Speaker for the Dead

Just as I was starting to get a little bit bored reading about the politics and financial woes of Oak Hill Cemetery, the author reeled me back in with with this troubling, yet instructive quote from board president George Hill:

“I am absolutely sure that Oak Hill, its board, and its patrons are not ready for ghost tours and dog-walking,” he says. “It’s just not who we are.”

For all the parties that Hill manages to somehow speak for, he also seems to have omitted one entirely… Ah, right, the residents of Oak Hill Cemetery. They should probably get some say in the future of their home, if you ask me – it is their resting place, after all. And if Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book is any indication, it really shouldn’t be that difficult to get their opinion, once we find a suitable intermediary.

In all seriousness, though, Hill’s failure (or refusal?) to account for those buried at Oak Hill and how they might have weighed in on ‘what’s best for Oak Hill’ did get under my skin a bit. Sure, we can only talk in “might haves” and “may haves” about the wishes of the dead, and in this we’ve talked a good deal in class on the dangers and pitfalls this sort of speculation.

However, this article encouraged me to reflect on what we may gain from this exercise. As Hannah Grace writes, physical artifacts “risk being forgotten unless something or someone new comes along” to spark interest and reinvigorate the discussion – it takes considerable effort to keep the dead ‘alive’, so to speak. So, for all the flaws and limitations of wondering what the dead “might have wanted”, I think the fact that we even attempt this is hugely significant. It signals our dedication to consider and honor these wishes, as well as our refusal to let death extinguish entirely an individual’s voice. It is at once an effort to converse with the dead, and to keep them in the conversation. There’s something beautiful in that.

Coloring Outside the Lines

In my Electronic Literature class today, we had the chance to video-chat with a pretty famous e-lit creator, Jason Nelson. Nelson has worked with a dizzying variety of digital projects and mediums, from Flash games and smartphone apps to VR headsets and Roomba vacuums.

Nelson makes it difficult to sum up his style with a single word, but one that seems to at least describe a good number of his works is “messy.” In fact, we asked him directly during our call today if harbors some kind of hatred toward clean, minimalist design. His response (paraphrased):

 “Hell, yes! I can’t stand it. Modern design doesn’t feel natural; in fact, it feels hollow and artificial. Humans just aren’t built like that. We’re the opposite. We’re incredibly messy creatures. We have tons thoughts that don’t lead anywhere, and we leak a ton of fluids every day. Humans are super messy.”

As soon as he said this, my own messy thoughts jumped back to our recent discussions in this class, on the importance of historical accuracy, and where we draw the lines between fact, exaggeration, and fiction. And Nelson’s comment got me thinking: if humans are messy, why on earth shouldn’t we expect a field dedicated to telling the stories of humans throughout time to be pretty messy, too? Accuracy isn’t a bad ideal to strive toward, since it lets us pull together data to make reasonable arguments, just like any other science.

But there’s still a danger, I think, of getting so caught up in the facts and statistics that we lose sight of the people behind them. I, for one, have read (and likely written) way too many research writings that treat their subjects as variables in some big equation for making sense out of someone’s life, as if showing that a person did X thing and Y thing can explain with complete certainty why he/she did Z thing. Most of the time, it doesn’t add up.
Michael contemplates in his post if the ideals of data curation are too lofty to possibly achieve. I would say yes, if the ideal data curation is a completely factual and accurate one, then this isn’t just impossible, it’s simply not something we should concern ourselves with. If humans defy cleanliness and straight lines, then history’s goal should be to revel in and account for this messiness – certainly not to correct it.

Mid-Semester Audit: Keeping the Bodies at Bay

During one of our first meetings, someone (head graveDIGer Dr. Shrout, I think) brought up humanity’s tendency to create distance between living bodies and lifeless ones. We may interact with the corpse at a funeral or other ceremony, but only briefly – soon, the dead are either cremated and scattered or buried beneath a narrow plot of land. Notably, this distance is a comfortable but not insurmountable one: with enough resolve, you can find the Davidson graveyard, and visit the tombstones of presidents past.

Digital technology and the internet offer yet another means to create this arms-reach gap meant to keep the corpses at bay. It was only in preparing for this assignment that I fully realized this. A solid majority of our class’ blog posts so far have remarked in some way on the persisting centrality of the physical body in our experience of death, even in a completely non-physical space.
In his first post of the semester, Sherwood grounds this discussion in classic philosophy, boldly asserting that “Descartes was wrong,” and that our physical bodies have always been – and will always be – an integral part of life and death alike. Many of the Galindo reaction posts expand on and develop this very notion. A handful of us frelected on what we gained by actually walking around and ‘experiencing’ the exhibit, perhaps best summed up in Leigh’s poetic description of the effect: “the physical grabs us and keeps us.”
Meanwhile, others focused instead on what is lost  in Galindo’s art when distances temporal, physical, and digital stand between us and her original performances.
Even as we transitioned into discussing new readings and topics, we quickly discovered further evidence of a persistent bond between death and the physical body. For example, in our attempt to understand the troubling culture of online death threats and shaming,  we’ve frequently pointed  to the internet’s capacity as a wall that shields us from ‘real-world’ (often a synonym for ‘physical’) harm and discomfort. Even if we’ve only recently begun to figure this particular topic into our answers to the ‘big idea’ questions for the course, several people have already given it thought in their blogs. Kim was among the first to call our attention to the veil-like powers of the internet, when she admitted in near the beginning of the semester that she will not remember Galindo because digital things are but “shadows in mirrors on the grand stage.”  This, I think, is just one instance of a topic from this course being constantly re-evaluated and re-explored in the context of new material. I’ve been in far too many classes where each week ends with a big “reset and forget” button. The fact that I can pick out a single topic mentioned during week one of DIG215 and track its development all the way up to our most recent meetings is surely a sign of our class’ commitment to treating this course as one large body of work, rather than a series of dismembered discussions. Puns very much intended, as always.

“Only One Life Left!”: Dying in Video Games

Though I’m a bit scared to don the “gamer” title after Monday’s readings on Gamergate, I won’t let a crazed few keep me from professing my love for Mario and Pokemon. Indeed, it’s hard to take Gamergate participants too seriously, since the ‘movement’ seems to bring a new effigy to the stake each week. In Gamergate’s drunken stumble through gamer culture, a common thread amongst the debates is one already well-trodden: if, and to what degree, do video games affect their players?

For a few years now, games have been the target of choice to explain away whatever we decide to hate about our youth. Kids are violent/sexist/racist? Must be Grand Theft Auto. Before games, the correct answer was rock music, and before that, well – take your pick from comic books, TV, movies, or any other medium.

If it’s not already clear, I’m not a fan of this blame game – but I won’t get any further down that rabbit hole. Because even though I seriously doubt any claim that video games actually inspire violent tendencies, I do think that games, with their often casual and dismissive attitude toward dying, may influence how we think and talk about death.

It’s not even the most violent games that could be at fault here – in fact, often the family-friendly arcade-style games are the ones that treat player (or enemy) death with the least reverence. In Mario, Pac-Man, Sonic, and any other number of games with a “lives” system, dying is quick and painless and readily forgiven. Touch a ghost in Pac-Man, and it’s only a matter of seconds before you’re “alive” again, as if nothing had ever happened. Mario even turns player death into a comedic moment, theatrically turning Mario’s sprite toward the player as he falls through the ground and off the screen.

I find this fascinating, especially considering that these are the games typically marketed towards children. Even the most violent “adult” games often treat death with more gravitas. The Grand Theft Auto series, for example, has become known for its cinematic “death-cam” which triggers a black and white filter and slow-mo effect as you watch your character collapse heroically.

I know that this is all just speculation, and that perhaps games are just a product of a generation already indifferent toward death. Still, I can’t help but wonder about the effects may be of games that portray death as comedic or reversible or trivial or all of the above. A casual attitude toward death might have partially inspired the language used in threats on Zoe Quinn’s life – threats that may not typically produce physical harm, but as Michael suggests, can effectively ‘kill’ an individual’s voice on the internet.

To close with a somewhat less concerning example: It’s always a bit weird to hear my younger brothers – just 13 and 14 years old – already tossing around words like “kill [the Goomba]” and “die[, Princess Peach!]” while they play Mario Kart or Super Smash Bros. Neither of them would hurt a fly, but they’ll sure talk with murderous intent about those damned blue shells.

Hipsters and Killers and Redditors: My Three Artifacts

Alec Custer


DIG 215


Three Artifacts for the Tumblr Assignment

  1. Music video for “Elysium” by Bear’s Den
  • Filmmaker James Marcus Haney initially intended for this video to be a mini-documentary of his little brother’s last few weeks before graduating college. However, shortly after he began filming, a shooting occurred on his brother’s campus, and one of his brother’s friends was killed. The focus of the video thus shifted to become a tribute/memorial to his brother’s slain friend.
  • Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BH-wP2TDUBQ
  • I’m fascinated with how this video exists as multiple entities simultaneously; it is at once a memorial to a victim of a horrible tragedy, a short film about youth and the difficulty of comprehending and accepting death at such a young age, and a music video for Bear’s Den intended to boost their popularity and sales. As such, I think this video begs to be examined alongside the Galindo article, which similarly examines the multiple roles that Galindo’s works take on: as memorials, as art, and as commercial goods.
  1. Texas Department of Criminal Justice: Executed Offenders
  • This site is essentially a database of information about the 500+ criminals that the state of Texas has executed to date. Details listed for each criminal include name, age, execution date, final statement, and a summary of their crime.
  • Link: https://www.tdcj.state.tx.us/death_row/dr_executed_offenders.html
  • I’m interested in framing this database within the conversation about consent and death on the internet. Inmates forfeit a number of their rights while in prison, including their right to privacy. As such, do/should prisoners have less bargaining power in the debate over online privacy beyond the grave, and/or the “right to be forgotten?” An alternate angle which has a more direct connection to one of the readings (Tim Sheratt’s “Unremembering the forgotten”), might be to consider how this site preserves some information about members of society we usually try to push out of our minds and memories.
  1. /r/nujabes
  • /r/nujabes is the Reddit community dedicated to Japanese DJ Jun Seba (“Nujabes”), who died in a traffic accident in 2010.
  • Link: https://www.reddit.com/r/nujabes
  • Considering that the Aaron Hess article on 9/11 web memorials is by now a bit dated, I think it may be useful to use /r/nujabes as an example of a 2015 web memorial. Beyond the fact that Hess’ memorials and /r/nujabes pay tribute to wildly different entities, I think they also differ in their structure and management. The creators of Hess’ 9/11 sites maintain complete control over the content and argument of their memorials, while /r/nujabes primarily relies on its users to decide on its function, allowing it to serve as a memorial one day, and a typical fan-forum the next.