Tagged: Literature

Unsymposium Week 10

My main takeaways this week

The 80/20 reading gives us a mechanism to understand how networks develop. It shows us the evolution from one node to an infinite number of nodes. These connections have never been random but they are not ordered either; power laws come into play and that’s why hubs count, they are vital and they are surrounded by infinite nodes.  Being a small player, or one of those infinite nodes, isn’t a big deal in the network because it takes so few links to get to those hubs. Just like Kevin Bacon is an achievable connection for all of us within 6 degrees.

Jasmine felt that the reading offered the idea that even though we’ve got these hubs that accumulate over time, new nodes can still flourish. Likewise over time hubs can become less important and be replaced by newer ones.

This discussion as a whole helped me to understand how blogs thrive online and that if we’re not linking to other people we’re not even trying to maximise our audience reach. It also shows how we can all help each other out by linking amongst the “little guys”  to help the long tail get some attention.

I feel like the remainder of the unsymposium was spent exploring the notion of technological determinism vs cultural determinism. It seems like we all have an obsession with the role of the author and authorial control. After once again exploring this notion yesterday I think I understand why we keep coming back to it.

Adrian has said several times that the Author doesn’t have complete control, we are subject to the technologies we use, the cultural influences on structure and communication and even the limitations of language itself. (I have no notes of the exact phrasing so I won’t claim this is an exact representation of what Adrian has stated on the subject). I don’t think anyone (or certainly not most of us) has too much trouble understanding that there are limits to the control an author has because of technological determinism and other factors like the subconscious mind vs the conscious mind and which one is representing us/offering insight into our minds. I think the reason people protest the notion of there being no authorial control is because there is some implication in the statement (whether intended or not) that to accept technological determinism and no authorial control as an absolute truth, means that the author doesn’t matter.

Sure, all the great authors have operated within the confines of their selected medium, and in that way they are subject to technological determinism. But it matters that Charles Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities instead of Sarah Palin (or to be fair and less extreme, it matters that Dickens wrote it rather than Victor Hugo). Authors have an impact on their work, they produce something that in all likelihood wouldn’t have been produced as a carbon copy by anyone else in the world, and because of this I think we can claim that we get a taste of who the author is, even if the characters in their book in no way reflect them personally we get to see what their mind is capable of creating. Once again I’ve fallen into the trap of using literature as an example. But I guess literature is the area where we feel most license to interpret and project our own experiences onto the interpretation of an author’s intent so that’s why we keep coming back to it.

So I guess, even if I am representing only myself in this statement I would like to say that I understand technological determinism’s role in life. I no doubt am more able to articulate that role as a result of the discussion/debate through networked media. But I feel misunderstood in my protest against the notion of authorial control because I protest it as an universal truth with no grey area. Maybe this is because I’ve mistakenly taken Adrian’s assertions as absent of a grey area where the author matters but I feel frustrated to be returning to the subject over and over as if I don’t comprehend that there are restrictions within which we operate.


A Timely New York Post Article

There was a lot of talk at yesterday’s symposium about books and the future of literature that I think always strikes a chord with us book lovers because we fear we, and future generations will be robbed of that irreplaceable experience of connecting with a good book.

Then today I came across this article in the New York Post, and it very much tied in with the discussions yesterday. It seems to me that really what the problem is, is that we are living in a world that is obsessed with an aversion to risk. That if we can’t see the direct value of any undertaking then we’d probably better not pursue it and instead do something sensible. This overriding attitude then competes with my generation who is perhaps the first (or amongst the first) that’s grown up being told to “do what you love?”, “love you’re job” etc and has dared to believe that’s possible. As a mature aged student undertaking a second bachelor in a field that’s (tried and tested) pathways to career success are disappearing, with a brother rapidly approaching 30 who’s dared to try and make it as an artist, and another brother slogging away at a 9-5 job while quietly writing a novel in his spare time, I suspect my parents wouldn’t retract their advice but would really have liked it if we’d happened to love accounting or teaching or engineering or something with a little more stability. (To be fare my parents are very supportive and proud of all our ventures)

Anyway I digress. Some things that stood out to me from the article…

We do not always know the future benefits of what we study and therefore should not rush to reject some forms of research as less deserving than others.

I think this is particularly valuable to keep in mind for the study of humanities, but also that it is true of everything. How many major scientific discoveries have been a happy accident – a bi product of another venture? Ian Flemming discovered Penicillin because he accidentally left a Petri dish open over night… In no aspect of life can we simply decide something’s value because the benefits are not immediately visible.

Gopnik recounts an anecdote from Bill James in his article where James argues that in talking about whether baseball is really a business, and not a sport at all, that if the sporting interest in baseball died, baseball would die; but if the business of baseball died – but the sporting interest persisted, baseball would be altered, but it wouldn’t die. This is the crux of the future of Literature and books as a physical form, as more and more texts become available only in digital form, literature and our value of it may change and it may become more niche to read books in print, while a love of literature remains the book will power ahead.

If we abolished English majors tomorrow, Stephen Greenblatt and Stanley Fish and Helen Vendler would not suddenly be freed to use their smarts to start making quantum protonnuclear reactor cargo transporters, or whatever

The opportunity cost of these great minds dedicated to literature and literary pursuits is not often looked at rationally. What would these people be contributing to the world if not studying what they loved? It’s unlikely their skills would be transferable to the production of knowledge seemingly more “valuable” to society instead and in turn, we’d miss out on everything they’ve contributed to culture and discussion.

I can feel myself getting less and less coherent here but bare with me…

English departments democratize the practice of reading. When they do, they make the books of the past available to all. It’s a simple but potent act.

We live in an age where technology is progressing at an exponential rate. I have grown up to see music go from vinyl to mp3 in the space of my short lifetime. From having a dial phone to a touch screen and landlines becoming almost obsolete. Technology has brought us amazing things at such a rapid rate I think we are all a little prone to panic about what we’re losing because of it. However, as Gopnik says, books allow us to transport into worlds so far gone or so far imagined we could never experience those lives in reality. There’s nothing that can compete with that private experience of learning and connecting with humanity through literature through the quiet pass-time of reading. I think what we fail to remember through all this panic is that the things that matter and that we love will survive. For instance, I have had the privilege of living overseas at a few different times in my life, and you build friendships which are destined to exist in different timezones and cultures and across seas and as each experience comes to an end that familiar feeling of panic and fear that these people who have come to mean so much to you will suddenly be abolished from your life – however as each experience has taught me, the people who are really important will always make the effort and be worth the effort of keeping in touch, and the less important friends will make contact every now and then but in the end you naturally drift apart and that’s ok. So- i try to keep that little anecdote of life in mind when I find myself stressing about living in a world progressing too fast.

Gopnik talks about fellow English professors and their tireless pursuits and the best answer he’s ever heard to justify studying literature:

Why was he a professor of literature? “Because I have an obsessive relationship with texts.” You choose a major, or a life, not because you see its purpose, which tends to shimmer out of sight like an oasis, but because you like its objects

Again, back to my comment of “do what you love”, sometimes its as hard to justify our careers and obsessions as it is to put into words why you love someone. You can’t always identify the moving parts. Literature offers so much to the world, often different things unique to the individual; it’s a place for connection for the lonely, an porthole into another world for the inquisitive, an invitation into the mind of the brilliant, but we can’t see every event of added value that a piece of literature offers the world, just a cumulative love.

I will finish as Gopnik finished:

We need the humanities not because they will produce shrewder entrepreneurs or kinder C.E.Os but because, as that first professor said, they help us enjoy life more and edure it better. The reason we need the humanities is because we’re human. That’s enough