Monday, February 26, 2007

Hatchet Job

Because it references both archives and the blogosphere -- two areas that I write about as exemplary subjects for what Siva Vaidhyanathan has called "Critical Information Studies" -- I feel that I should probably say something about today's story in The Los Angeles Times, "A Philosophical View of Sex," which alleges that famed deconstructionist Jacques Derrida "had tried to use his coveted archives as leverage to derail a sexual harassment case against a professor at UC Irvine."

The basic causal analysis of the piece is, of course, overly simplistic. It claims that a single cause, "a vampire expert" allegedly seducing "a tipsy UC Irvine student," "inadvertently set off a chain of events" that led to a what had threatened to be a bitter legal battle between the University of California and Derrida's widow, although Le Monde recently reported that the conflict was now being mediated amicably. As a writing teacher, who teaches causal analysis, I want my students to view the causes of conflict in a more sophisticated way: it is rarely like watching a chain of dominoes fall. Anybody who has studied archival politics knows that the ownership of information always involves a lot of stake-holders and agendas, so to reduce the whole story to a single tidbit of academic gossip is to do readers a disservice.

Digital access advocates may say that the solution is to declare a pox on both their houses and put the entire archive online. But that may be a naive view that doesn't represent the realities of what you find if you spend any time actually sorting though boxes of paper ephemera or scrolling through microfilm from the estate of a contemporary author. For example, I did a lot of work with the materials from George Oppen in the Archive for New Poetry. At the time, I called it a "museum of hurt feelings," full of personal correspondence from living poets who were often angry at Oppen for missing scheduled speaking engagements or important publishing deadlines or for his unkind words when his mind was degenerating from Alzheimer's. These writers couldn't have known what we know now about Oppen's medical condition, and they certainly wouldn't want these highly personal exchanges a Google search away on the Internet. The end of a writer's life is often documented in certain intimacies. Even if it isn't, and the record in the archive is already public, that record can often only be interpreted through the editorial apparatus of scholarly publishing and careful indexing by librarians. Besides, manuscript originals still have economic value for their singularity, even in a post-Benjaminian age of mechanical production, which can't be easily divvied up.

Finally, it's worth noting that the writer ends the article with the claim that "Internet observers have begun satirizing the archive dispute," but he doesn't cite the source of the final quotation, which actually comes from an arch-conservative anti-academic blog from the National Review that describes itself as "THE RIGHT TAKE ON HIGHER ED" (and implicitly differentiates itself from the more neutral point of view of blogs like Inside Higher Ed). In fact, the writer himself, Roy Rivenburg, clearly is not the most objective reporter, based on the work of his own blog, Off Kilter, which links to a number of sites on his blog roll with anti-intellectual cultural agendas.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Liz, your complaint (or shall I call it a majestic smirk?) accomplishes precisely the "disservice" to readers it condemns. Perhaps a factor of equally subjective causal circuitry compelled you "to reduce the whole story" of an instance of sexual violation "to a single tidbit of academic gossip." Thank goodness there are magic e-carpets bureaucracies can use as they (whistling delightfully scholarly tunes) sweep up untidy questions that at least one woman found rather burning.

11:43 AM  

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