Colbert on the"Danger" of the Internet

This comes from Colbert's interview with Keen--it is presented as something of a nightmare. But I think it adequately describes a digital/rhetorical/sophistic new media environment, one in which there is not getting outside the cave. Responding to Keen's claim that digital culture destroys objective media and criteria for truth, Colbert responds:

isn't reality something we decide?

I never thought I would say this, but...

I actually find myself agreeing with Andrew Keen. Today Keen responded to Patricia Cohen's NYTimes article on how the pending economic crisis will affect the humanities. Keen concludes:

What I do know for sure, however, is that academic humanists -- especially the younger ones with a bit of life left in them -- better upgrade themselves before they get totally swept away by the digital revolution. Their traditional monopoly on wisdom, humanistic or otherwise, is being undermined by the communications revolution of blogs, Facebook & Twitter. Rather than learning to quote Shakespeare or W.E.B. Du Bois, I would advise aspiring humanities scholars to learn how to build their own intellectual brands and distribute their ideas more broadly and relevantly. Just as the death of newspapers is forcing smart young journalists to become self-employed entrepreneurs, so the imminent crisis of academic humanity departments, which will eventually do away with the archaic tenure system, offers a great opportunity to rethink what it means to be a professional educator in the 21st century.

Leaving the sarcasm aside, I agree that contemporary academics have to do a better job building their relevance, and that we have an opportunity to rethink the profession of higher education. Actually, I think this work can be traced back to before the Web2.0 revolution: to Lyotard's critique of metanarratives of progress and knowledge. Jumping back to my Lanham post the other day, we need to reconsider Kant's fracturing of the professors' public and private lives. For Kant, the professor must, in the "public" of his intellectual discipline, speak freely. But in his "private" duties as teacher and citizen, s/he must obey. Hence the motto "think, but obey."

A few centuries later, I think that disjunction has lead to the circumstances that Richard M. Freeman, Massachusetts Commissioner of Higher Education (quoted from Cohen's article):

But what we haven’t paid a lot of attention to is how students can put those abilities effectively to use in the world. We’ve created a disjunction between the liberal arts and sciences and our role as citizens and professionals.

Cohen concludes that "baldly marketing the humanities makes some in the field uneasy." But let's qualify this through Lanham: after the influence of the Modern Enlightenment, framing itself as something other than "stuff" makes the humanities uneasy. After the Modern Enlightenment, becoming a discipline founded upon praxis seems so inferior to being a discipline that focuses on production. Let's become something otherwise.


I am confused... someone explain this to me

Granted, I didn't get through my morning coffee today. But something really confused me on the ride to work. I live about 20 miles south of University of South Florida. Everyday I drive on I-75 I experience an incredible irony: flying directly opposite to the Martin Luther King St. highway exit is a huge, billowing confederate flag. The flag pole resides on a small trailer park protected by a security fence. A few weeks ago Meg and I were treated to a surreal scene: a group of elderly women sitting around on a Sunday mending the confederate flag.

Today, however, a different flag appeared on the pole: a flag of the 13 original colonies, the Betsy Ross flag.

I have never heard of any connection between the confederate flag and the Betsy Ross flag. Some needs to explain this to me. Slowly. Since I still haven't had that coffee.


Lanham definition of rhetoric; the Aim of Education(s)

I need to remember this somewhere, why not the blog. Now you can remember it, too.

"Rhetoric" has not always been a dirty word, the opposite of sincerity, truth, and good intentions. For most of its life it meant the training in expression, spoken and written, that you need to play a useful role in human society. It became a dirty word in the seventeenth century, when science, trying to describe the world of stuff, wanted to abolish the distortions of human attention structures. Human communication ought to be like the United Parcel Service, an efficient mover of information boxes from one destination to the other. This model for human communication gains its power from its narrowness, but we need a wider model for an attention economy. Information does not come in simple neutral boxes and its distribution is a more complex matter altogether. We need a more capacious conception of human communication, one that can accommodate the full range of human purpose.

All the more do we need it because the digital computer has created a new expressive space. The screen works differently from the page. Words don't stay put. They dance around. Images play a major role and they move too. Color is everywhere. And sound, too, spoken and synthesized. Above all, a different expressive economy prevails. The printed page depends on an economics of deprival. No color, no movement, images in careful moderation. All these sacrificed to create an expressive field that encourages concentration on conceptual thought. It is a monopolistic attention economy, directed from the top. The digital screen depends on an economics of plenty. It allows competition between word, image, and sound for attention. It is a market attention economy, driven from the bottom. You can map onto these two contrasting expressive spaces all the arguments about top-down versus bottom-up, planned versus market, economies. Market economies, like the political democracy that accompanies them, demand a full-range conception of human communication, the kind a rhetorical curriculum has always provided. And this new rhetoric will have to be built on the digital expressive space as well as the printed one, and teach how to move easily from one to the other

I have been writing and thinking lately about how badly we need to re-articulate the purpose of education. The social demographics and cultural conceptions of higher education have changed greatly over the last 50 years. Higher education is no longer the elite privilege for an elite few. It should no longer frame itself as such; yet Kant's ghost still drives much of the work we do, it still emphasizes the public/private obligations of the scholar, still protects the scholar from public interaction, still--to capture Lanham--fetishizes a print preference for the neutrality of information. It still aims to produce scholars.

I realize, clearly, now that I have no interest in producing scholars (at least at the undergraduate level). I remember Nathaniel Rivers, Ryan Weber and I sharing a similar reaction to Whitehead's description of undergraduate education in "Universities and their Function" (circa 1829): "wow, that sounds like grad school." And that is where scholars should be produced: graduate school.

My interest in undergraduates is to produce citizens. I like Lanham's definition, those ready "to play a useful role in human society." Notice this definition says nothing about the creation of knowledge. This isn't to say that citizenship cannot involve aspects of scholarship. But I am calling for us [rhetoricians, English faculty, humanists, humans--let the pronoun stretch as far as you want it to go] to reassess why we do what we do. I think the difference in not only technology, but also culture and history, will lead us to very different answers than what Kant and Humbodlt argued for several hundred years ago.

Then again, I just watched The Flock of Dodos, and that shit is scary. But, as the movie suggests, perhaps if Kant had trained his scientists to be a bit more rhetorically saavy with audiences outside the Universities walls, this wouldn't have happened in the first place.


Student Strikes Gold

I had my students do an assignment in which they had to characterize blogs. One student offered these nuggets:

Fourth, the blog that is the most idiotic tends to win. This is just like high school. The weird blog is the ugly girl, who when stripped of her ponytail and glasses, is beautiful. The weird blog tends to have the most readers and the most responses, so the more stupid you think your idea is the more you are swimming in gold.

Fifth, and by far the biggest tip, nice blogs always finish last. Nobody wants to read why your life is awesome. We do not care about your big green powered house (unless it was built out of rubber bands), your pink Barbie convertible (unless it flipped and left you with a harry potter esque scar), or your 2.5 perfect kids (unless one really is only .5 and he is the most normal of the three). It is wired into our DNA to love a good train wreck, and then to drive by it at 7 miles an hour staring on the high way because we were trying to ‘safely pass it’.



Obligatory Post from a Sophistic Baseball Fan

[A little context: last week I used a series of ESPN articles in a workshop on direct quoting, hence the sometimes forced references. I think the workshop was successful, however.]

Dear Commissioner Selig,

I understand in the wake of recent news the desire to punish Alex Rodriguez and to strike his name from the records. I understand the desire to cleanse baseball.

I understand writers such as Mark Fainaru-Wada and T.J. Quinn discrediting Alex's testimony on the grounds that he had to know what he was taking. Perhaps they, along with Gene Wojciechowski and Rob Neyer and countless others, are right: Alex is still holding back on us. He hasn't told us the whole truth. Perhaps he is even still lying to us.

But, in terms of records and punishment, please understand you do not have to punish Alex. The baseball media will do that for you. I am sure Hall of Fame Voter Pedro Gomez is not alone in his stance that "As a hall of fame voter... I know I have made up my mind that I will never vote for anyone I believe to have used PEDs." Furthermore, as Gomez reports in "It's only just begun for A-Rod," he can expect harsh treatment on the road and at home, in front of suspicious, rough, and scorned Yankee fans. A suspension might be merciful on Alex at this point.

In the end, the desire to punish Alex extends from our own guilt, and an unspeakable desire to reprimand ourselves. All of us, baseball owners, executives, fans, and players are to blame for the willful ignorance necessary to produce the culture that Alex describes. As many commentators have argued, we will never know the extent to which performance enhancing drugs permeated the game. Let us not engage in a witchhunt. Let us not engage in revisionist history. Let us take responsibility for our own culpability, let us deal with a stained record-book, marked only by our guilt and disappointment. Let us allow this past to serve as a reminder that we need to work vigilantly to preserve baseball's future. Let Alex return to the field to pursue those once hallowed records; let us all remember what we sanctioned.

Marc C. Santos


"It is the opposite which is good for us"

Because a certain someone keeps trying to shove Parmenides down your throat, I thought I'd share some Heraclitus. Thanks to Plato's misunderstanding, most of us attribute to Heraclitus the trite paradoxical aphorism "you could not step twice into the same river." But, as the Interent Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains, Heraclitus' phrasing can be translated as more sophistic and complex: "On those stepping into rivers staying the same other and other waters flow." For a river to exist as Word (as Being), there must be a constant movement (becoming) that betrays the rectitude of the written, graphic signifier (of course, this play of signifiers produces multiple translations). The play of existence not grounded in mere negativity, Parmenides distinction between static contemplation of "is" and "is not" ("On Nature" II). From the Encyclopedia's explication:

There is an antithesis between 'same' and 'other.' The sentence says that different waters flow in rivers staying the same. In other words, though the waters are always changing, the rivers stay the same. Indeed, it must be precisely because the waters are always changing that there are rivers at all, rather than lakes or ponds. The message is that rivers can stay the same over time even though, or indeed because, the waters change. The point, then, is not that everything is changing, but that the fact that some things change makes possible the continued existence of other things.

The beauty isn't anything that we can see. Beauty eclipses sensual experience. Sensual experience is the progeny of becoming's imperfect, invisible union, a coming into Being. The beautiful mystery underlies the isness of is.

Perhaps it is fitting that Heraclitus now exists only in fragments.

And I feel obligated to admit that Heraclitus probably surpasses Plato in his elitism and disdain for the common cattle of everyday life (much of Plato's allegory of the cave echoes the politics and characterizations of Heraclitus). But, hay, nobody is perfect.


Hearing what the Presidents Don't Say

Recently I have become enamored with the feed over at FlowingData, a collection of quality visualization projects. Today has several offerings, but I am most interested in Descry's project "Their First Words," which provides a searchable database of all inauguration speeches. The data is then presented in a proportional block-chart. Very smart, very slick.

Users can customize searches, and so I started with a simple search for "race|racism." The results surprised me a bit, but perhaps they shouldn't have. Before Rutherford B. Hayes, I could not find one use of the word (although the database spits back some results, the ones I examined highlight "race" as part of another word, such as "trace" or "embrace"). For the most part, before the Civil War, the word race was completely foreign to presidential inaugurations. When Pierce uses it in 1853, it clearly means privileged, white males:

"With the Union my best and dearest earthly hopes are entwined. Without it what are we individually or collectively? What becomes of the noblest field ever opened for the advancement of our race in religion, in government, in the arts, and in all that dignifies and adorns mankind?"
For the record, Obama used the phrase only once:

This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed -- why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent Mall, and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

Obama's passage seems to realize the hope of Hayes so many years before:

With respect to the two distinct races whose peculiar relations to each other have brought upon us the deplorable complications and perplexities which exist in those States, it must be a government which guards the interests of both races carefully and equally. [...]

In the effort I shall make to accomplish this purpose I ask the cordial cooperation of all who cherish an interest in the welfare of the country, trusting that party ties and the prejudice of race will be freely surrendered in behalf of the great purpose to be accomplished.

I think Hayes would be happy.

But then I tried another search: for "gay." Nothing. "Homosexual." Not a single response. "Same-sex." Nope. If my little supposition is right, and American interest and empathy can be somehow related to the president's inaugural speeches, then perhaps we can see why things like Proposition 8 aren't passing. And I don't foresee a Civil War coming this time to force the issue. So the question, for those of us who care about this issue, is how to press these issues into language--how to get those president's talking. I am also wondering if we necessarily want to get these presidents talking. After all, the bible might have been used to support slavery, but I don't think it makes any explicit proclamations. Homosexuality, on the other hand...

My last search was for "discrimination." There were only 8 uses of this term in presidential history: 3 by Polk in 1845, 2 by Taft in 1909, 1 by Pierce 1853, 1 by Buchanan in 1857, and one by Reagan in 1981. While my "research" here is nothing more than an hour's play online, I think this supports the fantasy that America has somehow solved the question of discrimination and equality. I mean, if we aren't talking about it, then it doesn't exist, right?

P.S., and I figure mxrk can have some fun with this: there is only one response for "racism." Guess who?


Complaining as Art

I laughed so hard reading this letter to the president of Virgin airlines that people looked at me funny as they walked by my office. Totally worth it. Rumor has it the airline has offered him a job in culinary quality control. (via Coudal).


Visual Metaphor: Walmart as a Disease

As if the choice of green was innocuous. In the previous century, when I was a snobbish New Englander, Walmart was an unholy place--a store chocking the life out of small, friendly businesses and full of the kind of people that hindered social progress.

Now, as a snobby, academic Floridian, I take Rowan to Walmart for fun. And for cheap coffee (they sell the Starbucks for like 6 bucks).

Anyway, go watch FlowingData's map of Walmart's growth. Via ZeFrank.