VSW Day One: Text

Today is day one of Visual Studies Workshop’s Situation Critical: Writing Arts & Cultural Criticism in the Digital Age. I’m using this space to blog my progress, process, fragments, citations, ideas. I have two main goals this week, and posting them here seems as good a way to hold myself to them as any:

1. Read across cultural criticism and cultural theorists to frame my own approach to mass and/or popular culture. Ideally, this will be used in my dissertation: what is the significance and use of mass culture for cultural brokers in Southwest Louisiana? What relationships/interactions does it create between cultural brokers and their audiences(s)?

2. Dive deeply into the various representations of the Evangeline myth. I’ll begin with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem, where it all began, and then consider how the myth came to be interpreted through other texts, images, sounds, and performances.

2a. Explore ways of using digital tools to represent the connections between these forms; to create a kind of digital collage form that can accompany the dissertation by connecting text, image, sound, and moving image to create an overlapping and (ideally) interactive, multimedia, and nonlinear exploration of this idea.

Thoughts on daily readings:

One question stuck with me while reading that can be summed up with a familiar phrase: “everyone’s a critic.” What is the reality of this idea the digital age? Perhaps it seems an obviously bad omen for the professional critic (although not all seemed to decry the broadening ways in which people can share their own criticisms), but is it also a bad sign for society’s engagement with culture?

While one critic mocks the “populist glee” that starred rating systems create, another offered a more measured approach to this “digital anarchy,” considering the potential it provides to create a society not only consuming but, hopefully, thinking. Does this move us closer to the kind of “enlightened witness” that bell hooks argues for in Cultural Criticism & Transformation in order to create true freedom and justice? Or does the near-constant opportunity to rate and critique (or criticize) become a reflexive act, less about asking the viewer to deeply interrogate their own assumptions or responses than to insert an immediate opinion into the critical ether: I loved/hated it.

This questions seems to be also at the root of fundamental tensions with the internet itself, and particularly the early promises of digital history (the field in which I continue to work). What is, really, the democratic potential of the web? Although we have certainly moved from a moment of scarcity to abundance in terms of information and access, and web 2.0 has made every personal computer a publishing platform, what are the limits of participation in this space? This question has a lot to do with the platforms of the web (falling into much more uniform camps that the messier, earlier days of the internet) and the kinds of engagement they encourage. Do digital ratings systems actually increase representation–in culture, in criticism–or simply reinforce the loudest voices in a chorus of “populist glee”? I’m looking forward to thinking through and discussing these questions over the next several days.

In addition to these larger questions about the role of criticism in the digital age, I also started to consider what affordances digital tools provide to explore Evangeline. I began with a close reading of the text, and used the web annotation tool Hypothesis to begin annotating parts of the text that seemed significant. These annotations seemed to fall into loose groupings (although these were not prescribe): aesthetic descriptions, historical moments, descriptions of the natural world, and comparisons or connections between landscapes of Canada and Louisiana. I plan to take another pass over the poem with a more organized annotation system based on these loose groupings, and that can perhaps create links between, or perhaps even different pathways through, the poem.

Moving forward, I am considering a kind of multimedia essay (or, digital collage, a concept that I plan to think/write more about tomorrow) that uses the text of the poem as a kind of canvas onto which I can embed (using various annotation tools, hyperlinking, etc.) versions of the Evangeline myth as it appeared in various other sites of mass culture. My thinking is that this will help to connect these various elements (for both my own dissertation research and perhaps as a supplementary digital project) and provide a visual representation of how various interpretations of this myth contributed to a collective identity for Southwest Louisiana. The multimedia layering that digital annotation makes possible seems ripe for the kinds of layered historical questions of place and identity that make up the core of my dissertation.

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Jessica Does History