Cultural Materialist Critique and Digital Scholarship

(This entry is a copy of my proposal for the Computers and Writing Conference happening this summer in Davis. If you’d like an explanation for why I think it’s a good idea to post these proposals to my blog, here’s an old entry offering some reasons.)


This presentation explores ways in which the intellectual value of digital composition scholarship might be investigated within cultural materialist strategies focusing specifically on hardware and software necessary for academic work.

Cultural materialist critique allows for the confluence of multiple scholarly interests as they intersect at the point of digital composition technologies. As a rough example, this presentation sketches out the interdependence of three distinct material conditions of contemporary writing practices: interface design, data storage, and disciplinary notions of intellectual value. Treating each of these conditions as a distinct product of a specific set of historical and cultural influences allows for a complex and nuanced discussion of their interaction.

For instance, the intellectual value of composition scholarship is traditionally evaluated on, among other criteria, the reliability and citation of its source material. This concern often privileges print sources over those viewed as “virtual”. But this criterion is heavily influenced by specific perceptions of the “reliability” and “virtuality” of digital data digital storage. Yet an historical understanding of digital sources reveals that digital storage is hardly virtual and in many ways more reliable than print sources. Interfaces, too, complicate this picture. While in one sense, making these sources more accessible to more readers, often those same interfaces interfere with preferences for consistency across variable layouts, multiple versions, and reader participation.

Cultural materialist critiques of this sort allow scholars to make sense of the often paradoxical relationship writers have with technology. Instead of puzzling at or calling into question the ways digital technologies compromise traditional practices, this approach focuses on the continued critique and development of these questions in conversation with each other.

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