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Matthew Kirschenbaum

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Professor, English

(301) 405-9650

3201 Tawes Hall
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Research Expertise

Film Studies and Cultural Studies
Language, Writing and Rhetoric
Literary Theory
Literature and Science
Postmodern and Contemporary
Textual and Digital Studies

Matthew G. Kirschenbaum is Professor of English and Digital Studies at the University of Maryland and Director of the Graduate Certificate in Digital Studies. He is also an affiliated faculty member with the College of Information Studies at Maryland, and a member of the teaching faculty at the University of Virginia’s Rare Book School. He has been a Guggenheim and NEH Fellow. With Kari Kraus, he co-founded and co-directs BookLab, a makerspace, studio, library, and press devoted to what is surely our discipline's most iconic artifact, the codex book.

His most recent book, Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing, was published by Harvard University Press’s Belknap Press in 2016; with Pat Harrigan, he also co-edited the collection Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming from the MIT Press (2016). His public-facing writing has appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Slate, LA Review of Books, Paris Review Daily, and War on the Rocks. His research has been covered by the New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The Guardian, National Public Radio, Boing Boing, and WIRED, among many other outlets. In 2016, he delivered the A.S.W. Rosenbach Lectures in Bibliography, a written version of which are under contract to the University of Pennsylvania Press as Bitstreams: The Future of Digital Literary Heritage.

Kirschenbaum’s current interests include the history of writing and authorship, textual and bibliographical studies, serious games, and military media and technologies. His first book, Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (MIT Press, 2008) won multiple prizes, including the 16th annual Prize for a First Book from the Modern Language Association. He was also the lead author on the Council on Library and Information Resources report Digital Forensics and Born-Digital Content for Cultural Heritage Collections (2010), recognized with a commendation from the Society of American Archivists. Previously, he served as an Associate Director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) for over a decade. See mkirschenbaum.net or follow him on Twitter as @mkirschenbaum for more.

Awards & Grants

2011 Guggenheim Fellowship.

Monograph tentatively entitled "Track Changes: Authorship, Archives, and Literary Culture after Word Processing."

English

Lead: Matthew Kirschenbaum
Dates:
Explored the impact of digital media on literary production and reception broadly construed, from new technologies of authorship on computers and laptops to literary reception and reputation online (in blogs and other social media), and finally the challenges associated with preserving the digital legacies of today's writers for future generations.

Fellowship, National Endowment for the Humanities

January 2005-June 2005

English

Lead: Matthew Kirschenbaum
Dates:
A series of planning meetings and site visits aimed at developing archival tools and best practices for preserving born-digital documents produced by contemporary authors.

Publications

Spec Acts: Reading form in Recurrent Neural Networks

Johns Hopkins University Press Volume 88, Number 2, Summer 2021

English

Lead: Matthew Kirschenbaum
Dates:

On 25 March 2017 at 9:17 in the morning Ross Goodwin sat down behind the wheel of his pen to begin driving his novel. This essay reads 1 the Road, a 20,000-word token of narrative fiction produced by digital sensors affixed to an automobile driven from New York to New Orleans (the route taken by Jack Kerouac), whose outputs are filtered through an artificial intelligence technology called a neural net to produce the text. "It was nine-seventeen in the morning, and the house was heavy," it begins. Later, it produces this utterance: "It was a strange thing." This strange thing, which is to say this strange text, is, I argue, a boutique literary exemplar of the most widely read (and written) category of texts in the world today, as algorithms perform not speech acts but speculative or "spec" acts--what Felix Guattari forecast three decades ago as "machines speaking to machines." What happens when we listen in, as Goodwin's novel permits us to do? I propose ways of reading these spec acts through new formalist alternatives to historicism, old and new.

Read "Spec Acts: Reading form in Recurrent Neural Networks"

"'Poor Black Squares': Afterimages of the Floppy Disk,"

The juxtaposition of floppy (floppy!) disks with nuclear-tipped ICBMs seemed to encompass everything that was absurd about both government bureaucracy and Cold War strategic thinking.

English

Lead: Matthew Kirschenbaum
Dates:
The entertainment value of this news item—feeding the Internet’s insatiable appetite forirony and oddity—underscores the extent to which the floppy disk has lodged itself in the memory of a generation weaned on the totems and paraphernalia of early home computing.

"Books After the Death of the Book,"

A digital studies scholar explains what a Ted Chiang story, post-Soviet pirates, and AOL teach us about the fate of books online.

English

Lead: Matthew Kirschenbaum
Dates:
Last summer I decided to assign Ted Chiang’s The Lifecycle of Software Objects in the graduate course I was getting ready to teach. The title notwithstanding (Chiang earns his living as a technical writer) the book is a science fiction novella set in a near future when artificial digital life forms—digients—are cultivated and commodified as human companions. Eventually, invoking a Citizens United–like legal precedent, individual digients incorporate themselves to claim the legal status of people. The book was a good fit for a course on the human and the nonhuman, especially in the semester when Arrival, a film based on another Chiang story, was due to hit theaters.

Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing

Matthew Kirschenbaum examines how the interests and ideals of creative authorship came to coexist with the computer revolution.

English | Center for Literary and Comparative Studies

Lead: Matthew Kirschenbaum
Dates:

From the publisher's website:

The story of writing in the digital age is every bit as messy as the ink-stained rags that littered the floor of Gutenberg’s print shop or the hot molten lead of the Linotype machine. During the period of the pivotal growth and widespread adoption of word processing as a writing technology, some authors embraced it as a marvel while others decried it as the death of literature. The product of years of archival research and numerous interviews conducted by the author, Track Changes is the first literary history of word processing.

Matthew Kirschenbaum examines how the interests and ideals of creative authorship came to coexist with the computer revolution. Who were the first adopters? What kind of anxieties did they share? Was word processing perceived as just a better typewriter or something more? How did it change our understanding of writing?

Track Changes balances the stories of individual writers with a consideration of how the seemingly ineffable act of writing is always grounded in particular instruments and media, from quills to keyboards. Along the way, we discover the candidates for the first novel written on a word processor, explore the surprisingly varied reasons why writers of both popular and serious literature adopted the technology, trace the spread of new metaphors and ideas from word processing in fiction and poetry, and consider the fate of literary scholarship and memory in an era when the final remnants of authorship may consist of folders on a hard drive or documents in the cloud.

Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming

In Zones of Control, contributors consider wargames played for entertainment, education, and military planning, in terms of design, critical analysis, and historical contexts.

English

Lead: Matthew Kirschenbaum
Dates:

From the publisher's website:

Games with military themes date back to antiquity, and yet they are curiously neglected in much of the academic and trade literature on games and game history. This volume fills that gap, providing a diverse set of perspectives on wargaming’s past, present, and future. In Zones of Control, contributors consider wargames played for entertainment, education, and military planning, in terms of design, critical analysis, and historical contexts. They consider both digital and especially tabletop games, most of which cover specific historical conflicts or are grounded in recognizable real-world geopolitics. Game designers and players will find the historical and critical contexts often missing from design and hobby literature; military analysts will find connections to game design and the humanities; and academics will find documentation and critique of a sophisticated body of cultural work in which the complexity of military conflict is represented in ludic systems and procedures.

Each section begins with a long anchoring chapter by an established authority, which is followed by a variety of shorter pieces both analytic and anecdotal. Topics include the history of playing at war; operations research and systems design; wargaming and military history; wargaming’s ethics and politics; gaming irregular and non-kinetic warfare; and wargames as artistic practice.

“What Is an @uthor?”

Today’s social media landscape confronts contemporary authors with a qualitatively different opportunity to confront their public selves.

English

Lead: Matthew Kirschenbaum
Dates:
Consider, for instance, William Gibson’s recent promotional activities and tour in support of The Peripheral, published for North American audiences on October 28, 2014. (The Peripheral is not an entirely arbitrary choice, given the prevalence of surveillance technologies in both of its near-future settings, but I believe I could tell similar stories about most any other A-list author; that this particular one is the godfather of cyberspace is really not much to the point.)

“Digital Scholarship and Digital Studies: The State of the Discipline.”

Today not only are word processors and e-books actual facts.

English

Lead: Matthew Kirschenbaum
Dates:
So too are mass digitization projects and new forms of analytics ranging from so-called data mining and distant reading to visualization, geographic information systems (GIS), and advanced image processing techniques. Book history, as both a scholarly discipline and an intellectual community, now shares the world with the actual facts of these things.

“What is ‘Digital Humanities,’ and Why Are They Saying Such Terrible Things about It?”

Amid all the doom and gloom [. . .] one field seems to be alive and well: the digital humanities.

English

Lead: Matthew Kirschenbaum
Dates:
More than that: Among all the contending subfields, the digital humanities seem like the first ‘next big thing’ in a long time, because the implications of digital technology affect every field.”

"History.exe,"

How can we preserve the software of today for historians of tomorrow?

English

Lead: Matthew Kirschenbaum
Dates:
Visitors to Microsoft in Redmond, Wash., can avail themselves of free shuttle cars to help them make their way about the sprawling suburban campus. The cars are clean and quiet and always appear within minutes of being summoned, and the drivers always know where they are going. Or almost always: During my weeklong stay my drivers repeatedly told me this was their first trip to Building 126, Microsoft’s corporate archives. One or two had to look it up on Bing Maps.

"The Book-Writing Machine,"

What was the first novel ever written on a word processor?

English

Lead: Matthew Kirschenbaum
Dates:
Would best-selling novelist Len Deighton care to take a walk? It was 1968, and the IBM technician who serviced Deighton’s typewriters had just heard from Deighton’s personal assistant, Ms. Ellenor Handley, that she had been retyping chapter drafts for his book in progress dozens of times over. IBM had a machine that could help, the technician mentioned. They were being used in the new ultramodern Shell Centre on the south bank of the Thames, not far from his Merrick Square home.

“What is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?”

What is (or are) the “digital humanities,” aka “humanities computing”?

English

Lead: Matthew Kirschenbaum
Dates:
During this time digital humanities has accumulated a robust professional apparatus that is probably more rooted in English than any other departmental home.

"An Executable Past: The Case for a National Software Registry.”

One of our foremost living novelists can knowingly make reference to a twenty-five year-old computer program and be able to count on his audience’s powers of identification

English

Lead: Matthew Kirschenbaum
Dates:
Unlike a literary manuscript or a film master, however, there was no culturally sanctioned depository or repository, no library or archives to bequeath with the newly recovered source code.

“The .txtual Condition: Digital Humanities, Born-Digital Archives, and the Future Literary.”

In 1995 in the midst of the first widespread wave of digitization, the Modern Language Association issued a Statement on the Significance of Primary Records.

English

Lead: Matthew Kirschenbaum
Dates:
In order to assert the importance of retaining books and other physical artifacts even after they have been microfilmed or scanned for general consumption. “A primary record,” the MLA told us then, “can appropriately be defined as a physical object produced or used at the particular past time that one is concerned with in a given instance” (27). Today, the conceit of a “primary record” can no longer be assumed to be coterminous with that of a “physical object.” Electronic texts, files, feeds, and transmissions of all sorts are also now, indisputably, primary records. In the specific domain of the literary, a writer working today will not and cannot be studied in the future in the same way as writers of the past, because the basic material evidence of their authorial activity — manuscripts and drafts, working notes, correspondence, journals — is, like all textual production, increasingly migrating to the electronic realm. This essay therefore seeks to locate and triangulate the emergence of a .txtual condition — I am of course remediating Jerome McGann’s influential notion of a “textual condition” — amid our contemporary constructions of the “literary”, along with the changing nature of literary archives, and lastly activities in the digital humanities as that enterprise is now construed. In particular, I will use the example of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) at the University of Maryland as a means of illustrating the kinds of resources and expertise a working digital humanities center can bring to the table when confronted with the range of materials that archives and manuscript repositories will increasingly be receiving.

“Choreographing the Dance of the Vampires: Red Storm Rising’s Game Plots.”

Red Storm Rising, which shot to the top of the best-seller lists when it was published in August 1986, may be the most widely-read work of procedural fiction ever written.

English

Lead: Matthew Kirschenbaum
Dates:
Co-authored by Tom Clancy and Larry Bond, the techno-thriller put its readers on the front lines of a conventional Third World War between NATO and the former Soviet Union. It contained some of the best military fiction writing in a great while, the prose laced with acronyms and technical specs whose precision helped propel the moment-by-moment accounts of cruise missile strikes and high-tech engagements. As a character on the bridge of a US Navy frigate opines, “What modern combat lacks in humanity it more than makes up for in intensity.”

“Digital Humanities As/Is a Tactical Term.”

We will never know what digital humanities “is” because we don’t want to know nor is it useful for us to know.

English

Lead: Matthew Kirschenbaum
Dates:
Regardless, there is one thing that digital humanities ineluctably is: digital humanities is work, somebody’s work, somewhere, some thing, always. We know how to talk about work. So let’s talk about this work, in action, this actually existing work.

Digital Forensics and Born-Digital Content in Cultural Heritage Collections

The methods and tools developed by forensics experts represent a novel approach to these demands.

English

Lead: Matthew Kirschenbaum
Dates:

While the purview of digital forensics was once specialized to fields of law enforcement, computer security, and national defense, the increasing ubiquity of computers and electronic devices means that digital forensics is now used in a wide variety of cases and circumstances. Most records today are born digital, and libraries and other collecting institutions increasingly receive computer storage media as part of their acquisition of "papers" from writers, scholars, scientists, musicians, and public figures. This poses new challenges to librarians, archivists, and curators—challenges related to accessing and preserving legacy formats, recovering data, ensuring authenticity, and maintaining trust. The methods and tools developed by forensics experts represent a novel approach to these demands. For example, the same forensics software that indexes a criminal suspect's hard drive allows the archivist to prepare a comprehensive manifest of the electronic files a donor has turned over for accession.

This report introduces the field of digital forensics in the cultural heritage sector and explores some points of convergence between the interests of those charged with collecting and maintaining born-digital cultural heritage materials and those charged with collecting and maintaining legal evidence.

Digital Forensics and Born-Digital Content in Cultural Heritage Collections.

Digital Forensics and Born-Digital Content in Cultural Heritage Collections examines digital forensics and its relevance for contemporary research.

English

Lead: Matthew Kirschenbaum
Dates:
The applicability of digital forensics to archivists, curators, and others working within our cultural heritage is not necessarily intuitive. When the shared interests of digital forensics and responsibilities associated with securing and maintaining our cultural legacy are identified—preservation, extraction, documentation, and interpretation, as this report details—the correspondence between these fields of study becomes logical and compelling.

Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination

Mechanisms is the first book in its field to devote significant attention to storage—the hard drive in particular—of electronic writing and new media.

English

Lead: Matthew Kirschenbaum
Dates:

Mechanisms is the first book in its field to devote significant attention to storage—the hard drive in particular—of electronic writing and new media. Kirschenbaum argues that understanding the affordances of storage devices is essential to understanding new media. Drawing a distinction between "forensic materiality" and "formal materiality," Kirschenbaum uses applied computer forensics techniques in his study of new media works. Alan Liu writes that this book "is the most rigorous, cohesive, historically informed, materially grounded, and theoretically interesting treatment of textual artifacts in the age of digital mutation that I have yet encountered."

“Tracking the Changes: Textual Scholarship and the Challenge of the Born-Digital.”

Word processors of the Gods William Gibson, in his 2003 novel Pattern Recognition, allows Ngemi, collector and connoisseur of antiquarian computers, to joke.

English

Lead: Matthew Kirschenbaum
Dates:
“I am negotiating to buy Stephen King's Wang,” he announces deadpan. “The provenance,” Ngemi continues, “is immaculate, the price high, but, I believe, reasonable. A huge thing, one of the early dedicated word processors.” King, in fact, acquired his Wang word processor in 1983, the same year Time Magazine dubbed personal computers the “machine of the year.” The Wang would have included a Z80 processor and 64K of RAM. Clearly the technology was tantalizing to him. The following year, in the introduction to his short story collection Skeleton Crew, King wrote: In particular I was fascinated with the INSERT and DELETE buttons, which make cross-outs and carets almost obsolete&. I thought, “Wouldn't it be funny if this guy wrote a sentence, and then, when he pushed DELETE, the subject of the sentence was deleted from the world?” Anyway, I started¬ exactly making up a story so much as seeing pictures in my head. I was watching this guy&delete pictures hanging on the wall, and chairs in the living room, and New York City, and the concept of war. Then I thought of having him insert things and having those things just pop into the world. “Word Processor of the Gods,” the story that resulted, is about a writer who is given a homebrew word processor as a gift from his favorite nephew shortly before the latter is killed in a car accident. Our protagonist, Richard, discovers that the machine has precisely the awesome (or ominous) powers described above: writing about a person or thing can bring it to life in the real world, and deleting the passage likewise causes the person or object to be summarily “erased” from existence.