Paradigm Shift

Things are changing. Our visual environment is becoming more and more rich. The digital revolution, the advent of visual literacy, cool media, it is called by many names. Sometimes it is a technological renaissance, other times a paradigm shift. Scholarship itself is changing. And during these changes, there is a danger of us embracing easy narratives of progress or decline. In this page, I'd like to point to a narrative that doesn't get enough attention: the feminist roots of alt-scholarship.

I, however, am interested not in defining this change, in finding its limits, but rather in decentering it, both laying down and (re)moving its center. As may seem obvious, the center lies in the middle, between; not with a finis on each side, the limits waiting to be defined, but between other, older centers, centers that have been left out. Alt-scholarship is a chance to make a “ragoût,” to borrow Barbara Cassin's term. To make something out of the leftovers.

Throughout this nexus, I choose two centers and watch them move: visual and verbal. These are chosen not at random but as a means of approaching the question sidelong. This division may indeed be hardwired into our brains, the verbal left hemisphere coupled to the visual right hemisphere by the corpus callosum. For most of us, thought resides in the communication across this fissure. Neuroscience teaches us that ideas are not localizable within the brain but are created by neural connections (Damasio). Similarly, both words and images are almost meaningless without context. Meaning is created through connections.

Just as context and text are inseparable, visual and verbal modes have become inextricable—or rather, have been revealed to have always been at best difficult to distinguish. I am far from the first to argue this. W. J. T Mitchell implies that the division between image and text has always been illusory (Iconology 46). Each new medium uses these two modes in one way or another. Film and television greet us with moving images coupled to an audio track. The average magazine today contains as much space devoted to images as text, and the likelihood that readers are accessing the magazine on a tablet is about as good as that they’re holding a physical magazine. Digital media marry image and text throughout. Even the pure space of academic discourse has become infected with multimodality and creativity.

This shift toward the visual has been called the “pictorial turn” (Mitchell) or the “visual turn” (Martin Jay). We see the birth and maturing of hybrid fields like Visual Studies as evidence that even academia is becoming not just more visual but more creative. Mitchell argues that visual studies isn’t just about new methods, it’s about new critiques (even postcritiques):

Whatever the pictorial turn is, then, it should be clear that it is not a return to naïve mimesis, copy or correspondence theories of representation, or a renewed metaphysics of pictorial “presence”: it is rather a postlinguistic, postsemiotic rediscovery of the picture as a complex interplay between visuality, apparatus, institutions, discourse, bodies, and figurality. (Picture Theory 16)

The pictorial turn doesn’t just mean adding pictures. It means learning from pictures. That’s why my own project is a bit uneven in terms of its use of visuals. Some nexūs, like this one, have a great deal of images, many of them created by me. Others rely on interactivity and animation, including computer-generated imagery. One nexus has almost no visual elements and attempts to signify the figural through (hyper)textual means. As Martin Jay stresses, the visual turn demands a variety of approaches (90).

Johanna Drucker has offered compelling arguments that digital technologies are dramatically shaping the ways that both academics and nonacademics communicate and produce knowledge. Likewise, Bernard Stiegler has argued that

just as certain kinds of writing actually liberate certain kinds of reflexivity (for example, certain kinds of linear, alphabetic writing, without which law, science, and in particular history would be inconceivable), so certain kinds of image-objects are doubtless destined to liberate reflexivity in the domains of the visible and of movement, just as alphabetic writing reveals the discrete characters of language. (“Discrete” 162; italics in original)

Both agree that we do not yet know what these will look like, although they are already beginning to happen.

Such alt-scholarship still needs to wrestle with its feminist history. Whether webtext, comic, video, game, or print, alt-scholarship resists the hegemonic “right” way to write. It’s easy to think of digital humanities (DH) as a predominately white, cis-, hetero, male endeavor. Statistically it has been in terms of its practitioners. However, it’s also been fairly limited in its focus. jamie skye bianco has written some of the most compelling arguments about DH’s lack of interest in marked categories and minority peoples and issues. Furthermore, as Patricia Sullivan has pointed out, even theorists of experimental writing in rhetoric and composition “perpetuate a particular avant-garde (mostly male, mostly European-Anglo-Saxon-American) tradition” (158). It’s possible that in my own rearticulation of Lyotard’s critical art in this nexus, I’ve remained just as stymied by the majoritarian tradition. It’s easy to fall back into the “normal,” even when experimenting.

But it doesn’t need to be this way.

In fact, digital scholarship has found a way to repeat many feminist ideas about writing, without necessarily citing those ideas. Instead of alt-scholarship, we could call such work ecriture feminine to echo Hélène Cixous. Seen in this light, the transgressivity inherent in figuration makes a bit more sense and illustrates the applicability of theory (the two never having a tradeoff but being symbiotic). We would then have a difference feminism that doesn’t limit itself to the differences between men and women but also considers those between women and women and between me and myself. Such a difference feminism would embrace Claire Colebrook’s reading of Luce Irigaray’s autonomy of difference (“Feminism and Autonomy”). Susan Hekman’s The Feminine Subject outlines a variety of such feminisms, culminating in recent pushes for more material, ecological feminisms.

There is, of course, a danger here. Digital scholars from various majorities could embrace such feminist methodologies, and even mark them as feminist, while still maintaining the current state of affairs: an exclusion of minority issues in DH. My argument about alt-scholarship being feminist could be repurposed to hide marginalization under a mask of minoritarianism. Instead, we need to embrace feminist modes of writing, mark our lineage* in them, while continuing to offer critical arguments about minority issues, like the lack of minority representation within DH. I hope Rhizcomics makes the case for such a feminist mode of writing.

If there is a new paradigm, it is not a stable position but a method: interconnectivity of various modes. This interconnectivity must grapple with its own new forms of reflexivity.

“What Cixous gives us, then, is yet another take on the feminine subject. Her subject is speaking, a move that is significant in the context of the hegemony of phallocentrism. She is speaking in a syntax that rejects linearity and the strictures of rationality and logic. She speaks from her body without appealing to the body’s essence. But, like Irigaray’s subject, her identity is blurred. We find out what she is not rather than what she is. In one sense, of course, this is appropriate. Fixed identities are the purview of the masculine, not the emerging feminine subject. But we are still left with a subject about whom we have more questions than answers.”

(Hekman 45)

*For more on the importance of marking our lineage, particularly in comics and rhetoric, see Franny Howes' “Imagining a Multiplicity of Visual Rhetorical Traditions: Comics Lessons from Rhetoric Histories” in which she identifies the ethnocentrism of much comics research and articulates a vision for decolonial work.