Deterministic Footfalls

Here’s a fascinating RadioLab podcast on deep patterns in cityscapes, “Cities.”

After listening, follow it with a sip–a chaser–from Calvino’s Invisible Cities:

In vain, great-hearted Kublai, shall I attempt to describe Zaira, city of high bastions. I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways, and the degree of the arcades’ curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know this would be the same as telling you nothing. […] The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls. (10-11)

“The Humanities Was Nice”

In late May, media theorist Lev Manovich presented “How to Read 1,000,000 Manga Pages: Visualizing Patterns in Games, Comics, Art, Cinema, Animation, TV, and Print Media” at MIT’s HyperStudio (via). The talk is relevant to my work because Manovich wants to create visualizations that deliberately alter the default scale at which we experience something like magazine covers or Manga pages. His “exploratory analysis of visual media” offers insights into culture, he says; visualizations “allow you to ask questions you never knew you had.”

Manovich wears a t-shirt that reads, “Smart Critique Stupid Create,” and he uses this slogan to gain create some separation between his work (stupid create) and traditional humanities (smart critique). Manovich kicks sand–maybe playfully, though it’s hard to say for sure–at the humanities again at the end of the Q&A when he says, “The Humanities was nice, but it was a false dream.” Obviously machine-reading and computational processing of images ring heretical for anyone deeply (e.g., career-deep) invested in one-at-a-time interpretations of aesthetic objects. The all-at-once presentation brings us to the edge of gestalt and permits us to grasp large-scale continuities. Manovich also mentions that this works differently for visual media than for semantic mining because the images are not in the same way confined by the prison house of language. The “how” promised in the lecture’s title carries well enough, but I would expect to hear ongoing questions about the “why,” especially “why Manga?” or “why Time Magazine covers”?

The video includes a couple of unusual moments: at 17:30 when Manovich grumbles about not being able to see his screen and around the 59th minute when host Ian Condry poses an exposition-heavy “question.” As for the practical side of the talk, Manovich’s frameworks for “direct visualization” and “visualization without quantification” are worth noting, and I would be surprised if we don’t hear more about them as these projects play out and are variously composed and circulated.

This Time in Wired

More Moretti.

Comments include, in no particular order, Sp&m, XKCD reference, (Distant Reading as Sure Sign of an Unavoidable) Robot Apocalypse, Boredom, More Sp&m, and There Goes Context Leaking Out All Over the Place Again.

Irresistibility

Don’t worry; this doesn’t mean the Yoki series has been discontinued.
It’s just a blip in my plan.

Yesterday, I was watching Is. in the late afternoon. Ph. had an away
soccer match and so needed a ride to the school around 4 p.m.; D. was off on an
errand. I was sapped out, dragging. I’ve been off caffeine since
mid-August, but yesterday I suffered an ever so slight hankering and succumbed
to it, stopping off at the
local quick mart for a cold Dr. Pepper. Is. asked, where are we going? I said,
inside for a soda. She said, huh? And I said a soda, a pop. Growing
up in Michigan, it was always "pop." Is. thought I was talking about a
"fruit pop"–the name she uses somewhat interchangeably for 100% juice popsicles
and also for lollipops or suckers, which I’ve learned lately are shoved in kids
faces at every turn from the physician to the post office (today at the post
office in Fayetteville, a chocolate Dum-Dum). It’s constant.

Anyway, the two of us went into the mart, and, of course, all of the candy was lined up
at Is.’s eye level, a galleria of pops and things. She picked out a pomegranate
(?) Tootsie Roll Tootsie Pop, and we were out the door again, me with my soda
and Is. with the candy. Indulged and temporarily satisfied.

The deal with the pop was that she had to eat a decent dinner before she
could have it. No problemo, said the look she gave me. And she did so, happily
working through the nutritional foodstuff before reminding me that the junk was
all-the-while hailing her.

And then we had a conversation about how, when I was a kid, the Country
Corner at the intersection of Remus and Winn Roads would redeem Tootsie Roll
wrappers if they had a star on them. Seems like I ate quite a few of
those.

I also told Is. about the commercial with the dippy kid who sought out a
partner for his "how many licks?" research study: the one where the turtle
admits his inability to resist devouring the thing before completing the
investigation and then passes the kid off to the overconfident and disastrously
lazy owl who gives it two licks before crunching down on the thing. Fade
to shrinking fruit pops with voiceover: "How many licks does it take to get to
the center of a Tootsie Roll Tootsie Pop? The world may never know." Is.
was far more interested in hearing about the boy, the turtle, and the owl, than
in hearing me describe that commercial as my first exposure to flawed research
(that sort of sham inquiry that made it seem like the owl already knew the
answer he would give and instead performed the part only so he could consume the
object of inquiry, take it as his own, and so on).

Later, we checked it out on YouTube.

No shortage of innuendos here about research ethics and
consuming
inquiry (either way: of too much fondness for the objects or of destructive partnerships),
but suffice it to say that Is. did not ask me what the answer was (how should I
know?) and neither did I let on whether I thought the question from the commercial was any good in the first place.

Certeau’s Sieve-order

Lately I’ve been puzzling over de Certeau’s theorization of maps and what they risk
obfuscating (e.g., stories, minutiae, detritus, etc.) in The Practice of Everyday Life. His pedestrian rhetoric affirms the viewpoint of the "ground level" over the observation
of the whole from the 110th story of the World Trade Center, from which he once
experienced a curious pleasure while looking onto Manhattan–seeing it as a "wave of verticals" hovering
distantly above the city’s "paroxysmal places" (91). De Certeau wonders about the
pleasure he felt and, as well, what this bird’s-eye viewpoint, with its "scopic and gnostic
drive," obscures: "When one goes up there, he leaves behind the the mass that
carries off and mixes up in itself any identity of authors or spectators" (92).

From the observation deck, De Certeau says the mass is left behind, that it
"carries off and mixes up." Reasonably true. Looking down on the ant-like taxis,
the city appears different–further away. But in another sense, the urban
observation deck is not less local than the sidewalk, is it? Also, marveling at
the city does not make its streets more readily navigable (whatever compels you
to go out and about).

Certeau goes on to critique maps, traces, place-names, and flattened
projections, lumping them together as totalizing devices: "The surface of this
["suspended symbolic order"] is everywhere punched and torn open by ellipses,
drifts, and leaks of meaning: it is a sieve-order" (107). The sieve-order favors
stories and localization, and these are thwarted by intervals of distance, from
those viewpoints at which the "world’s debris" disappears.

Later he admits an oscillation between the local stories and "rumors"
(presumably reinforced by a desire for totalizing representations), he is
concerned that the relationship between the two has become stratified: "Stories
diversify, rumors totalize. If there is still a certain oscillation between
them, it seems that today there is a stratification: stories are becoming
private and sink into the secluded places in neighborhoods, families, or
individuals, while the rumors propagated by the media cover everything and,
gathered under the figures of the City, the masterword of an anonymous law, the
substitute for all proper names, they wipe out or combat any superstitions guild
of still resisting the figure" (108). The overwrought substitution of the one
(i.e., totalizing view) for the other (i.e., everyday practices) is troubling:
"The trace left behind [on, say, a map] is substituted for the practice. It
exhibits the (voracious) property that the geographical system has of being able
to transform action into legibility, but in doing so it causes a way of being in
the world to be forgotten" (97).

Might the projection–and even the written account–also rejuvenate the action, renew its circulation, and cause it to be remembered again? Specifically, I am thinking about this in relationship to distant reading methods that translate large volumes of data
(mined from texts or activities) into visual models–projections in which we can
apprehend patterns not identifiable at other scales of contact (such as the
"ground level").

Maybe there is a place for de Certeau in Chapter Five. I haven’t decided
yet. But I am discovering the faint separations between my dissertation and the
walking rhetorics he advocates. Something tells me these can be bridged (or filled),
but I am still reaching for ideas about how to do that (and also still thinking about
whether it is even necessary).

Writing Feverlets*

Curious about her critique of Derrida’s Archive Fever, I picked up a
copy of Carolyn Steedman’s Dust: The Archive and Cultural History from
Bird Library, recalling it from another patron who had checked it out (v. sorry
about that). I deal briefly with AF in Chapter Three. Steedman
makes the point that AF is less about archives than about Derrida’s
concern for the slippage of origins (a theme in his other work) and the
inseparability of psychoanalysis from Freud (and also Judaism). She
writes, "The Foreword [to AF] carried the main argument, about Freud’s
Jewish-ness, and the contribution of Jewish thought to the idea of the archive,
via psycho-analysis" (7). Basically, Steedman is suspicious of Derrida’s
characterization of the fever (as a frenzied pursuit of origins which do not
properly exist). She complains that the concept of the fever is degraded in
translation from Mal d’Archive, and then she enthusiastically claims the
sickness Derrida mocks: "Archive fever, indeed? I can tell you all about
Archive Fever!" (17). Dust undertakes this "all about-ness" at fever’s pitch;
Steedman, all the while, works to correct (or tune, at the very least) Derrida’s
glancing consideration of the archive left behind in his treatment of other
concerns (psychoanalysis, Freud, and so on).

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Et Alia

Several days immersed in lines upon lines of works cited entries may
cause you to wonder at some of the lesser noticed codes that rustle around at
the ends of scholarly articles. A paradox of citation is that the works
cited–a roster of references–flattens out the dimension of each
reference and orders the list arbitrarily according to the alphabet while also
downplaying a surprisingly uneven terrain of mismatched details more pocked than the
face of the moon. This contradiction is forcing me into decisions I hadn’t
expected to be so difficult.

The et al. is one example. It allows the keeper of the works to abbreviate,
to shorten a list of authors so that any source with more than three authors can
be listed alphabetically by the last name of the lead author followed by et al.
It is a note of inclusive omission. And I suppose it made greater sense in an era
when works citeds, rife with formulaic peculiarity, were typed on a typewriter.
The et al. conserves characters; it shortens the list of names, leaving off
everyone but the primary author. It is no coincidence that et al. rhymes with economic al. So what is the big deal?

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Ways of Working

Saturday morning I was lounging around the living room, looking after Is.,
and flipping channels on the television for a few minutes, when I stopped on
C-SPAN2’s Book TV. They were running a three-hour

interview with Nell Irvin Painter
, the historian who wrote, among other
things, Standing At Armageddon, a book I read a few years ago during
coursework.

I don’t watch much Book TV, it turns out, so I don’t know whether it is
typical for them to break from the interviews to give quick little documentary
segments on the processual nuances for the featured writer. But they did
so for Painter, and it happened to come at the very moment when I was checking
out the program. The up-close look at the way Painter works comes between
1:01:18 and 1:15:16 if you are inclined to check it out via the Real Media file
provided by CSPAN.

Painter talks about the way her meandering process picks up late in the day.
She talks about how she creates, names, and saves her computer files (a new one
for each day, recently), how kayaking "helps" as part of her methodology, how
she writes in books she owns, and how she senses that her home in the
Adirondacks affords greater concentration. There is more: on her
dissertation, on cut and paste, on her use of a thesaurus, on working with
editors through revisions, on Row ("Roe"?), the friendly cat who crashes the
interview, and on how she keeps her library. It is a fifteen-minute
segment with a long list of writerly insights; Painter begins by saying, "I
would not recommend my way of working to others." Who would?

I was also interested in the moment when she talks about how she reads books,
how she develops personal indexes on a separate sheet of paper.
Productive, indexical thinking is something I have tried to make more tangible for
students in recent semesters. I like to hear people talk about it, and, in
fact, even though Painter’s way of working seems like what you would expect of a
historian academic (i.e., there is nothing shocking here), I wish we had more
documentary segments like this. Fifteen minutes on how I work (most of the
time): I’d love to see these for a long list of people. Maybe I am alone in this
fascination.

Whether or not I am, it suggests to me an alternative the longer,
multi-voiced documentaries of composition we have seen recently in Take 20
(emph. pedagogy) and Remembering Composition (emph. digitality). And I
understand the slim chance of seeing documentary film (or video) shorts become a
more regular feature of any journal (whether online or distributed as DVD with
the paper copy)–low odds because its dissymmetry with ten(ur)able scholarship
at many institutions. Without loosening the lid on that argument, this is
just to say that I’d like to see more of it–more writerly documentaries, that
is.

Cirrus Uncinus

Because some flaws are more glaring when the paint is fresh, before it has dried.

The first word of chapter three’s draft: in. The last word: hence. The last word winks at me and smiles. Why? I don’t use the word “hence” often. We both know it is not the last word but instead the word that comes–for now–at the end.

I thought I would use something from Everything Is Miscellaneous (Weinberger) or Ambient Findability (Morville), but I have not. They are relievers–back-ups for coming revisions.

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