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The Devil’s Bargain — Medium
"The question Graeber wants to put to us is this: To what extent are our imaginations shaped — constrained, limited — by our having had to live with the technological choices made by the military-industrial complex — by industries and universities working in close collaboration with the government, in a spirit of subservience to its needs?

Or, to put it another way: How were we taught not even to dream of flying cars and jetpacks? — or, or for that matter, an end to world hunger, something that C. P. Snow, in his famous lecture on “the two cultures” of the sciences and humanities, saw as clearly within our grasp more than half-a-century ago? To see “sophisticated simulations” of the things we used to hope we’d really achieve as good enough?"

"As I noted earlier, this seems to cover a very different subject than his meditation on flying cars and the absence thereof — but it’s really about the same thing, which is: the impact of economic structures on imagination. For Graeber it could scarcely be accidental that a world devoted to utility-maximizing, acquisitive market-based behavior would create a theory that animals, indeed the very genes of creatures, invariably behave in a utility-miximizing, acquisitive way in the Great Market of Life."

"For those whose ideas have been shaped so thoroughly by the logic of capitalism, people like Prince Kropotkin who see mutual aid as a factor in evolution, or who would go still further and see play as simply intrinsic to being alive — Graeber doesn’t cite J. Huizinga’s Homo Ludens here, but he should — are just nuts. They’re not seeing the world as it obviously really is.

But, Graeber suggests, maybe what’s obvious from within the logic of late capitalism isn’t so obvious from another point of view; and maybe what’s nuts according to the logic of late capitalism is, again from another point of view, not necessarily nuts. Maybe there is more in heaven and earth, Professor Dawkins, than is dreamt of in your evolutionary biology.

In a famous passage from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek — the much-anthologized chapter called “Seeing” — Annie Dillard cites the naturalist Stewart Edward White on how to learn to see deer: “As soon as you can forget the naturally obvious and construct an artificial obvious, then you too will see deer.” That is, you have to learn to pick out certain now-and-for-you-insignificant elements in your visual field and reassign them to the realm of the significant. And this is true, not just for the visual but also for the mental field. But it is also and equally true that our constructions of the artificial obvious are not invariably reliable: sometimes they are wrong, and if we then forget that they are our constructions, and think of them as the natural obvious, as the way things just are … we’re screwed.

This is Graeber’s point. And you don’t have to agree with him about the playfulness of worms to see its importance. Our social and economic structures prompt us, every day and in a hundred different ways, to see certain elements of our mental field as significant while ever-so-gently discouraging us from noticing others at all. And when it comes to the constructions of our mental worlds, as opposed to our visual fields, we might be missing something more lastingly important than a guy in a gorilla suit.

All of these reflections started with my reading of a 1945 article about the entanglements of the arts with universities, at a time when universities were in danger of becoming what they have since largely become: “social and technical service stations.” Let’s try now to get back to those concerns."

"My point is: I don’t like seeing journalism being drawn so consistently into the same self-justifying, self-celebrating circles that the American university itself was drawn into during and following World War II. As R. P. Blackmur rightly feared, the intimacy between universities and government did not end when the war ended; it only intensified, and the fact that those universities became our chief patrons of the arts, especially literary writing, at the very moment that they crawled permanently into bed with government and industry, cannot be without repercussions for artists.

The best guide to the rise of creative programs in particular is Mark McGurl’s The Program Era, and it’s fascinating how McGurl repeatedly walks right up to the edge of a clearly articulated critique of this system without ever crossing it. In the penultimate sentence of his book he writes, “Is there not more excellent fiction being produced now than anyone has time to read?” Then he starts a new paragraph before giving us the book’s last sentence: “What kind of traitor to the mission of mass higher education would you have to be to think otherwise?” Oh clever man!

Yes, there is a great deal of skillfully written post-World-War-II fiction available to us, indeed more than we could ever read. But how much of it embodies the kind of imaginative otherness that, as David Graeber reminds us, our social/cultural/economic contexts militate against? How much of it, shaped as it is in institutions that owe their continued existence to their affiliation with the military-industrial complex, envisions ways of life radically other than the ones we now experience? How much of it offers more than increasingly sophisticated simulations of worlds we already know, can predict, feel comfortable in? How much, in shirt, is conducive to genuine hope?

I guess what I’m asking for is pretty simple: for writers of all kinds, journalists as well as fiction writers, and artists and academics, to strive to extricate themselves from an “artificial obvious” that has been constructed for us by the dominant institutions of our culture. Simple; also probably impossible. But it’s worth trying. Few things are more worth trying.

And I am also asking universities to realize and to reconsider their implication in those dominant institutions. I don’t demand that schools sever their ties with those institutions, since that would be financially suicidal, and economic times for higher education are hard enough as it is. But there need to be more pockets of resistance: more institutions with self-consciously distinctive missions, and within institutions more departments or even just informal discussion groups who seek to imagine the so-far unimaginable.

Finally, I am asking all this of myself. I’m fifty-five years old. I’ve probably got twenty or so years to think and write at the highest level I’m capable of, and in those years I want to surprise myself. I don’t want merely to recycle and redeploy the ideas I have inherited. I know that this is easier for me, a white American man with a secure job, than it is for many others. But then, that’s all the more reason for me to do it.

Fifty years ago, Jacques Derrida gave a lecture that would become very famous, and created a stir even as he presented it. When the talk ended, the first questioner was Jean Hyppolite, and he asked Derrida what his talk was “tending toward.” Derrida replied, “I was wondering myself if I know where I am going. So I would answer you by saying, first, that I am trying, precisely, to put myself at a point so that I do not know any longer where I am going.”"
2014  alanjacobs  education  culture  highereducation  highered  davidgraeber  whauden  rpblackmur  louisalthusser  adamkirsch  militaryindustrialcomplex  power  funding  academia  creativity  play  economics  imagination  richarddawkins  canon  corporatization  corporatism  mutualaid  peterkropotkin  homoludens  johanhuizinga  seeing  stewartendward  anniedillard  californiasundaymagazine  technology  siliconvalley  capitalism  latecapitalism  journalism  writing  jacquesderrida  jeanhyppolite  markmcgurl  context  resistance  utopia  pocketsofresistance  courage  possibility  transcontextualism  paradigmshifts  althusser 
october 2014 by robertogreco
Difficult Thinking about the Digital Humanities | SAMPLE REALITY
"Five years ago in this space I attempted what I saw as a meaningful formulation of critical thinking—as opposed to the more vapid definitions you tend to come across in higher education. Critical thinking, I wrote, “stands in opposition to facile thinking. Critical thinking is difficult thinking. Critical thinking is being comfortable with difficulty.”

Two hallmarks of difficult thinking are imagining the world from multiple perspectives and wrestling with conflicting evidence about the world. Difficult thinking faces these ambiguities head-on and even preserves them, while facile thinking strives to eliminate complexity—both the complexity of different points of view and the complexity of inconvenient facts.

Adam Kirsch’s much-discussed rejoinder to the digital humanities pivots on a follow-up post of mine, also about critical thinking. In this post—which later appeared in Debates in the Digital Humanities—I argue that most of the work we ask our students to produce is designed to eliminate ambiguity and complexity. It is ironic that Kirsch concludes my vision of difficult thinking represents nothing less than “the obsequies of humanism”—ironic because Kirsch’s piece is itself a remarkable example of facile thinking.

Others have already underscored the paranoid logic (Glen Worthey), glaring omissions (Ryan Cordell), and poor history (Tim Hitchcock) in Kirsch’s piece. You might also read Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s and Lisa Rhody’s recent Working the Digital Humanities essay in differences as a pre-emptive commentary on Kirsch. And finally, The New Republic has published a letter from the authors of Digital_Humanities, disputing Kirsch’s claims.I don’t have much more to add about the particulars of Kirsch’s essay, other than to say that I already wrote a response to it—back in 1998. (In an issue of Works and Days that focused on the scholarship of teaching with technology, which even then was “taking over” English Departments—inasmuch as faculty were using word processors instead of typewriters.)

I do have something to say about the broader context of Kirsch’s essay. It’s part of a growing body of work committed to approaching the intersection of technology and the humanities with purely facile thinking. This facile thinking ignores contradictory evidence, dismisses alternative ways of seeing, and generally places its critiques of the digital humanities in the service of some other goal having little to do with either technology or the humanities. It might be click bait for page views, it might be purely self-promotional, it might be crisis opportunism, and occasionally it’s even a sincere but misdirected criticism. For example, in the case I explored in 1998, anxieties about teaching with technology were really anxieties about teaching, full stop.

The facile thinking about the digital humanities comes from both within and without the academy. It appears on blogs and social media. It’s printed in The Chronicle of Education and Inside Higher Ed, The New York Times and Slate. It’s in scholarly journals, wrapped in the emperor’s new clothes of jargon and theory. It comes from accomplished scholars, librarians, graduate students, journalists and interns, former academics, and university administrators. In nearly every case, the accounts eliminate complexity by leaving out history, ignoring counter-examples, and—in extreme examples—insisting that any other discourse about the digital humanities is invalid because it fails to take into consideration that particular account’s perspective. Here facile thinking masterfully (yes, facile thinking can be masterful) twists the greatest strength of difficult thinking—appreciating multiple perspectives, but inevitably not all perspectives—into its fatal weakness.

In one sensible comment about Kirsch’s account of the digital humanities, Ted Underwood reminds us that we can’t govern reception of our work. We can’t control how others think or talk or write about our work. I agree, but the problem—diagnosed by Matt Kirschenbaum, again in differences—is that so often the facile thinking about the digital humanities isn’t focused on our actual work, but rather on some abstract “construct” called the digital humanities. Matt thoroughly (and with humor) dismantles this construct. But more to my observation about facile thinking here, let me add a corollary to Ted’s point about reception. And this has to do with audience. We often mistake ourselves as the audience for other people’s work. However, the intended audience for facile thinking about the digital humanities is rarely people who work at the intersection of technology and the humanities. Very often there is a third (or fourth or fifth) party involved. Whomever you think a critic of the digital humanities is addressing, there is always someone else being addressed. This doesn’t just happen in the discussions outside of the academy, like Kirsch’s essay in The New Republic. It happens when academics appear to be talking only to each other. Let’s say one digital humanist levels an inflammatory charge against another. The charge is not really directed toward the second digital humanist; it is a charge meant to resound among another audience entirely. Facile thinking about the digital humanities is a performance, not scholarship.

What we need, obviously, is more difficult thinking about the digital humanities. I’m hardly the first to call for such a thing. Alan Liu is looking for more cultural criticism in the digital humanities, while Fred Gibbs wants critical discourse in the digital humanities. I’m dissatisfied with that word “critical” and all its variations—that’s why my formulation emphasizes difficult thinking over facile thinking. In other words, I don’t care whether you’re critical or not about the digital humanities—either the construct or its actual pedagogical and scholarly work. I simply want you to practice difficult thinking. That means evidentiary-based reasoning. That means perspectives not your own. Taken together, these add up to a kind of rational empathy. Show me how rational empathy means the death knell of the humanities and I’ll gladly take over the obsequies myself."
marksample  2014  criticalthinking  difficultthinking  complexity  education  digitalhumanities  humanities  empathy  criticism  adamkirsch  glenworthey  ryancordell  timhitchcock  wendyhuikyongchun  lisarhody  mattkirschenbaum  fredgibbs 
may 2014 by robertogreco
How Has Twitter Changed the Role of the Literary Critic? -
"You’d think. And in the case of the medium’s best publishing-industry practitioners — people like Kathryn Schulz, Maud Newton, Laura Miller and Ron Charles, who marry reverence for Literature with a capital L with a breezy, personal tone — it is. But among others, I suspect there’s more at work than discomfort with the form’s limitations. It may not be a coincidence that in contrast to the shameful gender ratio endemic to so many literary publications, some of the most widely read critics on Twitter are women. One might argue that many critics’ outright dismissal of the technology is directly related to their feelings of privilege. “Some of these people don’t need to be on Twitter because they already have all the access they need,” the fiction writer and critic Roxane Gay told me."
twitter  via:robinsloan  access  writing  adamkirsch  philgyford  samuelpepys  annaholmes  jonathanfranzen  robinsloan  roxanegay 
october 2013 by robertogreco
Adam Kirsch On The Literature Of David Foster Wallace | The New Republic
"Can reading—more to the point, can writing—be a kind of drug, a distraction from an otherwise insufferable existence? Is it possible to be addicted to writing?"

"The Pale King is Wallace’s attempt to find out if fiction can sustain this kind of attention to boring, banal reality, without contracting into the solipsistic fugues of Brief Interviews or expanding into the manic inventions of Infinite Jest. In fact, Wallace only occasionally tries to make his book itself rebarbatively dull—to enact the boredom he writes about."

"His posthumous book shows that when Wallace died he was in the middle of the ordeal of purging and remaking his style. This is the kind of challenge that only the best writers set themselves. One of the many things to mourn about Wallace’s death is that we will never get to know the writer he was striving to become."
davidfosterwallace  adamkirsch  infinitejest  thepaleking  2011  books  boredom  depression  writing  reading  philosophy  reinvention 
august 2011 by robertogreco

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