David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: academia (page 4 of 4)

Crisis on Infinite Websites/Campuses!

Ray at Bellona Times presents us with an inspiring vision:

For the type of webloggers I read, the comparison that matters — the comparison that decides the value of what they’re doing — isn’t their hit count vs. the largest hit count on the web. What matters is their hit count vs. the number of readers they would have if they printed on paper (or not at all).

–to which Wealth Bondage responds:

Blogs? The deal, I think, is this: I will pretend to read your crap; if you will pretend to read mine.

It’s two sides of the same coin really, since I’ve felt both sentiments (though hardly as wittily) on alternating days. But Ray mentions academia specifically, and the large amount of books printed up in editions of 500, or 200, to be shelved at an equal number of libraries and consulted only ever after for futher dissertations.

Much of the stuff coming out of literary academia in the last twenty years, give or take ten, would be, if self-published in pamphlet form, be branded the work of cranks. This is not to comment on its quality or worth; it is simply a statement about the sort of internal validation arcane, “technical” writing needs to gain credibility. When it’s said that of course a layman couldn’t understand Fredric Jameson, and two or three years of being a teacher’s assistant is necessary to get it, there are two possibilities: one, that like neurobiology or electrical engineering, modern language theory is a well-founded discipline that has grown from a foundation of concrete; or two, that its validation is purely internal.

It might be presumptuous to make this observation if the speakers at the MLA weren’t alluding to the same thing. The New York Observer takes far too much pleasure in reporting the dire state of the academy that rejected most of the paper’s writers, and they fail to notice that what MLA President Stephen Greenblatt says–

We need to remind ourselves and gesture toward the fact that this is not an esoteric private club. It’s as big as the people riding on the subways with their noses in books, or at home watching television shows. Our culture is saturated with the making and consuming of stories.

–is not so different than what ex-MLA President Elaine Showalter said a few years prior to that, when she suggested that graduate students in literature be able to use their training for non-academic jobs (i.e., not to do the thing with your graduate education that you couldn’t do without it). Both Showalter and Greenblatt explicitly undermine past defenses of the most obscure work produced by their establishment, and it at least indicates a coming crisis.

What it points to, specifically, is an upcoming point at which the judgment of work will be so disciminatory as to rule out all but obvious geniuses or trend-setters. You can see it happening if, as the article suggests, academic presses cut down on the number of lit crit books published to the extent that it’s no longer possible to differentiate between the gray masses of non-genius Ph.D.’s. If this stage is reached, where we’re at now will look like an interim stage. Things may turn decisively commercial, with the classic gentleman’s club of criticism so beloved by the old white men who prospered in it continuing in drastically diminished form, and the more fashionable theory disciplines generating something not too far off from market research. Since everything is a text anyway, it’s not hard to see Ph.D.’s analyzing websites and magazines and producing area-targeted follow-ups of Growing Up Digital. Franco Moretti (read the review, it’s quite good) has already analyzed the causes of the popularity of books of the past; why not take it into the future, where it’ll be useful?

Assuming such a switchover happens, the arcane work, or what’s left of it, has to move somewhere, and people including Stephen Greenblatt are already suggesting the web. In the absence of a silver bullet that preserves a prestige publishing industry at low cost, that’s what will probably happen. At that point, the web, previously home to popularizations, incomplete understandings, and well-ground axes, will bulk up with some of the most incomprehensible writing imaginable, and their audience will be, at the end of the day, about as big as it was before. The point being that the current state of affairs, where the literary establishment publishes incomprehensible technical work and the web is home to chatty, colloquial correspondents, is unsustainable, and substantively speaking, the situation will probably invert before it stabilizes.

Would You Call Edsger Dijkstra “Popular”?

Paul Ford discusses the nameless obscurity of software designers, and some exceptions to the rule:

A few authors of software do not remain faceless, like Richard Stallman, who created the Emacs text editor and the GCC compiler, Donald Knuth, who created TeX, Larry Wall, the developer of Perl, or Guido von Rossum, the developer of Python. Most of these men (always men!) did their work below the interface, as designers of languages and systems, creators of tools that allow creation. To write a language, to abstract the computing process into a fundamental sequence of tokens which will be internalized and applied by others, is an individual act; thousands may add libraries, but Python is still Guido, Perl is still Larry, Emacs is RMS, and TeX is Knuth. The experts of abstraction who are able to catch into some zeitgeist do not lose their identities as their products become popular; their faces are not replaced by buttons. They exist in a textual realm of code, as authors of fundamental texts.

I would go further and argue that these exceptions have very little to do with the nature of what these people worked on and more to do with the cults of personality generated by the internet, and more specifically, the open-source movement. In its day, VisiCalc was a force majeure amongst software, in large part giving people a reason to buy the $3000 3.77 MHz IBM PC, and making its authors Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston minor demigods. The restrictions on size and function of software made it much easier for people to singlehandedly code revolutionary, or even just useful projects. He may not have changed the world, but Bert Kersey of Beagle Bros will remain a more meaningful name to me than any of the authors of the Top Ten Algorithms, if only for the cool PEEK and POKE chart for Applesoft Basic that he included in his packaging.

Even at that time, there was a split between the obsessive hobbyists like Kersey and even Bricklin and Frankston, and the DARPA-funded academic work that was used in constructing and running ARPANET. Jon Postel, nominal leader of the TCP/IP design effort, and the group he led have undoubtedly had more of a technical impact, but that hasn’t exactly translated into “popularity.” (To paraphrase an old saying, “Would you call God popular?”) Certainly at the time, Bricklin and Frankston had a much greater cultural impact, but they were playing a different game with different rules for fame. Standards efforts like TCP/IP, then and now, do not generate celebrities, but they do occasionally help to produce the zeitgeist, rather than just catch it. The same could be said for a research project like NCSA Mosaic, which had the biggest breakout since ARPANET.

Ford relates fame to the type of code at issue. Ford gives a fairly heterogeneous set of examples. Consider:

(1) Python is a clean object-oriented scripting language that takes some of the better ideas from some heavy-duty lower-level languages and puts them into a useful package.
(2) Perl is a huge mishmash of several earlier scripting languages (awk, sed, and assorted Unix shells). It may be, in the words of a professor, “the worst designed language ever,” but it’s very, very useful for text processing, among other things. Wall gave the people what they wanted, and who cares if the seams show?
(3) Emacs is a super-powerful text editor that contains its own implementation of LISP and can (and has) be extended to do just about anything. For Unix junkies, however, it has yet to fully supplant lean-and-mean text editor vi.
(4) TeX is a markup language that allows for detailed formatting of documents and can be compiled into Postscript, etc. It is the standard in academia for computer science papers.

Yet their authors do have a kind of celebrity, Stallman and Wall in particular. But their fame seems directly to the extent to which they are involved in the hobbyist side of the equation. Even Knuth sunk far more effort and time into supporting and promoting TeX than a computer science professor committed to an authoritative seven-volume history of computer algorithms could ever be expected to do. Likewise with Wall, who got out there and sold (metaphorically speaking) and supported Perl in a way that the authors of sed and awk never had. It makes them culturally significant, but they also run the risk of becoming more famous, less hermetic versions of the forgotten figures of Steven Levy’s Hackers, a weird, weird book that deserves an entry of its own for its uneasy combination of geek worship and technological revolution. These people have indeed wrestled the zeitgeist, but their code, for the most part, is not fundamental: it is ephemerally contemporary.

The situation puts authors of algorithms and low-level abstractions like assemblers in a bad spot, since they can’t really “sell” their work. The easiest way, it seems, is to work your name in somewhere. Academic decorum prevented Anthony Hoare from calling top-ten algorithm quicksort “Hoaresort,” but Linus Torvalds has most of his name in Linux, and though the kernel is a tiny percentage of the code, the OS will always be identified with him. It’s a funny sort of fame though, since all I know about the authors of the Lempel-Ziv-Welch (LZW) compression algorithm is that their names are Lempel, Ziv, and Welch.

Richard Rorty: You were asking me what the definition of irony was…

onegoodmove gives us a dose of Richard Rorty (thanks to wood s lot once more):

[In my utopia:] High culture will no longer be thought of as the place where the aim of the society as a whole is debated and decided, and where it is a matter of social concern which sort of intellectual is ruling the roost. Nor will there be much concern about the gap that yawns between popular culture, the culture of people who have never felt the need for redemption, and the high culture of the intellectuals: the people who are always wanting to be something more or different than they presently are. In utopia, the religious or philosophical need to live up to the non-human, and the need of the literary intellectuals to explore the present limits of the human imagination will be viewed as matters of taste. They will be viewed by non-intellectuals in the same relaxed, tolerant and uncomprehending way that we presently regard our neighbor’s obsession with birdwatching, or macrame, or collecting hubcaps, or discovering the secrets of the Great Pyramid.

My response is the following series of topics for entries/essays that I will never get around to writing:

(1) Rorty embraces a populism that would render him (but also all his fellow academics) fully irrelevant, the same populism that Dwight Macdonald repellently but honestly scoffed at half a century ago in “Masscult and Midcult.”

(2) Rorty by his own admission takes John Dewey as a model. But is his worship of Dewey based on what Dewey thought or what he was: influential. Ideologically, Rorty should be aligned with the less sophisticated, inchoate thinker Randolph Bourne, who in all his pacifist dogmatism looks better in retrospect on World War I than Dewey. Bourne said:

Professor Dewey has become impatient at the merely good and merely conscientious objectors to war who do not attach their conscience and intelligence to forces moving in another direction. But in wartime there are literally no valid forces moving in another direction. War determines its own end,–victory, and government crushes out automatically all forces that deflect, or threaten to deflect, energy from the path of organization to that end…A good many people still seem to believe in a peculiar kind of democratic and antiseptic war. The pacifists opposed the war because they knew this was an illusion.

Bourne, “A War Diary”

(3) A few years back, Rorty wrote Achieving Our Country, a hundred-page book conspicuously architected for mass consumption. George Will insulted it in Time. The Wall Street Journal liked it for its trashing of dissociative leftist academia. The book flopped.

(4) Rorty presents himself as the mediator between disparate schools of philosophy, but he has avoided steps towards organizing a consensus to the point of being ostracized.

(5) Rorty’s epistemology is a rather non-pragmatic, pluralistic approach to coexistence of contradictory mindsets. Far from Dewey and farther from Peirce, it bears some resemblance to the ethical studies of Alastair MacIntyre, which are tied up in the establishment of a pluralistic set of good lifestyles that eliminate the need for ethical rules. In Rorty’s version as well as MacIntyre’s, the pluralism is a Burkean conservative notion, because it prescribes behavior rather than ethics.

(6) His eliminative materialistic mind/body stance is similar to those of Paul Feyerabend and Daniel Dennett, even though he has nearly nothing else in common with them. He shares their strategy of wanting to end up in a certain place and moving the logical leaps around to make it appear as though he’s gotten there. The problem is that his examples yield idealism as easily as they do materialism.

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