The University is NOT a Commons (Unless We Make It One)

I want to pick up from where we left off last week: is there any value in performing service work within an institution? I think this is a valid point of entry into the conversation about commoning because some forms of service – e.g., sitting on committees, mentoring colleagues, organizing events on campus, and advising students – have a great potential to catalyze commoning, a practice that David Harvey understands as “produc[ing] or establish[ing] a social relation with a common,” (75) one that is both collective and non-commodified. Allow me to take a step back – Harvey frames “the right to the city,” the larger paradigm within which he engages with the urban commons, as far more than a right of access urban resources: “it is a right to change and reinvent the city more after our hearts’ desire.” (4) My reason for arguing in favor of performing certain kinds of service – notwithstanding some legitimate concerns that have been raised in class and elsewhere – is that it is often one of the few avenues we (yes, graduate students, contingent faculty, and precarious workers especially) have to exert a similar right to shape the infrastructure of knowledge production/dissemination within which we operate. 

While the kind of radical institutional change we want to achieve is, for most of us, beyond our capacity, the value of commoning may lie beyond those grand goals. Whether we are taking an active interest in the clouding agreements in which the institution engages, serving on a student association, or attending tedious department meetings, I think there is value in this kind of service that goes beyond monetary retribution – it is, after all, of little surprise that we are disincentivized from coming together and to propose change from below. Rather, what we gain is being part of a dissonant conversation that makes the institution; attuning to like-minded voices within it; and contributing to it with otherwise modes of engagement. For example, following Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s lead, through “generous thinking” (expressed in the chapter we read for this week, through David Foster Wallace’s concept of “giving it away”) we are already performing and perpetuating “means of escaping the self-destructive spiral of addiction and self-absorption that constitutes not an anomalous state but rather the central mode of being in the contemporary US” (152). 

I thus want us to think of commoning as an ethos, as ways of engagement through which we are already hacking and reshaping academic (and knowledge) infrastructures that are, very much like Harvey’s city, dominated by capitalist class interest. The university is NOT a commons, unless and until we make it one through collective political action. From this perspective, commoning is inevitably part of our work as scholars. 

Looking forward to our class discussion and to proposing concrete examples of commoning spillages and outliers. In the meantime, below are some questions I’d like to invite you to think about. Stay safe, all! 

  • How do the models of commoning proposed by this week’s reading stand in relation to Stefano Harney’s and Fred Moten’s understanding of the Undercommons
  • I have trouble thinking about any modes of commoning that are not breeding from below and pushing against, but is commoning inherently good
  • Where do we stand, with knowledge infrastructures in mind, in relation to the Lockean formulation of the fair market (76)?
  • What are some of the limitations of the commons of knowledge proposed by Fitzpatrick, Hess, and Ostrom?

SPARC, Sustainable Knowledge Infrastructures, and Emergent DH Praxis

Hi all,

I’m inclined to start things off by noting some of countervailing forces present in this week’s readings — one public-democratic, another private-capitalistic — each fighting for a foothold on the emergent knowledge infrastructures in the academy. In an attempt to frame our thinking on the topic, I abridged a series of associated themes, ethics, and practices from either set into a single-sentence bullet below:

  • public-democratic: collaborative interventions aimed at facilitating more sustainable knowledge infrastructures among the academy and other social sectors, in turn channeling multivalent ways of knowing, DYI and hacker praxis, along with culturally situated acts of recovery and historical restoration.
  • private-capitalistic: the neoliberal capitalization of higher education, by means of which free-market actors aggregate, analyze, and monetize academic knowledge production, effectively dispossessing scholarly and educational practices of their infrastructural sovereignty.

In what ways might we collaboratively leverage a DH-driven praxis to trouble or disrupt the data-driven exploitation of academic knowledge practices?

How might euro-centric academic knowledge production — specifically those aimed at archiving and representing indigenous data without consultation — fall into the equation? In what ways might Liu’s commentary on the hack/yack debacle inform your answer?


Moving forward, I feel it incumbent upon me to at least unpack some of the SPARC Landscape Analysis, if only because it is such a helpful document for working within the interventionist praxis of CI studies, not to mention critical university studies. Key to either project is the painstaking act of parsing infrastructural minutiae underlying individual company behavior, while further attending to how such nuances operationally play out across the wider neoliberal agenda of the academic publishing industry. For example, in the first half of Exhibit 8 below, the report chronicles “research intelligence solutions for universities” of Clarivate, Digital Science, and Elsevier, affording us a strong case for better understanding vested industry patterns — such as an inter-organizational view on which data-analytics services embody industry benchmarks.

I would at this point like to further reiterate some of the more pressing points of tension reported by SPARC in their analysis, such as their emphasis on accelerated rates of “commercial acquisition of critical infrastructure in [academic] institutions” (2). What’s more, notes SPARC, companies like Elsevier are well into the process of building and rolling out data analytics services intended to collect, parse, evaluate, and ultimately monetize data from the academic community, ranging from learner analytics and research output to productivity analysis and expertise discovery (31). Earmarking the same names over and over again — such as Cengage, Elsevier, and Pearson, whose 2018 annual revenues respectively totaled at $1.47, $2.54, $5.51 billion — SPARC urges higher-ed institutes to be wary of the educational services of these companies, which come with built-in data analytics that serve to profit from the capitalization of ongoing academic practices.

Which details or figures do you recall reading in the SPARC Landscape Analysis? Why did they stick out?

How might have the report been written differently to reach a wider audience, if at all?

Are there complementary ways in which we might synthesize these findings to reach not only the academic community, but also broader publics?

How might an awareness of such minutiae prepare us to challenge data analytics companies like Elsevier?


I apologize if this part of my blogpost comes off as at all rambling; much of it is my attempt to troubleshoot a few interesting but elusive comments from the prolegomena to “Sustainable Knowledge Infrastructures.” In it, Geoffrey C. Bowker compares a kitchen faucet to an accredited academic journal — which is funny, I agree, before turns out to be a tad complicated as far as the ontology/phenomenology of infrastructures are concerned. (More on that later.) More interesting, at least in retrospect, is his definition of infrastructure as not a what but a when — “The question is not so much “what is an infrastructure?” as “when is an infrastructure?” (204) — which is best understand via his claim that “to be infrastructural is to be in a subtending relationship with” (204). That is, according to Bowker, infrastructures come and go; they are contingent, nary but an indexical, named into being in terms of a complex network of interdependent utilities; or as Susan Leigh StarKaren Ruhleder assert, “infrastructures are always relational: one person’s infrastructure is another ‘s site.”

Let’s go back to the kitchen faucet and the credentialed journal — could it be intended as a template to understand infrastructures across infrastructures, both of the physical and the knowledge variety? …

“It is clear that the taken-for-granted nature of turning on a tap and expecting water to come out of the faucet is equivalent to turning to an accredited journal and expecting knowledge to come out.”

Bowker (203)

Might Bowker’s “formal equivalence” in this case concern only the subject, the infrastructure (of the faucet), or perhaps even a synthesis of both?

How in particular does this formulation factor into the broader context of his argument for sustainable knowledge infrastructures? Why or why not?

For both the water/knowledge supply network, unseen backchannels surely abound. But I suspect the value in recognizing that — while we can always pipes can be seen knowledge infrastructures are consonant with physical is coming to terms with with phenomenological impression of either activity. As Susan Leigh StarKaren Ruhleder write, “infrastructures are always relational: one person’s infrastructure is another ‘s site.”

Hey y’all, curated feed brought this one up for me to share: https://getpocket.com/explore/item/the-dystopian-lake-filled-by-the-world-s-tech-lust?utm_source=pocket-newtab

Class Discussion: Digital Humanities Knowledge Infrastructures

Our readings this week have me thinking again about Robert Hayden’s poem “Those Winter Sundays,” a much anthologized sonnet about a blue-collar father building fires in a fireplace and a son who, too late, realizes the subtle importance of this act. The poem concludes with the question: “What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?”—austere here meaning “unadorned,” and “offices” referring to either a kindness done for others or a ritualized religious prayer (or both). It’s a rhetorical question, really, as in: How could I have known that love can take the form of continuous, humble, thankless labor? And the regretful and sympathetic quivering in the son’s voice—“What did I know, what did I know”—drives home the additional unsaid: …until now.

It’s this double formulation of love—as both subtle labor and an (even-belated) appreciation for the laborer—that I’d like to use to catalyze a line of questioning through our five readings on the digital humanities (DH) practice of building within public and academic knowledge infrastructures. Think of this more as a yeast starter than a fully baked loaf, a noodle flung against the wall than one finely plated.

We see the first kind of love—the father’s love, a love through building—in Kim Gallon’s case for Black DH as “a technology of recovery” that is “characterized by efforts to bring forth the full humanity of marginalized people through the use of digital platforms and tools,” and in Todd Presner’s description of DH’s expansive “ethic of participation and curation” as one lying in the ideal of “participation without condition.” Together, these seem to formulate an idea that DH practitioners can and do demonstrate love to those outside of the DH community (i.e., in the public knowledge infrastructure) through the labor of their building work.

The second kind of love—the son’s love, a love for the builder—in this DH context perhaps could be thought of as an appreciation and advocacy for those “doing the work” of the first order, particularly in an academic institutional context. In this way, we might see the three other readings—from Stephen Jackson’s call for “subtle acts of care” and repair that will allow us to “love, and love deeply, a world of things” that are essential to engaged DH practice, to Brian Greenspan’s defense of DH as a field whose fault is only in its “making all too visible the dirty gears that drive the scholarly machine,” to Stephen Ramsay and Geoffrey Rockwell’s validation of DH’s building practice as “a distinct form of scholarly endeavor, both in the humanities and beyond”—all showing love for DH practitioners through increased visibility and professional recognition within the academic knowledge infrastructure. (Importantly about the father, in the Hayden: “No one ever thanked him.”)

For class, perhaps we want to linger in this space for some time to ask whether and when we consider DH to be an extension of the incessant churn of technological innovation and neoliberal management, and whether and when we consider DH to participate in a craft of continuous, humble, thankless building—and its extensions: repairing, recovering, participating—that can be held up and focused on as an act of love and care, to transformative effect, both inside and outside of the academy.

Perhaps we want to consider other intersections:

  1. What about the way that Jane Bennett talks about the independent lives of things seems relevant for Ramsay and Rockwell’s project of establishing built things (especially facilitating, non-discursive “tools”) as non-secondary forms of scholarship? Or for Greenspan’s argument that the “scandal” of DH is that it “reveal[s] the system’s components” and scrutinizes “the material underpinnings of scholarship” (e.g., databases, IP, unpaid student labor) that were there all along, even in non-DH scholarship?

  2. Maybe we return to thinking about boundary objects. More than one of the readings this week cite Alan Liu’s call for DH to have a stronger cultural criticism. What do we make of this quote from a piece Liu wrote following up on that essay, in which he calls the building of boundary objects the best way (at least, the most unique way) for DH to make its impact:

    Acting out through the digital humanities about larger social issues is necessary.  But such actions must be complemented by creating infrastructures and practices that make their social impact by being what Susan Leigh Star called “boundary objects”–in this case boundary objects situated between the academic institution and other major social institutions.  It is in this boundary zone–just as one example, “content management system” infrastructures whose use by scholars oscillates between corporate “managed” and “open community” philosophies–that higher education can most pertinently influence, and be influenced by, other institutions through what I earlier called “shared but contested information-technology infrastructures.”  It is in this boundary zone of hybrid scholarly, pedagogical, and administrative institutional infrastructure that we need the attention of skilled and thoughtful digital humanists, even if the interventions they make are not called anything as ambitious as “activism” but instead simply “building.”

  3. Jackson argues that Marxism looks backward to connect things to their “moments of origin, discovering the congealed forms of human labor, power, and interests that are built into objects at their moment of production.” Broken world thinking, on the other hand, “draws our attention around the sociality of objects forward, into the ongoing forms of labor, powers, and interests… that underpin the ongoing survival of things as objects in the world.” How is this forward-backward orientation reinforced or troubled by Gallon’s argument that Black DH hinges on a broken world thinking that “forces us to move backward before moving forward”?

2/18 Mattern, Starosielski, Bennett, Hu Readings

Hi all,  

Below are some thoughts I had about this week’s readings that might get us started next class. Sorry if it is a bit long-winded, I am honestly still thinking through a lot of this, but I hope there is something in here that can spark discussion. 


Theorizing and building, one node versus a network: 

Last class we thought through Donna Haraway’s 1985 cyborg as a metaphor for this material (1), and I mentioned N. Katherine Hayles’ 2006 “cognisphere, what she offers as a more networked metaphor since she believes the cyborg is no longer “networked enough” given new technologies (2). For me both are useful in their own ways: the inextricably connected individual (with partial/connections between animal/human/machine) alongside the much larger interconnections of networked technologies. Haraway herself later understands cyborgs as “junior siblings in the much bigger, queer family of companion species” (3).  I’m not trying to identify the perfect metaphor for our networked world or for knowledge infrastructures, but given this week’s readings I am interested in the ways in which we maintain an understanding and value of the complex individual within larger networked systems such as knowledge infrastructures. What part can the individual play when each of our experiences in the network are different? I am interested in how we understand the individual, how we represent or communicate that value, and how such questions might prompt new ways for us to build inclusive systems (or at least speculative works that seek to point to existing issues like those discussed in the Mattern’s “Infrastructural Tourism”). And yet there is the unavoidable complication, as is touched upon in Tung Hui Hu’s Prehistory of the Cloud, that networks themselves are intentionally designed to avoid placing too much importance on just one node. Given that, I am interested in how we map impact or injustice of knowledge infrastructures, and who/what is included in “we.” 

What we do and how we do it: 

On an entirely different note, while I was incredibly interested in the content of the Bennett piece, the style chosen by the author might be unapproachable for some readers. Certainly I realize a defense to be made is that the work is intended for an academic audience, but I couldn’t help thinking about who our audiences are/should be, especially given the discussion of “greener forms of human culture” (more attentive cultures), horizontal thinking, non-human-centered ontologies, and a separation from hierarchies in that same work. When considering the power of infrastructures and those who are made invisible, as we have in previous weeks, or simply about the networked aspect of our culture and our lives as involuntary participants in such publics (that Bennett speaks to), should we embrace a writing style that is itself steeped in hierarchy (how does our own writing play a part?). This is a problem for academia more widely, of course, and I don’t mean to single Bennett out here as I am fascinated by so much of what she writes, but I do wonder: when we write about infrastructures who are we writing for? Can we open-up knowledge infrastructures by perpetuating a means of communication that might be non-inclusive? I am interested in considering how we communicate especially given that we will build something together at the end of the semester. Perhaps this is an unpopular opinion, but it has always concerned me how the humanities often speak so well about issues of power in our communities and yet do so in a way that might itself be unintelligible for many (prompting questions for me at least who/what academic knowledge infrastructures are really for and why we would do this work).  

Other possible points of discussion in case those above do not inspire us:  

  • In “Infrastructural Tourism” Shannon Mattern speaks to Lisa Parks’ discussion of “what media are made of…trees that power poles are made of…the aluminum of a satellite dish.” This reminded me of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s “Maple Nation” from Braiding Sweetgrass in which she wonders what if all of the maples in the Northeast were part of the Census, (“Even though the government only counts humans in our township, there’s no denying that we live in the nation of maples”) or the salmon in the Pacific Northwest…while also giving attention to what the maples provide her. I wonder what value there is for considering non-human entities in knowledge infrastructures. What credit should be allotted and how do you think we should recognize non-human actants (and, should they simply be living actants like plants or non-living things as well)? Are they all actants to us? Perhaps this connects to the Tega Brain article on infrastructural leaks/glitches that I mentioned in last class (?).  
  • In “Infrastructural Tourism” Shannon Mattern writes on the Invisible-5 project (among others) and their goal to not just make the invisible now visible, but to intervene. Mattern then suggests we might “develop a field kit to trace our cell phone infrastructures, or organize a safari to track e-waste, or follow our noses to sniff out myriad nodes in global food or chemical distribution networks…”. I wonder what we think about such projects inspiring political action or agency in general. Do they? In what ways might they be limited? How do we build agency versus information, and to what degree…? 
  • To connect the topic of agency versus knowledge in “Infrastructural Tourism” with the questions of who/what constitutes “we” that I touched on above, I am interested in what Starosielski describes as “users unknowingly entangled” in infrastructure. There is a powerlessness in not knowing the systems we are part of (and the geographies they cross: whether our information is stored locally or internationally and what legal and physical structures control that data). With undersea cable systems our information can move around the world without us knowing—and while we remain in the same physical space. Given that these technologies generate serious environmental (and social) impacts I wonder if there is a way to consider/conceptualize/visualize our real stake in the game? Can we ever know who/what we are impacting when we upload a single document to Dropbox, watch one film on Netflix, or even post one write-up on CUNY Commons (if not specifically, are we capable of identifying the realm of possible things affected)? And, would there be value to that? This reminds me of one difficulty with communicating the impact of climate change: those causing the majority of the issues (the Global North) are not those who see the effects of such actions most immediately. 
  • Starosielski’s discussion of lag, HD video, and speed, and users trying to “access too much[sic] content” made me think of how issues of supporting and maintaining “high quality” infrastructure might be mitigated by low-tech/no-tech solutions. Digital humanist Alex Gil has discussed the idea/ethics of “minimal computing” and indeed there are many who have actually put low-tech solutions to practice. Are these kinds of approaches useful here? Could low-fi catch on? Is this a possible solution for the issues that abound regarding the materiality of networks/infrastructures? I am personally interested in discussions of low/no tech responses to infrastructures and thought I might raise it here.  

1 Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Routledge, 1991, 149-181.
2 Hayles, N. Katherine. “Unfinished Work: From Cyborg to Cognisphere” Theory, Culture, and Society, 2006 Vol. 23(7–8): 159–166. 
3 Haraway, Donna. “Companion Species Manifesto.” Manifestly Haraway, University of Minnesota Press, 2016, 93-198.  

Reconstruction of East 25th Street/Baruch Plaza

Hi, all – in passing by the reconstruction site of E. 25th Street/Baruch Plaza last night, I snapped a couple photos and thought to share them with the group since either image seems to evoke a handful of themes discussed in our readings for this week. Take a look:

For more on the future home of Clivner=Field Plaza, check out this photo gallery via Baruch’s alumni website.

Week 1 – Star and Larkin readings.

    For discussion, I would like to dwell on Larkin’s consideration of the poetics of infrastructure and its place within the libidinal economy. Accustomed to the lenses of Langdon Winner and Don Norman, I’m more familiar with treating infrastructure as a praxis of coercion – a series of effectively designed (and thus excluded from explicit cognition) political agents – that exerts a unidirectional influence on a user’s behavior despite the latter’s ostensible agency. That is, it is normalized to first discuss what infrastructure desires out of its user-base in implementation before focusing on the physical infrastructure itself. While this discussion of the artifact’s ‘politics’ provides more critical insight than merely treating infrastructure as a neutral entity, doing so falls into the same pitfall that Star outlines in her treatment of infrastructure’s transparency: as it comes to be the main topic of discourse, the political comes to obscure the ontological existence of infrastructure. From a methodological standpoint, a focus on the poetic and aesthetic dimensions of infrastructure – that they are evaluable things to be felt, experienced, and desired – would appear to be ideal points of departure as they retain focus on the actual entities throughout any discussion of the political. 

    That Larkin retains infrastructure as objects of desire allows an appreciation of a feedback mechanism beyond the technical of user and interface; one sees infrastructure and user entering into a circuit of desire within the libidinal economy: one experiences a desire towards infrastructure (the enjoyment of driving on a freshly paved road, the timely running of trains, crisp reception on a video call) simultaneous with the infrastructure’s ‘desire’ towards user (pressure to use toll roads to improve commute time, push to privatize public transportation for cleaner operation, suggestion to switch to more costly data plans). In such an economy of desire, one ponders the effects of transference and fetishism. Or, considering how the question of user fetishizing is already a trope in genre fiction (David Cronenberg’s Crash and Videodrone come to mind), it is perhaps better to consider the means (or even conceptual forms) through which infrastructure can fetishize ourselves. How may the object (be it user or infrastructure) become a fetish within this circuit and what effects would this pose for the circuit?

  1. What mistakes may arise from a  methodology of infrastructure based in the poetic?
  2. Does the question of aesthetics and politics transfer well into the domain of infrastructure? Why (not)?
  3. What is the place of the fetish within the poetics of infrastructure (e.g. building systems for the sake of expansion itself)? How may this impair methodology and can it be prevented?
  4. Can we envision other feedback loops that enter between user and infrastructure?