Unplanned Meanderings

Steven Johnson’s “The Glass Box And The Commonplace Book” renews questions about what happens when e-readers unexpectedly suffocate text behind no-copy/no-paste barriers. Safe-guarding text against circulation is not new, of course, but Johnson offers a timely reminder of the ways this glass box logic is noxious, lying dormant, going unnoticed until it is revived in this or that text-walling application. There’s much to think through in his entry (which is a transcript of a talk Johnson offered at Columbia University), much in the way of commonplace books, motivated filtering, and how it is homophily bias takes hold differently online than in “real-world civic space.”

§ § §

Each rereading of the commonplace book becomes a new kind of revelation. You see the evolutionary paths of all your past hunches: the ones that turned out to be red herrings; the ones that turned out to be too obvious to write; even the ones that turned into entire books. But each encounter holds the promise that some long-forgotten hunch will connect in a new way with some emerging obsession. The beauty of Locke’s scheme was that it provided just enough order to find snippets when you were looking for them, but at the same time it allowed the main body of the commonplace book to have its own unruly, unplanned meanderings. (para. 5)

“But each encounter holds the promise that some long-forgotten hunch will connect in a new way with some emerging obsession.” Here is a line that succinctly captures for me how blogging has always functioned a little bit differently than the kind of “being digital” I experience in Facebook or Twitter. Long-forgotten hunches and emerging obsessions are not so much a function of friendship, sociality, or phatic affirmation as they are a distributed, often faint, read-write memory–a recollection of being (or having been) on the verge of something mind-changing.


Arrived home from MLA via Detroit on Thursday. Since I’ve surrendered almost three full days to gluttonous lazies: home-made fried chicken, NFL playoffs, afternoon naps, a nightly Wolavers’ oatmeal stout, a breeze through Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, and darn near nothing else.

Today I can feel the low, resistant grind of changing gears–from no gear to anything-chug productive. Spring syllabus is due tomorrow–or Wednesday, depending on who you ask (this would be easier if I didn’t read *all* of my email). I’m penciled in for a section of WRT205: Critical Research and Writing, a course that more or less picks a topic (invention by topoi) and then gets on with research a la “critical inquiry”, which I take to mean “examined” or “deliberate” inquiry: self-reflective inquiring.

Did I mention that it’s an online class? I still thinking about whether to heave Blackboard into the weeds (where it belongs?): bypass it altogether and instead channel all of our encounters through a wiki-blog-delicious-youtube mash-up. The former is, if you can stand it, a cinch; the latter is far more interesting and also more work coming at a time when, well, there is already plenty enough work. Tonight, I can’t decide. Tomorrow I’ll flip a coin. But if the coin comes up “Blackboard,” that just might be enough to jolt me back over to the mash-ups.

The course itself–as planned–is a dance with pop culture and media valuation. We’ll read Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good For You, contemplate his handling of the good/bad reversal, and think/write/talk about his book–what he calls “an old-fashioned work of persuasion” in the first sentence–as a dissoi logoi, or strengthening of the (presumed to be) weaker position.

In keeping with program-level expectations for the course, the first unit will be something of a reading of Johnson and his work with sources and evidence. It’s a sort of parlor inventory with a hermeneutic slant, viz. who’s saying what, what it means, and so on. The second unit in the course usually involves some sort of annotated bibliography, but I’m thinking along the lines of a collection/annotation aspect (rel. Sirc’s “box-logic”) that might involve a playlist/compilation in YouTube or Seeqpod. Will put that alongside a more recognizable batch of article/chapter annotations and ask students to speculate about their complementarity. Unit Three is that well-run horse, the sustained research project, 10-12 pp. By that time, I’d like to have the dissoi logoi well-enough in hand that students will be developing arguments rel. to popular culture that complicate status quo views of brain-rotting media. And the fourth, final piece of the course will be some kind of semester-long foray into “serially immersive” new media writing: blogging, annotated social bookmarking, etc. The point here: to again insist on the generative, associative collusion between immersive new media writing and its (still) eventful counterparts in the academy. It’s an online course: this is the both-and set up to bridge the institutionally recognizable (and desired) and peppy, alt-logic digitality.

Narrative, Database

Today I read Ed Folsom’s PMLA article, “Database as Genre: The Epic Transformation of Archives,” and the better part of the five responses to the piece and even Folsom’s response to the responses. I won’t attempt a full summary in this entry, but I wanted to note a few initial impressions and lingering questions.

The lead article discusses Folsom’s efforts to develop The Walt Whitman Archive, a growing digital collection of Whitman’s works–works not easily or summarily identifiable as narrative or as poetry. Folsom characterizes Whitman as a forerunner, noting that “[f]or him, the works was a kind of preelectronic database, and his notebooks and notes are full of lists of particulars–sights and sounds and names and activities–that he dutifully enters into the record” (1574). The identification of Whitman as an “early practitioner…of the database genre” (1575) doesn’t, as far as I can tell, explain why his work should be any more appropriate for digitization and databased setup than any other, but it does give us the background on Folsom’s insights into database as genre.

Continue reading →