Black Boxed Selves

In June Rob and I went to the annual Digital Humanities (DH) conference, held this year in Sydney.

Not only did we have some fascinating discussions with people from around the globe at the DH New Scholars Seminar – on which more to follow – but along with Tom Apperley (University of New South Wales) we also organised a panel on the topic of “Black Boxed Selves”.

Still pondering the implications of the great feedback we got, but in the meantime, see the description below for insight into what we spend most of our time thinking about:

Black Boxed Selves

Taking Galloway’s essay as its point of departure, this panel draws together three papers that work to unpack the idea of ‘the black-boxed self’, addressing some of the ways in which selfhood is understood, articulated, and monetized in an age when networked digital devices are transforming politics, medicine, play, and creative endeavour—not to mention academic research.
Indeed, we propose that much of the most interesting work proceeding in the humanities today can be understood in terms of the attempt to engage, imagine, or theorize black-boxed selves of one kind or another. We might think, here, of the intentionally opaque or illegible selves addressed in Nicolas de Villiers’ elaboration (2012) of the strategies of ‘opacity’ deployed by those seeking to queer normative models of subjectivity and biography, or of anthropologist Gabriella Coleman’s work (2014) on the amorphous hacker collective Anonymous and their bids to evade online surveillance and censorship; of attempts to render one’s own body less cryptic, whether through the kinds of life-writing analysed by those working in the medical humanities or nascent practices of digital self-quantification and ‘personal informatics’ (see Whitehead, 2013; Schull, 2014); or of research into the ‘data images’ of users captured by technologies like Microsoft’s Xbox 360, a blockbusting videogame console that pioneered modes of covert user surveillance (Cybulski, 2014).
Like these projects, our papers adopt a multidisciplinary approach, variously taking their cues from literary theory, phenomenology, the medical humanities, media archaeology, platform studies, and affect theory, and drawing too on the new tools and tactics available to scholars working on and with digital media. Between us we address a range of media and practices, from videogaming and Twitter fiction to YouTube roleplay and digital sousveillance. By addressing developments in these specific fields, our panel aims to broach broader questions regarding the ways in which emergent forms of digital black boxing are shaping identity work and self-expression today.

Coleman, G. (2014). Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. Verso, London.
Cybulski, A. D. (2014). ‘Enclosures at Play: Surveillance in the Code and Culture of Videogames’. Surveillance & Society, 12(3): 427–32.
De Villiers, N. (2012). Opacity and the Closet: Queer Tactics in Foucault, Barthes, and Warhol. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
Galloway, A. R. (2011). ‘Black Box, Black Bloc’. In Noys, B. (ed.), Communization and Its Discontents: Contestation, Critique and Contemporary Struggles. London: Minor Compositions / AK Press, pp. 237–49.
Schull, N. D. (2014). ‘Time on Device: Slot Machine Design and the Turn Away from Risk in Gambling’. Lecture at McGill University, Montreal. 10 April 2014.
Whitehead, A. (2013). ‘The Medical Humanities: A Literary Perspective’. In Bates, V., Bleakley, A. and Goodman, S. (eds), Medicine, Health and the Arts Approaches to the Medical Humanities. Hoboken, NJ: Taylor and Francis, pp. 107–27.



Written by:

Rebecca Roach was a Postdoctoral Research Associate on this project until 2018. She is now Lecturer in Contemporary Literature at... read more about: Rebecca Roach