Network Sense

Cover of Network Sense: Methods for Visualizing a Discipline

Network Sense: Methods for Visualizing a Discipline released yesterday. The PDF and ePub versions are online at Printed copies should be available by mid-late January or thenabouts, I’m told. A few thousand thoughts, a few thousand feelings in finishing such a project as this and seeing it finally stand on its own.

It took years, first as a dissertation. Later as a proposal and redeveloped manuscript. Smoothings through revisions, edits, design, indexing. And there’s fatigue, gratitude, acute awareness of shortcomings, relief. Whatever else of book-affect, it circulates as it does.

I imagine returning to some of its known limitations, taking those as catalysts for some of what’s next, and to puzzling through the indexing process, what I learned from it, nascent ideas in appending a glossary (toooo many terms under-defined, under-elaborated), maybe-or-not an audio version because open access books can bloom any which way they will.

Thirtieth Days

Still on sabbatical. Thirty days. Work rhythms have been more predictable and disciplined lately. Up early enough, write until noon or so. Out of this, a chapter takes shape–the third chapter. I just sent it off to the editor. Just over 10,000 words. Fourty-eight references. Ten original figures plus the linked-clickable animated index. Something like 44 pages. Embedded notes about “could do more this this” and “could do more with that.” Threaded through is a realization that I’ve been working on this chapter for a few years. And then up next will be a hard revision of the second chapter, hacking away at its extralong bulk, then adding back another 3,500 words. It’s basically a concept review: three concepts. And two are done; one remains. 

Occam’s Sabbatical

Lead-up to a sabbatical, my first sabbatical, has been punctuated by many, many interactions about its beginnings (i.e., when does it officially begin?) and my optimism (i.e., are you excited?) and readiness (i.e., are you ready for this?). To the questions about beginnings, for most of the fall semester, I pinpointed December 16, the day after our department’s holiday party and after the last day of meeting for second of the two grad classes I taught. But I was still obliging various administrativa until at least December 20. And I didn’t exactly spend much of the break opening the book’s workfiles, much less reading or writing in relationship to it. 

Today, finaly, I felt like I started in on the sabbatical. I’ve set for myself this week the goal of timely rise+shining, up and coffee-pouring by six, in chair by 6:30 a.m., writing for four hours. This morning’s work session was a lot of oscillating between shaping and focusing, then generating, then shaping and focusing, then generating. I re-read some old stuff. Re-read the introduction and first chapter. And dived in for the first section of Chapter Three, set down 888 words, though I was only going for a Scrivener-count of 750. It’s non-magical writing, clunky and nowhere near as fine-tipped as my thinking, but it is a start on the sabbatical, which is pretty much all I was going for. The rest of the week I am hoping for four-hour morning work sessions in the range of 1000 words per day, aims of having Chapter Three’s rekick totally drafted by the end of next week. 

But that’s more micro-detail than I meant to put down here. I mostly wanted to note a few of the ideas that were blinking away in the margins, excluded from the writing but influencing at the edges. I’ve been thinking more about Occam’s razor and parsimony–principles of narrow-set scope. This is the razor whose edge sharpens when we invoke relevance, right? Go only with what is necessary; trim the rest. And I was mulling this over in relation to the scope of disciplinary terminology–of seeking just the right circumference for a semantic network, placing a right-sized circle around the web of language. There’s something faintly nagging at the foggy juncture between the simplifying economics of parsimony, attention, and noetic vocabularies in any given doman. Not too much, not too little; scales balancing between general and special, broad and narrow. 

I dwelt for far too long on standpoint theory, which I am not using, but which I find difficult to ignore as a means of explaining the vehicular-directional metaphors (partly) invoked with “turns.” I prefer to keep turns boiling in valences of tropology and nephology, but these nevertheless contrast sharply with perspectival standpoints, bipedal participant-observers, and careerist-professional anecdotalism rampant in contemporary discipliniography. You can see from that sentence it is just as well that I keep that ish-heap out of this chapter, no? And lastly lastly, I left in a tab the joke about the magician who was driving down the road until he turned into a driveway. I wanted to, but I didn’t. And besides, I would’ve preferred that magician turn into an A&P parking lot–anything whatever more happening than a fucking driveway.

What in the Antilibrary Grumbles?

In The Object Stares Back (1996), James Elkins writes

In my living room there are two large bookcases, each one eight feet tall, and they have about five hundred books between them. If I step up to a shelf and look at the books one by one, I can remember something about each. As a historian once said, some stare at me reproachfully, grumbling that I have never read them. One may remind me vaguely of a time when I was interested in romantic novels. An old college text will elicit a pang of unhappiness about studying. Each book has its character, and even books I know very well also have this kind of wordless flavor. Now if I step back from the shelf and look quickly across both bookcases I speed up that same process a hundredfold. Impressions wash across my awareness. But each book still looks back in its own way, answering the rude brevity of my gaze, calling faintly to me out of the corner of my eye. At that speed many books remain wrapped in the shadows of my awareness–I know I have looked past them and I know they are there, but I refuse to call them to mind. (73-74)

I read this in the hallway of Rackham Hall yesterday where I sat for ten minutes–not staring back, ironically–as ENGL328 students filled out end-of-semester course evaluations. But what was on my mind as I read this was the workshop I was scheduled to lead at noon today for EMU’s Nelson Faculty Development Center, a workshop titled, “How to Curate a Digital Antilibrary: An Introduction to Google Reader.” The antilibrary comes from Taleb’s characterization of the unread portion in Umberto Eco’s personal collection of 3,000 books. Those unread items project felicitously some horizon of possibility. The antilibrary is not antithetical to the library; it is its premonition, its ghost from the future.

I can’t decide about the relationship between Taleb’s conception of “unread” and Elkins’ idea here that even those books that are technically unread (whatever that means) are well-enough known to grumble for their having been neglected. At first I thought, Elkins has no antilibrary. But that’s not quite right.

Instead, his books are always a little bit read: read through their titles, through an author’s or publisher’s reputation, through a book jacket, or even more fundamentally (as objects) through an assumed to be recognizable materiality. These are bound, shelved books, after all. Consequently, they never rightly, properly fit in the antilibrary, do they?

Elkins takes a hypothetical step back: “I know I have looked past them and I know they are there, but I refuse to call them to mind.” This refusal is a curious game, striking for its thin, wispy relationship to rapid cognition, or thin-slicing. The refusal is a sort of will to indeterminacy, to unknowing, to disassociation. And I guess that’s what I’m thinking about now, having read this, having talked earlier about digital antilibraries: the persistence of an antilibrary requires one part a refusal to look at what is already in the collection, one part embrace of the potentialities in the nearby-but-unknown, and another part thrill in expecting a future in which those materials-awaiting will still be there for taking up.

Proust and the Squid

I finished Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain early this spring, and I have been meaning to revive the blog again periodically for reading notes, so catch as catch can. Initially, I picked up Wolf’s book because I wanted to know how she dealt with the endangered status of reading in the age of the internet, in terms of carrying through as both “story” and “science” of how the reading brain does neurologically what it does. Wolf’s book also figured into Nicholas Carr’s 2008 Atlantic Monthly article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, and Carr has been drawing attention (on techrhet and from bloggers) more recently following the release of The Shallows. In Carr’s AM article, Wolf was cited as one whose foreboding research insights affirm Carr’s “I’m not the only one” suspicions about the superficiality of reading experiences at the interface. Carr wrote,

Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style
that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening
our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier
technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose
commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere
decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the
rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without
distraction, remains largely disengaged. (para. 8)

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