A lot of CCS is about making those registers of discourse manifest — articulating how that meaning happens, and as with any semiotic analysis, it is only through collaboration and consultation with those who live in (and produce) that semiotic realm, that scholars can develop a full understanding.

Nevertheless, interpretation is itself a skill, and humanities scholars should never undervalue its ability to uncover and produce meaning in systems that most take for granted, as givens or as mere utilities.

As a result, CCS is not antithetical to the work of programmers but does, as you suggest, demonstrate ways in which the skills taught in humanities courses become valuable in analyzing what comes out of computer programming.

 

Considering how code tends to be authored—as networks of developers drawing upon existing frameworks (like node.js or .NET) and using modules and libraries for simplifying access to resources (like JSON.Net or ProtoBuf)—are there any practices the humanities can borrow from CS to manage the scope of larger, collaborative humanities projects? Coders like to borrow a lot; is there any way we could leverage that in our own productions?

Yes, excellent point.  While humanities scholarship already uses methods of assemblage and borrowing, primarily through citation, the proliferations of methods in the digital humanities (code studies, software studies, platform studies, media archaeology, media forensics, cultural analytics, etc.) means that one group of scholars may produce a library of information on which others can build.  Here I’m thinking of a project like #SelfieCities by Lev Manovich, Moritz Stefaner, et. al, as just one small example of scholarly that produces artifacts on which others can build.  Although, to avoid making digital scholarship exceptional, similar contributions pervade the humanities, for example in paleology or manuscript scholarship, where the labor on an artifact becomes a foundation upon which further studies build.

However, the git model of scholarship, the digital repository of source materials, offers new affordances to collaborative scholarship, the kind of work we hope to inspire with ACLS Workbench. That platform allows scholars to build collections of assets and to assemble readings that they can later share go be cloned in their entirety.  Going beyond the way survey instruments are shared in the social sciences, Workbench encourages scholars to make all of their source materials and their arguments available for development and remixing.  New scholars can assemble their readings out of the and on top of the work of the previous ones.   Critics can essentially fork previous readings.

At the same time, what you are calling for will rely on fully engaged collaboration, something I’ve been particularly invested throughout my recent writing (10 PRNT, Reading Project), and something that HASTAC is in a unique position to facilitate and promote.

 

It’s fascinating that you point out some reticence toward interpretation of code in the digital humanities themselves. Funding issues aside, what is the pushback related to?

Interpretation is scary and critical theory, particularly continental philosophy, is complex and intimidating.  From the outside, it looks like an arcane self-enclosed system (not unlike computer code) of truth-making.  And it’s easy when one is unfamiliar with the language and methods to perceive its practitioners as the caricature of Socrates in The Clouds.  At the same time, critical interventions tend to be disruptive, tend to trouble the status quo.  Here I’m talking about the polarized view across the imaginary divide between computer science and the humanities.

As it turns out, humanities scholars interested in code share the same curiosity and interests that computer science theorists do.  Not to mention, more and more humanities scholars program, either in building projects or in trying to understand computational approaches.  And yet, they also bring additional sensitivities, for example, to power dynamics and structural forces that influence culture and shape and shadow communication.  

The problem is not theory.  The problem is not interpretation.  It is the obfuscation of language used in entirely different ways, when even “interpretation” means such radically different things in the realms of computer science and cultural studies.

To be fair, the resistance I first encountered came not from those interested in genuine dialogue, but from those pursuing some bones they had to pick with the exaggerated spectre of post-structuralism.  It was a remnant of the battles of the science wars, which were cold wars, built on mutually assured disdain.

All of this distrust dissolves when we collaborate.   The kinds of projects that have evolved out of Critical Code Studies especially through the working groups do not send the interpreters on sorties to spy on the computer scientists. Instead, they involve collaborations of teams of scholars and practitioners with a variety of relationships to code and software.  I think here of Michael Mateas writing his Maze Walker program to help us understand 10 PRINT.  Or Patsy Baudoin noticing the parallels with dance instructions.  I think of Jeremy Douglass performing visual analysis on Project for Tachistoscope and Jessica Pressman pouring over patents and the history of spam.  

Critical Code Studies is most effective when its practitioners immerse themselves in the realm of programming, through study, practice, and collaboration, and then use the tools of semiotic interpretation in a clear and transparent way, following the best practices of programming, choosing elegance over brute force when possible and documenting their process thoroughly throughout. And then to remember, when bringing along a few friends, be they Derrida or hooks or Cixous or Foucault, to avoid the hubris of the conquistadors but instead try the humility of the guest.

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