Friday, February 12, 2010

French Theory Meets the Digital Humanities Meets the Higher Ed Reform Movement

In the academy, I often feel like a kind of chimera: a product of a critical theory, interdisciplinary humanities, creative writing, and instructional technology background that doesn't fit easily into established departments with long institutional pedigrees like "English" (in which I hold a B.A., M.F.A., M.A., and Ph.D.) or even newer academic disciplines like "Rhetoric" or "Media Studies" that are more likely to cite or review my work.

In many ways I have fared much better than my Critical Theory brethren, who also studied with Derrida and Lyotard at U.C. Irvine, because I started to take this thing called "French Theory" and apply it to the institutional problems and administrative snafus that I saw taking place in a rapidly changing cultural landscape in which the technocracy was losing control over what people were doing with read/write code, reconfigurable networks, and morphable digital files. As I explain in the acknowledgments of the Virtualpolitik book, I was actually first encouraged to do this by Jacques Derrida, when I was a student in his seminar. At a time in his career when he was thinking about friendship, linguistic difference, and mortality, he encouraged me to read regulations, legal decisions, and administrative manuals about videotaped testimony in child sexual abuse cases with the same care and attention to the nuances of language with which I might approach a poem or other literary text.

At the Networks and Enclaves conference, a number of speakers looked back to that historical moment to try to understand the condition of the academy today. As the event's organizer Catherine Liu put it: "What is happening with work? Academics have become pioneers in creating casualized labor."

The program began with Gary Hall of the Coventry School of Art and Design, author of Culture in Bits and Digitize this Book, who tackled the subject of "The Free, Libre, Open University" by using examples such as WikiNation, Culture Machine Liquid Books
New Cultural Studies: The Liquid Theory Reader, Liquid Theory TV, and other theoretical "media gifts" that he has been involved in.

Hall opened by considering the opinions of fellow open content advocate John Willinsky and the debate about “the unconditional university” imagined by Derrida. Hall argued that the "open university is actually very conditional" as it engages in publishing and disseminating work. Another reference point in Hardt and Negri's Multitude, in which the proletariat has become a variegated aggregation of migrants, workers, social movements, and NGOs.

He talked about the "shameful waste" involved in dominant models of the e-university, which depends on "sightless" Nings and other tool-based approaches. For Hall, examples of open university initiatives that incorporate tactical media or social critique are much more interesting. His examples ranged from the relatively straightforward and easily coopted modular offerings on Connexions to more radicalized sites of "cognitive capitalism" like EduFactory, which looks at the central role that universities play in capital economy. In thinking about the "ownership of knowledge and reproduction of the labor force," Hall noted the role of the circulation of unattributed documents like "Communiqué from an Absent Future" and pointed audience members to David Campbell's series of blog posts on "Revolutions in the Media Economy" and Franco Berardi's The Soul at Work, about which he noted that "the science of social transformation more like gasses than sociology," because there is no subject opposing other subjects.

Hall's oppositional "open university" or "open publishing" case studies also included The University of the Poor and The Really Open University. He also talked about the "instructional technology of the medieval university" and the role of proponents for autodidacticism like Jeff Jarvis who proclaims, "Who needs a university when we have Google?" He also mentioned Sir Learnalots Knowledge Blog, which peddles iPhone apps and Kindles to college students.

With a quick reference to Obama's Audacity of Hope, Hall drew attention to "the idea of the modern author as proprietor," which has been analyzed and deconstructed more in depth by Adrian Johns in Piracy: the intellectual property wars from Gutenberg to Gates. As he asked of Johns, "as a historian, does he have to already have decided what a pirate is in advance?"In this context, Hall defended the idea of "something like a pirate department" but more sophisticated than "the Laissez Faire as a Pirate Radio Ship," along the model of, where you "can’t tell if they are legitimate or not at beginning." Hall also alluded to the "legislator in Rousseau" and Zizek's commentaries on the return to communism as laziness. In closing, Hall quipped that "as with the French Revolution, it is still too early to tell."

In the question and answer period, participants ruminated on the fact that 60% of journals owned by five companies and that the university thrives on military involvement and free labor. Even if it is only on the order of "an hour a week," It might still be "like how people make money out of iPhone apps." Although "maybe we would want to have work that is more fluent, people in the humanities who learned to negotiate in the traditional system seek out corners and enclaves where things could happen" apart from the globalized capitalized network society.

In response to a talk by Evan Watkins about the propagation of "mini-mes," the consensus from the day seemed to be that humanities education was not inherently critical because college students could be turned into resources and business loves critical thinkers. After all, "business loves critical thinkers" and teaching has become an activity that "you can do it from your bathroom" in the age of distance learning.

Many also came to hear Francois Cusset, author of French Theory, from CNRS and l’Institut d’études politiques de Paris speaking about "Critical theory: trendy academic commodity or true counterpower?" He opened by noting that what is combined in French theory, as it is expressed in one word -- "textual criticism" and "social critique" -- becomes two different things as French theory is adapted in the United States. In looking at "reading and teaching online," Cusset asked "can you really be critical in online work?" For some there might be a "fantasized agora," but Cusset argued that even by the standards of Habermas "such a thing is over," as print media wanes. Cusset also explained that "media studies" per se "doesn't exist in France."

Cusset described his own fieldwork on the Internet looking at "websites of theory in Ameria" and "what theory can become when it is shared or co-produced" and the question if "the net can foster a critical higher education." He looked at sites like,,, and the Baudrillard Web to cull examples. Sometimes he was disappointed to merely find "fans of Deleuze and Guattari" or those in love with "enclaves as a utopian counterworld" much as many romanticize Hakim Bey's notion of "temporary autonomous zones." He also found those fascinated with the work of Sandy Stone, Donna Haraway, and others interested in "subjectivizing the stakes of theory" and "ways of mocking the theoretical father while praising him."

Cusset pronounced that now "theory-obsessed websites" are "a thing of the past"; like "doing literature online" there are not many contemporary experiments. As he asserted, "the web does not create new content," although its "new interface" might encourage inquiries into the "epistemologies of reading and seeing." For him, the more substantive issues have to do with bringing textual criticism and social critique back together because of the "need to disenclave the campus" and "share and coproduce knowledge" rather than allow it to be "locked up" existentially and physically in supposedly self-sufficient units. For him, it is "not collective autonomy," "optimizing connections between supply and demand," or "personal lives as personal databanks" that should constitute this work. In adopting technology, he emphasized that we should "not only use it but question it" along with the "global power system and ideological apparatus. In that context, as a kind of "Trojan horse" that might be the reverse of being inside the Internet, Cusset argued that there could be critical openings and conceptual rigor, as academics are "making it an object of study" and "the enemy we have learned to live with."

Stepping in for an ill Mark Poster, Peter Krapp argued that the contemporary university is obsessed with "results, throughputs, and assessment" in a "new enterprise for metrics and evaluation" for a "digitized and networked academy" that is remaking the "contract between the state and its people. As people cope with with the dissolution of the state, family, values, society, and culture, Krapp argued that they need much more than "just-in-time training and skills." His questions involved if "we critically teach online" when "you let Google build you a network" or cast as transformative "digital tickling across various receptors.

Tim Murray raised several issues about electronic publication, the curation of knowledge, and preserving and organizing institutional memory over time. For example, he raised the fact that "server space that costs money," resources often come from the library, there is "pressure to generate money with electronic publishing" through "partnering with university presses. As he put it, "my corners are stored in server spaces." It is not about "integrating nor failing to embrace open projects."

Murray discussed his own experiences with the Empyre listserv in discussing how that conversation "was not empowered by its skepticism," although it was "informed by intellectual history" at a time of "public projects on the web." He distinguished between "net as tool" and "net as object," in the scientific sense of creating an object, one that came with ideology.

In speaking about the digital rhetoric of the Obama White House, I enjoyed being paired with my UCI colleague Lucas Hilderbrand, who gave a talk about the "politics of access" involved in a coming out story disseminated by a video sharing project of Miranda July called Joanie 4 Jackie.

Citing the work of Wendy Chun about how Internet protocols "raise wals," "surveil," and "lock people in virtual worlds," organizers wanted to make the argument that "we live in an age of radical enclavement" in which it is important to "reach of to remote corners of space" and engage in the process of collectivizing.

There were many new economies referred to during the course of day in order to understand the position of the contemporary university: the "attention economy," "the distraction economy," "the license economy," "the reputation economy," "the gift economy," and many other "fantasy measurements of numbers."

The state of education specifically in California was also another important subject for discussion. Catherine Liu observed that public welfare strangely remains unverbalized in the current budget crisis crippling the University of California system, and she marveled at "how students don’t leverage the Internet" as they inhabit this "neoliberal university without the body."

On the second day of the conference, I was shocked by the meager attendance despite the presence of important commentators like Corynne McSherry of the Electronic Frontier Foundation discussing the "Google Books Settlement and Scholarly Works" and Lynne Withey of UC Press presenting on “Business Models for Open Access Publishing." The lack of interest from my peers in the School of Humanities in their own economic future truly was dispiriting.

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