Category Archives: papers

Pamphlet #3

I’m very excited to announce that a version of my essay on David Foster Wallace has just been published online as the Stanford Literary Lab’s third pamphlet. Here’s the lead-in:

If there is one thing to be learned from David Foster Wallace, it is that cultural transmission is a tricky game. This was a problem Wallace confronted as a literary professional, a university-based writer during what Mark McGurl has called the Program Era. But it was also a philosophical issue he grappled with on a deep level as he struggled to combat his own loneliness through writing. To really study this question we need to look beyond the symbolic markets of prestige to the real market, the site of mass literary consumption, where authors succeed or fail based on their ability to speak to that most diverse and complicated of readerships: the general public. Unless we study what I call the social lives of books, we make the mistake of keeping literature in the same ascetic laboratory that Wallace tried to break out of with his intense authorial focus on popular culture, mass media, and everyday life.

Digital Humanities 2011

I’ll revise this post later. For now, here are the slides for my presentation in PowerPoint:

And a slightly modified PDF (without all the quote fly-ins):


I’ve finally returned to add to this post. I had a great time at Stanford’s Digital Humanities 2011, and the conference once again impressed me: quality work and a truly collaborative atmosphere. I was lucky enough to be on a panel organized by Franco Moretti and starring Zephyr Frank and Rhiannon Lewis. I thought it was a huge success and I was thrilled to see it written up in the Chronicle.

This was my third year at Digital Humanities and for the first time I really felt like part of a community where I had friends to see and news to catch up on. The effect was of course magnified because I was returning to my “home” institution, which I hardly saw in the last three years of grad school after I moved to Phoenix. I really enjoyed hanging out with the Stanford DH crew at the banquet and I even got a photo credit. I’m grateful to Franco for the panel, Matt Jockers and Glen Worthey for organizing the whole shebang, and the English department for very generously supporting my trip after I was technically no longer a student there.

As for my talk, I think I’ll let the slides and linked abstract speak for themselves. If someone is dying for the voice-over, let me know and I’ll try to find some time. For now, onwards and upwards.

Papers, papers

In all the excitement of the holidays, MLA and then a trip to Egypt (!), I didn’t have a chance to post about an exciting update from the publication front. Since then I also had some good conference news, so here’s the skinny.

I’m really delighted to be participating in an awesome book project co-edited by Lee Konstantinou and Sam Cohen considering the impact of David Foster Wallace. The collection is under contract with Iowa and it got a great writeup in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Very exciting! I’m working on revisions to my chapter right now. My piece will explore how different groups of readers are defining Wallace’s legacy through book reviews and literary consumption.

I had a paper accepted to Digital Humanities 2011! This may not seem like as big a deal until you start reading the comments on Twitter from people who didn’t get in: the acceptance rate was only 31% for panel proposals. I’ve really enjoyed my previous two DH conferences, and I’m looking forward to presenting with fellow LitLabbers Zephyr Frank and Rhiannon Lewis, with Franco Moretti as moderator. The panel is titled “Networks, Literature, Culture” and it’s going to be fantastic. I’ll save you a seat.

A Big Year

2010! Where is my jetpack?

It’s been a busy year so far, and I’m hoping to keep up with this new, futuristic energy. After a bit of a slow autumn (we use the term metaphorically here in Phoenix) and the usual distraction of the holidays, I finally got to check a few major items off my list this week. Yesterday I completed a funding application for the Stanford Humanities Center–they offer a few dissertation fellowships each year. Today I finally–FINALLY–finished revising a paper submission based on my Pynchon chapter and sent it back for round two.

Now it’s time to buckle down and return to data analysis. I’ve assembled a great pile of book reviews and recommendations in a MySQL database, and I have a few discrete challenges ahead of me:

First, I need to come up with an effective way to identify and then tag proper nouns in book reviews. This is easy to do badly and then clean up by hand, which is what I did for the last chapter. But there are a lot of Morrison reviews out there, so now I really need a computer for this. As a first pass/proof of concept I’m hand-editing a little “dictionary” of all the proper noun literary references made in professional reviews of Morrison’s work. Then I’ll write some kind of program to search for and tag those references in the reviews.

Once I get that figured out, the second trial process is going to be creating network graphs of these literary references based on collocations. I think I’ll probably start by defining links as “in the same paragraph,” but this might change depending on how useful the graphs end up being.

If I can get all this working in the next week or two, hopefully I will get some kind of epiphany for how to do automate the process elegantly for a much larger, and badly proof-read, set of consumer reviews of Morrison. It’s 2010…where is my artificial intelligence research assistant?

Talking Pynchon at the Digital Humanities Conference

I’m excited to report that my paper on Pynchon was accepted for the annual Digital Humanities Conference in June. It’s provisionally titled “Cultural Capital in the Digital Era: Mapping the Success of Thomas Pynchon” and will be a first run at the Pynchon chapter of my dissertation.

I’m trying to pull together research for the paper now and am hoping to focus on creating some “cultural network” maps of books that have been brought into association in various ways. For instance, professional book critics invariably describe new books in comparison to established ones so readers can get a sort of triangulated idea of what the new thing is like. Sites like Amazon and LibraryThing are much more explicit in the connections they draw, though of course the mathematical models they employ seem even murkier than the brain’s associative engines. So my first objective is to pull together some maps of the books that cluster around Pynchon in these respectively critical, commercial and webby venues.

I’ll post more about these ideas (and hopefully some web-based models for people to play with) once I know more. I’ve spent the past week reigniting the long-dormant Perl modules in my head. Next step: visualizing the data.

The Politics of Presence

I’ve been invited to contribute to The Politics of Presence, a multi-day, multi-continental conference experience put together by new media scholars, archaeologists, and more. I’m going to give a brief PowerPoint version of a paper I worked last quarter on terrorism and new media.

Terrorism is an interesting subject because it tends to fall through the academic cracks. This has led to a fragmented professional discourse that tends to get lost between international affairs, psychology, law and politics. Thus the old saw that there are as more theories of terrorism than there are theorists.

My take is that terrorism is essentially a communicative action: without a public to terrorize and a mass medium to dominate, there’s no point. So how do new, collaborative media change that equation? How do we deal with terrorism online? Come by tomorrow to find out.

Stanford-Berkeley Togetherness

On Saturday I participated in the annual Stanford-Berkeley English Department Graduate Student Conference. This year’s “theme” was “Who Cares?”. I gave a much-abbreviated version of my Weber talk and got some great feedback from the panel and from the audience. Professor Denise Gigante gave a very interesting keynote at the beginning of the day discussing specialization and professionalization in the field of literature.

What are we studying, anyway, and does it make sense to break things down into centuries and countries? I’m not so sure…at the very least, I’ve never felt very comfortable putting myself in a temporal box.

Taking the Weber show on the road

How time flies! I can’t believe it’s been a month since my last post. I’ll try and do a little better. One reason things have been so busy for me is that I finally completed a draft of a seminar paper that has been steadily growing into something bigger.

On Monday I submitted an abstract based on this evolving opus to a conference at UCLA. The theme of the 18th Annual Southland Graduate Student Conference is “Synthetics” and the paper I’ve been working on connects Max Weber to contemporary questions of identity and production, so this seems like the perfect venue to work on my ideas. Here’s my abstract:

The Networked Shell: Max Weber and the Ethic of Work in the Digital Era

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber twice used a metaphor that has become a touchstone in cultural analysis for the past century: the “iron cage” of capitalism in which we have all been trapped. The Puritan overtones of this translation represent a semantic intervention by Weber’s first American translator, Talcott Parsons. In his translation of the work Peter Baehr makes a convincing argument that this iconic metaphor should in fact be translated from the German (stahlhartes Gehäuse) as the “shell as hard as steel.” In a close reading of Weber’s original text I will flesh out this reading: the “shell as hard as steel” is an organic, protective carapace that shields and defines as much as it limits and confines its inhabitant. I will follow the metaphor of the shell as hard as steel from Weber to the darkness of World War II and the intellectual and technological revolution that sprang from its ashes. From there I will pick up the story of how cybernetics and post-war military-industrial research blended with the 1960s counterculture to create the network society of the 1980s and 1990s and, more recently, our own synthetic cultures of virtual production. By following its thread from Max Weber through the twentieth century, I hope to create an interpretive foundation on which to answer a very Weberian question: what is the ethic of work in the digital era? What does it mean to be an individual trapped/integrated/liberated by the networked shell of contemporary capitalism?

We’ll see if they like it.