Monday, September 16, 2013

Emerging Themes in Moby Dick and Digital Culture

I'm always pleased at the way students are able to latch onto key themes even very early into a semester. Here is an index to a few such ideas as we have begun to explore both Moby Dick the novel and Digital Culture the phenomenon. I've added my own thought questions connected to each idea, and hope that some of you will carry the conversation forward:
  • Isolation
    In his "The Sea and Solitude" post, Greg Bayles comments that "Moby Dick is full of disconnected, discontented strangers." He links this to "connectivity and how modern technology is shrinking the gaps between individuals." Do you find technology increases or decreases the distance between you and others?
  • Collaboration
    Mele related an experience in which a teacher, upset with how technology isolates, required students to do group work. The students ended up using online collaborative tools like Google Docs. How is digital culture changing the way that people work together?
  • Categorizing
    Dr. Wickman's lecture, problematizing the genre of Moby Dick, illustrates how much we rely upon categories to make sense of things. Amber (in a response to a post by Kayla) claims that "novel" (meaning "new") is most appropriate for such an experimental piece of prose such as Moby Dick. Victoria devotes a thoughtful post to whether Moby Dick is a novel. She sounds a lot like Ishmael at the close of his Cetology chapter when she states "Perhaps we have gone down the wrong path with constantly trying to categorize everything." Her post led to a follow-up post by Brittany who explores the concept of the new and how both the form and content of Moby Dick take us into novelty. Amber in turn responds, suggesting that our classifications are in flux and we therefore ought to consider blogs to be a category of literature. How fitting is the novel as an art form in the digital age? Where do we see categorizing happening within Moby Dick? within digital culture? What is to be gained by being more inclusive in our literary categories? What lost?
  • ImmersionKylee calls attention to the fact that we are immersed in digital culture. This, of course, plays off of the water metaphor already at work with the Internet ("surfing") and connects us with the water imagery from Moby Dick. In her post, Lizy claims that "while a book can completely immerse you, the internet will only immerse you as deep as you want to go."Just how do print culture and digital culture differ in how they immerse you? Also, if immersion means a lack of being able to get objective distance, how can we know digital culture unless we can detach from it somehow?
  • User-Generated Content
    Connected with the theme of immersion, Kelsey claims that Melville's extracts and etymologies in Moby Dick are there to create "an environment that we can become lost in." But she connects this with the content that we post online. By posting our media we help create an online environment that others can share in (or be confused by). Is the internet much like Melville's thematic but random etymology and extracts? Are we helping or making the problem worse by feeding the machine? 
  • Memes
    A specific kind of user-generated content that has become its own phenomenon is the meme. Lizy introduces the topic of memes, showing some of her own that she has created. Kayla used a meme to introduce herself, and in a comment on that post Victoria expresses her pleasure at posting memes on Pinterest. "Sometimes I wish real life had a meme button just so I could explain things with a clear picture," she says. Behind their apparent silliness, what aspect of digital culture do memes reflect? Are they an efficient / authentic mode of communication?
  • Identity
    Mele claims that "in a digital world, if we use it correctly, it gives people the opportunity to express their true individual identities" and defends the online environment as a place where we can define how others see us. But Mary directly opposes the way online profiles, etc. force one who does not wish to be defined to be categorized (and perhaps limited). She says "online identities are little more than carefully-crafted packaging that attracts interaction with onlookers but doesn't authentically communicate what's inside the box." Does the online environment give us less or more control over how we are seen by others? Does it threaten or promote authenticity in self-representation or in our communication with others?
  • Anonymity
    In a response to a post by Kelsey, Mary points out that Kelsey's story (about someone only feeling comfortable investigating Mormonism while at a digital distance from missionaries) illustrates the positive side to anonymity online. How important is it to have online anonymity, especially when this is so often used as a way of not being directly responsible for one's words or online actions?
  • Avatars, Personas and Profiles
    A major way that identity is (re)configured in digital culture is via various kinds of avatars, adopted personas, and profile pages. "Call me Ishmael," Melville's opening line to Moby Dick, reminds us of the arbitrary nature of names as well as the partiality we can expect from any one person's point of view. I found it interesting that several students imitated Melville's line in introducing themselves: "Call me Eliza"; "Call me Kylee"; and Heidi opted for an avatar of herself, playfully inviting readers to "Call me Oatmeal." Derrick wrote a thoughtful post about how he has developed an online persona with which he isn't entirely happy. Also, Ariel found a video that explored the concept of our second (digital) self.  Brittany explored her own identity crisis in "Show Us." How do you define or represent yourself differently online? Are these subtle versions of the same named identity, or do you use avatars (screen names, gravatars, visual representations that do not reflect your actual identity? What freedoms and what dangers come with self-disclosure or with adopting virtual / other identities?
  • Fan Culture
    Reporting on her participation in Comic Con, Kylee makes the claim that fan culture is emerging from digital culture, providing life to a variety of subcultures that were evident in this live event. Victoria gives fan culture a close look in her post, "Fandoms."
  • Digital Humanities
    Eliza owned up to studying the digital humanities as a minor, and proffered this definition: " 'Digital Humanities' encompasses learning certain web skills, like basic code literacy, and learning how to reach people and reading people and our changing culture online. It tries to analyze and work with the culture and opportunities online. What is the relationship between the digital humanities and digital culture more broadly?
  • Moby Dick in Popular Culture
    Eliza showed us clips from Matilda referencing Moby Dick. In comments, Victoria admitted that Matilda was her first exposure to Moby Dick. Amber, in the same comment thread, said X-Files was her first exposure to the great novel.
  • (Un)civilized
    Obviously Moby Dick includes a critique of Christian ethnocentricism within Ishmael's encounter with Queequeg). This is a topic brought up by Mary ("A Christian Savage and Christian Savagery"). The encounter with The Other is a profound question often explored in literature. As it relates to digital culture, we encounter so many different wild regions (virtually, socially) that it makes us ask the question of "what is it to be civilized?" repeatedly as our values bump up against others. Where is the digital wild? Who are the Queequegs that we are perhaps misjudging from our own partial point of view across the digital landscape?
  • Disorder and Digression
    Amber calls attention to the jumbled nature of the language in Moby Dick and compares this to digital culture. There is a manifest lack of order in the digressions and even the sentences of Ishmael; there is also disorder and a general casualness about the content people post online. What are the forces toward disorder in digital culture? What counterbalances are there to these?