I taught a graduate seminar in Spring 2020 about mediation, fiction, and the fundamental question of how we even communicate. We studied radio drama, comics, interactive fiction, games, recorded readings, and speculative fiction from the 20th and 21st centuries to experiment with critical forms of play, listening, reading, watching, and looking. Our angle on it all was media aesthetics in the vein of Walter Benjamin (the politicization of aesthetics and the aestheticization of politics in particular). As we moved week to week across contexts and formats of fiction, we asked questions such as, “How are our experiences and interpretations of fiction mediated?” “How and under what assumptions do media like audio, images, and text measure and even discipline our perception?” “What if communication were something else?” I said “apparatus” a lot during those conversations.

The seminar also acted as an introduction to media studies (or media praxis) for English MA and PhD students with interests in literature and theory since 1900. I structured it around some common questions and familiar statements (see image below) that spoke to the assigned content and also reflected how everyday communication is mediated. At the end of the course, students submitted a final project about an artistic or literary technique used to articulate media with fiction in the 20th and/or 21st century. Examples of those techniques included annotation, acousmatics, machine listening, procedural generation, simulation, and worldbuilding. Students used either 2500-4000 words (plus notes and references) or the equivalent across media (audio, video, image, text) for their projects. I asked them to identify potential publication venues (including but not limited to journals) and scaffold their research toward a final project by producing annotated bibliographies, co-facilitating seminar discussions, writing “genealogies” of their selected techniques, circulating 250-word abstracts, and presenting draft materials for peer feedback. The course shifted from in-person to online meetings in March to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Links to the course website, syllabus, and notes are below. I’ve included as well the course description and list of assigned materials that toggle between the first and second person for a student audience, and I point to a related talk I gave at the University of Puget Sound in 2018 on the topic of “Starting in the Middle.” Many thanks to everyone who participated in this seminar. The discussions were lively, and the projects were brill.

Screen image of the course site for "Media Aesthetics," showing part of the seminar schedule, with headers that say, "Did you get my message?" "You are here." "Who's calling?" "Is anyone listening?"

Media Aesthetics: Media and Fiction since 1900
Spring 2020 | UVic English 506 | Grad seminar for 12 students

Links: course website (HTML); syllabus (PDF); notes (HTML); talk (HTML) at Puget Sound; resources related to “Reading Media in Theory” (HTML) and “Designing Grad Courses” (HTML)

About the Seminar
Media are frequently treated as means in the business of making records. They help to verify communication occurred. Did you get my message? They also help to confirm meaning. Do you understand it? Such treatments tend to economize experience. Media should, for instance, facilitate the seizure and extraction of information. Take a video. Capture some audio. Grab an image before it’s gone. They should function as proof. I saw this. I heard that. I was there. They should be efficient. Give me the tl;dr. They should secure consensus. Don’t you agree? And they should accumulate and produce value. Am I on brand?

This seminar accounts for the records business to move beyond it. That move is called “media aesthetics.” Step one is speculation, and step two is attending to an apparatus—from economical communication to possible communications to how we even communicate. If economical communication verifies occurrence and confirms understanding, then speculation operates in the subjunctive. What if communication were something else? Here, resistance, refusal, storytelling, and figurative language become potential alternatives to economized experience, as each may brush against the desire for efficiency. An apparatus prompts us to consider why and how. It joins the economical with the subjunctive by producing relations between them. An apparatus is not some underlying structure or ideal form. It’s an agent for content and design, and it’s often right in front us, like an interface—there, yet impossible to grasp. During seminar, I’ll suggest that the key ingredients of an apparatus are measurement, movement, sense, and making sense, and we’ll assess how apparatuses discipline and standardize experience while affording experimentation and speculation. We’ll examine five apparatuses in particular (grids, editors, networks, stacks, and engines), though we’ll need something to ground us and all our abstractions.

What else but fiction to put us on the same page? We’ll study media through discussions of radio dramas, fantasy, science fiction, comics, games, and experimental literature from the 20th and 21st centuries. Call it escapism, if you wish; however, these fictions will be quite useful for understanding apparatuses and the economization of experience today. For one, they will nudge us to listen, watch, see, and play as well as read. They will also position audio, image, and text as congealed labour: processes and techniques rather than objects and instruments. From this position, we’ll approach aesthetics as a question of embodied perception and sensation, and we’ll talk about how some experiences of fiction are singular and others are shared. Fiction will also be a site for speculation and worldbuilding, and for stressing why both the content and design of the subjunctive matter. We’ll ask what audio, image, and text mean and verify in fiction, but also what they do and, if you’re so inclined, what they want. Perhaps most important, we’ll consider aesthetics and politics together. How and under what assumptions are media and fiction categorized? How do media encourage and even rationalize particular ways of engaging fiction? How do we compose with, against, and even beyond the apparatuses that dominate cultural production?

This is not a technical course. The assignments are open to media practice (such as the composition of audio and video) without requiring it. The seminar does not involve any quantitative or computational methods, either. By “media,” I mean “audio, image, and text,” not “the media” or mass communications and their outlets. And by “media aesthetics,” I mean the practice of evaluating how design and content are apprehended, comprehended, synthesized, and reproduced. In this case, we’ll evaluate the design and content of fiction.

I’m asking you to access most materials online via their URLs or a passcode-protected reader I’ve compiled. (See me for the ID and passcode.) Links are provided in the schedule.

Here’s a list of what we’re studying this term (in the order of when we’re studying them):

  • Nalo Hopkinson’s “Message in a Bottle” (2005)
  • N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season (2015) (selections)
  • Colin Grant’s BBC documentary, Caribbean Voices (2009)
  • Lucile Fletcher’s Sorry, Wrong Number (1943)
  • Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans (1911/1925; recorded in 1935) (selections)
  • Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape (1958)
  • Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006)
  • Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing Is Monsters (2017) (selections)
  • Marina Kittaka’s Secrets Agent (2014)
  • Patrick Jagoda’s “Critique and Critical Making” (2017)
  • Dene Grigar and Stuart Moulthrop’s Pathfinders: Documenting the Experience of Early Digital Literature (2015)
  • Gregory Zinman’s Handmade Cinema (2020)
  • Amanda Strong and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s Biidaaban (The Dawn Comes) (2019)
  • micha cárdenas and Bobby Bray’s Redshift & Portalmetal (2014)
  • Avery Alder’s Simple World (2013)
  • Porpentine Charity Heartscape and Brenda Neotenomie’s With Those We Love Alive (2014)
  • Fullbright’s Gone Home (2013)
  • Toby Fox and Temmie Chang’s Undertale (2015)
  • Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries’ M00D 0F THE M0MENT (2007)

Please purchase Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (HTML). It should be at the UVic Bookstore.

I recommend purchasing the following:

Alongside these materials, I’ve dedicated a section of the syllabus to notes (HTML). I’ll populate that section as the term unfolds. I don’t plan to use slides during seminar; however, I will include in our discussions various snippets of audio, image, and text from assigned fictions. As you study them, I recommend doing the same: consider screengrabs, sound clips, photographs, video, and whatnot for your own records and reference. If you’d like advice on archiving and annotating media, then let me know.

You’ll notice that most of the assigned materials are from the 21st century. I made these selections in part because I think (or hope) they will spark some engaging, if not pressing, seminar discussions about speculation and the apparatuses of media and fiction; however, we’ll still account for history in this course. For instance, during most modules I’ll provide overviews of where the assigned materials “fit,” and how, in media, fiction, and theory since 1900. I should also mention that my selections reflect an investment in narrative and storytelling. I did not include, for example, any artist’s books or poetry, both of which are obviously relevant to studies of media and literature.

For more information, see the syllabus (HTML) for the course.

The featured image (PNG), edited in Photoshop, is of Tetris running on my Game Boy. The main image (PNG) is of headings used in the schedule (HTML) for “Media Aesthetics.” This page was created on 16 July 2021 and last updated on 29 July 2021.