The Canon and The Archive

A general l rule, fundamental principle, aphorism, or axiom governing the systematic or scientific treatment of a subject…
“canon, n.1″. OED Online. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/27148?rskey=OpD2lb&result=3&isAdvanced=false

…a canon exists and is cherished for representing the solid core of work that centers activity in the field.
Anita Silvers, The Canon in Aesthetics. From “Canon,” In Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, Oxford Art Online. http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/opr/t234/e0100

It’s always trouble when you lead with definitions. In this case, I’ll make the argument with these definitions that much of what students experience in a classroom is canonical in nature. Not a canon in the contested, literary sense, but in any classroom, there are underlying structures of thought in the layout of a curriculum. That’s fine, otherwise the teaching of any class or session would be difficult at best. But one day, as I was killing time in the stacks, I saw a brightly colored stack of journals, and browsed my way to this quote:

Archival items are rarely or never communicated or interpreted….While the canon makes the past present and relevant, the archive preserves the past as past.

When the canon tends to stagnate or become instrumental, mythic or chauvinistic, the archive provides a critical corrective and invites the rediscovery of alternative sources.

Kristin B. Aavitsland, From Nationalism to Cosmopolitan Classicism: Harry Fett’s Concept of Cultural Capital p.29

Working backwards, I realized this encapsulated the potential the library has to upend canons, and more importantly, the way it opens up the possibility to challenge the great pyramid of bloom’s taxonomy. If we are going to take informed learning or critical literacy seriously, then the dated, hierarchical divide between acts of understanding and creation of knowledge shouldn’t be as  drastic. Nor should one be prized above the other if the skills we want to teach are going to relevant in the much-hyped (over?) “2.0/3.0″ information ecosystem. Libraries are the places where students can create knowledge that can compliment or challenge what they learn in the classroom, so if the archives are going to have that kind of relationship to the canon, then creating needs to come into play much earlier in Bloom’s taxonomy than at the top.

the new passivity

Well Kevin and I are best friends. We have a real disagreement. He is interested in what technology wants and I’m like, “what do I want?” In a nutshell. It is convenient for Facebook to have no privacy. Because it will allow Facebook to roam more freely. Is that good for democracy? Is that good for intimacy? -Sherry Turkle, The Internet’s Not Grown Up

These are questions worth mulling over, and remind me of some research by danah boyd, showing how teens define privacy in networked publics. As it turns out, teens have a nuanced understand of privacy because they live in social situations that have unequal transparency. Calculated understandings of privacy enable them to perform  in social spaces, fitting messages to the technological medium and selecting which media to use depending on how private things need to be. Following that, statements like the one below make a lot of sense. It is the issue above, but writ large:

The demand to participate can become coercive, exhausting the very collective faculties it officially celebrates. While interactivity can be imagined as the “like” or “retweet,” it also encompasses the “agree to terms” button. The supposedly democratic call to dialogue and participation can turn sour when people have good reasons and desires to retreat. -Jonathan Sterne, What if Interactivity is the New Passivity?

Often, non-participation isn’t desirable, so strategic publicity is a useful option, which is the response boyd sees in teens. Sterne’s tougher point is that “interactivity” has become as coercive as the “passivity” of media of old (TV, Radio). Again, it’s a question of uneven transparency, so the call to engage which can’t be ignored has to be shunted to the side. If the internet wants to grow up, it needs to be put in its place, such that the medium is no longer the message, which is handier for us than it is for the makers of communication technologies:

Slow Media are discursive and dialogic. They long for a counterpart with whom they may come in contact. The choice of the target media is secondary. In Slow Media, listening is as important as speaking. Hence ‘Slow’ means to be mindful and approachable and to be able to regard and to question one’s own position from a different angle. -Benedikt Köhler, Sabria David, Jörg Blumtritt, The Slow Media Manifesto

This is the opposite of the McLuhanistic arms race that is the primary driver of information technology today. Increasingly, the medium has become the message, and as a result, the target media has gained primacy, making content conform to the medium. If we are serious about information literacy, it is not acceptable to only teach critical thinking about content, but also the content packaging. Interactivity is the new passivity, and if we are going to help people make sense of it, then it’s time to slow things down when it suits us.

Libraries, Reading, and the New Aesthetic

As a result, these new styles and senses recur in our art, our designs, and our products. The pixelation of low-resolution images, the rough yet distinct edges of 3D printing, the shifting layers of digital maps. In this session, the participants will give examples of these effects, products and artworks, and discuss the ways in which ways of seeing are increasingly transforming ways of making and doing.

-Aaron Cope et. al. The New Aesthetic: Seeing Like Digital Devices, SXSWInteractive 2012

This is the original call to arms of the New Aesthetic, a seeing through the eyes of “the machine” and “the network.” Specifically it is interested in the glitchiness  of digital production of things and knowledge, although the thingness is still central as theory is still catching up with practice. Bruce Sterling says it is “ ‘an eruption of the digital into the physical.’ That eruption was inevitable. It’s been going on for a generation. It should be much better acculturated than it is.” And some of the more techno-inclined like to make claims about it’s otherworldly properties:

My point is, all our metaphors are broken. The network is not a space (notional, cyber or otherwise) and it’s not time (while it is embedded in it at an odd angle) it is some other kind of dimension entirely.

BUT meaning is emergent in the network, it is the apophatic silence at the heart of everything, that-which-can-be-pointed-to. And that is what the New Aesthetic, in part, is an attempt to do, maybe, possibly, contingently, to point at these things and go but what does it mean?

-James Bridle, #sxaesthetic

James Bridle is selling this thing pretty hard, because as a tool, the New Aesthetic gives a whole other dimension which intrudes upon our own in quirky and unexpected ways. It’s nice, but in reality, it’s a fiction. Metaphors always break. Rimbaud knew that. “The network” is not a space, but it does take place in space, although it propagates the illusion that it doesn’t. It is not obliquely embedded in time: it is strictly tied to standardized notions of time which makes most of information technology functional. Sterling, again, is on point with his critique, which by unmasking the New Aesthetic, makes it more useful, as opposed to the semi-theological “apophatic silence at the heart of everything,” which dodges the very human story of any avant-garde movement and the very worldly and “in our dimension” conditions of “the network,” as if there was just one network to rule them all.

The New Aesthetic isn’t a chromed android glistening with scifi robot-vision aura. The New Aesthetic is a rather old, and hearteningly traditional, story about a regional, generational cluster of creative people who are perceiving important stuff that other, older, and dumber people don’t get quite yet. It’s a typical avant-garde art movement that has arisen within a modern network society. That’s what is going on.

So the New Aesthetic is really a design-fiction, it’s a postulated creative position. By metaphorically pretending that machines are our friends, we can see what they ‘see,’ and think what they ‘think’… We do get a payoff for that effort. We achieve creative results that we would not have gotten without that robot disguise.

-Bruce Sterling, An Essay on the New Aesthetic

To that extent, the people most interested in the New Aesthetic are less disruptive than those in avant-garde movements before them. The robot guise has provided some interesting results, but it is doubly worth asking: to what end?

For another part, the New Aesthetic fails the ultimate test of novelty: that of disruption and surprise. Misguided as they may seem a century hence, avant-garde movements like Futurism and Dada were not celebrating industrialism nor lamenting war so much as they were replacing familiar principles with unfamiliar ones on the grounds that the familiar had failed. The New Aesthetic is not surprising, but expected. After all, the artists now wield the same data access APIs, mapping middleware, and computer vision systems as the corporations. In some cases, the artists are the corporations.

Ian Bogost, The New Aesthetic Needs to Get Weirder

Bogost goes part of the way in his critique, and it has an authentic scent of a hacker’s call to arms, but even at this level, the underlying  drivers of the New Aesthetic aren’t fully laid out. Jon Goodbun illuminates the real drivers behind, the New Aesthetics, which are less of a philosophical bent than they are a techno-centric attempt to make sense of technologically driven forces that are reshaping our world.

But when Bogost wonders why focus on computers, asking ‘why couldn’t a group of pastry chefs found their own New Aesthetic, grounded in the slippage between wet and dry ingredients?’ it becomes clear to me what is missing in most of the NA discussion (and indeed much Latourian thought) so far: politics, economics… There is of course a reason why we are talking about computers and not pastry, and it is not because pastry chefs are too lazy to get their stuff together on tumblr. The point is that digital production technologies have become fundamental to the processes of global capitalism, in terms of production, in terms of finance, in terms of media, in terms of surveillance, and indeed, are also increasingly central in anti-capitalist movements and post-capitalist alternatives.

-Jon Goodbun, The Politics of the New Aesthetic: Electric Anthropology and Ecological Vision

Although I feel Goodbun overstates the “centrality” of technology in anti-capitalist movements (although certainly more central in post-capitalist ones), his main point shows why New Aesthetics folks are engaging with technology’s weirdness-es:  because it provides a new way to engage with the forces of global capitalism. Whether or not on is for or against it, the fictional filter the New Aesthetics provides captures the imagination of the machine and the network, as if you were inside of it, you would be able to get a better picture. I’m surprised that Mark Nunes’ incredible book, Error: Glitch, Noise and Jam in New Media Cultures hasn’t come up at all, since it examines the role of glitches and jamming as “counter-strategies” to the hegemonic systems like global capitalism which derive great power from technology. The repeating complaint, between Goodbun and Bogost, is that the aesthetic is informed by dominant modes of power (much as Futurism and Dada were).

So what does any of this have to do with libraries? Powerfully summed up in the practices outlined by Franco Moretti in his book  Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History, scholars have begun to use the perspective of the network has proven to be useful in looking at the products of human culture in the now-popularized field of digital humanities. Many of them aren’t as distant from the “tradition” of close-reading as Moretti, but they all lean towards a “corpus-view” level of reading. Alex Reid, makes the interesting argument that close-reading is an industrial-era skill:

What we ought to learn from NA is that while this particular aesthetic may be “new” right now, what is not new is the way that objects have always participated in our aesthetics. Industrialized attention, the kind where you watch widgets coming down the conveyor belt, is a trained aesthetic sensibility.

At this same time, I think the “close reading” model that dominates English and is exemplified here in the example of Conrad is one that is ultimately linked with computerized grading and industrial modes of attention. That is not to suggest that in the future we will not need to pay close attention to things. However it is an error to conflate paying attention with the specific industrial modes of attention that dominated the last century.

-Alex Reid, robot graders, new aesthetic, and the end of the close reading industry

Perhaps there’s a hint of ambient findability that sets up the tension between the New Aesthetics of reading and close-reading. I’m not sure I’m sold on the idea that close-reading is an industrial mode of attention, as much as it is a product of book culture, where readers need to simultaneously read in a linear fashion, and mark and annotate non-linearly to connect ideas which resurface throughout a text, and then link them with ideas from other texts. Libraries no longer need apolitical, abstract aesthetics to try and guide us. While new aesthetics are a useful tool for looking at humanity from a “machine perspective,” it is important to not overlook the worldview embedded in it, and engage with it critically and adding the word “New” is nothing but a mask for something which may be new, but also contains more of the same old.

Quote That:

Furman makes two crucial suggestions for reorganizing French studies that apply as well to some other disciplinary formations. She recommends that literature and cultural studies departments cease relying on exclusively sequential, chronological, cumulative models in which acquisition of knowledge begins with the beginning and moves forward through time, and shift instead to problem-based learning that entails identifying salient lines of inquiry, or what she calls “virtual sites,” and teaching students how to analyze backward from and across those specific sites. In my view, there is no need to oppose sequential, chronological knowledge to the analogic or diachronic. Problem-based interdisciplinary inquiry is essential, however, and there is no reason to believe that the knowledge it produces is less sound than more traditional disciplinary approaches.

-Biddy Martin, “Success and Its Failures”, in Women’s Studies on the Edge, p.170

Quote that:

Automated, frictionless sharing is certainly not a solution. As I’ve often observed, human problems are almost always solved by human solutions, very rarely by technical solutions. We have to ask ourselves what the real solution is, given that we’ve negotiated an arc from immersion in a social community (with all that entails) to helplessly private insularity to immersion in a virtual world that lacks privacy, but that also lacks human contact. It may be that dating sites are so consistently popular because they are the only online services that require human contact to work. -Mike Loukides, The Privacy Arc

Quote That:

Conflict around the “uptake of reading and writing instruction in part entails a clash of residual and emergent traditions, a clash between literacy pedagogy as “gift” and literacy pedagogy as commoditized, capitalist economic exchange epitomized in the last 100-year campaign to convert literacy education into a secular, industrial training. -Allan Luke, Pedagogy as gift, Pierre Bourdieu and Literacy Education p68-91.