UW-Madison Center for the Humanities

Center for the Humanities

Past Faculty Development Seminars

Fall 2009: Representing Culture in an Age of Networks


Led by Lew Friedland (Journalism & Mass Communication) and Caroline Levine (English)

Popular culture has seen a rising excitement about technological networks and social networking websites. Meanwhile, scholars working in engineering, mathematics, biology, and the social sciences have argued for the importance of networks to the understanding of a vast array of phenomena: not only new media technologies but gene-protein interactions, community building, human and animal brains, ecosystems, transportation, and terrorism. The humanities, on the other hand, have offered relatively little analysis of the network as a concept. And yet, if we look closely at the language of scholarship in the humanities, it turns out that networks have in fact been powerfully at work there for a long while, though in largely unarticulated ways. Humanists struggling to capture the complex flows of meanings, bodies, information, material objects, and power have often relied on the term “network” without explicitly theorizing it. These scholars routinely use the concept to refer to trade routes, the circulation of print, colonial administration, and even meaning itself—the web of connotations and associations within which a particular text takes shape. Indeed, the very notion of cultures as networks has become pervasive. It therefore seems urgent for the humanities to join the social and natural sciences and engineering in explicitly thinking through the biological, social, technological, and cultural importance of networks.

This seminar--Representing Culture in an Age of Networks: The Wire and Others--has two goals. Our first aim will be to introduce network theory from the sciences and social sciences to scholars across humanities disciplines. Our second goal will be to think about how to represent the experience of networked cultures. A flurry of recent films—including Babel, Syriana, Traffic, and The Constant Gardener — all take up the challenge of crafting narratives to represent experiences shaped by transnational trade. We propose to organize this seminar around the most complex and sophisticated representation of networks that we know: HBO’s series The Wire (2002-7). A highly plotted police drama set in Baltimore, the series is fascinating for the ways that it tells a story that integrates a number of overlapping networks. Formally speaking, narratives and networks seem to be in a tense relationship, maybe even downright opposed: if narratives are organized around diachronic unfoldings, networks are composed of constant crisscrossings among nodes in a system, best represented by synchronic forms like charts and maps. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology has been developed precisely to track such spatial movements. But The Wire’s innovative storytelling strategies will allow us to investigate both the time and space of networks, posing questions about the kinds of networks that actually organize cultural experience—including economics, kinship, bureaucracy, networking technologies, media, and organized politics—and inviting us to explore the question of how best to understand and represent culture in a networked age.