Reality is water-soluble

In ENGL 340, our main aim will be to explore how digital tools are transforming the work humanists have always done: preserving and interpreting the cultural record toward the end of understanding the domain of “the human.”

We’ll be less focused on a different kind of transformation: digital technology’s transformation of culture and society itself, including our collective understanding of what it means to be human in the first place.

But if this second kind of transformation is secondary for us, we don’t want to lose sight of it. The two are in some sense inextricable. The new ways of working with and thinking about the cultural record — especially, in literature, the written textual record — that we’ll explore this semester are, you might say, just one example of the larger transformation culture and society are currently undergoing as a result of digital technology’s explosive development.

This blog can be a place for us to share stories and resources we come across that connect one kind of transformation with the other. To start us off, let me point you to a recent episode of the podcast Recode Decode, hosted by technology writer (New York Times, Vox) Kara Swisher.

In the podcast, which you can find on Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or your favorite podcast app, Swisher interviews novelist Jeanette Winterson about her recent novel Frankisstein: A Love Story. The web blurb for Winterson’s novel sets the scene:

Lake Geneva, 1816. Nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley is inspired to write a story about a scientist who creates a new life-form. In Brexit Britain, a young transgender doctor called Ry is falling in love with Victor Stein, a celebrated professor leading the public debate around AI and carrying out some experiments of his own in a vast underground network of tunnels. Meanwhile, Ron Lord, just divorced and living with his mom again, is set to make his fortune launching a new generation of sex dolls for lonely men everywhere. Across the Atlantic, in Phoenix, Arizona, a cryogenics facility houses dozens of bodies of men and women who are medically and legally dead… but waiting to return to life.

What will happen when homo sapiens is no longer the smartest being on the planet?

After listening to the podcast, I immediately bought (the digital version of) Winterson’s novel. It opens this way:

Lake Geneva, 1816.

Reality is water-soluble.

I’m excited to be reading a tale that will help me connect what digital technology has shown me about texts — that they are fundamentally fluid — with what it might reveal about other kinds of fluidity, including, perhaps, the fluidity of reality itself.

And I’m looking forward to comparing how Winterson explores fluidity in this story-on-a-lake to how Henry David Thoreau explores it his story-on-a-pond, Walden.