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“Against the universal library of e-books”

*Apologies for somewhat unpolished write-up and format.

Though the title of my blog post today might sound like I’m completely opposing the economy and virtues of digital books and archives that this week’s readings are in part addressing, that’s not my direction in initiating our discussion in the meeting today. Similar to most of academics (and non-academic readers), I advocate the democratic promises and affordances of virtual (which is thereby portable) books and archives in terms of its accessibility and archival usability. However, I’d like to join the proliferation of e-books and e-archives as long as they can be related back to the attributes of socio-cultural and economical infrastructure of specific communities and personhoods otherwise marginalized in the capitalist landscape and exchange of media. I borrowed the title of this post from Rebecca Lossin’s essay “Against the Universal Library” for New Left Review 107, Sept/Oct 2017. (You can read the essay here: https://newleftreview.org/issues/II107/articles/rebecca-lossin-against-the-universal-library). In that essay, Lossin argues that “digitization, and the digitization of books in particular, is not benign. In both its utopian and pragmatic forms, digitization conceals a destructive impulse that not only eliminates books but threatens the very freedom of discourse it purports to promote; erodes the educational experience of those it claims to support; and monetizes, thus commodifies, intellectual life in the name of free access. And all of this dramatically alters the writing it contains, if it doesn’t practically erase it.” Even if, to save our discussion time for today, I’m reluctant to address several crucial points that Lossin raises against universalization of digital books, I think some of our readings pose similar concerns regarding the intellectual content and its connection to communities (both public and counter-public if dividable) in looking at the pervasiveness of “bibliologistics” (Kirschenbaum) and books as digital objects that rely on viral capitalism and its indifference to the book’s content (which is the idea and discourse).

As a researcher and scholar of artists’ books, I still defend limited books by hand-pressing or books from small publishers printed on demand. And I know that they are also interested in digitizing their books for preservation and accessibility. However, it’s quite magical to observe their survival as a current book publishing world (paradoxically, worldless as they don’t rely on any specific sites that used to represent a nexus of work involved in producing and distributing books) is not at all interested in what books need to say and show (both critically and aesthetically from authors’ and authors’ communities’ perspectives). Kirschenbaum’s discussion of “bibliologistics” and its anomaly in focusing on “supply chain” in contemporary book publishing seems to illuminate the issue quite a bit. Kirschenbaum states: “The sense of arbitrariness I felt in Kendallville (what am I doing in Kendallville?) seems confirmed by this anomaly, a reminder of the inscrutable nature of the supply chain. As Cowen notes, “commodities today are manufactured across logistical space rather than in a single place.” Bibliologistics, as a project, must, it seems to me, confront such anomalies and antinomies, the allure of site specificity versus the ultimate modularity and replicability — disposability — of those self-same sites, which is the very logic of logistics.” Following this, we can remind ourselves that the current book publication and distribution tend to be oblivious to the particular life-spaces of labor (material, intellectual, creative, and so on). Acknowledging this, the episode of a disappeared Kindle version of Ted Chiang’s The Lifecycle of Software objects in Kirschenbaum’s article “Books After the Death of the Book” isn’t surprising. Depending on market demands and (profitable) exchangeability, the book as a digital object can anytime disappear unless there’s an underground act of piracy and preservation of books (both analog and digital) that are always disposable by logistics and markets (which are also tied to the limited size of the web database). I also recall somewhere in our readings, Posner pointed out logistics is self-healing, but then we can perhaps question in regarding the life of books, what would bibliologistics do towards books in its mode of self-healing? What is self-healed in the operation of bibliologistics?

Thinking of piracy and preservation on the positive side, what I appreciated in Borsuk’s discussion of _The Book_. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2018. (esp. “The Book as Interface”) is the history of The Internet Archive. Though I’m not sure how it financially maintains its capacities, The Internet Archive seems to approach both digitized materials and the conventional library books as books to preserve and circulate outside of profitability. Beyond the fact that The Internet Archive, in 2005, began scanning library books for future generations and didn’t destroy the physical books as archival objects, they, similar to Wayback Machine, initiated “Physical Archive of the Internet Archive” which houses physical materials already saved in their digital archive in ways of ensuring material preservation as well as cross-references. In addition, it enabled libraries and public schools to print their DIY books of its digitized books as a mode of envisioning the hybrid survival of analog and digital books. Even if I’m still not sure how this way of publishing can help keeping and promoting rather marginalized artists’ books and miniscule materials in the universalization of virtual library, I thought this might suggest a promising difference between rather militant approach to electronic books (which coexist with analog archives and distributions) and the principle and operation of capitalistic bibliologistics in the recent ecologies of books and other cultural media.

Higher Education Post-COVID (Jacobin)

To accompany our reading this week from Steve Brier and Michael Fabricant, I thought I’d share a snippet of this short Jacobin article on austerity, the COVID-19 crisis, and the current and future infrastructure of higher education.

“Crises, Naomi Klein reminds us, are periods of undoing, as society’s key institutions shutter and collapse. But they can also be moments of redoing, as new structures emerge from the rubble…

How our universities get remade in the wake of a global pandemic is a matter of crucial public significance, fundamentally entrenched in questions of power, redistribution, and democracy. It should not be relegated to technocratic engineering and management. Now is a time to advance far-reaching egalitarian programs, to align our universities with crucial public needs rather than market conceits. The future of our universities will be shaped by the movements that rise up to fight for them.

In the coming weeks, the calls to resuscitate our collapsing higher education institutions should be evaluated according to three fundamental values that ought to underpin institutions of higher learning: How can COVID-19 responses deepen and expand democracy on campuses? Will matters of crucial public significance be collectively determined, or swept under the auspices of technocratic decision-makers? How will future access to resources — financial, instructional, material — be equitably distributed in universities? How will we govern and organize ourselves — both within and across institutions — to foster solidarity, rather than division and zero-sum competition?

The answers to these questions rest on the social struggles and organizing that occur in the coming weeks. As the COVID-19 conversation moves from crisis to recovery, we need to both resist austerity on our campuses and fundamentally reimagine how they operate and whose interests they serve. Simply returning to normal won’t be good enough.​”

Opening: Kelty, Groom, Eve, and Zuckerman

Some Thoughts/Qs:

  • Groom’s inspiring 2009 piece reminds me of Hannah Alpert-Abrams’ writing. Another DHer who left academia, Alpert-Abrams has since gone on to make all of her academic job-search/grant materials freely available online to help academic jobseekers. Groom now runs Reclaim Hosting (a paid but highly affordable hosting platform). On leaving academia and these resources: is there something about being in the field that makes free & open aid difficult/impossible/unideal (even at CUNY)? What do we make of the lingering prestige of costly and dense resources and content in this field? For me, Groom makes an excellent point about the way he communicates and the work he does….
  • Zuckerman got me thinking into a politics of free tech/infrastructure as well as goals or ideals for its application(s). A few related ways into this might be:
    • can a FLOSS revolution be fully achieved within/alongside existing institutional structures: academia or even Google/Microsoft? Knowledge infrastructures certainly don’t only originate in such places. More broadly, should we focus on removing existing structures of power—“the university as we know it” or “Google”—or on what Zuckerman calls “filling in the gaps”? I am interested in our take on the BBC/NPR dichotomy of comprehensive vs complementary change.
    • A la Zuckerman’s question of not only how we fund public infrastructure, but what would it do: how might we go about getting past our “failures of imagination,” and consider infrastructure that work for the public (not simply academic research and corporations)? Can we make the public option “our work” or “humanities work”? How might/mightn’t this be doable?
    • Zuckerman and Eve both reference UK models of state-sponsored media (among others), but what should the US government’s role be in all this? How do we understand the line between protecting citizens and censorship (esp. in an American context where censorship is a particularly hot topic)?
  • Kelty’s proposal of reorienting power around “recursive publics” as a counter to various organizations is an interesting and important point. I wonder, though, how we bridge the gap of informed publics (those who might become recursive publics) and targeted communities for whom such concepts might seem indigestible. What is the likelihood that our “recursive publics” will again divide a bourgeois educated elite and the voiceless (how exactly are we to interpret those “geeks” to whom Kelty frequently refers)? Where and how would such work need to begin to promote inclusivity? How do we ensure that folks are not left out this power reorganization?

A Few Resources:

Many in my community have expressed anxiety over accessing materials for finishing up coursework or teaching. The significance of open and free resources becomes unmistakable in such moments. As this week is dedicated to openness, I thought I’d share a concise but curated list of a few open and free resources that connect to our course:

Troubling Post

At risk of perversity, I would like to use this week’s readings to discuss how our current moment presents a place of analysis regarding capitalist infrastructure and crisis (or perhaps its fabrication). Through the lenses of Harroway and Ahmed, the current social threats posed by the epidemic seem to draw from a place of “disorientation,” a state of queered perception of the body (social, politic, bio’logical’) in which the public is forced to abandon the standard perceptions of ourselves as discrete, sanitary units. By necessity, we contend with ourselves as an interconnected assortment of “critters” and must address new forms of assemblages and articulations that can accommodate the introduction of a new contagion into our “holobionts.” Such states of disoriented symbiosis extend beyond the molecular level to also be exhibited in the realms of the social and international, with common interactions and commercial engagement being forbidden and even the foundational unit of Western capital (if I remember Reich correctly) becoming itself a site of queered interaction. (Can the familial hug now become a risk of contagion? Does mortality and violence now emerge in those normative spheres that supposedly exempt such risks?)

Such disruptions of the social have a Latourian bent to them when we recall that this disruption of the social occurs simultaneously with disruptions of the infrastructure that produce the social and have permitted the introduction of this new “critter” into our present “Chthulucene.” If there is anything to (re)learn from COVID, it is the sheer interconnected nature of our global holobiont and the complete incapability between its self-awareness and continued functioning. The revealed precarity of the ‘gig economy’ and ‘right to work’ legislation has prompted suspensions of rent, loans, and investment – the very structural techniques that have facilitated the development of late-stage capitalism. Despite years of a rising economy we find our individual lives unsure of their continued value as productive workers and our ability to engage in necessary consumption patterns.

In essence, the discrete markers of growth and structural sufficiency (quantitative rise in NASDAQ/DOW/S&P indexes, low unemployment) are revealed insufficient when the underlying network becomes the target of focus. That economic markers are insufficient is a common critique and needs little discussion; what is curious is why these markers must be discrete. Why, given the recurring realities of the “Cthulucene” does capital return to the limitations of digital logic, presenting the crisis of one locale/person/community as exempt from the continual circulation of globalism?

Questions:

– Are crises of capital produced by direct ‘interruptions’ of the “Cthulucene” or by moments of awareness?

– Why does discretionary logic seem so crucial to capital when it must manage non-discretionary logic for it to expand (consider the likelihood that ‘distance learning’ may be expanded by some universities after the crisis or that more offices may ask workers to perform labor from home during ‘off hours’)?

– How does one permit a continual awareness of the “Cthulucene” instead of a flux between its forgetting and remembrance?

– Are there crises that can escape the expansion of capital (many have already made fortunes off the loss of gains from 2008)?

Intervention Thoughts

So I want to voice some thoughts on the planned intervention and consider explicit next steps for getting this off the ground. (Feel free to correct me if I’m off – my brain is off kilter this week for some strange reason….) Regarding data, I think we still need to figure exactly what data we are looking to collect in general (social media vs. instructions vs. individual ethnographies) and that may be a few more conversations until consensus is reached (e.g. determining group ethical positions on what data). Given that this conversation and the possible human subject questions that follow may take a tad more time than desirable, I believe that we should at the very least prioritize getting the project’s off the ground first and then reassess our data later. I believe this entails the following:

  1. Infrastructure. Let’s get the archive platform and submission system up and running so we can start collecting data when possible. I suggest using Omeka since it’s open-source and is better supported by the GC’s resources (I know this is Stefano’s platform for his work for instance).
  2. Participants. While it’s likely annoying to ask for participation while the specifics are still in the air, it may be helpful to start building up a sense of what data we have access to (e.g. only what our group can access vs. larger GC community vs. CUNY wide).
  3. Preliminary data. We’re already on this but might as well make it explicit: let’s try throwing together what data we can, even if it’s data we may reject later. For anyone that wants to add on to the web scraping but haven’t had much experience with API’S, the GC Digital Fellows made a rather straightforward guide for making a Twitter bot that we can use (I’ll add the link when I can find it). I also have an old RSS feed reader that we can tinker with if we want to probe new sources as well.

This is all I have off the top of my head. Any thoughts? Addendums?

Queen’s College Resources

A colleague shared resources Queens College is sharing with instructors during the outbreak. i’ve also uploaded a file to the Commons blog. http://englishonline.qwriting.qc.cuny.edu/

http://englishonline.qwriting.qc.cuny.edu/

Web Archiving + Intervention project

Over the next six weeks I’ll be taking an Introduction to Web Archiving course through the University of Wisconsin at Madison’s iSchool, and I thought I’d offer to “bend” my weekly assignments in that class toward our intervention project in whatever way is useful to us. For the week of March 16, for instance, we’re being asking to add seeds to Archive-It and to do some test crawls, and to draft a collections policy of some sort. As the readings and details for the assignments open up, I’ll do my best to bring relevant things back to our group so we can think about if/when/how we want to start archiving web materials relevant to CUNY and what it would mean to have a collections policy that informs the scope of that work.

I also thought I’d ask for your thoughts on how our intervention might align with and go in a different direction from the conversation being had in this Twitter thread re: collecting universities’ emergency announcement pages related to COVID-19.

https://twitter.com/machawk1/status/1237732190110146560

CUNY Students via Twitter

After yesterday’s discussion, I decided to continue scanning Twitter for some of the more recent student reactions to CUNY’s treatment of the novel coronavirus outbreak in NYC. Simply enter “CUNY” into Twitter’s search query as I did, and behold as the results speak for themselves…

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