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Sophomore Dialogue Seminar Syllabus

History 34Q, HPS 158 Winter Quarter 1999

Instructors: Timothy Lenoir & Sha Xin Wei

Course Description | Calendar | Coursework | Projects

Course Description

New media technology such as the printing press, photography, film, and, more recently, computer-mediated communication as well as computer-generated visualization and simulation: all these have had profound effects on our conceptions of objectivity, agency, the self, and the body. This course explores several historical episodes in which technologically mediated virtual worlds have transformed our experience of the "real." We will begin with a brief introduction to theories of mediated experience, and then move to a consideration of the invention of graphism in paleolithic times and the relation between linear writing and graphic presentation. We will then move to 17th century considerations of technologies of "virtual witnessing" in constructing arguments about scientific facts, followed by a consideration of the 18th century fascination with the disembodied subject in works such as Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiment. Questions of embodiment will guide our consideration of the "interpretant" in Charles Sanders Peirce's semiotics, and focus on material media-grammophone, film, typewriter-will frame our consideration of Freud's notions of the subject. Our final set of topics will focus on visualization, the "second computer revolution," in several fields of biomedicine, including new developments in "virtual surgery." With VR scientists and artists at the Stanford Computer Graphics Laboratory, Sun Microsystems, we will engage in a hands-on laboratory exercise in the problems of constructing virtual worlds, while readings on hypertext, cyberspace, and cyborgs will frame our exploration of the shifts new hypermedia may introduce into our practices of reading and rhetoric.


1. Tu Jan 5 Introduction

2. Th Jan 7 Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994), pp. 3-63.
3. Tu Jan 12 André Leroi-Gourhan, Speech and Gesture (Cambridge, Mass; MIT Press, 1993), pp. 187-266.
4. Th Jan 14 Alberto Manguel, "The Silent Readers," from A History of Reading (New York: Viking, 1996), pp. 42-53.
Virtual Witnessing
5. Tu Jan 19 Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, "Seeing and Believing: The Experimental Production of Pneumatic Facts," in Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), pp. 23-79.
6. Th Jan 21 Daniel DeFoe, Robinson Crusoe (London: Penguin, 1965), pp. 80- 117; 199-230.
John Bender, "Enlightenment Fiction and Scientific Hypothesis," Representations, Vol. 60 (Winter 1997), pp. 1-23.
7. Tu Jan 26 Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiment (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), pp. 9-66; & Part III, Ch. I, pp. 1-3.
Recommended: David Marshall, "Adam Smith and the Theatricality of Moral Sentiments," Critical Inquiry, 10 (1984), 592613.
Imannuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, Selections
Material Semiotics
8. Th Jan 28 Charles Sanders Peirce, "Some Consequences of Four Incapacities," Peirce: Of Signs. (Chapel Hill:Univ of North Carolina Press, 1991).
9. Tu Feb 2 Brian Rotman, "The Emergence of the Metasubject," Signifying Nothing: The Semiotics of Zero (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987), pp. 27-56; "Absence of an Origin," pp. 87-107.
10 Th Feb 4 Brian Rotman, "The Technology of Mathematical Persuasion," in Tim Lenoir, ed., Inscribing Science (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).



Writing and Postmodernism

11. Tu Feb 9 Jacques Derrida, "Différance," Margins of Philosophy, translated by Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), pp. 3-28.
12. Th Feb 11 Mark Poster, "Derrida and Electronic Writing: The Subject of the Computer," The Mode of Information: Poststructuralism and Social Context (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), pp. 99-128.
Materialities of Communication
13. Tu Feb 16 Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, Translated by Geoff Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), Preface, Introduction, and Chapter 1: Gramophone.
David Wellbery, "Post-Hermeneutic Criticism," Forward to Discourse Networks, pp.vii-xxxiii.
14. Th Feb 18 Field Trip: Computer Graphics Lab
We'll take a field trip to the Stanford Computer Graphics Lab to see Professor Pat Hanrahan's work with the Responsive Workbench, Professor Marc Levoy's work on 3-D imaging, and possibly the Phantom Haptic Feedback system.
Computer-Mediated Communcation
15. Tu Feb 23 Vaneevar Bush, "As We May Think," Atlantic Magazine, August,1945, in SiliconBase.
Douglas Engelbart, Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework," Stanford Research Institute Report AF 49(63-8)-1024
16 Th Mar 4 George Landow, Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporay Critical Theory and Technology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), pp. 2-119.
Tim McLaughlin, Notes Toward Absolute Zero, a piece of interactive fiction, using Storyspace by J. Bolter et al. (1 MB, Mac binhex compressed)
Shelly Jackson, Patchwork Girl (Eastgate Systems)
Habitat and Virtual Community
17. Tu Mar 9 Jean Baudrillard, "Simulacra and Simulations," in Mark Poster, ed., Jean Baudrillard Selected Writings (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988), pp. 166-184.
N. Katherine Hayles, "Narratives of Artificial Life," How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), pp. 222-246.
N. Katherine Hayles, "The Power of Simulation: What Virtual Creatures Can Teach Us."
Chip Morningstar and F. Randall Farmer, "The Lessons of Lucasfilm's Habitat, in Michael Benedikt, ed., Cyberspace: First Steps (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992), pp. 273-302.
Habitat: on course website
Moira, "Colony Alpha: Making Active Worlds." On course website.
And for the next steps we will examine Marcos Novak, transArchitecture
Explore further aspects of Marcos Novak's work
Virtual Reality to Virtual Surgery
18. Th Mar 11 Roger Coyne, Designing Information Technology in the Postmodern Age(Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995), pp. 147-202; 249-302.
Hands on stuff.

Coursework and Requirements

This class is intended for heavy reading and interaction with media. We will ask students to make presentations based on the course material. We would like you to bring in additional perspectives on the material listed in the syllabus, but aimed at focussing our discussion for the day. Ideally we would like this material to be developed into an interactive course website. Presentations will begin at the fourth class meeting in order to give you time to work up something interesting.

Each student will also be required to produce a term project. The project can be in the form of a 10 page term paper, or a design sketch of a digital media piece, with commentary. You may work together with a partner on the course project. In the fourth week of the term, i.e. January 28, we'll ask you to turn in a one-page outline of your proposed term project so we can offer feedback. We'll expect you to meet with us during office hours so we can help shape your project into something you can complete in a reasonable time.

We will discuss possible term projects as we get into the quarter, but below are a few ideas of the sorts of things you might contemplate.

Ideas for Term Projects

A. Study an artifact (traditional paper format is fine, but think about how to cite non-print artifacts) --
  1. Contrast the UNIX or DOS shell with the Mac or Windows interfaces. What ontologies are implied? What is the status of the subject, the witness, the body?
  2. Examine an existing piece of VR, such as
    1. Habitat --
    2. MERL 's social vr --
    3. SimCit> 
    4. Transfer interrupted!

    5. SimCity
    6. ...
    Compare it with traditional virtualities (eg. Crusoe, the debit card). How is it authored? How is it received, read, experienced?
  3. McLuhan says that the medium is the message, but maybe the message of online text is that the natural medium for large masses of text is paper. Current computer interfaces are not well-suited for intense readings of book-sized assemblies of text. But there are people (at Media Lab and maybe GA Tech) who are playing with small fragments of dynamic text for poetic and other purposes. We see dynamic typography in TV ads. A topic for a creative or analytic project could be dynamic typography. Check out the work at the MIT Media Lab.
B. Do a creative piece --

Using a computational authoring system of your choice, such as any HTML editor

create a piece of fiction, or a simulation, or a visualization. Compare it with more traditional writing technologies. How might your creation be different? One good way to do this project might be to create alternate treatments of a given theme in different "media," eg. a photo essay vs. a hypertext.

C. Write an analytic work (traditional paper format is fine) --

  1. Does a nonlinear system of writing shape the way we think about or experience the world differently than linear systems of writing? What does linearity mean to you in this context? Choose some examples from recent technologies (eg. word processor or musical score editor) and pre-computer technologies.
  2. Trace the evolution of the notion, role and locus of the subject in some recent technologies. Consider, for example, what ubiquitous computing, or embedded cognition might imply.
  3. Read Jaron Lanier's comments about post-symbolic communication. Is it possible? What are some reasons to believe or disbelieve his claims? (
  4. Compare a pictographic/ideographic writing system (like Egyptian hieroglyphics, or Chinese) with a phonetic writing system like English. Speculate on the evolution of graphical user interfaces. Why are computer interfaces so ocularcentric? (See A1.)



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Last modified 14 January 1999