Archive for March, 2012

Tristram Shandy asks…

March 15, 2012 Leave a comment

“Shall we be destined to the days of eternity, on holy days as well as working days, to be shewing the relicks of learning, as monks do the relicks of their saints, without working one, one single miracle with them?”

I found that question in the Commonplace Book of E. M. Forster today, and this is how I hear it:

We treat the fossilized learning handed down to us as though it were miraculous and we rarely find a way to make it so. We possess only the bones of the old learning–the life has been drained out–yet we still worship there instead of finding something alive that will much better serve us.

Something like that, anyway. We are entitled to demand that the relics work, but we don’t demand it, and the rituals around them continue. The guardians of the rituals all continue to be paid.

Something about the alienated nature of the learning. How many of us would struggle to recall that feeling from our school days, anyway? And some of our jobs? And phases of our political scene?

A social media episode

March 10, 2012 1 comment

From The Daily Beast, the furor over Limbaugh’s recent outbursts:

Just as the technology-driven fragmentation of the landscape allowed partisan media to proliferate, a new technological development is providing the tools to take it down. Social media is making it possible to create a grassroots movement very quickly, voicing grievances very quickly and getting heard at the top of corporate headquarters.

Question: how do we move through these stages: citizens not knowing such a thing is possible, to knowing it can happen somehow, to knowing how it happens, to knowing how to help it happen.

The university’s walled garden

March 6, 2012 Leave a comment

A quick Q & A with Jay Rosen from his Tumblr site:

akakensmith asked: Your clearly show journalism disrupted by a changing world and journalists inventing very new versions of their work for a new time. Just as clearly, you and others show active citizenship changing, too, driving other changes and responding to change. But the university seems to be getting off without much disruption to its familiar ways. Aren’t the social disruptions you study going to demand something of the university sometime soon? Can it make knowledge within its walled garden forever?

Jay Rosen: Yes, I think it’s coming. It’s happening at the lower end already. This is one reason I do so much of my “teaching” in public and for free, as with my Twitter feed and blogging, which I think of as a kind of journalism education. That’s not enough, but it is preparation for what’s ahead. Here’s someone whose experiments I am following closely.


Addendum: An interview in the Chronicle of Higher Education a day or two later predicts that technology and economies of scale create opportunities for certain kinds of excellence that will sweep around universities unwilling to innovate and leave them to die. That’s still the university operating in its walled garden, I suspect, just now the garden is virtual.

Intellectuals in democracy

March 4, 2012 Leave a comment

In a brief book excerpt, the late and much lamented NYROB writer Tony Judt describes the role of the intellectual in times of concrete turmoil like our own:

All this is hard for intellectuals, most of whom imagine themselves defending and advancing large abstractions. But I think the way to defend and advance large abstractions in the generations to come will be to defend and protect institutions and laws and rules and practices that incarnate our best attempt at those large abstractions. And intellectuals who care about these will be the people who matter most. (March 22, 2012 — NYROB subscription required to view full article)

I have greatly admired Tony Judt’s writing for several years, but I wonder if this formulation overlooks any hope that we might find in the movements that use social media to inform and inquire and affiliate and widen the range of voices that come to matter in society? Elsewhere in the excerpt he speaks of the role of intellectuals being “to fill the space between … the governed and the governors,” not a very exact formulation but one that doesn’t imply any particular role for the governed. The university, as well as any one of its professors, would not seem to have to work out a relationship with “the governed” or be challenged by their knowledge and experience or collaborate with them. Is the public intellectual here someone who speaks well and knows better? I can’t quite tell, but that’s my hunch.

If the university considers its role primarily to be “the production of sanctioned professionals,” as Dave Hickey has written, then its faculty need not learn the new inquiry and affiliation skills of, say, the Arab Spring. Sadly, if the university has no need to adapt, neither must the professor working there, I presume. If so, then the fuzziness of the intellectual’s relationship to “the governed” in this NYROB excerpt looks backward to established norms rather than forward to mysterious new circumstances unfolding now around us.

Tony Judt’s book was written under excruciating difficulties in the final months of his life that did not leave room for him to explore those unfolding circumstances, but like his other writing it has many other virtues. Dave Hickey’s playful “Romancing the Looky-Loos” essay shows at least one intellectual who has had a chance to think more about social practices that foster “a mode of social discourse, a participatory republic, an accumulation of small, fragile, social occasions that provide the binding agent of fugitive communities”–something more specific that “the governed” and more interesting, too. See also “If you build it they will come,” Tim Dunlop’s foundational essay claiming that our new media allow us to concentrate on public intellectual practice rather than the credentials often associated with the work in the past.