What’s next for the digital humanities? And how might they be part of changing our collective futures? As universities across the country reach the end of this unprecedented year, Public Books and Digital Humanities at MIT present a four-part series examining the role of the digital in the life of scholars and societies. In this moment of global reckoning around issues of virological, ecological, historical, and moral concern, some of the field’s top thinkers here ask how digital media and methods continue to challenge, harm, sustain, and liberate—and they show how investigations into the relationship between the digital and the human have only just begun.
My nine-year-old, S, spends substantially more time online these days, because that is where he sees his friends, and he is at the age where play is his primary form of friendship. They are usually meeting up in Minecraft—the ubiquitous blocky building environment—running on a shared private server, which is to say that they play in the digital playground they have built for themselves. S moved with us to a new state and started at a new school during the pandemic, so he plays with a combination of kids from his old school and his new classmates, whom he’s never met in person. It works.
But lately I am noticing how much less they are building together. Now they mainly run. Run and run from mission to mission, making it up as they go along. It’s like the tag I remember from my own youth, last tastes of wild before the streetlights came on, just a reason to run and yell and leap toward even the smallest horizon.
This, I suppose, has been the grand transposition. For many of us, daily life is now even more heavily delivered through screens. The computer world is the place of the daily grind, and now we struggle to moderate and manage our time out in the flesh world. During their game time, the kids use videoconferencing like Zoom to talk and to sort of feel each other’s presence, but they seldom use their faces. When I peek in on my older child’s classes, I see rows of partly obscured teenage faces. My own child is mainly a forehead with a shock of fluff atop.
The kids are there. But they also seem to have entered a generational compact regarding what that presence should look like. They are trying to force Zoom life back into alignment with their other experiences of digital self-representation, with all the complexities of control, capture, and release pertaining. They have mastered the art of sending forth their appropriate representatives into Zoom space, and I admire them.
But they also suffer. What day is it? What time is it? We are a household of students and teachers, so of course we actually know; our schedules are as full as on any prepandemic day. But then why does it always feel like time has become unknowable? My guess is that if we were to experience time, we would also have to compute many other scales and quantities, and such a deepening of life’s map would be unbearable.
It’s like an amplified version of when you have a job that requires radically different hours from the people around you. The rhythms are all off, and it’s difficult to communicate the nature of the difference—the different nature, the nature you now inhabit—because even the patterns of your when and how and why are so much at a distance from everyone else. Sunrise becomes your bedtime, and you work hard never to think about what you are missing, because it is seldom that you get to be there when.
This is our place. This digitized where is who we are in this moment. I wonder what my children will remember, the deep sea of their experience spanned across the common space of their screens, spatially edged, temporally edgeless.
When We Were There
It is summer 2019, and we are taking a family vacation. The stars have aligned and we are in the car, somewhat making it up as we go along. A fortunate variety of work and other circumstances had led us to visit two coastlines earlier that summer: the Pacific at Point Reyes and the Atlantic at Provincetown in midsummer. It seemed fitting then that we would end on America’s third coast, which is where I was born.
As we drive, I am trying to explain to S that, in the part of the Midwest where I am from, our lakes are like oceans to us, because you cannot see the opposite shore. He is skeptical. I’m like, You’ve been to Chicago, don’t you remember? But the answer is no.
Talking to him reminds me of a magazine article I read decades ago. It was about traveling to lands where you don’t speak the language, about how to be quiet, watch, and learn. I think of this as I try to excavate an eight-year-old’s memory, watching those large brown eyes in their small brown face: how they see all, remember everything, and recall nothing.
I wonder what my children will remember, the deep sea of their experience spanned across the common space of their screens, spatially edged, temporally edgeless.
Staring out the car window as we pass through Cleveland, I suddenly realize that my description of the Great Lakes borrows liberally from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. The book opens by contrasting Great Lakes folk to other landlocked peoples, who know that they “cannot claim a coast.” From this, Morrison determines that “the people living in the Great Lakes region are confused by their place on the country’s edge—an edge that is border but not coast.”1
As I recall this now, I am overcome with longing. I do not know if it is the longing of now thinking of then, or if it is remembering the longing of then that led me to there. Morrison had died earlier in the week of our journey, and we were on our way to her birthplace of Lorain, Ohio.
I turn to my computer, looking for pictures from that day. The beach at Lorain, Lake Erie, looks much as I remember—wide and long and astonishingly flat. I’m from the Midwest; I know flat. But this is something more, ethereal in its edgelessness. Flat land, blue sky, gentle water, infinite horizon. Listless and longing and stuck in this winter pandemic writing, I breeze across social media. A quote leaps. Someone I do not know but whose presence I have come to appreciate posts a tweet, invoking Yemayá: “To remind us that in the same way the breaking of waves does not compromise the integrity of the Ocean, so too anything broken in our lives cannot compromise that cosmic flow of wholeness.”2 I stick my foot in the water, but it does not release me from this soft and archipelagic saudade.
North by Southeast
Growing up, I spent most of my summers on the beach in Michigan, with a grandfather who believed deeply in Black people’s right to swim, a grand and inspiring belief. Canny with their postal workers’ salaries, my grandparents were able to split a cottage with my grandmother’s sister, in a community that included many other Black families “in from Chicago.” They had found space to remember their own brand of land-loving Southernness by yearly heading north into Michigan.
My mother used to talk a lot about how much she and her brother resented the Michigan house. To her thinking, it would’ve been better to ascend to one of the South Side’s more solidly middle-class neighborhoods. Like, why go to Michigan when we could leave Englewood for Chatham? Forever. But my grandparents believed more in their little corner of Englewood than they did in the dreams of the Black bourgeoisie. Like Morrison’s lake folk, they were “able to live a long time believing, as coastal people do, that they are at the frontier where final exit and total escape are the only journeys left.”3
We lived less than five miles from the same endless lake in Chicago, but I have no memory of my grandparents ever going there. We waited for Michigan.
And every summer, I swam. Beach every day. Our Michigan community was made up of the numerous Black people who lived or summered there, and that is who we found on the beach, alongside the year-round whites who were less numerous, but with whom we somehow peacefully shared our hamlet. My grandfather always made sure we got back home early in the day, our internal clocks set to my grandmother’s daily soaps. Like sand through the hourglass, he would say, grinning, and I knew it was time to head home.
At night, filled with grits and greens and having finally fallen asleep in the arms of Omni or Popular Science, I would have these dream adventures, usually some kind of remix of the day’s events, now awesome and secret. I remember that the entrance to these other lands was invariably behind a bush off one of the gravel roads heading toward the lake, and even today, I can remember the feeling of those places, close yet hidden, strange yet mine, because only I could see the map by which my own thoughts and dreams rendered the terrain.
“It’s time to head up to Michigan.” I say this as we drive from Chicago to a rental in the tiny beach community where we used to dwell, the house sadly sold years ago. In passing I mention that we’ll be stopping on the way to see a beloved cousin-aunt who lives and works on the far South Side.
“How can that be on the way?” my oldest asks, and rather than snip, What, you think I don’t know where we’re going?, I laugh. I remember always being confused by this when I was little, listening to the grown-ups talk. They would say that we were “heading up” to Michigan, which suggested “north,” which it indeed is. But to get there we drove south, since the Chicago interstates must all at some point curve around Lake Michigan. In Chicago, to go east on a highway you head south, and to go west you head north. This is all completely normal—except for the part where there is no east, because race makes space in Chicago: there is only the North Side, the West Side, and the South Side, all places you might know in your body long before you might see them as coordinates on a map.
As we drive the endless miles of industrial Indiana, I watch my family’s skepticism grow. They are rightfully intrigued by the huge plumes of poofy steam rising up from the steel mills, but it just doesn’t scream “lakeside paradise.” They love, though, the name for the corridor of cities and towns stretching from Chicago’s far South Side border and up through the southernmost corner of Michigan: Michiana.
Michiana. I say it as we pass through East Chicago and head toward Michigan City. I’ve always been interested in these midwestern liminalities, this proclivity for naming places according to where they are not, but where we’re supposed to imagine them attached, a claim staked despite some unnamed displacement: Kansas City in Missouri, East St. Louis in Illinois, Indiana’s East Chicago and Michigan City, which we are finally passing through now.
When we finally arrive at the Michigan house it is evening, but we decide to head down the long series of steps to the lake anyway. Driving in, I had been immediately taken with every cliché of leave and return. It’s been more than 20 years since I visited this tiny Black vacation land, and indeed everything is smaller. The tall hills I remember hustling up on my dirt bike are more like dips and swells. But I love feeling like I’ve grown up, even if some things do seem less epic than they once were.
As I recall this now, I am overcome with longing. I do not know if it is the longing of now thinking of then, or if it is remembering the longing of then that led me to there.
We come to the beach. Still beautiful, yes, but its scale has too radically shifted, and it terrifies me: here is the water, here are the waves, but the sand is nearly gone, the beach reduced to a narrow strip. The claim I have made to my children is that, for people like me, the Great Lakes are our oceans. But I guess I never fully computed that if they are indeed like the oceans, then they too are warming.
The lake is rising; my childhood house has been razed; and these are not my people. The beach is strangely crowded, but, as far I can discern, we are the only Black people here. My eyes, unable to land, cannot rectify the overlay, this displacement across every register. I turn my camera to the sunset.
Before walking down, tired, we almost chose just to perch on the large observation deck overlooking the lake, rather than head to the shore. There were people already there, and I remember first thinking that it wasn’t worth trying to join them, then almost compulsively replacing the feeling with a desire to touch the water.
For an instant, looking back, I imagine now that it must have been because the people already there were sprawled out, no masks in sight. I feel myself not having the energy to argue, as that thing becomes all the things, our current moment’s other virality. Just as quickly, though, I realize that this must be wrong, because I am writing about a moment in the months before the pandemic. But the feeling of glitch and menace was there too in the fading light, in the August before.
- Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon (Knopf, 1977), p. 162. ↩
- Esme G. Murdock (@Edge_metron), “M. Jacqui Alexander on Yemayá: ‘…to remind us that in the same way the breaking of waves does not compromise the integrity of the ocean, so too anything broken in our lives cannot compromise that cosmic flow of wholeness.’ 🌊🖤😭” Twitter, February 1, 2021, twitter.com/Edge_metron/status/1356391540625534976. The quote featured in this post is from M. Jacqui Alexander, Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred (Duke University Press, 2006). The original quote reads: “Yemayá, that broad expanse of Ocean, who lives both on sea and on land has pushed past modernity’s mode of reason and taken up temporary sojourn on the insides of this artificial enclosure, come to accept, to cleanse, to bless, to remind us that in the same way the breaking of waves does not compromise the integrity of the Ocean, so too anything broken in our lives cannot compromise that cosmic flow to wholeness. The body cannot but surrender in order to make way for this tidal flow” (322). ↩
- Morrison, Song of Solomon, p. 162. ↩