December 28, 2012

A Mary Poppins Digital Humanities

Filed under: digital humanities,nu media,writing — jrice @ 4:41 pm

(the beginning of an article? early thoughts or draft idea)

A family anecdote claims that when I was four or five, I loved the film Mary Poppins. This anecdote states that I often would dance and sing to the film’s songs. I have no proof regarding the validity of this claim other than it’s made by my parents, whose anecdotal accuracy is always suspect (they think I’m some kind of left wing hippie, for instance, because I pierced my ears at 13). I’m not saying I never watched Mary Poppins; I’m only saying that as a 43 year old man, I may not want to own up to the anecdote. I don’t want to because I am sick of this movie.  It plays too often (and over a winter break, almost every day) on our TV. That said, I can prove that my five year old daughter has watched Mary Poppins close to 50 times. I can prove it because I tend to be the one who streams it from my laptop to the Apple TV. As I write this, she is yet again watching the film, a film she has memorized to the point that she not only enjoys the film’s narrative, she also enjoys reading both the opening and closing credits. The other day, she asked me to show her pictures of Dick Van Dyke on the Internet, a desire created out of her interest in his portrayal of two characters in the film, Burt and and Mr. Dawes Senior. I am sick of this movie. The roles fascinate her.

The interface, Alex Galloway tells us, is a series of effects. “An interace is not a thing, an interface it always an effect. It is always a process or translation” (33). An obvious question for me, via my own background and my daughter’s current obsession, would be: how is a film like Mary Poppins an interface, and for what type or types of effects? The easy answer, via cultural critics such as Fredric Jameson, would be to map the political narrative as allegory (whether in the very literal suffragette question expressed in the film, or the problematic capitalism expressed by the children’s father – Toppins! –  or Mary’s labor in child care in early 20th century England). I’ll leave such readings aside (they are predictable, commonplace and banal). I would like to know more about the visual interface’s effect on my daughter (and consequently on me). I want to know how Mary Poppins is an interace of sorts, a digital text, a digital humanities’ interest, or even the digital humanities itself.

It is easy to reduce popular culture, of course, to hyperbolic analysis and hermeneutics. Mary Poppins is the digital humanities! In the realm of some sort of non-representational writing (i.e., I don’t want to do an algorithmic scan of the film as many digital humanities’ approaches treat the non-print text; this would be representational methodology), to call Mary Poppins the digital humanities would seem absurd. How can a film about a nanny with magical powers who teaches a family to appreciate one another be the digital humanities? I’m sure digital humanists would be more comfortable with a critical representational question such as: How does Mary Poppins exemplify some sort of digital problem, or how does X pattern in Mary Poppins discovered by our search teach us something about 20th century England and some type of cultural representation? But no, I don’t want to know the answers to such questions. I want to know, instead, how the film is the thing we call digital humanities.

I want to know, in other words, its effects. In 2012, all effects are digital. But the only way for me to perform this knowing is not to totalize the film’s narrative or meaning (to paraphrase Barthes, as if things shuddered with meaning), but to treat the visual (the film) as being something it doesn’t claim to be nor express desire to be. Objects, current philosophical trends teach us, want (Mitchell), are alien (Bogost), withdrawal form relations as much as maintain relations (Harman), or are part of traces within networks (Latour). A film is an object. The digital humanities is an object. Narrative is an object. Visuality is an object. I am one, as well, I suppose.

Much of this philosophy maintains that as much as humans desire objects, objects desire as well. Since it plays so often in our house, I might assume, indeed, that Mary Poppins desires me, my daughter, or our Apple TV. I can’t prove any of that of course, but I can sense the effects of this film. One such effect is the narrative of the favorite. For some reason, my daughter tells me that the penguin scene is my favorite scene in the film. I don’t remember if I ever relayed that information to her (do I have a favorite scene in a movie I am sick of? I doubt it…). The scene mixes animation and real time performance. Her favorite scene (though it may change from time to time), is the laughing scene. The characters laugh so hard they float to the ceiling. She navigates the film by favorites.


My daughter asks me: What is your favorite scene? She insists it is this one.

As a practice of hermeneutics,  the digital humanities is a practice of favorites. I have felt that way about literary studies as well (and a great deal of the digital humanities is an extension of literary studies). A text is beautiful. Loved. Read. Interpreted. It is favorited for these readings and then studied. Such is the process of identification – critique identifies as artist (or by extension, as favorited political movement, favorited ideology, favorited film, favorited cause, favorited comic book, favorited game, favorited image of resistance, etc). My daughter joins in this effect: she asks about favorite scenes. This is her favorite movie. When my daughter watches Mary Poppins, though, her sense of identification is not entirely artistic driven (the beautiful text) but is also something more akin to McLuhan’s notion that in the age of new media, the youth occupy R-O-L-E-S. When watching the film (or even when not watching the film – over dinner, getting dressed, taking a bath), she tells me who I am in the film, and who she is. She is Mary Poppins, she says. ”You have to be the dad,” she tells me. “You’re grumpy, and he’s grumpy.” This sense of identification is the role. We play it. For a time. Then we move on.

My role of academic often dictates exigence. What might be the exigence to write about the 1964 film Mary Poppins in 2012 and to call it the digital humanities (as opposed to a contemporary or even more digital text)? I might reply, as I have done previously, that my exigence is the digital logic of I don’t care. The moment Barthes pisses in the garden and tells us that he has no reason to share this anecdote other than he enjoys pissing in the garden, we are privy to an I don’t care logic. There is no investment on my part (nor on Barthes’ part either). There is no sense of the literary favorite (i.e., isn’t X a great writer! isn’t Mary Poppins a great film!). In a logic shaped more by fragmentation, updates, tweets, posts, my exigence is likely more aligned with the response. This film plays all the time in our house. Now, I feel the effect of response (an interface effect). I don’t care. I recognize my daughter’s care, of course, but that is why the effect is digital humanities. It is a care based effect.

(enough for one blog post….maybe I’ll work on this some more; the notes, too, are driven by exigence….a post… of course, tomorrow I may decide I hate all of this anyway…and then another post takes its place)

1 Comment

  1. Apropos of nothing, I thought I’d mention the mostly-mediocre League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume 3: Century [SPOILERS AHEAD], which focuses on the 20th and 21st centuries, building in modern literary characters as did the earlier LEAGUE stories. The conclusion involves a depressed, power-mad Harry Potter stomping through London destroying everything. Just when things seem beyond hope, a storm arises and Mary Poppins arrives on the wind, she deftly deals with HP (I don’t remember exactly how, but without much appearance of effort) and then flies off under her umbrella.

    Comment by Brendan — December 31, 2012 @ 6:20 am

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