Issue 1: Digital Animals
Inhabiting the Intersections of Nature, Culture, and TechnologyIntroduction
Melissa Bianchi and Kyle BohunickyLosing Data Earth: Technological Obsolescence and Extinction in The Lifecycle of Software Objects
Stina AtteberyBiomorphological Realism: Thinking with Biological Entities in Film and Digital Media
Yvette GranataBeyond Sharkness: The Avatar that Therefore We Are
Sean MoreyForms & Feet of Fowl: Twisted Histories of Poultry & Prostheses
Melissa YangEnumerating Ruminants
Tom TylerTo Torture the Torturer: Videogame Violence and the Question of Humanism
Adam LindbergAnimal Representations in Visual Culture: An Overview and a Haunting
This inaugural issue of Trace marks the arrival of a new venue for critical scholarship working at the intersection of ecocriticism and media studies. Our first issue brings together a diverse range of perspectives about the material and ethical impacts of digital technologies on environments and their inhabitants. Recent innovative work in the field has raised significant questions about the role of digital technology in human-animal relations, specifically exploring the potential to provide new engagements with concepts of ontology and ecology. This issue of Trace broadens these conversations by demonstrating how we might bring together methods in digital media studies and perspectives in animal studies. Though traditionally understood as disparate subjects of study, intersecting digital media studies with animal studies urges scholars to explore how digital technology and nonhuman animals continually (re)define not only our concepts of the “human” and the “humanities,” but also to question ontological inquiry broadly. Specifically, this first issue asks how we might address the mediating role that digital technology plays in the lives and relationships of nonhuman and human animals. With the proliferation of digital technology, the “question of the animal” and its ethical and cultural implications remain pressing concerns for animal studies. For Jacques Derrida, “the question of the animal” highlights violence created by language—a technology—in delineating humans from nonhuman animals. Critiquing “the animal” as a category for nonhuman species, Derrida notes that “To put all living things that aren’t human into one category is first of all a stupid gesture—theoretically ridiculous—and partakes in the very real violence that humans exercise towards animals. That leads to the slaughterhouses, their industrial treatment, their consumption.” This violence is a common outcome in discussions of technology, most famously, for example, Martin Heidegger’s deployment of technology to categorize nonhuman species as “poor-in-world.” Similarly, the term “digital,” from latin digitālis meaning a measure of a finger’s breadth, presents human bodies as the standard for quantification and differentiation. In contemporary use, “digital,” which can describe something of or related to fingers on a hand, as well as whole numbers less than ten, offers both a linguistic and morphological description that coils the numeric roots of computational technology with primate, if not human, bodies. Objects, systems, and models expressed as data, which are otherwise known as “digital,” are thereby reserved for human use, functioning as a marker of human exceptionalism.
Although “digital” brokers an anthropocentric, if not speciesist distinction, animal studies has rigorously challenged and continues to challenge this perspective by demonstrating how many nonhuman animal species deploy technologies in innovative and creative ways. Our pairing of “digital animals” contributes to these challenges through the essays collected here, which address how species of hoof, fin, wing, and paw can and are included in digital technology. Together, the contributions to this first issue of Trace complicate the intersection of digital and animal studies on two fronts: (1) by exploring how nonhuman animals shape the design, production, and circulation of digital technology and (2) by investigating how digital media urges us to (re)think our understandings of anthropocentrism, animal ontology, and human-animal interactions. By examining digital animals, these articles challenge discussions of technology as immaterial and of animals as removed from the very material processes and effects of such technologies. The works in this journal issue also demonstrate how digital technology is often framed in anthropocentric terms, re-affirming humans' difference from nonhuman animals, and thus, many of the pieces highlight innovative digital projects explicitly aimed at blurring distinctions between human and nonhuman animals.
Extinction and endangerment are central concerns in Stina Attebery’s “Losing Data Earth: Technological Obsolescence and Extinction in The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” where she offers a powerful reading of Ted Chiang’s novella in which a platform upgrade threatens digital creatures with the equivalent of a biological mass extinction event. Attebery explores how market forces and technological upgrades rapidly accelerate the obsolescence of digital animals in the narrative, suggesting that digital animals undergo endangerment and extinction rather than simply replacing their biological counterparts. Attebery argues that as extinction threatens wider swaths of actual animal species and our connections to them, we begin to understand digital animals as a “technological memorial” to vanishing species. Replacing and remembering the biological through the digital, however, glosses over the hyper-vulnerability of digital media, and Attebery asks that we consider how obsolescence and endangerment create networks of kinship between biological life and digital technology.
In “Biomorphological Realism: Thinking with Biological Entities in Film and Digital Media,” Yvette Granata challenges understandings of digital cinema as immaterial. Granata returns to early film theory’s emphasis on biological life to argue for a cinema aware of its organic materiality. Describing this as “biomorphological realism,” Granata demonstrates that digital film and digital film theory have largely removed cinema’s grounding in biological materialism, especially in its emphasis on data storage and digital processes. She draws on Bazin’s definition of motion image as a medium that can both capture and replay the exact moment of a biological entity’s death to suggest that digital cinema can be built from the life-world. Thus, Granata proposes a turn to emergent sensory technology as a means to return to the biomorphological realism of early cinema, citing both Datum Explorer and In and Out of Time. These digital works not only rely on nonhuman lifeforms in their production, but they also explore biomorphic similarities between human and nonhuman animals found in both life and death.
In “Beyond Sharkness: The Avatar that Therefore We Are,” Mary Lee, a shark tagged and tracked by a “Global Shark Tracker” (GST), guides Sean Morey through a careful analysis of nonhuman animals as participants in rhetorical activities. As Mary Lee navigates the ocean and produces data with the GST, the shark writes a counter narrative to sharks depicted in popular media, literature, and art. Mary Lee, Morey observes, engages in a practice of naming and identity production typically reserved for human subjects that asks us to question the importance of ontological distinctions and how they inform traditional ways of engaging with nonhuman animals. Re-inscribing Mary Lee’s inscriptions, Morey queries how this shark’s writing troubles the divide between human and nonhuman animals, offering Gregory Ulmer’s concept of the avatar as a means to begin answering these questions.
Melissa Yang’s “Forms & Feet of Fowl: Twisted Histories of Poultry & Prostheses” features a creative catalogue of several famous footless birds and the prosthetics that brought them notoriety. Experimenting with wordplay, juxtaposition, and vignettes as rhetorical prostheses, Yang reveals an ecology of “prosthetic relationships” entangling the birds, their owners, the footwear, and the myriad media documenting their technological supplements. Writing new and unusual ontologies out of these ecologies that challenge the mechanical brutalization of poultry on farms and in popular culture, the rhetorical and material properties of prostheses offer Yang new opportunities for interspecies kinship and renewed inquiry into the lives of birds and other nonhuman animals through disability studies.
Tom Tyler’s “Enumerating Ruminants,” uses the opposing concepts of “enumeration” and “rumination” to explore the works of independent video game designer Jeff Minter. Enumeration and rumination are processes culturally and physiologically associated with ungulates including goats, sheep, and llamas. Tyler uses these concepts to examine Minter’s video game corpus, published and updated over the last three decades. Through enumeration and rumination, Tyler establishes a media ecology between the ungulates in Minter’s work and a flock of ungulates appearing across various media and cultures. Specifically, Tyler draws salient connections between the twelfth century Disciplina Clericalis and its various enumerations, tales of counting sheep from Cervantes to Eliot, and Minter’s own design as he revisits, refines, and reworks (ruminates) his own video games. In Minter’s ruminations and enumerations, Tyler finds a renewed awareness of ungulates in various literary traditions and offers a unique approach to studying animals in digital games.
In light of the question of the animal, Adam Lindberg explores the ontology of video game players in his essay “To Torture the Torturer: Videogame Violence and the Question of Humanism.” Lindberg proposes that, in video games, the human category is closely associated with concepts of mastery, usually over nonhuman animals. Humans often establish dominance over nonhuman animals, he argues, through traits such as reason, rationality, agency, etc., and these displays of power come to define “the human” in games. Because video games often situate players in agonistic structures that require players to demonstrate mastery, Lindberg calls for critical attention to how some video games reinforce “humanism.” With critical design, Lindberg suggests that games can resist reproducing “the human” and instead create opportunities for players to explore the ethical implications of their gameplay.
How we look at nonhuman animals has been fundamental in shaping human-animal relationships. As such, Hayle Zertuche’s “Animal Representations in Visual Culture: An Overview and a Haunting” addresses how we might shift from looking at other species to looking with them. Meadow, Zertuche’s deceased canine companion, steadily gazes back at Zertuche beyond death through an old portrait, and the dog’s gaze affectively haunts Zertuche and her essay. Responding to this specter who exceeds frameworks of sight and knowledge, Zertuche draws on the work of scholars including Karen Barad, Randy Malamud, and Madeleine Boyd to propose visual engagements that avoid the categorical violence implicit in representation. Whereas visual representation has served as an important way to distinguish between the “human” and the “animal,” Zertuche argues for a “humanimal” vision that feels with rather than looks at our entanglements with nonhuman species.
With each contributor’s approach to digital animals, two terms that continue to demand critical attention in their own rights, we find renewed inspiration in forging connections between the work of animal studies and digital media studies. The critical intersection posed here suggests new ways for these fields to collaborate, and our authors demonstrate that the material and ideological consequences of digital animals are too great, and the possibilities too significant, to ignore.
Notes on the Editors:
Melissa Bianchi teaches composition and literature courses in the Department of English at the University of Florida. Her research interests include media studies, animal studies, and ecocriticism with essays appearing in Revenant (2016), Green Letters (2014), and Computer Games and Technical Communication (2014). Melissa’s current research project argues for critical engagement with the representation and simulation of human-animal relations in video games.
Kyle Bohunicky teaches writing and digital media courses in the Department of English and Digital Worlds Institute at the University of Florida. His research interests include writing studies, digital game studies, and ecocriticism with essays appearing in 100 Greatest Video Game Characters (2017), Green Letters (2014), and Computer Games and Technical Communication (2014). Kyle’s current research project argues for game play as a form of writing and analyzes how and what players author through their gameplay.
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