On Mapmaking

A friend once told me that your dissertation prospectus should be the best piece of speculative fiction you’ve ever written. An advisor concurred, observing that the prospectus is a necessary fiction that one can only hope turns out to be a useful one. In any case, given that some folks seemed to have benefitted from me sharing my qualifying exams list, I thought it might be useful to share at least the abstract to my prospectus, with a few thoughts about the mapmaking process that writing such a document entailed.

First, the good shit:

Atmospheric Media

How do digital media produce and depend on atmospheres? This dissertation deepens emerging connections between digital media studies and the environmental humanities by attending to atmospheric media. Thinking with atmospheres opens up new avenues for critiquing contemporary digital media cultures along lines of affect, aesthetics, and biopolitics. These are aspects of digital media that resist materialization and visualization, that struggle to “come into view” for the purposes of critique. How might the gaseous, spectral, and indeterminate qualities of media become fruitful ground for analyzing media’s environmental operations? And likewise, how have digital media emerged as key technologies through which we construe and manage the otherwise slippery idea of “atmosphere” as such? The word “atmosphere” signifies here in two ways: first, in the geophysical sense, as gas or vapor filling space and encircling the planet; and second, in the aesthetic sense, as a catch-all for pervasive tone, mood, and style. These denotations are intimately linked, not just the coincidence of etymology. The production, management, and analysis of atmospheres in both senses emerge as key tactics by which digital media operate on bodies and environments. I argue that it’s precisely from the production and manipulation of atmospheres that digital media derive their utility as pervasive agents of cultural and political management, particularly in encounters with the sensate human body.

I organize this dissertation in two halves. The first two chapters address the geophysical aspects of atmospheres in digital media, arguing that gaseous materialities open up new frontiers for engaging media’s role in biopolitical management and cultural production. The last two chapters attend to aesthetics, exploring how digital media emerge as key technologies for construing “atmosphere” as such. I begin with an overall introduction that situates my work within contemporary environmental media studies. My first chapter, “Atmospheric Management,” uses a case study of the data center to investigate how the operation and maintenance of digital media infrastructures depend on the management of artificial atmospheric conditions. My second chapter, “The Odors of Mediation,” asks how the atmosphere operates as a medium itself for the conveyance of smell. My third chapter, “Are Some Atmospheres Unrepresentable?,” develops a critique of visualization and representation in infrastructural media studies through a close reading of author and artist J.R. Carpenter’s environmental electronic literature. My fourth chapter, “(Machine) Reading for Atmosphere,” asks how we recognize and characterize “atmosphere” through the machine-aided reading techniques of humanities computing. I conclude with a coda, “Archiving the Atmosphere,” that engages archiving as a practice that knits together the material specificity of the dissertation’s first half with the affective questions that characterize the second.

Like qualifying exams lists, the parameters for prospectuses are going to vary institutionally. My department’s were as follows: twelve-ish pages, substantiate the project’s contributions to its field(s), encompass some dimension of field review, outline chapters, and include a preliminary bibliography. In other words, it’s designed as a book proposal. Since my ultimate goal with this dissertation is to treat it as a book manuscript (which is by no means the best or only thing to do with a diss), these parameters worked well for me.

I find proposal-style writing enjoyable. I once joked in undergrad that my thesis for my Theater and Dance degree should be a ninety-minute performance where I just stood onstage with a bottle of whisky and listed out all the dumb ideas I had.1 I like the rush of saying I’m going to do a thing without thinking about the consequences of actually doing it. Combined with the heroin-level satisfaction that comes with cancelling plans, this could easily lead to a nasty feedback loop, but I think I’ve managed to keep it mostly in check!

That being said, I’ve struggled for a while now as to what my dissertation would actually be. I didn’t have a tremendous amount of clarity going into my exam. I knew I wanted my major fields to be digital media studies and the environmental humanities. My previous work at this crossroads had mainly focused on two archives: weather prediction and nuclear cultures. I toyed with drafts about both before settling on the weather, which I further found difficult to scope as a book-length project.

Now, this is the point where I wish I could offer some kind of primal scene of the idea—the moment of supreme confidence that past-me wanted in order to substantiate that, yes, this is all going to work, and yes, your investment in graduate school is not ill-intentioned. Experienced scholars reading this blog post know already that such a thing doesn’t exist. So I decided that in the absence of divine clarity, the best I could do for myself was make a map that seemed like it would be interesting, challenging, and fun to follow for the next few years. “Atmospheric media,” a phrase I used in my qualifying exams talk, seemed to encapsulate a broad range of topics and approaches, such that I could switch gears every six months or so while still pursuing the same overall project. It fit in nicely with contemporary discourses in environmental media studies while standing out enough to be distinct. Like the atmosphere itself, it alternately was solid enough to imagine specific chapters and vaporous enough to give me the flexibility to follow my research where it would eventually lead.

In short: it was generative, but also pragmatic. I could imagine myself doing it with the time and resources I have available to me as a graduate student in the mid-Atlantic. Since that’s the other piece of advice, right? The only good dissertation is a done dissertation?

So here we are! I start work in earnest in January after I finish up a not-unrelated article. I feel a little bit like a fifteenth century voyager who’s never been to the corners of the globe but who has to draw the map out anyway. But as silly as I felt making broad pronouncements about what I will argue in Chapter X on little more than a hunch, I appreciate having the document nonetheless.

  1. My favorite: a play called The Anita Chronicles, designed for my friend Michelle, which would be a production of West Side Story with only Anita’s lines, but that still takes place in real-time, with Anita standing stock-still in a beautifully appointed Lorca set during the times where she’s not nominally “on stage.” Like I said: dumb ideas. 

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