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.

…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.

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.

Defeating “literacies”

The need to organise information in a meaningful way doesn’t diminish in a post-paper environment, and neither does the desire to discover new ideas. Curation and assisted discovery will take new forms as we bring together speakers, hands-on learning, online information and interactive storytelling. Librarians who ignore these opportunities are unlikely to have a future. Those who embrace them now should expect an exciting one. -Hugh Rundle, Blogs and the Post-Paper Library

Libraries, in their own way, do excel at making connections between information and ideas, but more importantly, they serve as a connection between people. Not just “patrons and patrons,” or “students and staff,” but also between “author and reader.” I mean active readers, who take what it is they read and bring it out into the world, the readers Foucault had in mind:

“I don’t write a book so that it will be the final word; I write a book so that other books are possible, not necessarily written by me.” -Michael Foucault (?) (thanks to the shrinking librarian, the best thing about the heart libraries on the internet)

Some days, I want to retire the word “literacies” from my personal vocabulary not because it is unhelpful, but because it is too helpful.  It’s nice to have an expression that validates what we do when we teach, but sometimes when I’m preparing to do an IL session, I feel lost among overlapping definitions and competing disciplinary fields. In those cases, I look for inspiration in doing, and remember that the thing we excel at is being that connection between people, a connection that we provide for one reason, which is not to prove to anyone that a person is “information literate,” but to give them some tools so that they may act upon the world.

Feral “Information Literacy”

I’m putting information literacy in quotes because what I’ll be talking about does not speak to being information literate in the traditional, five-standard-ACRL way. This is its opposite.

Outside of fiction’s fancies, feral animals tend to be hunted and despised. They kill stock and ruin crops, menace children and pets, spread disease between the domesticated world and the wild. And yet by wit and appetite, spirit and invention, the feral creature survives in an environment that is neither of its own making nor entirely familiar to its habits of perception.

There’s something more to this feral quality than the savor we find in stories. For what are we in the midst of networked, global, postmodern culture, all of us, but feral creatures of a kind? I’ve long been dissatisfied with the idea of the “digital native”; I’m not convinced that anything can properly be “native” to a habitat that changes so rapidly and thoroughly as networked culture. And the whole notion of nativity, after all, seems tainted with the romanticism of the Wild (a new state of nature is still the State of Nature). The qualities of the feral, by contrast, answer to a particular way of thriving amidst the vast clamor of the online world. The nameless maps onto the pseudonymity and anonymity of digital culture; cunning catches the furtive ways of memes; denying herself the full panoply social cues, the online imagination subsists in an uncanny solitude.

-Matthew Battles, The Call of the Feral.

Digital native is a fantasy invented by the fans of silicon valley to pigeonhole a generation for the sake of selling technology, but the truth is far less convenient.  Not only the digital natives, but many people take on a feral state in their interactions with the internet, as it constantly shifts its boundaries, its cities and deserts. Likewise, the library is a place where we ought to allow for the feral. The ACRL information literacy standards are only useful to the domesticated to promote their efficient and purposeful use of the library. The truth is that most people do not experience the library as a city, but rather as a wilderness on the edge of civilization. Complex systems intermingle, sometimes fluidly, sometimes not. Some things happen like clockwork and others are highly irregular. Walking through all this highly unstable environment step by step on one’s way to standard five is less desirable not because it is difficult, but because it is quite boring. Designing information literacy instruction without understanding that feral place where many library users reside is about as effective as taming a wolf. We can do it, but what good does that do for the wolf?

There are always hints of dissatisfaction that surround domestication, and it sometimes comes close to romanticizing the “good old days.” A 21st century teacher’s lament:

When I was in high school, we sat in a chair and took notes. We talked about books in English, studied historical events, did labs in science, and did tons of problems in math. We learned and we went off to college and did well. We had almost no support programs in the building.

Now, as teachers, we differentiate, do projects, have students doing online enrichment work, have social workers, psychologists, tutoring and mentoring programs. Yet, students are apparently failing.

We have “improved” education, yet we are “failing”. I don’t get it. We do all this “reform” yet nothing is changing.

It just boggles my mind how we have some many support systems, great teachers, incredible lessons and resources, and yet we are “failing.”

Can anyone explain it?

-David Andrade, Wondering — Why is education suddenly “Failing”?

Maybe high school students were more feral back then? Maybe now that we have so many ways monitor, track, and correct students in the school environment, (but as the author laments, not their parents) it is easier to find and correct those feral students who don’t meet the standards. Is it that there are not more feral students, but that we find them more? Or is it that by investing so much in controls that we value that over other ways of being? There is nothing more frightening to those in control than someone who doesn’t need them. As librarians, we suffer from the same problem. The feral is not for everyone, but a better understanding of it will help us meet our patrons and students where they are, not where we expect them to be.

Supposed lack of creativity and not seeing what they see.

The confessions of a burnt-out music writer cites over-specialization, in life and in the profession as a major weakness for the author, what was once a pleasure became a tool to isolate one’s self, and the general freakiness of staring down a less-than rosy future gave him weak knees. While all kinds of writers hail the coming of the post-human, kids these days are still trying to be human. When some people are trying to explore their world through education, schools are telling them they have to specialize and focus, pick a major that will get them a job and help them get out of crushing debt. Kyung Hee Kim, a creativity researcher at William and Mary uses standardized tests to measure creativity in thinking, which seems dubious, argues that in an era of over-testing, it gets suppressed. In the midst of all this:

“The compelling, unnerving issue is that the student has nothing to say,” said Howard of the piece that drew so heavily on WebMD. “How could she, since she’s writing a research document from reference materials?” -Skimming the Surface, Dan Barrett

That was from an InsideHigherEd article on how students cite these days. The paper in question relied on the same WebMD article for 9 of 17 citations. Some other telling quotes:

That so few citations were classified as summaries — 164 out of the 1,832 — also indicates that many students are alighting on several different sources without spending much time reading them, then cobbling them together into what Howard called “an incomprehensible pastiche.”

“We think we have students working for efficiency and doing efficient writing.”

An unprovable thesis: the call to teach students to find better sources amongst the piles of handy information both inside and outside of the library is a direct result of the decline in the editorial role of the librarian. Information wants to be free and we keep piling it on.  So rather than spend a bunch of time doing a lot of boring work and reading, why not blaze through it and get on to things that actually interest you? Enter the lament of the music writer:

Ever since middle school, I’ve taken peers to task when they claimed to “listen to everything,” because they almost always meant Top 40 with maybe one deep-cut album they heard about from a parent, babysitter, or older sibling…..Now imagine that persnicket growing up, and getting empowered by music-nerd culture’s online blossoming. Then stoop to imagine him at 35, holding a pillow over his face as he regrets not being able to consummate with, much less commit to, a Maggie-Gyllenhaal-esque sweetheart because she had that one Jim Morrison poster up in her room, despite Ian Curtis and Glenn Danzig’s vouches for Morrison, etc.

This is an illustrative tale. The forces of the educated marshaled their strength behind the idea that more information is good. As a result, creative students who would rather do something else besides what we think they ought to be doing with themselves use the cut-and-paste culture they have been armed  with to meet those demands “efficiently” only to be called “uncreative.” We of earlier, more “creative, deeper thinking generations” get older and judge them for bending and breaking the rules of the games we impose, growing bitter at lost opportunities and their general ability to have a good time despite the things with which we task them. Not every student will find her voice in the system given. In this model of education, voices are given to the experts of the system who judge.

In art, montage and collage are time-tested techniques that can challenge us in ways other techniques can’t (it’s not an end-all-be-all). The power of sampling and turntablism in hip-hop is just one example of using tools outside of their original purpose to say something new. It’s deadly efficient, too:it makes it easier to use other’s work as a basis for your own when the materials to create are out of reach or unusable. It also allows you to capture the essence of a thing. You can get the idea from summarizing another wirter, but you’re not honestly capturing their voice.So when Howard and Jamieson lament that students are using more direct quotes than they are summarizing, it’s worth wondering if they miss this point.

In the study that Barrett writes about, it’s worth noting that these are 1st-year students, not yet inculcated with”proper” study habits. So they’re doing the best they can. I’ve working in public libraries on-and-off for a while. Some of the collections can support high-school research, others cannot. Public and School libraries are under constant budget scrutiny when board members and taxpayers ask “isn’t everything on the internet?” And we as librarians keep piling it on, too. The rules of the game given to students have changed, and they are responding creatively to those pressures. It’s not a lack of creativity, it’s a way of thinking we don’t understand.