I've also been working with the RSC and two artists, Davy and Kristin McGuire on a digital pop-up book project that builds on the McGuire's previous work on The Ice Book. We gave a presentation at the REACT knowledge exchange hub in Bristol last week and here's my brief talk from there explaining why the project means so much to me and my work.
REACT Lunchtime Talk
My relationship to the Macbeth Theatre Book project is a little on the nose: it’s just so perfect for the things that I’m interested in. I mostly write about three things: technology, embodiment, and reading practices, so watching an artwork come to life that unites these things is mesmerising and demonstrates to me, once again, that doing things is just as productive for the process of theorising as thinking about them.
There’s an incredible English course in the States where a group of students read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, a classic story of getting away from everything, a man escaping from the drudgery of daily life, a life in 19th century America where technology, already, was becoming just too much. Thoreau felt he was being kept away from the natural world by the expectations of society and so he moved to Walden Pond, built himself a cabin, and lived and wrote out there for two years. And the students studying this book, studying Walden, over the 12 weeks of their course, they build their own cabin, and in the act of making they learn something more than they ever could by just pondering the text. There is something to making, and to considering newly made things, that makes us think differently. I’m not capable of building what the McGuires are building, but I get a huge amount out of seeing what they’ve built, what they want to build, and the discussions that these built things provoke in me and in others – and not just the object, but the process.
Thoreau thought that humans had become “tools of their tools,” that they had become subordinate to the technologies that they increasingly used in their lives. But part of what I write about is that humans are always the tools of their tools, always affected by, shaped by, and working in entanglement with their devices. There has never been a human for which this wasn’t true. There is no such thing as a natural human without technological supports. Without the technologies of fire and tools and shelter none of us would last very long, and the larger the band of humans the more tools we need in order to drag a subsistence out of the land for our needy bodies.
The archaeologist Timothy Taylor (in The Artificial Ape) presents convincing evidence that the use of animal hide slings by pre-human hominids called australopithecines is what let to possibility of the development of the modern human mind at all. My argument is that Thoreau wasn’t wrong; he just didn’t know how long he’d been right for.
But if humans are in constant thrall to their technologies it’s also because we train them to produce the things that we consider to be the most beautiful. Walter Ong (in Orality and Literacy) noted that there is nothing natural about playing a violin sonata, as evidenced by the hours of practice that it takes to get to concert standard, to merge your body with the violin and bow, and yet the result is profoundly human. Expertise and our commune with our tools, or the practicing to get there, are some of the richest moments of our lives, whether that’s driving, drawing, playing tennis, playing an instrument, painting or sculpting, writing a poem, or reading. And, for me, this book, this new kind of book that the McGuires have made, sits right in the middle of all of this. This is what draws me in. At a time when we’re worrying again, like Thoreau, about becoming tools of our tools, about giving-in to our technologies, the McGuires remind us that we can make any technology beautiful if we look at and act with it in the right way. Not quite digital, but not quite material either.
The whole point about comparing printed books and e-books is that print is meant to be pleasantly fixed and e-reading is meant to be ethereal, always in danger of changing or of not being pleasing to our hands. And yet here paper comes alive and the digital is made physical – we get the best of both and we’re reminded that paper has always been tricky to pin down, that the digital has always had real world effects. This project troubles our expectations.
Novels used to be viewed with the same suspicion many of us now look at Kindles and iPads – novels would corrupt the women, the children, the servants. We were idiots when we thought like that, and we’re no doubt being idiots about some things again. Maybe not about printed books though, maybe those are really great, maybe iPads and Kindles are abominations for bringing about the death of the perfect reading vehicle. But maybe not. Maybe our children will love their screens as richly and vitally as we love the smell of an old hardback or the fresh precision of an unopened Penguin Modern Classic with all of its promise of escape. The McGuire’s work, at the very least, gives us permission to explore all options.
This humanisation of technology is vital I think – it makes us more nuanced, less liable to be reactionary; it demands that we pay attention to the details. To mimic the huddle under the covers with a torch, all the magic and intimacy of escaping sleep with a detour into another bookish world is profoundly moving, profoundly humanising. And maybe it’s more so at this time for parents who remember that experience so well and mourn its loss, and for children for whom torch and book have always been one and the same thing, and for those in the middle who lived across the transition, swapping torch for Gameboy for tablet.
Some of you might also be interested in the question of whether this is a Digital Humanities project – it’s certainly made me reflect on what the Digital Humanities are and what they should include. There’s no database here, no new way of reading texts with computers, and yet it seems to me to be something that we should absolutely consider as being an example of Digital Humanities research, even though not one of us is maybe doing it in isolation. There is something genuinely distinctive about digitisation and its effects that requires a new way of working and speaking, a new set of sensitivities, and it’s here in this raising of awareness that I tend to think of the Digital Humanities. Actually, maybe the concerns aren’t so new, but rather a reconfiguration with the net cast a little wider. But the McGuire’s aren’t doing Digital Humanities. They’re making art and, by devising the mechanisms by which their art functions, they’re engaging in design, prototyping, and fabrication - these can be elements of Digital Humanities work, but they are not its sum or sole components. And the Royal Shakespeare Company aren’t doing Digital Humanities here; they’re providing vital support for the project, acting as producers and putting the other participants in contact with Shakespeare and his plays and coding and production experts. And I’m not doing Digital Humanities; I’m just writing a series of short essays to accompany the project, like extended variations on the gallery blurb beside a painting, ideally to help an audience, the RSC, maybe even the McGuire’s themselves to articulate what’s going on, why and how the object and the experience feels so rich, so overdetermined, to try and find some language for why it means so much. The project, however, seems to be absolutely a Digital Humanities project – there’s something in its sum.
The question of “is this Digital Humanities?” remains uneasy if it’s neatly reduced to practices or outcomes, but this project combines. It breaks the Digital Humanities dictum of “more hack, less yack,” build more, theorise less, by showing how building is theorising - and talking about built things, placing them in context, gives them a greater solidity, a greater potency, and particularly in a time in which it can be situated amongst fraught debates of what it means to be human, how we should raise our children, how we should act in the world. The conversations that the McGuire’s work prompts - about the continuing importance of stories on paper in a digital age, about the potential inherent in drawing on old myths and new technology, those pure and devastating drives of memory and hope – the conversations and the device itself require what any sensitive reading of a text has always required: paying attention to the conditions of their production and reception.
Collaborations like this give each member new ways of considering the objects under discussion, but despite the importance of building things for the Digital Humanities, as both a source and a provocation, it also requires, a significant critical component so that it doesn’t have politics evacuated from its concerns. To defend theorising for a second, I think that understanding any technology, particularly at the moment, demands that researchers have at least a basic knowledge of and interest in the popular means of content access, the practices of using devices, and the kinds of cultural concerns that surround them, what we might call a cyberculture or digital culture. To try and read this work and to not be attentive to these wider concerns around digital technologies would be like studying Victorian novels without considering Empire, industry, or urban sprawl; it would be like studying Shakespeare’s manuscripts without thinking of where the plays were performed and how they were received.
So, that’s what I’m up to. While they do the smart bit of thinking with their hands and their heads, I’m doing the bit that too often gets mistaken for the “real” smarts, just using my head to try and work out why I find this project as beautiful and as provocative as I do. But I’ll write some of it down and ask you to read it and, I hope, that after this Theatre Book has blown you away, you’ll also then have some words to-hand to try and work through the effect that it’s had on you which, I guarantee, will be as personal as your fingerprint, on the back of a book, under a cover, lit by a torch, years ago.
Davy and Kristin McGuire, “The Ice Book.”
Matt Hayler, “Making IT Beautiful.”
Henry David Thoreau, Walden.