Cultural Studies as an Alibi

“I would rather talk about the problems of ethics, value, trust, hierarchy, and labor in academic life than use cultural studies as an alibi, one more time, for the urgency of responding to the institutional pressures of the present that have rendered so many of us bitter or angry or tired or cynical or perhaps simply confused about what to do in this moment of intellectual expansion and economical downsizing in the United States academy.” (9)

Berlant, Lauren. “Collegiality, Crisis, and Cultural Studies.” ADE Bulletin 117, Fall 1997, 4-9.

Communities

[Crossposted from The New York Academy of Medicine’s Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health, which has published a cluster of posts previewing a panel I’m presenting on at the AHA.]

The overwhelming tendency toward openness in digital networks presents both opportunities and challenges for contemporary scholarship, and in particular for the traditional structures that have facilitated and disseminated scholarship such as membership-based scholarly societies. Some of the challenges are obvious, and have been discussed in many other fora. The increasing demand for free access to products around which revenue models have long been built, for instance, challenges organizations to reinvent their fundamental orientation toward their stakeholders. For scholars, the network’s openness presents an increasing potential for information overload and an increasing difficulty in finding the right texts, the right connections, the right conversations at the right time.

All of these challenges are of course balanced by opportunities, however, as the network also presents the possibility of greatly improved access to scholarship and more fluid channels for ongoing communication and discovery amongst scholars. These opportunities suggest that an important role for scholarly societies will be in facilitating their members’ participation in these networks, helping to create new community-based platforms and systems through which their members can best carry out their work. Insofar as scholarship has always been a conversation — if one often conducted at a most glacial pace — the chief value for scholars should come in the ability to be full participants in that conversation: not simply getting access to the work that other scholars produce, but also having the ability to get their work into circulation, in the same networks as the work that inspired it, and the work that it will inspire. For this reason, the value of joining a scholarly society in the age of the network is less in getting access to content the society produces (the convention, the journal) than in the ability to participate.

However, this opportunity points toward a deeper, underlying challenge, for societies and scholars alike: building and maintaining communities that inspire and sustain participation. This is nowhere near as easy as it may sound. And it’s not just a matter of the “if you build it, they won’t necessarily come” problem; problems can creep up even when they do come. Take Twitter, for instance, which developed a substantial and enthusiastic academic user base over a period of a few years. Recently, however, many scholars and writers who were once very active and engaged on Twitter have begun withdrawing. Perhaps the drop-off is part of an inevitable evaporative social cooling effect. Perhaps at some point, Twitter’s bigness crossed a threshold into too-big. Whatever the causes, there is an increasing discomfort among many with the feeling that conversations once being held on one’s front porch are suddenly taking place in the street and that discussions have given way to an unfortunate “reign of opinion”, an increasing sense of the personal costs involved in maintaining the level of “ambient intimacy” that Twitter requires and a growing feeling that “a life spent on Twitter is a death by a thousand emotional microtransactions”.

Gartner Hype Cycle

What is crucial to note is that in none of these cases is the problem predominantly one of network structure. If we have reached a “trough of disillusionment” in the Twitter hype cycle, it’s not the fault of the technology, but of the social systems and interactions that have developed around it. If we are going to take full advantage of the affordances that digital networks provide — facilitating forms of scholarly communication from those as seemingly simple as the tweet to those as complex as the journal article, the monograph, and their born-digital descendants — we must focus as much on the social challenges that these networks raise as we do on the technical or financial challenges. To say, however, that we need to focus on building community — or more accurately, building communities — is not to say that we need to develop and enforce the sort of norms of “civility” that have been used to discipline crucial forms of protest. Rather, we need to foster the kinds of communication and connection that will enable a richly conceived panoply of communities of practice, as they long have in print, to work in engaged, ongoing dissensus without reverting to silence.

[Image: Gartner Hype Cycle, by Jeremy Kemp. Shared under CC BY-SA 3.0 license. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hype_cycle#mediaviewer/File:Gartner_Hype_Cycle.svg]

Must

There are the things you know you ought to do, that are hard to do, in part because the “ought to” of them is pretty abstract, especially when they are surrounded by so many other pressing, concrete demands. For me, a whole lot of stuff has long fallen into that category, and particularly things that have to do with taking care of myself. I ought to eat a little better. I ought to drop that five pounds. I ought to get more sleep. I ought to exercise more regularly. I know all of those statements are true, and I really do try to do the things they urge, but it’s often easier to let those things drop when competing demands arise.

And honestly, when don’t competing demands arise.

But I’m finding myself squarely in front of one of those moments when the world sends a no-kidding message: That “ought to”? You should maybe interpret as “must.”

Last week, right near the end of the DH conference, I started getting some pain in my left shoulder. I’ve got some kind recurrent tendonitis in both my shoulders, and with all the hauling of suitcases and carrying around of laptops, I figured I’d triggered it, which promised an aggravating few days ahead.

A week later, however, things had not gotten better. In fact, they were much worse: the pain was no longer localized in my shoulder, but was radiating both up my neck and down my arm. My small stash of Aleve was running out fast, and weirdly, given the range of things you can buy OTC here in Paris, naproxen is unavailable without a prescription. So R. talked me into seeing a doctor, and got a friend to make an appointment for me.

My experience of the French medical system is not the point of this post, but I should note how good it was: I got an appointment with a very good doctor for the very next day. She discussed the problem with me, did an examination, explained her diagnosis, and wrote me three prescriptions. The cost of the examination, for someone who was for all intents and purposes uninsured, was 50 euros. The cost of the three prescriptions, 15 euros. The doctor also said I should go get an x-ray, which I’m going to do while I’m here, both because I’m here for another three weeks and because it’ll be cheaper to pay out-of-pocket for it here than it will be to handle it through my insurance back home.1

What I need the x-ray for is more to the point of the post: the doctor diagnosed me with a pinched nerve in my neck, almost certainly produced by une arthrose — cervical osteoarthritis.2

My first response to this was annoyance. I am way too freaking young to have arthritis in my neck.

My second response was something much more akin to terror: if it feels like this in my mid-forties, what will it feel like in my sixties? My eighties?3

And following fairly quickly on the heels of that was a fairly predictable conviction: I have got to start taking better care of myself.

What this means, however, is turning all those ought tos into musts. In particular, I must make more time for more regular exercise, to become as strong as I can in preparation for whatever the coming years are going to bring my way. And this is going to require two things of me:

First, I must reprioritize. It’s useless to say “I have to get more exercise” when my calendar and my to-do list simply cannot take more being crammed in. Something, in other words, must go — and it can no longer be the things that have always seemed too (literally) self-centered. What that something will be, I’m not entirely sure — but I am starting to recognize that where ambition or accomplishment gets in the way of basic physical health and well-being, maybe it deserves a little more critical examination.4

And second, I need some kind of accountability, a means of ensuring that I actually follow through on what could turn out to be no more than a whole lot of good intentions, particularly once the pain fully recedes. So I’m hoping that maybe my internet friends will help hold me to these changes, and maybe even come along for the ride. If you use Runkeeper, I’m kfitz there. I’ll try to post some here about how I’m doing as well.

I’m determined to be that wiry little old lady still running in the park when I’m 80. And I’m weirdly grateful, I think, for this last week-plus, which has made abundantly clear that that absolutely is not going to happen without some really determined decision-making on my part.

Attention

Yesterday was a lovely, quiet Saturday. I got up early, went through my morning routine, and then went for a walk in the park. I did laundry, I had lunch, I took a little nap. I spent part of the day with the book I’m currently reading (Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure, if you’re curious), and then in the late afternoon started listening to a series of lectures from a Oxford U general philosophy course. The lecturer is really quite good, and the narrative he presents quite compelling. I’m listening to this course, in part, because one of the more woeful gaps in my education (of which there are many, alas) is labeled “philosophy”; as an undergrad, I let the introductory formal logic course — which you had to get through in order to be admitted to any further courses — deter me, and so I have embarrassingly little grounding in the history of many of the ideas I want to be working with. I’m hoping that this series of lectures might at least give me enough of an overview so that I know a bit more about what it is I ought to know, but of course I’m certain that I won’t really know much of anything without taking on a more systematic, thorough course of reading.

This seems obvious, and yet what’s painful about it is all bound up in what Tim Parks and Corey Robin have lately written about: an increasing difficulty with actually doing the reading I set myself to do. I find myself lacking both for time (of which I seem to have precious little) and attention (of which I have less and less). Whatever the reason, it feels increasingly difficult to sit still and read much at all of late. I can’t tell how much of that difficulty is the technology-assisted monkey mind described by Parks — constantly looking for the next bit of incoming information, the next thing to click — or how much of it might be the distractions provided by other parts of my life, or (what I most fear) how much of it might simply be an aging brain. Would my attention span be shrinking even without all my surrounding technologies, in other words, or are the technologies interfering in my attention in the ways that I sometimes fear?

I’m working on some practices (a little meditation; a little bit of writing time in the early mornings) that I hope will help me better develop and maintain the ability to focus my attention on what’s in front of me, rather than constantly grasping for the next thing. But as I started pondering this problem in a bit of journaling this morning, it occurred to me that there’s another side to the question of attention that I hadn’t really connected here before. And it may be that they’re only connected by a sort of linguistic coincidence, but it nonetheless seemed significant.

As I started writing about my concerns about reading and my seemingly diminishing attention span, it hit me that this is the kind of thing that in the not-too-distant past I’d have written as a blog post, that I’d have shared almost reflexively. I felt little to no inclination to do that today, and so I started wondering what has changed. Is there something else different in my relationship to attention — not just the attention I pay, but the attention I seek, or more generously to myself, the attention I want to bear? One can read throughout my posts here since spring 2011 a series of not entirely successful attempts to work through my sense that my new position required (or seemed to require, at least) a reconfiguration of my public presence, my sense that I was at times a little more visible, a little more exposed, than might in the new order of things be ideal. There have also been, across that same period of time, some changes in the climate that have made working ideas out in the open feel a good bit less easy than it once was. But whether the changes are predominantly internal or external, the result is that I’ve become reticent about thinking in public — and that’s a not just a shame but in fact a pretty painful irony, given that thinking-in-public is both the source of whatever impact my work has had and the thing that I was hired to support.

In that support role, though, I’ve retreated somewhat behind-the-scenes, and I find myself somewhat reluctant to share the things I’m working on, in part because I get so very little time to work on them that all my ideas feel desperately under-baked. But the combination of what feels like my shrinking attention span and my reluctance to be public with my thinking have me more than a little worried about how (in fact whether) my work might proceed from here. I am hoping to find some strategies this summer to get myself past both of these hurdles, to work my brain in ways that help to grow my attention span again, and to re-develop my bravery about drawing attention to my work as it happens.

Reluctant Is Just the Word

Boone captures something here that I really needed to have drilled into my head: that if I’m going to get over my recent dread w/r/t running, I probably need to (a) know something about how hard the running I’m doing really is (rather than how hard I think it ought to be), and (b) make it way less hard, so that I feel less beaten up afterward. Heart rate monitor obtained, and now used for two days. The resulting info was highly instructive, and I’m feeling pretty motivated, which is a decided improvement.

The Royal Society and the Profession of Knowledge

“Philosophical writers vested much of their identities and reputations in their printed works, so that counterfeiting, abridgment, translation, and piracy threatened them with far more than merely economic damage. The repute of the individual concerned — and of the knowledge he or she professed — rested on the successful negotiation of such hazards. Writers developed certain strategies to overcome these dangers. They might coalesce and cooperate as a group, for example, combining resources to protect themselves. Such a body might even become a corporate licenser, utilizing the conventions described in chapter 3 to distinguish its books as creditable. Another possible course was to invent new techniques of communication, such as the learned periodical, the protocols of which might limit the practical powers of printers and booksellers. Still another was to police not just publication but reading, in the hope of stimulating debate while limiting conflict.”

Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Book, 445

Surfaces

I’m contemplating a new writing project, and as I often do in the early stages of such projects, I’m beginning by thinking about the surfaces on which I’m going to do that writing, and the surfaces on which that writing will eventually appear. That sent me off this morning into a bit of tinkering here, which resulted in a whole new theme. Something about this theme feels more conducive to the work I’m hoping to do in the coming months.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether the prettied-up surface will result in any more actual posting than there has been of late, but a girl can dream.

Pulled Pork, The Remix

We are finally, finally, in the thick of spring — the sun is out, at least some of the time, and the windows are open, at least part of the day. And the ability to stand being outside for more than ten minutes at a time has me pondering the things that sustained me through this miserable winter.

In a word: Pork, and lots of it.

One of the best things I did this winter was develop a variation on the famous ProfHacker pulled pork recipe, engineered away from barbecue and towards carnitas. In the spirit of the commons, I now want to pass this on for further experimentation and remix.

One note of not-exactly caution: I invariably pretty much eyeball the spices, so the rub is totally much a YMMV thing. That said, I have yet to have this turn out anything less than awesome.

* * *

Ingredients:

2 large or 3 medium yellow onions
6ish cloves minced/crushed garlic
coarse kosher salt
Morton & Bassett Mexican Blend spice mix
oregano
paprika
olive oil
5ish-lbs bone-in pork shoulder or pork shanks
2 fresh jalapenos
1 tub hot salsa (of the pico de gallo sort, usually found in the produce section)
1/2 cup chicken stock

Very coarsely chop the onions and cover the bottom of a large-size slow cooker with them. Mix the garlic, salt, spice mix, oregano, paprika, and olive oil, which together should form a nice thick rust-colored paste.

Wash the pork and pat dry. Rub it thoroughly on all sides with the spice mix, and place on top of the onions. (If you use a pork shoulder, place it fat side up.)

Clean and chop the jalapenos, and scatter them on top of the pork roast. Pour the tub of hot salsa over the roast, and then add the chicken stock.

Turn the slow cooker on low, and… let it do its thing, for something on the order of 10 hours. I sometimes start this early in the morning, so that it’s ready for dinner. But even more often I start it after dinner and let it cook overnight. (The house fills with the smell of amazingly good pork, which produces really interesting dreams.)

In any case, the roast should be utterly falling apart by the time it’s done. Pull it out of the slow cooker a chunk at a time, cleaning away the fat and shredding the meat.

Because we tend to use the meat over the course of several days in things like tacos (soft corn tortillas, cheese, good salsa and guacamole), I store the meat in a large container, adding a bit of the cooking liquid that the roast leaves behind to keep it moist. I also totally recommend straining the rest of the cooking liquid (and removing the thick layer of fat from it), which leaves behind a super-rich gelatinous broth excellent for doing things like cooking greens.

And that’s how I made it through the winter. That and a series of chicken roasting experiments. But that’s another post entirely.