What is Lisa Swanstrom doing NOW?

The Kay Fellow in the Digital Humanities talks about how computers are changing the way we read, 'The Matrix,' and the future of the book

Lisa SwanstromLisa Swanstrom is the Florence Levy Kay Fellow in the Digital Humanities. Her research interests include digital culture and electronic literature, the history of science, media theory and 20th century American and Latin American literature.

BrandeisNOW: This is your first semester at Brandeis. What led you here?

Swanstrom: I just finished my PhD at the University of California in Santa Barbara (UCSB) where I had been working in a PhD program in comparative literature that turned into a pretty tightly focused interest in the digital humanities. Brandeis was advertising for the Florence Levy Kay Fellow in my field, and it was one of the dream jobs that year, so it was a happy convergence.

BrandeisNOW: What are you doing as a Kay Fellow?

Swanstrom: I’m teaching a class each semester, as well as working on my own research. I’m also revising my dissertation, hopefully into a book project. Right now I’m teaching a class called Self.net, which is based pretty much on the research I’ve done for my dissertation. And next semester I’ll be teaching a class called New Media.

BrandeisNOW: What is Self.net and your corresponding dissertation about?

Swanstrom: Self.net is a class that looks at the way Internet technology or network technology can be seen as coextensive or somehow in synch with representations or expressions of identity. So what we’ve done is look at several models where computational technology has intervened in how characters think of themselves and conceive of themselves as subjects.

BrandeisNOW: Can you give me an example?

Swanstrom: One of the famous examples that everyone knows is “The Matrix,” where the central character has this kind of awakening to a vast network intelligence and a resistance to it. We also looked at “Neuromancer,” a novel that came out around 1984 by William Gibson, which conceptualized the idea of cyberspace before we even had a popular network such as the Internet. And we’ve also been looking at more contemporary work.

BrandeisNOW: You mentioned the term digital humanities earlier. Can you tell me more about this field?

Swanstrom: What’s so great about that question is that digital humanities is an emerging field. I’d say right now the best way to describe it is the humanities’ attempt to consider how computing technology interacts with humanistic inquiries. So, for example in literature, which is what I focus on, we look at how computers are changing the way we read, changing the way we write, changing the way that we experience text. But more generally, the digital humanities is the field that explores how any kind of humanistic endeavor brushes up against new technology.

BrandeisNOW: How did you end up focusing on this subject area?

Swanstrom: Well, it’s really interesting because I actually did my B.A. in classics and when I went to grad school I was thinking I’d do classics and Latin American literature. But, UCSB has an amazing program in the digital humanities and I was seduced. I was lured away just because of all the exciting things being done with the narratives and computers. And it just blew my mind and I realized that that’s what I wanted to be working on.

BrandeisNOW: It’s really interesting that you went from the classics, which are truly “old school” literature, and you’ve turned around now to focus on this emerging trend of digital literature. Is this a harmonious relationship or is there a lot of tension between the two?

Swanstrom: It’s really a question of how willing are some departments to consider different media forms as a part of literary tradition. And fortunately, Brandeis is super exciting because people are interested in the harmonious relationship between the two. I’d say there are other departments out there, and I’ve encountered them, which are a little more resistant to the idea that this field has anything to do with literature. But I am convinced that it has a great deal to do with it.

BrandeisNOW: In many ways, you can still think of the Internet, and that obviously includes online magazines, blogs, etc., as the digital version of the “wild west.” There are no rules here. Do you see a day where the best items that are published exclusively on the Internet, whether its fiction, non-fiction, whatever, become a part of a new, established canon?

Swanstrom: I hope so. But what I don’t see is the disappearance of the book. What excites me the most about my field is the way that it relates to all sorts of earlier media forms.  As someone who is a habitual reader of everything, it’s exciting to see these things come into formation. And I hope that they will become a part of a legitimate canon without disrupting the value we place on the treasures of the past.

BrandeisNOW: How has digital media and the Internet helped the humanities and in particular literature?

Swanstrom: One of the most exciting projects that I think that has come out of the digital humanities is the text coding initiative, which is a way to mark up archived texts that are stored in databases so people can access them. There are now online databases that allow you instantaneous, unfettered access to awesome and amazing texts that previously would have been pretty hard to track down.

BrandeisNOW: We talked a little bit about Self.net, and you mentioned that next semester you are teaching a course on new media. Tell me more about that and what else is on the horizon for you both teaching-wise and research-wise.

Swanstrom: In the new media class we’ll be thinking about the way new media actually relates and informs older media. In terms of my own work, I’m actively thinking about certain texts online that are shaping the way that we read, and I’m looking at some pieces of experimental projects that play around with the reading process.

BrandeisNOW: And finally, do you prefer reading a book in your hand or online at this point?

Swanstrom: I still prefer reading a book, but I’m getting persuaded more and more by devices like Kindle. I might be willing to change my opinion once we start to see technology where screens become more like paper that you can actually flip and annotate.

BrandeisNOW: But it might not be as cozy in the winter to curl up next to the fire with your laptop rather than a book.

Swanstrom: Not in the same way.

BrandeisNOW: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Swanstrom: I don’t know. It’s hard- I mean that’s one of my biggest questions- what do we lose, what do we gain? And I think that right now the pleasures of print are very tangible pleasures.

BrandeisNOW: But at the same time you’re not resistant to new technology and the new way of looking at literature.

Swanstrom: Oh no, no. I’m super excited about it- but I do maintain that the book’s not going anywhere.

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