Heather Marcelle Crickenberger
The Critic as Producer:
Projection, Reflection, and Remediation in Immersive Technologies
"For the tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at the turning points of history cannot be solved by optical means, that is, by contemplation, alone. They are mastered gradually by habit, under the guidance of tactile appropriation."
- Walter Benjamin
"Taking a walk is a haecceity...Haecceity, fog, glare. A haecceity has neither beginning nor end, origin nor destination; it is always in the middle. It is not made of points, only of lines. It is a rhizome."
- Deleuze-Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus
NOTE: * indicates external links.
This project explores how scholarly technique is shaped by the technologies used to produce it by documenting the growth and development of a long-term scholarly interest through multiple iterations culminating in a digital artistic installation entitled, Projections: Exploring Reading and Writing in Emerging Technologies (or How an Apparatus Becomes Self-Aware), which was presented in the Creativity Studios* of North Carolina State University’s James B. Hunt, Jr. Library* as part of the 2014 North Carolina Literary Festival* whose topic was “The Future of Reading.”* In the essay that follows and in the descriptive work amended via the toolbar above, I reflect on the role of the scholar as producer, creating and expanding the applications of emerging technologies of writing.
Paper and the Wandering Narrator
The research that underlies this project began with the traditional scholarly essay as its anticipated product. Back then, in the late 90's, I was reading paper books and photocopying journal articles in order to produce paper documents that were intended to be read as such. My research involved mostly primary sources and scholarly critiques of writers who embraced the art of walking as a part of their creative process. Having enjoyed several seemingly disparate scholarly interests in my masters program, I sought to join them by examining specifically those texts which put to use a wandering narrator as a way of self-consciously blending the author's consciousness with the particulars of the story's place and historical context.
Works such as Wordsworth’s The Prelude, Charlotte Smith’s Beachy Head, Poe’s “Man of the Crowd”, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and Thoreau’s “Walking” led me to later twentieth-century writers, specifically those of Gertrude Stein and “The Lost Generation” who transformed the idle rhapsodic stroller of nineteenth-century cities and pastoral retreats into the cynical urban observer of industrial wastelands and the overcrowded metropolis. I began focusing my attention on the works of expatriate writers like John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, Djuna Barnes, Kay Boyle, and Henry Miller, until I encountered (in conversations surrounding Joyce’s Ulysses) the scholarship of Walter Benjamin and his primary trope, the flâneur*.
The Flâneur and His City
In 1998, the College of Charleston awarded me a teaching and research fellowship for the 1998-1999 academic year at the University of Versailles so that I may further pursue the subject of the flâneur in the city of his birth: Paris. It was an experience that continues to influence my research to this day.
For nearly a year I took to taking long walks as close to daily as possible, sometimes taking photographs with my 35-mm point-and-shoot camera, sometimes visiting the postcard collections that framed my path from Les Halles to Châtlet or Notre Dame or the Centre Georges Pompidou which was sadly under renovation the entire course of my stay.
While the literature I was reading during this time was set primarily in the 1920s and 1930s, there were some things that apparently had not changed--long stretches of leaden gray days with cold rains and harsh winds, the boulevard crowds, the scents of hot bread and urine and steam from the metro. Much of the architecture that I read about had been destroyed in WWII, but there were pockets--sections of the city that had been spared.
Having grown up in a small city in the Blue Ridge Mountains, it had been difficult to imagine how one could walk for so long in a city until I'd actually done it. I retraced old walks through Henry Miller's Montparnasse, gazed at the massiveness of the city from the Sacre Coeur, strolled through the Jardin du Luxembourg, disappeared into underground labyrinths and emerged to find galleries and bizarres at every turn. The city manifested as text for me--one of languages and senses and gestures and garments. So many different vantage points to occupy: times of day, seasons, moods. The regularity of my gait was the only constant--and even that echoed hauntingly in metro tunnels or vanished beneath the whine of traffic.
When I returned to my then home of Charleston, I wrote my master's thesis, The Flâneur as Self-Referential Narrator: Hidden Texts and Roving Eyes in American Autobiographical Prose and Poetry. It took the form of a paper document of about 150 pages that applied an analysis of the flâneur as described in Benjamin’s book, Charles Baudelaire: Lyric Poet in the Age of High Capitalism, to the narrative techniques of Poe, Whitman, Thoreau, Miller, and Dos Passos. At that time, I remained focused on the walking narrator as a literary device, one that enabled the author to blend the writer's internal world of self-reflection, obsession, and rumination with the historical particulars of his or her narrative's spatiotemporal context.
In the realm of autobiography, the flâneur as narrator was able to project him/herself onto the city through which he rambled, allowing the complexities of his or her own character to resonate in spatial depictions. Such a technique emphasizes the predominance of individualized perspectives while incorporating such perspectives into the collective.
As I carried the interest further into my doctoral program at the University of Sourth Carolina in the year 2000, research methods were beginning to change and this blurring of lines between the interior lives of individuals and the larger story of humanity seemed to be intensifying as a result of the evolving technologies of writing made possible by the internet. I began applying my research to the subject of reading and writing in the virtual sense.
The Rhetoric of Hypertext
The more I wandered, both as a scholar and as a lover of the peripatetic, the more distracted I became. In the evolving medium of hypertext, endless divagations became possible, and I started to realize how important other art forms were to the study of literature about wandering: music, art, architecture, film, fashion, advertisement, city planning, psychoanalysis, lawmaking, philosophy and scholarship. The list goes on, each "medium" opening up a new entrance into the subject matter at hand.
In order to find some sort of escape from the labyrinths of my studies, which had dragged on as terribly long as warned, I pinned the subject of my research to this question of media. What is it? How is it changing? What is now possible? What will be possible?
Of all the voices I encountered in my readings about emerging media, it was without a doubt the familiar voice of Walter Benjamin that spoke to me most clearly, both in his famous "Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" essay as well as in his newly translated into English, The Arcades Project (1999), a mammoth work in which Benjamin depicts the environs and associcated literature surrounding the nineteenth-century flâneur, situating him as the emblem of bourgeois leisure, boredom, and aloofness amid a collection of quotations and fragmented musings on Parisian daily life. In it, Benjamin's narrator presents as reader of material history--as virtual flâneur, making his way through the refuse of bygone times. His collection of textual and cultural artifacts is organized using a cataloguing system designed around his own personal interests: gambling, collecting, and city planning, to name a few. His most prominent interest, the Parisian arcades, provides the structure that frames his idea in a history of commercialism, surreaslism, and impermanence. They are the subject to which he returns throughout the project and the idea which best reveals the evolution of scholarly research as a form: one that traces half-demolished pathways through history, requiring imagination and a willingness to be led from its reader.
Benjamin's project is one work of scholarship that has managed to escape the tyranny of polemic discourse by asserting the author's subjectivity at the structural level, allowing his technique to self-consciously function as his scholarly thesis. In it, the medium becomes, not McLuhan's message, but the method by which scholarship comes into being, dictating as it does the techniques of scholarly engagement.
The subject of medium permeates much of Benjamin's writings and is one of the primary ways that he differs from so many of his contemporaries--photography, montage, radio, and the manner in which these media play into an artist’s or presenter’s creative process, led him to investigate common shop windows and advertisements as cultural refuse worthy of being mined.
In response to his questions concerning the future of scholarship, I chose to explore the issue myself by enacting a research project in hypermedia. What I constructed would later become the appendix to my dissertation, the aforementioned website, The Arcades Project Project (or The Rhetoric of Hypertext)*, a sprawling web of over one hundred sections through which I delved into media-related questions and theories of writing and reading in hypermedia for many years, both as a subject of research and as a means of performing scholarly inquiry.
Primary figures studied included philosophers and theorists such as Nietzsche, Baudrillard, Heidegger, and Deleuze as well as poets and writers Walt Whitman, Henry Miller, Sophie Calle, and several others previously mentioned. The project ruminates on questions and issues surrounding the concept of "virtual flânerie"--that half-dreaming state we've all experienced as we wandered without purpose through computer screens--half reading and half writing the text in which we are immersed. Some of these issues present concretely as the following: wandering, collecting, chance, divagation, memory, repetition, the collective, history....though there are deeper chords at work in the non-alphabetical aspects of the project: issues of production, coding, design, components and file structure, obsolescence and application selection, the problem of containment--and the resulting sensation of tedium required by such a writing process.
The longer I worked in hypermedia, the more I began to see how, though alphabetic writing was still an art form in itself, the medium of hypertext was exposing the writing process as something more akin to the art of production.
The Critic as Producer or Walter Benjamin's "Aesthetic Engineer"
For four years, I played the part of the critic as producer, compiling bibliographies, creating file structures, considering the visual rhetorics that lay hidden under the leaves of my virtual collections of scholarly quotations and literary analysis. In this way, the manners in which the processes of writing and reading were made different in hypermedia were both performed in the writing of the project as well as in the reading of it by outside visitors. In it, the act of scholarship becomes visible as a living form, an endless delving and divagation into our own obsessions and the chance encounters and exchanges brought on by our pursuit of them.
Of course, the project itself was too informal and nonlinear to be recognizable as scholarship at the time. It was too idiosynchratic, too journal-like, too much like a digital notebook for a yet-to-be-written book, so I wrote a framing essay, “The Structure of Awakening”: Walter Benjamin and Progressive Scholarship in New Media* (2007) in order to describe and contextualize the work I did in The Arcades Project Project, identifying it as an experiment in the production of scholarly hypertext and explaining the rationale for its construction. In it, I drew on Benjamin’s figure of “The Author as Producer” who synthesizes form and content through self-conscious technique. It is in this way that such an author is able to “refashion the apparatus of perception” and, in thereby doing, become a kind of “aesthetic engineer,” capable of influencing reader perception by influencing the way one is read. Structure becomes rhetoric in this model, though such structures are often inaccessible and difficult to see.
Remediating the Virtual Using Immersive Technologies
Years later, having spent much of my time as a lecturer in first-year writing and as a technical writing advisor to UNCC’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, I was approached by Jason Jefferies, a friend who had also focused his scholarship on the writings of Walter Benjamin. As the organizer and primary contact point for the NC Literary Festival, he was asked to put together a festival that would highlight some of North Carolina State University’s newly designed James B. Hunt, Jr. Library’s most technologically advanced student writing resources. He saw a connection between my previous work with The Arcades Project and the writing technologies presented in the Hunt Library and asked me if I would be willing to use the space to put together a presentation on Benjamin and “The Future of Reading” for the festival.
Projections: Reading and Writing in Emerging Technologies (or How an Apparatus Becomes Self-Aware), the artistic installation described at the start of this essay and documented in the toolbar of this project, is my response to that call.
A Brief Description of Projections
Projections: Exploring Reading and Writing in Emerging Technologies (or How an Apparatus Becomes Self-Aware) was a walk-through, digitally-produced immersive environment framed in the tradition of artistic installation. It was presented using the Creativity Studios of the Hunt Library which were still under construction on the day of the event.
The presentation was comprised of a small trifolded pamphlet and the Creativity Studios: two adjoined, highly-modifiable digitally-enhanced rooms with two possible entry points, an elaborate tracking system, and several projectors and display surfaces. These rooms were arranged so that the studio's moveable panels would emulate the passage-like quality of the Parisian arcades.
On these panels, slideshows of hundreds of still images were projected, intermingling photos shot from my physical and virtual wanderings. At times, images were framed to echo the general look and feel of Google's image search results display format, while at other times, landscapes and other large format images were projected onto the three-dimensional canvas. The effect was a mixing of the aesthetically constructed with the aesthetically framed: perspectives on the natural world overlapped with advertisement, propaganda, art, history, pop culture, and anything else that could be scavenged from my virtual wanderings--both online and in my own digital archives.
The idea was to create a digital rendering of the arcades as they exist in our world today, through which visitors could wander physically much as they wander virtually through the flow of images that constitute life in the digitized world. Visitors were invited to share photographs of their own perspectives and thoughts on Twitter so that the apparatus could be left open to future encounters and commentary (#arcadesprojections).
Among other things, I primarily aspired to achieve the following with my presentation:
- To heighten the audience's awareness of the prevalent and aesthetic effects of advertisement and propaganda in a world populated by digital images.
- To explore and demonstrate the adaptability of the Creativity Studios as a writing and reading apparatus in order to ellucidate possible applications for students, researchers, artists and presenters in the future.
- To take up the 2014 North Carolina Literary Festival's theme of "the future of reading" and to use the venue of the festival (the James B. Hunt, Jr. Library) as a means of addressing the theme.
- To remediate prior research and gallery experience into hypermedia and artistic installation as a response to Benjamin's scholarly experiments in The Arcades Project.
- To create an environment which performs self-consciously as a text and to invite an audience to frame and share their own unique perspectives of that text.
- To demonstrate the connectedness of the virtual and the real as well as to explore the idea of reading as writing.
- To stimulate the senses and invite conversation.
Hypertext Renderings of Immersive Art Forms (or How to Read This Text)
In order to adapt the project to the writing technologies made available by the Research Catalogue*, the project has been divided into six segments, accessible via the toolbar or by clicking linearly via links at the bottom of each page.
The “Pamphlet” link allows visitors to print or read the pamphlet provided at the event. In it, content from the TV monitor presentations was provided in a static form: a general explanation of artistic installation as an art form was provided as well as a brief description of some of the primary themes of the installation. Walter Benjamin, the flâneur, the arcades, The Arcades Project, and Benjamin’s notion of the “Author as Aesthetic Engineer” were lightly discussed.
In the “Apparatus” section, schematics and technical specifications of the Creativity Studios are provided and the space is described and pictured as originally encountered and at various stages of the writing process. Links to the visual components projected onto the apparatus are also available in this section.
The “Process” section describes the manner in which the installation evolved as an inquiry into the future of reading and writing. It begins with its roots in books, examines my process of experimentation and exploration, visualizes and documents various tests and trials in the construction of the installation, and analyzes some of the effects encountered in the learning process, moving finally toward a reflective interpretation of the project as a whole.
The “Gallery” provides links to all videos presented in this project, links to all projected components used in the installation, and a photo gallery of various shots from within the installation on the day of the exhibition.
As a visitor of this project, I invite you to explore it as you see fit. Navigate by using the tool bar located at the top of the page or, for a more linear experience, click the “Next” buttons on the bottom of each page.
For a comprehensive bibliography on the rhetoric of hypertext and other subjects related to this research, please see "Bibliography." A live version of the bibliography is available on this external site Arcades Projections*.