Faculty Spotlight: Interview with Alexander Monea

Faculty Spotlight: Interview with Alexander Monea

The Cultural Studies Program welcomes Alexander Monea, our new faculty member! Alexander Monea is Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities serving jointly in George Mason's English Department and Cultural Studies Program. CS student Esma Celebioglu conducted a brief interview with Prof. Monea. To find out more about Prof. Monea and his research interests, read this article.


Could you tell us a bit about your educational background and current research project(s)?

My educational background is primarily in media studies, and most of my work examines computation from the lens of archival media studies. I received my doctorate from NC State University’s Communication, Rhetoric, & Digital Media program, which is housed across their English and Communication Departments. My MA and BA work were both in English, but often saw me trying to apply literary theory and criticism to new media ‘texts’.

My book project examines computational media from an archival perspective and looks to provide a genealogy of big data, predictive analytics, and other sites of entanglement between computation and governmentality. It pays particular attention to the grammar of data collection, processing, storage, and transmission, and the power struggles of rendering the state and the public legible through the ubiquitous production machine-readable data and the subsequently renewed capacity for legislation. My recent publications range from analytical work focused on specific computational apparatuses, like Google's Knowledge Graph, to more theoretical critiques of speculation, to methodological meditations on doing politically meaningful media studies research.

You have an educational background in communication and you are also interested in computation and critical code studies. From your perspective, how these two areas contribute to each other regarding to your research?

My answer to this might be dissatisfying in its simplicity, but communications research is the bedrock of all computation and code, in the sense that information theory and cybernetics were grounded in Claude Shannon’s (mathematical) theory of communication. The material instantiation of signal processing is a communication concern: how can I get some unit of information from one point in spacetime to another. It just so happened that because of this, communication scholarship began dealing with some of what became the key issues of media studies at a much earlier stage (and continues to do so today with perhaps more pragmatic and political concerns, as well as more sources of funding and publication outlets).

In terms of my research, these concerns play out in the question of how we communicate human knowledge to machines. While this takes place in the realm of much higher-order programming like machine learning and deep learning, it still ultimately relies on the communication of voltage differentials, and thus on algorithmic iteration and a grammatization of data that reflects that algorithmic iterability. This all has a markedly cultural dimension as well, as our inscription mechanisms largely constitute our culture memory. In a sense then, the process by which we communicate human knowledge to machines is increasingly the process by which we communicate ourselves to the future.

In what ways do you link your research areas to Cultural Studies and how Cultural Studies inform your studies?

My background is largely in media studies, and its intersections with computation, code, software, hardware, networks, etc. To study these sorts of issues, one often needs an archival methodology, as the important discursive (and non-discursive!) components are scattered across many disciplines, publication venues, coordinates in space and time, etc. And here, I mean that term rather simply and broadly, in the sense that an archive is just the stuff (patents, press releases, blogs, videos, buildings, bodies, maps, machines, communication networks, media, etc.) you ought to look at to figure out what is going on when there isn’t already a set of easy narratives to refer to, or when you’d rather not buy into those grand narratives.

Thus, I find that these sorts of archives have a lot in common with the ones that cultural studies scholars have been producing over the past half century or so. I am particularly interested in conjunctural analysis, and use a lot of Larry Grossberg’s ideas about methods, for example, to guide my own archival research. They of course need adjusted and it isn’t a perfect equivalence, but there is a kinship in the need to construct interdisciplinary, amorphous, and often excessively heterogeneous archives. This kinship also extends to the ethic of the endeavor, and the need to make these archival decisions as transparently as possible, and to struggle with methods in an eternal attempt to find rigor in a necessarily inexact process.