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The Deterritorialization and Reterritorialization of Digital SPACE

This week, I’m interested in concepts of SPACE —specifically, the deterritorialization and reterritorialization[1] of digital space or the space of digital humanities. There seems to be a polarity set up between the virtual and the physical (tangible), that which is rooted in territorialized space and that which “takes place” in abstract space. This differentiation occurs most notably in Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms but is also exemplified by the encounters in Svensson’s “The Landscape of Digital Humanities” – different labs lean toward the physical or the virtual, their goals (and modes of engagement) lean towards the expressive or the analytical: the philosophy of ACTlab in Austin, a “performance and production space,” cannot be separated from the studio space, and demands that its participants “make stuff” (Svensson 11). Its “spatial grounding” is seen as essential. The HASTAC meeting, though it contains a “distinct physical grounding,” is “based on the idea of a virtual organization” (13). Its goals are infrastructural and facilitative; they attempt to make institutional space for the digital humanities as a field.

Yet as both Mechanisms and Svensson’s encounters show, the digital humanities seem particularly adept at existing in both deterritorialized and reterritorialized spaces, in multiple spaces with simultaneous and varied purposes, though there is a tendency, as Kirschenbaum points out, to categorize the field as existing only in virtual form. His emphasis on “forensic materiality” is an antidote to our tendency toward “medial ideology”; it pushes against supposed ephemerality, fungility, and homogeneity and reterritorializes “storage space”—putting it back, conceptually (technically, it never left), into the physical machine.

This urge to reterritorialize or root the digital humanities is intriguing to me – not just in Kirschenbaum’s emphasis on the forensic materiality of digital objects, but as a form of concretizing other aspects of abstraction in the digital humanities field. If we expand the “material” side of the digital to include the material side of the digital humanities as a field, reterritorialization would encompass physical labs (as opposed to virtual cohorts), purpose or use driven projects as opposed to “purely” intellectual ones, projects that are “with” and “for” objects instead of just “about” them, as Steve Anderson and Tara McPherson state in “Thoughts on Evaluating Multimedia Scholarship,” part of “Evaluating Digital Scholarship” (Anderson and McPherson 149). To me, “reterritorialization” would even point to articulating the digital humanities field through concrete examples as opposed to hypothetical qualifications – one of the biggest challenges for me in understanding the digital humanities as a field has been connecting abstract concepts to real projects.

Incedentally, I’m hoping that this particular example will help to concretize my comments about deterritorialization and reterritorialization, which are completely abstract!

Vectors: The Roaring ‘Twenties by Emily Thompson
Emily Thompson’s project, The Roaring ‘Twenties, was published two years ago in Vectors and exemplifies this position of simultaneous territorialized and deterritorialized space. Described as “an interactive exploration of the historical soundscape of New York City”, the project is driven by and rooted in physical space, but uses the capacities of virtual digital space to occupy multiple temporalities and catalog a history of sound.

roaring twenties

In her Author’s Note, Thompson describes the book on which the project research is based as “a history of the intersection of the evanescent and the concrete. Throughout its narrative, the ephemeral vibrations of sound interact with a material world intended to control those vibrations” (Thompson 1). Responding to a contemporary tendency to “dissociate the sounds [we] hear from their places of origin” and “render [ourselves] oblivious to the space in which [we] are physically located while [we] listen,” Thompson chose to “deploy these technological tools in a different irection…reinvoke a sense of the very specific historical times and physical places in which the sounds of the past are embedded” (Thompson 1).

In creating this interactive archive, Thompson is reterritorializing and deterritorializing space at the same time. While this is only one example of such a project, I think that this use of digital space as both physical and virtual points to the unique space within digital humanities for creating such projects – because it is multimodal, collaborative, and often expands beyond insular academia, it is suited to existing as a sort of physical and virtual “commons”[2] space, with multiple uses, orientations, and participants.


Works Cited

Anderson, Steve, and Tara Mcpherson. “Engaging Digital Scholarship: Thoughts on Evaluating Multimedia Scholarship.”

          Profession 2011.1 (2011): 136-51. Web.

Joselit, David. After Art. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2013. Print.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2008. Print.

Svensson, Patrik. “The Landscape of Digital Humanities.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 4.1 (2010): 1-36. Web.

Thompson, Emily. “Author’s Statement.” The Roaring ‘Twenties. Vectors. 4.1 (2013). Web.

[1] When I say deterritorialization and reterritorialization I’m thinking of the slip into abstraction vs. the tangible, that which is rooted in a physical reality vs. that which is removed from physical reality, etc. For me, these terms also align with Kirschenbaum’s forensic materiality and medial ideology, forensic materiality being an instance of reterritorialization of the deterritorialized medial ideology.

[2] In using the word “commons” I’m thinking of a space analogous to David Joselit’s definition of a commons in after art as a space that “may host several actions, both actual and virtual” (Joselit 50).

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