Comparative literature seniors David James and Gatlin Newhouse have been described, alternately, as theory bros or Deleuzers. They’d rather you described them as they describe themselves, “partners in thoughtcrime.” I’d describe them as buddies.
James, whose allied field for comparative literature is environmental studies, is writing his thesis on ecocinema, specifically on three different films that relate to the environment. Newhouse, whose allied field is computer science, is writing about the connection between the narrative structure of Borges’s fiction and networks.
Though they are working on such different material and from different disciplinary lenses, both are working on the “ineffable.” Newhouse explained, “We’re both looking at the ineffable as a way to critique either prescriptive moral relations with nature in cinema or the ineffable as a limitation to subjectivity within/outside digital contexts.”
Can you describe your thesis and the argument you’re making?
DJ: My thesis is a critique of ecocinema as it is normatively constructed now. Ecocinema is constructed as both a genre and a way of criticism as a response to the various environmental crises which are occuring today. I propose different ways of looking films as they relate to the environment. I focus the open-endedness of the film image and haptic images as well as haptic ways of looking as a means by which to move beyond ecocinema as a response to environmental crises.
GN: My thesis is an exploration of the connections between some short stories of Jorge Luis Borges, Wikipedia’s interface, the interface of search bars, and distributed computing protocols. Many people have written connecting Borges to “New Media” — that is, computing and digital objects of study — but when they make this connection they often take the affective result of Borges’s “metaphysical mysteries” for granted and ignore other parts of the text. I am proposing a way to understand Borges as both anticipating the cultural logic of “New Media” and providing a critique of it — and I understand his critique to be a secular version of the medievalist critique that human beings cannot occupy the perspective of God.
How did you come to your topic?
DJ: I combined my interest of environmental history with my knowledge of film theory as well as critical theory generally. There are only a handful of books that are explicitly written about ecocinema, and so I thought that that this thesis would be manageable and engage with a relatively new field.
GN: I used to be a computer science major but often found myself more excited by my literature courses and working through political issues in the context of literature, art, and theory. I discovered Borges when Christian Kroll assigned two of his stories for the first conference of his class “Space and Power” and I’ve fallen in love with Borges’s stories since. Actually, the two stories assigned are two of the stories I am writing about in my thesis, so thank you Christian!
Why ecocinema? Why Borges?
DJ: During my sophomore year I read Transnational Ecocinema and had some problems with it.
GN: Besides the aforementioned reasons, I find Borges extremely puzzling in the way his stories engage with language, narrative, death, and the ineffable. I also am invested in positioning Borges as a writer at the margins alongside a particular reading of Borges as a Neobaroque writer, where Neobaroque is a strategy of contraconquista by hijacking colonial logics in order to subvert them.
Have you tried to make your thesis haptic in any way? How have you constructed your thesis given your topic involves databases and networks?
DJ: I’m not sure my thesis is haptic in form, necessarily.
GN: I guess they could browse my thesis like browsing the internet as one moves from server to server, database to database. I mean in some sense it’s a networked argument but I actually am hesitant to suggest reading it that way since I haven’t been as deliberate in the form of my thesis as I would ideally approach it.
How have you tried to incorporate hapticity and your thesis work into other parts of your life? How have you incorporated, or tried to incorporate, databases or networks or Borges in your life?
DJ: Into my poetry for sure. My thesis deals a lot with haptic imagery and film, but I have been interested in how poetry might evoke similar relations to those I describe in my thesis.
GN: I am actually falling out of love with networks the more I write about them to be honest. Networks seem to engender political issues where the only coordinating response is “more networks!” So I have thought about writing more “network like” but outside of that, and outside of the thesis process, I am finding myself more and more interested in trying to think outside of networks as a framework.
What has been your favorite part of writing your thesis?
DJ: My favorite part is that I can choose what I write about.
GN: Same. Plus getting the comparative literature committee to agree to computer science as an allied field was fun. I am hoping to eventually bring in some discussion of math, Cantor’s notion of infinities, to my thesis since Borges references it, but that is very time and page number dependent at this point.
Do you have a favorite quote/passage?
GN: I do not have a favorite Borges quote, but I really like this quote from Wendy Hui Kyong Chun in her book Programmed Visions: “Hence the emphasis on what is ghostly or undead on what cuts across the human and the machine, on how we can make our interfaces more, rather than less, productively spectral; hence the emphasis on code as a re-source rather than a source. Source code becomes a source only through its destruction … ” I like how source code is emphasized as something only predominant in our interactions with computers after source code is executed on a machine in this quote — albeit the only time source code is focused is when writing the original code, although testing the code for expected behavior complicates this in favor of her argument I think.
DJ: I enjoy Laura Marks’s question from her book, The Skin of the Film: “How, then, does cinema mediate the place of the body in culture, and of culture in the body?”
Anything else you’d like to add?
GN: Read Alexander Galloway’s blog entries “Forget Deleuze,” and “Network Pessimism.” There’s also a really good lecture by Matteo Pasquinelli called “Can the Universal Be Specific? On the Genesis of Western Computational Norms” which speaks about the history of databases as related to ledgers, the ancestors of databases, in the Atlantic slave trade. Other recommendations for readings about New Media and studying the digital from a humanities perspective would be: Lisa Nakamura (a Reed grad!), Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Donna Haraway, and Caroline Bassett. Oh and I really love this book called Deleuze, Marx and Politics by Nicholas Thoburn which talks about Deleuze’s book on Marx he planned to write before Deleuze killed himself.
DJ: What he said.
Nerds. Newhouse and James have already planned their future as critics and thinkers together (they objected to being called thinkers on the basis that “it’s gross”). Look for their byline, James and/or Newhouse. In the meantime, find them playing Super Smash Bros. and going to McDonalds. “Or Teco’s,” James insisted.