The Netflix “Canon”: Taste as Absence of “Taste”

Sight and Sound’s 2002 “Greatest Films Poll”  was voted on by the “world’s leading film critics.”   See  http://old.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/polls/topten/   Here are the results:

  1. Citizen Kane
  2. Vertigo
  3. Rules of the Game
  4. The Godfather — first two
  5. Tokyo Story
  6. 2001: A Space Odyssey
  7. Battleship Potemkin
  8. Sunrise
  9. 8 1/2
  10. Singin’ in the Rain

One of these films was available on the Netflix “Watch Instantly” [WI] list.*  The other nine films can be obtained via the Netflix DVD plan.  But who wants to wait several days when everything should be accessible–instantly?

Netflix-classic list

It might be unfair to refer to either Netflix’s WI or DVD plan film lists as establishing a millennial film canon.  Of course, how Netflix organizes its titles has very little influence on the professional critic and academic thinker, but it can be argued that these lists influence general taste and determine what American audiences consider as good or best in film–or, at least, what they think they should view.  Arguments will be outlined here that Netflix film lists influence the unconsidered criteria that organize film judgments by Netflix client-viewers–and there are many.  In a recent call for papers for a publication to be titled How Netflix is Changing Media, the “Society for Cinema and Media Studies” reported that the online film supplier commands 30% of all Internet traffic.  How do the ways film titles are organized and the process of creating film lists in the Netflix website influence which films are watched and which films are known and which films are judged as “best”?  Netflix lists are influential in determining the place of a director or film within the cultural field; but rather than being evaluated (valued?) by a cultural worker such as a film critic, artistic worth is established by a corporation within the economic field of power.

Let’s begin with a traditional approach to aesthetic judgment and taste.  Sight and Sound‘s list of best films is the tip of a longer list of 100 best films.  Further, the journal presents another list of best films chosen by top film directors, as well as a list of top film directors as chosen by critics.  One may disagree with these critics’ choices, but, based on the accepted authority of the journal’s writers, this top ten list is a reasonable place to begin a discussion of film aesthetics.   Criteria–social, cultural, historical, theoretical– used by these cultural workers in distinguishing good from not-so-good films can be analyzed and evaluated. [Note: There is no list of top film critics picked by film directors.  Shouldn’t the quality of the film critic judgements also be judged?]  Clearly, such authorized “best” lists are influential, at least in a cultural field of power.

Can similar considerations be applied to Netflix’s lists of films?  Certainly, Netflix presents recommended, or what could be interpreted as preferred lists of films that are graphically displayed on the home screen of its website; these lists are then broken down into a variety of sub lists.  Each list has a consistent order–that is, lists are in the same order, every time one signs on.  Some criteria was used in constructing these lists, but it is not the criteria used by the Sight and Sound critics; rather, most likely, choices are made by something resembling a business-model algorithm.   Of course, this analysis is complex and more research is required.  This posting is far from an exhaustive analysis and is formed to point at something interesting in describing not only film aesthetics but audience agency.

Traditionally or historically, what has determined “taste” in the arts?   Historically, three basic questions have been asked about art [Western]; in significant ways, these approaches have formed the quality of aesthetic judgments:[1]  1. What are the characteristics of art–as in opposition to what is not art, like religion or philosophy?  2. What is the goal of art? Involved in this question is the possibility that art has no practical outcome.  3. Who determines what is good or worthwhile art?   Thinkers from Aristotle to Hegel to Bloom have considered the first two; Pierre Bourdieu wrote extensively about the third question.  Bourdieu identified who in a society was authorized (recognized as able) to determine what is aesthetically worthwhile.  Simply, from this perspective, “taste” in art is an outcome of family background, but it can also be engendered through education.  For the former,  discernment can be the inheritance of the aristocratic or merely upper-class child who absorbs her high-borne environment.  But Bourdieu also found that taste is an outcome of education.  Bourdieu’s  “disinterested” academic, like Hegel’s “connoisseur” is “thorough[ly] acquainted with the whole sweep of the individual character of a work of art … necessary for the study of art” [“Lectures on Aesthetics”].  From this perspective, appreciation of and enjoyment of art, as well as the capacity to discern good from bad art, requires a broad historical, theoretical, and comparative understanding of an art piece.  Thus, a film critic’s authority to judge is based on a recognition of her taste based on education and breadth of experience of the forms that films can take.  Thus, without understanding, there is no taste.

In this way, cultural experts are authorized to create Leavis-like lists of best films that make their way into college film studies syllabi.   Even the most expansive lists are necessarily based on some criteria determined by expert authorities, and these recognized lists influence the “requirements” of “taste” for others.  Of course, any criteria can be rejected and reformed, but the point here is that any change is based on who, at the time, is recognized as authorized to create a canon of important films for a particular era.

Following this Bourdieuian approach, in the dominated field of cultural list-making [my term] there are two sorts of “position takers.” [See The Field of Cultural Production, pp. 16-17].  First, the traditional or “orthodox” list-makers–consisting of academics and sophisticated critics–who “as a function in their position in the field, of their specific capital, have a stake in conservation.”  High-end position taking results in Sight and Sound’s “best” lists, the Criterion Collection, Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation with the filmmaker’s goal of bringing old, influential films to the public–see  http://bit.ly/1nayTe9–and MUBI’s choices of streaming films–see http://www.mubi.com   But position-taking can also be engaged by the heretic list-maker who pushes the boundaries of what is accepted by the first set of position takers.  This heretical attitude is taken up, for example, by the Scalarama Film Festival–http://scalarama.com– or the Yellow Fever Film Festival– http://theyfiff.webs.com/

Netflix film list-making process does not fit into Bourdieu’s scheme.  Certainly, as a single entity, Netflix is a list-maker with something that can be identified as establishing a “taste.”  It’s lists and the order in which they are presented have a constancy and are enormously influential in which films are  ”good” or at least worth watching.   But criteria used by Netflix for list-making are not comparable to the strategies used by position takers discussed above.  Netflix lists of film titles are not based on either academic/traditional/orthodox or heretical sensibilities.  Choices are not affected by relative placement within a cultural field in which taste is an outcome of knowledge or class; rather, list-making decisions arise from capitalist determinants.  This is not saying that Netflix film lists are “tasteless” or have no “taste”– these terms make no sense in this context; the Netflix process of list-making has nothing to do with authorization of cultural workers who possess what Bourdieu calls Symbolic capital.  Rather, the Netflix taste emanates from Fredric Jameson’s late capitalism; it is a postmodernist taste–that is to say–it is a “taste” that is distinguished by an absence of “Taste.”

What forms do these lists take?  Netflix engages different sorts of lists which are based on a corporate goal of creating and satisfying the needs of the individual client-viewer.  Netflix lists films in a variety of ways:

  1. General list of films on the home screen.
  2. Genres of films — and sub genres of films.
  3. Recently purchased or viewed films of the individual client-viewer.
  4. Lists of the client-viewer’s favorite films based on her own ratings.
  5. “More Like” lists.  Based on a particular film the client-viewer has searched, Netflix suggests other titles.

How are Netflix lists generated?  Who or what makes the decisions?  What are the criteria used to generate these lists?  What might go into the algorithm of choice?  Here are some possibilities of what is measured:

  1. The score–up to five stars–that the client-viewer gives to films she has watched.
  2. Commercial concerns of what is profitable.  Pushing a film or television show to support an investment..
  3. Popularity of a title.  Giving the audience what it wants.[2]
  4. Variables available to Netflix about their client-viewers via social media. [This is a reach, but it is possible that such information could be obtained and used.]

Shadows-Netflix

Let’s use an example to examine a specific “More Like” list.  Following my search for John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959) Netflix offered a “More Like“ list that included suggestions of other films I might like.  But titles in the suggested list were confusing.  What was emphasized by the algorithm that produced this unlikely list? Old films? Films seldom viewed? Critically controversial films?  Actor’s film?  Quirky films?  Films by independent producers?  This is what Netflix suggested I watch after viewing Shadows:

  1. Lion in Winter (1968)– Due to its good acting?
  2. Brick Lane (2007) — This is an Indian film about east meeting west, recommended on my interest in “Sunshine Cleaning”? How does this relate to “Shadows” gritty portrayal of inborn prejudice?
  3. The Bridge Over the River Kwai (1957) — Huh?  Memorable score?  Certainly the Cassavetes film was filled with interesting jazz riffs but nothing as hummable as the Kwai score.  Hear it at –  http://bit.ly/1vRJmS1
  4. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) — OK, I can sort of go with this choice–broody Actor’s Studio acting–angry actors–old film–characters yelling at each other–relationships on the edge.
  5. Citizen Kane (1941) — Both are “classic” auteur films–but how very different.
  6. Far from Heaven (2002) — This is a commercial film about marital problems with Julliane Moore and Dennis Quaid.  It does involve racial tensions.
  7. Annie Hall (1977) — Both are auteur directors dealing with relationships.  Both directors use improvisation.  Of course, one is a comedy and the other is not.
  8. Rabbit Hole (2010) — Sorry, I do not understand this suggestion.  A happy couple falls apart when their son dies in an accident – Nicole Kidman, Dianne Weist – directed by John Cameron Mitchel.
  9. East of Eden (1955) — Possibly Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause but not James Dean’s first film.  Dean is an improvisational actor who is ready to make in-the-moment, inspired choices, willing to spew out his emotional guts to the awe of the viewers and the consternation of the other actors. See how the actor Jim Backus struggles with Dean’s intense, improvisational acting style.
  10. Dr. Strangelove (1964)– Right.  What are you thinking Netflix?  Is it because both Kubrick’s and Cassavetes’ films make the viewer squirm?

Shadows-Netflix2

Netflix’s “More Like” list for Shadows did not guide me to Cassavetes-like films–a film maker dealing with actor improvisation and in-the-moment emotional reality–or to experimental films or to films linked to a certain period of American film making.  Why was nothing listed from the French New Wave or British Social Problem films of the period or with contemporaneous films dealing with black-white racial issues of the period, such as Flame in the Streets (1961)?  Why was no Mike Leigh film suggested–a director who also worked improvisationally with actors?

Netflix list making is a business-model, production process that resembles a democratic activity in which authority of choice appears to belong to the everyday film viewer.  In the past, Leavis-like academic authority over cultural taste was countered by an argument that valued the taste of the common person–an argument for popular culture–as for example was done by Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall and British Cultural Studies since the mid 1950s.  Here popular taste was used to push a New Left agenda in which working-class social realism was seen as an engine for agency for positive–read “socialist”–social change.  But despite its everyman approach, with Netflix, there is no sense of a working-class taste or bourgeois taste; rather, choosing what is good has devolved into an absence of any particular taste.  A film [or director] is good or bad based how entertaining it is.  Does it please the client-viewer?  And never mind what “pleases” means.

Traditional sense of authority is eliminated as the opinion of other client-viewers replaces that of the academic expert or critic.   As is the case with social media in general, Netflix connects [sutures?] its client-viewers to its product by inviting him to “Write a review” of what was watched.  Further the client-viewer review is rated by other client-viewers–via a system of awarding stars–as to whether the review was “Helpful,” “Not Helpful,” or “Inappropriate.”  The “Most Helpful” reviews are featured at the top of the review list.  But without any criteria, what do these ratings mean?  Of course, that is besides the goal of connecting the client-viewer to a product. Shadows has over 60 of these reviews.

At the top of the “Most Helpful” reviews list was this one:

Shadows was one of those rare movies that I like, but I have no idea why. I was bored in places, and I think I might have fallen asleep once or twice. Somehow, in spite of all that the mood and style of the thing drew me in. The improvisational jazz, the cool beat lingo and certainly the racial themes left me thinking about it long after I saw it. If you often confuse yourself by liking movies you hate watching, it’s highly recommended.

Though there are some interesting observations here that may be helpful in making a decision about watching this film–it has “improvisational jazz” and “cool beat lingo” from the period.  But without knowing specifically what this reviewer thought about the racial themes or who this reviewer is, we are left with a generalized and useless opinion.  The following review was awarded a single star:

I have always been a Cassavetes fan from the start, but, usually only for his acting. This film was awful and a complete waste of time. I expected a lot more, and got a lot less from J. C. He certainly needed to learn a lot more of directing before he even started on something like this. I see where a lot of people here like the film, but, I think that they are only trying to be hip, and pretend to know something. There was nothing about the beat scene, as advertised. The only thing beat was the three guys in the storeroom, and, boy, were they beat.

What was the impulse to write this or the general impulse to share online?  Like much of social media this communication is so personal it is impossible to decipher.   This last example has the tone of what has been defined here as a traditionally authorized review:

Just before Jean-Luc Godard was preparing to turn European cinema on its ear with the debut of Breathless, a charismatic young New York actor did much the same on this side of the Atlantic. Godard’s film ended up having more widespread impact, as it didn’t have the crowded American movie market that greeted Shadows to compete with, but John Cassevetes’ debut was no less revolutionary. And in the same way that Godard’s film changed the rules for the artistic side of filmmaking, Cassavetes’ ushered in a new business model, practically inventing the independent film industry as it existed for decades. The film, which began as an acting exercise in Cassavetes’ own upstart actors’ studio, tells the story of three siblings rooming together and trying to make it in New York. The oldest brother is singer whose old-fashioned crooning style is making him out of fashion and making it more difficult to find work. The younger brother is more of a beatnik jazz musician. And the sister is a light-skinned black woman who “passes” as white; one of the film’s most dramatic sequences observes the fallout that results when she begins a relationship with a white man who only finds out about her race after meeting her brothers. This was incendiary stuff for the late 50s, and Cassavetes, in what would become a personal trademark throughout his career, never shies away from the most difficult aspects of relationships and friendships. Springing as it does from an acting exercise, all the dialogue is improvised. Shot on the fly and written just as spontaneously and raggedly, Shadows’ energy is just as breathlessly invigorating as Charlie Mingus’ jazz score.

Does Netflix’s “Member Reviews” contain the possibility of Habermas’s “public space” in which aesthetic ideas are democratically shared and communal values formed?  Might this be a place for positive social change?  I do not think so and not because there is no mechanism for the development of ideas in any directed way; rather, the mechanism is directed by, ultimately, controlled by corporate profit considerations.

Netflix list-making is not opposed to Bourdieu’s models of how “distinction” develops and changes; rather, it is unrelated.  What had been understood as “taste” is irrelevant to the Netflix production processes and goals.  Film lists are de-authorized, or, rather, the client-viewer is authorized by other client-viewers.  But this opinion-making is not within a public sphere; rather it is under the hegemonic umbrella of the corporate structure in which film recommendations are based on business-models and computer algorithms and profit-driven goals of audience satisfaction –  in an ultimate fracturing of any notion of “taste.”

_________________________________________________

*Eisenstein’s paean to Soviet Russia, Battleship Potemkin, can be viewed instantly on Netflix.  But you will have to wait a couple of days to receive Citizen Kane in the mail.   Is this a capitalist joke?

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References

Bourdieu, P.  (1984).  Distinction: A social critique of the judgment of taste. Trans. Richard Nice.  Harvard University Press; Cambridge, Mass.

– (1993). The field of cultural production.  Columbia University Press: NY.

Gilbey, R. (2013, August 30). This week’s film events.  The Guardian. Retrieved from http://theguardian.com

Hegel,  G.W.F. (1818-1829). Aesthetics: Lectures on fine art. Trans. T.M. Knox, 1973. Retrieved from  https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/ae/index.htm

Olivarez-Giles, N. (2013, August 17). Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation brings eight rare films to Hulu.” The Verge. Retrieved from http//theverge.com


[1] There is much that could be said about the validity of making lists and what deep assumptions stand behind a particular formation or [production] process of making lists, or what a list means to a particular reader.  This analysis is engaging the “fields” approach as a way to examine list making from the POV of authority and what happens when there is no authority–in this sense.

[2] In a recent public discussion at John Jay College the Executive head  of Time/Warner’s Media Responsibility Division emphasized the corporation’s duty to give its audiences what they want.  This is the corporate definition of moral and civic responsibility.  Clearly in the present sense of corporations and business models, there is no place for aesthetic authority or attitude or “taste” or “distinction.”  There is no overlap.

There’s a NAP for that….

I have always enjoyed my routine of reading in bed before I got to sleep.   When I was a teenager, I often would get so engrossed in the book I was reading, I would sometimes read for hours into the morning without noticing the time go by.  This has not happened to me for quite a long time.  Nowadays, as a busy Ph.D student, by the time I go to bed I am usually too tired to reach for a novel.   However, sometimes I do end up reading the New York Times on my iPhone.  And more often than not, a dozen articles later, I realize that an hour just went by without me noticing.  Of course, when the alarm goes off the next morning, I immediately notice that missing hour of sleep.  However, I’ve now come to learn that I may be missing more than just that hour of rest.

According to a 2014 study by Lanaj, Johnson and Barnes, smartphone use after 9 p.m. is associated with decreased sleep quantity.  What is more, nighttime smartphone use disrupts sleep and increases depletion the next morning.  This, in turn, diminishes work engagement during the day.  During the study, 82 upper level managers and 161 employees working in a variety of occupations, had to fill out multiple surveys every day for two weeks.  The questionnaires examined their daily use of smartphones, sleep quantity, sleep quality and their state of depletion.  The study further found that smartphones had a bigger depletion effect than using a laptop or tablet or watching TV.

Worse, a recent article in the New York Times (which I read at 1:42 a.m.) reported a link between nighttime smartphone use and insomnia.  This was due not only to the fact that users becomes engaged by the content on their phone, but also due to exposure to the blue light emitted by smartphone and tablet screens.  A 2012 study from the Lighting Research Center (LRC) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute showed that a 2-hour exposure to electronic devices with backlit displays causes melatonin suppression which may lead to delayed bedtimes, especially in teens and young adults.

This is unwelcome news to the growing number of the device owners.  A new report compiled by Pew Research found that, 58% of American adults own a smartphone, 32% of American adults own an e-reader and 42% of American adults own a tablet computer.  The study further found that 44% of cell phone owners have slept with their phone next to their bed because they wanted to make sure they didn’t miss any calls, text messages, or other updates during the night.  As a nation, we are likely losing countless hours of sleep.

Fortunately, the solution to this particular problem is simple and obvious, but perhaps difficult to execute, as those of you who reading this in bed right can attest…

On gravitating and levitating (part one)

I’ll begin with a passage from James Joyce’s “The Dead” to illustrate reading as  an embodied experience in movement:

“Her voice strong and clear in tone attacked with great spirit that runs which embellish the air and, though she sang very rapidly, she did not miss even the smallest of the grace notes. To follow the voice, without looking at the singer’s face, was to feel and share the excitement of swift and secure flight.”

I gravitate to the text’s directive “to follow the voice.” I repeat the passage aloud and experience the accumulative effects of soft, sinuous sounds that bring the words “attacked” and “rapidly” into sharp focus. At first it seems like an attack, a forced act, to merge my voice with the text. Oh, but those quickened syllables–rapidly–that delicately punctuate the legato of “embellish” and “grace notes”! The pitter patter of saying “rapidly” out loud makes me realize that my reading is a kind of running: my voice chases after my sprinting eyes. I jump in; the text springs. “Her voice” is faceless because it becomes “the voice,” our voice. Together, the text and I, we “feel and share the excitement of swift and secure flight.”

***

I frequently feel and share texts, as many of us do, on and through the internet. If an article, image, or video is moving–if it’s infuriating, amusing, or inspiring–you and I engage by commenting, upvoting, and reposting: we share. This all happens, rapidly, at speeds that make it easy to forget that reading and writing are embodied movements, activities of relating.

***

six-memos-millenium

On Disorganizing and Reorganizing

(Or, “8 Things That Listicles Tell Us About Process”)

  1. If I begin with a list, I’m about to start a project— maybe tonight’s dinner, tomorrow’s trip, a draft, or a revision. “This is what I need to do,” I assure myself.
  2. The word “listicle” is odd and ugly. But I don’t mean ugly in the same way that Stanley Fish means it when he says: “…‘blog’ is an ugly word (as are clog, smog, and slog).”  The word, listicle, is crudely formed by smashing together “list” and “article.” It’s an article that plays on a system of classification.  The writing (thinking) process, the drafting of ideas, and evaluating of information can be uncomfortable, clunky, and uneven procedures. The word “listicle” honestly reflects the messiness of process.
  3. A list is a familiar form of writing and a tool of organization. Some examples: What do I need to get at the grocery store? How many more course credits do I need? What don’t I know? What do I know? A list is a useful genre for prioritizing tasks, assessing objectives, and discerning values.
  4. A list is a familiar form of writing and a tool for organization. A retail worker uses it to check a store’s inventory. A bartender scribbles a list of what to restock a bar with. An administrator of any rank is an expert in the form. A syllabus is a hybrid list. A student can use it to brainstorm.
  5. I make lists to remember. I realize I haven’t talked about what makes the word “listicle” an odd word… It shares sounds with unexpected words, like tickle, pickle, and popsicle. Listicle also conveniently rhymes with mythological and ideological.
  6. To create a list is to create a mission, a manifesto of some sort. Perhaps a list is content in desire of form; maybe it’s knowledge impatiently in want of coherence.
  7. A numbered list implies order. But sometimes the order seems arbitrary or trivial. “23 Signs You’ve Lived In New York City,” “31 GIFs That Will Make You Laugh Every Time.” Why 23? Why 31? Lists draw on the appearance of structure, but maybe they’re just disorder masquerading as (or maybe they’re new shapes waiting to supersede) order.
  8. A list can be a form of critical inquiry. Place two lists next to each other— one for pros, the other for cons— and a one person debate can commence. Art is in “listicle,” tactically obscured from view, and it’s present if one wants (or has) a poetic mission. A list can be a form of critical inquiry: a “to do” list might actually be a “to know” list. Or maybe a list is, at its core, a performance of: “This is what I do and this is what I know.”

***

A confession and some brief notes on my pedagogy:

This blog post is an attempted exercise in demonstrating how meaning is built into form (which is what I tried to do with my previous piece on the mixtape). It is also an excuse to quarrel with an Internet form that I have long been ambivalent about.

In my classroom, students and I spend a lot of time discussing form and structure. Meaning, I tell them, is not just located in content and plot: meaning is also mediated through its structure. This might be obvious, especially for those who specialize in literary criticism, but it can be a challenge to get undergraduates to think about structure in concert with content. In our more dynamic and fruitful discussions, students and I merge our close-readings of a narrative’s texture and relate our collective reading to that narrative’s structure. Chapter seven, “Structural Principles: The Example of the Sonnet,” of Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter and Poetic Form has been particularly helpful in getting students to think about form and structure, not just in terms of poetry, but also in terms of shaping their own form(s) of critical inquiry.

A Babel Mixtape

Adrian Tomine, "Society Dictates" (2001).

Adrian Tomine, “Society Dictates” (2001).

Rewind. A context When I was in middle school, I didn’t realize that I was witnessing a shift in communication. The shift seemed ordinary. Our neighborhood mail carrier, whose mouth gripped a lit cigarette and hands skillfully shuffled through envelopes between houses, facilitated a steady flow of free-trial AOL discs to my home — discs that were later tucked in dust behind the tower of my family’s shared desktop. The discs gradually disappeared. They belong to a period in my life when the U.S. postal system didn’t seem so fragile and my best friend left me coded messages, gibberish to my parents, on the answering machine.

Fast forward, to high school. I live in the same house, on the margins of suburbia, but now I instant message in the evenings. One night, as I type in the dark, I notice that many of the AIM screennames, mine included, share one common adjective, one common unit: “azn.”

Fast forward, to November 11, 2013. Play: It’s November in New York City and, with warm breaths clutching the cold air and the population of shopping bags booming, all signs point to winter’s arrival. Though summer seems to be at a distance, a scene from this past August lingers still on my mind.

Movie still of Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, "In the Mood for Love" (2000)

Movie still of Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, “In the Mood for Love” (2000)

 

Rewind, August 23, 2013. I was at a retrospective screening of Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love, a movie I’ve seen many times before. This viewing experience was different, not only because it was the first time I saw it projected on a screen. This time I couldn’t immerse myself in the Cantonese script, so I straddled between reading the English subtitles and following, whenever I could, the dimming warmth of the Chinese language. There is a scene where the female lead, Mrs. Chan, makes an observation to the male lead. Mrs. Chan’s words sound familiar, but conjure a strange image in my head. I imagine a glistening net of golden honey threads, formed like a three-dimensional word bubble. Then, clunky and literal, words crystallize: “You’re like my husband. Your mouth is sweet and your thread is smooth.” The white letters, the subtitles, tell me: “You’re like my husband; he’s a sweet talker too.”

Pause. A reflection on the form and content of my cac.ophony blog posts: I try to maintain the formal expectations of voice and brevity, of personal tone and notation of  (my writing, thinking) process. Fragmentations and serialities mark the varying tempos of learning, an ongoingness of learning shaped by a historical present. Realizations, to invoke Mrs. Chan’s emotional articulation, can “sneak up on you,” catch you off guard, at a later time. The posts also depict my unfinished thinking with Lauren Berlant, Edward Said, Paul Gilroy, and Raymond Williams. The links embedded in each post are citations of the texts, online resources, and images I’ve been thinking through.

In terms of content, I’ve been trying to cohere some thoughts about the relationships between labor and exposure, between culture and capital, in a digital age. How do these relationships inform the shifting languages of the internet and the communities created around varying idioms and practices? The question that I’m formulating here is one that relates to my academic interests in race and labor:  how do the conditions produced by internet communication affect communities tangled, or aligned, along the coordinates of race, gender, class, and sexuality?

In terms of pleasure, I confess, I delight in the tentative thrill, the brush of potentiality, that comes with being derailed, reoriented, by the simple acts of scrolling down a newsfeed, swiping through images, and clicking on embedded links. Play.

I-Phone, I-Pad, I-DontRemember

More research is coming out that suggests that new technologies may impact the way people remember and process information. Technology is moving at a rapid pace with more and more students owning a smartphone, a tablet, or both, and almost everyone connected to the internet.

Electronic book readers have got immensely popular in the last few years and many think that they will become the main way people read text in the future, whether for school, work or pleasure. However, research suggests that on-screen reading is actually measurably slower than reading on paper. The study conducted at the University of Leicester finds that people who read on paper develop an understanding of the material significantly faster and in greater depth than e-readers users. Also, tablet users need to re-read the same paragraph more often. The researchers concluded that associations, such as positioning of the information on the page, whether top or bottom, left or right, or near the graphic, so called “spatial context”, plays a role in remembering and understanding the material. What is more, they find that the smaller the screen, the less associations can be made. For example, reading on a smartphone results in the loss of most of the context and therefore brings the least value.

Moreover, new technologies seem to make writing by hand outdated. Anna, in her recent blog entry, stresses the importance of handwriting. Research suggests that handwriting is important to the learning process beyond the “writing” itself. Handwriting facilitates learning since the movements involved leave a motor memory in the sensorimotor part of the brain. By writing by hand, we stimulate the part of our brains responsible for abstract thinking and visual perception. Nevertheless, when I taught courses at Baruch College, I noticed that many students prefer to take notes on their laptop in class. This practice seems to be becoming the new norm, since more and more elementary school students are currently being introduced to tablets and computers for everyday use in school. There is an ongoing debate among educators whether teaching cursive should be made obsolete and some states are removing cursive instruction from curricula and focus on typing instead. Needless to say, this research weighs heavily in favor of continuing to teach cursive handwriting.

Admissions officials at Waterloo University, Canada, have attributed a recent increase in the failure rates of a standard English language exam to students’ use of electronic social media. The university has seen an increase in the use of emoticons, truncated or abbreviated words in formal exams and applications. This suggests that people who text and tweet extensively are more likely to overlook the misspellings, punctuation and grammatical errors in their professional correspondence.

Another study, conducted by a researcher at Columbia University explores how the internet changes the way we handle information. The study finds that we treat internet search engines like our own instant external memory system. The researcher, Betsy Sparrow, explains this phenomenon using the rather old concept of transactive memory. In any long-term relationship or team, people typically develop a group, or transactive, memory. This is the combination of information held directly by individuals and information can access because they know someone who knows that information. Therefore, people are less likely to remember what they read online, but they could remember where they read it. This sounds efficient – as long as we have access to Google. However, the question remains whether the educational system and the economy will evolve to deemphasize the importance of the personal retention of information, or whether these young people will find themselves disadvantaged in a society with higher expectations with respect to their knowledge base.

On Haunting and Inhabiting

The Docks, Port-au-Prince, Haiti (1921), NYPL Digital Collections

The Docks, Port-au-Prince, Haiti (1921), NYPL Digital Collections

The past is present on the internet. Specters of the past, particularly those that are marginalized or ignored in traditional historical narratives, dwell in digitized open-access archives. Websites like The Public Archive: Black History in Dark Times, Digitizing “Chinese Englishmen,” and People of Color in European Art History curate texts that challenge conventional knowledge and reveal other contexts for understanding the world. By attending to difference and nuance, these archives bring obscured histories to the fore. Dissatisfied with the uneven production of knowledge and histories about certain regions and communities, individuals from within, and outside of, academia foster digital spaces for critical inquiry.

The accelerated speed of internet communication seems to encourage a tendency to reduce or compress information into smaller parts. Sound bites, gifs, images, and excerpts effectively draw attention and mobilize political sentiment. There is a risk, of course. This speed can reproduce damaging assumptions, for internet users might rely on old habits of thought in order to make sense of fragmentary information. But archival projects like the ones listed above enact a critical exercise that shatters any simplistic, one-dimensional representation of a community, region, or historical period. For example, The Public Archive was born out of a frustration with the mainstream media’s depiction of Haiti after the the earthquake in January 2010. Professor Peter James Hudson  explains the digital humanities initiative: “As professional historians with laymen’s interests in Haiti, we thought that we needed to make some small, however limited, intervention in the coverage of Haiti, and we agreed that the best way to do it was by mobilising the research skills we had as historians in an attempt to provide some context for understanding Haiti’s history, and how that history was constructed and represented in the media.”

In culling freely accessed texts, The Public Archive composes a fuller, more intricate, picture of Haiti. The Public Archive does history in a way that is legible for a wider audience without compromising the assertion that rigorous study is still necessary. Its entries oscillate between past and present, text and image, still photographs and videos. The website also offers extensive dossiers, interviews with scholars, and recommended reading lists. In this curatorial move, the archive allows visitors to briefly inhabit the grammar of places, historical periods, and connections that we may have not been conscious of before. Take, for instance, a published post entitled “The National City Bank of New York & Haiti” that sheds light on U.S. military occupation and corporate involvement in Haiti during the early twentieth century. Plural perspectives, multiple genres, and temporalities come together in one post: a Bloomberg blog entry from 2012, a Haitian newspaper printed in 1927 that announces the arrival of National City Bank’s president, an academic article published earlier this year, a pamphlet printed in 1920 that critiques U.S. presence in Haiti, the National City Bank’s rationale in 1920 for its ventures into Haiti.

Marketplace, Port-au-Prince, Haiti (1919), NYPL Digital Collections

The critical attitude that is “discontent with reified objects” and “impatien[t] with guilds, special interests, imperialized fiefdoms, and orthodox habits of mind” can flourish in public, digital spaces. This critical attitude, exemplified by The Public Archive and other similar projects, invigorate the sense of a knowledge commons. It seems to me that while the internet may disorganize traditional approaches to acquiring information (i.e., the physical space of a classroom, a codex textbook), knowledge is being reorganized in emergent, sometimes unrecognizable, shapes on the internet. The process of disorganizing and reorganizing knowledge and its politics, I suspect, is activated by collective desires to dilate the space and time allotted to learning.

***

Note:  This  blog is, in part, inspired by the “Why the Research Block?” Faculty Roundtable discussion that I helped Senior BLSCI Fellow Meechal Hoffman organize earlier this month. Also, see this recent NYT Op-Ed piece by Laurent Dubois for a discussion on Haiti and economic history.

On Time and Risk

If there’s not enough time, I could just cut to the chase: the scene is at risk without context.

***

As I write this segment of my blog entry, I’m on a train returning to New York City from a conference. Voices in the background unify into one murmur and whenever I look out the window with the silly hope of pausing on a frame, I see green foliage running, flashes of indecipherable station signs, a moment of cars going in the opposite direction. And now, I am reflecting on a roundtable discussion. My mind is a bit murky.

“Is there a war on the humanities?” This was the title of, and the question posed to, a roundtable discussion earlier this afternoon. While holding up a print version of The New York Times, the moderator began the session by referring to a recent scientific study on the social value of fiction. This prefaced the expressions of unease that later filled the room. The general sense of unease stemmed from the pressure for the humanities to define productivity in quantifiable, measurable, and instrumentalist terms. One of the speakers briefly discussed, I can’t recall his name at this moment, the pressing need to read for content, to browse for a reference. The value that was once placed on the practice of slow, immersive reading seems to be eroding.

***

Scenes are less meaningful without context. Because I taught classes scheduled in the evening and early morning, classes scheduled prior to and after the workday, I wonder often about the temporal contexts that affect scenes of learning and student performance. Like most CUNY students, my City College students frame their education around their work schedule and commute time. For each student, there’s a different set of stakes, a unique set of contexts, that shapes her/his performance. I can’t fully comprehend every set of stakes, but I appreciate when students attend class regularly with the desire to pause on an idea, in spite of temporal discomforts.

***

This student didn’t stick around after class to chat, nor was she a frequent office hours visitor. I remember the first time I read her writing. It was an essay where she brought together Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko and Italo Calvino’s essay, “Levels of Reality in Literature.” She’s a stunningly bold writer. She reappeared in my classroom a year after she wrote that paper. She registered late and arrived late to the second class of the semester. She maintained a taciturn presence. Writing assignments were turned in, hers were efficiently written; adequate. I couldn’t find the fearless voice.

Towards the end of the semester, she arrived to my office to complete an assigned recitation. She had to select lines from Paradise Lost, recite them from memory, and then discuss her understanding of those lines. Her boldness returned in a different form, through Satan’s soliloquy. She fumbled on one article but otherwise had delivered the lines perfectly, with verve. A discussion about those lines commenced, about Satan, about Milton’s experience with political defeat. I was impressed with her analysis of the lines and asked about her strategy for studying the lines. Tiredly she smiled at me, zipped up her jacket, and said that she had done it piecemeal. She made flashcards for her subway commutes and meditated on the lines during her shifts at work. “I’m working extra hours this semester,” she told me.

This made me wonder about the vocations that “[involve] both commitment and risk, boldness and vulnerability.

On Reading Academic Blogs

Let me invite you into a scene that I often rehearse. Perhaps you are familiar with it too. It’s usually staged with the assumption that one has a concrete research or reading agenda upon opening a web browser. Rehearsing the scene is a risk, for an initially steadfast objective can fray and disintegrate into Youtube videos of cats or Buzzfeed listicles. What I’m about to describe is the point at which the solitary act of paging through a book connects to the Internet’s labyrinth of hyperlinks. In this scene a novice is reminded that she’s been reading with, and was simmering in the ideas of, scholars who blog.

***

Enter doctoral student. With a cup of coffee at a safe distance from her keyboard and a stack of reference books nearby, her laptop warms up while she consults an assemblage of notes and quotes. “It is easy to forget,” the student reads, “that cultural Marxism itself provided us with an account of the matter of affect as key to reading the historical present.” The student did forget and, yikes, she doesn’t recall where this quote is from. She reads a few more scrawls. “History hurts, but not only.” And, oh here’s the give-away: “All attachments are optimistic.” The penetrating and terse sentences, the student realizes, belong to Lauren Berlant’s monograph, Cruel Optimism. The student swivels on this moment of recognition, for she’s encountered this style of writing before, but not only in this monograph. The recognition congeals when she returns to a research blog that she haphazardly explored in the past. She rereads Berlant’s blog posts:

 July 24, 2013: “If I run out of gas, but not out of love, if you let a piece go without completion, if the session isn’t finished but definitively over, if the delicious coffee could only wake us forever…”

June 3, 2012: “Delaminated from week 1 lecture notes, Love Theory (Winter 2012)…I am a love theorist. I sometimes feel dissociated from all my loves.”

September 18, 2010: “I never fall out of love, but run out of gas. That’s what I mean by thinking as a transformation within stuckness.”

As she scrolls down the blog, descending into older posts, the student realizes that she has, in fact, been returning to similar, but not identical, phrases and syntactical structures of thought. She locates Cruel Optimism in the nearby stack, flips to a dog-eared page and revisits a passage about intuition: “[T]he visceral response is a trained thing, not just autonomic activity.” End scene.

***

I love how Berlant returns to and ruminates on ideas. The time-stamped entries on a blog imply shifts and, yet, despite these movements, there often remain fierce attachments to thoughts, feelings, situations, and unresolved queries. It may seem obvious, but I think it bears reiterating: blogs do not simply document content or data in real-time. They also register patterns of thought, continuities in values, revisions in an idea, default modes for inquiring about the world at large. And in an age where we are increasingly saturated in data, I wonder–as a student, a teacher–how we might interlace the production of information (i.e., a blog entry) with the anticipation of return. That is, I wonder how we might return in order to revise, remediate, and assess.

I begin with this scene as a way to introduce, and experiment with, a few thematics that I will return to in the coming weeks: the relationship between access and process, public scholarship, and how writing is shaped by emergent forms of reading experiences.

An Experiment in Online Presentations

Creativity, imparted by Euterpe
(Luigi Cherubini and the Muse of Lyric Poetry, by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres)

This past semester I assisted a professor with using Blogs@Baruch (our local installation and customization of WordPress) in her class for the first time. The experiment was also a new experience for me. In a previous class I have supported in which the professor wanted to use Blogs@Baruch, the goal was writing as a means of thinking through the course material and spurring discussion as a means of creating a sense of community in a large, faceless lecture. This time, however, the blog was a semester-long project that students would use to work through drafts, receive feedback from the professor and fellow students, and scaffold three major assignments leading to a final presentation. Rather than have students stand in front of the class and use PowerPoint slides, which is an all-too familiar exercise for anyone who has taught or sat through a business course in the past decade, this professor wanted to try something new: to encourage a creative response from the business students.

The course was on multinational corporations. Therefore, we thought, why not embrace the theme of the course, and create a final project that more accurately reflects the way a multinational corporation would receive information? More and more, corporations are forgoing the sit-in-a-room-and-watch-a-PowerPoint form of presentation for video conferencing and other types of presentations that do not require all participants to be in the same time zone, let alone the same room. (The uselessness of PowerPoint skills in “real world” business also came up at my table in a discussion during this year’s Symposium on Communication and Communication-Intensive Instruction.)

Part of my plan for this course was to release students from an overly programmed assignment description that is detailed to the point where every final project will look alike and contain no surprises or creativity (except, perhaps, for the surprise of plagiarized content or a particularly well-chosen graphic).

Education—despite what national, homogenizing assessment legislation would lead you to believe—is not the same as rote job training. Including a creative element to a business course would help to get the class away from the fill-in-the-blank answers, the memorization of formulas, and other uncritical thinking assignments of standardized testing.

A less creative way to test students

A less creative way to test students

Yes, there is job applicability to learning how to think creatively–take for example the terms “outside-the-box,” “shifting paradigms,” and all of those wonderful buzzwords that lose all creativity when overused as managerial replacements for creative problem solving.

The assignment would include the important details to be covered—corporate financial data, research findings, recommendations, etc—all of the lifeless bulletpoints that would have been included on a PowerPoint introduction slide. However, the way in which this material was to be presented would be open to the students’ own creativity. Testimony before a congressional committee. A transatlantic video conference call. A video from a high-powered consulting firm on the future of the company. Students would record their presentations, upload them as unlisted videos to a video-hosting site, and embed them in the class blog for the rest of the class to view.

Students were not initially ready for the freedom and creativity afforded by this assignment design. And the professor and I were met with strong resistance when we asked for work that did not have clear-cut right or wrong answers—even a short answer section on an exam elicited complaints from the class. We would take student feedback into account while designing and redesigning the assignments, but that did not mean always kowtowing to their complaints.

We scaffolded the assignments to try to slowly introduce the multiple elements needed to pull off the creative part of the project.

First, teams would post a group-written company profile. This could have been an ink-and-paper assignment, but we had them post the profile so that the whole class could read the reports. Not only was this component an attempt to foster teamwork, it also covered the content area and familiarized the groups with the companies that we would be working with throughout the project.

The second part of the project was a series of posts chronicling the development of the international crisis. Students were given a number of elements that had to be covered—the sequence of events leading to the crisis, the immediate response, the short-term effects, and the long-term effects—but the way in which these elements were presented was left up to the groups. Most groups waited until the last minute and then wrote one post on each element, but a few of the groups posted moment-by-moment analyses of their crisis using all of the required elements in each post. Whichever method they chose, these posts led directly to the final portion of the project: embedding a video presentation on the course blog recommending specific responses to manage the crisis.

By this point, the stress of the semester started to get to the students, and they insisted to the professor that they wouldn’t be able to complete the project. Rather than completely overhaul the final project, we reached a compromise and gave groups the option to record and post a PowerPoint presentation with narration. As part of this compromise, rather than an optional rehearsal with me, I required all groups to meet with me at least once before they began their final recordings. We used this meeting to discuss the current state of the project, outlines for a storyboard, and possible recommendations drawn from the research presented in parts one and two. This meeting was also a chance to allay fears about technology, suggest tools, and help group dynamics (at the very least to get everyone in the same room once before they returned to working asynchronously on their projects).

After meeting with all groups, about half of the groups decided to post a video, and of the remaining half who wanted to narrate slides, most opted to use Prezi, rather than PowerPoint. Many of the students who decided to use Prezi brought up the non-linear presentation application before I even had a chance to offer it as a PowerPoint alternative. (It is important for readers of cac.ophony.org to know that Prezi does offer academic accounts which provide more space, allow private presentations, and remove the corporate watermark.) A native web application like Prezi allowed the files to remain accessible to all group members and to be easily embedded in the class blog when ready.

Groups that opted for the creative presentation could use software like YouTube’s video editor—which has surprising features for a “free” web application and is fairly intuitive—to prepare their recordings for upload. I suggested running a mock video conference call. Students could run a third-party screen capture program to record a video chat, but that is one additional layer of software that could cause problems. Instead, I recommended Google On-Air Hangout which has an automatic recording feature that links to YouTube. However, no groups decided on the videoconferencing approach. Perhaps the very public nature of the On-Air Hangout was intimidating. (Skype has similar video conferencing capabilities, but requires a paid account to use them. There is free access to the video conferencing feature on Skype if you register as a teacher, but that doesn’t help students working independently on a project.)

Elmo, Telly, and friends use videoconferencing tools
(from the USMC program “Talk, Listen, Connect: Helping Families During Military Deployment”)

The results of this experiment were varied. But overall, the groups who opted for the “creative” video presentation were more engaged, appeared more knowledgeable, were more persuasive, and seemed to have more fun with the process. While some of the Prezi and PowerPoint presentations were informative and well-researched, they did not grab the audience the same way as a group speaking directly to the camera in a consultant pitch or a student taking on the role of CEO to defend his corporation’s actions.

In the end, even the students that were less-than-receptive to the idea of creativity in their business class assignments seemed to enjoy the project and learn something besides how to read a list of bullet points.