2016-17 Rice Seminar | Chronotopic Imaginaries: The City in Signs, Signals, and Scripts

The Rice Seminars are designed to promote humanistic research, broadly understood. They bring together a select group of Rice faculty members, visiting scholars, and Rice graduate students to study a common theme from several disciplinary perspectives (funding is available to bring in outside speakers to present public talks, provide feedback, meet with the seminar participants, participate in a year-end conference, and otherwise engage with seminar participants and the broader Rice community). The most visible goal of the seminars is a scholarly publication to which all participants will contribute. Equally important but less visible is the creation of international and interdisciplinary scholarly communities that will outlive the seminars themselves. The topic of the Rice Seminars changes each year.

It was the pulpit and the manuscript, the spoken and the written word quailing before the printed word.
– Victor Hugo, Notre Dame de Paris


The ubiquity of today’s connectedness, in addition to the ongoing production, collection, and curation of massive amounts of data, has produced a new textual medium. Made of tweets, posts, messages, chats, etc. (all associated with time, date, and longitude and latitude), this new medium now flows through a pervasive network of computers, tablets, smartphones, PDAs, media players, and GPS navigation units. This “text” needs a new reader, one as critical and perceptive as previous semioticians who interpreted the signs and signals of often equally disruptive literary scripts.

Unimaginable amounts of publicly accessible data reside on the databases of government agencies, corporations, and municipalities, from which a multitude of file formats can be downloaded, read, studied, and interpreted. It is perhaps due to this open access to digitally borne information about the cities we live in that Roland Barthes' maxim, "the city speaks to its inhabitants,” now operates at a much greater scale thanks to digital repositories that are, in fact, treasure troves for scholarly work.

If the humanities are the study and interpretation of the experiences, beliefs, constructs, behaviors, and artifacts associated with human beings—who happen now to be in permanent data mode and unable to move without leaving a digital trace behind—contemporary humanists face the unprecedented possibility of analyzing programming languages much as Ferdinand de Saussure once constructed a linguistic model made of signifiers and signifieds. Insights and solutions from multiple disciplines will inevitably be necessary in order to look at contemporary society and explore not only such phenomena as the “hyper-surveillance” of communication protocols, the “instantaneity” of transactions, the “immateriality” of production, or the “color” of profiling algorithms, but also more esoteric topics such as the “closetedness” of avatars, the “virility” of machines, the “coerciveness” of data validation functions, the “anonymity” of Anonymous, and the “reflexivity” of selfies—not to mention the style, syntax, and rhetoric of algorithmic bias in clouds made of zeros and ones.

As a site for such an investigation, the 2016-17 Rice Seminar proposes to look at specific nodes along a network of contemporary life. These nodes, or intelligent “end-points” able to communicate without hierarchical agency, are the very cities that today aspire to be mega, ideal, sustainable, virtual, smart, or resurgent formations. Interlinked by computers, mobile devices, and real time sensors, these are places where the implicit connectedness of how we ought to live together depends on distributed networks, rules, codes, protocols, and infrastructures, all bound by a paradoxical, if not panopticistic, social contract now located in Cyberia. In such cities, the social fabric continues to collude (and potentially collide) with the very resilience of disciplinary and control societies. The regularity of social or architectural form has, in fact, become far less relevant than the orchestration of the data that a city produces, collects, and curates. The promise of democracy in the connected city is also "always already" contradicted by a strict hierarchy that either structures access to information or that predetermines how (and by whom) the very tools of communication talk to each other. As Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web, once put it, there is “one centralized Achilles’ heel” to the Web’s otherwise decentralized system: computers may be free to talk to each other, but only if they abide by given naming conventions. This means that the system can, in theory, be brought to a halt by whomever is in control of a limited number of root name servers, which until recently added up, ominously enough, to the mere number of 13.

In the same way that writers, novelists, theorists, filmmakers, critics, or other humanists once exposed cities—like Victor Hugo with Paris, Thomas Mann with Venice, James Joyce with Dublin, Roland Barthes with Tokyo, John Dos Passos with New York, Naguib Mahfouz with Cairo, Thomas More with Utopia’s Amaurot, Ha Jin with Muji City, Pedro Almodovar with Madrid, Denise Scott Brown with Las Vegas, Daniel Defoe with London, Machado de Assis with Rio de Janeiro, Leo Tolstoy with Moscow, Marguerite Duras with Hiroshima, Assia Djebar with Algiers, Maryse Condé with Pointe-à-Pitre, Ridley Scott with Los Angeles, or Nicole Brossard with Montreal (to name only a few)—so should a new generation of scholars delve into the digital production of the contemporary city. Significantly, this requires examining that which is neither settled nor stable—such as colonization, emigration, exile, contamination, wandering, and even economics—coupled with aleatory compulsions such as greed or longing. Only then can a new writer/reader begin to understand how cities evolve; how their social, political, urban, or even sonoric and olfactory histories are shaped; or how languages, ideas, and identities within them are disseminated.

As Alexander Galloway points out in Protocol, this inevitably poses an epistemological and ontological challenge when information technology insists on fitting data within the positivistic parameters of discrete locations and closed polygons. Humanistic research is, by definition, open ended, not necessarily linear, and most definitely interested in meaning, not proof. Even false data in the humanities is meaningful. The fact, however, that people, goods, and ideas move across urban or geographic space makes something like Geographic Information Systems, for example, extremely useful to humanists who are able to mathematically integrate geometric abstractions of how we live together while transgressing underlying topologies made only of points, lines, polygons, and pixels. A spatial humanist would have to work against the very grain of GIS in order to privilege complexity and ambiguity over authority and certainty or reveal how a computer need not be bound by mutually exclusive categories in its data structures. Room ought to be made for chronotopic imaginaries, for the shifting of scale in both time and space, for selectivity, for simultaneity, all combined with emerging technologies in multimedia, GIS-enabled W3 services, geo-visualization, cyber geography, exploratory spatial data analysis, on-the-fly 3D modeling, and augmented reality.

To read and interpret available streams of code, however, requires “looping together several tastes, several languages,” as Barthes also wrote. Certain long-standing conflicts will need to be addressed, if not resolved, between the functional necessities of cities and the semantic charge of their histories; between the mathematical assimilation of urban form and the evidence that a city is not a fabric of equivalent elements; and between the reality of geography and the instability of meaning, lest we forget that a city is often experienced in complete opposition to objective data and lest we also forget that the meaning and value of quantitative assessments are often cloaked in veils of objectivity when they often add up to no more than forms of obliteration and censorship.

Related calls:

Lynette S. Autrey Visiting Faculty [Deadline: January 4, 2016]
Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellows [Deadline: January 4, 2016]
Graduate Student Fellows [Deadline: March 18, 2016]