Student post by Bridget Sellers.
On the morning of November 3rd, scholars from across disciplines gathered in the Intercultural Center on Georgetown’s campus for the “Bodes/ Water: Knowledge and the Hydrosphere” symposium. To begin the symposium, Nicole Starosielski—an assistant professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University—presented the keynote lecture on her engagement with underwater cable networks in her book The Undersea Network and her web-based project, “Surfacing.”
Starosielski explained that the cable networks that carry much of our Internet traffic, mapped onto the earth and stretching oceans, represent “an image of the Anthropocene, a planetary ecosystem thoroughly enmeshed with human technological extension.” Thus her project, both in her book and in her digital work, was an attempt at “a counter-mapping of the cable network, one that see cables not as vectors cutting across the ocean but instead as vibrant matter, entangled in the turbulent ecologies that they transect.” Though we often visualize our communication as wireless, existing up in the air, her project showed how it is inherently terrestrial and aquatic and therefore grounded in and tied up with issues of colonization, imperialism, hidden labor, and the ecologies of the ocean itself. While explaining the intricacies of the network, Starosielski displayed on the projector one possible route through the networks as represented in her complex online project. In fact, she simultaneously invited the audience to start their own route on their individual computers, because many of her points were equally proven by interacting with the module itself. Thus the audience traveled with Starosielski across scalar layers of theme, story, images, and maps along the cable network’s various paths. Through this, Starosielski demonstrated her attempt to defamiliarize the user by imaging a new kind of subject position.
Though Starosielski presented her project itself, she also spent time dwelling on the failures of her project as an experimental mode of representation and the practicalities of working in the digital humanities. She discussed how her defamiliarization of the user also tended to alienate them to the point of discouraging engagement, and how she thereby discovered the difficulties of making a conceptual intervention in the discourse while simultaneously retraining users in digital interactions. In this way, her presentation also served as a practical point of entry for experimenting in the representational problems of the Anthropocene that have cropped up in other events.
In the Q&A, led by Georgetown professor and Director of the Program in Science, Technology, and International Affairs Dr. Mark Giordano, the audience brought up a diverse array of questions, both theoretical and practical. One of the most interesting questions inquired into Starosielski’s interaction with the term “Anthropocene” itself. She responded that she saw some of the greatest strengths of the Anthropocene—its grand “declaration of an era and a world reshaped by humankind”— was also one of its key downfalls. She then identified this tendency in technologies which are developed to “extend the human perceptual apparatus” in this kind of god’s eye view, and that these kinds of visualizations simultaneously make more intimate and specific interrogations of lived experience seem disconnected from the idea of the Anthropocene. This in mind, she claimed that, in her view, “[T]he contribution of the humanities can be precisely the focus on the other things that totally get left out of the picture, because they’re not naturally seen as important, and that can be… the problematics of the image… it can be different kinds of publics, [and[ it can be creating new forms of communication.”
For those of us in the audience, Starosielski demonstrated how to methodologically approach the complex representational problems of the present. Her project regarded the complex ecology of the ocean and the cable networks that run across not only geographically but also conceptually, historically, politically, and technically. Meanwhile, the difficulties she encountered with engaging digital users displayed several unforeseeable factors in digital humanities projects. Ultimately, Starosielski provided for the symposium a very concrete example of discussing and representing the enmeshment that becomes inescapable when we seek to create knowledge in the age of the Anthropocene.
Bridget Sellers is a first year M.A. student in Georgetown University’s English Department. Her research interests include multigeneric poetry, film and video games as texts, and post-Internet studies.