Material Culture Studies Seminar: DH Gets Physical


A retrospective exhibit featuring the work of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is first up at the PAMM, including his installation According to What? shown at the Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., in 2012.

This week, I’ll be talking about Material Culture Studies in class for my seminar discussion. Here are the articles I’ve looked at. Rather than preparing a handout, I’ve decided to outline some of the key characteristics of these authors and articles here for you to keep in mind while reading. Latour, Bleeker, and Manoff all take very different approaches to Material Culture in their writing. My interpretations of their work are just that – mine – so while I’ve given an overview of these works here I can’t wait to hear what everyone has to say in class about the relevance of Material Culture Studies to DH.

Bruno Latour’s work is characteristically easy to read – which is helpful given the complexity of some of his subject matter. In this essay, he gives an overview of “Actor-Network Theory,” or ANT, by discussing design, sociology, and technology. He posits that the objects around us, which we often ignore, impact our lives immensely. He illustrates, with the example of a door, how enmeshed humans and nonhumans are in the joint venture of saving (humans) work. Objects do labour that is set out for them by humans, but they can also be prescriptive, meaning that they can affect us because they are engineered to do so. Tangential to his main points, he discusses modernity and the false dichotomy it puts between humans and things, coding as a language that does action, and language itself and its tricky relationship to physical things.

Latour, Bruno. “Where Are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane
Artifacts.” Technology and Society, Building Our Sociotechnical Future.
Cambridge, Mass
. Ed. Deborah J. Johnson and Jameson M Wetmore. MIT
Press. 151–180.

Julian Bleecker is a theorist who follows on the footsteps of writers like Latour. His essay expands upon a basic Material Culture Studies idea: what if objects not only mattered, but they actively told us why? His idea of blogjects is fascinating and very relevant to DH. It might even make us think differently about many of the DH projects that we regularly encounter. Blogjects are objects that blog, that do so in collectives, and with minimal human intervention. In doing so, they reform human perception and make an impact on human decisions. He gives rules for blogjects and some interesting, if now dated, examples.

Bleecker, Julian. “Why Things Matter.” The Object Reader. Candlin and Guins,
eds. New York: Routledge, 2009. 165-174. Print.
Best online version:

Marlene Manoff writes about material culture with regards to digital librarianship. If we are to consider materiality as important, which she convincingly argues for, then we have to consider how materiality affects library practices. Digital and physical materials are not interchangeable. The type and quality of metadata are extremely important. While digital degradation is often ignored because of illusions surrounding the physicality of digital materials, it is essential that we pay attention to it for the sake of long-term preservation. Manoff also discusses code, but briefly. She gives a nice brief overview of the treatment of Material Culture Studies in librarianship and historical (read:theorist) considerations of the topic.

Manoff, Marlene. “The Materiality of Digital Collections: Theoretical and Historical
Perspectives.” Portal: Libraries and the Academy 6.3 (2006): 311–325.
/portal_libraries_and_the_academ   /v006/6.3manoff.pdf


The following resources are also work having a look at.

For those of you who learn best by visual means or by exploring a website, check out:

This infographic: The Internet of Things: A Primer

These Bruno Latour Mixed Media projects

For my brethren the ra-ra-feminist-theorists:

This essay: Donna Harraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto”

This is a really interesting essay, but I’m not sure we’ll have time to talk about it in class. Part of why it’s so difficult to read is because it’s meant to be irreverent; partially it’s also highly theoretical. Still, cyborgs, or human-machine hybrids, are quite relevant to DH. All of us become cyborgs when we sit down at our computers and engage with the internet. Drivers in their cars are cyborgs; women with IUDs are cyborgs. Harraway is a renowned theorist, and this essay is a classic in Material Culture Studies, albeit slightly off the beaten path. Harraway connects cyborgs with feminism and with what I think we could call “internet identity” in a way that could be constructively compared with the DH Manifesto from week 1.

Some of Harraway’s best lines:

“The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism. But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential.”

“From one perspective, a cyborg world is about the final imposition of a grid of control on the planet, about the final abstraction embodied in a Star Wars apocalypse waged in the name of defence, about the final appropriation of women’s bodies in a masculinist orgy of war (Sofia, 1984). From another perspective, a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints.”

“Late twentieth-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and [sic] art)ficial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply to organisms and machines. Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert.”

“The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust.”


Three gold stars for anyone who tweets a favourite line back at me from Harraway, or from any of these readings. See you in class this Thursday!




Image Credit: Ai Weiwei Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn Print. Ai Weiwei. Installation from According to What? installation at the Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., in 2012. Image from:


A Farewell to Passive Voice: The Hemingway App


What if you could learn to write like Ernest Hemingway?

I’ve recently come across a program that purports to help. The Hemingway App is a simple tool for identifying common writing errors. The web-based (or desktop-for-a-fee) application allows you to cut and paste in your text. It then tells you where the passive sentences are, the adverbs, and the overly complex sentence structures. It looks like this:


Hemingway App


I enjoy using it. It’s nice to have a second pair of eyes to look over a paragraph that isn’t quite working. Of course, I don’t feel any need to slavishly follow its advice. Rather, it helps make my writing purposeful. I’m aware of my complex sentences and passive voice, and I can choose to alter them or not. The App is purportedly inspired by Hemingway’s lessons in writing journalism. Since I do not need to write in a journalistic style most of the time (you’ll note that I haven’t front-loaded this post, but buried the lede) I take its advice in stride. Sometimes it’s useful to write at a Grade 7 writing level. Other times, not. I do wish that it has been around for my undergraduate English students when I was still marking their papers.

Since this app is more than a year old, I have the benefit of being able to read earlier reviews of it. Author Jerry Coyne lists great authors throughout history who fail the Hemingway app, The New Yorker notes that Hemingway himself would fail this app, and scores of other reviewers pooh-pooh the very notion of it. They seem to think that the Hemingway App implies an absolute imitation of Hemingway, as if the App has passed a Turing test. Wouldn’t Papa turn over in his grave at the very thought? The negative reviews console the part of me that loves the poetry inherent in Hemingway’s work so absent in this app. Ernest Hemingway has his own style. It’s strong and crisp and poetic in its simplicity.The Hemingway App knows nothing of poetry. Its only job, which it does well, it to identify a select range of errors. It has nothing to do with the man himself. Like most writing tools, The Hemingway App doesn’t give you the ability to take a style and own it. Most generic advice tends to flatten, to dull, to unify. Writing tools are no substitute for confidence and voice, which writers must find on their own.

The App is best viewed as a simple tool to be used by a writer capable of knowing when to ignore advice. But, it also raises some interesting questions. The App doesn’t imitate Hemingway very convincingly, but what would it be like if it did? What if it could pass the Turing test and actually help one emulate Hemingway? This is a major part of the appeal here: to imagine my writing and Hemingway’s interacting in some digital way. While the creators of this App modeled it after a writer known for his clarity, what would it be like if they had chosen someone else? A Herman Melville, an Elizabeth Gaskell, a Shakespeare, or a William Carlos Williams? What would a really good App like this look like? (If you’ve seen anything better than a simple translator, please let me know). The idea of giving authors like these any impact of contemporary writing is fascinating, and very welcome. It reminds me of how modern Italian is based, in part, on the works of Dante. It isn’t too late for us to collectively decide to model our use of language on someone equally as fantastic. What if great authors could breathe new life into humdrum prose through the use of Apps?

Until then, if we can use Hemingway as simple inspiration to become better writers, so much the better.


Image Credit for To Have and Have Not courtesy of Adam Field