ASLE Roundtable on Space & Place Blogging

Last week I was at the biennial ASLE (Association for the Study of Literature and Environment) conference. Those of you who know me purely online or as a digital humanities geek might be surprised to know that I do a lot with literature and the environment (specifically Emerson, Thoreau, and Muir), or Western American literature, but there it is. I do. So, I’ve been looking forward to this conference for two years, and I’m already looking ahead to 2011 when ASLE is at Indiana University in Bloomington. After the experience I had this week, there’s no way I am going to miss it ever again (if I can help it). But that’s for another post.

This post is about the roundtable I was part of: “The Virtues of the Virtual: Using Blogs to Communicate Place across Space”

Here is the abstract of the roundtable we proposed:

What creative nonfiction and photography share is an underlying impulse to bear witness, to record and interpret the world as the observer experiences it and to share that knowledge.

Blogging, with its ability to combine images and words, facilitates this project in a way that traditional publications find expensive and time-consuming. Words and photographs are transmitted through the medium of blogging to bring places far and near into the lives and laptops of the audience. Blogging is about reaching out to people who are often within reach only virtually.

Blogging, as a ephemeral genre, does something different from more permanent, paper-based genres. Whereas books freeze a particular place in time, blogging allows readers to interact with far-off places in a timely, seasonal fashion. Readers see the place depicted therein on a day-to-day, seasonal basis: not Walden at its best, edited and frozen in time, but Walden how it looks today.

Seven bloggers will discuss both the philosophy of place-blogging and the practice of it, including the advantages and disadvantages of using a blog platform rather than more traditional forms of writing. They will discuss issues and theories of readership, authorship, and material production, and how all that is mediated (or mitigated or enhanced) by digital media. They will talk, too, about where blogging fits into their writing lives. Is blogging a distraction from other types of writing? Does it feed other types of writing? Is it an important body of work in its own right?

The overarching question is how we can best use place-based blogs to raise environmental awareness and encourage readers to connect with their own landscapes.

We had a few people who couldn’t make it after all, and a person added on, so we ended up with six total participants. The blogs/bloggers represented (in addition to me) were: Writing as Jo(e), Frogs & Ravens, In the Library with a Lead Pipe, Diary of a Dandelion Diva, and Adventures with Ari. If you look at these blogs for at least a minute, you’ll note that I am totally the other—I am not a “nature” blogger per se. Sure, on my old blogs I would write about (and include pictures) of any hikes or other outdoor excursions that I found myself taking, but by and large I do not write about place. This line in the abstract was essentially mine: “They will discuss issues and theories of readership, authorship, and material production, and how all that is mediated (or mitigated or enhanced) by digital media.”

But I didn’t end up talking about that, really. I spent the Spring semester in Jon Hegglund’s Space & Place in Theory, Literature, and Culture thinking about/trying out theories related to architectures in cyberspace, which for me are very vivid, with the thought that I would have something techie to say in this roundtable. I joked with someone that I was on the roundtable to bring in the noise, bring in the funk, but really I was there for the technological fundamentals and to answer questions related to such. But a funny thing happened on the way to the roundtable.

First, I wrote my seminar paper for Jon’s class: “Re-Engaging the Situationists: Instantiating the Virtual Dérive and Détournement” (works cited include those from Michael Benedikt, Steven Best & Douglas Kellner, Tim Cresswell, Guy Debord, Ken Hillis, Elizabeth Grosz, Alex Halavais, Graham Lampa, Peter Lunenfeld, Tara McPherson, Marcos Novak, Shaleph O’Neill, and Mark Wigley). By the time I finished it, I knew I had a starting point for my six minutes of roundtable talk. I also knew I had something I wanted to completely overhaul and turn into something else—like the introductory chapter of my dissertation.

Anyway, below is the text I intended to read when it was my turn (I was first, actually).

When I was asked to participate in this roundtable discussion, everyone knew I was the outlier—I don’t really blog about nature or place at all, let alone to the extent that my friends sitting here do. Instead, I’m sort of the uber-geek. My background is web-based software application design, programming, and development. My purpose in academia is to develop electronic tools, and processes that include these tools, to allow us all to experience and discuss literature in different ways.

To that end, I first want to answer a question posed in our roundtable abstract: “Is blogging an important body of work in its own right?” My simple answer is yes it is. Not all blogging is “great literature” of course, but then again there’s a lot of “literature” that isn’t “great literature.” The genre of the blog is one reaches out to people, brings them in to the site, and affords the opportunity for community building as well as individual experiences as part of processing the text provided by the author.

We live in an era in which some (like myself) find the terms “lived,” “real,” and “virtual” collapsing into one another. We turn on devices and enter virtual worlds in which we can all materially participate in the creation of content and knowledge, in a manner fundamentally different than the ways in which one creates content and knowledge in “meatspace.” In other words, in the digital world we have tools—such as blogs—that allow authors to reach audiences more quickly, easily and less costly than using traditional media outlets. To explain the ways in which we interact with the machine to create and experience fundamentally human creative acts, theorists of new media have sometimes borrowed language from the Situationists of the late ‘60s. The Situationists were philosophers, artists, and political agitators who argued for the construction of “situations” through which individuals and groups could break out of the capitalist mentality perpetuated by mass media. One such situation was the dérive, translated literally as “drifting,” and described by Debord as “a technique of transient passage through varied ambiances.”

For Situationists like Debord the dérive occurred in the physical space of the city. But the concept has been extended by new media theorists to include the virtual dérive, or a dérive that occurs within cyberspace. Unlike our mid-twentieth century interactions with print or television, in which we were purely the recipient of information with few (and costly) methods available for our own content production or the creation of “situations,” Web technology such as blogging and the means of participation in the blogosphere enables us to choose any one of numerous paths to and through information, or to choose no path at all and leave the results to chance. This ability to wander is one of the hallmarks of the Situationist dérive: the freedom to wander from a structured path while still obtaining knowledge of and through new surroundings. Thus, surfing the Web without seeking specific information, but instead experiencing what one finds—such as the work of these bloggers—is entirely in the spirit of the Situationist dérive.

Peter Lunenfeld notes that not only cyberspace, but the virtual or digital dérive itself “is ever in a state of unfinish because there will always be more links to create, more sites springing up every day, and even that which has been cataloged will be redesigned by the time you return.” Simply put, in cyberspace new content always exists for us to find, and space always exists for us to create something new from, about, or in spite of this content. New media theorists such as Lunenfeld propose the return to Situationist theories as a starting point for theorizing our interaction within these spaces. Some have called these interactions—like reading and interacting with a blog that has a community formed around it—as “cybersituations,” in which individuals appropriate, use, and reconstruct “technologies against the spectacle and other forms of domination, alienation, and oppression.” The creation of cybersituations in this model thus “allows individuals to articulate their needs and interests, and to connect with people of similar outlets and desires.” This is exactly the Web 2.0 model of robust social participation in online content creation, of which blogging is part.

When writing about the creation of place, Tim Cresswell states that “In general, places are never complete, finished or bounded but are always becoming—in process.” In order to exercise agency within cyberspace—itself an unfinished place—users can dérive to discover a suitable site. This site can be either of their own creation or as a member of an existing online community of people engaged in the continual process of knowledge-making. Blogs as sites of content and community tend to exist outside of the capitalist machine; by that I mean that with few exceptions, the reality is that few people will ever make money solely from writing a blog or interacting with their subset of the blogosphere, and therefore few attempts are made to commodify these spaces. What then appears to the serendipitous Web visitor is a welcome space for creative exploration; without commodification in place, exchanges between author and reader are informational, and both parties create knowledge without regard for the spectacle tainting the world outside the virtual space.

By re-engaging with the Situationist practice of the dérive and placing it in cyberspace, we thus create a boundless site for rebellion outside of the restricted world in which people have historically attempted to assert their agency but achieved little success. “Retreating” into cyberspace space thus becomes a move forward, toward the discovery of new spaces and additional ways to produce new knowledge. If an overarching question of this roundtable is how we can best use place-based blogs to raise environmental awareness and encourage readers to connect with their own landscapes, the simple—yet accurate—answer is just to be there in the first place, nurture the space and the community, and provide models for other sites of the virtual dérive.

I said intended to read because I essentially read the first paragraph and then went extemporaneous but generally the same as what’s here. I think the people in the audience liked what I had to say because it really just touched on some things just enough to get the general idea but not too much to start seeing the problems with using the language of the Situationists to talk about our interactions with online media (in short: also I make a pretty good argument in my long paper, there’s some stuff that nags at me that I have to work through and try to say something new.)

I had a good time, not only in the rountable itself but in the six months of preparation for it. Who knew that prepping for five minutes on a roundtable with some bloggy friends at a conference on literature and the environment would be so useful for a dissertation that will be firmly rooted in digital humanities theory and praxis? Not I. But it was.

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