HTNM Blog - Peter Lunenfeld

24 Sep, 2013

HTNM Blog - Peter Lunenfeld

Katherine Chandler (Ph.D. Candidate Rhetoric and Designated Emphasis in New Media) will be responding to the History & Theory of New Media Lectures this year. Look for her posts on this site.


A response to “Mia Laboro: How to do Generative Humanities”

Makers envy, Peter Lunenfeld suggests, underlies his recent work. He is jealous of the “the endlessly iterative” talk given by artists, designers, and engineers about “my work.” Using envy as motivation, Lunenfeld thus stages his turn from “academic as critic” to “academic as producer” in “Mia Laboro: How to do Generative Humanities.” Calling for humanities that are collaborative, interactive, rhizomatic, locative, and productive, Lunenfeld presents “his work.” As editor of MIT’s Mediawork Pamphlets, Lunenfeld paired academics and designers to create theory objects, combining image and text. WebTakes captured the possibilities of following the print versions online, offering interactive, animated, and poetic responses. Media artist Chandler McWilliams pinched and reverse-pinched Lunenfeld’s book, The Secret War between Uploading and Downloading: Tales of the Computer as Culture to create GenText, an interactive version for iPad. Moving between three layers, the reader can view the tales as short theses, expand them to a single screen synopsis or to the full text (and back again). Lunenfeld’s already iterative essay, “Gidget on the Couch,” was performed with backup singers at the “Visual Power Show” at the Million Dollar Theater in Los Angeles and he produced the piece as a video essay for the journal Vectors. Lunenfeld’s work points to the possibilities that emerge in a print+ age and underwrite Digital Humanities. Drawing on his recent co-authored text, he notes, “Digital Humanities is less a unified field than an array of convergent practices that explore a university in which print is no longer the primary medium in which knowledge is produced and disseminated” (122).

The call for humanities and beyond to explore the generative possibilities of code, sound, image, and text through collaborations between academics, artists, musicians, designers, engineers, and makers of all kinds is a welcome one. There is, as Lunenfeld indicates, enormous productive potential in these projects, which take up the opportunities and challenges of Print+. Indeed, while Lunenfeld performed “mia laboro,” I felt a touch of artist envy. Yet, I missed the opportunity to also hear from the critic. The provocation of “academic as producer,” of course resonates with Walter Benjamin’s classic text, “The Author as Producer.” Benjamin’s essay might be another example of generative humanities, analyzing Russian constructivist, Sergei Tretyakov, the press of the period, documentary photography, and Brechtian theater. “The Author as Producer,” though, is also a critical proposal - one that can be read cogently at this juncture. In the essay, Benjamin examines works of art not through their attitude to the means of production, but rather, by asking how they are situated within the means of production. With this in mind, the key word for Benjamin is reflective, noting toward the end of the essay, “You may have noticed that the chain of thought whose conclusion we are approaching only presents the writer with a single demand, the demand of reflecting, of thinking about his position in the process of production.”

Considering these arguments today, one might claim, regardless of our attitude to the digital humanities, members of academia and beyond are all already digital humanists, given that most works are created through means of production that rely on the digital. Certainly, as Lunenfeld suggests there is creative potential in these means. However, following Benjamin, there is a simultaneous demand for reflection. This does not oppose the artist and the critic, but rather, suggests criticism should be among the generative possibilities enabled by digital humanities. What is interesting, I think, is how digital production interconnects artist, academic, and engineer both to each other and to changing patterns of social relations, at once, political, economic, and cultural. This deserves a framework more capacious, and productive, than envy.

Katherine Chandler

Benjamin, Walter. "The author as producer." Reflections 229 (1978).
Drucker, Johanna, et al. Digital Humanities. MIT Press, 2012.