February 29, 2004

Orientalism and E-Fest 2004

by Nick Montfort · , 12:26 pm

It’s been a week and a half since the fine E-Fest at Brown already — no time for me to write anything like a trip report — but I wanted to bring one incisive comment from there into this forum.

Brian Kim Stefans was one of many who provided great readings/performances and participated in interesting discussions. Speficially, he compared humanistic writing about internet and computing culture to the Orientalism that Edward Said discusses: people from a different culture, with no direct knowledge of the country or culture, learn about it second- or third-hand and construct their own fantasy of what it is like.

The most provocative thing about Brian’s comment is that it suggests that new media studies of a certain sort may have things in common with racist or colonial perspectives. But that, which will just rile people up, isn’t what interests me about the idea, really. More importantly, Brian is assuming that computing and network culture actually is culture (or sub-culture) and that there are severe limits to what people can learn about it from the outside, without programming or designing or blogging or file-sharing or instant messaging or playing games, depending upon what subculture you’re interested in.

7 Responses to “Orientalism and E-Fest 2004”

  1. Matt K. Says:

    I know (and admire) Brian’s work, and what strikes me as bizarre about the comment is that it seems to assume some homogenous or monolithic thing called “humanistic writing.” Did he have specific people or examples in mind? On the general point I agree, that there is a kind of Orientalism at work in uninformed writing about new media (though this is actually a tradition that goes back at least to Gibson, where the Orientalism is made literal). But why single out “humanists”? Are we so uniquely unqualified to talk/write/think about new media? Doesn’t that (in turn) fetishize/reify/rarify whatever it is we want to call new media? Or is this really about a theory/practice divide, i.e. you’re not qualified to say something about new media unless you’ve been picking FORTRAN out of your teeth since you were eight years old . . . now that’s a _really_ tired debate.

  2. Scott Says:

    I agree with Matt — while it’s useful to have a critical competency with computers in order to write about new media writing, it’s also useful to have a critical competency with literature in order to write about new media writing — not to mention many of the other fields in which it would be useful to have a critical competency.

    There may be a difference here between recognizing a certain kind of Orientalism — “What have those techies who work with words been up to in their underground laboratories?” — and the “Critics who write about new media must be programmers” yarn, which probably discourages a lot of people from commenting on new forms they otherwise might write about.

  3. nick Says:

    I used the term “humanistic writing” to indicate that Brian wasn’t talking about (as far as I could tell) software documentation or the like. Please, don’t blame Brian for it – I don’t recall his using that term specifically.

    Brian’s point is more subtle that saying that some new media writing is uninformed or, as Scott notes, that everyone must be a programmer. It’s not that writing is uninformed but that it is informed through many layers of mediation, so that writers evolve their own special image of a culture/sub-culture that isn’t accurate but takes on a life of its own.

    It’s not about learning to program, either. Learning Java from a book or by taking a course doesn’t, by itself, make you a part of software development culture, while living for months with computer engineers (as Tracy Kidder did) does give you some insight into the culture of computer engineering. I think knowing about compuer science and programming is important to new media practice also, for different reasons, but the point here is that actually visiting a culture (e.g., Sherry Turkle going to arcades and interviewing video game players at length) is better than just accessing and building upon a manufactured idea of that culture.

  4. Dennis G. Jerz Says:

    Plenty of gamers have no idea how to program a computer, and no interest in learning. Academia, too, is a subculture, with its own set of values and biases — thus the difference between “digital arts” and “games,” the former of which seems to have been accepted by the academy more readily than the latter.

    As academics attempt to colonize game culture, we’ll continue to see knee-jerk resistance from the Slashdot crowd, but I hope we’ll see less resistance from academe itself.

  5. Matt K. Says:

    Nick, thanks for clarifying Brian’s position. It’s an interesting point you make about cultural immersion; the comments here make me wonder if there’s an audience for a volume that took a case study approach to documenting different modalities for new media research.

  6. michael Says:

    Matt, I like your idea of a case-study volume. There are so many (contested) approaches and methods for new media research – it would be great to see some of the approaches together in one volume, with concrete examples of each approach in action (this would help with the “‘humanistic writing’ is not a monolithic practice” problem).

    In my own new media research practice, I do deeply engage the culture and techniques of computational practice. As I’ve mentioned before, this is because I want my theoretical work to directly inform computational practice, to suggest new media genres and new technical directions for computer science research. I do believe that for theory to have that kind of a direct impact on computational practice, it requires a deep engagement with computational practice (an other approach is to have a third party intervene and interpret between the two practices). But this is certainly not the only approach to new media research. The arguments that can happen here are analogous to the Science Wars of the 1990s, in which science studies researchers argued with scientists about how much you need to understand (and potentially practice) a scientific field in order to analyze the field. On the one side, you have the specter of uninformed attacks on science that have no grounding in reality (exploited so well by Gross and Levitt in Higher Superstition), on the other side the specter of a hegemonic elite who suppresses any discussion or criticism of their field.

    The real answer is of course that there are many methodologies, which draw on a variety of discourses and fields of practice; it is precisely this heterogeneity that makes Matt’s book suggestion so attractive.

  7. Jill Says:

    A few weeks ago, a social scientist was telling us that cultural ignorance can be a very productive approach to a field. As someone who is within some kinds of net culture I can find these kinds of study incredibly annoying, but I suppose there are probably some things that I can’t see about the culture I’m in because I’m too close to it.

    The idea that you need distance to see is deep in social sciences, although certainly participation has also had its role and the acknowledgement of the researcher’s own position in what is being studied is more and more emphasised. Still, there are definitely things I can see about Norway because I’m not completely Norwegian, just as there are probably also things I *can’t* see about Norway because I’m not completely Norwegian.

    I reckon we need lots of perspectives. A case book would be great.

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