Sean Morey is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville where he teaches writing and digital media in the Department of English. His research focuses on developing theories of writing at the intersections of rhetoric, digital media, and technology, primarily through the lens of electracy. He is the author of Rhetorical Delivery and Digital Technologies (Routledge, 2016), The New Media Writer (Fountainhead Press, 2014), and The Digital Writer (Fountainhead Press, 2017). With Sidney I. Dobrin, he co-edited the collection Ecosee: Image, Rhetoric, Nature (SUNY Press, 2009), and with John Tinnell, co-edited Augmented Reality: Innovative Perspectives across Art, Industry, and Academia (Parlor Press, 2017).
As digital technologies continue to emerge, most scholarship about digital writing, digital culture, and the digital humanities focuses on changes in human communication and behavior. This focus usually attends to only human animals, neglecting how the relationships between human and nonhuman animal might change as well.
This video project explores how writing technologies change the ways in which humans understand and interact with the natural world, and how emerging writing technologies provide new modes through which to write nature, affecting how humans relate to natural spaces and nonhuman animals. As Sidney I. Dobrin and Christian R. Weisser discuss in Natural Discourse, there is no nature; nature is constructed through language. Each language exists within a larger apparatus, made up of not only the technology through which language and communication occur, but also the institutions that develop the primary uses for language, as well as the individual and collective identities that emerge from this interaction.
Grammatologically, we know that as humans change how they communicate, they also change how they relate to their worlds. As grammatologists such as Walter Ong, Eric Havelock, and Gregory L. Ulmer have argued, any change in writing apparatus usually leads to significant changes in how a culture interacts with its environment. Oral language allowed humans to provide the elements of the world with individual names and to mythologize the world in poetry and other oral mnemonic devices, while alphabetic writing allowed nature to be recorded, studied, codified, and eventually analyzed, leading to the natural sciences.
The sciences became further refined along with writing technologies, in turn further refining writing technologies, and the two became modern together. As Derek J. de Solla Price argues “If science helped give birth to the printed book, it was clearly the printed book that sent science from its medieval habits straight into the boiling scientific revolution” (102). Science helped to create the printed book, and the printed book produced a more exact, methodical science: “Typography made possible a new level of standardization of textual material, which in turn promoted greater accuracy” (Logan 191).
A language apparatus changes human identity, but it changes animal identity as well. While humans gained a sense of selfhood from the technology of writing, and print helped found the first nation state in Spain, animal identities grew more precise as well, locked more rigidly in space along with blocks of type.
As Elizabeth L. Eisenstein explains, botanists in the mid-sixteenth century competed to collect the latest specimens coming out of India, the New World, and other new locations. This new knowledge created new uncertainties about the current state of nature, and even more surveys and scientific descriptions were produced, with “the accumulation of more data making necessary more refined classification, and so on—ad infinitum” (84). Print allowed for a new level of feedback on these descriptions and data, further refining what nature was to be (Eisenstein 84-85).
As animals were collected, scrutinized, described, systematized, taxonomized, categorized, and eventually created, their identities drifted from the mythological associations provided by oral stories. Each animal became printed, locked rigidly in place, conceptually as well as through the words that came to represent those animals. Each animal’s history was no longer individual, but representative of its class, for sacrificing one member of a species was justified because it taught us about all members of its species. An animal was not valued for its individuality (if it ever was, even within orality), but for its relation to a group, its wolfness, or its sharkness. As Ong might note, these are abstract animals, no longer close to the human lifeworld, no longer as situated as animals might have been for oral cultures (48-49).
Despite the proliferation of digital technologies, animals are still printed. Approaches to understanding animals mostly remain scientific, and therefore alphabetic. Even though animals have now mostly been differentiated and identified by DNA, the premise of DNA depends on the legacy and logic of print, of isolation, of finding a precise topos for each animal. Ecology, a nascent scientific field, has attempted to put these pieces together again, but perhaps like Humpty Dumpty, they were never meant to be taken apart.
My approach here does not mean to denigrate the sciences, only to point out that while the scientific method can produce certain types of knowledge, or while the natural sciences can tell us how the natural world functions, the sciences alone cannot tell us what to do about natural problems that connect with social issues, such as climate change, environmental racism, animal rights, and a host of other issues that we face. While the scientific method can explain to us the state of the planet, and at what rate it might be changing, this method is ill-suited for understanding how physical changes will in turn change the cultural fabric of our societies, and thereby ill-suited for making decisions that must account for cultural contexts.
What is the alternative? As scientific information continually fails to convince Americans about potential environmental dangers, conversations have shifted, albeit slowly, toward the Humanities. Speaking about climate change, novelist Amitav Ghosh argues that “The climate crisis is a crisis of culture and thus of imagination.” Ghosh is not the first to stress the importance and promise that imagination has for solving our problems. Lawrence Buell, a scholar of environmental literature, has long promoted imagination as the pivotal human faculty for contending with environmental issues; Albert Einstein has stated that “Imagination is more important than knowledge”; the late computer scientist Mark Weiser reasoned that the Humanities must lead the way in developing the computer of the future. We can repurpose these claims to argue that we must turn to the Humanities for solutions to natural problems, not only the sciences.
Currently, as Ulmer argues, we are undergoing another language shift: from literacy to electracy, fostered by the invention of emerging digital technologies. Digital writing platforms, from the Internet to imaging software to mixed reality applications, offer new modes of writing that are not wholly alphabetic, nor wholly image-based, but a combination of modes, often situated in specific places. So far, the methods of electracy resemble the arts more than the sciences, opening new opportunities to imagine animals anew. Just as science is a method, so is imagination and creativity, and electracy offers an apparatus through which to begin developing and employing creative faculties to create more than just printed animals. The alternative, then, is not to invent a new chimera via oral mythologies, nor biological chimeras via scientific techniques, but to invent new approaches to animals that can help spur our imaginations about what an electrate animal might be, and how those animals might be better off than they are now.
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