The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

Sacred boundaries

Some blogs written for university presses have gotten really good, featuring excerpts worth reading even if (especially if) you have no particular interest in plunking down beaucoup bucks for a hardcover scholarly book. For instance, here’s a choice bit from classics/philosophy prof Paul Woodruff’s The Necessity of Theater, featured at the website for Oxford University Press, which looks closely at both drama and sports (those two forms of theater both American and Athenian):

Why does theater need a measured space? In order to practice the art of theater successfully, some people must be watching the actions of others. Whether your job tonight is to watch or be watched, you need to know which job is yours; the watcher-watched distinction is essential to theater. We shall see that even this can break down at the end of a theater piece, with marvelous consequences. But one of those consequences is that the event is no longer theatrical. When no one is watching, it’s not theater; it has grown into something else. Marking off space in theater is a device for meeting the need to distinguish the watcher from the watched. In most traditions there is a circle or a stage or sanctuary or a playing field…

“Sacred” is a word we have almost lost in modern times, like “reverence,” to which it is related in meaning. Sacred things and places call us to reverence, as to do sacred timed like the Sabbath; perhaps in out own century we are too alert to the dangers of idolatry to recognize that we are, still, surrounded by what we wordlessly take to be sacred. And Christians have come more and more to neglect the Sabbath. Like reverence, the sacred is best known in religious contexts, but, if we are to recognize it now, we must looked for it also in the secular world, such as the football field. I will say that a place for an object or person is sacred if it is held to be untouchable except by people who are marked off, usually by ritual, so as to be allowed to touch it.

What makes theater sacred? Ritual, or a tradition based on ritual, defines the space and calls for penalties against those who violate it. All theater, football games and Antigone included, is the heir of a long line of spaces made sacred for religious ritual. Sometimes the space is permanently scared, like the adyton, the un-enterable room in an old Greek temple. Sometimes it is sacred for the time of the event, and the boundaries of time and place work together. So it is with the stage, after a performance of Hamlet, if you are invited as a sponsor to a reception with the cast on the set. Nothing wrong now with setting foot on this space (although, if the performance was good, I dare you to step on the stage afterward without a shiver.) So it is also with a trial at law. For the time of the trial the courtroom theater is sacred and may be entered only designated people and used only according to certain rules.

Which leads me to question another kind of reverence at play here: why do these wry observations need to be in a book-length work, a monograph, for them to be taken seriously?

Let me back up. Before I read Woodruff’s excerpt, I also read Rohan Amanda Maitzen’s look at academic publishing over at The Valve, which includes 1) laments that nobody buys academic monographs, and 2) wonderment that blogs don’t seem to have really affected either the purchasing or accreditation habits of academics much.

Not everything in Maitzen’s post is in her voice, but it’s a good round-up — for instance, here she quotes Cathy Davidson:

If we believe in what we do (and I happen to be a believer), we should be writing for readers, first of all, and, second, we should be reading one another’s work and, third, we should be teaching it. Right now, a sale of 300 or 400 copies of a monograph is a lot. That’s appalling. The result, materially, is that we do not pay our own way and certainly not that of junior members of our profession. Intellectually, our students never learn the value the genre of the monograph because we teach excerpts in our courses, even our graduate courses. We do not teach the kind of extended, nuanced thinking that goes into the genre that our very graduate students will have to produce for tenure. We say the scholarly monograph represents the epitome of our profession and a hurdle to “lifetime employment” at a research university. So we do not practice what we preach, adding to the crisis in scholarly publishing and the crisis in the profession of English in particular.

Now, note that slippage: the need for “extended, nuanced thinking” actually turns out to be material primarily because it’s required for tenure. Monographs remain absolutely essential to the legitimation rituals of academia (especially the PhD and tenure), even as they’ve diminished in importance for readers both in and out of the scholarly spheres. They’re only important at designating who gets to go inside the temple. They don’t do anything to maintain the relationship with the audience.

This is something I wrestle with in my mind frequently — when is a “book” necessary? particularly as a “work” is now more frequently coming to mean an ongoing project composed of many, many individual pieces of writing, which are extended and nuanced and interlinked but frequently not a single thing with a clearly defined architecture.

In short, the book is not always necessary. In fact, it sometimes isn’t even a book.

But when it is, it should be one deliberately — not merely to invoke a ritual of time or space or authorship, but to genuinely fulfill all of those demands. As Mallarmé would say, the book should attempt the impossible and abolish chance. How can we do that? Where do we begin?


The endless end of the book

Most of my favorite quotes in Derrida’s Paper Machine come from the first full chapter, “The Book To Come.” (The title is also the title of a book by Maurice Blanchot, and a chapter in that book, which is largely about the poet Stéphane Mallarmé.) Samples:

A question trembling all over, not only with that which disturbs the historical sense of what we still call a book, but also with what the expression to come might imply—namely more than one thing, at least three things:

1. That the book as such has—or doesn’t have—a future, now that electronic and virtual incorporation, the screen and the keyboard, online transmission, and numerical composition seem to be dislodging or supplementing the codex (that gathering of a pile of pages bound together, the current form of what we generally call a book such that it can be opened, put on a table, or held in the hands). The codex had itself supplanted the volume, the volumen, the scroll. It had supplanted it without making it disappear, I should stress. For what we are dealing with is never replacements that put an end to what they replace but rather, if I might use this word today, restructurations in which the oldest form survives, and even survives endlessly, coexisting with the new form and even coming to terms with a new economy—which is also a calculation in terms of the market as well as in terms of storage, capital, and reserves.

2. That if it has a future, the book to come will no longer be what it was.

3. That we are awaiting or hoping for an other book, a book to come that will transfigure or even rescue the book from the shipwreck that is happening at present.

This – especially the first part – is one of my favorite moves, that of the LONG historical perspective, coupled with that critical sensibility, borrowed from Ferdinand de Saussure’s structuralist linguistics, that multiple terms coexist but change and shift in their relative values and significance as they jostle against one another. Linguistic change is never a straight substitution, but a high-friction accomodation to the new. In fact, so is most cultural change — the distinction isn’t between live and dead, or even (entirely) high and low, but between forms that are residual, dominant, or emerging.

But this position, which could just make for a tidy deflation — we’ve seen all of this before — is joined to an acknowledgement that what we are experiencing is a shipwreck. It’s just not (or at least not only) the shipwreck we think it is:

Now what is happening today, what looks like being the very form of the book’s to-come, still as the book, is on the one hand, beyond the closure of the book, the disruption, the dislocation, the disjunction, the dissemination with no possible gathering, the irreversible dispersion of this total codex (not its disappearance but its marginalization or secondarization, in ways we will have to come back to); but simultaneously, on the other hand, a constant reinvestment in the book project, in the book of the world or the world book, in the absolute book (this is why I also described the end of the book as interminable or endless), the new space of writing and reading in electronic writing, traveling at top speed from one spot on the globe to another, and linking together, beyond frontiers and copyrights, not only citizens of the world on the universal network of a potential universitas, but also any reader as a writer, potential or virtual or whatever. That revives a desire, the same desire. It re-creates the temptation that is figured by the World Wide Web as the ubiquitous Book finally reconstituted, the book of God, the great book of Nature, or the World Book finally achieved in its onto-theological dream, even though what it does is to repeat the end of
that book as to-come.

These are two fantasmatic limits of the book to come, two extreme, final, eschatic figures of the end of the book, the end as death, or the end as telos or achievement. We must take seriously these two fantasies; what’s more they are what makes writing and reading happen. They remain as irreducible as the two big ideas of the book, of the book both as the unit of a material support in the world, and as the unity of a work or unit of discourse (a book in the book). But we should also perhaps wake up to the necessity that goes along with these fantasies.

Two fantasies! Both generative! Both probably unavoidable!

This is why Derrida is so good.


In Case You Missed It

Does the Brain Like E-Books?” sounds and reads too much like a Snarkmarket original to be ignored. I like this bit from my friend and almost-colleague (if I had locked down that UCSB job) Alan Liu:

Initially, any new information medium seems to degrade reading because it disturbs the balance between focal and peripheral attention. This was true as early as the invention of writing, which Plato complained hollowed out focal memory. Similarly, William Wordsworth’s sister complained that he wasted his mind in the newspapers of the day. It takes time and adaptation before a balance can be restored, not just in the “mentality” of the reader, as historians of the book like to say, but in the social systems that complete the reading environment.

Right now, networked digital media do a poor job of balancing focal and peripheral attention. We swing between two kinds of bad reading. We suffer tunnel vision, as when reading a single page, paragraph, or even “keyword in context” without an organized sense of the whole. Or we suffer marginal distraction, as when feeds or blogrolls in the margin (”sidebar”) of a blog let the whole blogosphere in.

And I adore this closer look at the cognitive implications of reading, as relayed by Jonah Lehrer:

I think one of the most interesting findings regarding literacy and the human cortex is the fact that there are actually two distinct pathways activated by the sight of letters. (The brain is stuffed full of redundancies.) As the lab of Stanislas Dehaene has found, when people are reading “routinized, familiar passages” a part of the brain known as the visual word form area (VWFA, or the ventral pathway) is activated. This pathway processes letters and words in parallel, allowing us to read quickly and effortlessly. It’s the pathway that literate readers almost always rely upon.

But Dehaene and colleagues have also found a second reading pathway in the brain, which is activated when we’re reading prose that is “unfamiliar”. (The scientists trigger this effect in a variety of ways, such as rotating the letters, or using a hard to read font, or filling the prose with obscure words.) As expected, when the words were more degraded or unusual, subjects took longer to comprehend them. By studying this process in an fMRI machine, Dehaene could see why: reading text that was highly degraded or presented in an unusual fashion meant that we relied on a completely different neural route, known as the dorsal reading pathway. Although scientists had previously assumed that the dorsal route ceased to be active once we learned how to read, Deheane’s research demonstrates that even literate adults still rely, in some situations, on the same patterns of brain activity as a first-grader, carefully sounding out the syllables.

That’s right — Mallarmé’s “Un coup de dés” actually pushes through to a different part of your brain — because it taps into new graphic possibilities, as well as semantic (and syntactic) ones. And that, my friends, is poetry — i.e. “language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.”

Or it is, so long as we keep making it new:

The larger point is that most complaints about E-Books and Kindle apps boil down to a single problem: they don’t feel as “effortless” or “automatic” as old-fashioned books. But here’s the wonderful thing about the human brain: give it a little time and practice and it can make just about anything automatic. We excel at developing new habits. Before long, digital ink will feel just as easy as actual ink.

Or today’s graphic avant-garde will feel as easy as tomorrow’s MOR pleasures.

Think about a newspaper – so much potential for marginal distraction! All those graphic collisions of text upon itself, with pictures and advertisements and such, in tiny type and held in an unusual bodily orientation. Then they added color! In the nineteenth century, the newspaper was a sensory onslaught akin to watching the commercials surrounding Saturday morning cartoons. Now, it’s straightforward, orderly — even stately.

There’s a great, probably unintentional allegory of this transformation in Citizen Kane. It plays out as the fossilization of a marriage, and the crystallization of Kane’s political intentions – moving from anarchic gadfly to demagogic gubernatorial candidate – but it’s also about the normalization (and neutralization) of newspaper reading. It goes from marginal distraction to tunnel vision, and in just six moves.

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