English Professor Lisa Swanstrom Wins Book Prize

Lisa Swanstrom's new book Animal, Vegetable, Digital: Experiments in New Media Aesthetics and Environmental Poetics (January 2016) has won the Elizabeth Agee Prize in American Literature from The University of Alabama Press. The prize is awarded annually to a work that exemplifies scholarly excellence in the field of American literary studies.

Swanstrom, an assistant professor of English at Florida Atlantic University, said her passion for both the environment and digital culture lead her to write the book. She said, "In Western culture, especially since the advent of popular computing technology in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there's been a real sense that digital technology is somehow an enemy of natural ecology—of the environment, and I wanted to contest that; in my book, I try to show how digital art or work that's made with digital technology, can intervene positively in environmental discourse and awareness."

Swanstrom did the bulk of her preliminary research in HUMLab, a digital humanities lab at the University of Umeå in northern Sweden, where she interviewed digital artists whose work complicates the boundary between "natural" and "digital" ecologies.  When she joined FAU in 2011 she received a grant to conduct archival research at the University of California's Eaton Collection (one of the finest archives of science fiction in the world), which helped her complete the project.

Swanstrom examines texts, art installations, and cultural artifacts, including video games, that were "born digital, made with digital technology and meant to be experienced with a digital interface" and demonstrates how technology can act as a bridge to the natural world rather than an impediment.

In many ways, the book is a corrective story about digital technology's potential, arguing against the common theme of nature versus technology. Swanstrom gives the example of how technology is depicted in science fiction films. She said, "If you look at some [of these popular films]—The Matrix for example, or Terminator films, you'll see these polluted, terrible landscapes, filled with technological junk, and I try to argue that's not determined, it's not how it has to be, it's not necessarily how it is, and let's try to reframe it."

The connection between the natural world and digital culture was a mostly unexplored area of scholarly research when Swanstrom began the project, but other recent books are tackling the topic from a variety of perspectives. Although Swanstrom's focus is on art, she hopes the book will engage scholars in literary studies, communications, film studies, environmental humanities, and the arts. Although not explicit in terms of activist practice, the book may also inform environmental activists through its examples of how digital art can contribute to conservation efforts.