Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The end of Big Twitter

As long as I’ve been on Twitter (I started in March 2007) people have been complaining about Twitter. But recently things have changed. The complaints have increased in frequency and intensity, and now are coming more often from especially thoughtful and constructive users of the platform. There is an air of defeat about these complaints now, an almost palpable giving-up. For many of the really smart people on Twitter, it’s over. Not in the sense that they’ll quit using it altogether; but some of what was best about Twitter — primarily the experience of discovery — is now pretty clearly a thing of the past.

Recently Marco Arment got into a something of a pissing match on Twitter, and says that he learned a few things from it. For instance, he’s going to stop hate-retweeting some of the nastiest comments he gets, which I have always thought was a bad idea anyway. He’s going to take more time away from social media. And he’s going to reconsider the access to his life that he grants, that all of us grant, to strangers on social media. “We allow people access to us 24/7. We’re always in public, constantly checking an anonymous comment box, trying to explain ourselves to everyone, and trying to win unwinnable arguments with strangers who don’t matter in our lives at all.”

Brent Simmons comments interestingly on Arment’s experience:

Even though I follow people I like and respect, there’s no way around seeing some of the crap that happens on Twitter. Even if you don’t use Twitter at all, you will have seen articles about people being harrassed and threatened. You will have noticed the pure toxic sludge that pours through the service. (A hypothetical “Dawn of the Idiocracy” prequel would feature Twitter prominently.) 

And it’s worse than any blog comments system, because if you use it, anybody can put something in front of your face whether you want it or not. 

Twitter is also wonderful, and I get so much value out of it. But it’s like 51% good and 49% bad. 

I don’t see it getting any better. Hopefully it can hold the line at just-barely-worth-it. (But the recent changes to the timeline make that a little less likely.)

I don’t see it getting any better either. And no one has offered a better explanation than Frank Chimero:

We concede that there is some value to Twitter, but the social musing we did early on no longer fits. My feed (full of people I admire) is mostly just a loud, stupid, sad place. Basically: a mirror to the world we made that I don’t want to look into. The common way to refute my complaint is to say that I’m following the wrong people. I think I’m following the right people, I’m just seeing the worst side of them while they’re stuck in an inhospitable environment. It’s exasperating to be stuck in a stream. 

Here’s the frustration: if you’ve been on Twitter a while, it’s changed out from under you. Christopher Alexander made a great diagram, a spectrum of privacy: street to sidewalk to porch to living room to bedroom. I think for many of us Twitter started as the porch — our space, our friends, with the occasional neighborhood passer-by. As the service grew and we gained followers, we slid across the spectrum of privacy into the street.

This is exactly right. I have found that my greatest frustrations with Twitter come not from people who are being nasty — though there are far too many of them — but from people who just misunderstand. They reply questioningly or challengingly to a tweet without reading any of the preceding or succeeding tweets that would give it context, or without reading the post that it links to. They take jokes seriously — Oh Lord do they take jokes seriously. And far too often they don’t take the time to formulate their responses with care and so write tweets that I can’t make sense of at all. And I don’t want to have to deal with all this. I just want to sit here on the porch and have a nice chat with my friends and neighbors.

But wait. I’m not on the porch anymore. I’m in the middle of Broadway.

So I’m doing what, it seems to me, many people are doing: I’m getting out of the street. I’ll keep my public account for public uses: it’ll be a place where I can link to posts like this one, or announce any event that’s of general interest. But what I’ve come to call Big Twitter is simply not a place for conversation any more.

I don’t like this change. I made friends — real friends — on Twitter when it was a place for conversation. I reconnected with people I had lost touch with. Whole new realms of knowledge were opened to me. I don’t want to foreclose on the possibility of further discovery, but the signal-to-noise ration is so bad now that I don’t think I could pick out the constructive and interesting voices from all the mean-spiritedness and incomprehension; and so few smart people now dare to use Twitter in the old open way.

Big Twitter was great — for a while. But now it’s over, and it’s time to move on. I’m just hoping that some smart people out there are learning from what went wrong and developing social networks that can strengthen the signal and silence the noise.

Friday, August 29, 2014

"and my profit on't is..."

Swearing “seems to be” getting more common? Talk about an unnecessary qualifier. Obviously, it has gotten dramatically more common in the past twenty years or so, or, it’s better to say, more public. And of course anyone who complains about this — like anyone who complains about the hyper-sexualization of public culture — is immediately mocked and denigrated as a prude or worse. This is what happens when you question the object of anyone’s sentimental devotion.

Yes, sentimental. Wallace Stegner explained this fifty years ago, in an essay he wrote for the Atlantic Monthly called “Good-bye to All T—t!” The essay arose from Stegner’s experience as a teacher of creative writing: he has discovered that his students thought they were making their stories more powerful and bold just by inserting lots of swear words.

Now, Stegner used plenty of strong language in his own fiction; but he was not under the illusion that if some swearing is acceptable and appropriate and useful then more swearing is always more acceptable and appropriate and useful.

Words are not obscene: naming things is a legitimate verbal act.... Under the right circumstances, any word is proper. But when any sort of word, especially a word hitherto taboo and therefore noticeable, is scattered across a page like chocolate chips through a tollhouse cookie, a real impropriety occurs. The sin is not the use of an “obscene” word; it is the use of a loaded word in the wrong place or in the wrong quantity. It is the sin of false emphasis, which is not a moral but a literary lapse, related to sentimentality....

Some acts, like some words, were never meant to be casual. That is why houses contain bedrooms and bathrooms. Profanity and so-called obscenities are literary resources, verbal ways of rendering strong emotion. They are not meant to occur every ten seconds, any more than — Norman Mailer to the contrary notwithstanding — orgasms are.

There’s an old saying that sentimentality is loving something more than God does; in that sense you might say that the undisciplined and gratuitous swearer is sentimental. But sentimentality is not true affection. Super-swearers don’t love their words enough: they’re indiscriminate, careless. They toss powerful language around, casually, and over time diminish its power. Stegner mentions D. H. Lawrence’s commendation of having “the courage to say ’shit!’ in front of a lady” — that’s great, says Stegner, but then what do you say when your car breaks down on the Santa Monica Freeway during rush hour?

If you care about language, you’ll swear sometimes; but only sometimes. You’ll save the strong words for the proper occasions, which are few. If you want to know how to do it, read Les Murray’s poem “The Last Hellos.” Read it slowly, all the way to the end.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Great and Holy War


As part of the research for my current book project, I am reading The Great and Holy War, by my colleague Philip Jenkins. It is an absolutely extraordinary book. Here’s an excerpt from the Introduction: 

Contrary to secular legend, religious and supernatural themes pervaded the rhetoric surrounding the war— on all sides— and these clearly had a popular appeal far beyond the statements of official church leaders. If the war represented the historic triumph of modernity, the rise of countries “ruled by scientific principles,” then that modernity included copious lashings of the religious, mystical, millenarian, and even magical. Discussions of the Great War, at the time and since, have regularly used words such as “Armageddon” and “apocalypse,” although almost always in a metaphorical sense. Yet without understanding the widespread popular belief in these concepts in their original supernatural terms, we are missing a large part of the story. As Salman Rushdie remarks, “Sometimes legends make reality, and become more useful than the facts.”

The First World War was a thoroughly religious event, in the sense that overwhelmingly Christian nations fought each other in what many viewed as a holy war, a spiritual conflict. Religion is essential to understanding the war, to understanding why people went to war, what they hoped to achieve through war, and why they stayed at war. Not in medieval or Reformation times but in the age of aircraft and machine guns, the majority of the world’s Christians were indeed engaged in a holy war that claimed more than ten million lives.

Jenkins supports these claims with ample — and, to me, shocking — quotations. A German pastor, Dietrich Vorwerk, rewrote the Lord Prayer’s on nationalistic and militaristic lines: 

In thy merciful patience, forgive
Each bullet and each blow
That misses its mark.
Lead us not into the temptation
Of letting our wrath be too gentle
In carrying out Thy divine judgment.
Deliver us and our pledged ally
From the Evil One and his servants on earth.
Thine is the kingdom, The German land.
May we, through Thy mailed hand
Come to power and glory.

Meanwhile, as the U.S.A. entered the war an American pastor wrote, "it is God who has summoned us to this war. It is his war we are fighting.... This conflict is indeed a crusade. The greatest in history —the holiest. It is in the profoundest and truest sense a Holy War.... Yes, it is Christ, the King of Righteousness, who calls us to grapple in deadly strife with this unholy and blasphemous power.” 

What Jenkins demonstrates beyond any question is that these were not isolated incidents but rather pervasive sentiments, powerful among political and military leaders as well as among prominent religious figures. If this story has been told before, I have somehow missed it. 

And what I’m learning from Jenkins is providing new and interesting context for what I’m writing about Christian thought in the next war. It seems that many of the most incisive Christian thinkers of that era learned something from the apocalyptic war-theology of the previous conflict. For instance, consider this interesting passage from a letter C. S. Lewis — who had fought and been seriously wounded in that previous war — wrote to his brother Warnie just after war began in September 1939: “In the Litany this morning we had some extra petitions, one of which was ‘Prosper, O Lord, our righteous cause.’ I ventured to protest against the audacity of informing God that our cause was righteous — a point on which He may have His own view.”

For Lewis and for other major artists and thinkers, it was clear that their cause was better than Hitler’s — but that did not make it God’s own cause. They had to think in careful and subtle ways about what it meant to support the Western democracies in their fight against totalitarianism without falling into that earlier trap of baptizing and sanctifying nationalism or “Democracy." Reading Jenkins’s book I have come to understand much better the context in which these figures were working and the dangers they were trying to avoid. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

and the good news keeps rolling in

An unexpectedly quick confirmation of some of the points I made in this morning’s earlier post, and an aid to explaining why so many people just can’t grasp views that don’t fit their pigeonholes.  How Social Media Silences Debate:

Social media, like Twitter and Facebook, has the effect of tamping down diversity of opinion and stifling debate about public affairs. It makes people less likely to voice opinions, particularly when they think their views differ from those of their friends, according to a report published Tuesday by researchers at Pew Research Center and Rutgers University. The researchers also found that those who use social media regularly are more reluctant to express dissenting views in the offline world.

The Internet, it seems, is contributing to the polarization of America, as people surround themselves with people who think like them and hesitate to say anything different. The Internet companies magnify the effect, by tweaking their algorithms to show us more content from people who are similar to us.

All the more reason, I suppose, for people with non-standard or complex views to maintain their patience and charity and just keep on explaining themselves as many times as they need to. Or else give up and get out, which is certainly the more attractive option — if not the more morally admirable one. 

another comment on comments

As anyone knows who has spent much time reading what I write, especially on Twitter, I am endlessly fascinated/puzzled/horrified by the malice and ignorance manifested in many online comments. I’ve been prompted to think about all this again by a handful of recent posts. 

Rebecca Mead’s profile of Mary Beard includes much food for thought, especially regarding the grace and charity and forgiveness that Beard has exhibited towards some people who have been really nasty to her. 

In another highly publicized incident, Beard retweeted a message that she had received from a twenty-year-old university student: “You filthy old slut. I bet your vagina is disgusting.” One of Beard’s followers offered to inform the student’s mother of his online behavior; meanwhile, he apologized. Beard’s object is not simply to embarrass offenders; it is to educate women. Before social media, she argues, it was possible for young women like those she teaches at Cambridge to enjoy the benefits of feminist advances without even being aware of the battles fought on their behalf, and to imagine that such attitudes are a thing of the past. Beard says, “Most of my students would have denied, I think, that there was still a major current of misogyny in Western culture.”...

The university student, after apologizing online, came to Cambridge and took Beard out to lunch; she has remained in touch with him, and is even writing letters of reference for him. “He is going to find it hard to get a job, because as soon as you Google his name that is what comes up,” she said. “And although he was a very silly, injudicious, and at that moment not very pleasant young guy, I don’t actually think one tweet should ruin your job prospects.”

What exceptional kindness on her part! But it is also a reminder that the end of (most) legal discrimination against women has not marked the end of misogyny but rather in many cases its intensification. Hatred often emerges when people feel that their social positions are threatened, a tendency that the Ku Klux Klan exploited for decades in the South — a tendency that demagogues almost invariably exploit.

If anything good has come out of anonymous blog comments, it may be the awareness of how deep-seated, and frighteningly intense, these hatreds are. (Though this is a lesson that the True Believers in the inevitability of moral progress seem incapable of learning: thus Elizabeth Nolan Brown’s insistence that “we've ... become a nation that's infinitely less bigoted and misogynist” than we used to be. Almost infinitely less? Tell that to Mary Beard, whose attackers don’t come just from the U.K. Or tell the writers at Jezebel.) The end of legal discrimination is an important, an essential, achievement; but there’s a great deal of good that it doesn’t and cannot do — which is an important truth demonstrated by the response to every advance in legal equality, for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. 

But sheer malice, or malice born from ressentiment, is not the only problem with online commentary. It’s often mixed with other things. See this post by my buddy Rod Dreher, which considers how a conservative pundit named Erick Erickson has alienated his base by suggesting that sometimes Christian commitment can conflict with standard conservative positions, and that when that happens Christian commitment needs to win out. Rod writes, 

I’ve mentioned before how y’all can’t know how many nasty comments I don’t post. We’re doing really well on this blog’s traffic, and will before much longer cross the one million page views per month mark. Still, if I had the traffic that I imagine Red State does, I don’t know how I would be able to both write the blog and manage the comments section. Every day or two we decide to block a commenter who has been consistently nasty, or who has posted something so ugly that I don’t want to see them on this site again. I’d say about two-thirds of them are from the political left, but what they share with their compatriots in nastiness on the political right is the belief that their side is pure, and the other side is pure evil. American politics have never been the School of Athens, of course, and certainly not at the populist level. But I would like to believe that we Christians have higher loyalties that restrain us from rolling in the mud with ideological haters.

I would like to think that. It’s hard, I know. Believe me, I know. I struggle with this all the time, myself. But all you need to do is read the comments section on any blog or website having to do with politics and current events, and you will despair of democracy, and maybe even of humanity. I’m pleased and proud that this blog’s comments section is not like that. I’ve worked hard, and do work hard, to keep it that way, but so do you all, and again, I want to thank you.

And he’s right: his comments section is not like that. But only because he (like Ta-Nehisi Coates, another careful cultivator of his blog’s comments) relentlessly prunes it; if Rod enabled unmoderated comments, his whole site would be an utter cesspool in a matter of days. Probably hours. The online analogue to Gresham’s Law, that bad comments drive out good, is ironclad. 

Again, sheer malice is not the only reason for this. The Erickson case is instructive in this regard: Erickson is telling people that certain positions they would like to hold together may not be perfectly compatible with one another. It is difficult to overstate how passionately many people hate being told that, because if it is true, then they may have to make very difficult choices. So when you present them with such complexities, they not only become agitated but determine to believe that you hold positions you don’t hold — simplistic positions that they can (or feel they can) easily refute. 

So, for example, take the comments on this post of Rod’s about what he calls the Benedict Option, and Rod’s responses to them. You see person after person insisting that the Benedict Option involves a frightened and complete withdrawal from society into a tiny isolated community of the same-minded — no matter how many times Rod says that that’s not what he’s talking about, and not what the communities is invokes do. Again and again (not just in this post but in many he has written on the subject) he says That’s not what I wrote — and again and again they persist in attributing to him simplistic and extreme claims. Why? Because those are the claims they can (or think they can) refute. 

Just through linking to the post on Twitter I got the same kinds of comments: people attributing to Rod views he has never held. I’ve started calling this particular kind of response Christian Derangement Syndrome: a kind of cognitive lock-up that occurs whenever people are confronted with the possibility that being a Christian might exact from them a substantial cost. Their peace of mind — what Reinhold Niebuhr called their “easy conscience” — much be defended against anyone who would agitate it. So agitators have to be portrayed as extremists who hold bizarre and evidently indefensible views. 

In some ways these tendencies make me even sadder than does the presence of the purely hateful. The malicious can often be ignored and marginalized; but what can we do when we have to explain over and over and over again that what the commenter is attacking is not our view? That we never stated or even implied it? I would estimate that more than two-thirds of the critical comments I receive on Twitter and even in comments here are based on straightforward misunderstandings of this kind: the kind that stem from a desire for mental simplicity and exacerbated by hastiness — the hastiness that leads people to argue with stuff they haven’t even read

One last thought: Why am I so perennially concerned with this topic? (People have asked me that before.) I think it’s because I’m a teacher, with a professional interest in helping people to understand things that they didn’t previously understand. All of the strategies and tactics I have learned over the years to guide people towards understanding are close to useless in the online world. Why? For many reasons, but mainly because I’m not in a position of authority in relation to blog commenters. They haven’t paid to be taught by me; they haven’t given me the power to evaluate their work; they probably don’t think I’m any smarter or know any more than they do. Why should they even try to understand what I’m actually saying, especially if it doesn’t fit into the mental pigeonholes they already have? 

Monday, August 25, 2014

who wants to know?

So here’s a survey that wants to know whether I think I’m a narcissist or not. The problem — from my point of view — is that it begins by asking for my Twitter handle. So my first, and quite immediate, thought was, “So is Twitter — as opposed to Facebook — bankrolling this one?” Perhaps a rather suspicious question, but in light of recent events, by no means a cynical one. 

So I read the consent form, first tipping my hat just because there is one. And it’s rather confusing, though commendably upfront about one key point: "This research is not designed to help you personally.” (Well why not?) More positively: "The results may help the investigator learn more about how people use social media websites. We hope that, in the future, other people might benefit from this study through improved understanding of how friendships are formed and what kind of information people post online.” Well, okay, but where does the narcissism come in? That is only mentioned on the form itself: "We are trying to see if the things people say on Twitter can tell us if they are narcissists or not.” Aha! But how does that relate to the statements on the consent form? How all this works out I can imagine — I can guess — but….

I understand that the researchers are in a tough spot. They seem to be revealing as much as they can without tipping off their specific research questions, because the more people know about the experiment the more they are likely to adjust their responses in light of what they know. But given the close, and seemingly ever-closer, relationship between Big Higher Ed and Big Tech, and the reservations about that relationship that I have frequently expressed, there’s no way in the world I would ever fill out such a survey. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

stock and flow: the metaphor that keeps on giving

Last night I posted to my tumblelog some thoughts about what Rod Dreher calls the Benedict option: a kind of Christian retreat from engagement with the larger world. Among other things, I said that 

the life of Jesus embodies a kind of systolic/diastolic alternation between public ministry and private retreat — with intermediate stages in the company of the Twelve or his friends.

Each of us needs such alternation, and it seems likely that communities do too. Sometimes batteries need to be recharged, energy regained, ideas and options considered. Nobody, and no community, can live in the thick of things all the time, and it is foolish to try.

All this reminds me of a fantastic post Robin Sloan put up in 2010 about some concepts he learned as an economics major: stock and flow. 

There are two kinds of quantities in the world. Stock is a static value: money in the bank, or trees in the forest. Flow is a rate of change: fifteen dollars an hour, or three thousand toothpicks a day. Easy. Too easy.

But I actually think stock and flow is the master metaphor for media today. Here’s what I mean:

  • Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people that you exist.
  • Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.

I feel like flow is ascendant these days, for obvious reasons—but we neglect stock at our own peril. I mean that both in terms of the health of an audience and, like, the health of a soul. Flow is a treadmill, and you can’t spend all of your time running on the treadmill.

People choose the Benedict option, or choose digital disconnection (or less connection) because they feel that they’re getting overwhelmed by the flow and have been insufficiently attentive to the condition of their stock. 

I am feeling that way myself right now, about the digital world anyway, so I’m trying a few things: putting Twitter out of sight, taking my RSS reader out of my Dock, deleting some apps from my iPhone. I need to spend some time replenishing my stock. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Genealogy of "Carol Brown": An Intertextual Reading of Parodic-Travestying Song

The Flight of the Conchords’ “Carol Brown (Choir of Ex-Girlfriends)” is an exemplary case study in the intertextualty of the comic song, or rather, the parodic-travestying song (see Bakhtin, “From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse”). Its major and obvious debts are to two previous popular songs, one American and one English, which, given that the Conchords are from New Zealand, might allow us to note the ongoing generative power of the postcolonial; but those concerns may perhaps be set aside for now. The tropes of a certain masculinist discourse shall be our primary focus here. “Carol Brown” and its ancestors point to a kind of “gender trouble” (see Judith Butler’s book of that title) in parodic-travestying popular song.

When “Jemaine” — let us employ, with due reservation, his self-nomination — sings “There must be fifty ways that lovers have left me,” he’s clearly signaling a debt to Paul Simon’s 1975 song “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover.”

But though “Fifty Ways” is explicitly invoked by the Conchords, a perhaps more direct and substantial influence goes unremarked. This is “Song for Whoever,” by The Beautiful South (1989).

Note that each of the three songs features a list of names, hearkening back to "Madamina, il catalogo è questo” — the famous “catalogue aria” from Mozart and da Ponte’s Don Giovanni — and perhaps even to the genealogies of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles (see, e.g., Genesis 5 and Matthew 1). 

Of the three songs, “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” might at first seem to be the least thoroughly captured by the masculinist rhetorical enterprise, since it features a woman listing the names of men: Jack, Stan, Roy, Gus, and Lee. But this appearance is misleading: note that no woman actually speaks in the song, but rather is spoken for by the masculine singer — and the emphasis is solely on how she relates to him: “The problem is all in side your head, she said to me.” (This is not a song that would pass any musical version of the Bechdel Test.) If a woman seems to have power in this song, it is power yielded to her by the singer, provisionally and temporarily. He remains the true decision-maker. 

“Song for Whoever” is more obviously and flagrantly sexist, with its frank emphasis on using the tears of women for financial and reputational gain: “The Number One I hope to reap / Depends upon the tears you weep, / So cry, lover, cry.” Yet the song ultimately deconstructs itself, reaching its aporia in the namelessness of the singer: it is only the women who receive names, while he remains a cipher. He claims the power of speech and song — like Orpheus — but can only receive it by giving up his name, while the specificities of identity remain with the denigrated women. This reversal of power is indirectly acknowledged at the end of the song, with its narration of female vengeance — meant by the singer to be feared, but understood by the listener as a proper and indeed necessary act of retributive justice. 

This “return of the repressed,” as Freud might have called it, finds a completion and intensification in the video of “Carol Brown.” Note here the presence of the woman's name even in the song’s very title — indicative of things to come, as the singer strives unsuccessfully to control the narration of his sexual history. His crucial mistake is the decision to display images of his former lovers, with the obvious purpose of subjecting them to the masculine gaze — but to his surprise and consternation, those images come to life: an ideal instance of the feminine subaltern speaking back to masculinist power. 

Who organized all my ex-girlfriends into a choir  
And got them to sing?  
Ooh ooh ooh, shut up  
Shut up girlfriends from the past  

But — and this is the key point — they do not shut up. (He later repeats his order — “I thought I told you to shut uh-uh-up” — but they do not obey.) Through utterance they overcome their status as mere images, and take control of the song. As Baudrillard might put it, the simulacrum here becomes the hyperreal — and thereby the undoing of the Don Giovanni figure is complete. 

Let me close with one ambiguous, and ambivalent, note. The wild card in “Carol Brown,” the figure that represents and enacts excess of signification, is “Bret” — whose evident chief trait here is silence. Unlike “Jemaine” and unlike the “Choir of Ex-Girlfriends” he does not sing. And yet he acts: and his primary acts involve manipulation of the image of “Jemaine,” including, most notably, shrinking him. Thus through “Bret” we see the reversal of the woman-as-enlarging-mirror trope that Virginia Woolf limned so memorably in A Room of One’s Own.

One might then see Bret as a Trickster figure — see Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World, though one might also describe “Bret” as a “whiteface” version of the “signifying monkey” about which Henry Louis Gates has written so incisively — but a trickster acting in order to help liberate women from imprisonment in the image constructed by the masculine gaze. But does such behavior enact a genuine male feminism? Or does it rather re-inscribe masculinist control in the deceptive guise of the Liberator? These questions will have to be pursued at a later date. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

the gravitational pull of DFW

Wallace Books DeLillo 002 large

Ever since the Harry Ransom Center acquired the papers of David Foster Wallace and started posting photos of his annotated books, there has been a great deal of fuss about them. I think I even posted a few images myself on my Tumblr and/or here. People really started going into rhapsodies when someone posted what he said was DFW’s copy of Ulysses — though eventually he revealed that it was just a prank.  

DFW has become something like a patron saint of close reading, and who knows how many young writers and would-be writers out there have started writing copiously in their books in imitatio Davei? It’s hard to regret this, since careful, attentive reading is a pretty cool thing to be the patron saint of. And even if people start annotating just to be like DFW rather than to understand their books better, chances are that the practice will indeed help them as readers if they stick with it. Fake it ‘till you make it, as the wise men say. 

Mike Miley has been working in the DFW archives, and has found it a somewhat harrowing experience, in two ways. First, there is DFW’s habit of reading everything as a commentary on his own struggles and pathologies: 

Critics and fans alike rhapsodize about identifying with David Foster Wallace’s writing as though it can only be consoling and empowering, and I used to think so too, until I got too close and discovered what may be the most important truth about literature, the true “aesthetic benefit of close reading,” though I doubt the Mellon Foundation would be all that interested in hearing about my discovery, as it is beneficial only in the most cautionary of senses: there is such a thing as reading too closely.

Wallace’s annotations suggest that he had been reading too closely, searching for too much validation, guidance, or comfort in the books he read, to the point that his reading only wound up reinforcing his worst tendencies. Wallace found no escape from himself while he was reading; rather, his personal library remained just that: personal, continually bringing him back to his own struggles and inadequacies.

But there is also the danger, the greater danger, that the devoted fan will imitate DFW not just in his moral earnestness and intellectual rigor, but in that very self-absorption: 

And I found myself in danger of following him. Yes, this begins and ends as being about me, the guy in the frosty reading room in Austin, for fandom is always about the fan; the self is always the subject. The artist is, at best, the mask fans wear to distract themselves from the fact that they are looking into a mirror. I learned far more about myself through reading Wallace reading than I learned about David Foster Wallace. I discovered I had been reading Wallace too closely. For years I looked to Wallace for answers to just about everything — how to think, how to live, what to read and how. Turns out, I got what I wanted, if what I wanted was a more erudite way to criticize myself or a higher, more crippling level of self-consciousness than I already had. I did wind up understanding myself better, if only to understand where I might be headed and what I must avoid becoming.

This is why I’ve taken over two years to finish writing this, why I’ve stalled out time and time again in search of the right voice or style or insight into something that feels both too large for me to take on and too close for me to see clearly. This “DFW” persona, this mental state of Wallace’s, was a reflection of mine as well, albeit distorted and exaggerated through a funhouse mirror darkly. Wallace’s work reads like a more articulate, insightful version of the ticker-tape running in our own skulls — this is the cliché that everyone employs to describe Wallace’s writing, and for me it is absolutely true. However, no one really interrogates what that statement means or how far something like that goes. If I keep reading Wallace this closely, will I end up resembling him even more closely? Do the devices I borrow from him here — self-aware reportage, direct interrogation, hyperbolic jokes about mundane locations — show that I have moved beyond him or simply fallen further under his influence? If I continue on this path of emulation, will I reach the same conclusions about being alive as he did?

Miley’s essay is a sobering one, and you get the sense that he reached this level of genuine self-awareness (as opposed to mere self-absorption) just in time. 

I don’t think I’ve seen, in my lifetime, a writer who has generated the kind and intensity of veneration that DFW has. We might contrast his fans to, say, Tolkien fans, who know a little bit about the author — enough to have an image of a man in a colorful waistcoat smoking a pipe — but who can’t spare much time for him because they are so fully absorbed in his legendarium. But the people I know who love every word of Infinite Jest are also fascinated by Wallace himself: they are constantly aware of him as its author, of its relations to the circumstances of his own life.

Montaigne said of his Essays that “It is a book consubstantial with its author,” and this seems to be true for everything DFW wrote. Absorption in his work seems almost necessarily to involve scrutiny of his life. And given how his life ended, it’s hard not to see this as a worrisome trend. What I wouldn’t give for a detailed and sensitive ethnography of DFW devotees — something like what Tanya Luhrmann did for charismatic evangelicals. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

trolls gonna troll

Here (PDF) is some interesting — or depressing, or unsurprising, or all of the above — research on how people in online communities respond to feedback from their peers. The chief emphasis here is on how the more aggressive and hostile members of such communities respond to being called out for their bad behavior, especially when that calling-out takes the form of being modded down by other members. 

Basically, the response of such folks is twofold. First, they make a point of downvoting other people. Second, they double down on their aggression. So: in online communities aggressive and hostile people respond to criticism by intensifying their aggression and hostility. 

If such people primarily want attention from their peers, then the strategy is a reasonable one. Which is, in relation to my first sentence, why I choose “all of the above” to describe the research. 

On a low-traffic site like this one, it’s feasible for all comments to be held for moderation by me. On high-traffic sites there seems to be no workable solution — except, of course, to eliminate comments altogether

Thursday, August 14, 2014

what Facebook wants you to know (or not)

Net neutrality not an issue for you? You find Facebook’s algorithmic selectivity non-problematic?

Read Zeynep Tufekci :

And then I switched to non net-neutral Internet to see what was up. I mostly have a similar a composition of friends on Facebook as I do on Twitter.  

Nada, zip, nada.

No Ferguson on Facebook last night. I scrolled. Refreshed. This morning, though, my Facebook feed is also very heavily dominated by discussion of Ferguson. Many of those posts seem to have been written last night, but I didn’t see them then.

Overnight, ‘edgerank’ –or whatever Facebook’s filtering algorithm is called now — seems to have bubbled them up, probably as people engaged them more. But I wonder: what if Ferguson had started to bubble, but there was no Twitter to catch on nationally? Would it ever make it through the algorithmic filtering on Facebook? Maybe, but with no transparency to the decisions, I cannot be sure.

Stay on Facebook, and you’ll know only what Facebook wants you to know. 

And if that doesn’t worry you, consider this point from a recent talk by Maciej Ceglowski:

The relationship between the intelligence agencies and Silicon Valley has historically been very cozy. The former head of Facebook security now works at NSA. Dropbox just added Condoleeza Rice, an architect of the Iraq war, to its board of directors. Obama has private fundraisers with the same people who are supposed to champion our privacy. There is not a lot of daylight between the American political Establishment and the Internet establishment. Whatever their politics, these people are on the same team.

Something to keep in mind. Always. 

report from the Luddite kingdom

What world does Michael Solana live in? Apparently, a world where Luddites have taken power and have driven our kind and benevolent technologists into some pitiful hole-and-corner existence, where no one dares to suggest that technology can solve our problems. "Luddites have challenged progress at every crux point in human history. The only thing new is now they’re in vogue, and all our icons are iconoclasts. So it follows here that optimism is the new subversion. It’s daring to care. The time is fit for us to dream again.” 

Yes! Dare to dream! But take great care — do you realize what those Luddites will do to you if you as much as hint that technology can solve our problems? 

I have to say, it’s pretty cool to get a report from such a peculiar land. Where you and I live, of course, technology companies are among the largest and most powerful in the world, our media are utterly saturated with the prophetic utterances of their high priests, and people continually seek high-tech solutions to every imaginable problem, from obesity to road rage to poor reading scores in our schools. So, you know, comparative anthropology FTW. 

And now, two serious points:

1) To quote Freddie deBoer, Victory is yours. It has already been accomplished.” Is it really necessary for you to extinguish every last breath of dissent — even what comes to us in fiction? Relatedly:

2) Here again we see the relentless cultural policing of the pink police state. Stop reading young adult fiction! Stop writing dystopian fiction! Stop imagining what we do not wish you to imagine! 

In T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, here’s what happens when the Wart is turned into an ant: 

The place where he was seemed like a great field of boulders, with a flattened fortress at one end of it — between the glass plates. The fortress was entered by tunnels in the rock, and, over the entrance to each tunnel, there was a notice which said:


He read the notice with dislike, though he did not understand its meaning.

Welcome to the ant’s little world, where of course the converse is necessarily true: Everything that is not compulsory is forbidden. In the pink police state there are no adiaphora

first-person shooter

Ferguson police 2
A few nights ago at the movies I saw a trailer for the last installment of The Hobbit, and caught a brief glimpse of a scene in which someone is driving a cart — pulled by mountain goats? Were those mountain goats?? — along a frozen river, sliding around and knocking into rocky walls. Oh right, I thought, that’s like the glacier track from Cro-Mag Rally.

It’s probably like many other video games as well — I don’t play many, so I couldn’t tell you — but I noted it as a reminder of the extent to which Peter Jackson’s once-excellent filmmaking instincts have been subjugated by video-game aesthetics. I say that as someone who doesn’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with video-game aesthetics, in video games; but movies are a different animal and need to be treated differently.

I’m being imprecise, though, and should take more care. What I’ve been calling “video-game aesthetics” is really drawn from a subset of games, primarily side-scrolling games (think of the hobbits running through the caverns of the goblins in the first installment of the series) and first- and third-person shooters. These are appropriate visual styles for certain kinds of game, but I think generally constrain and cartoonify the visuality of cinema.

But because those games are so popular and (especially the shooters) are so utterly central to the experience of above all males under forty, we should probably spend more time than we do thinking about how immersion in those visual worlds shapes people’s everyday phenomenology. We do talk about this, but in limited ways, primarily in order to ask whether playing violent games makes people more violent. That’s a key question, but it needs to be broadened. Ian Bogost wants us to ask what it’s like to be a thing, but maybe we need also to ask: What is it like to be a shooter? What is it like to have your spatial, visual orientation to the world shaped by thousands of hours in shooter mode?

I want to suggest that there may be a strong connection between the visual style of video games and the visual style of American police forces — the "warrior cops” that Radley Balko has written (chillingly) about. Note how in Ferguson, Missouri, cops’ dress, equipment, and behavior are often totally inappropriate to their circumstances — but visually a close match for many of the Call of Duty games. Consider all the forest-colored camouflage, for instance:

AP/Jeff Roberson
It’s a color scheme that is completely useless on city streets — and indeed in any other environment in which any of these cops will ever work. This isn’t self-protection; it’s cosplay. It’s as close as they can come to Modern Warfare 3:

2058078 call of duty modern warfare 3 xbox 360 1318517434 024

The whole display would be ludicrous — boys with toys — except the ammunition is real. The guns are loaded, even if some of them have only rubber bullets, and the tear gas truly burns. And so play-acted immersion in a dystopian future gradually yields a dystopian present.

What is is like to be a first-person shooter? It’s awesome, dude.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

our new robo-reader overlords

“Robo-readers aren’t as good as human readers — they’re better,” the headline says. Hmmm. Annie Murphy Paul writes,

Instructors at the New Jersey Institute of Technology have been using a program called E-Rater in this fashion since 2009, and they’ve observed a striking change in student behavior as a result. Andrew Klobucar, associate professor of humanities at NJIT, notes that students almost universally resist going back over material they’ve written. But, Klobucar told Inside Higher Ed reporter Scott Jaschik, his students are willing to revise their essays, even multiple times, when their work is being reviewed by a computer and not by a human teacher. They end up writing nearly three times as many words in the course of revising as students who are not offered the services of E-Rater, and the quality of their writing improves as a result. Crucially, says Klobucar, students who feel that handing in successive drafts to an instructor wielding a red pen is “corrective, even punitive” do not seem to feel rebuked by similar feedback from a computer….

When critics like Les Perelman of MIT claim that robo-graders can’t be as good as human graders, it’s because robo-graders lack human insight, human nuance, human judgment. But it’s the very non-humanness of a computer that may encourage students to experiment, to explore, to share a messy rough draft without self-consciousness or embarrassment. In return, they get feedback that is individualized, but not personal — not “punitive,” to use the term employed by Andrew Klobucar of NJIT.

There are some serious conceptual confusions and evaded questions here. The most obviously evaded question is this: When students are robo-graded, the quality of their writing improves by what measure?

Les Perelman's objections are vital here. He has written,

Robo-graders do not score by understanding meaning but almost solely by use of gross measures, especially length and the presence of pretentious language. The fallacy underlying this approach is confusing association with causation. A person makes the observation that many smart college professors wear tweed jackets and then believes that if she wears a tweed jacket, she will be a smart college professor.

Robo-graders rely on the same twisted logic. Papers written under time pressure often have a significant correlation between length and score. Robo-graders are able to match human scores simply by over-valuing length compared to human readers. A much publicized study claimed that machines could match human readers. However, the machines accomplished this feat primarily by simply counting words.

And there's this:

ETS says its computer program tests “organization” in part by looking at the number of “discourse units” – defined as having a thesis idea, a main statement, supporting sentences and so forth. But Perelman said that the reward in this measure of organization is for the number of units, not their quality. He said that under this rubric, discourse units could be flopped in any order and would receive the same score – based on quantity.

Other parts of the formula, he noted, punish creativity. For instance, the computer judges “topical analysis” by favoring “similarity of the essay's vocabulary to other previously scored essays in the top score category.” “In other words, it is looking for trite, common vocabulary,” Perelman said. “To use an SAT word, this is egregious.” Word complexity is judged, among other things, by average word length…. And the formula also explicitly rewards length of essay.

Perelman went on to show how Lincoln would have received a poor grade on the Gettysburg Address (except perhaps for starting with “four score,” since it was short and to the point).

Notice, not incidentally, that Perelman's actual arguments belie Paul's statement that “critics like Les Perelman of MIT claim that robo-graders can’t be as good as human graders, it’s because robo-graders lack human insight, human nuance, human judgment.” It's perfectly clear even from these excerpts that Perelman's point is not that the robo-graders are non-human, but that they reward bad writing and punish good. And since the software only follows the algorithms that have been programmed into it, the problem actually begins with the programmers, who may not have any real understanding of what makes writing effective, or — and this seems to me more likely — can't find algorithms that identify it.

I suspect, then, that with this automated grading we're moving perilously close to a model that redefines good writing as “writing that our algorithms can recognize.” So why would any teachers ever adopt such software? That one has a simple answer: because the students are happier when they interact with the machines about their writing than when they have to respond to human teachers. If you read Paul's whole essay, you'll see that that's all the system has to commend it: it pacifies the children, while the teachers just stand by and watch. The software really is teaching the children, and what it's teaching them is to do what the software tells them to do. The achievement here is not improved writing, but improved obedience to algorithmic machines.

Welcome to the future of education.

Friday, August 8, 2014

the broken-glass mystery

Thomas Cranmer by Gerlach Flicke

What you see above is the portrait of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, painted in 1545 by Gerlach Flicke. It’s now in the National Portrait Gallery in London. 

My friend Betsy Childs was recently looking at this picture and noticed something curious: tiny pieces of broken glass, or perhaps chipped glass-coating, in the windows behind Cranmer. Here’s a close-up: 


(You can see a high resolution version of the painting here.) Now, this painting is a very detailed one. For instance, Cranmer is holding a copy of the letters of St. Paul and one of the books on the table is Augustine’s On Faith and Works, which together illustrate Cranmer’s commitment to the core Reformation principle of justification by faith. Other elements of the painting have obviously been executed with great care but yield no clear meaning. For instance, what are we to make of the carving on the left — right next to the little strip of paper giving the date of the painting and Cranmer’s age — featuring a naked woman whose private parts are obscured by the face of some strange beast? (The Whore of Babylon, perhaps, against whom Cranmer contended? But why in a carving, and why there?) 

But what might the broken or chipped glass mean? Betsy wondered if I knew, and I don’t have even a guess. I checked Diarmaid MacCulloch’s magisterial biography of Cranmer, and while he discusses this painting at some length (pages 338-42), he doesn’t say anything about the glass. 

So Betsy wrote to the National Portrait Gallery. One of the curators there responded that the problematic glass was only discovered when the painting underwent restoration in the 1990s, and that it is definitely part of the original composition — but they don’t know what it means either. "Artists and patrons at this time had a very refined symbolic vocabulary, much of which has been lost to modern scholars. The painting is laden with Cranmer’s personal iconography and this device could relate to that. Alternatively, there might be an as-yet undiscovered theological interpretation, or a reference to Cranmer’s own works.” 

So: a mystery! Anyone have any guesses? 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

"Officer, this man stole my authenticity!"

Freddie deBoer is exactly right about how annoying this Hillary Kelly post is. As Freddie points out, it assumes the absoluteness of a distinction that just doesn’t apply absolutely in many places — and, I might add, even when it does apply it doesn’t always apply in the same way. In America we tend to think of the suburbs as refuges for the economically comfortable, while the poor are confined to inner cities; but the relationship between Paris and its banlieues is almost the opposite.  

But what interests me about Kelly’s post is how intensely moralistic her language is. No doubt she would say that she’s exaggerating for effect, but I don’t think that she’d deny that she’s perfectly serious about her point. It’s a classic example of pink-police-state-style boundary policing — but in this case with actual (if highly artificial) boundaries. People from, say, Media who tell folks they’re from Philadelphia are not just simplifying for conversational ease, they are liars. They are fabulists.  

As a great man once said, Why so serious? It can only be because for Kelly being from the city is a mark of authenticity — and being from the burbs is necessarily and tragically inauthentic. Therefore to claim to be from the city when you’re not is an attempt to surreptitiously and dishonestly appropriate urbanite charisma. Being urban is gritty, it’s real; being from the suburbs is vacuous, bland — or so we’re told, even though we know that at best that’s a vague generalization. Kelly elevates a statistical probability into an ontological principle. Which is just silly.  

I was born and raised in the city of Birmingham, Alabama; my wife was raised mainly in one of the over-the-mountain white suburbs. Both of us have always told strangers we’re from Birmingham, and the idea that my wife could be called a liar or a fabulist for saying that strikes me as utterly bizarre. It provides the necessary information without burdening the people we meet with pedantic detail. If we get to know them better we can explore the differences in our upbringing.  

Of all the things to get outraged about! 

advice about advice about the scholarly life

Screen Shot 2014 08 03 at 6 57 12 AM

I’m going to disagree, a bit, in a way, with Robert George’s Advice to Young Scholars:

Although it is natural and, in itself, good to desire and even seek affirmation, do not fall in love with applause. It is a drug. When you get some of it, you crave more. It can easily deflect you from your mission and vocation. In the end, what matters is not winning approval or gaining celebrity. Your mission and vocation is to seek the truth and to speak the truth as God gives you to grasp it.

There is a particular danger for those who dissent from the reigning orthodoxies of a prevailing intellectual culture. You may be tempted to suppose that your willingness to defy the career-making (and potential career-breaking) mandarins of elite opinion immunizes you from addiction to affirmation and applause and guarantees your personal authenticity and intellectual integrity. It doesn’t. We are all vulnerable to the drug. The vulnerability never completely disappears. And the drug is toxic to the activity of thinking (and thus to the cause of truth-seeking).

To me, the reality of this temptation, no less than any other temptation, should keep us mindful of the need constantly to tend the garden of one’s interior life. If anything can immunize us against the temptation to love applause above truth, it is prayer.

There is obvious and important truth in this, for the Christian scholar, and yet I think George has phrased the matter in terms that are too individualistic. (I doubt that George would disagree with any of what I’m about to present, and would probably say that it is implicit in what he wrote. But I think it needs to be more explicit.) 

The prayerfulness that George rightly emphasizes needs to be not just private prayer — which is what at least some of his readers will think he means — but communal prayer, within a body of faithful believers. I agree that my "vocation is to seek the truth and to speak the truth as God gives you to grasp it,” but I need to test my own self-understanding against that of the larger body. I need people to whom I am accountable to tell me when they think my discernment is flawed. They won’t always be right; but without them I am sure to be usually, if not invariably, wrong. 

I think we should keep that point in mind when we reflect on George’s absolutely vital point about the dangers of congratulating ourselves on our “dissent from the reigning orthodoxies”; even when we do so dissent we can still, without realizing it, crave “applause more than truth.” Jamie Smith recently articulated a very sharp version of this point: 

Those "courageous" progressives don't really value the opinions or affirmations of conservative evangelicalism anyway. What they really value, long for, and try to curry is the favor of "the Enlightened” — whether that's the mainstream academy or the progressive chattering class who police our cultural mores of tolerance. Sure, these "courageous" progressives will take fire from conservative evangelicals —but that's not a loss or sacrifice for them. Indeed, their own self-understanding is fueled by such criticism.  In other words, these stands don't take "courage" at all; they don't stand to lose anything with those they truly value.  

Similarly, "courageous" conservatives who "stand up" to the progressive academy aren't putting much at risk because that's not where they look for validation and it's not where their professional identities are invested. They are usually "populists" (in a fairly technical sense of the word) whose professional lives are much more closely tethered to the church and popular opinion.  And in those sectors, "standing up to" the academy isn't a risk at all--it's a way to win praise. When your so-called contrarian stands win favor from those you value most...well, it's hard to see how "courage" applies. 

To this I reply with a warm Yes — and also an Ouch, because I’m sure I have done just this: patted myself on the back for my “courage” in standing up to people whose approval I didn’t want anyway. The key point is: We always want someone’s applause, someone’s approval. 

The question is: Whose? Here I want to go back to my recent post on the Righteous Mind and the Inner Ring, and C. S. Lewis’s distinction between Inner Rings, which draw people in to their destruction, and communities which offer the kind of genuine membership that contributes to our flourishing. Lewis’s best treatment of these issues is his novel That Hideous Strength, which is flawed in many ways (I think) but absolutely brilliant on this point. 

The image at the top of this post, and the one that’s about to follow, come from a talk that I’ve given a couple of times on this theme. In THS Lewis portrays with great skill the rhetorical differences, which are also moral differences, between Mark Studdock’s recruitment into N.I.C.E. and Jane Studdock’s invitation to join the company at St. Anne’s. 

Screen Shot 2014 08 03 at 6 57 34 AM

Jane, like Lewis himself, wants to be left alone, and resists incorporation into any social body. Mark craves affirmation — applause — and is undiscerning about who it comes from. Jane has to learn the value of belonging to people who are trustworthy and want her to flourish; Mark has to find the courage to resist being assimilated by a voracious social machine that wants to consume him. Their paths fork; then converge. 

I think moral maturity for all of us involves learning what our temptations are. Do we (falsely) think we can go it alone? Are we tempted to go along to get along? Do we even understand what groups we want to belong to — whose applause we desire — and why? I can’t imagine anybody to whom these questions are not relevant, but they have a particular importance for scholars, because scholarship is something that we learn within really powerful socializing institutions. (I don’t know of any institution that socializes more thoroughly than graduate school.)

Simply to give in to these forces is unwise; to be completely independent of them is impossible. This is why I have always insisted on the importance for Christian scholars of serious commitment to a church community: by participating in a different body, with different priorities and participants, you are better able to put the demands of the scholarly world into proper perspective. You don’t escape them or ignore them or rise triumphantly above them; but you can learn to give them the conditional and limited allegiance they deserve. 

Monday, August 4, 2014

the most annoying thing you'll read today

Funny, the little things that annoy a person. For example: when someone tweets a link and prefaces it with “The best thing you’ll read today.” Well, first of all, bub, what makes you think I’ll read it at all? Just because you link to it? I don't think so. But second, even if I do read it, how do you know what else I might be reading today? If I’m in the middle of Anna Karenina, do you really think that this blog post about Edward Snowden or Beyoncé or Gary Shteyngart is going to be better than that?

I’m exaggerating my annoyance just for fun. But still, what underlies the “best thing you’ll read today” meme is the genuine if unconscious expectation that we’re all just reading stuff published in the past 48 hours. When someone says that article X or blog post Y is the best thing I’ll read today, what they really mean is that it’s the best thing that they found this morning on Flipboard or in their RSS feed or on Tumblr. It’s the best thing that just now showed up. Which is not the best thing simpliciter.

Just saying. 

cruel to be kind

Ripil main
A kindness tracker. That’s what this is. You can keep track of all of your good deeds, and — here’s the key thing — you can compete with others in kindness competitions. And then when you kick their stupid loser butts you can do this:

Friday, August 1, 2014

the end of intellectual property?

From the conclusion of Adrian Johns’s remarkable book Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates

The confrontation between piracy and the intellectual property defense industry is perhaps set to trigger a radical transformation in the relation between creativity and commercial life. That idea is not as inconceivable as it may seem. Such turning points have happened before — about once every century, in fact, since the end of the Middle Ages. The last major one occurred at the height of the industrial age, and catalyzed the invention of intellectual property. Before that, another took place in the Enlightenment, when it led to the emergence of the first modern copyright system and the first modern patents regime. And before that, there was the creation of piracy in the 1660s-1680s. By extrapolation, we are already overdue to experience another revolution of the same magnitude. If it does happen in the near future, it may well bring down the curtain on what will then, in retrospect, come to be seen as a coherent epoch of about 150 years: the era of intellectual property.

A remarkable book, indeed, but not without its longeurs — Johns likes to tell his stories in great detail, and while my scholarly-completist side admires this trait, my readerly side sometimes wished for less exhaustive treatments. 

But it’s a very rich book full of remarkable events, which Johns shrewdly analyzes. It deserves careful reading by people in a wide range of disciplines, from the history of science to the history of law to political philosophy to the history and theory of technology. I have sometimes thought about inaugurating a Text Patterns Book Club, and this seems like a great candidate. Another one might be Nick Carr’s forthcoming The Glass Cage: Automation and Us. Thoughts? 

How Uninformed Critiques of Digital Humanities Are Taking Over Journalism!

This essay by Catherine Tumber is disappointingly empty, but also indicative of a certain and all-too-common mode of thought. It seems that Tumber has read almost nothing in the digital humanities except Adam Kirsch’s recent critique of that multifaceted movement, and — remarkably enough! — she agrees with Kirsch, "whom we can thank for reading these books so we don’t have to,” adding nothing of her own to his arguments, except the evidence of what appears to be half an hour of web browsing.

She assures us that in his treatment "Kirsch does not cherry pick; he plucks work by leading theorists in the field.” But one of the most common modes of intellectual cherry-picking is taking passages or ideas out of their context, and Tumber, who as we have just seen has not read the books in question, is scarcely in a position to judge whether Kirsch has done that or not. Some of the leading figures in DH — in a response which, though it was published in the same journal that published Kirsch’s critique, Tumber seems unaware of — make it clear that his treatment of their ideas grossly misrepresents them: 

Third, the notion that so called “digital humanities” is characterized by an urge “to accelerate the work of thinking by delegating it to a computer” is patently nonsensical. Throughout Digital_Humanities we argue not “to throw off the traditional burden” but, on the contrary, for a critical and transformative engagement that is rooted in the very traditions of humanistic inquiry. If Kirsch did some close-reading of the book, he would find it to be a celebration not of the digital—as some starry-eyed salvific or materialist ideology—but of the vitality and necessity of the humanities.

Having read the book, I think their statement is quite accurate. But don’t take my word for it: read it yourself. You’ll be a big step ahead of Catherine Tumber.

Here’s what we could use more of in this debate: 

1. Reading a lot before critiquing, in the spirit of intellectual responsibility

2. Remembering that many of the approaches to literary study we’re familiar with were themselves attacked as anti-humanistic just a couple of decades ago. 

Here’s what we could use less of in this debate: 

1. Critiquing without doing much reading. 

2. Presenting your lack of interest in a particular intellectual approach, or set of approaches, as a sign of virtue or humanistic integrity. It’s okay not to be interested in everything that everyone else is doing; we don’t need so to exalt our preferences for something else. 

3. Stupid clickbaity headlines. “Technology is Taking Over English Departments”? “Bulldozing the Humanities”? Give me a break. 

relating and identifying

Rebecca Mead writes about The Scourge of "Relatability":

What are the qualities that make a work ‘relatable,’ and why have these qualities come to be so highly valued? To seek to see oneself in a work of art is nothing new, nor is it new to enjoy the sensation. Since Freud theorized the process of identification—as a means whereby an individual develops his or her personality through idealizing and imitating a parent or other figure—the concept has fruitfully been applied to the appreciation of the arts. Identification with a character is one of the pleasures of reading, or of watching movies, or of seeing plays, though if it is where one’s engagement with the work begins, it should not be where critical thought ends. The concept of identification implies that the reader or viewer is, to some degree at least, actively engaged with the work in question: she is thinking herself into the experience of the characters on the page or screen or stage.  

But to demand that a work be ‘relatable’ expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism."

While sharing Mead’s frustration with the rise of this stupid word, I don’t follow her argument about how “relatability” differs from “identification.” Is wanting the work to be a mirror really so different from wanting it to be a selfie? Aren’t those just two slightly different ways of describing the same impulse? 

People, especially young people, used to say, when explaining their dislike of a book, “I just couldn’t identify with it” or “I just couldn’t identify with the characters.” Now they say, “it just wasn’t relatable.” Both of these are just shorthand ways of saying “This work bored me and I think it’s the work’s fault, not mine.” And that is a shorthand way of describing … well, what? Probably a wide range of experiences, all of which have one thing in common: they’re not interesting enough to readers or viewers for them to to inquire seriously into the causes of boredom.

I think what the language of relatability and the language of identification typically, if not invariably, connote — and they do this whether used positively or negatively — is weakness of response. And this is why the terms remain so vague, maddeningly so for those of a verbally critical bent. When people really love a work, or really hate it, they enjoy explaining why. When they sorta kinda like it, or sorta kinda dislike it, they say that it was or wasn’t relatable, or that they could or couldn’t identify with the characters. “Relatable” and “identify" are words that ought to come with a shrug pre-attached. 


UPDATE: All this said, I think what got this conversation started, the mini-uproar over Ira Glass’s saying that King Lear is unrelatable, is pretty silly. It was merely an off-the-cuff remark, as Glass later said — which I think supports the point I’m making in this post. Casual remarks usually deserve no more than casual responses.