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Teaching and Learning Multimodal Communications

Alyssa Arbuckle, Alison Hedley, Shaun Macpherson, Alyssa McLeod, Jana Millar Usiskin, Daniel Powell, Jentery Sayers, Emily Smith, Michael Stevens, Authors

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Imitation Versus Mediation: Individual Concerns (Emily)

How can methodology help expose (and perhaps solve) the implicit problems of fidelity and representation when seeking to mediate between online and offline space?
"In short, postmodern historicism introduces the thought of mediation in the relation to past and future. My culminating recommendation, therefore, is that postmodern historicism can best do so by visibly signaling the act of such mediation through actual media innovation or allusions to such innovation in its own form, thereby methodically bringing to view a sense of simultaneous sameness and otherness in our relation to history. . . . [M]ediation . . . produces a sense of anachronism . . . able to make us see history as a compound relation of proximity and distance between past and present." (25)
In his essay, "Contingent Methods," Alan Liu problematizes postinsdustrialism, particularly the idea of creative destruction, calling it a "loosening of beginnings from all that gave beginnings their beginning" (2), and suggesting that such creations attempt to break with the past to the extent that we begin to imagine all our creations as discrete worlds, sufficient unto themselves, and without histories.

Equally as enthralled with the new (attempting to critique history as it happens), is the "cutting edge new" of postmodern historicism.

Common to both phenomena (postmodern historicism and postindustrialism) is what Liu calls conflicted history—a sense of history that at once cuts itself off from its beginnings, yet also yearns after these origins.

What Liu advocates is a form of cultural criticism that can criticize the now, acknowledging its loose endings and beginnings, while also revealing its correspondence with the past. By incorporating both methods and anti-methods within this realm of critique, we can, he believes, participate in a form of cultural criticism he calls the "contingent method"—a method he defines as the "tangential method, or methodical tangency, of postmodern historicism. It is its zigzag mode . . . of striking off on crazy, unpredictable tangents . . . a complex inner structure of contingency [that] drives 'anti-methodical method (or methodical anti-method)' of the movement down accidental 'cowpaths'" (11). The point being that we can only perform a true critique of history from within the systems we are attempting to critique.

He goes on to critique historicism, and particularly cultural criticism for its fetishization of context—or the "holy local" (5), and then deconstructs what we mean by the word "contemporary" as the adjective of cultural criticism, arguing that the word contains within it both the now and the history upon which its critique is predicated. Ultimately, the contingent method will take these two ideas into account—the "context" of history and the "now" of the contemporary, to discover the way in which they can provide us with the ability to critique history as it happens.

For Liu, both a cultural critic and a historicist, "critical insight adheres to, as much as inheres in history" (16). Here, he seems to echo Tara McPherson's argument that we can only perform critique from within, meaning we need to first critique ourselves. His critique of historicism and contemporariness also seems to parlay a contention implicit in the claims of Matthew Kirschenbaum and Wendy Chun: Kirschenbaum's preservation of complete environments and Liu's "holy local"; Chun's enduring ephemeral, and Liu's contemporaneity.
 "The function of criticism at the present time is to show that, while innovation and just-in-time may be antihistorical, they are also inheritors of a modernity that comes along with an internal critique expressed as a particularly edgy kind of history: the history of modernization." (7)
"History is now, and, in the full-bandwidth immersion of that now, we are powerless to do more than watch the awful drama unfold with all the fatefulness that, at any moment, history always seems to endow the now of that moment. The tragic paradox of history, after all, is that our lived now appears perpetually alienated from the historical now. We seem powerless to act in the very moment in which we live, watching great events unfold instead." (13)
Alan Liu's Contingent Method

1.  Complicate history

Liu complicates history by suggesting that Klee's angel (of Walter Benjamin's "Theses") of history sees only one single catastrophe whereas today's cultural criticism sees many. In this way, Liu warns against conflating "today's enemies" with "yesterday's fascists." By looking closely at each of these disasters, the debris of history becomes much more complex than the single pile. When Liu tells us to complicate history, he wants us to remember that history is not necessarily linear, but instead "as a multilayered, sedimented, turbulent, and self-organizing ecology of local determination. Lots of particulars in many kinds of structures" (18).

2.  Immerse Ourselves in History

Rather than retreating from history, like Klee's angel seems to do, Liu argues that we should immerse ourselves in history—that is, study context. In reaction to society's obsession with the new, cultural criticism should concern itself with the old, old being a "relative term untethered by any lapse of years. (In some cases, even a short interval provides critical leverage)" (19). This can take many forms, including immersion in archives, old places, or old texts, etc. The important thing, however, is that we don't stay there.

3.  Free Ourselves from History

After one has complicated history and become immersed in it, Liu tells us to free ourselves from history, or choose to become "ethically emancipated form historical context through the very act of allowing ourselves to be so fully and deeply absorbed in that context that we discern the alternative pathways between past and future emergent from its complexity" (20). In short, he suggests that once we are "immersed" in this history, we look for a way out.

4.  Make a Method

Here Liu contends that we must, like the Cubists or abstract expressionists, make a method. Here, he turns to the modernists for help: "The central modern critical concept, we may say, was a method (any method) able to insist both that the modern us rigorously acknowledged its relation to the historical them and that it breaks away on its own accord" (22). While this modernist methodology is not a place to end, it is a place from which to begin the process of mediation.

5.  Mediate the Method

By mediating this method through anachronistic media and media innovations which betray the process of mediation, Liu believes we can truly free ourselves from history, and thus critique the historical "now." This process, he posits, "is like holding a microphone up to the far past: a way of committing ourselves to hearing the past but, through the conscious election of a media paradigm from a different era, but also of holding open the possibility of freedom from the past" (25).


The relationship between online and offline space can also be seen as a relationship between the past and the present, between history and the now.  In immersing ourselves in the past—in the archives, the cemeteries, the classrooms of yesteryear—we can be innovative in the ways we use online space to mediate offline experiences and consider ways in which to signal this act of mediation, perhaps in order to preserve the sanctity of the online space that is being mediated and the "unique experience" it creates, both as discrete yet corresponding spaces/experiences.

Author: Emily Smith
Word Count: 1,182
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