Grant Wythoff

Lecturer in English Columbia University

Grant Wythoff received his PhD in English from Princeton University. Trained as a literary scholar, Wythoff works on the intersections of technology and cultural form. His current book project, Gadgetry, is a media history of that alternately functional and fictional device, the gadget. While pundits argue that gadgets today like smartphones and GPS receivers are fundamentally altering the ways we read, communicate, and even think, Wythoff throws such claims into relief with a deeper history of these seemingly small, everyday tools. The word "gadget" refers to both concrete objects and indeterminate tools that have been forgotten, rigged up on the fly, or not yet invented. Spanning a range of literary, social, and technical histories, his archaeology of these alternately functional and fictional devices from their origins in mid-nineteenth-century nautical jargon to their current association with mobile media reveals a distinct evolution in the imaginative space between tools and their users. Focusing on the nascent tinkerer and genre fiction communities of early twentieth century America, Wythoff argues that fictions play a constitutive role in the emergence of new media as socially shared systems of communication and expression.

Wythoff is also at work on a critical edition of Hugo Gernsback's media historical, literary critical, and technical writings, titled The Perversity of Things, which is forthcoming from The University of Minnesota Press's Electronic Mediations series. The canonical story about Hugo Gernsback is that he launched the genre of science fiction as the founding editor of Amazing Stories in April of 1926. He treated the magazine as merely a commercial venture, wrote in a “crude and heavy-handed” style and, despite the fact that his name adorns the award given out yearly to the best works in the genre (the Hugo Award), he now usually receives little more than a cursory, one-sentence nod in science fiction studies. Focusing only on the period from Amazing and after, this inherited version completely overlooks the wider context of the genre’s birth in Gernsback’s fleet of electrical experimenter magazines as well as his work as a pioneer in wireless technologies and amateur broadcast activist. This collection seeks to provide a new picture of modern science fiction as a literary genre that emerged out of an electrical supply catalogue. The Perversity of Things is a collection that will occasion a reappraisal of both the “hard” technical roots of American science fiction and the highly speculative orientation toward media technologies in the period.

Through his work in the digital humanities, Wythoff is interested in placing theoretical reflection in dynamic conversation with practical innovation. While at Princeton, Wythoff served as a founding member and later on the steering committee of the Digital Humanities Initiative, a campus-wide community of researchers, staff, technologists, and students gathered to think through the mission of the university writ large when the medium of scholarship is revolutionized. As project manager of the Princeton Prosody Archive, Wythoff managed a large-scale database of texts on the technology of reading a poem, from nineteenth century scansion to visual alphabets to digital full-text search.