Monthly Archives: April 2014

#failedacademic: the New Public Intellectual?

Anne Helen Petersen recently left Whitman College, where she taught on film and media studies, for Buzzfeed. One of the positive, if unintended, consequences of the dismal academic job market, she explains, is the emergence of a new generation of public intellectuals:

“The collapse of the PhD market, combined with the rise of digital publishing, has ironically yielded an exquisite, flourishing community of public intellectuals—people who write for places like The New Yorker and The Atlantic, sure, but also those who write for places like Los Angeles Review of Books, The New Inquiry, n+1, Avidly, and, of course, The Awl and The Hairpin. As more and more people with PhD behind their names find themselves in situations similar to mine, we’ve been forced to radically reconsider what we thought “teaching” and “dialogue” looks like.”

Petersen’s move to Buzzfeed comes just as @Neinquarterly, also known as Eric Jarosinski, prepares to leave his tenure-track position at the University of Pennsylvania to tweet full time and @pankisseskafka, Rebecca Schuman, settles in to her writing gig at Slate after telling academia to kiss off. To judge by their Twitter followers, over 60,000 and 4,000 respectively, Jaronsinski and Schuman seem to have found more readers than their academic prose ever would have. And they both write about culture, the academy, and all things intellectual. So, is Petersen right? Has the confluence of a horrible academic job market for humanities PhDs and the proliferation of new media outlets helped create a new class of public intellectuals?

A number of folks who don’t have to tweet for a living sure hope so. As The Infernal Machine noted a few weeks ago, Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times lambasted scholars for what he saw as their failure to engage the broader public. Where, he wondered, had all the public intellectuals gone? But where were they to begin with?

The Oxford English Dictionary‘s earliest example of “public intellectual” is from a 1967 New York Times article. A quick look at Google Ngram shows that the term didn’t take off until the 1960s, and its sharpest increase wasn’t until the 1990s. This is all back-of-the-envelope thinking, but it seems safe to say that “public intellectual” is a rather recent concept. Public intellectuals are celebrity thinkers, people paid to opine out loud and in public. Whether it is an Adorno avatar or a truth-telling former academic, they craft a public persona that will make them visible.

But why would anyone listen to a public intellectual? As writers, academics, and intellectuals of all sorts clamor for visibility and attention, how is this new class of public intellectuals to be heard above the roar of a digital deluge of tweets, blogs, and status updates? The answer, in part, is authority. Schuman’s giddy revelations of the academy’s hypocrisy and ineptitude and Jarosinski’s sardonic denunciations of university life have weight because of the three letters behind their names. However unmoored from the university they currently are, Schuman and Jarosinski rely on their past professorial lives not just for content but for legitimacy. They might excitedly predict the collapse of the university, but they depend on its shadow of authority to make a living. They peddle in the vestiges of academic authority and the glow of its prestige. They don’t write as #failedwriters but as #failedacademics. Their celebrity wobbles atop the uncertain future of the university.

We are living through an upheaval in epistemic authority, a moment of uncertainty and change concerning the technologies and institutions that have traditionally generated, transmitted, and evaluated knowledge. What legitimates one form of knowledge over another? Which sources of knowledge are to be trusted? Which not? What practices, habits, techniques, technologies, and institutions render knowledge authoritative or worthy?

For the past 150 years, the modern research university has stood in for epistemic authority as the embodiment of scientific knowledge and the culture of science. Since its inception in Germany in the early 19th century, and its reinvention in America later that same century, the research university has been the central institution of knowledge in the West. Today the university finds itself confronted by the challenge of technological change. The saturation of digital technologies, from Wikipedia to Google PageRank, is changing the ways by which humans create, store, distribute, and value knowledge in the twenty-first century. What constitutes authoritative or legitimate knowledge today?

The university has survived and sustained its practices, virtues, and values because it has been a community embedded in institutional structures. And this is precisely what the new class of public intellectuals that Petersen anticipates seems to lack thus far. It may be, as Corey Robin puts it, that the economics and new technologies that make blogs, niche magazines, and twitter celebrities possible “also make them unsustainable.”

Many of these outlets rely on the volunteer or nearly free labor of writers and grad students or middle-aged professors like me. The former live cheaply and pay their rent with a precarious passel of odd jobs, fellowships and university teaching; the latter have tenure.

The university may well be antiquated, hypocritical, and in some ways outdated, but at its best it is a bulwark against the pressures, market and otherwise, that celebrity tweeters, #failedintellectuals, and smart writers will certainly face.

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The Unpredictability of Academic Writing

The otherwise foxy Nate Silver made a very hedgehoggish comment recently when he claimed that all op-ed writing was “very predictable” and that “you can kind of auto-script it, basically.”The Quant & The Connoisseur logo

His comments caused a (very predictable) backlash, with neither Silver nor his critics bothering to substantiate their claims. But they go to the heart of some of the most basic questions about why we read and what we read for. What is the value of unpredictability in writing? Are there certain kinds of writing that are more predictable than others? Are more predictable texts of lesser quality or is it the other way around? After all, we need some predictability in order to make sense of what we are reading, but how much predictability is too much?

Here at the Quant and the Connoisseur we decided to test Silver’s claim (to outfox the fox as it were). We chose to compare the genre of popular book reviews as they appear in an industry standard like the New York Times and those that appear in one of the leading academic journals, the PMLA (Publications of the Modern Language Association).

One of the reasons we chose these examples was to answer a nagging feeling that many of us here in the academy have that literary reviews are some of the most tedious things ever written. What Silver feels about the op-ed is akin to how we feel about contemporary journalistic criticism.

We undertook this exercise also to address recent debates about the “academicness” of academic writing. By “academic” people usually don’t mean nice things (like smart, insightful, or brilliant). They usually mean turgid, jargony, repetitive, and boring. But in all the mud-slinging no one thought to look more broadly at the nature of such writing. Everyone was content to extract a few well-chosen examples of impenetrable prose and be done with it. That’s clever but not very fair.

So to test our feelings and Silver’s claim, we decided to measure the predictability of different texts across our two samples using a common metric from information theory, that of redundancy. Redundancy uses Claude Shannon’s theory of information entropy to measure the density, and therefore the unpredictability of information (we use Shannon’s definition of one minus the relative entropy over the maximum entropy to calculate redundancy). The standard example is to think about this in terms of language. In English, the probability that you will find an “h” after a “t” is much higher than finding a “z” after a “t,” though this would be reversed for German. The higher the probability of any sequence of letters, the greater the redundancy because you can guess with increasing accuracy what the next letter will be. If “h” always came after “t” in English (and only h’s came after t’s) we wouldn’t even need to write it. It would be entirely redundant because perfectly predictable.

We can do the same thing for the words of a given text. Given any word n, what is the likelihood of guessing n+1. The greater the likelihood, the more redundant a text is and thus more predictable. Imagine a text with only two words “she said,” written 500 times (for a total of 1000 words). It would have a redundancy of .899, meaning that you could remove just about 9/10 of it and still have all of the information contained in the text. The reverse case, a text with 1000 different words, would have a redundancy score of 0. No two pairs of words repeat themselves throughout the entire text. Given any word we would have no idea what came next.

Applying this measure to a sample of 189 articles taken from our two categories, we found that on average book reviews in the New York Times are significantly more redundant than literary criticism in the PMLA. Here is a boxplot showing the distributions:

Predict Boxplot

One concern we had is that academic articles tend to be considerably longer than book reviews. When we took just the first 1000 words of each we still found significantly different averages (p = 8.399e-09).

Predict Box 1000 words

While this tested the redundancy of the writing in any single article, we also wanted to know whether book reviews tended to sound more like each other in general than academic articles. So where the first score looked at the language within articles, the next score tested language between articles. How similar or dissimilar are book reviews to each other? Do they sound a lot more like each other than academic criticism does to itself? The answer again was a resounding yes.


What does this all mean? First, it confirms our feelings that journalistic criticism is both more predictable and more homogenous across different articles. There is a familiarity that is an important aspect of this genre. Some might call it a house-style or just “editing.” Others might call it is just plain boring. One of the reasons we would argue that academics enjoy reading academic articles (yes, enjoy) is that there is a greater degree of surprise and uncertainty built into the language. Academic articles are information dense: their goal is to tell us new things in new ways. For people who read a lot, we get tired more easily of the same old thing. New knowledge requires new ways of saying things.

So rather than rehash tired clichés about the jargony nature of academic writing – itself a form of redundancy! – we might also want to consider one of academic writing’s functions: it is there to innovate, not comfort. To do so you need to be more unpredictable in how you put words together. It’s less soothing, but it also serves an important purpose. It’s the exact opposite of “jargon,” if by that we mean a way of speaking that is repetitive and insular. Academic writing is there to surprise us with new insights.

I am sure many will find this a surprising thing to say.

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Beyond the Democratic “Experience” of an Archive

Plato’s critique of writing is still widely known. He worried that the “technologizing of the word,” to use Walter Ong’s phrase, would lead to the erosion of the soul’s memory, and therefore to the end of true learning, which for Plato was but a form of remembering. One can only imagine Plato’s horror at our contemporary data society, where the word has been even more radically technologized. Digital computing entails the reduction of meaning to the stark logic of ones and zeroes, positive and negative, off and on. Far from representing a return to the “primitive,” this reductionism represents the technological perfection of writing, at least according to demands of efficiency: vast amounts of data can be stored on small devices for recall only when prompted.

But it is obvious that to live in a data society is not necessarily to live in a society that remembers, that actively recalls and engages the past in the present. Indeed, one legitimate worry about data is that it is only  “stored to forget” (as my colleague Kevin Hamilton once said in an atypical Platonic moment). Hitting “save” is like hitting “forget.” How provocative it would be if some programmer would create an add-on that would change every instance of “save” or “save as” on a machine to “forget” or “forget as”!

Given the fraught status of memory in a data society, it is little surprise that archives have become intensified sites of anxiety, energy, creativity, and labor. The library sciences are overwhelmed at present with the question of “archiving” the digital. The digital humanities have spurred manifold archival projects, each trying to re-imagine the archive in a digital world. Various humanistic disciplines—from art history to literature to history—have devoted volumes recently to the question of the archives. Since these are intentional sites of memory in a society typified by automated memory, it is little wonder they are particularly meaningful social, political, and cultural sites.

But what are the archives? It is a question not all that different from one I asked earlier on this site about metadata. Indeed, it is a question not far off from the one my colleague at The Infernal Machine, Chad Wellmon, recently posed, “What is literature?” Chad’s answer was essentially, “it depends.” It depends on time, place, circumstances, and all those other things that go into the making of what we call “culture.”  No doubt, we could say the same thing about the archives.

I am struck, therefore, by a contrast in democratic cultures between two national security archives I recently visited, one virtually and the other in person. Both have large holdings from the Cold War. Both are run independently of the government. And both directly address the ends of democracy in their mission. And yet the meaning of these two archives could not be more different, especially with respect to what they assume about the nature of democracy.

The first, George Washington University’s impressive National Security Archive, plausibly claims to be the world’s largest nongovernmental archive. I visit it online regularly. Founded some thirty years ago “by journalists and scholars to check rising government secrecy,” the archive has a team of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawyers among its staff. One of its several claims of “extraordinary, quantifiable success over the past 25 years” is “40,000 FOIA and declassification requests to more than 200 offices and agencies of the U.S. government that have opened more than 10 million pages of previously secret U.S. government documents.”


Archivists at the Archivo Histórico de la Policia Nacional. Photo courtesy of Human Rights Data Analysis Group.

The other archive I visited in person two months ago. The Archivo Histórico de la Policia Nacional in Guatemala City, which I introduced to readers of The Infernal Machine in my last post, consists of the 80 million documents and photographs that formed the records of the Guatemalan National Police. The National Police, as I discussed, were responsible for a prolonged reign of terror in Guatemala City during the Cold War, all part of the state’s relentless efforts to “disappear” from political existence anything and anyone that might challenge its legitimacy, power, or authority.

What are the “archives” in these two places, and what does their meaning have to do with the nature of democracy? To walk into the Archivo Histórico de la Policia Nacional is to walk into a justice factory. It is to see groups of gowned and gloved workers organizing, processing, and digitizing documents and photos. Their goal is to take the archives dumped by the National Police as piles of trash in an abandoned building and to reconstruct, as nearly as possible, the structure and contents of the police records. Building archival structures that replicate the original institutional structures of the archived agency is standard archival practice. But here the mission is different from any North American archive I know of.

Archivists at work in the Archivo. Photo courtesy of Eric Sandeen.

Archivists at work in the Archivo. Photo courtesy of Eric Sandeen.

For at the end of one hallway at the Archivo sits the bare office of the human-rights prosecutor. No computer sits on a desk. Rather, the Archivo is itself the prosecutor’s “data” storage machine, his file system, his memory bank, his evidence repository. The reconstruction of the police archives, a massive and multiyear project, is being meticulously carried out so that the perpetrators of the “disappearances” might not only be identified but brought to justice. The democratic ethos of the Archivo is oriented toward political justice, a change in the state of affairs in Guatemala. In crucial respects, the Archivo “ends” in the prosecutor’s office.

I have never been in the National Security Archive, so I cannot attest to what its facilities look like. (I imagine office cubicles, computer screens, water coolers, and so on.) While the National Security Archives has collaborated in lawsuits and even prosecutions (including the prosecution of retired army general and former president Efraín Ríos Montt in Guatemala, ultimately stymied by the Constitutional Court of Guatemala), it is apparent that the National Security Archive is an information factory first, a judgment factory second, and a justice factory only remotely.

The democratic ethos of the National Security Archive is strongly informed by the idea of “freedom of information.” In the 1950s the lawyer Harold Cross and American Society of Newspaper Editors launched the “freedom of information” movement as a way to counter the growing secrecy of the federal government in the context of the cold war. This movement would eventually help bring about the Freedom of Information Act, signed in 1966 by President Johnson, and used widely by the National Security Archive. Cross wrote in his 1953 The People’s Right To Know: Legal Access to Public Records and Proceedings:

Citizens of a self-governing society must have the legal right to examine and investigate the conduct of its affairs subject only to those limitations imposed by the most urgent public necessity. To that end they must have the right to simple, speedy enforcement procedure geared to cope with the dynamic expansion of government activity.

In most respects, Cross approached his work in a forensic spirit: “information” was needed for journalistic investigations and, more broadly, to make the government accountable to the people. Yet, underlying Cross’s efforts and those of the editors of the newspapers that he represented, was a faith in the stand-alone democratic virtue of “openness.” Exposure, closely related to exposé, was itself a kind of democratic good. The National Security Archives today continues this faith: most of its work ends in well-timed publicity statements like this, this, or this.

Exposure, to be sure, is a democratic good. But is it therefore a democratic end? Are archives that expose government secrets inherently democratic? Is the opening of archives itself a democratic accomplishment?

Of course, democratic societies need information, but the democratic culture of the United States is too prone not just to the rather crass assumption that more information is always better but to the more sophisticated Whitmanian and Deweyan assumption, more recently championed by Richard Rorty, that democracy is ultimately a matter of “experience.” “Information,” especially freedom of information, fits nicely with such a notion of democracy. “Information” is synonymous with exposure and exposure itself a kind of democratic good. Archives in this Deweyan cultural context become potential sites of exposé, disclosure, revelation, and so on—all aiming ideally toward a broadly distributed culture of critical judgment. Justice, in this Deweyan world, would seem to be a spontaneous outgrowth of the proliferation of democratic experience, rather than a particular end to be achieved through concerted and focused effort.


At work in a justice factory. Photo by Ned O’Gorman.

To be sure, judgment is both the beginning and end of justice. We move toward justice through acts of judgment, and justice is enacted in an authoritative act of judgment. But in Deweyan culture, judgment reigns so supreme that it can take the place of justice. If “experience” is at the heart of democracy, democratic experiences can proliferate quite apart from substantive changes in the state of affairs. [Indeed, a curious connection can be drawn between Deweyan democratic culture and the activities of the NSA and other surveillance agencies. Both “archives as information for critical judgment” and “data as information for analysis” can and do operate quite apart from immediate concerns with justice.]

The Archivo Histórico de la Policia Nacional challenges these Deweyian assumptions as it insists that exposure is not enough. The democratic culture of the Archivo is one where history, condensed in the archives, is proactively oriented toward justice through acts of exposure, yes, but moreso through the construction of structures of accountability, of justice, even in a political context where those structures are regularly frustrated by corruption, cronyism, and fear. Still, the people of the Archivo persist in their factory-like work, working toward a country not yet achieved. The goal of democratic politics, they attest, is not ultimately a broad realization of critical judgment and widespread forms of democratic “experience,” but justice, an objective order, a state of affairs, indeed a state. Richard Rorty offers no categories for understanding the methodical labors of the Archivo.

[Thanks to Paul McKean for teaching me about Harold Cross.]

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The New Heresy

The recent diatribes, or here, against the digital humanities, aren’t really about the digital humanities. They do make disparate and disparaging claims about projects that combine computational resources and interpretive skill to map literary genres, discern gradual changes in literary periodization and form, or simply curate our cultural traditions. Such projects, suggest their critics, tell us things we already know; they smack of a small-minded professionalism interested only in method; they suffer from science envy; and, they lack imagination and wonder. All because they dare to think with numbers.

Last week my Infernal Machine colleague Andrew Piper suggested that all this fuss about quantification and data is the new anti-intellectualism. I think he’s right, but there is something else at stake for these breathless skeptics. Their denunciations of digital humanities are not just a tired rehashing of C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” argument about the mutual incomprehension of the humanities and science. (For that read that latest spat between Stephen Pinker and Leon Wieseltier.) They represent the unveiling of the literary sacred.

One recent dismissal of the digital humanities opens with a sympathetic vignette depicting how charismatic Franco Moretti, the impresario of Stanford’s Literary Lab and author of Distant Reading, can be, but it ends with an emphatic claim about what reading, books, and literature are really all about. “Books,” as blogger Rachel Cardasco declares, “are NOT data, they’re books”:

Ultimately [..] reading is the act of running your eyes across the page and processing the words into images, sounds, feelings, and ideas. We talk to each other about books, we read passages out loud to one another. We lovingly arrange books on shelves or in piles. We download hundreds of them onto our devices. And we immerse ourselves in the stories they tell. So don’t talk to me about data, Franco, my dear. I simply don’t want to hear about it. I’m busy reading.

Don’t disturb the devotee while she reads, worships, prays–to literature. What is under threat is not just a particular practice of reading but deep assumptions about the very nature of literature. Digital humanities is a heretical intrusion into a sacred space. It dares to treat literature as a field of knowledge that could be cultivated with qualitative interpretation, as well as statistics, graphs, and data sets. Don’t sully my literature with your data because the quiet, close repose of reading is where I transform myself.

Mark Edmundson echoes Matthew Arnold when he describes literature as a replacement for religious faith:

 If religious faith wanes in the world–or in a given individual–then the next likely source of meaning may well be literature. The literature we have come to value, most especially the novel, is by and large anti-transcendental. It does not offer a vision of the world as existing under the guidance of a deity. It suggests, though often it does not assert, that we humans have to make our own way without the strains and the comforts of faith.

After the death of God, literature is a resource for self-transformation, and reading–closely, caringly, silently–is one of our modern liturgies.

It wasn’t always this way. Until the end of the eighteenth century, literature referred to everything that had been printed. It wasn’t until around 1800 that it was used to refer to a particular kind of writing. Only when there was too much literature did Literature become a distinct category. In 1803 Wilhelm Schlegel, a German Romantic and one of the first scholars of Literature, lamented the pitiful state of German reading and writing. Given the ready availability of printed texts, German readers no longer read with “devotion but rather with a thoughtless distraction.” To remedy this situation he invoked Literature as a particular kind of writing that had been filtered and sorted from among the surfeit of all that had been printed. What was needed to remedy the sorry condition of German literature and thought more generally, claimed Schlegel, was a normative, critical category that would separate the good books from the bad ones and help readers make their way through the proliferation of print. Literature was not simply a “raw aggregate of books”; it was a source of spiritual relief and discovery.

For some, the digital humanities threatens to interrupt this experience of Literature by reducing texts to an aggregation of data points. These contemporary cultural anxieties echo similar anxieties that accompanied the desacralizaiton of other kinds of texts. Consider the double bind of seventeenth and early eighteenth-century British scholars of the Bible. With the profusion of apocryphal material and new scholarly methods, they pioneered forms of inquiry that many worried would undermine the divine authority of the Bible. The enumeration of 30,000 variants among various Biblical manuscripts by the Oxford scholar John Mill, claimed some, made the Bible seem all too human. Something similar happened when eighteen-century German philologists like Friedrich A. Wolf, flush with newly discovered information and refined techniques of philological criticism, suggested that the Odyssey was not the result of one author, Homer, but the product of textual accretion over time—just as biblical scholars had eventually concluded about the Old Testament. Similar to biblical scholars, Wolf thought, as Anthony Grafton puts it, that he faced a choice: he could either save Homer as creator and obliterate the text or save the text and destroy the author—a figure who had become a model for humanist education.

Both of these examples concern data-driven violations of sacred texts, and so too do contemporary worries about digital humanities. Literary theories from the radically deconstructive to the deeply historicist have long interrupted our reading experiences, but they have done so within the bounds of close-reading liturgies. Digital humanities violates this consummate exhortation of the practice of Literature. It is the new heresy.

We live, or so the sociologists of religion tell us, in a post-secular age. Experiences of the sacred have not been extinguished by the bright light of reason and the overblown promises made on behalf of science. These self-consciously secular anxieties about a future without literary critics and close reading give the lie to the notion that we’ve given up the sacred. For some, Literature is a sacred realm that should remain set apart from the mundane details of life and the profane distortions of data.



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