stephanie boluk

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— Current Projects —

Co-authored with Patrick LeMieux (Duke University), Metagames combines my interest in media archaeology, digital capitalism, and game studies to research the history of experimental videogame practices. The history of videogames is often conflated with the production and consumption of discrete software, the dates, dollars, and dynamics driving the games industry. Metagames, on the other hand, focuses on the history of play occurring in, around, and through videogames. From the “audiogames” invented by blind (and blindfolded) players to perspectival shifts in the spatial logic of first-person shooters and from the history of Super Mario modifications to the virtual currency and player-based production in competitive e-sports, uncovers an alternative history of play defined not by code, commerce, and computation, but by practice. The incommensurable gap between the microtemporality of computational games and the phenomenology of human play necessitates an act of interpretation—the construction of new rules or metagames. In the book we reveal how metagaming transforms autonomous and abstract pieces of software into human forms of play and how players turn into game designers. Following this ethos, each chapter incorporates original software designed for the project.

Forthcoming in Birthing the Monster of Tomorrow, edited by Brandy Schillace and Andrea Wood. Valve Corporation’s Left 4 Dead (2008-2012), a series of cooperative, first-person shooter (FPS) videogames, weaves together multiple iterations of the zombie trope within the larger serial structures that govern production and play of the game specifically and computational media generally. In this chapter, I analyze the way in which analytic and biometric data is harvested in networked computer games in order to create a streamlined, cybernetic system based on the conflation of consumption and reproduction wed through distilled through the serial logic of repetition. There is an ontological link between the zombie as a rhetorical figure and the media that it infects, circulates, and spreads. In this respect, Left 4 Dead is deeply referential, orienting itself within the zombie’s filmic and oral history and channeling both the legacy of George Romero’s living dead and the undead voodoo zombies that originate out of Haitian culture (as is particularly evident in the second installment of the series, set in the southern United States and released four years after Hurricane Katrina). Left 4 Dead’s zombies take on even greater political potency when examining the relationship between the representation of zombie and the gameplay mechanics and economic practices driving Valve’s business model. While videogame players are often pejoratively described as zombies, hypnotized by the screen and compelled to obey the demands of an algorithmic puppet master, I argue that there is a different kind of truth to this statement. In Left 4 Dead’s networked, digital economy, the player’s labor is zombified and made profitable in and of itself. Manipulating and constraining this gameplay, Valve’s AI Director, a cinematic algorithm which adjusts the game’s pacing, behaves as a kind of digital Bela Legosi, the voodoo master behind the curtain who steers the player’s experience. Through AI Director, an artificial intelligence system designed to produce adaptive and emergent forms of gameplay, the player’s labor is not only controlled by a nonhuman agent, but extracted and placed back into a cycle of monstrous (re)production.

Under review for a book collection edited by Phil Wegner (University of Florida) on emerging voices in Utopian Studies. Eskil Steenberg’s procedurally-generated “not so massively-multiplayer game” Love (2010-) isn’t necessarily an alternative or activist game directed towards explicit social or political issues. It’s not Darfur is Dying, Velvet Strike, September 12, or any of Molle Industria’s games. Yet, even these radical pieces often deploy the same game engines and computational structures as those games they position themselves against. By contrast, Steenberg did not just produce a game but the very software tools for programming the game as a means of challenging the deeply entrenched skeumorphic tropes and gameplay techniques of commercial software (and their open-source equivalents). Steenberg independently developed a modeling tool, texturing tool, file system, game engine, and film/video editor. As much as Love is an auterist videogame, it follows other procedurally-generated games such as Dwarf Fortress in demonstrating the transition from massively-multiplayer to massively-multiproducer online games. Not only is the kind of play these procedurally generated worlds offer a simulation of labor (terraforming, mining, farming, building, etc.), but players enthusiastically contribute their skills and neuropower and to assist with development of the perpetually-in-beta game. In Commonwealth (2009), published the same year that Steenberg first presented Love at the GDC, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri expand their theory of political love in the final volume of their trilogy. This book chapter examines their theory in relationship to Steenberg's work. Hardt and Negri see political love “a process of the production of the common and the production of subjectivity. This process is not merely a means to producing material goods and other necessities but also in itself an end.” Steenberg's Love stands an unusual and ambivalent adaptation of this sentiment. As Love is not a winnable game, but one that will always end in failure, the emphasis is placed on the process of play. Fredric Jameson writes in Archaeologies of the Future that “the best Utopias are those that fail most comprehensively.” Love is a game about failure and a game that has failed. I ask whether the emergent model of game and software design practiced in Love a space for an emergence of a commons and political love. Will it remain a failed utopian experiment? Or, given that the games industry has a long history of rushing to embrace participatory models of co-production, is this offering a more efficient, flexible model of capitalism that bests Empire at its own game only so that it might be more forcefully re-integrated back into the circuit.

Japanese conceptual artist On Kawara began his Today series in 1966. For over forty years, Kawara has produced daily monochromes featuring only the present date, crisply painted in white typeface and aligned in the center. Accompanying each painting is a newspaper clipping that Kawara has meticulously read and underlined. These monochrome paintings are one of many projects in which Kawara uses communication technology (newspapers, telegrams, postcards, calendars) in order to measure and transcribe a multi-ordered concept of the present. In this essay, I examine the relationship between Kawara’s various registers of temporality—geological time, industrial time, and lived time—and analyzes how these temporal orders are transformed when Kawara’s art is appropriated by digital artists such as Martin John Callanan and American art collective MTAA. What for Kawara is a lifetime of avant-garde labor, operating, as Lucy Lippard has written, in "slow time," has been dispersed over digital networks and made a product of human-computer interaction. Kawara’s concept of the present which operates within an ambiguous and distended space of lived experience has been replaced by the nonhuman mechanisms of realtime data tracking. The instaneity of digital microtemporality contrasts to the ways in which Kawara manipulates the latency of analog media to critical effect.

Versions of this project won the M. Thomas Inge award for Best Comics Scholarship at the PCA/ACA and the Arthur O. Lewis Award for best essay at the Utopian Studies conference in 2009. I am currently revising the paper into an article for publication.

This essay examines how time and history operate in Blondie, one of the longest running and widely syndicated comic strips. Turning to newspaper archives in order to provide a counter-narrative to the development of the strip, my research redresses the historical amnesia surrounding Blondie by resituating it in its historical, diegetic, and medial contexts. I argue that the current Blondie exists in a kind of post-apocalyptic temporality—an end of history in the form of an eternal present that naturalizes its depiction of suburban heteronormativity.

 

— Publications —

Co-authored with Patrick LeMieux. In Comparative Textual Media: Transforming the Humanities in the Postprint Era, N. Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman, eds. (University of Minnesota Press)

Dwarf Fortress, a freeware computer game in constant development since 2006 by Tarn and Zach Adams of Bay 12 Games, has become the progenitor of a new genre of videogames which employ the enhanced processing power of home computers to push not pixels, but processes. Given that failure is the rule, not the exception and that such a minimal graphical output belies complex algorithmic operations, the players have turned towards narration as a means of sharing their experience with other players. The textual artifacts produced in response to the game could be called dwarven epitaphs, ludic obituaries created to memorialize the death of play. Dwarf Fortress transforms from a world generator into a story generator. In this book chapter, we explore the relationship between the graphically-minimal textual architecture and the computational processes that define the game. The ASCII interface mediates the feedback between human player and computational processes. In Dwarf Fortress, as well as other examples of procedurally-generated worlds such as Eskil Steenberg’s Love (2009) and Markus Persson’s Minecraft (2010), play manifests as storytelling. By creating unwinnable conditions and a merciless virtual environment of geological transformation, Dwarf Fortress builds a game around failure. Nothing is permanent as the inhospitable wilderness of the digital landscape will always destroy the player’s fleeting successes. The players, however, have the satisfaction of taking away the battle stories surrounding their experiences.

Co-authored with Patrick LeMieux. Forthcoming in Digital Humanities Quarterly.

Anamorphosis is a perspectival rendering technique that produces warped but geometrically viable images. From Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors to Robert Lazzarini’s skulls, anamorphic artworks explore the tension between mathematical models of vision and more dispersed, embodied forms of subjectivity. Nowhere is this problem more explicit than in the 3D modeling and real-time graphic processing of computers. We review how anamorphosis has been deployed as a philosophical tool for exploring the relationship between phenomenology and technology. Games like Sony’s Echochrome series, levelHead by Julian Oliver, and Mark ten Bosch’s forthcoming Miegakure employ anamorphic metaphors to mark the non-human space-times employed by digital media. By attempting to represent the alterity of computational logics, these “anamorphic games” remind the player of the limits of human experience. They create gameplay out of the desire to think the unthinkable and to play in spaces that exceed the boundaries of human perception.

Co-authored with Patrick LeMieux. Leonardo Electronic Almanac, 17.2, 10-31 (MIT Press). A version of this appeared in the collected papers for Archive and Innovate: The 4th International Conference and Festival of the Electronic Literature Organization .

The title of this essay borrows from Raymond Queneau’s iconic Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, a sonnet generator capable of producing 1014 unique texts – a quantity that no one reader (or even a million readers) could parse in a lifetime. While Hundred Thousand Billion Poems gestures towards the impossibility of ever accessing the totality of its many reading paths, computer games such as Super Mario Bros. limit the player to one isolated, incomplete perspective among an enormous (but finite) set of possible playthroughs. Despite this single-player experience, collective patterns of play emerge from the repetitive, procedural, and discrete elements – what Ian Bogost calls “unit operations” – that drive computational media. Following Mary Flanagan’s approach to game criticism and Jean-Paul Sartre’s notion of seriality framed in terms of contemporary theories of network culture, this essay examines two categories of “metagames” which “critically play” the serial logics intrinsic to computational media. Metagames are games about games and the examples in this essay are built inside, outside, or alongside Super Mario Bros., inscribing twenty-five years of procedural play. From remakes of ROM hacks to speedruns of sequencers, this eclectic collection of player-created modifications documents an alternative history of computer games defined not by the production of software but by play. Whether reading Queneau’s book or playing computer games, the constraints of the poem or program produce a range of repetitions. Rather than subjecting the player to the mechanisms of control as defined by the rules of the game, the techniques documented in this essay successfully metagame their own serial conditions to model the movements of a hundred thousand billion fingers.

Co-edited with Wylie Lenz. Published by McFarland & Co. (2011).

Generation Zombie: Essays on the Living Dead in Modern Culture assembled an interdisciplinary group of scholars to explore the figure of the Zombie, investigate its transforming relationship to history and technology, and to question why it has proven so metaphirically adaptable. Growing from their early roots in Caribbean voodoo to their popularity today, zombies are epidemic. Their presence is pervasive, whether they are found in video games, street signs, hard drives, or even international politics. These eighteen original essays by an interdisciplinary group of scholars examine how the zombie has evolved over time, its continually evolving manifestations in popular culture, and the unpredictable effects the zombie has had on late modernity. Topics covered include representations of zombies in films, the zombie as environmental critique, its role in mass psychology and how issues of race, class and gender are expressed through zombie narratives. Collectively, the work enhances our understanding of the popularity and purposes of horror in the modern era.

Co-authored with Patrick LeMieux. Published in Electronic Book Review (2011).

In the third week of the Critical Code Studies Working Group (CCSWG), Dennis Jerz led a new team of digital humanists on an expedition to annotate the original source code of Crowther and Woods' Colossal Cave Adventure (1975-76). Alogside the their weekly discussion and following ethos of Critical Code Studies, the group contributed to Crowther's code by highlighting extra-functional content and offering historical, political, aesthetic, technical, and anecdotal observations. We provide an introduction and summary of the CCS working group's maze of twisty little feedback loops between source code and game content.

Co-authored with Wylie Lenz. Published in Journal for Early Modern Culture Studies 10.2 (2010): 127-148.

This essay examines the shift in fictional representations of plague and viral infection in relation to technological, medial, and economic transformations. Taking London as the constant variable governing our choice of texts, we examine Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year, Ben Jonson's The Alchemist, Shaun of the Dead, and 28 Days Later. We compare the way in which these early modern and contemporary texts negotiate anxieties surrounding the acceleration of capitalism. By adopting a transhistorical approach, the relationship between media and plague can be seen through the way in which the fact of infection not only generates a surrounding rhetoric of plague but a veritable plague of rhetorics. The structure of plague writing serves as a mirror of its subject, proliferating with a serial contagiousness.

Published in Postmodern Culture, 19.2 (2009).

Using N. Katherine Hayles and Christopher Funkhouser's new books on digital poetry and electronic literature, I review their research and assess the how such genealogies serve within the emerging field of the digital humanities as both a means of discipline formation as well as a call to resist the "newness" of new media: capitalism's logic of upgrade and obsolescence. I discuss how their two approaches to scholarship—the aracheological and the anthological—recuperate not merely specific histories but a larger sense of the importance and necessity of taking an historical approach to the digital—a logic always at risk of being lost in a field so deeply enmeshed in the rhetoric of technological progress.

Co-authored with Patrick LeMieux. Published in the Proceedings of the 8th Digital Arts and Culture Conference, After Media: Embodiment and Context. University of California Press: Irvine (2009).

This paper examines the way in which time and space are figured playfully within a series of new videogames and a site-specific video sharing application by Dan Provost called Trover. Taking Valve's game Portal as our central case study, we draw attention to an emergent chiasmatic relationship between these different modes of eccentric media. In order to access the physics of virtual time-space, the videogames we examine appropriate the logic of film whereas Provost's video application Trover is informed by the logic of games.

Winner of the 2009 Bruns Essay Prize. Published in the Proceedings of the 8th Digital Arts and Culture Conference, After Media: Embodiment and Context. University of California Press: Irvine (2009).

Between concepts of the literary and emergent forms of database aesthetics lies a contemporary model for theorizing serial production. This paper investigates the underexamined concept of seriality and the way it has been reconfigured in digital media. Using Homestar Runner as the central case study, I provide a survey of these issues surrounding the literary, database and seriality and the way they figure in this Flash website. I will then trace the propensity of electronic literature for what has been described as a technologically conditioned melancholia and relate this to the serial constructs within Homestar Runner.

 

— Teaching —

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Co-taught with Jonathan Beller, this course investigates the first digital medium, the one which now appears necessary and universal, and which radically impacted the emergence of culture, subjectivity, objectivity and "civilization": money. We will begin by reading Marx’s analysis of capital and his theories of money. In order to better understand the nature and effects of the emerging world money-system we will also explore the growing technologies of financialization (from ancient coins and paper currency to credit economies, derivatives, and ultrafast algorithmic trading), transformations in perception (fetishism, visuality, attention economies), shifts in the built environment (urbanism, gentrification, the slum, digital spaces, and augmented realities), aspects of the geo-political (colonialism, racism, imperialism, globality, rentier capitalism), and a brief history of philosophical modes of abstraction. Money will also be considered alongside other media of exchange and mobilization including print, photography, the road, the railroad, cinema, and networked and programmable technology. By focusing on contemporary artists and theorists working on and with the medium of money, we will investigate the current co-evolution of aesthetics and finance in what has come to be called "digital culture." This course also has a practice component: students will be expected draw on their reading and research in order to realize a project of their own design using money as a medium.

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From surveillance to sousveillance to dataveillance the course will examine how societies of control are shaped through governmental, political, social, and cultural forms of monitoring. We will survey theories ranging from Bentham’s “Panopticon,” Orwell’s "Big Brother," Deleuze’s “Societies of Control” and Galloway and Thacker’s “Protocological Control” in an attempt to think about our contemporary moment of financialization, securitization, and informatization. We will think about what it means to live in an age defined by PRISM, XKeyscore, biometrics, and ultrafast algorithmic trading as much as darknets, black swans, Wikileaks, and cryptographic currency. How has the “googlization of everything” affected models of privacy and public space? What does it mean to live a life tracked through social media in which attention economies expropriate the human senses and monetize the immaterial labor of millions of users? Peter Ludlow has coined the term “Generation W” to describe a new generation of whistleblowers and leakers from Chelsea Manning to Aaron Swartz whose crimes of conscience take the form of information dissemination and an embrace of institutional transparency. We will read theoretical, philosophical, legal and aesthetic texts and study a range of art and media from Steve Mann’s wearable computing to the television series The Wire to the computer game Papers, Please: A Dystopian Document Thriller. Students will be invited to draw on their reading and research in order to realize a project of their own design addressing itself to surveillance culture.

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Encounters provides Media Studies students with a program of events, including speakers, films, presentations, projects, outings, gallery shows and various other activities designed to introduce a widely varied set of media practices and theories. Seminar-style discussions will be held during weeks in which events are not scheduled. Students will be expected to produce short blog posts on the events which they attend/participate (unless otherwise stated), participate in a few small assignments and to present and lead the class discussion during one of the weeks.

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Contemporary Media Theory explores concepts and issues in the study of contemporary media. Our survey of key critical approaches is anchored in specific case studies drawn from a diverse archive of media artifacts, industries, and technologies: from orality to software to wetware, from bookrolls to GUIs to Brain­Machine Interfaces. We examine the historical and material specificity of different media technologies and the forms of social life they enable; engage critical debates about media, culture and power; and consider problems of reading posed by specific media objects and processes. Our goal throughout is to develop the research tools, modes of reading, and forms of critical practice to better understand the world in which we live.

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At the start of the twenty­first century, games have been rapidly expanding to become a dominant cultural interface. From romhacking to raiding and from e­sports to experimental artgames, this course will explore the way in which play and production are entangled in contemporary gamespaces. By thinking in terms of metagames­­games about games, games within games, and the games around games­­we will play with practice and practice play.

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This course offers a survey of theoretical approaches and practice-based methodologies in Media Studies. We undertake a historical and medium-specific analysis of practices beginning with the poetic of oral storytelling, moving through the development of chirographic and print culture and culminating with an analysis of analog and digital media forms of the twentieth and twenty-first century. Students will pursue critical, historical, and creative investigations into the complexities of the ever-changing media ecology that governs culture. We will put pressure on the multiple meanings and commingling of concepts like "medium" and "technology," exploring their relationship to ideology, institutions of power, and human cognition. As this course combines humanist inquiry with critical production in a variety of rhetorical and medial forms (poetry, print, film, animation, games, electronic literature and hypermedia, etc.), students will develop a broad range of reading, research, and analytic tools.

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Digital media art and electronic literature are often regarded as two distinct discourses. They have separate historical genealogies, theoretical interests, critical audiences, and market values. Yet the cultural and formal differences between literary and artistic new media objects is underwritten by the fact that these works often have similar procedural logics and are produced using the same technologies. As much as they reflect a convergence of aural, visual, textual, and haptic forms, how do these constantly-transforming disciplines stand apart yet mutually inform one another? How does Christiane Paul's account of digital art, for example, relate to N. Katherine Hayles's history of electronic literature? This course incorporates a general history of computational media (e.g. Bush, Nelson, Engelbart, Sutherland, Berners-Lee) with the investigation of some literary (e.g. Tzara, Borges, Oulipo) and artistic (Duchamp, Judd, LeWitt) precedents. We will apply this historical framework to the study of contemporary experimental production in networked and programmable media. Works examined will include netart, hypertext fiction, generative poetry, codework, interactive fiction, locative narratives (ARGs), bioart, database art, critical interface design, installation art, videogames, physical computing, augmented reality, and more.

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This course offers a survey of theoretical approaches and practice-based methodologies in Media Studies. We undertake a historical and medium-specific analysis of practices beginning with the poetic of oral storytelling, moving through the development of chirographic and print culture and culminating with an analysis of analog and digital media forms of the twentieth and twenty-first century. Students will pursue critical, historical, and creative investigations into the complexities of the ever-changing media ecology that governs culture. We will put pressure on the multiple meanings and commingling of concepts like "medium" and "technology," exploring their relationship to ideology, institutions of power, and human cognition. As this course combines humanist inquiry with critical production in a variety of rhetorical and medial forms (poetry, print, film, animation, games, electronic literature and hypermedia, etc.), students will develop a broad range of reading, research, and analytic tools.

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"Virtual Worlds and Utopia" explores experimental and critical forms of game design and game space. We will engage the concept of the "virtual" in the context of philosophy, optics, and digital media. We will examine the way in which theories of the virtual intersect with utopian thought from Thomas More to Fredric Jameson. The topographic model of Utopia as an idealized ‘non-place’ is well suited to the concept of virtual worlds and communities, yet what is the dystopian underside to the rhetoric of constant progress? This course will spend time not only studying and playing in virtual worlds, but we will examine their material and economic supports (e.g. coltan mining, goldfarming, software and hardware development, modding, etc.). We will address issues of class, labor, race, gender, and sexuality that arise in the interplay between virtual and physical space. These questions will be explored using theoretical, ethical, historical, cultural, and practical approaches.

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This course takes a pan-media approach to the study of plague. We will pay close attention to how media interact with each other and the way these interactions influence the epistemological and ontological structures of plague in the European imaginary. Using texts that range from Thucydides' survivor account of the Plague of Athens, to Daniel Defoe's first protoype of the English novel in Journal of the Plague Year to Danny Boyle's biothriller 28 Days Later, we will look at the way the rhetoric of plague has been harnessed as a vehicle for articulating xenophobic and genocidal ideas, postcolonial anxieties, and the network anxieties that emerge as a response to globalization and the spread of capitalism. We will observe the way millenarianism, which historically always has been a part of European culture, continues to manifest itself in a contemporary context. We will explore the relationship between the individual body to the body politic and the way biomedical discourses interleave with moral, political, and artistic discourses.

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This course serves as an introduction to narratology through a focus on how digital literatures have reconfigured modes of storytelling. We'll examine the various ways narrative has been historically defined and develop methodologies for approaching works that are authored with new media technologies. Our analyses will attend to the cultural and material specificity of the objects we are studying. We will discuss how technology shapes narrative possibilities. What are the influences of a medium on storytelling and what are the consequences of translating narratives from one medium to another? What is the relationship of narrativity to interactivity? Of database to narrative? How must we adapt our interpretive strategies to incorporate human-computer interaction? We'll investigate how these questions of narrative, genre, and technology reshape our concepts of the literary in new media.

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This course traces the history of film and film theory and teaches students to master film language and terminology. We will examine a wide variety of films, genres, and aesthetic movements including silent, black and white, experimental, and foreign films in addition to mainstream Hollywood cinema, animation, and digital video. This is not a film appreciation, production, or screenwriting course and students are expected to think and write critically about film. A strong emphasis will be placed on improving academic writing and students will be required to regularly produce scholarly work in a variety of genres ranging from short scene analyses that examine the structural, technical and aesthetic aspects of the film to longer, research-based essays. At the end of the semester students should be able to describe the formal aspects of a film and have a sense of both the general history of film as well as important issues in film theory.

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Building on the study and practice of writing in ENC1101 and 1102, this survey of American literature teaches students how to analyze literature, write critical arguments, and improve their knowledge of American literature and culture. We will concentrate on the process of producing well-supported, polished, and persuasive literary and cultural analysis. The thematic focus of this survey course revolves around literature that represents the American abroad. How does the construction and performance of American subjectivity transform when in a state of dislocation? What are the differences when expatriation is voluntary versus compelled for either economic, social or political reasons? Looking at a broad selection of American travel writing, ranging from American tourism, military and business travel to Americans in exile and forced migration, we will examine how encounters with cultural difference shape American subjectivities.