the Massive Archive (“I have forgotten my umbrella” & tweeted about it)

I have argued elsewhere against the futility of the Infinite Archive – as expressed through various projects, many of them by google (like the desire to scan and digitize every book ever). But the futility of the Infinite Archive is built into the dream: its being is its perpetually unfinished becoming. The problem is thus not with the Infinite Archive (that at least can be thought and conceived. The problem, rather is with the Massive Archive.

Human beings can think infinity. We can grasp the concept. Sure there are vagaries that escape some and nuances that escape others. We are not all mathemagicians. But the infinitesimal and the massively massive are much more difficult entering into impossible. There are not infinite grains of sand on a beach. Planck length can be grasped mathematically but conceptually? As numbers approach the massively huge and minusculely small, we humans lose the ability to fully grasp their meaning.

Why does this matter? How does this relate to the archival project? Consider, if you will, the process of collecting the libraries, works, letters, files, papers, and documents of the notable. Various libraries and universities pride themselves on the collections that they possess and the research potential of those archives can, indeed, be tremendous. But what will happen to the collected papers of a contemporary figure? For some, it may be little different. But what about those who maintain a significant digital and social media presence? Who conduct research, writing, & public speech, etc. through those various platforms and the platforms to come? Will their archives necessarily include their Twitter feeds? What about deleted tweets? Saved but unpublished blog post drafts? The value of these archives is that they often include personal documents but how will we decide which private messages and private feeds are to be archived? How many of the endless stream of digital photos saved in ever cheaper digital storage? What part of our search histories (even the ones on incognito?)? Ironic and/or informative hashtags? Location data? What portion of the cloud? Will the NSA contribute what they have gathered?

The personal archive of a contemporary individual is not infinite. But the process of archiving a digital life in order that it might be useful and meaningful for later generations is going to involve a whole new form of culling and curation. Because surely keeping everything would make the archive unwieldy, spoiled for riches and thus starving because of its own excess. How can Nietzsche’s laundry lists compare to Istagramming our meals? But who decides what is archived and what is left to the digital landfill? Who decides which fragments and feeds might be relevant in a century or two? And what would that deciding look like?

There remains hope that the metadata of the future might resolve this issue down the line (for those down the line) but since the process of attaching appropriate metadata to current archiving and digitization projects is so complex and time-consuming at present, one wonders if that will provide much help to the present. One can conceive of a search capable of “finding what we are looking for” but is there a practical way of implementing such a vision? Keywords and tags are useful but certainly flawed.

Perhaps the solution lies in curation, perhaps in improved metadata, maybe in some really cool thing that I don’t even know about, but the issue of the Massive Archive remains and remains to be solved. And now, this.

neither an oppressor nor a victim be …

In my previous post, I made some effort to address what I see as a root failing in American educational outlook, in what we, as a society, consider education to be for or what, which is perhaps more pertinent, we use it for in the majority of cases (funneling bodies into jobs). That was the most salient point of the article as I first read it: that students don’t want to be challenged but coddled in the most cursory (and illusory) for of ‘acceptance.’

 

That was not, and is not, what seems to be generating the most controversy around essay. A brief glance would say that the reaction to the post was proof of its contents (there are many that are too quick to be victimized or too quick to be oppressors or both). That is not sufficiently nuanced.

 

The essay itself had a number of troubling points for me. This is why I, initially, focused on what I did leaving the misinformed and inaccurate (but aren’t they always) barbs of ‘nihilism’ alone, leaving the disparaging view of cultural studies alone, not bothering to critique the signature of anonymity, not fully questioning the foolish approach of critiquing Twitter posts for being insufficiently nuanced, etc.

 

Perhaps that is necessary.

 

I am a nihilist. There are many nihilisms, but this one is mine: the universe is indifferent. Welcome to the Infinite Perspective Vortex. When the Abyss gazes back, it gazes not stares because staring is rude and the Abyss isn’t looking at you, you aren’t important as far as the Abyss is concerned (which is isn’t because it isn’t anthropomorphic).

 

There is a reason this note comes first. It removes all appeals to authority.

 

The views on nihilism that the references but does not define (treating it as a universally abhorred bogeyman) are superficial at best. They just upset me.

 

Cultural Studies did not create a world of victims or oppressors. It is necessary, given that culture is all we have a humans, to look at what we use to define ourselves, to critique it and, often, to attempt to change it. Culture is not opposed to Nature. Cultural Studies is not opposed to Science (or science). There is no nature, there is no divide between nature and culture. There is the world and we are embedded. Science is wholly part of culture and they are all manifestations of anthropogenic noise marking our territory in an unimpressed cosmos. Is science biased towards the Patriarchy? Yes. It is part of the culture and paradigm of science as it has developed in the Western World and remains as part of the legacy of science in the world today. Does that invalidate science as a whole? No. And it certainly does not invalidate the scientific method. What it does instead is demand a challenging (look we are back to this) of the assumptions and paradigms of science, its factishes and practices. That would be the point of Science Studies and the philosophy of science. They do good work, I like Stengers and Latour. That a Twitter post was unable to convey the nuance of monographs and journal articles of academic science studies research is so patently obvious that the point should be irrelevant.

 

Then there is the signature of anonymity (pseudonymity). What does it mean to sign with a false signature? What does it mean to sign with a false signature but then quote with a Twitter handle (which are occasionally their own brand of pseudonymous signatures but I do not believe that was the case here). There were accusations of hiding, of cowardice. Is it cowardice to sign falsely? To sign falsely while not allowing others to do the same? If the pseudonymity was out of fear of reprisal did not the author consider the reprisal that the Twitter author would (and did) receive? I will not address questions of the right to quote (with attribution) from Twitter. Quotation without permission is a staple of the free use of copyright necessary for academic freedom (this is the proper MLA format for citing a tweet).

 

Dealing with those issues then brings me to my brief conclusions. There are a recent changes in media and discourse (social media, text messages and their brevity, tv punditry, etc, etc) that have given society over to an increase of seeing life in the binaries of oppressor/victim, us/them, offensive/accepting. There are no binaries save the ones that voltage gates allow in computers, et al, and that is only through an express limiting of analog continuity. Are more people seeing themselves as victims and/or oppressors? It seems like it. But the internet makes everything louder and seemingly more prominent. Is that binary (and the others) a bad thing? Yes. Will pseudonymously complaining about it change much? Doubtful. Especially when that complaining refuses to embrace the comforts of nihilism that demand that we solve our own problems because we are otherwise alone.

 

We are embedded in this world (despite all claims to dominance and separation) and only through embracing that embeddedness, the non-binaristic greyscale, the nihilism, can we cut through the useless blather and banter and come to understand the underlying chaos and un/hyper/differentiated realities of which we are only a small (but significant to ourselves – highly recommended by owner) part.

on whether to challenge

I read this article this morning.

As both a precarious academic and a dreaded black pit of nihilism …

Where to begin?

Students are entitled. It is known.

I have had students (who hasn’t?) who have complained that I have no respected their strongly held beliefs (mostly those with naive conservatism mixed with normative patriarchal racism and sexism). They left negative reviews. They were few. My administration was supportive.

My theories can be edgy, controversial, abrasive, challenging, confusing, etc. But I have kept most of my personal thinking and research out of my teaching as I have only taught entry level courses. Which is not to say that I do not try to challenge my students, make them question their beliefs, and develop sustained arguments for their claims. That’s what teaching is. Critical and creative thinking skills are what I believe education should be based on and geared towards. Based on this essay though, it seems I’ve been getting off easy. I knew I was pulling punches in those classes but mostly because there is only so much that can be conveyed to kids fresh out of high school and standardized tests and I didn’t want to lose or disinterest them. But what would be the point of teaching if you can’t actually teach?

Personally, research. I am passionate about my research, about the act of research, and my eccentric research methodologies. I like teaching because it is a means of conveying my passion for knowledge and sustained inquiry. And accepting teaching as the cost of being able to have the time and means to do research is a small and often rewarding ‘burden.’

It would disappoint me if teaching falls to the wayside as universities seek to offer their customers the best experiences for their money, if classroom hours are devoted to reaffirming deeply held beliefs and widely believed facts as well as appreciating things that we all like. But as more an more students come to see college as little more than an extended credentialing process (I need this class because it is required for my degree, I need the degree to get a job, I need a job because something) and less as a place of inquiry and exploration & a means of developing into an informed and engaged citizen, perhaps such a change is inevitable. And if that is the way the winds are blowing, why not just give the people what they want? Sure, I have ideas about what is best in life (To crush your enemies …) but forcing a love of knowledge on someone isn’t going to happen when they are 18. This is a symptom of an issue that is at the root of many of the problems in American education today: what is the purpose of education? And if the purpose of American education is to train workers for jobs then the idea of challenging students’ beliefs is no longer pertinent.

Am I ok with that? It’s not ideal but there are other battles to fight. You reach the ones you can and if the rest just want to pass through on their paths to a dream job in the sky, so long as they meet the benchmarks it is what it is. I have no plans for drinking hemlock any time soon.