SpecLab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing


Drucker, Johanna. SpecLab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing. Chicago:   University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Johanna Drucker’s SpecLab is a methodological investigation into the philosophy and application of speculative computing, galvanized within research efforts conducted at the University of Virginia with her colleague, Jerome McGann. Drucker describes speculative computing as an intervention into the relationship between aesthetic representation and subjective knowledge development. It aims to delineate the intellectual “superstructure” or dichotomy between formal, objective logic—or mathesis—often favoured within the practices of digital humanities— and aesthesis—individual thought that challenges authoritarian structures of intelligence (23). As static mechanisms within the organization and dissemination of data, Drucker asserts that digital information systems employed by the humanities—focused upon “functionality” rather than interactivity—problematically indoctrinate the parameters of user engagement through the projection of a cognitive monoculture; a concept which upon greater reflection prompts significant concerns within both scholastic and sociocultural spheres (17). By contrast, the scholar’s vision of speculative computing, and endeavors at SpecLab, boast a phenomenological impulse focused upon the connection between “aesthetic provocation” and human “inflection” (19). In short, Drucker advocates for the necessity of subjectivity within visually oriented learning projects.

Informed by early 20th century methods of ideological derailment, such as those found within Situationist theory, Drucker’s inquiries focus on “probablistic” textual endeavors and the “potentiality” of user experience within knowledge environments and gameful settings, based upon the defamiliarization of hegemonic, intellectual practices while also engaging with “parody” and “play” (20, 26, 25). In an effort to subvert the objective/subjective binary within intellectual synthesis and in the building of participatory knowledge systems, the scholar provides a list of counter-methodologies working in opposition to the practices of digital humanities, indicative of SpecLab’s dedication to unique thought processes. Drucker discusses, ‘pataphysics’ (the study of statistical deviations or exceptions in digital environments, borrowed from symbolist Alfred Jarry), ‘quantum intervention’ (how each reading/writing of a digital text is regarded as an intervention with indeterminate effects), ‘abduction’ (the ignorance of singular analytic, modes of inquiry), ‘co-dependent emergence’ (the conditions of experience shared between programs and the individuals that use them) and ‘deformance’ (program transformation augmented by sociopolitical context and reception). Perceived as the notion of “language as an infinite matrix of possibilities,” Drucker’s additional employment of ‘heteroglossia’ (borrowed from Mikhail Bakhtin), aptly defines the implementation of “intersubjective” theoretical dialogues, informing each other within evolving learning processes; a concept which can also be observed as a foremost strategy mediating the information found within the scholar’s text to readers (28, 29).

Considered to be the “infrastructure” foregrounding latter experimentation within her book, Drucker’s philosophies in speculative computing are put into practice in the second chapter of her text—’2.0: Projects at Spec Lab‘—as she details the creation of four subjectively-oriented, interactive games, focused on textual intervention and regeneration, both pre and post-dating the construction of the research centre: Temporal Modeling, Ivanhoe, Subjective Meteorology and The ‘Patacritical Demon (31). While discussing the functionality of the game Ivanhoe in particular, Drucker addresses the necessity of social engagement through public exchange within game play as a method of motivation. It is this notion of interactivity and subsequent collaboration that can be regarded with similar interest within Drucker’s communications with her colleagues in the creation of each project. In this way, Speclab functions as a tool for those looking to begin complex digital projects, as it illustrates the compartmentalization of large tasks conducted by specific experts ultimately working together. Assisted by McGann in accordance with graphic designers (such as Bethany Nowviskie and Flash designer Jim Allman) and undergraduate students, Drucker’s description of SpecLab as a “forum of experiment” not only exemplifies the polyphonous nature of intellectual exchange within game play, but also within the creation and building (or writing) of new texts from which to regard the generation of alternative narratives among diverse audiences (35). It is within this understanding of textual interpretation that Drucker approaches her important discussion of materiality in the final argumentative chapter of her text—3.0: From Aesthetics to Aesthesis—following a recursive structure that mirrors the philosophical contemplation evident at the start of her book. Re-implementing the theory of aesthesis in relation to aesthetic knowledge production, Drucker presents the notion of graphesis, as a nuanced counter-narrative to mathesis, able to provoke the “visual creation of information” in new ways (128). The scholar implements philosophical theories, such as those maintained in Edmund Husserl’s discussions of “ideality”, as a means to question criticisms regarding “the real materiality of code” before later explicating the nature of digital-born texts and new media (135, 136).

Drucker’s dedication to subjectively-oriented information systems, within gameful experiences in mass culture and scholarly endeavors (such as those explored within digital humanities), supports the benefits of symbiotic interaction between aesthetics and knowledge development. Although heavily engaged with pedagogical and professional concerns, Speclab also remains a valuable text for public consumption. Drucker’s discussion of user subjectivity within digital environments and alternative learning through visual technology promotes social inclusivity, mirrored within the methods of group interaction evident within her research practices. In this way, Speclab promotes elucidation within the principles of digital learning, therefore restructuring the logistic monoculture she crusades against.

Jennifer Fraser

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