Archive for ‘empowerment’

February 20, 2015

Friendly fire in the war of position

by CarlD

I’ve been doing very little blog reading lately – I think this is temporary, as I feel my way toward a workable relationship between media feeds and meatworld obligations – but I look in on Crooked Timber and Easily Distracted pretty regularly. The latter because I find myself agreeing with Tim Burke about almost everything (plus he and his brother wrote the book on Saturday morning cartoons, a tome I keep in my bathroom and nostalge over fondly from time to time). The former because of the general quality of the topics, the bloggers, and the commentariat; and the grim fascination of the fact that although I agree with or at least see the point of them too most of the time, the people there who most exactly express my thoughts are routinely hounded out of the conversation as scoundrels and trolls.

Even at these high standards there are two particularly interesting conversations unfolding at these blogs that I strongly recommend. At Easily Distracted, Tim popped up from one of his regular bouts of blog exhaustion with a great series of posts called “Grasping the Nettle”. He’s been interested pretty much all along in the way progressive activism works both for and against progressive values, especially in online and academic communities. Among other things, these posts are about targeting, ‘allies’, ‘political correctness’, and ‘privilege checking’. Who gets to be in that conversation, and how – the ways progressive discourses and practices assemble inclusions, exclusions, trajectories, and positions. How to fight the ‘war of position’, in Gramscian terms.

And at Crooked Timber, the always-pithy Belle Waring called a stand-down on the circular firing squad of progressive righteousness to create a safe space for everyone to say their “unpopular thoughts” about feminism and the left, without that fear of being hounded out of the conversation for missing a locked step. (Trigger warning: unpopular thoughts. Also, rape testimonies.) The resulting conversation is so much better than the doctrine-policed ones, so much friendlier, richer, more relaxed and inclusive and nuanced! Everyone is presumed to be speaking in good faith; lots of education is happening, without the customary shaming and shunning.

Still, other than ‘don’t be an asshole’ it all doesn’t really point at any particular programme for progressive practice; nor does Tim’s stuff.

January 2, 2015

Funny as a spinal tap

by CarlD

I was muchly impressed by this recent interview with Chris Rock, a comedian and cultural commentator I must admit I hadn’t paid much attention to before. (Mostly, my inattention, because his voice reminds me of the stock overexcited kid cartoon voice that I find so irritating. Sorry Chris, my bad.) Among the many striking points he makes, he talks about how he stopped playing college campuses.

…I stopped playing colleges, and the reason is because they’re way too conservative.

In their political views?

Not in their political views — not like they’re voting Republican — but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody. Kids raised on a culture of “We’re not going to keep score in the game because we don’t want anybody to lose.” Or just ignoring race to a fault. You can’t say “the black kid over there.” No, it’s “the guy with the red shoes.” You can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.

When did you start to notice this?

About eight years ago. Probably a couple of tours ago. It was just like, This is not as much fun as it used to be. I remember talking to George Carlin before he died and him saying the exact same thing.

Well, you know, college campuses are perhaps uniquely the places where you can talk about things. So, this is a funny development, and by some way of reckoning a self-inflicted wedgie. On my campus some folks are worried about the liberal arts being under attack. By whom, by whom?

Rock talks about how there’s no backstage any more, nowhere or way to workshop ideas without the glare of righteous judgmental scrutiny. Of course we may be glad that cops don’t get to workshop their ideas about authority and power without fear of video capture, and once we grasp that power and authority work through informal systems, and that the personal is political, none of us can in principle claim a free pass on abuses of situated privilege. Where’s Power? Where’s Authority?


When she was almost 7, Rachel had a serious health crisis, ultimately involving (and perhaps resolved by) a series of spinal taps. Click through for details and some amazing reflection. The way the health professionals treated her and her family reminds her of how the NYPD treated Eric Garner. No wonder she’s interested in how doing right can go wrong! I asked her when spinal taps might be available for laughing about. That was a puzzler.

And Dyke the Elder finally just retired this semester, after around fifty years in the saddle. The precipitating event was a kerfuffle over a student who took offense to Rachel’s multimedia art project, the satirical Museum for Obeast Conservation Studies, as a discussion piece in a class about meaning in the arts. It went to the Dean, the Provost got involved, and rather than anyone having a sense of humor or scholarly integrity, sensitivity training was suggested.

Haha! Empowerment.

January 30, 2014

We Brake for Epiphanies

by dyketheelder

As Carl knows, I’m not much of a lecturer – and don’t like to do it. But in some of the upper level courses I teach I just have to do some talking to get things set up. On the good days, my talking gets to be a dialogue pretty quickly; and on the best days a polylogue. If I’m given a starting point by a student, that’s where we start. Any “exposition” of material is one of very many variations on the theme you’re trying to play, so why not their variations from their starting points.

My course on the development of Western cosmology is at the extreme in terms of what I have to “present.” In particular, there’s a lot of mathematics that has to be loaded in so we can understand Plato’s Timaeus, Galileo and Newton, and on to SNa’s as standard candles and the contribution of “dark matter” to the weight of the cosmos. The ancient math is in a style they haven’t been exposed to; the rest is basic algebra and trig that they’re supposed to know as an entrance requirement; but it all has to be (re)activated. Given the realities (lots more Philosophy majors than science majors, for example) the more graphic, visual, and dramatic it can be made, the better. Wizardry trumps orthodoxy.

So the other day, with Carl’s new post on Attention Surplus running through my head, and the task of revealing the magic of the stretched string on the immediate agenda, I sat thinking my way through the array of possible scripts that would lead from the dread monologue to the promised land of polylogue. At some point, a new slogan for my courses popped into my head:


At its simplest this just recapitulates some of the major themes already developed in AS: “coverage” is secondary (and can take care of itself, a lot of the time); it’s more important to listen to the students than talk at them; and act like a synchrotron: once you see a ball get rolling, give it an accelerating kick. I have to add that the other important element is being attentive to and reading faces and other body language. If you can’t recognize an epiphany when you see one, none of this works.

Once you do recognize it, the epiphany can do an amazing amount of work. First off, the epiphaner (epiphanist(?)) needs to understand its epiphany: talk it through out loud to find out if it’s genuine or mere brain fart; then epiphanies are contagious if brought out into the open. In fact, the one that actually occurred in the revelation of the stretched string was absolutely virulent. We even smoked out a card-carrying Platonist who was absolutely outraged that a cruddy little piece of string was placed in the position supposed to be occupied by the denizens of the world of Forms – even to be thought of as the central and decisive element of Proof. Her heartfelt (and aggressive) attempts at exorcism failed; but I don’t think we’ve heard the last of her objections. Or, at least, I hope we haven’t; but I’m pretty sure I can stir them up again when I need them for, say, the big bang.

October 18, 2013

Engaging students

by CarlD

…is not recommended until they’re not your students any more. Haha. So anyway, I might have mentioned that my Dean tapped me along with several colleagues to do a workshop on ‘student engagement’ at this year’s opening faculty meeting. He was interested in me showing off my ’roundtable’ schtick, loosely based on Steve Allen’s old “Meeting of Minds” tv show. But I think of that as more of a gimmick, that only works as engaging pedagogy if it’s embedded in a more comprehensive project of student-centered learning that disposes (at least some of) the students to take it seriously and do justice to their characters. So I couldn’t think of a good way to convey all of that in the 10 minutes I would have had, and my colleagues agreed about the stuff they were doing.

We decided to pool our time, about 50 minutes, and engage the faculty about engaging the students. So we preambled by remarking on how ‘best practices’ of student engagement were likely to vary in important ways for different disciplines; wondered what those might be; and set them the task of doing some quick research, school by school (using their laptops, smartphones, etc.) on student engagement in their fields. We showed rather than told, in other words.

Of course the faculty, themselves used to being talked at by ‘experts’, did not shift immediately into this more ‘engaged’ mode, and had trouble staying on task when they did, mostly wanting to say what they already thought they knew rather than doing new research. But that’s fine and that’s the point – it’s a culture shift and it’s a process; harder in fact with faculty, who are deeply invested in their expertise and a teaching / learning mode that has worked for them, than with students. So thinking of it as a process, but one that I’m thankfully involved in only as a colleague and not an official change agent, I just sent out a couple of links to the fac/staff listserv. I’d be interested in discussing them here (I’ll crosspost at Attention Surplus, but that’s more of a journal and the commentariat here is larger and more diverse).

The first is from Wired, a report on the use of new technologies to engage students’ natural curiosity and enable self-teaching.

The other is from NPR, on physicists’ discovery that most students don’t learn how to work with concepts very well from lecture. (I may have linked this one before. It’s part of a series they did, which is linked at the bottom of this one.) Incidentally, I think of concepts as tools, and that metaphor works pretty well here – most people don’t learn how to use a hammer from being talked at about hammers, either.

So I think it’s likely we won’t get much traction from a discussion about whether these articles are ‘right’; most of us are already on board with the project. But I would enjoy thinking through what they mean, in various ways, and whether they’re something that could, and/or should be generalized, and if so, how. For example, I just remarked to Duncan Law on a g+ thread that the gist of these pieces looks a lot like the emergent self-organization that Marx had in mind as ‘communism’. But they may also be consistent with Hayek’s spontaneous order. In both cases, a very different model than centralization and hierarchy, something much more like ‘freedom’. (I do realize that depending on the audience, either Marx or Hayek aren’t going to work as selling points….) Anyway, if that’s the model, it would seem contradictory to impose it from the top down, and we have all those nasty experiments to support this intuition. So how to encourage this leap to freedom without mandating it?

August 8, 2013

Fixing a hole

by CarlD

One of the themes of my history classes for the last little while is arrangement and assembly, both in relation to how history works and in relation to how the students work. If the little dinger goes ‘ding’ and they get that they’re part of history (I mean actually get it, not just spout canned homilies about it), so much the better.

I try to work this up into an appropriately complex analysis on the history side, in part by leveraging a more simple version of it on the student side. What’s been missing is a really clean image of the process of accumulation, arrangement, and assemblage that routinely goes into human works like, say, college essays – and their evaluation. You’d think you could just talk this through by direct reference to their own writing, but for reasons that are fairly complicated, many students are not receptive or actively resistant to direct writing instruction. I’ve found that a good metaphor sidesteps the blockage and creates leverage to move it. So, I finally just got around to accumulating and arranging a slideshow ( house presentation ) that I think may do the trick. It’s twelve slides of twelve pictures, which I’ll reproduce and discuss below (and crosspost on Attention Surplus to be part of that archive). The assembly will happen in each class discussion. I expect to take a whole class period with each group on this, timed right before they start producing process work for their first papers. Suggestions welcome.

The metaphor is building a house. First slide:


Easy enough. A plan. What is this, in relation to the assignment? Here I get to call their attention to all of the design guidance in the syllabus. Second slide:

cottage sketch

Is this a house yet? Why not? What is it? Not a pipe! Third slide:


Here we’re looking at raw materials. A tidy pile of lumber is obviously not a house yet, just like a pile of facts is not an essay yet. But wait, fourth slide:


Turns out that lumber wasn’t so raw, as materials go. We’re following the history of accumulation and arrangement here. (For me, and sometimes to the students, another image is a story Dyke the Elder tells about ordering a bicycle, ‘some assembly required’, and then having a truck roll up with a drum of raw latex sap, bauxite, petroleum, and so on.) Research; primary sources, secondary sources, interpretation, analysis. Fifth slide:


At this point we can safely say ‘and so on’, perhaps mentioning acorns and the strategies squirrels use to hide them from each other. We can also start to have a little side conversation about what it means to say ‘I built this’, which gets us to slide six:

on the patio

– which affords an opportunity to humanize the discussion, reflect more deeply on the narratives of independence in relation to the realities of massive systems of enabling interdependence (‘hey I built that table’, maybe out of the pallet the screws shipped on), and talk about the relative fungibility of materials – since this is clearly not a house, although it’s made of some of the same things as a house. This is also a place to begin to bring home the connection to authorship and plagiarism. (Speaking of plagiarism, all of the images except this one used in this post and presentation came right up on a google search and represent ‘types’ in a way that makes me feel comfortably fair-usey about them. This is not an official legal opinion. My thanks to all of the creators and rights-holders.) Slide seven:


Well that’s very nice, isn’t it. A finished house, a finished paper. What went into that? Planning, an image, materials, craft, elaborated skill and care. Slide eight:


Oh well hey, that’s nice too, and very different. Now we can talk about style. How would you pick between these two? Matter of taste here, but also who it’s for and what it’s trying to accomplish. Rhetoric. Speaking of which, slide nine:


Nothing wrong with this, especially if you’re getting a bit older and the stairs have become a quandary, or if you’re moving up from a single-wide and don’t want your sensibilities too jostled, or you’re a developer looking to make the cheapest possible buck, or you’re a society seeking a kind of material consensus, or etc. So here we get to talk about how styles do things in relation to audiences and agendas. I anticipate this is where the conversation is most likely to get bogged down in defense mechanisms. Slide ten:

grass house

Everyone just relax. Of course people build to suit local purposes and materials. And of course we can read those right back off of what they build. Is the ranch a ‘bad’ house? How about the grass one? How about the victorian? Depends on what you’re trying to accomplish, what resources are available, who’s judging and by what criteria. But that ‘depends’ is not an ‘it’s all good’ depends. Slide eleven:


Most of the papers I get. In some ways an admirable contrivance, but we are still justified in reading a lack of resource, skill, and attention to detail back off of it. Not the sort of thing you’d want from certified accomplished fabricators like college graduates. And now slide twelve:

screwy house

Is this the same as the one before it? Why, or why not?

May 10, 2013

What counts as success

by CarlD

Reading final papers and course journals now, this smacked me between the eyeballs. For better or worse, this is what counts as a major success to me (from an introductory world history journal, so don’t sweat the typos). Our topic this semester has been ‘conditions of work’:

The last couple weeks, in class, we have investigated the research process and our second papers. I am learning that no matter what time period we are individually studying or what country, most of the same rules apply. There will always be a certain “group” within a population that is getting miss treated because they can be. In most cases, victims are not victimized because of some racial intention or ill-will, it’s because of necessity. I think that when something needs to be done that no one else wants to do, society “volunteers” people to do it. If that group doesn’t have the power or will to object, they fill the void. Once this precedence is set, the negative connotations follow.

Is that the end of the story? No, of course not. But to me, at least, this cleans out the hero/villain juvenilia and the ideological just-so stories and gets the line of investigation pointed toward increasingly better understanding. Yay you, unnamed student.

March 14, 2013

Integrative General Education White Paper

by CarlD

First some context. As I may have mentioned once or twice, this year I got sucked into my university’s general education reform process, against the lessons of experience, interests of serenity, and focus on the teaching mission. I did this by reluctantly saying I would be willing to represent the Arts and Humanities on a committee no one else wanted to serve on, and because after three years of intensive collective deliberation, in committee and plenary, my colleagues had managed to produce a draft proposal that took a bloated, aimless mess of a core curriculum and turned it into a skeletal, aimless mess of a core curriculum.

In some sense I was and am fine with the latter. It was done intelligently, if not creatively, freed up a lot of units for minors or the elective explorations that are part of the heart of a liberal education, and went a long way toward fixing the problem that we were making many of our students loathe the liberal arts by subjecting them to a seemingly endless series of browbeatings. But even though the theme of integrative education had figured prominently and encouragingly in early discussions, by the final proposal it had completely vanished; so that like the old core, the new one had no conceptual or pedagogical coherence other than assertion that each individual course addressed a ‘goal’ and therefore was in its way essential to the formation of an educated person.

The modification I suggested to the reform committee, after a lot of discussion at the A&H level, was to add what we at first called a ‘cluster’ and later a ‘linked learning experience’. This is three thematically linked classes, from at least two different schools, taken together in one semester. Just that, for now – no requirement of faculty coordination or any other formally interdisciplinary apparatus. The idea is simply to, at least that once, show students explicitly a ‘liberal’ approach to question and problem formation, investigation, and perhaps problem-solving, in which disciplinary knowledge-in-depth is triangulated, reconfigured and brought into more widely effective alignments by interdisciplinary knowledge-in-breadth.

Despite the fact that to some of us this seemed like pretty tame stuff, the LLEs instantly became a bone of contention. As far as I know, no one disagrees that integrated learning is a ‘good thing’. However, in the larger discussions over the new proposal with the linked learning component, it became clear that a significant fraction of the faculty in general and the A&H faculty in particular did not see integrated learning as needing any particular attention; going so far as to assume it was a nice but inessential bonus, and/or something that could be expected to happen automatically if only a series of good courses were taken. As if that was how we all got it, ‘assuming facts not in evidence’ as the lawyers say. And certainly for many of us who have struggled our way to some kind of integrative intelligence, this seems like it must be true; although I can personally point to many, many experiences at home and at school from a particular kind of teacher that pulled me in this direction, along with plenty of others that tried to push me away.

But that’s the thing – I don’t know anyone who gets the importance of integrative learning who thinks it’s a luxury adjunct of a good education that can be left to chance. It’s the one thing that distinguishes ‘higher’ education from the various worthy technical educations, like plumbing, heating and cooling, business, nursing, history, and philosophy. It’s so important I negotiated away all of the required History classes to make room for a faint whisper of it. Not because the History classes aren’t good, or because there’s nothing essential to learn from history, but because someone who can learn and make connections responsibly will find their own way to history, literature, biology, statistics or whatever’s needed, and learn it a lot better than if it were jammed down their throats without purpose or context. (Here I remain strongly influenced by Dyke the Elder’s remark that he took Calculus three times, but didn’t learn the calculus until he needed it to do something else with; which in turn sensitized me to a vast educational research literature that says the same thing.)

But for a passionate fraction of Arts and Humanities, and Sciences too as it turned out, what matters far more than intentional integration is a critical mass of essential knowledges. Students are scientifically ignorant, so they need two science courses. They’re historically ignorant, so they need two history courses. Our uni has a religious tradition, so at least one Biblical religion class. Etc. These colleagues produced and published a draft alternate reform proposal, without the linked learning but with a couple more sciences and histories and whatnot; then withheld it from formal consideration out of admirable collegiality, and in confident anticipation that the full faculty would never vote for this scary, cumbersome linked learning stuff anyway. Sure enough, the full faculty voted for the linked learning proposal by a 60/40 margin. Now the opposition is bringing forward their proposal anyway, in a last heroic play to save what they can of the old core.

Which leads me to the actual matter of this post, an integrative general education white paper I’m working on for possible distribution as part of the reform committee’s advocacy for the proposal we just passed. This is still pretty rough, and I invite discussion. I should say that I have entirely given up on persuading the proponents of the alternate proposal, for present purposes anyway; I now think there are conceptual, dispositional, and emotional divides that are prohibitive to bridge in the short term. So this document is intended to clarify the issues for the people who voted for the linked learning proposal the first time around, and solidify their support for that project. I’m still not sure whether to prefer a rhetorically neutral presentation or a more direct, conversational address – this is the latter:


Colleagues, although the General Education Committee is proud of the work we’ve done over these last several years, and of the faculty’s recent vote endorsing the plan so long and carefully deliberated, we welcome the opportunity to reflect further on MU’s goals and how to accomplish them. We appreciate that everyone in this discussion is motivated by commitment to get our general education core right, and to move MU to new levels of excellence.

On the surface, it may seem there is very little difference between the two proposals. The numbers work out about the same, while the new proposal adds back a couple of classes, takes out a couple of classes, and replaces the Linked Learning Experience with ‘further studies in the liberal arts’. Deciding between the proposals could be as easy as deciding if you think a required History class is more important than a required Speech class. The committee deliberated each of those decisions carefully and intentionally, but we are well aware that many other well-reasoned choices could be made.

However, this discussion is not just about nitpicking curriculum details, and therefore the committee would like to clarify what we see as the larger concepts at issue. And the one thing we would like to be clear in everyone’s mind during the coming discussion is that our plan is not a bad version of a more comprehensive core – for better or worse, it is a different concept of a core.

So first, we acknowledge that our plan omits or makes optional wonderful, important courses. Not just a few, not just a required History or a second Science or a richer engagement with foreign language. Statistics, Calculus, Genetics; Classics, Economics, Political Theory, Anthropology; World Religions, Women’s Literature, Sociology, Psychology, Ethics. Some familiarity with all of these and more is arguably essential to responsible citizenship and effective, meaningful living in the modern world.

Second, we acknowledge that our plan does not promote mastery in any of the areas it does cover. A brief foreign immersion does not create mastery of a foreign language. One Science class does not create mastery of the principles and practices of science. One Math class does not create broad-based numerical literacy. One History class does not a historian make.

Nor would two. In paring down the core’s coverage to a painful minimum in which many excellent things were lost, the committee was not just sinking to a least common denominator. We were embracing intentionally the hard fact that core curricula are not in any position to cover everything or to create broad-based mastery. Compared to the vast scope of scientific knowledge that affects our everyday lives, and the vast scope of scientific ignorance that afflicts our public discourse, two classes are as inadequate as one – two slender reeds against the flood. We think it is clear therefore that if coverage and mastery are the goals, the core is doomed to failure. We have already tried a more comprehensive coverage and found it wanting, mastery lacking. A class more or less, here or there in a much smaller core is no solution.

Fortunately, there is a much more realistic and sustainable way to think about what core curricula can accomplish. If we consider that the problem is not ignorance itself but narrowness and rigidity, a settled mind and lack of curiosity, the same class that would be an inadequate and swiftly-forgotten introduction to the vast content of a discipline can be an admirable invitation to the core concepts and investigative methods of that discipline. It can open students’ minds to new questions, new ways of thinking, new strategies of living effectively in the world, and lead them toward developing the relevant competencies themselves over a much longer lifetime than our curriculum can cover. In this model, the goal shifts from producing people who know a couple of things about a couple of things, to producing people whose curiosity is empowered, who learn actively, figure things out for themselves, work reliably without close supervision, adapt effectively to unfamiliar, complex and ambiguous situations, repurpose knowledge responsibly to meet new challenges, and problem-solve creatively.

Ideally, this shift would occur within each of the classes we teach. However, the same effect at a larger scale can be promoted through an intentional, transformative arrangement of separate classes, each doing ‘its own thing’. Just as a pile of stones is not a bridge, and a pile of flour, sugar and butter is not a cake, a pile of courses is not an education. This is where the Linked Learning Experience comes in. By bringing three different courses into simultaneous thematic alignment, linked learning engages students in multiple approaches to question and problem formation, investigation, and problem-solving, making thinking ‘outside the box’ virtually inevitable in a way separate classes simply cannot. Furthermore, through linked learning students can see directly the broader relevance and unique strengths of each field of study, enhancing their own awareness, resourcefulness, and appreciation for the value of continued learning – in the best tradition of the liberal arts.

In the committee’s view therefore, the Linked Learning Experience is the core of the core, the transformative element that takes the few credits available to the core and turns them into a real education. Linked learning is emphatically not, in our view, an optional addendum to a debate about how much of the old core we are going to keep. It is a new way forward.

December 21, 2012

Complex, schmomplex. We gotta DO something!

by CarlD

I’m not sure we want to talk about the Newtown massacre at Dead Voles. It’s not the sort of thing that’s easy to have a satisfactory conversation about; because it was pretty awful, because it understandably causes emotional overloading of measured discourse, because it’s conveniently recruitable for all sorts of tangential projects. But if we did want to talk about it, James Livingstone’s remarks on “how not to think about Sandy Hook” would be one good place to start (also at Jacobin Magazine as “Guns and the Pain Economy”).

Jim starts out by attempting swiftly to disable the usual hand-wavy leaps to the problem of evil, individual responsibility, mental health care, and gun control. I’m for that. I think his dismissal of the moral personhood of the shooters from Columbine on is sloppy, unpersuasive, and ironic; but the snowflake ethnography of twisted personal moral systems gets us only a fine-grained understanding of particular individual syndromes, so I’m willing to join him in sidestepping that issue, and the others too.

Like many feminists and critical race theorists, Jim wants to talk instead about the collapse of entitled white masculinity over the last hundred years or so. He sees these boys playing out an apocalyptic script in which their private pain has to be made public, each of them a sort of degraded King Lear projecting their own angst into the universe. Why the drama? Because they are “superfluous” and “unimportant” – not needed for either work or war, the historic sites of the manly virtues; not needed at all, really, for anything. Why the guns and shooting? Because those are the means of the manhood now denied these boys.

Jim’s specific contribution to the discussion is to frame this relative immiseration, not in terms of attacks on entitled white masculinity by heroically triumphant women and people of color (which, incidentally, become effects as much as causes in his analysis), but the more structural and seemingly benign dynamics of post-scarcity consumer economy. We don’t need these boys as breadwinners because advanced industrial productivity has replaced mass labor – what’s left is a lot of feminized make-work in the ‘service economy’. And we don’t need them as warriors for the military version of the same reasons – drones and special ops get most of the real work of power done, and most of that’s make-work too, bad habits more than any kind of security necessity. So, who are these boys and what are they for? Not at all clear at the moment. In some sense, they’re just like the dead wood in the forest that used to get cleared out by little fires now and again, like regular wars used to clear out the surplus male population; now we keep both fires and wars from happening, with all that fuel lying around waiting for a spark. What would be the acceptable version of a controlled burn?

Jim draws on his outstanding work on the intellectual history of turn-of-the-century America to invoke William James, diagnosing the dynamic and predicting the problems:

James correlated the impending demise of those virtues with “pacific cosmopolitan industrialism”—a stage of development in which an older “pain economy” organized by the emotional austerity of necessary labor was giving way to a “pleasure economy” animated by the emotional surplus of consumer culture. This new economy, according to James, was a world without producers, “a world of clerks and teachers, of co-educators and zoophily, of ‘consumer’s leagues’ and ‘associated charities,’ of industrialism unlimited and feminism unabashed.”

From the standpoint of that correlation, the decline of necessary labor or productive callings, and the consequent confusion of male and female spheres—“feminism unabashed”—became the elements of an identity crisis for every man; for they threatened to dissolve the ego boundaries hitherto determined by the sanctions of scarcity, both economic and emotional.

Here’s how James put it: “The transition to a ‘pleasure economy’ may be fatal to a being wielding no powers of defence against its disintegrative influences. If we speak of the fear of emancipation from the fear regime, we put the whole situation into a single phrase: fear regarding ourselves now taking place of the ancient fear of the enemy.”

I think Jim’s right about all of it, including that we’re going to have to get clear on how the new post-scarcity order needs a new ideology of self, because the old one based on labor, discipline, and sacrifice is obsolete. And I can see how these shooters are effectively canaries in the coal mine of that process, outliers on the bloody trailing edge of the old order like Paris Hilton and The Situation are cautionary tales on the frontiers of the new.

But while I think Jim’s account gets at the deep structure of the situation (and The Situation) better than personal responsibility, or mental health policy, or gun legislation, or ‘the media’, it’s still got the feel of hand-waving to me. There are a lot of moving parts in how these shootings happen – all sorts of things not deadly on their own have to come together in just the right dynamic alignment. Entitlement, race, masculinity, anomie, anxiety; the autism spectrum, personal responsibility, psychiatric medication, helicopter parenting; easy access to guns, glorification of violence, fragmentation of popular culture, the news cycle; post-scarcity economy, speculative boom and bust, consumer society. I don’t think we can get to explanation through any of these factors, nor can we do without them. I think they’re operating at different scales, and the ways the scales interact from case to case matters as much as the specific factors involved. And I think trying to pick out any one of them as the ‘independent variable’, driving dynamic, or essential nexus of trouble, is only going to be accidentally effective.

But, as usual, I’ve run out of steam right when it comes time to either do the complex analysis I say we ought to do, or cut to the chase and propose policy. (In this respect I am a perfect New Man – showy but basically useless, the Kim Kardashian of critical thinking.) “It’s complex” is another kind of hand-waving. So great, it’s complex. Now what?

Update, 12/26 – It’s interesting to think this last paragraph in relation to Jim’s post on the passing of Alfred F. Young. Jim reports his frustration that unlike himself and his other teachers, Young refused to pursue an intellectual agenda. Every activist question was met with more primary sources. In effect, Young’s answer was always ‘it’s more complicated than that – let’s see how’.

Weber, Durkheim, and even Marx (think 11th thesis) knew that to get to practice you have to interrupt analysis. Activism requires simplifying abstraction. Of course that may be necessary – but there’s a place and an ethic for a patiently detangling scholarship that refuses to cut the knot, also.

October 11, 2012

Text, subtext, and ‘accessibility’

by CarlD

I just realized, silly me, that I’m a subtext Nazi. As a trained critical reader in the human studies, history / sociology / anthropology, I pretty much assume that most of what I’m interested in will be in the subtext. Because as Wittgenstein remarks, “the aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity.”

And as a ‘sophisticated’ reader of cultural product, I expect to have my intelligence challenged by puzzles of interpretation. I am immediately put off by overly-expository presentation, which strikes me as crude and amateurish. If I’m being told the plot and the characters are soliloquizing their backstories within the first five minutes / pages, I’m out. In fact, I really don’t want to be told that stuff at all – I want it to emerge from the dynamics of a more subtle, dare I say lifelike development.

Here is no doubt where my visceral disgust with the discourses and judgments of ‘accessibility’ comes from. It’s all just so vulgar, and I mean that with all the sniffy poindexter class warfare pique I can pack into that nasty little word. Who needs things to be obvious? Stupid people, obviously. Or lazy people, but definitely not people I want on my team.

In my reading circles the students struggle at first with ‘difficult’ texts in which the characters do not reveal themselves immediately, the plot is joined in medias res, and perspectives or timelines are nonlinear. Pretty much anything ‘literary’ knocks them into a resentful funk. But these are students – they are ignorant, not stupid, and we’re here to fix ignorance. Their expectations are all textual, so they don’t know how to feel about the mysteries of subtext. I make their frustration explicit – the author is playing them, making fun of them. Here’s another way to think about it – the author is respecting your intelligence, not saying every little thing, trusting you to work it out. Turns out they’re mostly not lazy either, they just don’t feel authorized to read between the lines. May even feel that it’s rude. Which in lots of everyday contexts, it is.

Let’s think of this as a workout for our brains, I say. Is it a good workout if it doesn’t make you sweat? Do you see results immediately when you work out? Is it worth it in the longer run to have a mind that can handle a heavier load? What would be the advantages of being someone who doesn’t need to be told every little thing – the bird that can find its own worms rather than needing someone else to chew them up and spit them down you?

So, is this class war?

July 15, 2012

Book Recommendation

by johnmccreery

Kirin Narayan’s Alive in the Writing: Crafting Ethnography in the Company of Chekhov is not a book likely to make it onto bestseller lists. The audience, people with an interest in the art of writing ethnography, is too small. It is, however, a marvelous book about writing non-fiction prose, taking as its primary example Anton Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island, and examining how the great Russian storyteller and dramatist, who was also a medical doctor, produced a work in which,

By closely attending to the people who lived under the appalling conditions of the Russian penal colony on Sakhalin, Chekhov showed how empirical details combined with a literary flair can bring readers face to face with distant, different lives, enlarging a sense of human responsibility.

Narayan is herself a superb writer. I remember reading with pleasure her Storytellers, Saints and Scoundrels and who could not love an autobiographical ethnography titled My Family and Other Saints. Of particular interest to the teachers among us is the way in which she uses examples from Chekhov and other accomplished writers to motivate the writing exercises with which Alive in the Writing is liberally sprinkled. Were I in a position to teach non-fiction writing, I would instantly choose this book as the textbook for the class and recommend it along with other classics like William Zinsser’s Writing to Learn and Writing Well and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down to the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. 

July 8, 2012

Nonsense identity

by CarlD

Andy Murray is about to play Rogerer Federererer for the Wimbledon men’s tennis title. There’s the usual media fooferall on, which this time around includes a bunch of complete nonsense about how Murray represents the hopes, dreams, fantasies, delusions, who knows what-all of international Britishdom. Meanwhile at 30 years of age Fed is somehow representing the reciprocal psycho-cerebral garbage of old people. Hannah Storm just now said, and I’m not making this up, “It’s hard to overstate how important this Wimbledon final is.” “Much more than a tennis match,” another suit says.


Wtf, as the kids say nowadays. If Murray wins it will mean exactly zero about the particular qualities of any other particular Brit, whatever that means, or Scot, or redheaded oatmeal eater. Fed’s victory will make me and other old folks not even slightly less fat, slow and uncoordinated. Or skinny, slow and uncoordinated as the case may be.

Really, just stop it.

May 29, 2012

Cognitive democracy from crooked timber

by CarlD

I’m sort of pleased with myself about this post’s title, because it’s about a draft article on “Cognitive Democracy” at Crooked Timber. The joke, which after all leads and animates that site, is Kant’s remark that “out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” Yet the article is about using democracy to generate solutions to complex problems, i.e. straight things out of crooked timber. Consistent with their thesis they have asked for reader commentary on this draft, so I hereby suggest everyone reading here go on over and add your perspective to the mix.

For present purposes I’m struck by a point the authors, Henry Farrell and Cosma Shalizi, make about how democracy works / needs to work. They premise by arguing that democracy is superior to markets and hierarchies in locating best-possible solutions to complex problems, for two main reasons: 1.) democracy provides the framework for including the widest diversity of perspectives, thus better “exploring the space of possibilities” and guaranteeing against even experts’ individual or corporate tendencies to lock in on sub-optimal local solutions; and 2.) democracy levels distorting power relations so all perspectives are equally weighted. They also defend this liberal sort of democracy against a more utopian, in their view, virtuous general-will style republicanism by pointing out that there is no need to correct for narrow interests and confirmation bias on this account, since the whole point is to bring a diversity of such cognitive localisms to bear on the problem. People should be expected and even encouraged to give full vent to their partisanship, producing the best possible arguments for their position and letting the democratic process sort out the best possible solution. So far, so Federalist Papers if I remember my undergrad PoliSci aright.

Henry and Cosma argue that the critical mechanism of democratic process so constituted is ability and willingness to recognize and accept better arguments when we see them. They quote Mercier and Sperber (2011):

When one is alone or with people who hold similar views, one’s arguments will not be critically evaluated. This is when the confirmation bias is most likely to lead to poor outcomes. However, when reasoning is used in a more felicitous context, that is, in arguments among people who disagree but have a common interest in the truth, the confirmation bias contributes to an efficient form of division of cognitive labor. When a group has to solve a problem, it is much more efficient if each individual looks mostly for arguments supporting a given solution. They can then present these arguments to the group, to be tested by the other members. This method will work as long as people can be swayed by good arguments, and the results reviewed … show that this is generally the case. This joint dialogic approach is much more efficient than one where each individual on his or her own has to examine all possible solutions carefully (p. 65).

Ohhhhh, so we have to actually listen to each other, and maybe even modify our views accordingly. Dang. Lots to think about here.

Btw I must admit, like and perhaps unlike other fine scholars recently under discussion here at DV, that I have not finished reading the article, which strikes me about half-way through as a wonky think-piece dressed up with convenient citations. It’s not that I don’t agree with it or think it’s well done, it just seems to me like yet another optional rationalization of democracy, of which there are centuries-worth to choose from. It’s good enough to be your favorite and fits this context better than most, but I’m not sure it would convince a partisan of markets or hierarchy that democracy is the optimal solution yet. But Henry and Cosma are terrifically smart and may eventually (in this piece or later ones) get to something more compelling than the ‘some studies seem to show’ approach. I would very much like that, and will update in the comments accordingly as I continue reading, because I also prefer democracy and find it a little embarrassing that all I have is habits and rationalizations to account for this.

UPDATE: Cosma’s new post (also mentioned and quoted below in the comments), part of the Crooked Timber online seminar on Red Plenty, is an altogether more satisfying piece of analysis. The dynamic interpenetration of democracy, hierarchies and markets is fully in view here and the relative constraints and affordances of each in regimes perhaps inevitably far from optimization is directly thematized. How that earlier piece makes sense to Cosma given what he has to say here is not clear to me, and the disconnect has not so far been noted in the (otherwise mostly useful) commentary either. Maybe it’s ok to say things about Soviet planning and capitalist quasi-markets it’s not ok to say about our utopian dreamworlds, or maybe I’m just not smart enough to get the rhetoric of this project’s development. In any event, I confidently recommend this new post as not at all a waste of time.

February 14, 2012

Aggregate, Arrange, Assemble

by CarlD

Today I had an ambitious day. I described paper writing to my intro World History sections as a process of aggregation, arrangement and assembly similar to the formation of stars as they collect atoms, compact them to fusion and burst forth in light. Then I told them about the episode of “Trailer Park Boys” in which Ricky breaks into a house to pick out an engagement ring for Lucy (aggregation = research), swallows the ring so he won’t get caught by the cops and throws it up again once they’re gone (arrangement = analysis), then hands it to Lucy and says “So, you want to get married or something?” (assembly = writing).

We talked about what’s wrong with stealing the ring (this would be the ‘plagiarized’ paper) and whether making Ricky a Viking who ‘plundered’ rather than ‘stole’ it made a difference. We considered why Lucy might have preferred a more ritualized arrangement of their eventual assembly, concluding that in this case the value of ritual lay at least in part in its enactment of focused competence and commitment in making arrangement for the assembled couple’s needs. It’s about credibility. We all agreed that the same ring might be stolen, plundered, bought or fabricated, transported in one’s guts or a velvet box, delivered via slingshot or placement in a glass of champagne, with each permutation of aggregation, arrangement and assembly making a significant difference in the meaning and value of ‘the same’ ring.

I took out some nice artisan multigrain bread I had aggregated to myself earlier and ate some. We talked about the process of chewing and digestion whereby the previous arrangement of the bread is broken down, rearranged into more directly nourishing compounds and waste, and ultimately reassembled into poo and me. We laughed a bit about making sure that these two assemblages not become mixed, and considered the consequences of substituting Skittles for bread in one’s regular diet. We talked about the paper that would result from just vomiting the bread back up or pooping it out without nutritional processing.

They may not immediately have digested all this, but they were intrigued and I had lots of fun.

January 30, 2012

Word to your Mama

by CarlD

I had a little fun with my scifi reading circle last week. They were pretty cranky about Gibson’s Neuromancer (although they picked it), which wasn’t giving them a nice clean linear narrative or conventionally identifiable / likeable characters. I told them it was all about getting cool with the unfamiliar, a slow difficult process in contrast for example to dating, boinking and marrying the woman who reminds you most of your mother. (It was boys doing the most vocal kvetching.) They were stricken.

[Update: It occurs to me that in a roundabout way this is one answer to Tim Burke’s question in his current post about why we think critical thinking should be work, not fun, or why we are suspicious of people seemingly just having fun.]

December 18, 2011

A second brain

by CarlD

Found a great remark in a student journal, wanted to share / archive it.

Towards the end, we were asked to choose characters from history. We were asked to learn about the character and see the world from his/her eyes. I chose Adolf Hitler because I really wanted to understand how such a human being could leave such a remark. After all the massacres he lead, I found it more than interesting to discuss it. After each classmate chose a character, three random characters were chosen every time and a random topic such as freedom, power, authority, etc. were chosen for the characters to discuss. If you notice my first few journals, I mentioned the difficulty I faced thinking things through other people’s eyes. This activity has successfully opened my eyes and made me develop a second brain that can easily get isolated and put my feet in other people’s shoes.

I love the idea of a second brain. Maybe some people empathize more directly, but a virtual subroutine is a great way to start for those who don’t. This particular assignment is hard to grade and devolves easily into ignorant posturing by students who won’t or can’t get into the spirit of it, but when it works this is what happens.

April 11, 2011

Energy and Curiosity, the Wisdom of Robertson Davies

by johnmccreery

I am in one of those fey moods where I find myself rereading books that, after a long waiting, have spoken to me and demanded to be read again. The book now in question is Rebel Angels by the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies. No one to my mind does academic comedy better. One thing that makes his books worth rereading is the bits of wisdom that pop up here and there. I thought of Carl again as I read the following passage.

Energy and curiosity are the lifeblood of universities; the desire to find out to uncover, to did deeper, to puzzle out obscurities, is the spirit of the university, and it is a channelling of that unresting curiosity that holds mankind together. As for energy, only those who have never tried it for a week or two can suppose that the pursuit of knowledge does not demand a strength and determination, a resolve not to be beaten, that is a special kind of energy, and those who lack it or have it only in small store will never be scholars or teachers, because real teaching demands energy as well. To instruct calls for energy, and to remain almost silent, but watchful and helpful, while students instruct themselves, calls for even greater energy. To see someone fall (which will teach him not to fall again) when a word from you would keep him on his feet but ignorant of an important danger, is one of the tasks of the teacher that calls for special energy, because holding in is more demanding than crying out.

January 5, 2011

Rusty wire and the wild ponies

by CarlD

This is how Rachel described her childhood, in contrast to an article she was reading in the Funny Times (because it’s pretty funny) about how American pediatricians are trying to get warning labels on hot dogs because they’re a dangerous food. They’re dangerous because about ten kids a year choke on them and die, which is of course ten too many but makes any given kid choking on a hot dog and dying about a 1:6,000,000,000 shot. It’s sort of an amazing thing to think we need to take comprehensive positive steps to head off this danger, as compared to the subsistence farm where Rachel grew up at which rusty wire was unavoidably abundant and unsurprisingly devoid of warning labels. And the only ponies that could be afforded were the wild ones, and one of the first things she remembers is learning by trial-and-error how not to get kicked in the head by them.

Of course a decline-of-our-civilization-from-its-rugged-can-do-origins narrative would be easy here, as would a progress story about how much relatively safer our precious little darlings are. These are both pleasant affirmations of a worldview. And of course if we’re willing not to leap to judgment it’s more complicated than that. I’m reminded for example of JohnM’s comment awhile back remembering “an essay by Jean Briggs, an ethnographer who studied child-rearing among the Inuit. One of the things that disturbed her was the practice of setting problems for children, not providing the materials they needed, and teasing them when they failed to solve them. She initially thought it was cruel. She then came to realize that if, for example, an adult Inuit was out seal-hunting on the ice and some of his equipment broke down, the inability to improvise a solution would kill him.” What, weren’t these children being abused? Clearly understanding only happens here when judgment is suspended and practices are examined in relation to situations, not preconceived ideals.

This came together with something I just skimmed on Slawkenbergius’ recommendation, Eva Illouz’s Saving the Modern Soul: Therapy, Emotions, and the Culture of Self-Help (2008). Eva suggests that “[t]he point of cultural analysis is not to measure cultural practices against what they ought to be or ought to have been but rather to understand how they have come to be what they are and why, in being what they are, they ‘accomplish things’ for people.” Obviously I agree with this, and very well put.

But then in turn this came together with Dave Mazella’s great comment just now on the last post talking about how ‘hegemony’ is a “slippy-slidey concept… that… leads in one way or another to a rather deracinated ‘cultural studies.’ But that’s for another post,” which would be this one. Dave points to the danger of judgment, and perhaps more importantly action, indefinitely deferred. “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it,” Marx told us, and after several thousand years of philosophy who could disagree. Or as Erskine Bowles said recently, reflecting on his transition from finance and politics to academe as President of the University of North Carolina, “I come from a world of ready, fire, aim, and I came to a world of ready, aim, aim, aim, aim.” C’mon ya eggheads, fire already!

Weber provides one answer. The ethics of the scientist and of the politician are different: it’s the scientist’s job to get knowledge right, the politician’s to act in pursuit of ultimate ends. Mixing those tasks just makes the scientist unreliable and confounds the politician in detail and nuance. Nor is knowledge an adequate guide to action; as Durkheim said (in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life) “[s]cience is fragmentary and incomplete; it advances but slowly and is never finished; but life — that cannot wait. Theories whose calling is to make people live and make them act, must therefore rush ahead of science and complete it prematurely. They are possible only if the demands of practicality and vital necessities, such as we feel without distinctly conceiving them, push thought beyond what science permits us to affirm.” Still, more and more reliable knowledge is better than less and less reliable knowledge, no? And Orwell, Huxley, Hitler and Stalin showed us what happens when understanding is simply subordinated to politics, be they public or personal. Along those lines another option is the pragmatic tolerance and decency Rorty arrives at as the best way to love both Trotsky and the wild orchids.

Rachel points out, correctly, that the contemporary media-saturated world is a more immediately scary place than it used to be. A kid chokes on a hot dog in Dubuque and in minutes it’s right there on your news feed, as if it happened next door. But it’s not like the older world was less dangerous – rusty wire and wild ponies will kill you dead, and everyone knows it. What’s different now is that people apparently think it’s actually possible to intercept every possible danger. They don’t think their kids are going to end up stranded on an ice floe; the preciouses don’t need to be exposed to peril to toughen them up and make them resourceful in contingencies. Fate plays no part in our world. Hot dogs may be scary, but they’re finite and pragmatically manageable in a way that Satan, symbol of infinite jeopardy, never was.

December 9, 2010

14.5, to be exact

by CarlD

One of my little missions as a teacher, as usual at least partly a selfish one, is to teach the kiddoes to intake information the first time it’s presented, whether it’s directed to them personally or not. I take this to be a dimension of responsible being in the world, and a minimal first step toward developing the sort of disciplined attention and monologue tolerance that enables participation in the abstractions favored by high culture; which in turn I take to be the substantive point of a liberal arts education. Of course the dispositions of class guarantee that this will not be a widely-distributed skill, which is what makes it so valuable, both in its actual achievement and in its pharmaceutical simulation. Although it is rare to find someone who cannot focus their attention at all when they find the situation ‘interesting’, suggesting that it’s not attention itself that is in deficit.

Anyhoo, yesterday a student I quite like personally came running into my office carrying its journal, and breathlessly announced that it was turning the thing in then as another student had told it it must. I smiled to myself and told it that this transaction was fine with me, although as I’d mentioned in both the syllabus and in class the previous day the standard journal turn-in protocol was to bundle it with the final paper, due next week.

My student friend then proudly announced that the journal contained exactly 14.5 entries. Now we’ll need a little background to see why I almost laughed out loud at this point. As again described in detail in the syllabus and discussed at length in class, the journal is intended to be ethnographic field notes from the semester, a reflective record of the social processes of teaching and learning, in our class and others. The number of entries is not specified, but at least one or two a week are recommended. Easy math gives us a figure of roughly 30 here, but counting is not the point. For the final tally to be manipulable to achieve a target of 14.5, there’s already probably been an epic fail with respect to the actual purpose and process of the assignment, although there are certainly ways to do a passing journal that could wind up around that number.

So, why exactly 14.5, you may ask? Well, because the day before, the final day of class, two separate students at separate moments in open class discussion asked me to personally tell them how many entries should be in the journal. For the first, I explained the above and reminded it of previous discussions in detail of the journal. By the time the second one asked I’d had enough of that conversation, so off the top of my head I invented a preposterous number (not preposterous enough, I’m afraid), 14.5, and stated it flatly as if it was a reasonable answer to a reasonable question. That particular student smelled a rat and asked if I was serious; I said no, I was teasing it, and referred it back to the syllabus for further guidance; knowing, however, that if it hadn’t been doing the journal all along as intended there was no help for it there except a possible glimmer of understanding that it might want to pay more attention next time.

It is from this information-rich context that my student friend plucked 14.5 as the correct number of entries for its journal. I can’t wait to read them.

May 24, 2010

Nightmares of dead generation

by CarlD

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.

What is this familiar nightmare (Marx in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte) doing here? Well, he’s a tool, of course, specifically ideological cover for a point I tried much too briefly to make at Giovanni’s post on the deselection (and destruction) of books including Gramsci’s Prison Letters at the Victoria University, Wellington Library. In what may be my favorite practical joke in a long while, that comment has itself since been deselected and destroyed, perhaps as part of a more comprehensive culling of all comments at the site. But since that move forecloses conversation there, I’ll move the thought here and see if it’s worth a chat. I’m interested in the forms the nightmares of dead generations take in our lives. [Note: Giovanni’s original post at his own blog, with excellent commentary, is here.]

Giovanni calls attention to the fascinating process his university library used to try to declutter its holdings to free up space for other purposes. Books that had not been checked out in ten years or longer received a red sticker on the spine indicating their peril. Users could veto the cull by drawing a black line through the sticker, a veritable Wikipedia moment in the stacks. Heroic scholarly defenders against this barbarism then crawled around the shelves black-lining every red sticker they could find. “Save one, save all.” I remember the same kind of culture wars at UCSD when I was a grad student there and little-used books were to be gulaged to UC’s off-site storage facility. And soon my own little university’s figleaf of a library will be faced with hard decisions as we work out how to implement consultants’ recommendations to devote a whole floor currently occupied by a big chunk of the meager collection to an integrated ‘Learning Commons’ offering academic services to our ‘Millenial’ students, many of whom read quite a bit but have never cracked an actual book in their lives.

I should admit that the solid, reliable feel of a real book in my hands, the mystery of shelves groaning under the weight of knowledge, the thrill of the unexpected shelf-read discovery, the crisp, definite sound of pages turning are all pleasures that have shaped my life leading up and into academe. Like many of my peers I think there’s nothing that decorates a living room quite so well as piles of loose books. It may be that this sensuous materiality is especially critical in the case of Gramsci’s prison letters. So, Giovanni

recoiled especially at seeing Antonio Gramsci’s Lettere dal carcere sporting a red sticker. The letters that Gramsci had penned as a political prisoner, under the constraints of censorship and the rationing of his writing privileges, and that together form an extraordinary prison memoir, yes, but also a chronicle of intellectual life during Fascism and the autobiography of one Europe’s greatest political thinkers and philosophers of the last century – it seemed such an astonishing indignity for that particular book, such an offence to its history and ours, that it might even be suggested to remove it from view, let alone destroy it.

Gramsci wrote the letters under confining conditions of prison censorship and oversight; his access to books, writing materials and headspace all fitfully but effectively restricted. Yet he was “almost physically consumed by the need to fight with the only weapon he had left the forces that wished to neutralize his intellect.” How ironic, then, for the product of this effort to fall victim to an arbitrary mass purge?

Quite right. But is this book that product? Gramsci wrote his letters one by one, on a variety of papers, to a variety of recipients. Later they were collected, transcribed, edited and published in the handsome critical edition we now discuss. The materiality of this volume, I note, is already pretty distant from the materiality of the letters and their conditions of production. I take it from the shelf, a convenient, compact whole; I find a comfortable nook; I read the letters one after another on their crisp, neatly-printed pages with their erudite critical apparatus. Here I see the content of Gramsci’s writing, but what I do not see, or feel, is precisely the conditions of its production. My ease of access is exactly the opposite of Gramsci’s struggle, or the slow drip of Gramsci his recipients experienced for that matter. The library is not the prison; the book is not the letters. This book is a simulacrum. And although I can appreciate the reverence for the great man that imbues all his offshoots with a reflected charisma, it’s quite another thing to fetishize this object, this rendition, this product of a purely contingent technology of textual production and diffusion as the true representation of an authentic original.

(Interestingly, Gramsci himself had this “reverence for the book,” as Antonio Santucci once described it to me. I had asked him – this was when he directed the Gramsci archives – if the books Gramsci had owned contained any marginalia, knowing that any historian studying me would do well to track the conversations I was having with the books I was reading by the notes I’d left in them. Antonio said there were none, and hypothesized that Gramsci’s poor rural upbringing had instilled this sense of the book as a precious and inviolable object. I might speculate that a folk-Catholic biblical culture might also have had something to do with it. Writing in the margins is just about the only reason I prefer a physical book any more, by the way, and that’s just because I’m too lazy to learn the available digital markup systems.)

So the question is not whether Gramsci himself and his legacy are being attacked by the removal and destruction of this particular book. That’s all a red herring. No, as Giovanni gets around to saying, the more effective questions have to do with the process whereby books were deselected, and their individual suitability for other forms of availability. He also leaves hanging an intriguing thought about the identity-conferring functions of books as material objects. I’ll take these questions in turn.

As to the deselection process, it seems obvious that to clear physical space in a building previously devoted to book display someone’s ox is going to be gored no matter what. As Giovanni notes, this process is happening on a smaller scale all the time as new books come out and old ones obsolesce. The ten-year rule looks good to me as a rough cut of books that are not actively being used for their content. The strikethrough rule makes sense if we imagine that responsible constituencies will use the opportunity, as Giovanni says, to direct their

sharpest possible thinking on the subject of which print materials ought to be displayed, and how, and at what cost, and which titles would do better in a digital environment; how to balance the needs of current and future researchers with broader cultural considerations; how to understand the value of books as material objects, and the act of browsing them as a physical journey into a topic or the history of a country, within a set of spatial coordinates that don’t always map well inside of a computer network.

This is not what happened; the culture warriors did none of this thinking, instead ‘saving one, saving all’. Apparently the mode of destruction encouraged not reflection and responsible participation, but a Luddite backlash. How might the process have been better coordinated, made more ’empowering’ to use a loathsome jargon? Perhaps by turning the mute verdict of the sticker and the mute veto of the strikethrough into real conversations somehow? Can we imagine a happy consensus on which books to cull, or at least a feeling that due process was done? For that matter, is it even possible to get rid of a single book if we devote due attention and care to all of the excellent objectives Giovanni lists?

As to availability, as soon as the Vicky-Welly library has interlibrary loan that’s sort of a non-issue. Libraries share books from both within and among collections; in terms of that function there’s no particular imperative to have any particular title on any particular shelf. Perhaps my perspective at a small library that can’t hope to afford or shelve even a decent fraction of the books I think it ‘should’ controls my thinking here. But further, as I’ve just pointed out the original materiality of the letters makes them particularly bad poster children for defense of the physical book, the thing itself. In the old days we’d be inclined to think that photostatic reproductions were the gold standard for autograph material; nowadays digital reproduction offers quick and easy access to this level of visual authenticity. As for the printed version, that is just as easily digitized as any other book, subject to the same stewardship and market conditions. As I noted in my original comment, Gramsci’s oeuvre has a particularly poor digital availability compared, say, to Marx’s (the above quote was instantly available from my sofa for search and retrieval in public domain from Going forward this, not shelf-to-shelf stocking, may be the more appalling scandal.

If digital media offer easier access to content we want easily accessible, what advantages do physical books offer? Are they just fossils of the dying “analogue humanities,” as Giovanni calls them? Do we need them in some way digital media can’t provide to preserve memory, Giovanni’s special interest? Or are they involved, as he further suggests, in the materialization of a kind of collective identity?

Save one, save all. I don’t care how long it has been since the complete works of Giovanni Boccaccio were checked out. We need them; they must be there, occupy that space, or we might as well not have an Italian department at all.

I can see why it wouldn’t be worth having an Italian department that couldn’t read Boccaccio (or Verga, or Pirandello, Moravia, Calvino). But if he hasn’t been checked out in ten years, are they reading him? Should they just check out the books that give them their identity every once in awhile to reset the clock, as Giovanni suggests? And what would an Italian department look like that read its Boccaccio online, that did not therefore ‘own’ Boccaccio or have his works available to display as a talisman? Why would that be an Italian department not worth having?

April 18, 2010


by johnmccreery

Because Andrew Abbott’s use of the term “heuristics” in the subtitle to Methods of Discovery (or perhaps just my clumsy presentation of it), I thought it might be worthwhile to flesh out a bit what Abbott means by the term and why he thinks that heuristics are important. First, then,

Most modern writing about heuristic comes from mathematics. Mathematicians often have particular problems to solve: how to solve the normal distribution integral (hint: you can’t do it analytically), how to create a perfect pentagon, how to categorize all the possible types of disconnection in six-space, and so on. Mathematicians often know or suspect the answer they seek but need to be sure of how one gets there. Even when they don’t know the answer, the usually have a clear idea of what an answer looks like. In such a context, heuristic means thinking creatively about how to get from problem to solution. Often one builds out from the problem on the one hand and from the solution on the other until the two halves meet in the middle like a bridge built from two banks.

How to get from here to there, in a situation where there may be multiple routes to choose from. That sounds good to me. A page later, Abbott turns from mathematics to the social sciences.

In the social sciences we often have a different situation. We often don’t see ahead of time exactly what the problem is, much less do we have an idea of the solution. We often come at an issue with only a gut feeling that there is something interesting about it. We often don’t know even what an answer ought to look like….Most teaching on methods assumes that the student will start a research project with a general question, then narrow that to a focused question, which will dictate the kind of data needed, which will in turn support an analysis designed to answer the focused question. Nothing could be further from reality. Most research projects—from first-year undergraduate papers to midcareer multiyear, multi-investigator projects—start out as general interests in an area tied up with hazy notions about some possible data, a preference for this or that kind of method, and as often as not a preference for certain kinds of results. Most research projects advance on all of these fronts at once, the data getting better as the question becomes more focused, the methods more firmly decided, and the results more precise.

The upshot is that a trained ability to envision different possible outcomes and different routes to reach them — to think in terms of heuristics—is a valuable skill. Given my personal experience, that sounds right to me.