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Digital Humanities Program
Discovering Transmedia Topoi
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A Response to Valerie Morignat

Response given by Dr. Bill Hart-Davidson

I want to thank Dr. Valerie Morignat for a fascinating and provocative presentation this afternoon. I was privileged to see a draft of the talk earlier in the week, and have been living with the ideas shared here today for much of the week. In response, I want to share a compelling question that Professor Morignat has inspired: What are the rhetorical arts of the transmedia agent: human & non-human and assemblages of both? How do these agents make their way, communicatively, in the layered realities of transmedia ecosystems?

What we see through Professor Morignat's words and the sounds and images she has collected here are fascinating scenes from an extended canon of inventive activity: hybrid, multi-sensory, mediated acts of meaning-making that may arise spontaneously but in the digital world are capturable, sharable, replicable, and so quickly becoming habitual and even 'natural.' These are the manifold arts of Morignat's "performative thinking," - like the ability to project consciousness into remote inanimate objects – that were not so long ago fantastic plot points in sci-fi narratives. Today, they are mandatory skills for surgeons and performance review criteria for military drone pilots.

We might think of these as transmedia topoi, rhetorical figures that explain but more importantly, as heuristics, occasion creative acts in layered, digital ontologies:

  • The modulation of signs in transmedia storytelling – blending Real and Cinema – to engage participants' desire to become immersed in other worlds
  • The investiture of non-human agents with not only purpose and goal, but motive and values, a move that invites relationships beyond the utilitarian
  • These are but two, only the second of which I might hazard a guess at a name for thanks to Michel Callon's concept of interessement. But there are surely many more. And those of us charged with preparing students would do well to list them, investigate and yes interrogate them. Though the NSA may thank us not to do so thorough a job.

As way to start the list, then, now that I've hinted twice (with drones and online surveillance) of sinister happenings in transmedia landscapes, I want to take a critical turn and talk about one such art of the transmedia agent: unseeing.

The idea – or the label, really – of unseeing is central in the Weird Fiction novel The City and The City by China Mieville. The conceit upon which Mieville layers his hard-boiled detective narrative comprises two Eastern European city-states, both sovereign political entities, that occupy the same physical space. In places, the cities of Beszel and Ul Quoma lie adjacent and are "total" – that is the territory lies in one city or the other. In other areas they overlap. Where they do we learn to call the zones "crosshatched" as Mieville invokes the kind of layered ontologies ANTs like Callon, Latour, Mol, and Law reveal in their scholarship. Mieville gives us this term – crosshatched - that swaps the map for the territory, underscoring (heh) it as engendering transmediated experience. These places aren't literally crosshatched of course. And that's part of the trouble for newcomers like our narrator. Because the two cities don't really get along. In fact, when you are "in" one – a status conveyed by your citizenship or a temporary visa – you are forbidden to be, or even to regard and acknowledge, the other. What seem to be improbable social conventions to an outsider have, over time, become laws reinforced by state agencies in the Cities. Over time, the state actors have disciplined the individual human agents with a mysterious regime of surveillance. The penalties for running afoul of the borders – for "breach" - is swift and harsh. So what is a disciplined, multilayered ontological agent to do? Unsee.


To unsee is the practice of wholly shifting one's sensorial focus so as to reside in one city or the other. Not precisely to ignore the bodies of others rushing to work on the drab sidewalks of Beszel while standing in Ul Quoma, but rather to rapidly register and unsee them, engaging in a real-time filtering of the raw data of one's sensor network. To unsee is to conform. To breach – to move about the Cities as if there were no borders - is to commit a crime worse than murder, as the mystery plot makes clear. To unsee is to survive in a surveillance regime that has built up regulatory agencies, legal entities, social shibboleths, and even modes of fashion to reinforce an uneasy consensus. A divide between this world and that. Unseeing is useful sometimes, as an act of self-preservation, literally, or of courtesy. But it is also clearly an act of benign ignorance at best and of desperate appeasement to oppressive authority at worst.

Mieville seems to want us to understand this: transmediated actors learn to unsee. It is an art, learned, that becomes second nature. Like all rhetorical arts, it is fraught. Powerful assemblages – state actors, for instance – take advantage of the inherent desire of individual actors to cope with the attentional stress of transmediated living, and establish hegemonic protocols based on unseeing.

When the time comes, we ought not contribute to those. We ought to resist and prepare our students to resist. Because our students will unsee. We are, perhaps, unseeing even now. We should look into that. Deeply. As Professor Morignat has helped us to do today.