Digital Practitioner Series: An Interview with Mark Sample
by Digital Culture Books — University of Michigan
October 17, 2011 – 13:44
In this next installment of our Digital Practitioner Series we’re talking to Mark Sample, Assistant Professor in the Department of English at George Mason University and a faculty affiliate at the Center for History and New Media. Sample has written about the representation of torture in videogames in Game Studies and is working on a collaboratively written book about the Commodore 64 home computer. He also has several articles on blogging, research sharing, and student writing featured in Hacking the Academy.
But that’s not why we decided to sit down with him. Our interview was prompted by a piece he created (through the “publishing division” of his blog, samplereality.com) called Hacking the Accident. Using the French Oulipo group’s N+7 technique (in which every noun in a text is replaced with the seventh one following it in the dictionary) Sample took advantage of Hacking the Academy’s BY-NC Creative Commons License to produce a kind of shadow document that offers, in his words, “disruptive juxtapositions, startling evocations, and unexpected revelations that ruthless application of the algorithm draws out from the original work.” The result is a profoundly odd (and oddly profound) text in which “every fact is a fad and print is a prison,” and “writing, the thing upon which our lives of letters is founded, writing, it is mere yacking.”
We wanted to do a little in-depth yacking with Sample to find out what motivated the experiment and what we might learn from it. Here’s what he had to say:
digitalculturebooks [DCB]: The idea of remixing Hacking the Academy, a text that’s already a kind of scholarly mashup, seems very…meta. What led you to choose it as the starting place for your N+7 experiment?
Mark Sample [MS]: My decision to remix Hacking the Academy grew out of two distinct impulses. The first is related to the subject matter of Hacking the Academy and the second is related to the form of the book.
First, I couldn’t be a more fervent supporter of the ideals that motivated Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt’s initial call for contributions to Hacking the Academy. But if I have only one critique of Hacking the Academy, it’s that there’s very little hacking found within its pages. Despite its loud, crowded, and out of control origins (telegraphed by the early site’s distressed Courier font), the final product is recognizably a scholarly book, well-crafted, civil in tone, evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Dan and Tom recognize in their introduction that the book is a bit of a paradox, its traditional form threatening to “undermine” its argument. Yet that very book-like form plays into the project’s mission.
Viewed as an emissary, sent forth from the wilds of the digital humanities to gently gather new adherents to its lessons of openness, sharing, and innovation, Hacking the Academy is exactly what it needs to be. It’s familiar, welcoming even. But as Dan and Tom suggest, “If this book is static, the overall project is anything but.” Here, then, was an explicit invitation to continue the project. An invitation to push the ideas represented in Hacking the Academy to new limits. An invitation to hack the book, to radicalize the book.
The editors, with the support of the University of Michigan, published Hacking the Academy under a generous NC-BY Creative Commons License. If the subject matter of the book provided a rationale to hack the book, the license provided the means. And this is the root of my second impulse: to see exactly what could be done with a scholarly text released under a NC-BY CC License. This particular license essentially means there is no limit to how the work can be shared and remixed, so long as credit is given to the original authors and it’s for non-commercial purposes. I’m not convinced that scholars—including, perhaps, contributors to Hacking the Academy—truly appreciate the power of this license. How liberating it is. As I began to think of hacking the book, I was reminded of something Dan Cohen said in “The Ivory Tower and the Open Web,” a plenary talk at a meeting of the Coalition for Networked Information. Dan argued convincingly that an incredible benefit of openness is that it allows others to use your work in unexpected ways. Submitting Hacking the Academy to a ruthless algorithmic rewriting was one of the most unexpected ways I could imagine to use the work, so that’s what I set out to do.
DCB: You talk in your introduction about the “strange transpositions” that occur with Hacking the Accident. What for you were some of the more striking examples of these?
MS: I really had no idea whether the N+7 technique—replacing every noun with the word that came seven nouns later in the dictionary—would work with Hacking the Academy. Merely on a whim I tried the technique on the title itself. The result, of course, was the evocative Hacking the Accident. The substitution of “accident” for “academy” was jarring, yet not completely nonsensical. It also resonated with Paul Virilio’s concept of the “integral accident,” which I had been reading about. Virilio suggests that accidents are not merely by-products of new technology, but built into the technology itself. Every new form of technology makes possible a new kind of accident.
With “academy” becoming “accident,” suddenly my initial idea seemed very worth doing. If the title of Hacking the Academy had been transformed into Hacking the Antler, I doubt I would have pursued the experiment.
“Every fact is a fad
and print is a prison.”
And the more text I transformed, the more oddly appropriate substitutions I discovered. As I observed in my introduction, “Every fact is a fad and print is a prison. Instructors are insurgents and introductions are invasions. Questions become quicksand. Universities, uprisings.” These are merely the single word exchanges, but there are longer phrases that are just as striking. Print-based journals turn out as prison-based joyrides, for example. I love that The Chronicle of Higher Education always appears as The Church of Higher Efficiency; it’s as if the newspaper was calling out academia for what it has become—an all-consuming, totalizing quest for efficiency and productivity, instead of a space of learning and creativity.
DCB: The Oulipo group—originator of the N+7 technique—delights in the artificially created bon mot. But there is obviously more at stake in your text than the whimsy of “happy accidents.” How might this kind of lexical play help us think seriously about issues regarding scholarly communication, open source/open access, and the academy more generally?
MS: I’m convinced that Hacking the Accident is not merely a novelty. It’d be all too easy to dismiss the work as a gag, good for a few amusing quotes and nothing more. But that would overlook the several levels in which Hacking the Accident acts as a kind of intervention into academia.
At the most obvious level, the work is a parody of academic discourse, amplifying the already jargon-heavy language of academia with even more incomprehensible language. But one level down from that there is a kind of Bakhtinian double-voiced discourse at work, in which the original intent is still there, but infused with meanings hostile to that intent—the print/prison transposition is a good example of this.
There is also an altogether different way that Hacking the Accident speaks to the profession, particularly how we share knowledge and research. And this has more to do with the creation of Hacking the Accident than with anything in the actual contents. What I’m thinking of here is play. And I have a very specific definition of play in mind: Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman’s definition in Rules of Play. Play, they suggest, is “free movement within a more rigid structure.” Rigid structure is a prerequisite of play. And what could be more rigid than the entrenched ways we produce and share knowledge in academia? But rather than succumb to the rigid status quo, Salen and Zimmerman’s definition of play suggests that we can maneuver around it. Hacking the Accident is a modest example of this play, not because of what’s in the actual text (though some of that is quite good), but because of its very existence, because of the way it so determinedly invents an entirely new bizarro world. And the key to that alternative world is found in the openness of the source texts. By being open and remixable, they model a kind of intellectual generosity that highlights how closed and locked-down most knowledge is.
DCB: What do you mean in your introduction when you write that Hacking the Accident represents the “true spirit of humanities computing, a genuine blend of humans and machines”?
MS: There are a few important details to tease out of this seemingly hyperbolic statement. First, my reference to “humanities computing” is meant to evoke the long history of the digital humanities, which stretches back years, even decades, back to the time when it was known as humanities computing. (See Matthew Kirschenbaum’s eloquent history of the digital humanities, published in the ADE Bulletin.)
Second, the phrase “genuine blend of humans and machines” is perhaps too subtle a reminder that I had little to do with Hacking the Accident. Hacking the Academy was written by a host of people, while Hacking the Accident was composed by a machine. I could have hand-substituted every noun, but it was much faster for a computer to do it.
DCB: We’re obviously enjoying your Fugitive Texts so far. Care to talk about how and why you started this “publishing division” of your blog?
MS: I published Hacking the Accident on a separate domain from the blog because, at first, I was simply trying to create a parallel to the official release of Hacking the Academy, which read, “MPublishing, the publishing division of the University of Michigan Library, is pleased to announce….” I needed my own “publishing division” in order to follow the syntax of this sentence. And the more I toyed with the idea, the more it made sense to form, out of nothing, an entirely new space for me—and others—to experiment with publishing. I had previously wondered what’s to stop someone—anyone!—from launching an academic press, and Hacking the Accident gave me the perfect excuse to follow through on my own hypothetical question.
Visit http://hacking.fugitivetexts.net/ to read the full text.