Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Dissertation Defense Opening Statement, May 15, 2012

This is the sixty-fourth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

I prepared this brief statement to introduce the thinking behind the choices that I made on which writers to include and the emergent theme of the dissertation that would lead to my current research: technological ephemerality. This statement is part justification and part roadmap for where I am now and will be in the future.

To set the stage for making this statement, imagine me sitting at the head of a conference table. Behind me on a podium is a Powerbook 145 with Gibson’s eBook of Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive open and the big box for the Neuromancer video game adaptation from the late-1980s.

Dissertation Defense Opening Statement

Jason W. Ellis

15 May 2012

            I would like to thank you all for reading my dissertation, “Brains, Minds, and Computers in Literary and Science Fiction Neuronarratives” and for meeting with me today. I am looking forward to your questions and our discussion. Before we begin, I would like to take this opportunity to describe my project’s goals, it’s origins, my methods of research, and what I hope it accomplishes. As you will see, my iPad figures prominently in these things.

In my dissertation, I draw on my interdisciplinary interests in literary studies, science fiction studies, history of science and technology, and evolutionary psychology to situate science fiction’s emergence as a genre in the early twentieth century within the larger context of the human animal’s evolutionary co-development with technology. In a sense, I sought the raison d’être of the genre in a Darwinian and cognitive context. I believe the communal teaching aspect of science fiction to be an integral part of the genre itself, and it is this aspect that I gave the name “future prep.” From another perspective, I define science fiction as the kind of literature that performs this function. I also wanted to take one related thread from the genre’s overall development—that being brains, computers, and artificial intelligence—and trace it through the work of three significant writers, namely: Asimov, Dick, and Gibson.

My dissertation originates in part from my long interest in the biology of the human brain. Perhaps this is a byproduct of the conceptual metaphors that I learned in school or in books that the brain was a type of computer and the computer was a type of brain. We know that these are imperfect analogies, but you can imagine that they can have a strong influence on the development of a curious mind. Even at an early age, I strongly felt the link between brains and computers as evidenced by a sustained performance that convinced my kindergarten classmates I was a robot. More recently, I fell into the physics of mind when I was in high school. Thanks to Stephen Hawking, I stumbled onto the work of his collaborator Roger Penrose, who had done other work arguing that the brain is not a Turning-type computer and that quantum phenomena must play some part in the emergence of human consciousness. Much later, during my MA at the University of Liverpool, I made a deal with a friend in the neuroscience program to give me a digital copy of my brain in exchange for my participating in his neural correlates of facial attractiveness study. However, the most recent and profound shift in my thinking came about in a serendipitous way. During the preparation for my PhD exams, I met with Professor Clewell to discuss my readings for the postmodern theory exam. I recall our conversation veering toward computers and the human brain. I learned from Professor Clewell about the emergent discourse surrounding the human brain and the human experience from a Darwinist/evolutionary rather than a Freudian/psychological or Marxist/social perspective. As invested as my work up to that point was in cultural theory, I was very intrigued by the interdisciplinary possibilities that neuroscientific topics and evolutionary psychology might provide for my work in literary history. Without a doubt, this was a pivotal moment in the development of my dissertation. It provided me a direction to expand the scope of my project from one author—originally on the fiction of Philip K. Dick alone—to three by developing a new theory of the genre in terms of the human brain’s evolution. This was new territory for the literary history of science fiction, and I wanted to trek an unexplored path into this uncharted territory.

The next stage was to select the literary focus of my research. I chose Dick’s work, because I believe his awareness of the brain’s role in human experience and in our relationship with technology strongly connects to my theory of science fiction. Then, I selected Asimov as a connection between the early editors who shaped the genre and later writers including Dick, whose androids obviously respond to Asimov’s robots. Finally, I decided on Gibson, because he reinvented Dick’s concerns about technologization of the human experience in a more nuanced manner than Dick’s paranoiac division between the android and the human.

Research and writing of my dissertation presented its own challenges, but I was very pleased that part of the subject matter inspired my own processes of work. In my reading and research, I leveraged computer technology to my advantage to build efficiencies and speed into my work. In particular, I wanted to make all of my research—primary and secondary sources—available on my computer, iPad, and iPhone. The primary reason for this was to make it easier for me to track my research and use digital tools such as textual analysis software and key word search on materials I had read or skimmed. Having the materials on my various computing devices made it easy to search the same or multiple documents very easily and quickly while taking notes or writing in Microsoft Word on my MacBook. Of course, my brain did the work of configuring, contemplating, and creating the dissertation itself.

The issue of obsolescence, which I discuss a bit about in the concluding part of my dissertation, was also a driving force behind my efforts at digitization of my research materials. For example, the last half of the second chapter presented a unique problem—I needed to read the editorials of the old pulps—particularly Amazing Stories and Astounding—but these pulps are not widely available in library collections, and when they are, it can be difficult to handle and read them due to their extreme fragility. Luckily for my research, legions of science fiction pulp collectors have made much of this material available online as scanned copies. Obviously, there are tensions between the efforts of cultural preservationists and the Disney-fication of copyright law, but due to the nature of my research and its importance to the long literary history of science fiction, some of which is egregiously at risk of disappearing, I side with the preservations. Unfortunately, the scanned materials were not always complete, but they did provide me with some useful evidence and clues to more. I filled these missing holes with interlibrary loan requests that took several weeks to complete. For other primary sources, I was able to track down circulating text files—such as for Asimov’s, Dick’s, and Gibson’s novels, and others, I purchased either through Amazon’s Kindle shop or Apple’s iBook store. I should note that I used these non-paginated materials for research purposes, and I cross-referenced any findings there with the physical copies that I own or borrowed from the library—the only exception being Dick’s Exegesis.

I also converted many sources on hand into digital copies for my personal use. Generally, I took photos of pages, created a PDF, and ran OCR software to generate searchable text. Due to my limited time, this was especially useful during my research trip to UC-Riverside’s Eaton Collection in February. In addition to my typewritten notes on my MacBook, I captured over 1000 pages of rare and interesting primary research for the Dick and Gibson chapters with my iPhone 4S’s built-in camera. Some of this research is included in the dissertation, but there is much left for me to review as I begin the process of transforming the dissertation into a publishable manuscript. This extra work paid off by revealing quotes overlooked during skimming or reading. While I am reading to you from my iPad, I also have my dissertation manuscript, primary sources, secondary sources, notes, and much more all available at the touch of my finger. However, I have to remain vigilant with my archival practices to ensure my access to my data now and in the future. It is also a challenge to find software that maintains compatibility and preserves my workflow.

As Gibson warns us in his afterword to the Neuromancer e-book, technology’s fate is obsolescence. As he foretold, it was nearly impossible to access his e-book in its original version. First, I had to wait several weeks to receive a copy of the e-book’s disk from one of the three American universities that hold it. Then, I had to find an older Macintosh with a floppy disk drive to read the disk and in turn allow me to read the e-book. Unfortunately, there are no Macs with floppy disk drives anywhere near Kent State. I turned to eBay to find an early PowerBook, but unfortunately, the first one I purchased was destroyed during shipping. Eventually, I was able to read the e-book with this PowerBook 145, but it took time, money, and know-how. What does the future hold for those of us who want to read the stories these technologies have to tell us, and what effects do these technologies have on our cognitive development? These are questions I plan to investigate following the dissertation.

In closing, I hope that my work on the literary history of science fiction accomplishes two things. First, I believe that science fiction’s roots run deep, and my dissertation is meant to show how it is a literature that emerges as a byproduct of powerful evolutionary forces of the development of the human brain in conjunction with the human animal’s co-evolution with technology. Second, I hope that my work facilitates further cross-discipline discussion and leads to additional research into the brain’s role in the emergence of human experience and the enjoyment of fiction—especially science fiction.

I am a professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on 20th/21st-century American culture, science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology.

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Posted in Kent State, Recovered Writing, Science Fiction
Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on DynamicSubspace.net. Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.

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