C&W: Keynote by Jay David Bolter

The central idea of Jay David Bolter’s keynote address, “Open Spaces: Inscription and Technology,” was that we need to rethink what we count as inscription, and for his recent work this includes spaces that are hybrid in terms of including physical location(s). He began by providing a useful “old story” about origins of hypertexts and cyberspace. He admitted that he was retelling an old story but expressed the concern that it is now “so old” that many in attendance here might not know the story. The advent of computer games and Games Studies began to alter the “old story” through the constitution of a procedural rhetoric, use of persuasion, and explanation of how things work. He used Fatworld as an example, and one I hadn’t heard of, September 12th. September 12th gives a simple argument about the ways in which fighting terrorism with violence is an inadequate and problematic approach to dealing with “terrorism.” What is interesting about it, noted Bolter, is that it is an argument embodied in a game. It is rhetoric activated. The problem is that much of traditional literary study/theory does not accept this as part of its tradition(s) of writing.

Bolter moved from games to another “old story” about cyberspace, discussing how it was an abstraction, considered an escape from the “real world” and a release from cultural determinations and the body as marker. Cyberspace and virtual reality were the image of The Matrix. The vision of cyberspace, as represented by John Perry Barlow’s “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”, was that we would would actually live this virtual reality. The problem, Bolter argued, was that the experiencing of virtual reality came with a certain disembodiment. The headsets used to experience this “reality” cut users off from the world. A paradigm shift can be seen in the works of Mark Weiser (his idea of ubiquitous computing is interested in the intersection of the human and the virtual/digital/computer) and Howard Rheingold. This paradigm shift is what has informed some of Bolter’s latest work. He’s currently interested in augmented reality. Augmented reality involves this intersection between the human and the computer and involves the physical manipulation of one’s environment based on computer information. Bolter gave the example of an early version of the interactive game, Facade, that has now been reworked as an AR game. In the AR version of Facade, rather than entering into an immersive, seamless, online environment where you are in the apartment of fighting couple, Grace and Trip, the user now uses a headset while navigating around a physical apartment and interacting with Grace and Trip. The possibilities for AR games run the gamut from entertainment to education and allow for new forms of collaboration.

Bolter made the argument that even virtual worlds such as Second Life aren’t really pure cyberspace, as seen by the connections to the physical world via the money made by some Second Life users and by the hacks some students at Georgia Tech have worked on that allow Second Life avatars to walk around their campus.

All of this is to say that there is a clear movement away from the verbal/written and we need ways to take these new forms into account.

Traveling Home

I’m sitting in the Greenville-Spartanburg airport on my way home from the Computers and Writing Conference. I have a number of in-progress posts covering the keynote and plenary speakers, as well as some of the sessions I attended. This was my first time at this conference, and overall, I really enjoyed myself and found it to be a more valuable than other conferences I’ve attended. Janice Walker had assured me that we’d be well fed, and she wasn’t kidding. I spent very little money on food — with the exception of a delicious pecan-encrusted blue trout that I had last night at The Last Resort.

I’m also thrilled with the fact that I ended up flying into Greenville SC. First it was just an option to save around $800. But with flights stopped out of Athens and with Atlanta torn up by construction, it just seems like a hassle to have flown into either of those places. I made the drive in less than two hours, and this airport is calm and relaxing AND has real food. I feel as though I’m not in an airport at all.

A few other things I noted about my travel: Being a Northerner who knows little of the South I wasn’t expecting nor accustomed to the billboards on the ride between Greenville and Athens, which included a lot of fireworks, topless/adult entertainment (including the Risque Cafe — where couples are welcome and truck parking is available), and fattening foods. The radio was also interesting. I spent most of the two hours listening to the radio on scan. For some stretches of road there was nothing but country and Christian music. Today, Sunday, there was actually coverage of what was happening at area churches. However, I did get to hear some Rage Against the Machine, which took me waaaay back, and then some Guns N’ Roses, which took me even further back.

It’s looking like it will be time to board soon. I will follow-up with some conference posts soon.

(Like) Water for Elephants

I finished reading Water for Elephants (or, as I call it in my head, Like Water for Elephants — its namesake clearly being Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate). I’ve mentioned that it was an odd reading experience for me because I felt like I was reading a draft of a piece of fiction written for an advanced creative writing class/workshop. The writing was inconsistent — at times a beautiful sentence peeks out, and I would get all excited by it, but that was always surrounded by a series of overly simplistic sentences. The characterization was odd. The character who was most believable to me was Walter/Kinko the midget with the Jack Russell Terrier, Daisy; however, even he seemed to be a caricature of a small person traveling with a circus. The protagonist was flat in his almost-too-good-to-be-true personality. When the book opens he is ninety or ninety-three (he’s never sure of his exact age), and the dialogue is trite. I found myself asking, is this really how an old man speaks, or is it just how we (and Gruen) think an old man is supposed tospeak? He just wasn’t believable. All my complaints about spotty writing and flat characterization aside, I loved the story and found myself excited to get back to reading it each night. I’m not sure if this is simply because I was so craving a story filled with the details of circus life, and this one gave me the nitty-gritty I was looking for, or it is because Gruen does manage to keep enough happening that an otherwise done-before romance becomes a page-turner. There were moments when I found myself wondering how or why the story was compelling. After all, it is mostly the story of two people in love who can’t be together because one of them is already taken. Nothing new here. Still, there are enough of the circus-driven antics and incidents to keep the story exciting. And the animals. It seems as though Gruen understands animals better than humans, because she was able to bring them to life in ways she just couldn’t with the human characters. Perhaps this is because animals don’t talk and Gruen struggles with dialogue, but whatever the case, the depictions of the animals add an element to the romance that I’ve certainly never encountered in other books I’ve read.

Back to School

I am lurking in Kim and Megan’s Personal Essay Filmmaking class for the next couple of weeks. The deal is that I’ll give them feedback in exchange for learning how to *finally* use my digital video camera. This will bring me back to the summer days I spent in my basement making videos with my little brother and best friend. Right now, however, we’re practicing embedding videos. Unfortunately I don’t have one of my friend and I performing the Eagles’ “Take it Easy,” so I’ll bring you this video instead (I actually have no idea what this video is; I’m just practicing after all):

Book Borrowing, Browsing, and Buying

How do you decide which books you will purchase as opposed to loaning, interlibrary loaning, or borrowing from friend or colleague? I’m mostly referring here to academic texts — texts you might be using for your latest project, class, or research in whatever form that might take — but you could also include reading for pleasure or other kinds of books. I feel like there is not much rhyme or reason to my own (sometimes) impulsive book buying. Like today when I hurriedly ordered this, while at the same time feeling like it might not say anything more than what folks like Jenkins, Shirky, and Bolter and Grusin have already been saying. I guess I tend to do it when the book isn’t available at the local library and interlibrary loaning it feels like it will take too long (even when, after picking up the book and paying for it, it can end up sitting there unread for a week or longer). Anyways, I’m just curious about the book attaining habits of folks out there who read and/or skim A LOT of books.

Confirming my hunch

Yesterday, I worked through the results of my faculty surveys — crunching numbers, comparing percentages, calculating averages — all of that statistical stuff that I’ve been avoiding because it freaks me out. In doing this I learned what I already thought I knew: the majority of faculty use proprietary forms of course management systems/software because it is what is either “handed” to them by their institution or because they are (or feel they are) required to use it. Ninety percent of respondents to this survey answered that they chose the CMS they use because a) “This is the standard at my institution” or b) “My institution requires I use this program.” I don’t think that any of the three schools that I surveyed actually do require that faculty use the CMS that the school licenses; however, it is interesting that more than ten percent of faculty who responded perceive it to be that way.

Sixty percent of respondents use either Blackboard or WebCT (not for long, of course).

I feel dizzy

During a recent discussion of my research materials with one of my committee members, she advised me (as her advisor had done for her) to be juggling at least three things at once. Well, I guess I really took that advice to heart today because I’ve been juggling about four projects simultaneously today — and I mean literally thinking about, writing for, working toward four projects at the same exact time. One minute I’ll be thinking the material that I’m reading and/or listening to makes a great opening for my individual proposal for the Cs, but at the same time I’m thinking I want to incorporate it into my presentation at Computers and Writing in a couple of weeks. Two seconds later I’m checking e-mail and responding to my colleagues on draft after draft of our 4Cs workshop proposal. I toggle from from that to my excel spreadsheet (except don’t tell anyone involved with the C&W conference that I’m using excel!) containing the data from my survey responses, look them over, and begin writing a narrative of the results for my dissertation — a narrative that I hope to work into my C&W paper — and then at the same time I realize some of my results really justify the need for the type of workshop we’re proposing for Cs. I guess all of this is supposed to mean that I’m “working smarter, not harder”, in that my projects are overlapping and intersecting in various ways; however, it is really making my head spin.

“Life in the circus ain’t easy…

but the folks on the outside don’t know”

A couple of weeks ago, D and I along with a couple of friends, went to see Cirque du Soleil in Hartford. None of us had ever seen a live Cirque performance, and for the first time in my life I could actually afford to go (though barely, the ticket prices are outrageous), so why not? While watching the performers, I was in awe. I began thinking about how I know very little about the circus, because, after all, that is how it is intended to be — all illusion, all facade, all of the time. We’re not intended to think during the circus. What little I do/did know related to tales of freakshows and those not accepted by/into mainstream society escaping, running away, finding some realm of protection (although potentially not much); accusations of animal mistreatment; and Depression era escapism. Cirque de Soleil doesn’t use live animals, so I began wondering more about treatment of humans/workers than animals and assumed there must have been at one point clear hierarchies in circus life and maybe that still continues. I also wondered if the human body is intended to do some of the things these performers were doing. I was particularly struck by the girls with gymnasts-sized bodies who could twist and contort in ways that made them look as if a few ribs and/or vertebrae had been removed. Ultimately I decided I wanted to find out a lot more about all of this…and this realization struck just in time for summer reading! So, I have begun to compile a summer reading list with a circus/carnival/freakshow them. So far I have:

Water for Elephants by Sarah Gruen

Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

Under the Big top by Bruce Feiler

Josser: Secret Life of a Circus Girl by Nell Stroud

The Circus Age: Culture and Society Under the American Big Top by Janet Davis

Sideshow USA: Freaks and the American Cultural Imagination by Rachel Adams

I’ve considered reading Geek Love by Katherine Dunn but am a little wary of it after reading the reviews. I can’t tell whether I’m intrigued enough to read or if I’ll end up just plan horrified.

I’ve started reading and have almost completed Water for Elephants and will follow up with a review of that, as I’m pretty surprised by my intense interest in a book that is so poorly written.

I’m looking for more suggestions/ideas. The list so far is a mixture of fiction and nonfiction, academic and popular, and I’m open to any and all of these genres/perspectives. I’d also love recommendations for documentaries on this topic, as I haven’t explored that angle so much yet.

All of this, of course, has nothing to do with the diss and is, what a friend of mine calls, “productive procrastination.” I just thought I’d become a circus expert while productively procrastinating.

Additions to the list/reader recommendations:

The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken

The Notorious Dr. August: His Real Life and Crimes by Christopher Bram

Happy

Happy Birthday Karl Marx

Happy Cinco de Mayo

Happy me. I am s-l-o-w-l-y re-emerging at the end of a semester filled with illness. I won’t go into all the gory details, but after having the flu in February, I was diagnosed with mono in April. I was sick for most of March and am still not quite myself, but I’m getting there. There were times when I coudn’t sit up at the computer at all and times when I could work for short periods, but my regular online presence was definitely missing (though I’m not sure too many folks noticed). Anyway, I’m happy to be getting my life back, although I still have bad days. Last week I returned to my core conditioning class after a long absence. I’ve been to the gym once, and I’ve been walking.

Today I handed back my last set of portfolios with more than the usual relief. This semester has been a difficult one for me and my students. Still, I believe we emerged relatively unscathed, and now it is time to seize the one month I have between now and the start of my summer class to work on a number of projects — most importantly the ever-present and haunting dissertation.