Stanley Fish blogging on DH

Stanley Fish is one of those humanities superstars that American academia has a few of. Harold Bloom is another. Fish has his own column in the New York Times – only, as he admitted the other day, it’s not so much a column as a blog.

The past couple of blog entries that Fish has given his readers concern Digital Humanities. Having looked over the program for the next Modern Language Association (MLA) meeting (which would take place in early January 2012) for new trends in the humanities, Fish wrote in late December, for example, that one new trend seemed to be DH:

But if there is to be hope, there must be a path it can travel; and if there is to be redemption, there must be a redeemer. Who or what shall it be? Again, according to the program, it can only be one thing — the digital humanities, which does make an appearance in some of the panels that pose the question of the profession’s health and survival.

What exactly this DH is, Fish then discussed in another blog – the one already referred to. It opens in this way:

This is a blog. There, I’ve said it. I have been resisting saying it — I have always referred to this space as a “column” — not only because “blog” is an ugly word (as are clog, smog and slog), but because blogs are provisional, ephemeral, interactive, communal, available to challenge, interruption and interpolation, and not meant to last; whereas in a professional life now going into its 50th year I have been building arguments that are intended to be decisive, comprehensive, monumental, definitive and, most important, all mine.

And here, in a very few sentences, Fish succeeds in saying something important about what blogging does to the discipline of humanities writing. For his views on whether or not DH offers new and better ways to realize traditional humanities goals or completely changes our understanding of what a humanities goal (and work in the humanities) might be, we shall have to wait for a third blog, Fish tells us. I look forward to this third blog – hoping that Fish may be able to come up with an interesting answer to one of the most crucial questions concerning  DH.

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Sweden and the Church of Kopimism

Welcome to the website of the Church of Kopimism! We have been Slashdotted, and are therefore temporarily showing a static webpage. If you are interested in becoming a member, please revisit us in a couple of days when the storm has settled.

( http://kopimistsamfundet.se)

This is the message you get if you try to find out more about the most recent addition to the Swedish religious landscape, the Church of Kopimism.

No wonder the website of the Church has been slashdotted – who wouldn’t be interested in reading and finding out more?

It is very strange, indeed, this story coming from Sweden – a story of how, in the midst of a worldwide debate about Internet piracy, Swedish authorities have granted official religious status to the Church of Kopimism, which claims it considers CTRL+C and CTRL+V (shortcuts for copy and paste) to be sacred symbols, and that information is holy and copying is a sacrament.

The BBC quotes the self-appointed leader of the Church, 19-year-old philosophy student Isak Gerson, as saying:

For the Church of Kopimism, information is holy and copying is a sacrament. Information holds a value, in itself and in what it contains and the value multiplies through copying. Therefore copying is central for the organisation and its members. Being recognised by the state of Sweden is a large step for all of Kopimi. Hopefully this is one step towards the day when we can live out our faith without fear of persecution.

We know that Sweden is a pretty secular society – but still: What is religious about copying – and does this sort of thing not devalue both the notion of religion and discussions about information and the role of copying?

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What is college for?

A minority of them start with a good high-school education and attend colleges that challenge them with hard work. They learn some things worth knowing. The rest–most college students–start underprepared, and go to colleges that ask little of them and provide little in return. Their learning gains are minimal or nonexistent. Among them, those with a reasonable facility for getting out of bed in the morning and navigating a bureaucracy receive a credential that falsely certifies learning. Others don’t get even that.

This is the conclusion reached by Erik Hayden after having read a new report, issued by Professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, which says that college students are spending less time studying than earlier students and are “failing to develop the broad-based skills and knowledge they should be expected to master.”

This is dismal reading – especially to anyone teaching at college or university level. And perhaps even more so to anyone teaching in the humanities. However, I take heart from a wonderful article by Gary Gutting  from The Stone (a forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless), “What is college for?” Referring to the incessant talk about the “failure” of higher education, Gutting argues that whereas the lack of academic engagement among many college students is real enough, there is something that both students and teachers have fundamentally misunderstood about colleges and college learning:

First of all, [colleges] are not simply for the education of students.  This is an essential function, but the raison d’être of a college is to nourish a world of intellectual culture; that is, a world of ideas, dedicated to what we can know scientifically, understand humanistically, or express artistically…

Teachers need to see themselves as, first of all, intellectuals, dedicated to understanding poetry, history, human psychology, physics, biology — or whatever is the focus of their discipline…

Students, in turn, need to recognize that their college education is above all a matter of opening themselves up to new dimensions of knowledge and understanding.  Teaching is not a matter of (as we too often say) “making a subject (poetry, physics, philosophy) interesting” to students but of students coming to see how such subjects are intrinsically interesting.  It is more a matter of students moving beyond their interests than of teachers fitting their subjects to interests that students already have.   Good teaching does not make a course’s subject more interesting; it gives the students more interests — and so makes them more interesting.

Gutting’s article, which was posted only 4 days ago, has resulted in a whole number of comments by readers of the Opinion Pages of The New York Times. It is quite clear that opinions differ very strongly on these matters – but it’s good to see that people do seem to care enough to involve themselves in a discussion about them!

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Global Ethics Online

Is there such a thing as a global ethics – this is one of the questions the Global Ethics Fellows of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs just spent a few days discussing in New York. In this pluralistic, multicultural and relativistic day and age, this is a very good question on which much can and was said this past weekend.

The Council calls itself the Voice for Ethics in International Affairs and the most important place for that voice is online. Carnegie Council Online features short, prescriptive contributions from writers examining ethical dilemmas in current policy issues. Among the features are these:

The Council also has a monthly e-newsletter, Insider, full of links to new site contents.

The work done online is most impressive and I highly recommend it!

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Pity the Book. It’s dead again.

“Pity the book. It’s dead again” – this is how Ben Ehrenreich opens his wonderful essay on “The Death of the Book” in the Los Angeles Review of Books from April 2011.

For the record, Ehrenreich writes,

my own loyalties are uncomplicated.  I adore few humans more than I love books.  I make no promises, but I do not expect to purchase a Kindle or a Nook or any of their offspring.  I hope to keep bringing home bound paper books until my shelves snap from their weight, until there is no room in my apartment for a bed or a couch or another human being, until the floorboards collapse and my eyes blur to dim.  But the book, bless it, is not a simple thing.

There have actually been many attempts in the past to declare the book dead, but these seem to be completely forgotten in current conversations on the demise of the book. “Instead,” says Ehrenreich, “we shuttle between two equally hollow poles: goofball digital boosterism a la Negroponte on one side and on the other a helpless, anguished nostalgia for the good old days of papercuts.” The latter sometimes results in what he terms “bibilionecrophilia: the retreat of the print-faithful into a sort of autistic fetishization of the book-as-object.”

Though adoring books, Ehrenreich isn’t himself a bibilionecrophiliac. This is because there is something more to books that their material manifestation. Beyond the paper, the ink, and the glue, there is an elusive quality which is baffling, but also intriguing. Borrowing a famous phrase from Jacques Derrida, Ehrenreich argues that the book is always already lost. It is constantly dying and being lost – only then to unfold as it is being read again. It is and always will be unfinished:

It is a chorus line of electrons. Don’t freak out. You can’t buy it or sell it no matter what you do. You’d be a fool to want to own it. Except through writing it and reading it and participating thereby in its creation – The Book always eludes us. Until we’re done, which may be soon, books will be with us: dead as always, the picture of health.

The essence of the book, that is, will never be lost – even if we will eventually ‘only’ be able to buy e-books. So maybe we should stop worrying.

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Chomsky about Twitter

In an interview given in March, left-wing icon Noam Chomsky was asked to give his opinion on the new communication technologies. The following exchange took place between Chomsky and interviewer Jeff Jetton:

Jeff Jetton:Do you think people are becoming more comfortable communicating through a device rather than face to face or verbally?

Noam Chomsky: My grandchildren, that’s all they do. I mean, of course they talk to people, but an awful lot of their communication is extremely rapid, very shallow communication. Text messaging, Twitter, that sort of thing.

Jeff Jetton:What do you think are the implication for human behavior?

Noam Chomsky: It think it erodes normal human relations. It makes them more superficial, shallow, evanescent. One other effect is there’s much less reading. I can see it even with my students, but also with my children and grandchildren, they just don’t read much.

To Nathan Jurgenson, a PhD student in Sociology at the University of Maryland, Chomsky’s comments about the shallowness of social media are neither very deep nor very convincing. Chomsky has always been very good at criticizing old media – at realizing that knowledge is power – and by now dismissing tweeting and texting as trivial, he ends up disqualifying or subjugating as less true, deep or important certain styles of communicating with which he is not himself comfortable.

Social media are used more by some groups than others. Jurgenson refers to a study that shows, for example, that nonwhites and people in the Third World are interacting on the Internet more than others. When Chomsky speaks favourably of printed books and periodical essays, he therefore not only implicitly suggests that nonwhites and those in the Third World are being less deep when they are communicating than their first-world counterparts, according to Jurgenson; he is also dismissing a new and major way of manufactoring dissent. Chomsky should know (with Foucault) that power issues are involved in any claim to knowledge.

But even if we grant Chomsky and other critics of social media that these are more shallow and instantaneous, Jurgenson asks,

the important questions then become: Is instant, digital communication less true? Less worthy? Less valuable? Less linguistically creative? Less politically efficacious?

While I think that Jurgenson is spot on in his criticism of Chomsky in some ways – Chomsky who is such a sharp critic of old media ought at least to show more of a (positive) interest in the new social media – I cannot help but thinking that part of his criticism is unfounded. Or rather, I think that he may be confusing things somewhat: In terms of spreading messages and empowering new voices (and thus manufacturing dissent), the new social media are surely second to none – but this important function is not the same as being deep.

While just as important, the diversity and empowerment issue is different from the issue that concerns depth and intellectual quality. Answering the criticism of shallowness with a defence of empowerment only diverts attention from or postpones a discussion which has to be taken sooner or later.

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The (scholarly) politics of blogging

“Islam scholar celebrates Osama bin Laden in anonymous blog” – this is one of the headlines in today’s Politiken (a national Danish newspaper). The article reveals that the anonymous blogger in question is Kasper Mathiesen, a PhD-student at the University of Aarhus who blogs under the name ‘the prophet of mercy’.

Mathiesen’s researach topic is Islamic Sufism and he has himself converted to Islam. Blog statements of his such as ‘Bin Laden is a modern Jesus’ and ‘Hizb ut-Tahrir is right’ have now come to the attention of Danish politicians, some of whom find them highly problematic. One politician on the left, Jonas Dahl, is quoted as saying:

I don’t agree at all, but we do have freedom of speech in Denmark and this must be respected. But [Mathiesen] offers a blog observation on a topic with which he also deals in his research – and this could become a problem. If nothing else, I do think that when a scholar writes about a topic that has some connection with his own research, he should not do so anonymously. Then his university will have to see whether this is something that they can condone or not.

Another politician, Kirsten Brosbol (spokesperson for matters relating to research within the party currently in power, the Social Democratic Party) doesn’t think that politicians should interfere with what scholars write in private forums. But she does think it is necessary to keep an eye on whether such private opinions remain private.

And the man at the center of the storm, Kasper Mathiesen – what does he have to say for himself? Well, in a mail to Politiken, he writes that

I can’t see what these opinions have to do with my research. Scholarly research is based on knowledge, study, theory and method. A scholar must be evaluated solely on the basis of his results and his ability to master the tools of his discipline. Besides, my research neither concerns Islamism, al-Queda, terrorism nor Hizb ut-Tahrir, but transnational Sufism and religious learning.

The questions raised here are very important and interesting ones – what is the relationship between the comments a scholar offers on a blog and his/her own research? Do the (scholarly) standards differ? Are free speech issues different in relation to blogs than in relation to, say, a scholarly article – what are and should be, in short, the (scholarly) politics of blogging?

[All quotes are my own translations from the Danish]

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