Thursday, May 26, 2011

Back in Berkeley. The finger is healing, and I am behind on work, as usual. Looking forward to getting back to my regular research routine.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Upon consideration, while that Ruby on Rails workshop didn't equip me to actually develop my own web apps in five magical hours, it did remind me that I can fiddle around with the back ends of things and understand how they work. I predict that I will be giving the Arcade tech editor considerable heartburn in the coming months. ("Hey, what does this do?" *explosion*)

Friday, May 20, 2011

Monday, May 16, 2011

Railsbridge workshops

I've been meaning to mention for a while that earlier this month I attended a free Ruby on Rails outreach workshop for women in San Francisco, run by volunteers from the SF Ruby community and funded in part by Railsbridge.

It was well planned, informative, and (did I mention?) free. Plus, feminist! I think I may not have been in quite the right class for what I wanted to learn, but that was my fault and not theirs. I think it will be a long time before I develop any meaningful competency with Ruby on Rails, mostly because after research, teaching, and (sweet FSM) moving, I don't have a lot of time to devote to dicking around with web apps, which is really what I need if I want to learn anything. Still, I hope to try and keep up over the summer, and perhaps try to connect with the Ruby community in Atlanta as well.

I attended my last Saxon Circle meeting last week (we're still in the middle of Andreas, and as usual I have no idea what the hell is going on...God is dressed as a sailor?). It gave me a reason to reflect that, as terrible as my Old English is, it would be even worse if I hadn't been doing a tiny bit of (error-ridden) translating each month for the last eight years.

Practice, man.

Anyway, the point is: if you're a woman in the Bay Area and are interested in learning Ruby on Rails, head over to the SF Ruby group. I think I was your typical cranky, resistant student ("IT'S NOT WORKING. WHY ISN'T IT WORKING.") and they were still super great to me.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Gamification (or the Romance of Accumulation)

I haven't yet had a chance to discuss Mark Sample's recent, very compelling post about "gamification," the tendency to turn everything into a game (for points) whether or not it's appropriate. Mark writes:
I oppose the general trend toward “gamifying” real world activities—mapping game-like trappings such as badges, points, and achievements onto otherwise routine or necessary activities.

A better term for such “gamification” is, as Margaret Robertson argues, pointsification. And I oppose it. I oppose pointsification and the gamification of life. Instead of “gamifying” activities in our daily life, we need to meanify them—imbue them with meaning. The things that we do to live, breathe, eat, laugh, love, and die, we need to see as worth doing in order to live, breathe, eat, laugh, love, and die. A leaderboard is not the path toward discovering this worthwhileness.

I mostly share Mark's sense that gamification is a scourge. But I'm also extremely curious as to why it's compelling. The mere accumulation of points, which is predictable and sequential, should be incredibly boring. Incredibly boring. And yet somehow it isn't; somehow it's at once soothing (five points...six points...) and anxiety-inducing (Will I make it to seven points?...Cliffhanger!).

As someone who studies experimental literature, I'm not deeply committed to either meaning or narrative as self-evident goods, and I am actually one of those weirdos who enjoys reading Stein, but the narrative power of mere counting remains a puzzle to me--an interesting one.

I'm pasting my comment on Mark's post below, not because I've said anything brilliant but because if anybody has any leads, I'd like to hear about them.

It strikes me [...] that the proverbial elephant in the room is the pervasive gamification of learning, through grades, credits, and the like, which leads to the perverse practice known as "grade-grubbing." (Not to mention the mistaken impression in some quarters that the letters "B. A." have, or should have, the powers of the One Ring.)

I mostly hate grades, and not just because I hate grading.

But I do think there's something to be said for having to discipline oneself into a practice--to do something before one understands why one is doing it. (Learning to code almost always starts out like this, or at least it has for me--just follow these instructions, use this syntax, make this thingy that says "hello world." A week later, you understand why you were doing what you did, and you understand it because you did it.)

With thinking persons, usually the extrinsic motivation of the grade flips over into an intrinsic interest in what it is that one is doing--it has to, because it's just too boring to merely do things to rack up points. When that flip doesn't happen, we get grade-grubbing--people who think the points are (as it were) the point.

Perhaps that flip happens when you start to understand enough of what you're doing that it starts to become more interesting than racking up points. Racking up points, which is a sort of degree-zero narrative, is more interesting than a series of arbitrary, meaningless, and repetitive tasks, which is how some people see school. (And it's worth noting that, to the beginner, most complex things seem arbitrary and meaningless--until they don't.) So gamification is a relief from such tasks. As you say, the desire to gamify life processes seems to signal an inability to imbue them with more complex or interesting narrative (or, say, poetic!) significance. But it seems as though there are moments when gamification can be, and is, used strategically as a bridge into significance.

There's a very striking section of Olaudah Equiano's Interesting Narrative in which Equiano is going about trading various goods (limes, glassware, turkey). It's all about the numbers, and what I once called a "romance of accumulation" (in a seminar paper lo these many years ago) takes over the "interesting" narrative. Equiano's racking up points. But he has to give some bulk and narrative to the tedious process of accruing enough money to buy his freedom, so the romance of accumulation must serve. A similar racking up of points appears in Thoreau's Walden, when he is literally bean-counting.

Which is to say that "gamification" is an old and strange narrative strategy. I don't quite know what to do with these C18/19 examples, but I've long wondered about them, and the role of the romance of accumulation in American literature and culture more broadly.

Telephone; or, Some thoughts on publicness

Please note that my office telephone has been disconnected due to budget cuts implemented by the state of California.

    --Professor Ian Duncan's email signature file

Call all you want, but there's no one home

And you're not going to reach my telephone.

    --Lady Gaga

There's a Telephone-like quality to news of the effects of the statewide California budget cuts on individual UC campuses, departments, and programs. You remember the game from early childhood--you pass a message around the room, whispering from ear to ear, and then giggle at the end when the original message is juxtaposed with what the last person finally heard.

This is partly because it is genuinely difficult to understand the distribution and effects of budget cuts (why were East Asian language courses radically cut just when a new East Asian library building was going up? an observer might, with fairness, ask).

But it's also because it's difficult to get an official account from anybody. With budget cuts comes a stigma, and therefore a dilemma. It is difficult to fight budget cuts without clearly representing how badly they damage the department and the university. But as soon as a department or a campus admits to having been hurt by cuts, it faces a loss of prestige and a concomitant flight of talent. Part of the damage that the budget cuts inflict comes from anybody knowing about the damage--or thinking they know.

The result is a mixture of genuine confusion and official obfuscation, in which information flows primarily through rumor and statistics--the latter to be understood as the superlative successor to Mark Twain's "lies" and "damned lies."

And that's how the UC budget cuts' effects on my department came to be emblematized, through a Telephone-like process, by telephones.

It's well known by now that English faculty at Berkeley no longer have office phones. Ian Duncan (to his credit, in my opinion) said so in his email signature file for about a year. Evidently there are members of UC administration who consider us a "bad" department for having let on about this fact. Anecdotally, I hear it's whispered among (and sometimes, by competing departments, to) prospective graduate students that our lack of phones is an emblem of how terrible the cuts have been for us.

Well, it is--an emblem, that is. But surely we English scholars can think a bit critically about just how that emblem signifies.

William Deresiewicz's recent, much-circulated, and rather good article in The Nation casually dropped the following statement: "Stipends are so low at the University of California, Berkeley, the third-ranked research institution on the planet, that the school is having trouble attracting graduate students."

I can't speak for other departments at Cal, but I know that the statement is not true for English--at least not this year. It's not that graduate stipends aren't low (they're graduate stipends; they're low by definition), and in fact we also had unusually low yield this year. But informal surveys (rumors, rumors) suggest that our peer departments did too.

So while it's tempting to make a causal narrative out of it, as Deresiewicz does, in this case the narrative seems unsupported by the evidence.

In fact, graduate stipends in Berkeley's English department are commensurate with those offered at much wealthier peer institutions. For instance, although we joke about our transbay colleagues at Stanford ("You get a car! You get a car! Everybody gets a car!"), the truth is that their fellowships ^for incoming students as of this year^* don't materially exceed ours. It's perhaps a little janky that our fellowship packages are often cobbled together piecemeal due to the bureaucratic idiosyncrasies and, yes, economic constraints, of being at a public university. But that's always been true of Cal.

Here's the thing about the phones: they're symbolic, in more ways than one. Part of the reason they seem like such a basic infrastructural need is that they're such an old infrastructural need. In point of fact, they don't get a lot of use, and are a low priority--that's why getting rid of phones was a very reasonable response to budget cuts. The Wesleyan historian Claire Potter, who blogs as Tenured Radical, recently wrote, "Take my phone. Please." After all,
By doing this, you could free up some money in our zero-sum budget game to reduce the cost of my benefits or bump up my research money. Or give me a tiny bonus to subsidize my cell phone costs. Or keep the money and allow me to deduct the cost of my mobile from my taxes as a legitimate business expense. And it would clear a lovely space on my desk where I could put a vase of spring flowers -- or a box of Kleenex, to prepare for the next round of budget cuts.

She's alluding to budget cuts at a private university, by the way.

Sure, it's pretty bootleg that we can't afford phones, and if you have enough bootleg working conditions it becomes a serious problem. If anyone from the state legislature is reading this: THIS NO PHONES SITUATION IS COMPLETELY BOOTLEG. But in and of themselves, office land-lines are not indispensable for teaching or research. In contrast, graduate fellowships are, increasingly, indispensable. So yeah, there's no phone on my desk, but our entire incoming graduate cohort--of modest size, for us, but nonetheless bigger than the incoming cohorts of our peer departments--is funded, because people in the department worked to make it happen. It's about telephones, and it isn't.

A department's reputation is as fragile as a lady's, and as easily damaged by rumors, whether accurate or not. Much ado about nothing can still make young Claudios considering graduate study wary of committing to a Hero who seems less than virtuous solvent.

But the aptness of the analogy should make us pause over how we are tempted to react to rumor. Ought we try to hide the damage the budget cuts inflict, as if defending our maidenly virtue?

I'm inclined to agree with the aptly named, clear-sighted Krystal Ball, the 2010 congressional candidate who refused to be intimidated when opponents challenged her virtue by circulating sexual photos of her on the internet. Instead of trying to suppress the photos, she challenged the premise on which they were meant to discredit her--what she correctly identified as "the tactic of making female politicians into whores," as if the unseemliness of being both a woman and public made her (tautologically) unfit for public office.

After all, what do the rumors say? That UC is struggling economically?


Let's re-examine the premise that the cuts that we are continually fighting are some kind of embarrassment for the department.

Berkeley English is and has been great, but it was never because it was rolling in cash. We've always been public.

To suppose that Cal's vulnerability to cuts is embarrassing--to whisper, Telephone-style, about our telephones--is, fundamentally, to think that our publicness is embarrassing. It's worth noticing that that's a political premise. Like a woman running for public office, or the rumors themselves, we do a little too much circulating for comfort, it seems.

What has happened to our national discourse when the idea of a truly great public university seems an oxymoron? Not to put too fine a point on it: if you think Berkeley's publicness is an intellectual liability, then you are part of the problem--the national problem of that perverse and pervasive neoliberal reflex, not "always historicize" but "always privatize." By the same tautology as that applied to women running for office, the very fact that we're public is assumed to be a disqualification for serving the public. Always privatize.

The Berkeley English department challenges that premise. Cal's publicness is part of its greatness, across the university and within the English department. There were UC-wide faculty and staff furloughs last year; it was the faculty that pushed for a graduated scale that would at least partially protect lower-earning university employees from the full force of the impact--an improvement on the blunt two-tiered model first proposed by university administration. And I've repeatedly seen Berkeley faculty stand up for the labor rights of graduate instructors and of non-academic staff. Our graduate students--and our postdocs--are unionized. Are yours? Or have your tenured faculty persuaded themselves that graduate instructors are "apprentices"?

People don't come here for the money--you couldn't, really. It's an exciting place to be, partly because, frankly, we can't just buy famous scholars (ten years after they've made their marks on the field)--we have to cultivate them ourselves. Our undergraduates, largely products of the California public K-12 system, are often less polished than those at private institutions, but they're also creative and diverse and ferociously intelligent. Some of our best are community college transfers--mature, curious students who really know what they want out of an education.

Economic scarcity makes some things difficult at Cal: that's a fact. We can ill afford further cuts. I'm furious at public disinvestment in higher education, and I fear that recent drastic tuition hikes will forever alter the quality of our wonderful student body. Also, whoever it was who floated that online course evaluations idea: total fail.

But we know how to make the best of what we have, to protect the least secure among us, and to advocate for humanities research and teaching. We do it damn well, all while producing some of the best research and best-trained students in the country.

No need to whisper. No need at all.

[UPDATE: Dean Andrew Szeri's response to Deresiewicz (scroll down)]

*clarification added 5/14, in a characteristically slimy way.

Goble, Mark. "Cameo Appearances; or, When Gertrude Stein Checks into Grand Hotel." MLQ 62.2 (2001): 117-63 [pdf].

Halberstam, Jack. "You Cannot Gaga Gaga"

Friday, May 13, 2011

Annoyingly, a systemwide Blogger glitch has caused yesterday's post on telephones to disappear, along with some queued material. If it doesn't reappear over the course of the day then I'll simply re-post.

[Which is to say: thanks to those who kindly linked to yesterday's post, and I'm sorry that that link is now broken. I hope it comes back.]

[As of 3pm: the link is back, but yesterday's comments have disappeared. Alas.]

Facts for graduate students

When your friends take a qualifying exam, you should:

1. bake them cake

2. take them out for drinks after

3. yes, even if your own quals are the next day.

Furthermore, it is not acceptable to allow any member of your cohort to take quals without said cake or drinking, or equivalent celebratory/stress-relieving activities. Moreover, it must not be incumbent on the examinee to arrange the festivities.

This has been Collegiality 1-0-frickin'-1.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Against Innovation

File it under "things that started out as a joke and became increasingly awesome." My panel "Against Innovation," with Stephen Ross and Joel Burges, was accepted for MSA 13. Hurray!

Modernist studies continues to place stress on “making it new,” borrowing from modernism’s own rhetorics, as MSA 13’s theme, “Structures of Innovation,” suggests. The idea of innovation, like that of “modernism” itself, is inherently complex, always implying a temporal forward motion often freighted with underexamined ethical and epistemological implications. Indeed, as Jed Rasula has recently shown in the pages of Modernism/modernity, the notion of newness in modernism was as multifarious as it was pervasive, standing in as a term of aesthetic approval or as a formal description as often as it made a historical claim. This panel therefore seeks to illuminate the temporal structures of modernism and its afterlives that operate “against innovation”: repetition, queer time, haunting, and obsolescence.

Natalia Cecire’s paper, “Repeating Stein,” considers the ways in which repetition troubles the very notion of “formal innovation.” Via Gertrude Stein’s “continuous present,” Cecire examines repetition’s dual role as a marker of the Freudian death drive and a hallmark of the “formal innovation” of the avant-garde. Jennifer Fleissner and Lee Edelman read repetition as figuring, respectively, the compulsive futurity of a female modernism (suggested by the typist’s “automatic hand”) and a queer refusal of “reproductive futurism”—that which propels modernity forward and that which refuses futurity altogether. Questioning the professional reproductive futurism of modernist studies, Cecire models a reading “against innovation” that seeks to illuminate the ethical and epistemological investments in temporality that continue to shape our understanding of modernism.

Stephen Ross takes up the structure of return by way of a metacritical consideration of historical studies of spiritualism and the occult in his talk “The Haunting of Modernist Studies.” For modernism and its critics alike, he argues, what is proclaimed as new not only encodes key dimensions of the immediate past, but indeed does so in precisely those terms most clearly identified with the dynamics of haunting. Taking studies of spiritualism and the occult as his case study, Ross argues that the historical-materialist turn in modernist studies has powerfully revived the field of modernist studies—but in doing so continually also raises the ghost of the old “high” modernist studies with which, like a mourner, the field cannot bear to part. The result, he suggests, is a melancholic modernism with which the field must engage if it is to sustain its resurgent impetus.

In “The Old-Fashioned Mr. Anderson,” Joel Burges examines a modernist aesthetic that, when dislodged from the historical time of modernism, turns “making it new” into making it obsolete. Wes Anderson’s stop-motion animated film Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), Burges argues, pits itself against innovation by embracing technological obsolescence as an aesthetic horizon for cinema, wagering on an analog modernity in a media moment in which the “digital revolution” is the presumed future of film. In doing so, Anderson pays homage to two self-consciously innovative films from the modernist era, one the product of Hollywood, the other of the international cinematic avant-garde: King Kong (1933) and Le Roman de Renard (1929-1931; 1941). Fantastic Mr. Fox thus insists that that the obsolete rather than the innovative, is now the privileged temporal and historical horizon of art in the present.
See you in Buffalo!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Important fact: in addition to the Animals Dressed as Other Animals Tumblr, there is an Animals with Stuffed Animals Tumblr. The former is more uncanny, the latter cuter, but obviously the two are of a piece. In the latter the animal confronts the simulacral animal; in the former the animal wears it.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Rough draft

It strikes me that Tuesday's post is actually just an expansion of a series of tweets and retweets. This blog is called Works Cited, so in the interests of citation, here is, as it were, the rough draft:

Semirelatedly, apparently Google has just renamed its search group the "knowledge" group.

This is completely hilarious.
Posted without comment.

Via @wynkenhimself.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The visible hand

Things on the internet are not made by magic; they're created by human labor. Who pays for that labor, and to what ends? Often, private corporations like Google pay for it. Wherefore?

Siva Vaidhyanathan's recent piece in the Chronicle argues that "Our uncritical dependence on Google is the result of an elaborate political fraud. Google has deftly capitalized on a decades-long tradition of creating 'public failure,'" which is to say, setting public projects up to fail so that private interests can swoop in and save us from our "broken" public sector:
Public failure may occur when the public sector has been intentionally dismantled, degraded, or underfinanced while expectations for its performance remain high. [...]

In such circumstances, the failure of public institutions gives rise to the circular logic that dominates political debate. Public institutions can fail; public institutions need tax revenue; therefore we must reduce the support for public institutions. The resulting failures then supply more anecdotes supporting the view that public institutions fail by design rather than by political choice.


Google officials, promoting their effort to scan millions of books purchased with public money [e.g. University of California, University of Michigan --N.C.] and donated by shortsighted universities, claimed they were trying to preserve libraries and perform an essential public service—just the sort of service that our great university libraries could have been working toward had they been allowed to succeed. Publicly supported institutions fail, so we leap into the arms of the private actor, ready to believe its sweet nothings.

Google Books is certainly read by most as a sort of public service that happens to be provided by a private corporation. Remember when the Bibliothèque Nationale de France resisted Google's digitization offers, only to later concede that they lacked funds to carry out their digitization project (the excellent Gallica) on their own? "La BNF se laisse séduire par Google," Le Figaro reported, using the language of sexual danger that Vaidhyanathan picks up in his Chronicle piece.

I'm largely persuaded by Vaidhyanathan's argument, although the persistence of this language of seduction (all literary critics know what comes next: betrayal) probably warrants further cogitation.

That Lovelace Google has practically unlimited funds to pour into whatever it wants is widely taken for granted, and it's well known as a place that is generous with said funds, especially with its workers. But despite its much-touted mission of non-evil (evil is such a strong word, isn't it?) its practices seem increasingly disturbing, including when it comes to digitization. Via Ryan Shaw, I recently came across the bizarre narrative of Andrew Norman Wilson, who says he was fired from a Google contract after inquiring into, and trying to document, the working conditions of "ScanOps":

They scan books, page by page, for Google Book Search. The workers wearing yellow badges are not allowed any of the privileges that I was allowed – ride the Google bikes, take the Google luxury limo shuttles home, eat free gourmet Google meals, attend Authors@Google talks and receive free, signed copies of the author’s books, or set foot anywhere else on campus except for the building they work in. They also are not given backpacks, mobile devices, thumb drives, or any chance for social interaction with any other Google employees. Most Google employees don’t know about the yellow badge class. Their building, 3.14159~, was next to mine, and I used to see them leave everyday at precisely 2:15 PM, like a bell just rang, telling the workers to leave the factory. Their shift starts at 4 am.

They are not elves; I repeat, not elves. Today Glenn Fleishman tweeted the picture below (via @GreatDismal):

hand spotted in a Google Book by Glenn Fleishman

Whose hand is this?

The image reminded me of Caleb Crain's post on encountering the finger of a Google technician in a translation of a Kant essay. As he wrote in a review of Adrian Johns's recent book on copyright and piracy,
... Kant didn't think that an author could mount a strong legal case against piracy based on property rights in words. After all, even after pirates copied an author's words, the author himself still had them. It was better for an author to argue that his book was not an object but an exercise of his powers which "he can concede, it is true, to others, but never alienate". In other words, Kant explained - in a passage partly obscured by the fingers of the Google technician who turned the pages in the scanner - a pirated book was not to be understood as property that had been stolen; it was rather a speech act that had been compromised. The business arrangement that an author made with an editor might make it look as if words could be traded like watches or pork bellies, but it just wasn't so. Could there be a fitter representation of copyright's contemporary plight than the fingers of a Google technician obscuring Kant's defence of writer's rights? An author's consent, Kant cautions in a footnote, "can by no means be presumed because he has already given it exclusively to another", yet Google is struggling to effect exactly this sort of transfer of consent today, as it attempts to win approval for a legal settlement in the United States that will allow it to republish works whose copyright owners have not come forward. I couldn't have read Kant's essay so easily without the Google technician's labour - in fact, without Google, I might not have got around to reading it at all - but her fingers were nonetheless in the way. The internet's attitude toward Kant's words is ambiguous, combining respect, appropriation, liberation and accidental vandalism.
hand spotted by Caleb Crain

This scan is particularly ghostly, the hand covered over with a second hand reasserting the text of the Kant translation.

The hand--always the synecdoche for the worker (the mediator between the head and the hand, we learn in Metropolis, must be the heart)--is inserted literally into our view of the text, disrupting for a moment our sense that Google Books are, quite simply, books that have been "put online," as if books themselves could simply leap media and enter a disembodied realm. The intrusion of the hand shows us that these are photographs (of a sort) and that someone must have made them.

In an inversion of our usual intuition that images are less mediated than text, these hands make us realize that Google Books made us feel as though digital texts were unmediated--were the books themselves. In contrast, the awareness that the digital object is an OCRed image of text--a photograph of its own scene of production, complete with visual evidence of the hand that wrought it--forces us to acknowledge the strange backwards ekphrasis (text to image to fallen, "corrupted" text--OCR is a silent diplomatic edition) in a Google Book, the labor by which it was created and uploaded, and the person who labored, now knowable only through the operative, synecdochal appendages that both create and corrupt the digital object.

This is not to argue for some kind of metaphysics of book presence wherein only a paper book is a real book, not haunted by ghostly disembodied hands. Our tendency to efface the digital laborer, as well as the work of editors, designers, etc., is precisely what enables the widespread belief that e-books are necessarily cheaper to produce than paper books, as if the cost of the book lay in the printing. At least with the heft of paper one is reminded that there was, somewhere, a scene of labor. A Google Book effaces the medium of the medium, until a latex-draped finger appears before us, as if to reassert the tactile element always running beneath the digital.

Obviously, this is a Blogger blog, i.e. run on Google resources.
More on GB hand scans:

Monday, May 2, 2011

Best minds

I've seen this Businessweek article circulated a lot recently. The quotable quotation with which it's inevitably accompanied is the following:
"The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads," he says. "That sucks."
It seems to me that there's something significant about the fact that it's a citation of Ginsberg. There's an implicit juxtaposition of the two fates, thinking about how to make people click ads and being destroyed by madness, that manages to draw power from the unlikeness of the two terms, while at the same time suggesting a certain commensurability: there is a certain madness to spending all your time trying to get people to click ads. This is not a poetic Howl; it's a Businessweek article--not a howl, in short, but a tweet. The many retweets, however, seem to suggest that it's what we've got.

What, indeed, are the best minds of my generation up to? Implicit in the very question is a nostalgia for a time when they read poetry.