I have been reorganising hard drives and the like and came across this article I wrote on 28 January 2002, in Mexico City, for Mexican electronic music and culture magazine Urbe 01. I have copied and pasted it below under the photograph. The dedication to Manrico was in the original.
La “escucha” del deejay
Para Manrico Montero
“Tenemos hoy por evidencia que no hay arte sin oficio, la actividad artística es irreductible a una actividad mecánica […] Existe obra de arte cuando el instrumento se olvida, supera, casi se escamotea, en bien del gesto inspirado, imprevisible…”
-Régis Debray (2000)
El deejay es sin duda una de las figuras protagónicas de las escenas artísticas de la actualidad. Desde los 70, un progresivo develamiento de esta otrora oscura figura ha devenido en su conversión al stardom, que así como construye ídolos populares al instante también puede derrocarlos en incluso menos tiempo. Hasta hace poco la labor del deejay era motivo de cuchicheos y miradas de reojo: a ciencia cierta, pocos sabían lo que sucedía detrás y sobre ese par de tornamesas.
Ahora, las urbes más vanguardistas del mundo hospedan fiestas donde cada deejay es sujeto de atenta vigilancia de connoisseurs de brazos cruzados que no dejan escapar el más leve cuatrapeo, que reconocen los tracks de incluso los white labels más extraños y que valoran y evalúan el discurso personal de cada montadiscos siguiendo complejos criterios especializados. Cada vez es más común presenciar un par de tornamesas y una mezcladora en museos y galerías dedicadas al arte contemporáneo, las revistas de música y cultura popular les dedican sus portadas, los nombres más famosos viajan en avión de una fiesta a otra la misma noche o trabajan en cabinas diseñadas con materiales preciosos bajo pedido de sus a veces sobrevalorados usuarios.
Sería pues anacrónico pretender explicar en estos tiempos la importancia de la labor, el oficio, el arte del deejaying: a estas alturas, pensaríamos que aquellos días oscuros en que se le consideraba una actividad parasitaria para subnormales ha sido trascendida. (Recordemos, como muestra, el grito de guerra morrisseyano característico de los ochenta sobre la intrascendente superficialidad del dj –hang the deejay– así como las duras críticas del punk de la primera mitad de los noventa que acusaban la pusilánime volubilidad de los que gustosos danzaban al beat del sonido disco –you’ll dance to anything). Sin embargo, creemos necesario hacer una crítica de lo que se ha denominado overhyping: sólo un análisis de lo que aporta cultural, social, política y artísticamente la labor del deejay podrá permitirnos reconocer cuándo su apreciación consiste en una justa valoración de sus aportaciones y cuándo, simplemente, en una vulgar campaña publicitaria generalizada que ha visto en esta actividad una forma más de sacarle dinero a los incautos.
Urge preguntarse por qué, a nivel mundial, se considera que ciertos deejays, y no otros, resultan “los mejores”, y por qué, en algunos casos, se les ha construido cultos a la personalidad muy similares a los que anteriormente gozaban los grupos de rock. Para poder responder esta pregunta, habrá que re-plantearse primero qué es lo que hace un deejay. Si, técnicamente, lo que hace un deejay es re-estructurar piezas de discurso previamente estructuradas por terceros o en muchos casos por sí mismo (es decir, discos de acetato) en un discurso mayor mediante su reorganización a través de la mezcla o superposición de patrones rítmicos y melódicos de muchas fuentes sonoras distintas, (es decir, un set) ¿cómo valorar su trabajo? ¿Cómo reconocer la diferencia, por ejemplo, entre dos disc jockeys que, hipotéticamente, trabajen con exactamente los mismos discos?
Quisiéramos plantear aquí lo que llamaremos “la escucha” del deejay (así como en la fotografía nos referimos a “la mirada” del fotógrafo). Así como saber oprimir el obturador, revelar e imprimir no hace al fotógrafo, saber empalmar beats no hace al deejay. El set de un deejay como obra de arte tendría, casi, que olvidarse de su instrumento, trascender la técnica. Entonces, ¿en qué radicaría “la escucha” del deejay, su “gesto inspirado”?
“The Oxford English Dictionary includes two forms of the word: the adjective “aporetic”, which it defines as “to be at a loss”, “impassable”, and “inclined to doubt, or to raise objections”; and the noun form “aporia”, which it defines as the “state of the aporetic” and “a perplexity or difficulty”.”
One immediately wants to write something. One also feels lost for words. We used to be, as humanity, ‘lost for words’ when facing something unspeakable, because it had not been said before. There were no words for it because it exceeded the limits of our understanding, of current and previous systems of belief. That for which we had no words for was unknown and unknowable. And now, words flow. Please bear with me.
Tragically, incidents like the Manchester Arena attack are no longer ‘new’. Steadily, mostly thanks to the almost immediate global mass dissemination of information, we already have a discourse and therefore a vocabulary of reaction. Online and on print, everyone feeds from incidents ‘like this’ (language is a minefield). Organizations, communities and individuals struggle to make sense of our own being in the world by becoming present through utterances. We say/write/post, therefore we exist. There should be no doubt that many of the reactions are in good faith, as an expression of humanity. Extending one’s hand for a handshake or an embrace.
There is also, however, a negative side. It is the ongoing feeding of fear, the promotion of the terror that through loopy repetition gets ingrained in our minds. The effects are double: the terror is widely known, in detail, and impossible to ignore, changing society at its core, but the terror also gets normalised, and therefore muted. Multiplicity of sources, angles, opinions create confusion. So better to look away, focus on what keeps our lives ‘normal’. Just another day on Planet Earth. Carry on, nothing to see here. This is the effect we should try more actively to avoid, but how? As usual when I write, I am aware that this very post is contributing to the problematic phenomenon I am trying to make sense of by writing. This is why I think we have in front of us an aporia, a perplexing problem which is or seems impossible for us to crack.
The world today avoids problematic situations. The term ‘problematic’ is indeed now every sociologist’s and academic’s cliché. In the English-speaking tradition, practical solutions through practicable methods and measurable solutions are preferred to the Romance languages’ preference for the essay that by definition attempts or rehearses an approach around a problem. Essaying is ‘problematising’, but this is incredibly frustrating when there is a pressing need to just get on with things and face what cannot be avoided and requires a ‘solution‘. As soon as we use that word, however, echoes of the unspeakable come back to haunt us, sometimes consciously, sometimes not.
In times of alarm and pain, there is a responsibility in saying as much as there is a responsibility in not saying. Knowing when and how to participate online is a skill to be developed, individually, as communities, societies and cultures. I am motivated to write by the following questions/writing this has made me think of these questions:
When everyone with a social media account contributes to the infosphere in which we are immersed in, how do we balance the need to say, to participate in society, while being aware of how each of us may be contributing to the steady deterioration and erosion of public discourse?
What are the effects that our postings have on others, and can we ever fully have control over these possible effects?
How do we build ‘healthy’ networks of support, online and offline, without alienating others who are also at the producing-and-receiving end of the information flow?
Obviously I have no answers to these questions.
Many respectable folk have written about the ethics of storytelling and the need to actively resist the horror through art and documentation.* This documentation will one day be the testament of our era, an immense archive of humanity’s consciousness, spoken out loud. Social media today replicates many of the bad practices of the mainstream media (in the UK, the tabloid press has a lot to answer for), and we must look into the role that the pervasive broadcasting of information has on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Victims and affected communities are vulnerable and in pain, and constant semi-immersive and excessive broadcasting can contribute and exacerbate the pain, as well as the social divisions that make extremism thrive.
At present, however, the way we live rarely allows us to stop and reflect, and more importantly, to listen to each other. Issues on international mainstream news that affect us all are constantly considered outside the limits of professional practice, regardless of what we may do for a living, and the pragmatism of everyday survival trumps more considered attempts to prioritise the building of relationships, a commons of solidarity and understanding (and also respectful disagreement) seeking to build and maintain the public good. We mute accounts tweeting and retweeting the hashtag or event du jour. We lament not more young people even register to vote, but we have embraced politics (and the social consequences of politics) as a form of entertainment. At most, we have allowed most political ‘engagement’ to become a version of Gogglebox. In our everyday lives, we walk away from all the chatter to remain sane and to focus. We cannot deal with so much and get back to our work, and the clamour ‘outside’ overshadows the individual tragedies and issues, becoming pure noise and fury. In the age in which methods of production of information have been made widely available to the masses, actual resistance, we know well, has been almost completely deactivated.
And so we ‘carry on’, we tell ourselves, but the problems remain, and the need to share, to make sense of it all still somehow remains as well. Whether it is murdered journalists in Mexico or teenagers in a pop concert in Manchester, the terror is real. People are suffering right now. Attacks, victims are not mere metrics, nor ‘content’, nor objects of study. Incidents like the Manchester Arena attack are no longer ‘new’, we said, but each death and the pain of each parent, relative, friend, fellow citizen, human being is absolutely unique. The tragedy is never repeatable, it is absolute uniqueness, and this is what makes it so utterly painful, shocking, and perplexing.
As the crowds pour their thoughts and pain online, this is paradoxically a crucial moment to reconsider our understanding of the meaning of ‘engagement’. As algorithmic relevance defines concrete realities and the attention economy becomes so fierce that most people are seen but not heard, the temptation is to back off and walk away in silence. This seems to me to be exactly what those seeking to terrorise want. For us to hide, to close up, to not go out, to not be together. For us to forget who we are and what makes us human.
As I worked on this interview, and once it was published as I shared it, I was visited by fears that it did not matter, that it made no difference. Friends ironically, jokingly, said they would share it with friends who couldn’t care less. Friends and family directly affected by the situation documented in the article reacted to it with distance. I could literally touch the fear. I was aware that in my ability to translate it into English I was already exercising a privilege not altogether disconnected from the inequality that is one of the causes of the horrors I was trying to document. I was also aware of my distance from the events, even if I feel very close to them. The alternative, not to do anything, not to at least try to contribute to avoiding the complicitous silence denounced by the interviewee did not seem to me like an option. I had to face the contradictions.
There is the feeling that there is already enough information out there, and that therefore we don’t need anyone else’s contribution. So much information is perceived as an ‘excess’, and its effect is to alienate us and disempower us. The point is precisely to make us feel like nothing we can do really matters – and if it matters it does for different reasons to the message conveyed- because it brings some kind of capital to the author, or because it provides authors with a sense of identity, of singularity or importance in a world where it is harder and harder to stand out. Black Mirrorstuff.
This is an important part of this aporetic nature of being online and being a citizen: how to balance the rights of individual expression with the need to consider the effects it has on others given the current infrastructures for communication and the discourse they enable, encourage and actively produce. Terrorism and mass social media have something in common: one of their side effects is to make individuals and communities feel like there’s nothing they can do to make a difference, that no resistance is likely to make a difference, that no awareness or documentation of the terror will stop the pain.
I said I felt lost for words, and now I’ve written more than 1500 words. The irony is painful and awareness has its limitations.
To be honest I don’t know how to end this post. I just want to resist repressing the grief and the concern. I want to think there are still ways we can share our feelings, report on what we believe deserves to be known, and be active part of our communities.
The logic of Terrorism and the commodification of all human communication, of human pain, packaged as ‘content’, cannot triumph, even if our humble means to resist it are always-already the same tools used to advance it. It’s perhaps a question of remembering the precious singularity, the absolute uniqueness of each human being in this world.
The tragic situation that Mexican journalism iexemplifies a level of impunity that no degree of mass media coverage or social media engagement seems to be able to deter. However, as Valdez put it, “the truth must be told”, and remaining silent is being complicit.
I translated the interview into English because I think it offers insights into what motivated Valdez and that it’s important that English-speaking readers learn more about his life, work and commitment to journalism.
It won’t take you long to read it if you click on the link. If you do, thank you.
“All that the sharpest Critics of democracy have alleged is true, if there is no steady supply of trustworthy and relevant news. Incompetence and aimless-ness, corruption and disloyalty, panic and ultimate disaster must come to any people which is denied an assured access to the facts.”
-Walter Lippmann, . Liberty and the News. Princeton, Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2008.
If you are reading this you are very likely to know that Oxford Dictionaries ‘declared “post-truth” as its 2016 international word of the year’. According to the BBC, the OED defines ‘post-truth’ as ‘an adjective relating to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals.’
What most media coverage has not necessarily said is that it was blogger David Roberts who popularised the term; in his blog post titled ‘Post-Truth Politics’, published with dateline of April 1st 2010 (the permalink indicates March 30th 2010) , Roberts wrote:
We live in post-truth politics: a political culture in which politics (public opinion and media narratives) have become almost entirely disconnected from policy (the substance of legislation) (Roberts 2010).
For Roberts, no matter what Democrats did or proposed, Republicans met it “with maximal, united opposition, criticizing it as socialism, tyranny, or appeasement”. This described, indeed, the impossibility of changing perceptions with evidence and to have evidence-based policy.
Since then, the term has escaped the immediate context of US politics to be as widely adopted as ‘filter bubble’. In the UK, ‘post-truth’ was a popular term amongst pundits trying to make sense of the Brexit Referendum before and after it became a reality. In the December 2016 issue of Political Insight [£], Jane Suiter, Director of the Institute of Future Media and Journalism at Dublin City University, defined ‘post-truth politics’ as
where appeals to emotion are dominant and factual rebuttals or fact checks are ignored on the basis that they are mere assertions (Suiter, Political Insight 2016:25).
The announcement from the OED has been made public only 7 days after the result of the US election was confirmed. In a post titled ‘Donald Trump Won Because of Facebook’ (Select All, NYMag, November 9 2016), Max Read wrote:
The most obvious way in which Facebook enabled a Trump victory has been its inability (or refusal) to address the problem of hoax or fake news. Fake news is not a problem unique to Facebook, but Facebook’s enormous audience, and the mechanisms of distribution on which the site relies — i.e., the emotionally charged activity of sharing, and the show-me-more-like-this feedback loop of the news feed algorithm — makes it the only site to support a genuinely lucrative market in which shady publishers arbitrage traffic by enticing people off of Facebook and onto ad-festooned websites, using stories that are alternately made up, incorrect, exaggerated beyond all relationship to truth, or all three (Read 2016).
As we can see the OED’s announcement couldn’t have had better timing. Though ‘post-truth’ and the proliferation of fake news on a massive social network like Facebook are two distinct yet related phenomena, it seems to me it is essential for Higher Education, and particularly academic publishing, to reflect on its own role within a culture where, to quote Suiter again, ‘appeals to emotion are dominant and factual rebuttals or fact checks are ignored on the basis that they are mere assertions.’
In the final three months of the US presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News, and others.
Visualised in chart the difference in engagement looks like this:
This is, of course, any teacher’s or librarian’s worst nightmare (some parents are worried too). In the last few days, there’s been an endless series of opinion pieces on ‘post-truth’ in relation to the issue of ‘fake news’ on Facebook and the latter’s role in the outcome of the US election. As I write this, many of these pieces keep appearing in an ongoing basis and it’s hard to keep up. Some have even come from Higher Education and scholarly publishing trenches. Andy Smith, for example, does a good job at outlining recent significant developments contributing to a demise of appreciation for expertise. Clever Library and Information Science scholars have pointed out the importance of critical information literacy and the role that libraries can play in this context.
What I perceive to be lacking in some of these pieces, however, is a willingness to recognise, or at least hypothesise more auto-critically, the role that higher education, and particularly scholarly publishing, has or may have played in contributing to the state of affairs perceived to be caused by ‘post-truth’ politics (with the ‘filter bubble’ and algorithmic relevance and ‘fake’ news at its core). The higher education perspective is justifiably shocked at the lack of appreciation for expertise, critical thinking and evidence-led decision-making. It is interesting however that ‘post-truth’ politics have come to be equated with the lack of appreciation (access, consumption, use and reuse) for trustworthy information, represented paradigmatically by the ‘fake’ news on Facebook.
I am interested in how the term ‘truth’ has been interpreted as an objective value, the extreme opposite to what is ‘fake’. From a journalistic perspective, ‘truth’ seems to be the one produced by ‘mainstream news’. One needs not to be into conspiracy theories to recall the work Walter Lippmann did in the 1920s, when he demonstrated serious flaws and bias in information systems, particularly in the authoritative New York Times. From an academic perspective, the ‘truth’ in ‘post-truth’ seems to be the one defined by scientific discourse. Though Michel Foucault’s theorising of the term ‘truth’ changed over the years and sometimes within the same text, it’s hard not to want to go back to the interview titled The political function of the intellectual (1976), where Foucault defines ‘truth’ as
“a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation and functioning of statements […linked] by a circular relation to systems of power which produce it and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which redirect it” (Foucault 1976: 113-114; 14).
Foucault identifies as a key political problem the need to transform the “political, economic, institutional regime of the production of truth” to develop a new “politics of truth.” The need to change this “regime of the production of truth” would imply a transformation of the “system of ordered procedures” and the “circular relation to systems of power which produce and sustain it”.
I believe the higher education sector and scholarly publishing, as one of its main mechanisms for the dissemination of scientific, peer-reviewed, trustworthy information, has failed to adapt to the current (no longer new) information ecosystem. In other words, in spite of strong and sustained efforts towards opening access, scholarly publishing has been more preoccupied with the preservation of its own relatively privileged existence and has avoided to systematically engage in transforming or even intervening in a public politics of ‘truth’. Public opinion does not have the same dynamics today than in the 1920s, but Lippmann and Merz’s assessment that “a sound public opinion cannot exist without access to the news” remains relevant today (Lippmann and Merz, 1920: 1).
In Liberty and the News, Lippmann argued that the crisis of democracy was a consequence of the crisis of journalism, which was unable to fulfill its duties properly. For the 21st century, it seems to me we urgently need more academic research into how ‘post-truth politics’, as a crisis of democracy, has also been a consequence of an academic publishing crisis created by both the lack of wider public open access to trustworthy information and the paucity of a wider, more transparent, researcher-led willingness to consider a more thorough critical transformation of peer review and metrics-led ‘research quality assessment’ processes.
The political consequences of this unwillingness to recognise that the ways we choose to disseminate (or, rather, to restrict the dissemination of) peer-reviewed information has still not generally been self-assessed enough by academia. Instead of going to where the public is, it still debates the pertinence, or even worse, the perceived lack of ‘seriousness‘ of academic presence on social media. According to Martin Eve,
“The cost of subscribing to journals has risen by 300 percent above inflation since 1986 while academic library budgets have only risen by 79 percent” (Martin Eve to Noah Berlatsky, 2014).
This is the case of academic libraries; public libraries face even more drastic budget cuts and challenges. Meanwhile, students, members of the public, everyone with access to the Internet and a basic level of literacy is using Google, Facebook, Twitter, the open Web to access information. Rapidly and for free. In comparison to these tools, scholarly databases and library catalogues are (in general) not only expensive and often undiscoverable through the methods users are familiar with. They are also full of friction, poor usability, confusing interfaces and overcomplicated licensing terms.
Angela Cochran wraps up her post titled ‘What We Can Learn from Fake News’ (15 November 2016) this way:
“People will ultimately gravitate toward sources of information that are truly reliable, and have an allegiance to telling the truth. People will pay for that because they’ll realize they’ll need to have that in our society.”
I guess time will tell if he is correct about that.
I would like to think there is still time for things to change towards a culture of literacy where users ‘gravitate toward sources of information that are truly reliable’. I doubt it. I doubt it because, at least for academic publishing, I see this as one of its fatal flaws. Higher education and scholarly publishing have for too long taken for granted that people will ‘gravitate’ towards them. The economic dimension (the cost of access to Higher Education) cannot be ignored, and we cannot keep assuming that lack of access to educational resources is not also defined by socioeconomic factors. Another aspect is that there are other methods for disseminating evidence-based research that do not depend on restrictive workflows and that to date continue without much official recognition nor reward, and therefore are beyond the reach/practice of those academics lacking the privilege of time and space for non-mandated work.
Traditional publishing has thrived, at the expense of poorer institutions and countries, most academic library budgets and thanks to millions of hours of free researcher labour. An era of what Clay Shirky called ‘algorithmic authority‘ has disrupted, amongst other factors, scholarly publishing’s comfortable reign within the Ivory paywalls of academe. The public are out there, googling, and the information we academics say we wish the public were aware of remains inaccessible or unaffordable to them.
It is time we accept our co-responsibility in fostering a political culture where non-trustworthy information has replaced the authority of evidence-based research. It is time we do more about it. We cannot hope for better times in which ‘people’ will come back to their senses and start appreciating robust scientific thought and processes. Digital literacy and critical research skills in information seeking and assessment are only meaningful if there is access to information in the first place.
We cannot simply sit on our laurels and wait, as we have done for a long time, for the mountain of users to come to us. Crucially, users have needed to be able to afford it (both socially and financially) and we need to recognise that not being able to afford it is one of the key reasons that took us to where we are now.
So ‘post-truth’ is the OED’s international word of the year.
You want to find out what the word means in detail from an authoritative source? You had better start saving up for your OED personal subscription (£215.00 for a year) … *
*Your public library (if it has not been yet defunded and turned into a gym) may provide its users free access to it…
I collected 100 tweets from the official @BBCPolitics Twitter account posted between 26/05/2014 00:14:31 and 26/05/2014 12:59:10 BST. I collected the tweets using Martin Hawksey‘s TAGS.
I copied the text of the tweets and ran a basic text analysis using Voyant Tools by Stéfan Sinclair & Geoffrey Rockwell. I customised the English ‘Taporware’ stop word list to include reporting-specific terms (such as ‘says’–this should be further refined, as I accidentally left ‘declared’) and Twitter-specific terms likely to be over-represented, like ‘http’, ‘rt’ and ‘t.co’. (Some shortened URLs remained). I left the hashtags ‘#EP2014’ and ‘#vote2014’ in the corpus on purpose.
There is 1 document in this corpus with a total of 1,956 words and 695 unique words.
If needed, click on image to enlarge.
Words in the Entire Corpus
Corpus Term Frequencies provides an ordered list for all the terms’ frequencies appearing in a corpus. The first column indicates the keyword in order of frequency; the second column the number of times it appears in the corpus. The other columns can be toggled to show other statistical information, including a small line graph for term frequency across the corpus.
I also collected 49 tweets posted by @bbcnickrobinson between 18/05/2014 21:21:34 and 26/05/2014 02:34:07 BST. I followed the same procedure as above, producing the following Cirrus cloud (if needed, click on image to enlarge) and frequency list.
There is 1 document in this corpus with a total of 946 words and 458 unique words.
Words in the Entire Corpus
Corpus Term Frequencies provides an ordered list for all the terms’ frequencies appearing in a corpus. The first column indicates the keyword in order of frequency; the second column the number of itmes it appears in the corpus. The other columns can be toggled to show other statistical information, including a small line graph for term frequency across the corpus.
It is significant that in these two small corpora from the two major BBC Politics Twitter accounts the top results had some clear coincidences. It’s up to the reader to draw conclusions. I have uploaded the source data to figshare:
This morning I was referred to this Guardian Global Development post (let’s call it what it is). I can’t describe the sense of despair I feel when I read the caption “The best books on Mexico: Down the Rabbit Hole, The Years With Laura Díaz, and Mexico: Democracy Interrupted.” It’s not a joke. They are telling you, reader, that those three books are “the best on Mexico”.
Really. Now, allow me to be categorically ranty here: a bit of common sense can make us realise that “best of” lists are always a joke and cannot possibly be objective in any way. Nevertheless, this being the Guardian (read worldwide, and not only in Britain, for this is not still 1910) the old spectre of the subaltern (or the “Global South” subject) being unable to represent his/her own culture within the dominant (economic, cultural) power reappears.
A short autobiographical note: in the schools I worked in Mexico Mexicans had to have qualifications to get a teaching job, but Americans and Brits in gap years seemed not to need them. The rest of us natives had to climb the steps (mined with dead bodies) of the steep academic meritocracy ladder. (To be fair those were dark times –some 15, 20 years ago– and who knows if that is still the case). When I lived there, if you needed someone in Mexico to talk about British literature you looked for a Brit– because being British meant you knew something about your own culture. In Britain today, if you need someone to talk about Mexican literature… well, why would you need a Mexican to do that? Having been born in a “developing” nation means you are perceived as a toddler forever, unable to speak for yourself, inarticulate, ignorant and inexperienced. The grown-ups always know what’s best for you and therefore speak for you.
But I digress. As a quick Friday morning post, below my own “where to start” list of books about Mexico. I am assuming, like the Grauniad did, that you’d need books more or less widely available in English, so this is not a “best of”, and the list of books would be different if I could include books that are currently (sadly) only available in Spanish, Mexico’s official national language. I don’t have time to write small synopses for each book, but I have provided links. You know how to find out more.
Anyway, here it is, for your Christmas shopping list…
Original Title: El laberinto de la soledad / Posdata / Vuelta a El laberinto de la soledad
ISBN: 080215042X (ISBN13: 9780802150424)
Where the Air is Clear, by Carlos Fuentes (1958)
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Paperbacks
Original title: La región más transparente
Today I’m attending the Open Access Futures in the Humanities and Social Sciences event at Senate House, University of London. It is an event organised by SAGE and the London School of Economics in association with the British Academy and Academy of Social Sciences. The hashtag for the conference is #HSSOA.
As I reporter here earlier this week, my article “Open Access: Towards Fairer Access to Research” is up on the Impact of Social Sciences blog and it is also included in the printed collection that will be made available today at the conference.
As you may know this week has been international Open Access Week. Last night The Conversation UK published a piece by me in their “Hard Evidence” section, which they titled “Is open access working?“.
Qué tiempos aquellos en que el amor por los mismos libros y la misma música consolidaba amistades y proyectos conjuntos, años en que se querían hacer las cosas de modo distinto, experimentar con los recursos disponibles, cruzar fronteras… qué ingenuo y deprimentemente arrogante nos suena con la perspectiva de la distancia espaciotemporal. Pero allá en 1998, la ciudad de México podía ser el centro del mundo y a pesar de la conciencia siempre a flor de piel de la limitación todo se creeía posible.
Al re-encontrar estas notas de esta época uno no puede sino recordar cómo la experiencia común era aquella de depender de intermediarios a la hora de la auto-representación; el blogging y los medios sociales después han ayudado a que al menos ahora se puede tener más control sobre cómo aparece uno diciendo las cosas.
Recuerdo escribir mis notas a máquina y a veces mandarlas por fax, como los faxes llegaban borrosos muchas veces yo prefería llevar las notas personalmente a las redacciones. Esto quiere decir que allá en el ya pasado mítico alguien tenía que re-teclear las notas; no como ahora que se envía por email o se sube directamente a los servidores de las publicaciones. La cuestión con los medios “tradicionales” es que casi por definición retiraban la agencia de la fuente, desempoderándolo para depender de un filtro externo o terceras personas.
Me encanta que en esta nota se nombra a “Jaques Derriba”. (Este typo seguro fue introducido por alguien más, no Mauricio). ¿Dónde andaban en noviembre de 1998?
I have posted a response to Stephen Marche’s LA Review of Books article “Against Digital Humanities” on my HASTAC blog.
“We do not wish to penalise the machine for its inability to shine in beauty competitions, nor to penalise a man for losing in a race against an aeroplane. The conditions of our game make these disabilities irrelevant.”
Needless to say, with such a title, his article became very popular amongst digital humanities circles, and of course amongst those who feel excluded from such circles or who might have had no idea those circles existed in the first place. As far as I know Marche does not define himself as an academic (though “in 2005, he received a doctorate in early modern English drama from the University of Toronto”, his Wikipedia entry says) but as a novelist and regular contributor to Esquire magazine.
I do not mention this with any snobbish or elitist intention, as some kind of expression of academia’s well-known reputation to exclude and discriminate, but as a fact that might help us understand where his article and his clearly-defined position “against digital humanities” is coming from. His article wasn’t published on an academic journal either, appearing, indeed, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, and it was accessed by most of us I guess in its openly-available online version (I ignore if it appeared on print as well). It has to be said that had Marche’s article not been published online in such a way (and widely distributed by readers on Twitter and the like) it is very possible I would have never come across it, certainly not so quickly. In brief, noting the context in which the article appeared informs us as readers about what we can and cannot expect form it.
Unlike Marche, who presumably got paid to write his article, I am not getting paid to write this piece, something I find myself saying out loud more frequently. This is something that is often kept quiet out of politeness or pride, but the explicit declaration of this particular context, the situation in which one sets out to write something, defines in an important way what is produced. Needless to say this is what Marx would have called the material conditions of our existence, so often equated with the material conditions of production. This blog post is a blog post, and I am stealing time from other more productive endeavours (in this case, precious sleep, since I woke up at 4:00 am to write it) so I will not go into the detail I wish I could go into. This context, this setting, enables me to make this declaration of a particular positioning, and I have no doubts in my mind that the ability to declare this positioning is enhanced by the access to certain technologies, information and social networks.
Having said that what concerns me the most about Marche’s article is the malicious misrepresentation of what the digital humanities are about. And indeed, I’m not the first one to suggest that one of the things missing from his rant (if Marche’s essay hadn’t been posted on the LA Review of Books web site, it would have been just another blog rant) is precisely context (see “A Quick Reply to Marche, 29 October). “Literature is not Data: Against Digital Humanities” is a title carefully chosen to create controversy and bring online traffic to the site. It’s called link-baiting. Journalistically speaking it comes very late to the academic debate but its appearance is timely because in late 2012 the mainstream digital humanities have received enough money to create resentment amongst those coming late to the party (those recently discovering a field that can be dated to 1949). So Marche’s article touches on a sensitive disciplinary and cultural spot, because he seems somewhat aware that “digital humanities” is “a phrase with a wide array of meanings”, as he puts it, even if the examples he gives are eminently parodic:
“It can mean nothing more than being vaguely in touch with technological reality — being an English professor who is aware of the existence of Twitter, for example — or understanding that there are better ways of disseminating academic studies than bound academic journals languishing on unvisited shelves.”
Other crass misrepresentations and false assumptions in the article (“Google… ends the relationship to the codex which began much earlier….”) can only be attributed to ignorance or an ill-intended political (disciplinary, financial) agenda. Marche equates the digital humanities with “the conversion of literature into data” (which is false) and fails at all times to explain what data is. He seems to assume that there is someone somewhere that takes data as a given (datum– dare, to give), as an end in itself and not as a means to an end. Moreover, he takes for granted (as a given) that data is not always-already the result of interpretive processes and specific material and cultural conditions.
Indeed, Marche’s most obviously hilarious claim is that algorithms “are inherently fascistic, because they give the comforting illusion of an alterity to human affairs.” Alan Turing, who suffered himself the painful and irrevocable consequences of State intolerance and, it could be argued, developed technologies and methods that contributed to the defeat of Nazism, must be rolling in his grave. At best, as British Library curator Matthew Shaw pointed out, Marche’s laughable if not offensive hypothesis seems to only prove Goodwin’s Law.
What is most profoundly worrying about Marche’s article is his conservative agenda. He’s only one year younger than I but he seems to clearly and fondly remember those apparently idyllic days “[b]efore EEBO arrived”, when
“every English scholar of the Renaissance had to spend time at the Bodleian library in Oxford; that’s where one found one’s material. But actually finding the material was only a part of the process of attending the Bodleian, where connections were made at the mother university in the land of the mother tongue. Professors were relics; they had snuffboxes and passed them to the right after dinner, because port is passed left. EEBO ended all that, because the merely practical reason for attending the Bodleian was no longer justifiable when the texts were all available online.”
In a nutshell, what Marche is against is not digital humanities, but a false notion of what the digital humanities are as equated with some kind of fictional, unmediated (oh, the irony!), uninterpreted “conversion of literature into data”. The digital humanities do other things apart from the creation of digital tools that enable the physical and digital preservation and online access of texts, but Marche gives us digitisation and the rise of the online availability of texts as a prime example of this “conversion” he dreads. What Marche is against is not digital humanities, but more democratic, fluid forms of access, where people who can’t necessarily afford or have the physical ability to come to Oxford can still experience “the mystery of language […] the original literary sensation.”
Between paragraph tags, Marche finishes his essay with what he and the editors must have thought a master final blow: “Insight remains handmade.” The implication is that what is done through machines or algorithms is not “handmade”, and perpetuates the old opposition between the natural and the artificial, which his Lyotard epigraph anticipated. As someone from my generation, Marche must have heard that we have somewhat surpassed that “Postmodern Condition”.
Had I had to choose a postmodern thinker to kickstart things I would have rather quoted Derrida (I know he’s not as fashionable in the US as he once was) from his essay on Kant’s Conflict of the Faculties: “it is the publication of knowledge, rather than knowledge itself, which is submitted to authority” (1992). It is this authority of the publication format that Marche’s piece enjoys, and in a way it is that authority that some digital humanities work is gradually dismantling. What is missing from the article is any kind of self-awareness as a text that will be read online (apart from some hyperlinks, which I suppose were placed there by an editor and not by Marche himself), and, more importantly, about the material conditions of production of the article itself. I wonder if he would get a Borgesian sense of the uncanny (1972) if he looked at the source code of his own article on the online version of the LA Review of Books.
Marche’s article is a fine example of the anxieties of our age, but it is not what it purposes to be. It wants us to believe that literature and scholarly or interpretive activity is “mushy” (soft) and that its opposite is data (hard). For him literature is some kind of mystical, “mysterious” experience, but not in the way Walter Benjamin (1916) discussed it, which was always-already from a perspective that recognised the material and technical conditions of the production and transmission of information (literary or not). Marche draws a politically dangerous opposition between the study of literature and the scholarly work of the digital humanities, which seeks to develop and employ digital tools for the scholarly practice of the humanities and akin fields. Precisely, one of the positive consequences of digital humanities work is what seems to annoy Marche the most: the creation of greater awareness about the material conditions of texts, and of the structures of privilege that have allowed the access to knowledge to some but not others, in some forms and not others.
Marche denies the digital humanities (and self-defined digital humanists by extension) their legitimate belonging to the field of literary studies, building a tired, parodic straw man. His essay reads like a nerdy “my discipline is bigger than yours” rant. Like its title, its ill-founded critique of digitisation, data mining and algorithmic processes is intentionally sensationalistic and it responds consciously or unconsciously to a political agenda that seeks to create a renewed “conflict of the faculties”.
Marchen’s manichean opposition to his own fictional version of the digital humanities will resound in many who feel disenfranchised and threatened by what they perceive as a new fashionable discipline that might “replace” their own tasks and therefore endanger their positions. His article should be an alarm call for those of us engaged in digital humanities communities to work harder at communicating better and more widely what it is that the digital humanities do. We should also ask ourselves who exactly benefits from deligitimising the digital humanities and what kind of consequences such strategy could have.
To be fair, Marche’s article does have a redeeming passage where some self-awareness of his positioning is made clear. “In the popular imagination,” he writes, “writers and professors are liberals, hedonists, bohemians. Nothing could be further from the truth. They are, in fact, profoundly, deeply, organically conservative.”