Prisoners of the Page: Or, Pity the Fate of the Poor OP

A couple of ongoing problems and fascinations – – discerning the post-fordist working-classes, reckoning with Occupy, the possibilities of digital syndicalism, the captivating power of the zombie – –  have led me over the past few months to an intensive wrestling match with Antonio Negri.  And, working back and forth from Multitude to The Labor of Dionysus to operaismo, has proven very useful.  Still, there comes a time when you grow tired of reading and scribbling in your chair at home or on the airplane or on BART or at the office.    There comes a time when you know that to really master a set of texts, ideas, ways of thinking, you have to start discussing, arguing, and listening with others.  And so, I’m now trying to organize an online seminar/reading group on Negri and Hardt’s latest installment of the Empire trilogy – – Commonwealth. (A reading group that will probably include Patrick Cuninghame, from UAM-Xochimilco, one of the most interesting autonomistas around.  If you care to join the seminar/reading group – – drop me an email.)

Setting up an online seminar that spans a continent has, however, proven a bit frustrating.  The internet connects, allows for new forms of mediated interaction, and preserves.  However, finding the right platform for an online seminar – – especially a platform that encourages both focus and fluidity – – is no easy thing.  Despite hacking together various draft mashups of WordPress, BuddyPress, and BBPress – – I still haven’t crafted the right kind of thing.

Why?  The difficulty is in part related to the mimetic fallacy.  We use terms like “discussion board” or “web forum” to describe various text-based, interactive sites.  But these are just metaphors.  “Discussion boards” and “forums” aren’t really discussions or forums; they are allusive representations of the social, performative, oral experiences that we enjoy in non-internet life – – say in a classroom, around the water cooler, or with that annoying row of Detroit fans in the row behind us at the Oakland Coliseum.  The medium is the message, but while “discussion boards” belong to the medium of the internet, they fundamentally inhabit the medium of the written page.

For years, ironically, we’ve seen the difference between “electronic writing” and print as a source of problems.  To summarize: new media forms of writing reinstate orality over literacy; they replace the linearity of print documents with connectivity or parataxis;  the fixity of the printed page gives way to the fluidity of the web page; the “passivity” of print reading is replaced by the “interactivity” of electronic textuality; criteria of quality are replaced by measures of value.  In short, the web or new media opens up disruptive gaps between print and electronic textuality and within modes of reading.  In large part, these gaps have fueled both the battle cries of digital revolutionaries and the elegies of book-bound reactionaries.  Unfortunately for both camps, the written or printed page isn’t dead.  It’s just been re-mediated – –  reincarnated in new forms that modify but repeat basic features of the old.  Indeed, it’s not difference that’s the problem – – it’s similarity. History is a nightmare or daydream from which we can’t quite awake.

I’m pretty devoted to the book and printed document.  (Just ask my co-conspirator – – who renews her annual plea to cull the overstuffed bookshelves that seriously compromise our earthquake-preparedness plans.)  But, to get a sense of how the muddled mimesis between “discussion forum” and printed page does a disservice to both media, let’s take a look at a pretty typical web forum post.

A user of Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum – – probably the most popular online travel forum – – asks for feedback: as a South Asian-American traveling to Colombia, will he be discriminated against based on his skin color?  The entire thread includes about 40 posts.  Most of the first post-responders are reassuring about Colombia’s “rainbow” society and about Colombians’ friendliness.  Then, the twelfth post begins: “kindcup [the previous poster], Let me disagree with you (my humble brazilian opinion) when you say [there] ‘are people dark skinned like in Mexico.'”  Once this fork has been created, the thread begins digressing, regressing, and generally straying all over the place – – race in Guyana, skin colors in India, the existence of Myanmar.  Close to the end of the thread, one responder writes: “Wow.  What I CAN say is that you need to get out and travel more.  Or jeez, at least read a little.”

At one point, about a tenth of the way through the thread, a contributor writes reassuringly: “As another OP said, be confident. You’ll be fine.”  The invocation of the OP [original poster] is a subtle recognition that the thread is poised for forking.  Indeed, many long forum threads, after a period of forking, soon begin to make furious, insistent references to the OP, trying to bring the thread back to its beginning question or comment.  Thus our first “discussion forum” algorithm: OP = f (∆p).  That is, references to the original poster are a function of the number of posts; the longer the thread, the more references to the OP will begin to appear.

Forking and OP references occur, of course, because as threads grow longer, thread contributors begin to respond to more or less immediately preceding contributors.  They tend to get caught up in the onward flow of the posting.  In the case of our Colombia thread, the OP appears at the end of a post in which the contributor begins to digress into more commentary on how “[t]here will always be people who equate how you look with who you are.”  Recognizing, perhaps, the digressive, generalizing pull of his/her own comment, the poster tries to check his/her meandering by citing the OP.

Obviously, a thread in an open forum is always open to forking and hijacking.  However, this is not usually intentional.  In fact,  the OP effect and forking are pressures inherent in the web page’s remediation of the print page.  Like the print page, the web page is organized vertically, and this organization imposes a temporal logic onto the space of the “page.”  The use of the metaphor, “scrolling,” underscores this subordination of space to time.  As with the print page, this temporal succession organizes reading time into an irreversible, linear narrative.  Our eyes start at the top and work their way to the bottom.  We can scroll backwards or forwards, but these terms only signify within a fixed chronological succession.

Of course, all web “pages” are organized temporally (and spatially) – – our attention is always also duration.  Another way of thinking about the distinction I’m getting at is this: the “space” of the web forum is subordinated to syntax rather than semantics.  A semantically organized page would emphasize relations of meaning rather than a priori structure.  One could argue that the source of so much creativity on the web has to do specifically with this supercession of syntax by semantics; mashups, remixes, maps, graphs, and trees all express the “collage” logic of the read/write web, a logic defined more by association, metaphor, and parataxis.  The creative power of the web as medium seems to lie in its affordances for defamiliarizing linear, syntagmatic forms.

Embracing this disruptive logic underscores just how much the mimeses between print and web page betray the experience of a real forum or discussion.  To borrow an analogy from Kenneth Burke, imagine that you attend a cocktail party.  (Do people still have cocktail parties?)  You and your fellow partiers start talking about Justin Bieber as an icon of cognitive capitalism.   (Yes, we are well into the cheaper rotgut at this point.)  But at this cocktail party, each participant is allowed to make only one comment in a pre-assigned order of speakers, like taking a number at the fish counter – – a cocktail party organized around the principles of the old “telephone” game.  Sure, lots of funny things start happening – – but we certainly wouldn’t remember the cocktail party as a sparkling gem of conversation, nor would we remember this cocktail party as marked by lively “discussion.”  Those qualities would be reserved for the kind of cocktail party where people jump in and out of the conversation, where themes are developed collaboratively, where we draw on the full range of our communication talents – – listening, timing, intonation, etc. – – to explore and enjoy a topic or absurdity.  In the authentic “discussion,” we blithely forget all about the OP exactly because we remember the conversation.  In other words, a semantically organized web page resembles a great cocktail party; a syntactically organized web page makes for a potentially novel, but much less scintillating booze-up.

Of course, in the end, I guess I’m really arguing for a better, more accurate mimesis between life and web, one where web “forums” and “discussion” boards more closely resemble the experience of lived communication and confabulation.  In terms of hacking the best platform for a seminar or reading group, a first step would thus have to break with the subordination of “page” space to time and so disrupt the similitudes between web and printed page.  Instead of “scrolling” through comments and so becoming syntactic subjects, each comment would become a semantic node and we would become polymorphously converse.  As in a great cocktail conversation, space would neutralize time – – or, alternatively, time would be spatialized.

[Update: Thanks to the help and wizadry of comrade Christian Wach – – we’re experimenting with some of this disruption of linearity and the print page at the Multitude website, the magnificently mashed-up Comment/Buddy/Wordplatform for the transcontinental Negri reading group.]


How John Heartfield invented the web; or, the MySpace reading guide to The Waste Land

The usual  problem with Eliot’s “Waste Land” for most readers (and most teachers) can be summed up in one word: difficulty.  The poem resists just about every way that English majors have been taught to subdue poetry: it lacks conventional qualities of forminess (rhyme, meter, stanzas, a unitary “speaker,” etc.); beyond the title, the poem denies the safety of any overarching conceit; its fragmentary, contradictory elements defy easy recuperation by allegory; its obscure literary and cultural references seem to promise victory by synecdoche but threaten death-by-cultural-quicksand.

Confronted by the poem’s difficulty, students often resort to two last ditch interpretive efforts: from beneath the shifting, colliding surfaces of the poem, we can excavate the tale of the “Fisher King”! or, the chaos of the poem reflects the chaos and despair of World War I – – mud, influence, typhus, barbed wire, and blood replaced by a dizzying flood of words, allusions, and voices.

Of course, both solutions are really just ways of neutralizing and evading the poem’s difficulty.  Ultimately, neither solution – – usually supplied by a previous teacher’s difficulty with difficulty – – seems adequate to the experience of the poem.  And so, students typically end up managing the difficulties posed by the “Waste Land”  by either rejecting the poem (“Another piece of art-for-art’s-sake modernist nonsense.  Can we go back to Frost?  Please!”) or by rejecting themselves (“This poem is too hard for me.  I’ll leave it to the really smart students and the professor.”).

Confronted by this difficulty, I can only respond: Thank god for MySpace! Or, actually, thank god that John Heartfield invented the web!

“The Waste Land” seems to short-circuit students’ ways of reading primarily because of its collage aesthetic, the way its “heap of broken images” challenges expectations about how poetry should work.  So, I told myself as I recently prepared to teach “The Waste Land” yet again, perhaps a more helpful way of inducting students into the poem might be to first introduce them to the medium of collage.  I turned to John Heartfield, one of Cubism’s most powerful and interesting collagists.  Maybe a close reading of  Heartfield’s “Die Rationalisierung marschiert!” [“Rationalization is on the March!”] would give students some tools to start engaging with, rather than defusing, the difficult textuality of “The Waste Land.”

Yet, as I thought about this strategy, it seemed that beginning with Heartfield only displaced the problem: I could see myself still having to instruct students in the principles and techniques of collage.  Wasn’t there a way for students to discover the pleasures, purposes, and principles of collage aesthetics  on their own?  A way they could connect their own experience to Heartfield and then, through the “6-4-3 double play” of pedagogy, to Eliot?   Thinking about the dynamics of “remediation” at the heart of collage aesthetics – – the ways collage appropriates and re-purposes visual materials from other sources – – pointed me, thanks to Bolter and Grusin, to the remediations that greet us every time we open up a web browser.  Maybe collage wasn’t such an alien form.

And so, at the beginning of our class dedicated to Eliot, I asked my students to think back to the heyday of MySpace (which meant for most of them back to their days as middle-schoolers).  With one student as volunteer-artist, the class began to reproduce the MySpace profile page on our whiteboard [see below] – – adding in  boxes for the profile photo, “Top 8” friends, favorite songs, navigation bar, updates, comments, blurbs, etc.


Comparing the MySpace representation of “You” (the user)  to more traditional representations of “You” – – like a photo or snapshot – –  helped to make visible some of the particular assumptions and practices  that guide the social web’s “collage aesthetic.” [see below] (Interestingly, my mention of Pinterest as another collage platform sparked a lively debate about the gendering of the web – – Pinterest as a “female” app.)

The students pointed out some important differences between the photo and the MySpace versions of “You”: static (photo) vs. dynamic (MySpace); object (of the camera) vs. subject (as MySpace creator); singular (photo) vs. multiple (MySpace “boxes”); private or personal (photo) vs. social or public (MySpace).  I underscored several really fundamental differences that emerged in our discussion of the two media: first, the MySpace “you” was “glued” together out of fragments and pieces; second, the MySpace “you” was explicitly assembled or constructed, i.e. MySpace users “authored” their self-representations more like curators or editors; and, the MySpace “you” was literally more spatial, i.e. understanding the identity of the user depended not on a linear narrative but on grasping elements organized within the space of the web “page.”

As we turned to Heartfield’s collage, I asked the students: do you see any similar practices at work in “Die Rationalisierung marschiert!”?  And, indeed, they quickly began to identify the similarities between Cubist collage and MySpace page – – Heartfield’s use of fragments, the role of the artist as curator, the logic of spatial (versus temporal) organization, etc.  The students also however pointed to a new connection between Heartfield and MySpace – – the question of originality.  Heartfield’s collage foregrounds the cultural “composting” central to collage, the ways in which collage self-consciously recycles existing cultural materials.  This mashup aesthetic – – so fundamental to the web – – both denigrates originality (“The only materials we have to create with are already created!”) and exalts creativity (“Look what I’ve managed to do with what you already thought you knew!”).  Reading MySpace through this dialectic, inspired by Heartfield’s collage, started a lively discussion about the meaning and status of creativity in today’s remix culture.

And, how did all of this work help students to manage the difficulty of Eliot’s poem?  Most importantly, perhaps, our investigation of the collage aesthetic changed the way we discussed the poem.  Rather than worrying about what “The Waste Land” means, we were able to focus on how “The Waste Land” works.  For instance, rather than thinking about the poem deductively – – everything in the poem must be related to some big idea, theme, symbol, etc.,  we could adopt a more inductive approach.  I.e. how does the poem assemble and disassemble clusters of motifs and images in fluid networks of meaning, much like the way MySpace constructs a picture of “you” through connecting (and disconnecting) pieces and fragments?  Once we had broken through the problem of verisimilitude – – the poem must be a true likeness of something, we could begin to work with and through the poem as a signifying or discursive practice, less concerned about the whole than about the ways in which interruptions and conjunctions encouraged fractal patterns of meaning.

For me, the class’s work with MySpace, Heartfield, and Eliot also raised several other broader issues:

First, students already know how to read Eliot.  That is, most of our students already live and communicate in the “MySpace” world of representation – – where, on an everyday basis and thanks to the social web, communicating occurs through assemblage, mashup, remix, and collage.  The problem for teachers of “The Waste Land” (and other literary texts) is that – – despite the similarities between MySpace and Heartfield and Eliot – – we too rarely connect this new vernacular literacy to canonical culture.  In fact, teachers most often see  “MySpace” literacy as an obstacle or opponent to the kinds of critical reading and writing we promote.  Instead, we need to leverage our students’ vernacular literacies to renovate and remake their engagement with canonical culture.

Second, after an initial wave of “hypermedia” criticism by literary critics like George Landow, Richard Lanham, Jay David Bolter, Richard Grusin, and others (much of it published before the rise of the social web), literary and cultural studies largely lost interest in the poetics, rhetorics and aesthetics of the web.  How to “read” the web has now largely been consigned to the realm of media literacy.  Meanwhile, digital textuality has become, via the web, ebooks, smartphones, etc., an increasingly dominant mode of writing and reading in the 21st century.   Folks who read and write about artists like Eliot (or Heartfield) have a lot to teach us about the experience of making meaning within these new semiotic environments.  Conversely,  the readers and writers formed within these new semiotic environments have a lot to teach us about artists like Eliot (and Heartfield).

Finally, it’s time to put culture back into digital humanities.  Kenneth Burke once famously defined literature as “equipment for living.”  Lately within digital humanities, the emphasis has been on humanists making digital “equipment.”  But, this has short-shifted “living” – – the ways in which humans use digital “equipment” to represent, make sense of, respond to, enjoy, manage and resist the world in which they live.   (Heartfield made this use explicit in the 1930s when he aimed his collages at the rising fascist threat.)  How do the digital practices and textualities of MySpace and its many ilk reflect, nurture, and revise our contemporary ways of life (and struggle)?  Digital humanities needs to make room for these kinds of questions.

[Thanks to Amylia and Anthony for the whiteboard photos!]


Maker Faire: An argument for student as craftsman

It’s been a while since I warmed my hands at the fiery forge of Babylon’s burning.  One thing I’ve been busy with over the past semester is designing and test-driving a hybrid version of a course on Walt Whitman.  This was a crazy and wonderful experiment  – – not so much in “translating” a traditional course into semi-virtuality, but in devising ways for students to engage with new media as a platform for learning and creating.  Most thrilling  effect: the community of practice that students co-created.  Criteria of success: “This class was, for me,” one student wrote in her final blog post, “an adventure in liberation.”

For my students’ final projects, I opened the door wide.  After a semester of talking, blogging, tweeting, reading, writing, and mining the Whitman archive, I asked the students to make something that demonstrated their understanding of Whitman’s poetry and represented their learning.  Initially, this puzzled the students.  Where was the final essay or final exam?

After passing through this slight phase of confusion, the students began to really explore how they could show me what they’d learned without writing a final essay.  This “problem” required some rethinking of how to best represent learning and some grappling with how to use non-five-page-essay media to perform this task.  I introduced some possible tools – – glogster, youtube, prezi – – but a lot of the work of guiding students through the final project occurred in one-on-one conversation and conferencing.

The results were amazing and, yes, liberating!  Students produced everything from YouTube videos, to remix poetry, to mixtapes, to zines, to music mashups.  Here, then, is a sampling from my students’ maker faire.  (I’ll save some brief elucidating commentary until the end of the post.)

Miguel P., who had blown us away throughout class with his video mashups, decided to connect his interest in music and music production with a Calamus poem. Give it a listen!

(Here’s his self-reflection on the whole process.)

Todd E. decided to enact the changing poetic personas of Whitman from the 1855 to “Deathbed” editions of Leaves of Grass.  Here’s his video of the post-1855 Whitman, blue-penciling Leaves of Grass.  (All three of his videos, including a self-reflective video are here.)

Meghan E. decided to do some blackout poetry on Whitman’s Specimen Days:

Eric A. produced an online pop-up edition of some of Whitman’s greatest hits (click on the image to get the full pop up effects):

Alina A. shot a “reader-response” video of readers reading Whitman:

Andreana created a physical Whitman zine (modeled somewhat after Laura Oldfield Ford’s amazing Savage Messiah):


Max G also created a zine –  – more in tune with the formats and design of the local S.F. zine scene:

And, Erick M. created an incredible artist’s book based on his reading of Whitman:

I could go on and on (and if you buy me a pint of Racer5 at Cato’s Ale House, I will).  There were so many other great projects – – including student remixes of Whitman’s poems and their own.  In the end, what amazed me was the supernova of creativity unleashed by my students, the overwhelming surge of experimentation, ingenuity, and artistry liberated from the demise of the five-page essay.

The need for creativity has, of course, been a hot topic in the popular and semi-professional press lately: Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works, Ken Robinson’s  Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative, Newsweek’s “creativity crisis” article, etc.  Suddenly, creativity has become a central challenge to education and, perhaps, a possible breakout from our current economic crisis.  I’m reading and thinking a lot these days about the meaning and consequences of this discovery of creativity.

But, for the moment,  I want to pick up on one of the seminal essays/blog posts in Digital Humanities: Stephen Ramsay’s “On Building.” Briefly, Ramsay argues that what distinguishes digital humanities from business-as-usual is the move from “reading and critiquing to building and making.”  “If you are not making anything,” Ramsay quotes himself from a 2011 MLA presentation, “you are not  .  . . a digital humanist.”  I see what Ramsay means.  From his perspective, rather than “just” writing essays or books, digital humanists design and build things like databases, applications, software, and networks.

Still, there are at least a couple of problems with Ramsay’s linking of building to digital humanities.  First, more generally, writing an essay or book is building something.  Like making software, writing an essay, for instance, requires expertise, technical knowledge (how to use databases, word processing, books, etc.), mastery of various media, and craft.  In other words, despite the kind of animal laborans versus homo faber (cf. Arendt’s The Human Condition) distinction Ramsay tries to make,  we’re all makers and builders.  We simply use different materials, media, skills, knowledges, etc.; digital humanists just operate a different kind of “making.”

Second, in my Whitman class, students were “making” and “building” things both within and outside of the digital – – flash-driven web-based pop-up texts and xeroxed zines.  In other words, we shouldn’t confine the virtues of making – – in Ramsay’s strong sense – – to the digital.  Reinvigorating the humanities requires that making and building become fundamental to the full range of humanities practices – – teaching, learning, and scholarship. (To stick with Arendt’s distinction between  laborans as repetitive, ephemeral, dull work driven by necessity versus faber as self-reflective, skilled work dedicated to making the artifacts of public life: what could be more laborans-like than the five-page essay and school writing in general?)  For too long, the institution of the humanities has abrogated creativity to the very particular act of artistic creation – – a restriction that may be Ramsay’s real target.

In this more general sense, probably the most important book for digital and other humanists to read right now is Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman.  (I’ve been a big fan of Sennett’s since the way-back days of The Hidden Injuries of Class – – but his latest work on “new capitalism” has been nothing short of mind-blowing.)  Sennett’s book is an extended argument for the idea that “people can learn about themselves through the things they make, that material culture matters.”  The path to a more “humane” (could we say, more humanistic?) life depends on  understanding the craftsman because, according to Sennett, the “craftsman represents the special human condition of being engaged.”  This kind of engagement is complex, drawing on expertise, skill, and creativity, but it’s the kind of engagement that can produce stunning and enduring moments of learning and knowledge.  Work  – – especially student work – – that not only reflects what is learned but enacts learning and knowledge as self-making processes.

Not convinced?  Go back and listen to the sonic and intellectual pleasures of Miguel P remaking Whitman’s Calamus poem.