Our latest Q&A is with Roger Whitson (@RogerWhitson), on Blake, steampunk, technology, media, and mindfulness.
First, can you tell me about @autoblake and how it fits your interests?
I programmed that Twitterbot back in 2013. I’d just cowritten my first book with Jason Whittaker earlier that year, William Blake and the Digital Humanities: Collaboration, Participation, and Social Media (Routledge 2013). One central argument we made in that book was that William Blake very much understood his art as a mental fight of adaptation and collaboration. Additionally, more contemporary authors, musicians, filmmakers, even users on Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube take up the same kind of work when they use Blakean phrases and images in their own creative acts.
Much of my subsequent work explores the impact of digitization on nineteenth-century literature. I published Steampunk and Nineteenth-Century Digital Humanities in 2017, focusing on steampunk as a cultural response to the accessibility of so many nineteenth-century materials online. Yet I also wanted to continue my work with Blake. I saw the Twitterbot as an experiment: what if I could create novel lines of poetry remixed from Blake’s writing that “sounded like” Blake but were really a product of algorithmic manipulation? And I totally admit the infernal spirit of the project: few Blake scholars would approve of automating his art! As I was programming the Twitterbot, I remembered reading Morris Eaves’s “Blake and the Artistic Machine” in graduate school and wondering how much my project mirrored Joshua Reynolds’s portrait assembly lines that Blake hated so much. But the work was exciting. I didn’t quite know what I was making!
dusky fires of eternal death: whose proportions are eternal despair Here Vala stood turning the iron Distaff
— BillBlakeBot (@autoblake) August 29, 2018
I also felt that the work was revealing some central truth about what it means to study Blake in the twenty-first century: that digitizing his art connects it to all of the other beautiful and terrifying things on the internet. We’re living in what amounts to the second or third generation of the digital humanities. Amy Earhart recounts in Traces of the Old, Uses of the New that Jerome McGann made a pretty fateful decision in 1993 to publish the Rossetti Archive online instead of as a standalone CD-ROM. There were obviously a lot of benefits to that decision, and the success of that archive as well as the William Blake Archive is a testament to the benefit of making nineteenth-century literature more available by putting it online. But it’s also a bit of a Faustian bargain, because that content now becomes available to all sorts of mischaracterizations, rumors, and falsities. To give an example, Jason and I found that one of the most oft-cited Blakean quotes on Twitter was “[t]here are things known, and things unknown, and in between are the Doors.” Of course, Blake never wrote that. I think it was actually Ray Manzarek, one of the co-founders of the 60s band the Doors. Of course, the Doors got their inspiration from Aldous Huxley, who in turn got it from Blake. There’s actually a pretty fascinating article about the provenance of that quote. I think Jason and I were enthusiastic about the fact that such manipulation was possible in 2013, but obviously things look different in 2018.
Some of @autoblake’s combinations are more Blakean than Blake!
Thanks! I’m glad it actually worked! As the @autoblake project developed, it took on aspects of media archaeology that I had started to explore as part of the steampunk project. I became particularly fascinated with Friedrich Kittler’s provocation in “There is No Software” that writing after the invention of the microprocessor became a form of coding and that coding—at its base material level—is really the manipulation of electricity. Ultimately, I was struck by how that insight complicated theories about the textual condition from Jerome McGann and yet also revealed these recursive and branch-like structures in Blakean poetics (i.e. the repetition of characters like Urizen, but with strange differences in the illuminated books, the remixing of images, the repurposing of poetry, etc).
McGann was concerned with how human culture is constituted through symbolic exchanges and these exchanges, for him, were mediated by material signals, in his words, “spoken texts or scripted forms.” It’s a theory that continues to be central to the digital humanities today, particularly when discussing textual variations in digital archiving. Yet when we start to think about all of the processes involved in simply typing characters into a software program, particularly when that software is connected to the internet, exchanges become not simply material and symbolic—but also temporal and mathematical. One of the most difficult things to conceptualize in our culture is the feeling that our communication on social media is instantaneous when it is actually extremely fast but also timed and asynchronous. We feel like we’re living these lives where anyone can be present with us at any time, but we’re really living in these little bubbles of slight asynchronicity. This misperception leads to problems like reacting negatively to a post on social media so quickly that we don’t have time to properly process our emotions, and then getting even more angry at the other person when they don’t respond until the next day. While Blake certainly didn’t experience social media in the same way we do, there’s something in his work and in the simulation of his work that actively questions all of these ways we create these phantoms of presence that end up perpetuating a cycle of suffering.
As an aside, do you know that the town of Oamaru, in my neck of the woods, has a Steampunk HQ and annual festival?
I know next to nothing about New Zealand’s history with steampunk, so it’s awesome to see these websites. Although, I do know that Neo-Victorian Literature has a love affair with Australasia, particularly in Eleanor Catton’s Booker Winner from 2013 The Luminaries and Amazon’s recent adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel Picnic at Hanging Rock starring Natalie Dormer. The steampunk project was really fun, and I was happy to be able to include Blake in a cameo at the beginning of the book. I love steampunk, because it acts as a public face for digital humanities work—in that all of these nonacademics are both creating devices to show off at conventions and engaging in cultural studies by imagining alternate histories in which (for instance) China or India colonized Europe and America. I talk about the design work of James Ng in the book, and he paints all of these fascinating contraptions that are inspired by the notion that China instead of Europe became the standard of modern design. He says “[t]he standard of modernization is basically westernization, […] but what if China was the first to industrialize during the turn of the last century, creating an alternate standard of modernization?” It’s intriguing to see these different versions of history and to see how technology is so foundational to our engagement with history.
What are you teaching/working on at the moment?
I’m very much at a crossroads with my scholarship. I’m still interested in Blake and in steampunk, but my work has moved more towards media archaeology and—honestly—mindfulness practices. Many people see media archaeology as a form of media history, in the sense that it is concerned with contesting the notion that the newest device is necessarily the best or the most interesting. Bruce Sterling’s dead media project is exemplary in this regard, because it’s concerned with showcasing failed media, those technologies that didn’t win out in the capitalist marketplace (“like Betamax!” I often tell my students). Of course, you can also see Blake’s (failed?) revolution against mass printing as another version of this kind of investigation.
The steampunk book dealt with media archaeological scholarship, because I was intrigued with how failed and dead media intersected with steampunk’s telling of various alternate histories. But I’m now moving more towards media archaeological research that is focused on our experience of time and how that is interrupted or transformed by our engagement with various media. I’m currently writing a multigraph with Andrew Burkett, Crystal Lake, and Richard Menke called Deep Time of the Nineteenth Century. This book is engaging most with Wolfgang Ernst’s notion of time-critique, or the way media frame our experience of time. So, we explore not only mechanical versions of time-critique but also ecological and cosmological ones. One of my chapters, in fact, talks about Mary Somerville’s description of Newtonian gravity as a media theory that imagined the universe as this giant vibrating “elastic medium” (Somerville’s words) propagating gravitational forces all over the place. What’s important for us in the Deep Time book is that we’re identifying all of these different ways of measuring and scaling time, and then juxtaposing those with cultural and social historiographies that are also emerging in the nineteenth century.
So, my most recent project, and this one I’m still conceptualizing, has to do with aligning media archaeological theories with mindfulness practices. The 2016 election proved that foreign governments were conducting psychological warfare on us, and this massive experiment has been only magnified by the very technologies that have become so central to our experience of social life. I turned to mindfulness as respite from some of this difficulty—but it’s also really enriched my thoughts about media archaeology. Mindfulness teachers, for instance, talk about the mind as if it were another sense organ. We have five outer senses and then there’s a sixth (the mind) that processes the information. Even though McLuhan called media “extensions” of our sense organs, we can really start to deconstruct that even further and recognize that the senses themselves are media. The further into mindfulness practice you go, the more you realize that all of the things we associate with ourselves (like our minds, our selves, our bodies) are also actually media. And you can actually experience this through practicing meditation, so it’s not just an intellectual argument.
Overall, I’m really finding my purpose in helping my students and my fellow colleagues back away from all of the pressures and difficulties endemic to our 24/7, always-working, always-surveilled, postmodern university system. Central to this is a mindful approach not only to personal technology but to the way universities implement technology in our classrooms. I had a fascinating conversation with one of my students just the other day about social media. I’d been complaining about the ubiquity of surveillance online and the utter banality of how dystopian it all seemed when one student mentioned that Blackboard—our learning-management system (LMS)—was just as problematic in this regard as Facebook. And of course, unlike Facebook, students can’t exactly opt out of these kinds of agreements—or, if they technically can, they certainly don’t have the knowledge to do so.
I want to ask how you communicate with your students beyond in-person time in class or at office hours? How do you negotiate making yourself available versus drawing the line on your availability?
I actually use a service called YouCanBookMe, where students can book appointments during my office hours. It really helps mediate my availability. I tell them that I will respond to emails but that I actually prefer to talk to them face to face. And I admit that online communication doesn’t allow me to be as present with them and their concerns as I would be in person. For me, the notion of presence with students is much more important than being constantly available. Oftentimes, the stress of our jobs means that we aren’t operating at our best, and it’s too easy to take that stress out on students. So, I try to recognize my need for that space and convince them that it actually helps me to better address their concerns.
In her review in Blake of your and Jason’s book, Whitney Anne Trettien wrote, “If anything, the proliferation of Blake in digital spaces points to the ongoing need to teach audiences critical close-reading skills, so that readers can better discern the signal from the noise in the glut of text that floods the web.” Thoughts?
Trettien’s comment is pretty good at summing up what we all need in our relationships with technology, but I also want to complicate that sentiment a little. J. Hillis-Miller had this article he wrote about the William Blake Archive called “Digital Blake” that really left me cold when I read it in graduate school. Like anyone who’s seriously considered the Archive, he lauded it as a magnificent achievement. But he also wanted to create a strict distinction between “the original Blake illuminated books and their digitized simulacra,” saying that the latter are “technological reproducibility with a vengeance.”
Of course, we’ve known from the editors themselves that there’s a difference between reading the illuminated books in person and seeing them on the screen. But I found myself asking: is that really all we can say about Blake’s appearance on digital media? Isn’t it strange that Blake, someone who intimately understood mediation and self-annihilation—who was constantly bringing to attention all of the transformations of characters, dimensions, and even of the form and content of his own books—would be fettered by all of these questions about originality? William Blake and the Digital Humanities emerged out of this frustration. Jason Whittaker and I wanted to know what would happen if we really took the diversity of these appropriations seriously. This isn’t to say that digital appropriations get Blake right, they very often get him very wrong. But the relationship between Blake, his appropriations, and the way they mediate our understanding of him and his legacy creates this political and material history that seemed like a compelling intervention.
And, especially when it comes to technology, it is very important to remember that history is a politically contested space. Academics don’t have a privileged connection to that past, and our interpretations and experiences are contingent and arbitrary. Instead of focusing exclusively on “reading skills” and “critical thinking,” two very cognitively attuned activities, the interventions humanists undertake with technology also have to be embodied, experiential, and phenomenological. Of course, Trettien knows this, she’s done excellent work on the materiality and phenomenology of the book, particularly in those beautiful projects she oversees in the zine Thresholds. But I’d like to give my own personal context by way of conclusion. In the summer of 2006, when I was in the middle of my dissertation, I suffered from an autoimmune form of hearing loss. I had very intense vertigo—to the point I couldn’t stand or walk without vomiting—and I also lost most of my hearing. I still can’t hear at all on my right side and it creates many problems communicating in loud spaces. Eventually the vertigo subsided, but my whole phenomenological being-in-the-world radically shifted. It felt very strange, almost like I was living in a different body. I didn’t become a disability scholar, but the experience gave me a glimpse into the arbitrary nature of our physiological experience of the world: that way our bodily sensations are assembled into something that seems solid and dependable. McLuhan’s discussion of media as “extensions” never seemed so true as it did after my experiences with vertigo and hearing loss. The experience, of course, was traumatizing. But it also paralleled what happened when I read The Book of Urizen for the first time—everything seemed inexplicably open and full of possibility. When we talk about “critical close reading,” I fear we’re doing an injustice to what happens when something transforms us, whether that is a Blakean illumination, a decolonial reading of Anglophone literature, a comment reminding us of our privilege on social media, or even a really interesting video game. Such transformations have the potential to open us to real alterity. The most radical of these experiences can help free us from our suffering, as they did Blake, and allow us to see “the infinite in every thing.”
Roger’s article “There is No William Blake: @autoblake’s Algorithmic Condition” appears in Essays in Romanticism. His recommendations for five important books on Blake are at Five Books. We thank him for his generosity in taking part in the Q&A.