“Genres of Scholarly Knowledge Production” Revisited

Post-event curatorial statement for the GOSKP conference at HUMlab, Umeå University, December 10–12, 2014

Patrik Svensson

The conference “Genres of Scholarly Knowledge Production”, which took place at HUMlab, Umeå University addressed a set of issues around knowledge production in the humanities. In as much as there was a curatorial statement for the event, it can be found on the conference website (see also the conference introduction, my speaker notes here). Here is a snippet:

One key challenge — at the heart of the conference — then becomes to inflect our own knowledge production and emerging practices with the critical sensibility that we typically recruit when engaging with other domains, knowledge communities and historical strata in our work.

This text is a post-conference commentary from the curator (which is how I think of my role) focusing somewhat (but not only) on curatorial, structural and material aspects of the conference. I apologize for leaving out so many ideas, discussions and people from my account because of (relative) brevity and the way my story came together.

My hope is that there will be a collection of stories (this being one contribution among several) representing different points of views and perspectives.

Feel free to provide your own reflections, arguments and media. Contributions can be very brief or long (this piece is really too long). I would also like to encourage people who did not participate in the conference to contribute. Also feel free to comment on this particular piece. Please send me a note (patrik.svensson@umu.se) if you would like to participate and I will send you some basic information and invite you to the Medium collection (Medium is a platform for online writing). Let’s see how it plays out! And thanks to Molly Steenson for suggesting to use Medium as a platform.

Let me also say that the response to the event has been fantastic. Judging from the feedback, the conference was a success. The basis for this appreciation is the actual conference, of course, but also the networks, connections and ideas that come out of the conference.

The conference would not have been possible without the help of an amazing group of engaged, friendly and competent professionals in the lab and without friends and colleagues such as Shannon Mattern (who also helped me with the moderation/chairing), Fred Turner, David Theo Goldberg, Erica Robles-Anderson, Matt Ratto and Johanna Drucker. And again, I would like to express my gratitude to HUMlab for supporting this conference so wholeheartedly, including our new director Cecilia Lindhé. The work carried out by our crew is beyond good.

Scholarly events of this kind depend on external support and interest. The Wallenberg Foundation generously supported the conference through the Wallenberg Network Initiative (the long-standing research collaboration between Sweden and Stanford University) and through my chair.

The whole conference was an experiment. I see HUMlab as a platform for exploring ideas and infrastructure, and I am very happy that the participants were willing to engage in this experiment. We tried to create the best possible conditions for such engagement, and this statement discusses some of that conditioning.

As I said at the introduction of the conference, one should not be too pretentious about events of this kind (this also applies to curatorial statements) in the sense that you can never know what will come out of bringing together a group of people over a couple of days. At the same time, I really believe that it is possible to make a difference. Otherwise it would not be worth it, would it?

Patrik Svensson, Umeå, January 9, 2015

(a brief note too about the two seminars that we hosted the day before the conference: Carrie Rentschler on “Social Media and Feminist Activism against Rape Culture” and David Theo Goldberg on “The Afterlife of the Humanities”, the links will take you to the recorded seminars).

(Unless specified, all photos were taken by author or were captured from the HUMlab-recorded videos. The photos with photo credit “Johan Gunséus” were commissioned by HUMlab through my new research project on academic events).


Pamela M. Lee talking about think tanks (photo credit: Johan Gunséus)

Academic events condition us in ways that not least Pam Lee made visible in her discussion of the small conference (an aside note is that for me, this single talk was worth all the effort with the conference). The thematic orientation, material setup and programming create conditions for knowledge production, exchange of ideas and connection building. Genres of Scholarly Knowledge Production was particularly interesting in this respect because of the strong connection between this conditioning and the topic under discussion. A sense of the thematic focus of the conference can be given by the name of the panels.

platforms, enacting cultural heritage/history, the material force of interpretation, engaging with knowledge, framing mapping, making-interpreting maps, situating visualization and intellectual middleware

These panels were composed to be “emergent” in the sense that the topic was not extensively articulated and speakers coming from a range of disciplines and perspectives. This does not mean that there was not a precise idea of the direction of the panels. Rather the panels were meant to be exploratory. The members of the panels had been addressed as groups before the conference, but they did not necessarily have a clear idea about what the others would contribute. This format relies on the thematic thread being strong enough and having solid time for discussion after all the presentations. There was at least 30 minutes of discussion time after each panel.

Lauren Klein and Lars Cuzner interacting (photo credit for the individual photos: Johan Gunséus)

The panels only made up one part of the program. The lightning sessions (6 minutes per speaker as compared to 10 minutes for panel contributions) were more open in terms of thematic focus for each round of talks, but there was composition to them as well. There were also other sessions including separate talks, performances and an artist’s talk. The following list gives a sense of the breadth and depth of the presentations.

Titles of presentations/talks/ performances (alphabetical order)

It is noteworthy the level to which all the participants participated. Essentially everyone did presentations or took on another designated roles (commentators etc.) in the program.

Lars Cuzner’s artist’s talk importantly brought up the question of setting up expectations with respect to artistic installations and interventions. In many ways, HUMlab was designed to be a provocation or experimental “think piece” and this conference was one of the most elaborate examples of recruiting this potential. We have built and are building infrastructure that itself is an articulation of humanistic sentiment.

At the same time, in imposing conditions and orchestrating a very tight single-track schedule, we shaped the conference in a very particular way. This shaping was meaningful in itself, but also in the sense of encouraging us to look at default or naturalized conventions with fresh eyes.

Technical support for the Society for the History of Technology Conference 2014 (an example of PowerPoint as default platform).

For instance, we hoped that strongly encouraging the use of the infrastructure in the lab would lead to a critical engagement with such conditioning (e.g. why do we not normally question or critique slideware as a default platform?) while also encouraging exploration with alternative setups and modalities for enacting humanistic work.

Tools and platforms

We provided a software tool for creating content for the conference. This distributed platform (the media system) allowed participants to create content/narratives for two of the infrastructures we used for the conference before coming to Umeå.

The media system is a type of intellectual middleware, which allows you not only to configure materials and a narrative using a complex display environment, but also to simulate the actual presentation. This allows experimenting with different narrative/knowledge concepts and to try these out in the spatial and material setting in question. The power is not so much in the exact presentation of visual and aural materials (even if this is important too), but in being able to quickly test ideas.

Nick Sousanis’s screenshot from simulating his upcoming presentation using the media system (source: Twitter, Nick Sousanis)

An important argument is that if you have not actually produced for multiple-screen environments, it is not enough to just listen to someone talk about it or do critical work on modes of knowledge production to “get it”. Critically embedded making is important. For instance, constructing arguments for three screens is qualitatively different than working with one screen.

Engaging materially and intellectually with these issues and platforms makes it easier to think critically about the systems we are embedded in.

For instance, this applied to single-screen slideware software for presenting humanistic work (such as Powerpoint), the web as a default platform and viewport for most digital humanities work and various authoring platforms used to manifest humanistic projects and materials (Scalar, Omeka etc.). My sense is that we see very little critically and materially aware work on such platforms as they pertain to our own knowledge production — at the same time as humanists often are quick to provide critical perspectives in relation to the knowledge production of other domains.

The display system imposed a narrative-material framework — for instance through offering two main formats (all screens at the same time or stepped presentations), implementing audio as linked to screen position (rather than “independent audio”), including a variety of image and sound formats, but not other platforms (such as web content) and no touch or sensor based functionality.

The system essentially implements a slide-based (and frame-based) model for the HUMlab-2 site (on the main campus) although it allows 11 simultaneous slides — either as one deck or multiple decks depending on the type of presentation — which is actually not a small difference. For HUMlab-X there were four viewports/windows for two screens (three windows for the triptych screen, imposing the three-ness suggested by the infrastructure, and one for the floor screen). The setup also privileged individual presentations and performances, rather than collaborative efforts, although the discussions were naturally collaborative. Furthermore, the system did not enable touch or sensor-based interaction (apart from navigating between slide decks).

The point here is that these and other choices constrained and enabled certain narrative and scholarly possibilities.

Such infrastructural systems are embedded institutionally, culturally and infrastructurally, and part of the challenge is to reach from material detail to this embeddedness.

The first panel topic was on platforms broadly (recording from the panel available here) and helped frame the idea of platforms both materially and intellectually. Among topics raised were long-term structured data collection, the institutional embeddedness of platforms, the flatness of platforms, the lack of moral and political principles in much platform thinking, the global context of platform making, the public part of platform making and the relation between the normal and pathological in platforms. This final point related to a more overarching discussion of the tension between what is default/normalized and what is particular/situated — not least in relation to humanistic infrastructural thinking.

Marianne Sommarin added some comments about the establishment of the chemical biological center at Umeå University in terms of platforms. My own observation is that such STEM (science technology engineering mathematics) platforms are much more discursive, cultural and dispersed than we (humanists) tend to think. There is a risk that humanities-based infrastructural thinking imposes a more technological and functional reading on infrastructural platforms than STEM does, although this frame (functional STEM) is also reinforced by policy and funding structures (and how these are articulated). In any case, thinking about and articulating humanities infrastructure in terms of platforms can channel imagination and institutional-cultural-social-technological thinking, making and critique.

Distributed enacting

Matt Ratto’s pre-recorded talk was enacted through ambient sound in a multimedia space (the first in that space).

Short video clip from the simulation of Ratto’s presentation (including the recorded voice)

It was interesting to note how people relate to a speaker not present when there is no point of orientation (apart from dispersed media) and when the space is flexible. Presentation occasions depend on co-orientation and public performance, helped by infrastructure such as lecterns, single screen slide shows and placement of chairs.

These assumptions are challenged when there are multiple screens, an ambient voice and no chairs.

There was a moment or two of confusion, but most of the attention subsequently was seemingly oriented towards the largest screen (the most stage-like part of that space with the head slide you see in the left-hand of the picture below). This focus became more dispersed over time though as can be seen in this set of photos (left photo: from the very beginning, right photo: from later during the talk).

From the recording of the platforms panel (two juxtaposed shots, beginning and later during the talk)

Interestingly (or revealingly), Matt Ratto has taken part in three events in HUMlab over the last couple of years without being present physically. I quote two passages from a draft version of my book manuscript Big Digital Humanities below in order to exemplify some of the material-curatorial considerations here.

A couple of years ago we started to bring in remote people via skype on big screens, in particular portable screens in the size range 50”-60”. One of the first times we did this was at a conference in 2011 when the speaker after the vice chancellor’s opening talk was actually wheeled in on a mobile stand (after the vice chancellor had finished her talk with everyone waiting). His presentation material was shown on the main screen (just like with the speakers physically present). The material configuration and movement of the screen played a significant role here, just as the prominent slot given to the remote speaker. It would also have been quite a different matter to let him be visible on the main screen with slides being shown on the same screen. This would have worked, but the difference would have been significant in terms of size, comparison to the local speakers, separation of the speaker (whether to have to share the screen or not), and embodied presence. And, as it turns out, screen stands can have an almost uncanny human sensibility to them.

Below follows an excerpt from a description an event about two year later (part of a longer critical discussion in my manuscript):

The 2013 workshop, on the other hand, brought in several remote people. The organizer of a session on critical making, Matt Ratto, could not make it to Umeå and we brought him in on an enormous wall screen (triptych screen) with a second feed from his document camera, which essentially showed his hands demonstrating how the manual work should be carried out. This feed was shown on the floor screen next to the triptych screen. The communication between the remote session leader and his graduate student (ginger coons, who did much of the practical work) felt very unforced and functional. It helped that they knew each other well, and that we had a good audio system in place. It would probably have been useful to have a private channel between the two for certain conversations. The communication between the remote session leader and the local participants was ongoing throughout the session.
The setup was atypical in that, for much of the time, the participants and the session leader were focused on the building — looking at their paper-folding projects or at each other — so that the remote presence became peripheral or subdued, despite the size of the remote person’s head. It was fascinating to see Matt Ratto focus on the paper building and not paying attention to the other end of his skype connection (and local participants not focusing on the big screen, but their own work). The document camera feed, however, was not very useful, since people were dispersed in the space and not really proximal to the floor screen. Also, it seems to be cognitively difficult to both focus on the talking head and the floor screen at the same time.

Returning to the 2014 platform panel, Mandana Seyfeddinipur presented last in the panel. She was going to participate via skype and because her intention was to make use of localized multimedia (i.e. taking the participants through a series of slides in the screenscape), I realized that it would not really work with a stationary skype screen.

There would have been a cognitive dissonance between the placement of the speaker (stationary screen) and the spatialized narrative.

Instead we used a laptop (although my preferred choice would have been a tablet screen) and a bluetooth speaker (visible in the panel photo above) and we moved with Seyfeddinipur across the space. We carried her around. Indeed, she was spatially and medially aware to the degree that she stopped me from being getting lost in space. She also made a very important point about the multiple layers of assumptions built into digital platforms mostly created in the western world.

Appropriating the floor screen

Many of the talks at the main HUMlab site were performative and made use of the multiplexity of screens. It was not least rewarding to see the new setup in HUMlab-X being used for the first time on this scale.

Anne Balsamo using many screens in her talk (photo credit: Johan Gunséus)

It made me happy to hear Anne Balsamo say that for the first time she could enact the Aids Quilt Project (an important example of intellectual-material middleware) vertically through the floor screen in HUMlab-X. Balsamo’s project is sensitive both to the overall sentiment, function and meaning of the quilt and to particular ways scaling or time are implemented through material interfaces.

We also saw the floor screen come to life through the careful use of maps and mapping by Todd Presner, Lisa Parks, Zephyr Frank, Finn Arne Jørgensen and Molly Steenson among others. In retrospect I think it would have been good if we had not placed chairs next to the floor screen as they configured the space in such a way that people did not stand up around the floor screen (even if it would have been physically possible). Thomas Nygren encouraged people to come up to the screen in his presentation and he asked questions to do with the floor-scren material, which changed the dynamics.

A note on space and programming

There is a dynamic sensibility to using the floor screen space as in the above example. Spatial movement is relevant to knowledge production (for an interesting example, see the work of Natasha Myers) and to the way an academic event plays out. Not only can it be argued that we think “better” or differently when we move around and that there is important variation in changing spatial and visual stimuli, but that moving (instead of sitting) is a prerequisite for some types of spatialized narratives.

There is one logic to the way a single space is used and another logic to the dynamics of multiple-day event. Looking at the use of individual spaces, it is clear to me that the multiple-screen performance space in HUMlab on the main campus (HUMlab-2) is the most dynamic and flexible space we have. As noted in the discussion of infrastructure below, the screens are peripherally located and there is a great deal of maneuverability in that part of the lab. We are getting to know the affordances of HUMlab-X better, and the December conference was a very good opportunity for testing it out on a large scale. The different venues complement each other, which is by design, but exactly how this complementary relationship gets defined can only be determined through exploration.

Looking at the dynamics of a multiple-session events, we often recruit the capacity of the lab(s) as a whole for HUMlab events. This provides an opportunity to move between spaces and venues, and also gives access to different sets of technologies, infrastructures and modalities. This multiplex engagement with several “rich” spaces (not neutral lecture halls) is important as it provides different types of grounding and embeddedness. And again, space and infrastructure are connected to event programming and can make certain types of arguments and expressions more likely.

Let me use the afternoon of December 11 as a brief example. In the morning that we used the two main spaces of HUMlab on the main campus (using these for different types of knowledge performances). After lunch we took the bus to get to HUMlab-X and the Arts Campus.

That afternoon really worked well and there was a nice change of rhythm as the discussion session was less time-intense. An important grounding had been offered by Parks and Presner (who skyped in from Istanbul and Los Angeles respectively), and they made extensive use of the infrastructure. Nick Sousanis presented his work before the mapping sessions (on his scholarly worked articulated as comics) and Lars Cuzner’s artist’s talk (in another space, the fourth space of the day actually) ended the university-based program for the day. Cuzner (with the help of the commentators) again brought in the world outside academia in his discussion of how we in Scandinavia continue to exoticize racism and maintain a sense of being in the best possible of worlds (a theme also addressed in a previous installation “Sweden is best in Sweden”). Through his focus on and reengagement with (in a Norwegian context) so-called human zoos (19th- and 20th-century public exhibits of humans) there was a clear connection to knowledge production. Furthermore, Cuzner’s practice — provocatively interventionist — can probably be seen as a type of intellectual middleware.

Engaging with the infrastructure

Zephyr Frank on a map in the session on making and interpreting maps (photo credit: Finn Arne Jørgensen)

Returning to the floor screen, Anders Ynnerman made a very appropriate comment about how humans are adept at relating to vertical representations from different viewing points around something like a screen. The production of knowledge will be affected by such material conditions and collaborative practices (see e.g. Erica Robles-Anderson’s work on the social life of displays). Also, although the way we orient towards maps have probably changed somewhat, it is true that some types of materials — including maps — are particularly well suited to be seen (and interacted with) from the above. Anne Balsamo’s Aids Quilt is obviously such an example.

Ynnerman’s talk on scientific visualization also provoked a number of questions on the status and role of visualization. For instance: What are the ethical challenges of creating virtual clones of mummies? Importantly, he also demonstrated what first-rate presentation and interpretation can look like — not in the sense of a high-fidelity high-tech sense (even if he did that), but in the sense of a very well thought-out narrative supported by media and technology.

Nick Sousanis (photo credit: Johan Gunséus)

The same professional-rate manifestation could be seen in Nick Sousanis’s comics’ work, which importantly raised the question of how we articulate our work and what happens when we choose not to engage with templated formats for knowledge production. I talked to several of the Ph.D. students, whom said that this talk inspired them in their thinking about what ways they might articulate their ideas, research and sentiment. They were probably not thinking of comics dissertations, but rather moving beyond templated formats. What gladdened me was this interest did not seem to be primarily driven by the expression itself, but rather by the questions and materials they are planning to address.

The screenscape in HUMlab on the main campus is also a humanistically driven installation, which I see resisting an immersive paradigm (e.g. CAVEs and virtual reality, see an earlier piece of work of mine for a discussion of this) and aligning with the multiple perspectives and positions I associate strongly with the humanities. It is important to note that the screens in this space are peripherally positioned. The rest of the room is essentially an open area with pillars and a few nooks and alcoves, and although we employed the screens frequently for the conference, they are often dark and silent during normal lab use. Sometimes that (silent and dark screens) can be a provocation — it is revealing to see the expectations associated with different sets of media technologies. Our previous research and art fellow, Ele Carpenter, resisted these expectations through making cozies (at least one) for the screens and also through rearranging the whole space.

At the conference, it seems as most participants had interpreted the setup to mean as much technology/as many screens as possible, while there was nothing to stop anyone from not using any screens/media at all.

Again, we see how knowledge production can be driven by conditions, expectations and templates. I was quite impressed with the actual use of the infrastructure, but at the same time interested to hear an emergent discourse of resisting the many screens and the media richness (and the aggregate flow of media). Perhaps this sense of discomfort (both engaging full on with rich media setups and trying to maintain a critical distance) means that the format actually worked?

Jeanne Jo screens/enacts “M.A.R.R.A” (official trailer here) in the multiple screen environments (photo from online video recording).

I loved the fact that we saw varied use of this infrastructure to make arguments ranging from Andrew Prescott’s bringing archival material to life in a video installation and Jeanne Jo’s fantastic multiple-screen video work (see above) to Maria Eriksson’s hand-drawn simulation of her music industry research process and Jonathan Sterne’s talk on sampling theory and practice distinctly enacted in the music software through playing samples.

Ben Kafkas’ contemplative piece, enacted from a still front position with one small piece of media, asked important questions about what the humanities are and what we would be if did not ask questions about consciousness, fantasy and desire. And the frame-centric nature of many modern display environments was questioned and challenged usefully by Jenna Ng during the final day of the conference (even though I still have a strong belief in the power and usefulness of the frame).

Timing and multiple modalities

Johanna Drucker in her home working (middle screen) while 11 copies of herself delivered a lecture on the making of arguments.

Timing is critical to any curatorship (not least when trying to get 11 copies of Johanna Drucker to speak in sync) and while much of the conference was characterized by a fast pace through fairly short presentations and through moving between spaces, there was plenty of time of discussion and this time was well-used. Strict time enforcement (patiently carried out by HUMlab staff) made sure we did not lose discussion time (which is often the case in academic conference settings). Importantly, this format also enabled more people to speak.

Nicolò Dell´Unto talking about end enacting virtual archaeology and Elin Andersson, communication manager, managing time

There was also a deliberate patterning to shifts between sessions. For instance going from the first panel on platforms to Christer Nordlund’s talk on “Creativity as platform?”, which was carried out in an adjacent space without using any media at all. Franco Moretti’s excellent talk on the World Bank reports set the stage perfectly for the panel on the material force of interpretation.

Screenshot of Miriam Posner’s tweet from the morning on December 11. Photo credit: Miriam Posner.

Lars Cuzner’s artist’s talk — set in another space — rerouted the day not in the sense of adding a bit of “art-driven work”, but through articulating and questioning a series of assumptions and making sure we do not step away from our responsibilities. Carolina Bäckman’s dance performance powerfully reminded us of the bodily basis of knowledge production and layers of kinetic, inter-generational and other forms of memory entangled in art-knowledge work. She danced with three senior dancers presented on the big screen (recorded material from New York City) in a powerful and well articulated performance.

Carolina Bäckman performing and presenting her work (photo credit: Johan Gunséus)

I have heard academics joke about presenting their work as interpretative dance (including myself), but the question is maybe what that would actually be and look like and what range of performativity is actually acceptable for scholarly knowledge production in different types of context? What kinds of space and infrastructure do we need for representing and enacting our work?

Anna Misharina and myself discussed how space structures and influences knowledge production.

Twitter contribution by Miriam Posner showing Anna Misharina’s hand drawn flow visaluzations (of use of space during the conference). Photo credit: Miriam Posner.

Knowledge production is situated spatially. There is no such thing as a neutral platform for making knowledge, and space is one of the parameters that condition scholarly work. Spaces associated with knowledge production are also templated (just like presentation software): think of a traditional classroom, conference venue or office (Misharina demonstrated this through plastic cutouts put on top of the screen). At the same time, it is important to avoid an overly deterministic position. There are many other factors that also contribute to the conditioning of knowledge production, although space is very important for a range of reasons: it is entangled with a range of other factors, changing spatial setups (for instance challenging default configurations) allows suggesting new ways of doing things, and ultimately, we are spatial beings.

One other factor I brought up was the choice to introduce speakers only with their name and affiliation (in most cases no title) during the conference. This may seem like a trivial matter, but I really think it matters. In this way the hierarchical difference between a graduate student and a professor or between a researcher and a pracitioner does not become reinforced through the actual introduction. Additionally, this procedure saves time. It is not about not giving credit or not acknowledging great work (most people have a sense anyhow, and CVs can be checked online), but taking an opportunity to structurally downplay parts of hierarchical system that tend to be very present anyhow.

Critical-material engagement

One challenge with bringing together different modalities and epistemic traditions is to actually manage to open up a real intersectional conversation. I think we managed to do this and here the presentation modalities and the use of space had some influence in provoking and enabling discussions across disciplines and areas. The material situatedness of knowledge production is a useful boundary object in this sense and HUMlab and the conference hopefully functioned as a contact zone or trading zone (to use terminology from science and technology studies).

One observation is that most humanities scholars are more comfortable with co-creating critical discourse than to articulate matters to do with performative and material perspectives on knowledge production.

There is a risk that there can be a disconnect between artistic/expressive enactments and more critically oriented discourse. I am not saying that this was the case with the conference (this is rather what we pushed against together), but that it maybe be argued that although the format was experimental and that many modalities were represented, the setup probably privileged traditional academic discourse.

One possibility that I have considered after the conference, is that it might have been useful to use “crit sessions” (as used in design, art and other “creative practices”) as a model for discussing work presented. Good crit sessions are strongly critical, but start out from the material manifestation rather than from just discourse or a text. In this case it would have meant starting out from the material manifestations — the media installations as well as the presentations — and to give the materially grounded critique dedicated time.

Jonathan Sterne on sampling.

Jonathan Sterne, materially invested scholar and a great discussant in the conference, talked about sampling through sampling (not actually speaking live). His work is a great example of when subject matter, materiality and argument come together naturally.

Samantha Gorman performing PRY

The panel on engaging with knowledge brought forth many of these perspectives and a strong sense of expressive and scholarly integrity. Samantha Gorman performed PRY (a complex and experimental tablet-based multimedia narrative), Simon Lindgren talked about his multimodal practices (and live recorded a social science in 60 seconds episode, it is all here), Jennie Olofsson enacted an installation on the discourse surrounding technologies and the very material dismantling of such technologies, and Nicolò Dell´Unto talked about making archaeology through material-digital-intellectual interspersion.

Three juxtaposed photos (taken from the recorded video) from Jennie Olofsson’s installation “intro/outro”

A major challenge for the digital humanities (in my mind) is to engage with the intersection of research questions, material/data and material manifestations so that digital manifestations become more interpretative than presentational. Drucker’s notion of intellectual middleware is useful here. It foregrounds intellectual work, but does not disassociate it from the technological, systemic and material levels. It may be difficult to get at the particulars of intellectual middleware as it sits between different levels and because it is conceptually challenging to entangle (and disentangle) complex research questions, data and material manifestations in a meaningful way.

It would seem that we need a language for articulating and critiquing middleware that is intellectually-materially sophisticated enough to be useful.

One way of going about this is to ask questions in relation to existing platforms. In my earlier work I have tried to do this in relation to infrastructure. Again, I think that humanists have to engage critically with these platforms, but also we need to use them for our own creative and practices, and furthermore, we need to bring those perspectives into imagining and building new infrastructure and platforms.

Aligning sharpness and generosity

So, what are the most important qualities for an academic event? Many things probably; certainly intellectual furthering, the birth of new ideas and projects, and the development of an area of field. I would like to think that what you did not expect is quite important.

Contacts with people you did not know before, new disciplinary conjunctions, emergent perspectives and maybe also, being pushed somewhat out of your comfort zone.

Other qualities that are also critical — at least to the events I organize — are intellectual sharpness in combination with niceness and willingness to engage in dialogue.

Erica Robles and Lewis Webb in conversation (photo credit: Johan Gunséus)

Warmth and generosity. These are not qualities that can be curated (although you can choose participants carefully), but there is something to the sentiment that may or may not develop as the result of a staged event. We had a group of fantastic people present for the conference, and there was a real sense of generosity. Maybe Franco Moretti was right in his remark towards the end there was unusually little contention, but this does not mean that there was not disagreement, different points of view, articulated differences and sustained tension. However, these were embedded in a setting not so concerned with (at least this is the way I prefer to think of it) demonstrating positions or intellectual upper hand.

Returning to the question of generosity: I know from experience that scholars such Fred Turner are very generous. Not only in sharing great work (as Fred did), but also through engaging in conversations with junior colleagues not only to offer immediate advice, but to sharply and constructively engage in their future careers (and lives). I know that many such meetings and conversations between different people took place during the conference.

Conversations (photo credit: Johan Gunséus)

This kind of work may not be readily captured in photos or videos, but is critical to making a conference to be great. The December conferences I have organized over the last couple of years have been characterized by inviting a large share of junior scholars (and often supporting travel and accommodation in the same way as we do for many senior scholars)—people who will be involved in defining fields in the future, and I strongly believe that this is so important. My experience is also that they benefit from meeting each other. Empowering junior faculty who will change the world. Somewhat pretentious? Maybe, but a worthwhile endeavor. I am proud of the beginning Umeå University Ph.D. students (seven of them in total) presenting their work.

Moa Sandström presenting her work (photo credit: Johan Gunséus)

They all did very well— they took the steps to submit a proposal, prepare thoroughly to talk about their work and engage with the infrastructure. Important to their future careers I would like to believe.

Let me end this statement by noting that I am obviously speaking from a position of privilege. It is a rare thing to be able to build an infrastructure and recruit a group of people that really are the best possible for making high-quality events and intellectual work possible. One of the many of the email exchanges I have had after the conference makes this point.

It is about the people, the infrastructure and the resources. Support from the university and from external funding agencies has made it possible to do a series of well-funded, exclusive, curated events. I would like to believe, however, that we have made something good — if small-scale- out of this privileged position.

And through having a number of public intellectuals such as David Theo Goldberg be part of the conference, there is a guarantee that important questions will not be forgotten, which was clearly demonstrated in Goldberg’s talk on the world as platform and his “provocations” throughout the course of the conference.

Thank you Emma Ewadotter, Zephyr Frank, Moa Sandström, David Theo Goldberg, Carrie Rentschler, Miriam Posner, Fredrik Norén, Lauren Klein, Phil Buckland, Jennie Olofsson, Lewis Webb, Anne Balsamo, Zephyr Frank, Carolina Bäckman, Carl-Erik Engqvist, Irena Polic, Anders Ynnerman, Andrew Prescott, Jenna Ng, Eleanor Betts, Fredrik Palm, Johanna Drucker, Lisa Parks, Anna Johansson, Johan Hallqvist, Lewis Webb, Märit Simonsson, Todd Presner, Thomas Nygren, Ingrid Sundström, Franco Moretti, Moa Eriksson, Erica Robles-Anderson, Nick Sousanis, Marianne Sommarin, Jim Robertson, Finn Arne Jørgensen, Nicole Coleman, Alan Christy, Jeanne Jo, Christer Nordlund, Mandana Seyfeddinipur, Jacob Gaboury, Johan Von Boer, Elin Andersson, Jon Svensson, Maria Wikse, Danielle Albers, Jim Barrett, Mattis Lindmark, Nicolò Dell’Unto, Karin Jangert, Rachel Deblinger, Brian Johnsrud, Amy A. DaPonte, Molly Steenson, Ben Kafka, Miriam Posner, Roger Mähler, Pamela M. Lee, Alan Christy, Anna Misharina, Satish Patel, Beatrice Rosberg, Matt Ratto, Samantha Gorman, Simon Lindgren, Märit Simonsson, Jonathan Sterne, Peter Bennesved, Pelle Snickars, Kerstin Smeds, Mats Deutschmann, Cecilia Lindhé, Nishant Shah, Shannon Mattern and Jonathan Worth.