Handout & Slides




For me, it’s clearer and clearer that play matters, even if play is not something innocent or childlike.


More and more it is the TANGLES I care with and among, gathering with beings and objects teaching and crafting, with stories and research, to be sharing, making, demonstrating, offering, supporting, and yes, critiquing, objecting, intervening. These tangle together and it is not simple or necessarily desirable to pull them apart.


Nowadays I think and write and make images and craft ideas on the web, in websites and slides and drawings. I practice social media learning, that is to say, I learn WITH the media, we are media together and learning happens across our entanglings: I move between photos and drawings, uploading and downloading, sharing and paying attention: looking with shifted senses, learning something new, unlearning something taking up too much space or turning out to have unanticipated consequences for uneven justices. I like some of the beauties possible, even when I am also only too aware that that is hardly ALL that it is about.


Thoroughly altered myself by technological infrastructures, processes, and cognitive reassembly, when I share my work, I tend to do so as a kind of transmedia story, and I care about this, even as I also notice that transmedia’s origins are commercial and suspect. These are the very conditions of making knowledge today for sure. (King 2011) Both you and I, knowingly or without reflection, gather and pin together such stories across media, platforms, sensory channels, and forms of sharing. I have created this website to accompany this talk, but really it was also a kind of sandbox for thinking it out as I prepared to come today. And I use the web as a SET of sandboxes for intellectual play for all my work nowadays. And I remember that play is about trial and error, permutation and mistakes.

Such play helps me think in pictures, to move around physically and in space, interconnect knowledges distributed among worlds, to talk to myself and others both verbally and non-verbally. My website concentrates this TALK today, it has LINKS for overviews, it links to more CONTEXT, for how it fits into the range of work I do, and the website shares its MEDIA, my handout, google NGRAMS, and it stores a BIBLIOGRAPHY here for your further attention, later, after our meeting together.


This transmedia form modestly MAKES knowledges, as well as sharing and demonstrating them, storing and using them. It is never entirely and only digital, and it is not at all a transparent platform for content: but rather, as history of consciousness scholar Donna Haraway reminds us about speculative feminisms, sfs, of all kinds:

"It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with…. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.” (Haraway 2011: 4)

Here you see my students making posters and games, digital and analog and senses and cognitions entangling. This is a DESIGN FORMAT that matters: itself an assemblage of expressive and evocative objects that live in a range of materialities and infrastructures. This is one way now I am learning to be affected: learning to add to my distributed embodiments and being, and thus to my and OUR worlds. (Latour 2004) (You may consider how this point matters with the example of our UMD living/learning program DCC’s shifts, from being DIGITAL cultures and creativity to DESIGN, cultures and creativity.)

Notice you have a handout too, also downloadable from the website, an additional and alternative platform and set of writing technologies. I both talk ABOUT and AM MYSELF a transmedia storyteller.


When I first started playing with html for making websites in the late nineties, it was in the evenings in between knotting embroideries or crochet lace, or later, spinning fiber or knitting. For many of us this web was always textual as in textile, sensory as in fingery, and worldly as in full of worlds maybe only half glimpsed visually yet still palpably immersive across distributed communities, technologies, embodiments, practices, and sensoria.


In 2000 in a first MITH Digital Dialogue I tried to imagine what it would mean to use the Web itself as a conceptual sandbox, thinking with the web itself, tangled in thinkings and play among its materialities. I refused the punitive models of imposing digital skills upon students and teachers, upon learning environments, upon research evaluations, and yes, even upon play, or critique itself, as if critique exists only in punitive refusals. I dived right INTO that paradox! I work for play and that includes the difficulties in power and the getting around them.

Who do we want to share worlds with, why, when, and how? I like what I call “worn tools,” describing them as “warmed up, not worn out.” A range of feminisms today work across materialities.... (Haraway 2011; King 2011, 2012; Bleecker 2008)


And I’m excited to gather with you in a venue that is so transdisciplinary: a circumstance for play, learning, unlearning & making, and thinking with, what Donna Haraway and others are nowadays writing about as  : SYM, with, and POIESIS, making. (Haraway 2013; Dempster 2000) There are so many reasons today that we need to gather together among many worlds: learning to play and share and make things that will reshape justice, speculatively design environments, alter with the planet and its things and our consciousness together. Women’s Studies has always been ambitiously interested in changing reality.

And we come together from different knowledges, shifting social identities, degrees of experience with digital whatevers, and probably with critiques for justice and worries about privilege and access, offering quite different angles on it all. What I love about transdisciplinary gatherings is that what we DON’T know, perhaps don’t know YET, matters too: diving into the paradox, we can say that not knowing gives us insight into how to work well, offers angles of vision on what is actually happening NOW. This is a methodology of importance.


I point out on the talk website’s bibliography tab how tricky it can be to work as a transdisciplinary scholar. One can take neither authors nor audiences nor citation pools for granted. In a transdisciplinary venue we share what we are actively learning. We have to assume that we have differential and on-going knowledges, that these each take up their own range of details; we hope to companion well with them and each other.


I hope to share some tools, stories, practices, and histories with you today that will help put what we are doing here together into some contexts. And I hope to share some of the fun of this transdisciplinary scholarship, the ah-ha experiences that shift angles on realities, some of the playing well together that we need now, and even sometimes, just thinking, just wondering. So we have already gone through the first part of my talk, PLAY, and some of the ways and whys there are of companioning with the web.

That sets us up next for considering how what counts as writing, devices, humanities, digital, reading, language, ecology, media is properly up for redesign. That’s LEARN, UNLEARN, AND MAKE. And finally we will trace some of the terms that are bouncing around as companions to digital humanities, and consider that we want them ALL for the serious play of complexity.

Section 2 is learn, unlearn, and make, all up for redesign

II. LEARN, UNLEARN, & MAKE: UP FOR REDESIGN: What counts as writing, devices, humanities, digital, reading, language, ecology, media are up for re-design


It’s the early 80s and I’m sitting in the basement of the computer center late at night, writing on a computer mainframe in the days before personal computers. Using the visual editor I type in words displayed as numbered lines; they look rather like poetry. Every few minutes the system crashes and I lose my work unless I save it line by line. Suddenly I realize I am staring at the screen “hearing” the computer say to me “Your core has been dumped; you’ve reach the end of the disk”!

At that moment my body rearranges: I “feel” its edges alter. I “see” a funny disk-like space. And although I actually had no idea what the mainframe set up looked like, I experience myself INSIDE the computer rather than outside it. I become AWARE of such cognitive sensation for the first time, aware of my distributed embodiment. Although partly “not me” it is also “all me.” I am me and an object simultaneously: the contexts are inside.


I had been studying anthropology with polymathic cyberneticist Gregory Bateson already, learning to think in systems, biological, communicative, infrastructural, mathematical, technological in the days before Silicon Valley was an everyday term. I was also a feminist and, I thought, a political revolutionary, which was what we hoped the Women’s Liberation Movement would enable. I could recite the work of lesbian poet Sappho in ancient Greek, and spent summers teaching English in Thailand. For reasons both privileged and not I lived in many worlds simultaneously.


I hang out with nepantleras, “those who facilitate passage between worlds,” both people, and actually lots of objects. Identified by Chicana writer Gloria Anzaldúa, those who work with nepantla then are associated “with states of mind that question old ideas and beliefs, acquire new perspectives, change worldviews, and shift from one world to another.” (Anzaldúa 2002:1)


Anzaldúa was an inspiration when I first came to UMD with my research on writing technologies, and some of my first classes were about feminism and writing technologies. I learned html in the evenings while watching tv to teach to my webwomen, my students: together we shared what the web taught us about website making, linked to webpages before search engines were helpful, took workshops to hand code tables before CSS or Dreamweaver. Webwomen came into existence the moment a browser first read our html. At that time learning html was something students and their teacher could do together.

I turn to this webwomen moment for a spirit in which to share our transdisciplinary venue here and how much we have to learn together, how important it is to gather among our differential knowledges and play well. Not a metaphor but a practice of companionship, one we participate in together now at this Institute, but also one that feminists in coalition politics have always worried through, only too full of mistakes and power unacknowledged or accountable, error-ed pasts that have to be teased into better nows, even though, diving into the paradox, they too will turn out to be full of wrongs.

Nepantla is a state that works with all this. And sometimes we can use some help coordinating or otherwise assembling the apparatus we find ourselves inside of and also, paradoxically, companioning, whether our core has been dumped or not, whether we are on the edge of memory and action or not. The “writing” in writing technologies has shifted and more of it is now visible, and differently, because we have made new companions. Indeed I now have to think of writing as a cognitive companionship humans have arranged with their favorite objects and ecologies, managing and being managed through and among complexly enfolded systems and artifacts. Nepantleras – including the so-called wizards or gurus of technology organizations – because they live in “enough worlds at the same time,” in the words of technoscience theorist Lucy Suchman, are folks with a feel for work-arounds in ranges. (Suchman & Scharmer 1999) They practice systems coordination and facilitate the work-arounds of collaboration, often through the agency of the objects called by sociologist of knowledge work Leigh Star “boundary objects.”

Boundary objects don’t create boundaries, they work to keep boundaries from getting in the way of collaboration. They can ignore or even miss that there are boundaries about, or they can honor boundaries, that is to say, differences that should be honored, without being stuck there. They help us in transcontextual circumstances: moving from one context to another, one world to another, one set of knowledges to another.


Star reflects on the origins of the concept of a boundary object in the process of making things, for example, technicians making an interface that nontechnical users can actually use! Something all of us are only too familiar with nowadays! But we can also get help from boundary objects for thinking WITH our different feminisms, WITH our ranges of different kinds of detail among our particular knowledges, WITH our hopes for coming up with ways of learning well, unlearning, and even making.

Star tells a story about tangles and miscommunication that motivates figuring out how boundary objects work: “As I delved deeper into the relations between developers and users, it became clear that a kind of communicative tangle was occurring. I used the work of Gregory Bateson, who had studied these sorts of communicative mishaps under the heading of ‘double binds.’ As with Bateson’s work on schizophrenics, and what he called ‘the transcontextual syndrome,’ the messages that were coming at level one from the systems developers were not being heard on that level by the users and vice versa. What was obvious to one was a mystery to another. What was trivial to one was a barrier to another. Yet, clarifying this was never easy…. I began to see this as a problem of infrastructure – and its relative nature.” (2010: 610; Bateson 1972: 276)


The communicative double binds Star points out here are transactions, that is to say, relational, social, and built upon repetition. More than a single or simple contradiction, they are instead an entire system of layered contradictions mobilized over a range of communication channels. They are both structural and agential.

In many ways, these are the very circumstances that inspired critical race and legal theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw and our own Dean of ARHU Bonnie Thornton Dill to come up with their ways of using the term “intersectionality.” (Crenshaw 1991; Dill 2009 [1983]) These are circumstances any feminist will recognize all too well: we are sensitized to the oppressions that are their abusive sides. With double binds, abusive practices and just challenging ones are only too easily mistaken for each other when crucial context markers distinguishing one from another are unvoiced or become unrecognizable, contradictory, or fraudulent. And experiences with repeated abusive double bind circumstances entrains one’s sensitivities, something that matters in say, the experiences of microaggressions, the way they tangle what is felt as personal with structural power. Privilege can insulate one from such abusive repetitions. (Microaggressions Project 2014)

Yet there are nonabusive double takes too: ones that nepantleras facilitate: shifts among realities that make something else possible. Diving into the paradoxes of intersectionalities in the plural, now used and made by many folks for a range of purposes and accountabilities, we find ourselves in the company of boundary objects, coordinating among the complexities of communication, analysis, and power.

Nonabusive PLAY at the very edge of double binds is possible when we realize, for example: “My body is reacting as if I am in danger, but really I’m in front of a computer screen playing a game.” But Bateson, anthropologist of double binds, was well aware that not every edge of play is so easily resolved: that transcontextual confusions and gifts arise from situations in which “tangles” remain – in which finding out which bits are active, which context, which explicit, which rules are perceptible, which distributed embodiments are in PLAY, matters. And the skills for all this, transcontextual movement without falling apart – are what restructuring academies, nations, and industries call “innovation.” Can they be also what revolutionaries call liberation? What tangled thinkings might be useful here?


A curiosity about what, in a last essay, Star called “growing boundary objects” becomes part of creating just enough trust to share, necessary for understanding our travels among knowledge worlds, feminist workarounds in the midst of global (academic) restructuring. (Star, 2010:602) Boundary objects are workaround things, concepts, processes, even routines that permit coordination, sometimes collaboration, without consensus (non-conscious and conscious).

When a set of feminist educators wanted to come up with an alternative to the privatizing MOOC platforms beloved by some university administrators today they companioned with the web, making FemTechNet, a Distributed Open Collaborative Course or DOCC, and they inhabited their DOCC with what they called caringly “boundary objects that learn.” They wanted to enable companionships in which such an object “participates in the creation of meanings: of identity, or usefulness, of function, of possibilities.” They reminded us that Star came up with the concept “to assert that objects (material, digital, discursive, conceptual) participate in the co-production of reality. At base, the notion asserts that objects perform important communication ‘work’ among people: they are defined enough to enable people to form common understandings, but weakly determined so that participants can modify them to express emergent thinking.” Boundary objects that learn are always up for redesign, up for speculative feminisms. (Juhasz & Balsamo 2012)

Star talks about “understanding local tailoring as a form of work that is invisible to the whole group and how a shared representation may be quite vague and at the same time quite useful.” (Star, 2010:607) To participate in what Star called good and just standards for those who have suffered their absence (Clarke, 2010: 591), we struggle to recognize comrades, even as we prescribe methods and ethics that may well in their turn be revealed as partial and accompanied with unanticipated consequences.

Almost done now, section III, thinking with:

III. THINKING WITH: How does digital humanities as a trace across "lots of books" compare? Go for complexity.  


There are the words “digital humanities” and there are all the people, processes, devices, institutions, educational technologies, dare I say feminisms, which may gather with this term and others, not in reference but in entangled companionships. Up for redesign are writing, humanities, digital, representation, ecology, media among other boundary objects, now learning WITH us, SYM-POIESIS, MAKING WITH. (Haraway 2013; Dempster 2000)



Boundary objects can enable both reading closely and distantly, with sensitivities for fine details and with ways of getting perspectives on complex systems. We see here a Google ngram for both the term I’ve been using for years, “writing technologies,” and the term “digital humanities.” I have to admit I had thought digital humanities was the more common term nowadays until I checked out its traces across “lots of books” as Google puts it for their big data summary. Writing technologies still tops DH in usage in BOOKS at least. I wonder if it would be different if other sources of data were included?


I had thought the term “cyberculture” was pretty well trended out, but my sense was premature it seems, again among books.


And I had no idea of the degree to which “new media” dwarfed all of them. Note that the ngram is itself a kind of boundary object, as are each of these terms, as are the constituencies that claim them for membership. And that boundary objects are coordination artifacts among complex systems.


Let me share with you a new story about writing: the sort of thing tech wizard Julian Bleecker calls a design fiction….

A design fiction: (very) roughly 5000 years ago in (at least) two segmenting ecologies on our planet humans messed around with some cognitive companions, each coordinating multiple agencies characteristically. • In Mesopotamia tiny clay token sheep were enclosed in clay envelopes with markings indicating what was inside. • In the Andes strings were wrapped around sticks and attached to a main cord. In the first case the favored sensory technology for making was molding and inscribing clay. Worlds set into motion from this sort of making eventually sustain what some consider “true writing”: that is to say, writing that companions preferentially with language. In the second case makings involved spinning plant and animal fiber and feeling, tying, and untying knots. Worlds set into motion there eventually sustain a different sort of writing, one said to be “without words” (Boone 1994), instead preferentially coordinating actions and practices directly as their very ecologies.


Bateson famously said that in “the pronoun we, I of course included the starfish and the redwood forest, the segmenting egg, and the Senate of the United States.” (Bateson, 1979:4) Writing, design fictions, boundary objects, all these participate with nepantleras, not just to facilitate moving among worlds, but to augment making their realities: to learn and demonstrate how to be affected or moved, how to open up and create unexpected elements of one’s own embodiments in lively and re-sensitizing worlds.


Collaborations and many makings across transcontextualities are among the projects of a feminist transdisciplinarity and its work to live in enough worlds at the same time, to re/write cognitive companionships, and to open to complexity. SYMPOIESIS: MAKING WITH. (Haraway 2013; Dempster 2000; Shea 2014)

Thank you.