The Knotted Line

Week 6: Design, Knowledge Representation, Interface

The Knotted Line


Balsamo, Anne. “Chapter 1: Gendering the Technological Imagination. Designing Culture: The technological imagination at work. Duke University Press, 2011. 27-50.

Drucker, Johanna. “Humanities Approaches to Interface Theory.” Culture Machine 12.0 (2011): 1-20. 

Tiptree J., James. “The Girl Who Was Plugged In.” 1974. 


Vector/Scalar projects

From Vectors (TBD):

From Scalar:

Pathfinders. Ed. Dene Grigar and Stuart Moulthrop. Scalar book. (this code is available should anyone wish to build on it for a project)

The Knotted Line. Evan Bissell, Erik Loyer, Tanya Orellana, Lisa Nowlain, Josh Begley.


10 thoughts on “Week 6: Design, Knowledge Representation, Interface

  1. I had a bit of a hard time understanding Johanna Drucker’s “Humanities Approaches to Interface Theory” at first, partially because I didn’t initially see what the connection was between comics and digital interfaces. I did start to grasp what some of the similarities were as I read—such as the necessity of organizing things in a logical way so that people naturally look at them in the right order—but I’m still not entirely clear on what a non-sequitur frame in a comic would be, and what the equivalent would be in an interface. If anyone else knows of any examples of those, let me know.

    I also took a look at some of the other interfaces and graphics she referred to in the essay so that I could gain a better understanding of what she was saying. She mentioned the New York Times website ( as an example of an interface that successfully “encodes many varied tasks and possibilities, all fully legible to us” (4-5), and when I looked at I could definitely see what she meant. Things like the log in button and the search function, which are sometimes a bit hard to find on other websites, are right at the top, and underneath the header there’s a bit of concise information about things like the day and the weather, followed by a list of sections you can click on. Or if you scroll down, you can see previews of various articles, arranged in nice-looking differently sized boxes. I can’t think of anything I’d want from that website that isn’t already on the front page (unlike with some others, like notoriously complicated university websites, an issue parodied in this comic: Drucker’s works cited also provides a link to the graphic by Jesse James Garrett ( that she describes as demonstrating the “engineering sensibility driven by mechanistic pragmatism” (10) behind interface design.

    Interactive fiction like These Waves of Girls (and probably non-fiction too, like The Knotted Line, although I haven’t looked at that one in as much detail yet) can subvert people’s expectations about interfaces in order to create an odd or unsettling atmosphere. For one thing, when I followed the initial link to These Waves of Girls, I wasn’t even sure where to click to start the story, and I got increasingly frustrated by that as the sounds of laughter continued. And the non-linear nature of the hypertext makes it impossible to assign a defined beginning or end point to the story, in order to definitively state whether you’ve finished reading it or not. I’d be interested to hear some people’s opinions on whether the unconventional interfaces of these works are effective—do you appreciate their ability to turn reading a story or essay into an interactive experience, or do you think they run too much of a risk of becoming inaccessible and hard to understand?


    1. Hey Stephanie! I thought I would attempt to add some clarity to Drucker’s article based on the questions you provided. In terms of what an example from McCloud’s non-sequitur category would “look” like from a graphic novel perspective, I should probably first mention that it’s not necessarily a particular graphic detail that we can visually see but more of a narrative strategy (for lack of a better term). There’s a “a shift in the basic cognitive frame from which the story unfolds and within which it is being conceived” (5) that can occur while reading a graphic novel that can be assisted with visual cues (such as the size of a panel in relation to the others on the page) but this is mostly accomplished through “extra-narrative experience” (think about the extra-textual details from books: cover art, epigraphs, bibliography of author, etc.) whether that be our own experience and knowledge or social customs that derive from our cultures (basically what I’m trying to get at is that it’s just an additional lens that we look through in combination with the visual cues that are physically presented to us in the story). An example that Drucker provides is how “a dream turns out to be real” (5) which reminded me of The Walking Dead series/graphic novel. If you are not familiar with it, it basically follows the same group of people who are trying to survive during a zombie apocalypse. However, the story begins with the main character, Rick, who goes into a coma and then wakes up months later to find that his world turned upside down (Zombies. Everywhere.). There’s a theory that Rick didn’t actually wake up from his coma and that all of this is a dream, now if this were to actually happen you can see how that completely alters the entire narrative and our conception of the story that we have been accustomed to for so long. So this is an example of a cognitive shift that can’t just be accomplished through graphical details. Now if we were to apply this concept of a non-sequitur category to the digital world, my next example won’t be as mindblowing of a shift than my Walking Dead example but the first thing I thought of in terms of the web was Facebook. For example, I am constantly shifting from watching a video from Unilad (a Facebook page I did like) to a photo uploaded from a personal friend to an advertisement (a Facebook page I didn’t like but Facebook gathers data and information about searches or links I have made outside of Facebook) to creating my own Facebook status for my personal profile. These are all completely different aspects and characteristics that have no connection with each other and appear in their order by chance (it depends when you log in and check your feed), which allows multiple cognitive shifts that could be distracting and disorienting but we can adapt quite easily and maybe even find a connection or relation between the variety of media. I hope I didn’t overcomplicate things and if I didn’t say it before, this was how I interpreted this part of the article (which may or may not be wrong, so anyone can challenge me on this). Hope this helps!

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  2. About Anne Balsamo’s chapter “Gendering the Technological Imagination” :

    I will try to restric my comment here to personal thoughts, as I will present the text tomorrow.
    The article starts with a sociological and socio-professional question, asking once more why there is such a gender gap in high level STEM jobs, and if we can justify it with biological or essentialist arguments.
    Then Balsamo shifts to Karen Barad’s key concept of ‘intra-action’ to introduce her own understanding of the ‘designing’ process. At that point I was a bit perplex, because Balsamo strongly asserts the need to take praxis in account (quoting Barad’s ‘matter does matter’), whereas at the same time she only talks in very abstract terms borrowed from Philosophy (I noticed she uses the expression ‘to do things’ a couple of times, which I found especially vague).
    However, I guess that her insistence on theory aims at situating the background in which she thinks, works and ‘designs’, before introducing the actual project she set up in 1995. This project, Women of the World Talk Back, is a forum she co-organized with other American feminist scholars ; it happened in China (in Beijing) and took the shape of an international media-making event, during which women from very diverse backgrounds worked on designing an interactive video CD-ROM. It actually showed to what extend women across the world were eager to know more about media and technologies (‘everything from video to print’), debunking Lawrence Summer’s cliché that Balsamo quotes in the first lines of the chapter (attributing women ‘intrinsic inaptitudes’ when they come to experiment technologies). Having just an insight of the project through the ‘factual account’ she makes of it, I was impressed in two ways. On the one side, I found the idea definitely well-designed and truly useful, concretely showing how women can use digital tools to disseminate educational material for example (it reminded me a bit of the Wiki edit-a-ton, even if in our cases we stayed ‘at home’). I really liked the fact that the group of feminist scholars involved in the project traveled all the way to China to meet with women from non-Western backgrounds, because I believe that even if technological communication tools are efficient, we still need IRL interactions. On the other side, I was somehow amazed when I realized that we barely never hear not learn about those kinds of projects, while they are still supported by international NGO. Balsamo herself tackles the issue of ‘disseminating’ the project in an auto-critical analysis.
    What eventually stroke me was her ability to navigate between theory and praxis, finding in the idea of ‘boundary-object’ a way to reconcile those two approaches to feminism, as well as to ‘align’ a wide range of identities — which reminded me of Haraway’s approach. The title of the chapter itself embodies the necessity to recognize the interdependence of tools and imagination : to fully take advantage of the possibilities maps and compasses offer us, we need to project our minds first and foresee what territory we can explore/modulate in a feminist and intersectional perspective.


  3. When I encountered McPherson’s article, it raised a lot of questions for me. As I have previously mentioned, I have some experience in coding (since I took computer science and computer engineering classes in high school) and McPherson states how “we need conceptual models for the digital humanities and for digital media studies that do not rely upon the bracket, the module, the box, or the partition” (181), which encouraged me to reflect on programming language in general and how there is this overall image of separation that McPherson points out. I recall constantly having to use the / to separate two statements or [ ], { }, ., ; (there’s even a term called ‘break’ to make space in between different lines of code). There’s this language that encourages isolation and separation that is instilled within multiple programming languages, which made me think of several questions. Do these rules and ways of coding influence parts of our thinking in terms of applying this task of boxing and separating to social aspects of our lives, such as organizing people or things into distinct categories? Is there a programming language that promotes inclusivity and addresses difference without actually separating two things from each other? Does this particular use of symbols and idea of division and disconnectedness speak more to one gender than the other? Are programming languages accessible for everyone? These questions led me to this concept (totally new to me) called Gender HCI (Human-Computer Interaction). This branch of research that investigates the very things I’m curious about, how does software or hardware interact with gender differences. An example that I’ve always been curious about is gender differences and its impact on the design of video games. I noticed that I am good at roleplaying or Action RPG or strategic style games, but first person shooter games or any game that involves me driving a car (or any vehicle for that matter) ends up being a complete disaster. Does this have some kind of relation to my gender? Or is just based on skills and capabilities? Perhaps looking more into Gender HCI will answer my questions.


  4. My comments on McPherson’s “Designing for difference” and Tiptree’s “The Girl Who Was Plugged In”:

    I have found McPherson’s attempt to relocate the debate on the relationship between cultural theory and the digital humanities interesting. I was intrigued by her project to design digital tools allowing to articulate the feminist concerns around the notion of difference. The way in which she unpacks such concerns is illuminating, as she draws on a number of feminist philosophical theories, such as Barad’s notion of “intra-actions” and “agential cut,” which I have found very useful in better understanding the role played by cultural criticism in the DH. The need to find a balance between materiality and discursivity as well as between nature and culture is essential to avoid falling back into the bracketing of code from culture. This is also because the binary opposition between code and culture inherited by the organization of knowledge production is rather narrow and exclusive – it is therefore manifestly in contrast with any type of feminist rationale, as, by presenting computation design as dominant over cultural theory, it reiterates the patriarchal discourse of hierarchical categorization.

    However, I wish that, when trying to answer the question “Can software be feminist?,” she would provide more examples of feminist database tools so as to better support her thesis. Also, I’d be curious to know more about how Scalar can be seen as the missing link between coding and feminist cultural theory.

    Moving on to Tiptree’s sci-fi novella, I find the contrast between P. Burke’s repulsive body and Delphi’s perfect physical appearance very striking, as it strongly confronts the reader with the (very depressing) role played by female embodiment in society. In this (not so much) dystopic society, being physically perfect is synonymous with value and prestige, while having a body that does not conform to those standards is completely devalued. And yet, Delphi is nothing but an empty body, an empty carcass that P. Burke masterfully controls while receiving social validation through her. By enacting a process of disembodiment, she leaves behind her devalued body and takes control of a perfect one, thus managing to climb the social stair.

    I am not sure I totally understood the role played by the male narrator in the story (and who is supposed to be the zombie he is addressing throughout the narrative, by the way?) and how his narration should affect the reader. The only thing I know is that the way he expresses himself made me cringe, so I guess it is a successful literary device, as it reinforces the effect that P. Burke’s miserable condition has on the reader.


  5. My thoughts on Johanna Drucker’s ‘Humanities Approaches to Interface Theory’

    This article offered many interesting inputs, and I have especially liked its clarity in outlining a definition of what an interface is (as ‘not so much a between space’, but rather what constructs and makes the user experience; not just the means of access to information, but information itself). I have also liked how it draws parallels and comparisons to more traditional environments and forms (the book, but also, the movie and the comic book). However, I am not sure I have understood the conclusions that Drucker is pointing to in terms of future scholarly research, for example in the very closing passage, where she writes: ‘finding our way selectively among the many threads of this n-dimensional environment will depend on the emerging relation between diagrammatic imagination and consensual conventions in a scholarly community’. I think she could be pointing to the potential for dynamic interfaces to enhance the user experience of online editions of texts, for example; but even though the article proved to be very clear in its premises, I could not always see clearly what it suggested.

    Also, thank you Stephanie and Jacqueline for bringing up/clarifying what is meant by the ‘non sequitur’ category as that was not too clear to me at first. I find the idea of the distraction embedded in the web very interesting: the opportunities for the continuous opening of new threads and pages online are an overwhelmingly important feature in defining my experience of online interfaces. There is a fine line I think between how much this is empowering me as a user (=by allowing me to make constant choices on the ‘narrative’ I want to follow/construct), and how much this is turning me into a subject (=meant as a merely receptive user; and here I am especially thinking of ads, and how they tend to invade all online interfaces…). I also think it is crucial how she mentions that this involves our bodies very profoundly as well.

    The point raised by Drucker as she compared digital interfaces to more traditional environments, like the book, the movie or the graphic novel made me think of Walter Ong’s book “Orality and Literacy”. This work mostly focuses on the passage from oral to written cultures, but it also talks about the shift to the digital culture, underlining how writing is a ‘technology’ in itself that, however, has been naturalized in a way that digital technologies still haven’t been. I think this is also why we might thing of interfaces as something that stands ‘in between’ us and the data, more than we tend to do so for print books.


  6. Something that stood out to me in Anne Marie Balsamo’s article, Gendering the Technological Imagination, was her note about the “dominant myth of gender and technology” (32), which she defines as a myth that has its basis in the signifiers of both men and women’s roles throughout history. She states that men’s roles, at least those filled by white men, have historically been de-genered, while roles filled by women were, and still are, often defined by their gender. I can see that there is a need to stand out from the masses in such a case, and by identifying a role with a signifier not currently being used, that is certainly a way of shifting the focus to recognize that there is a different voice that needs to be heard or seen. It is interesting to consider that the majority of voices as being anonymous to a certain extent, rather than gendered male. Yet there is an implicit assumption that the majority is male, so how can it be that the male roles are not defined by gender. Is it simply the presence of female roles being defined by gender that makes the opposition apparent, or doe sit go deeper than that?

    I found this question of gendered roles to be particularly well connected to Tara McPherson’s discussion of “identity politics”, especially when considering the outward look onto the issue of gender in relation to identity. McPherson notes that the technological forum, while stated to be diverse and allow “intermingling”, somehow brings up the question of identity in relation to who and how people are interacting through a digital interface. Again there seems to be an interesting focus on specificity coming out of a mass of assumed ambiguity, in that these voices that intermingle are still being looked at through a gendered or cultured lens that puts focus on the “relationship between materiality and discursively” (179) to illuminate complexities in technological based discourse.

    There seems to be a similar tread throughout many of our readings thus far that puts focus on the issue of representation from both sides. In Balsamo and McPherson’s cases there is a distinct focus on the outward result of representation and looking at the data on a larger scale, but I wonder what that means on a smaller scale, on an individual scale. Does knowing that there is an interest in voices that are linked to their signifiers change the way we interact discursively through technological forums?


  7. I’d like to begin with an excerpt from McPherson’s essay, “Designing for Difference:”

    We can see at work here the basic contours of an approach to the world that separates object from subject, cause from effect, context from code. . . We need conceptual models for the digital humanities and for digital media studies that do not rely upon the bracket, the module, the box, or the partition. (181)

    In the passage above, McPherson warns against the dangers of “conceptual bracketing” (181) when it comes to divorcing the digital from humanities, the code from its socio-political context. What’s more, she reminds us to remain wary of systems that would remove context and decrease complexity. We must challenge methodologies that would divorce critical race & gender theory from computational studies are naturally exclusive, that we must bracket identity with the promise of return. This history of displacing critical labour and responsibility to “other” fields is revealed in the works of Drucker and Balsamo as not only ethically suspect but methodologically flawed and weak in scholarly rigour. We must, as Balsamo writes, take up a technological imagination, a “quality of mind that grasps the double-nature of technology: as determining and determined, as both autonomous and subservient to human goals” (31).

    What has become abundantly clear after this week’s readings is that if the kind of work suggested by McPherson, Drucker, Balsamo and others is to be achieved, it cannot be done alone. Digital platforms that allow for collaborative scholarship — platforms made for and critically informed by the authors themselves — will become as crucial as ever if we are to act on “the consequences of technocultural productions and creations” (Balsamo 31). What’s more, and perhaps just as importantly, our collaborators will likely need to come from other disciplines, too. These readings have also lead me to visions of dynamic, more-than-linear, co-authored, and cross-disciplinary dissertations. How long until the image of the lone scholar toiling away in isolation becomes replaced with a buzzing, collective hub of minds?

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  8. Tara Mcpherson’s article “Designing for Difference” reiterates issues I’ve run into as a (trans/post)humanist interested in developing my digital skills. I see so much potential for critical praxis and am yet disheartened by this need to often “bracket” my “identity” in order to broaden my understanding of digital platforms. I’ve had conversations with more technologically inclined folk that have mimicked the comment section quoted from the “Critical Code Studies” forum of Lambda the Ultimate. It’s mind-blowing how often people refuse to accept that politics and power structures are embedded in technology. The “math, physics, [and] reason” (180) associated with digital work are at the heart of the phallogocentric discourse that has privileged and oppressed the same populations for centuries – though this probably explains why its so easy for certain groups to refuse to acknowledge technology’s reinforcement of the privileging of these fields. I’ve even noticed how deeply I have internalized this hierarchical value system in the way that I joke about pursuing DH in order to foster a “practical skill-set.”

    I appreciate how McPherson calls on coding humanists to engage with theories of difference because they are of equal value to the (at times fetishized) position of “the maker.” But becoming a critical “maker” and embracing the messiness posed by intra-actions is precisely what bred revolutionary platforms like Scalar. It is living (digital) proof that software can indeed exist as critical praxis.

    What’s wonderful about Scalar is that it resists our expectations of digital narrative form and, in doing so, forces us to examine these expectations and develop self-awareness around how we interact with digital mediums. In her article “What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities,” (not on the reading list) Miriam Posner looks specifically at The Knotted Line to question these expectations of ease-of-navigation using Laura Mulvey’s term “the reinforcement of ego.” The resistance of narratives like that of The Knotted Line force us to ask “whose ego? Who is our work for? If…data builds worlds by extracting and reassembling bits of what we know, then whose world are we building ? [emphasis my own]. These questions have stuck with me since first reading Posner’s article last year, and now when I engage with “making” (which largely feels good because of capitalism’s obsession with productivity and materiality which is a whole other thing), I am doubly critical about where the data I’m using is coming from and how I’m interpreting and presenting it through which ever warped digital lens I’m dealing with.

    Scalar isn’t perfect, but it is a huge step in the right direction, and as a (trans/post/whatever)humanist I have been hard pressed to find any other medium with qualities as attractive or as crucial as those presented by Scalar.

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  9. Thoughts on Balsamo’s “Gendering the Technological Imagination”:

    I’d like to focus on a moment where I ‘called out’ Balsamo inside my head, and then she promptly recognized the ‘problem’ I was imagining. She says that technological imagination is both autonomous and subservient to human goals, and writes that “feminists need reliable maps of the technocultural terrain” …Do they, I thought? Admittedly I was thinking of maps as didactic and colonial objects, which seems to fly in the face of the ‘play’ of the encounter that we’ve been trying to facilitate in our classroom, and which other pieces we’ve read together gesture toward.

    Balsamo soon says, “I invoke the metaphor of colonizing a terrain consciously and with more than a bit of irony.” Ok, I thought. Then: Feminists know that women are in these spaces too, “but that they have often been invisible as members of the indigenous population.” Do we agree that men are the indigenous population of the Internet, or in technological development? They certainly occupy a hegemonic position (appearing “degendered” if genius, Balsamo tells us), but are they always already ‘there first’ when it comes to technological progression? I agree with Balsamo that women’s lack of STEM involvement is likely less an issue of aptitude or interest, and more a lack of diverse female mentoring and modelling. What would the world look like if we stopped calling female entrepreneurs “The female Steve Jobs”? Spaces of “technocultural activism” and “interactive poetics of the digital experience” might be a good place to start looking. (extreme side note: Beyonce is empowering, but isn’t fully immune, in “Formation”: “I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making”).

    If anyone’s interested, this article from Scientific American addresses the biases present in awarding Nobel Prizes, which excludes women and minorities from fair consideration:

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