Embracing Error

Capture

Recently, I’ve been thinking about errors. More specifically, textual errors. When writing, they are the enemy. We wage an endless war against textual mistakes. It is almost a creed: shun the error, seek perfection. I have ranted and raged against my own mistakes, zealously purged and extirpated them. And yet we all know that perfection is an impossible ideal, a platonic form. Mistakes will slip into our work, lurking below the surface. These blunders are part of the makeup of everything that we read and write. We fill in the blanks inside our mind, see what we expect to see. To our perception of text, these errors are invisible. They are particles in the scholarly air we breathe, microscopic but myriad pollutants.

A missing number here, a slightly misquoted sentence there. We all recognise something that is “riddled with errors” that are impossible to ignore. And yet there are errors that are more subtle and minute, errors that sneak through several rounds of editing. Should we fear these mistakes? Naturally, we all want our work to be the best that it can possibly be, and yet these small innocuous flaws are like the bacteria that cover every surface, invisible to the human eye. How much attention to detail is too much?

The internet has increased the rate of errors. Our always-on high volume media environment breeds flaws—be they transcription errors, typos, or good old-fashioned grammatical mistakes—and unleashes them in plague proportions. Internet-based news copy has an extremely high rate of error, and even the best media outlets cannot fully compensate. Blogs and websites are also riddled with mistakes, despite often vigorous attempts to test and correct them. And yet the impermanence of the internet allows us to correct these blunders on the fly. Is a mistake a mistake if it can be instantaneously corrected on discovery? Will anyone in the future ever know that the error existed?

My recent editorial experiences have made me realise that there are endless strata of errors, descending in a cascade of obscurity that continues to expand before us no matter how well trained our eyes may be. The search for editorial purity is a worthy and rewarding quest, and yet ultimately futile. Nothing created by the hand of a human will ever be perfect. Computers cannot wholly compensate for our failings, although they can be our greatest ally. Perhaps future computers will turn out perfect writing free from all flaws and irregularities, but this sounds like a textual dystopia rather than an outcome that I would embrace. I want well-crafted writing, but dread a future free from error. The messy ad-hoc nature of our print culture is a burgeoning sign of our humanity.

Where am I going with this? Perhaps my conclusion is that we should just let it go. There is no excuse for lazy writing, a lack of proofreading or bad editorial practice, and yet writers are prone to agonise, to live in fear of discovering a mistake. PhD theses are a case in point, for they are never fully perfect. They, like the process that they represent, are a manifestation of something substantial and original, and yet provisional. Writing, like research, is always in progress. Feelings of guilt and anxiety surround writing. And yet our little failures, our tangential weaknesses, are what make us unique and beautiful. If you offered me a machine that turned out 100 per cent perfectly edited writing, I would ask what the cost was. Like a deal with the devil, the search for perfection must have a price. Will we let it be our peace of mind, our satisfaction? Writing well and writing perfectly are not synonymous.

Medievalists study scribal errors, and they teach us a great deal about countless aspects of the past. The mistakes of medieval minds speak to us, for they remind us of our own. Wouldn’t we want future eyes to see our human imperfection? To give up our errors is to give up our humanity.

The View from Afar

Hello All,

Today I am getting back into the blogging spirit by posting something new that i’ve been working on. I have been pondering the strange correlations between space exploration and the long history of deep revelations brought about by a view from afar. Please do let me know if you have any thoughts you’d like to share, since it is early days for a new project. I started off with what is effectively creative writing to get me started, and this is what i’m sharing with you today. It’s how I like to get the ideas flowing. I hope that you enjoy reading the extract below, and my best to you all.

The View from Afar

In 1990, the Voyager 1 space probe took a photograph that would prove to be one of the most humbling visions of terrestrial insignificance generated by the space age. The Pale Blue Dot, taken from a record distance of 6 billion kilometres from the Earth, reveals a tiny fleck of colour in an endless expanse of space. The astronomer Carl Sagan took the image as visual mantra, the central focus for the new contemptus mundi of the modern age as well as a popular monograph. The history of science has been a breeder of anthropocentric hubris and a breaker of human pride in equal measure. As breeder and breaker, it strengthens claims to exceptionality while simultaneously eroding them. The image of the dot, alone and miniscule, elicited an extraordinary and powerful affective response.

The Pale Blue Dot – Public Domain courtesy of NASA

The photograph provokes a symptomatic wavering in confidence. Sagan feels this insecurity, and presses upon the weak point. Derived through the artifice of science, his cry is vanitas vanitatis for the space age. All the strivings of our precarious history cannot cancel out certain inevitabilities. We are not so special as we were led to believe, no matter the source of our claim to exceptionality. Sagan, through science, taps into a deep well of even deeper insecurity. Thus, Sagan:

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot…our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.[1]

For me, this statement is accompanied by the sound of a thousand modern dreams shattering like plate glass, confident ontological drive down the fast lane of progress violently arrested. A vision of gleaming rocket ships and scientific mastery engulfed by the endless black. In the face of such power, what is the meaning of human endeavour? For what do we strive? For the medievalist, Sagan’s depiction of the peculiar clash between visions of human importance and an ultimate insignificance in relationship to a greater power will not be unfamiliar. A man of science, pulled by the powerful rip tides of explanatory impulse, has found recourse to ekphrasis. Like Scipio dreaming above the world, Alexander the Great (or his romance persona) pulled aloft by griffins, and the would-be aeronaut Eilmer the monk glimpsing new worlds the second before falling to injurious ruin, Sagan has responded to the irresistible need to re-evaluate in the face of a radical new perspective. After all, what use is somnambulant prescience, mastery of the known world, the lost arts of Icarus, or a camera on a distant space probe if it does not provoke ontological repositioning?

British Library MS. Harley 334 f.34v – Detail of a miniature of a God creating the world with compasses. Open Access.

The age of space travel has generated a series of tropes focused upon the fragility of life on Earth, a tiny blue-green orb suspended in the blackness of the void. Only when we are able to view our tiny world from the overview perspective of space, the idea continues, are we able to truly value the precarious nature of life. Since we have been locked within the conceptual prison of our mundane life, we have been unable to fully grasp the full perspective of the world from above. There are those who have travelled into orbit and have been sharply reminded of this reality. Having returned to Earth and descended into the conflict and lack of perspective that characterises modernity, they have come to an insight shared by many through a route known only to a privileged few. Founded by a group of astronauts and cosmonauts who have gazed upon the world from above, the Overview Institute proposes to remind the war-torn world of the beauty and singularity of the Earth. In their 2012 mission statement—an appropriate title for a group of former space travelers—the Institute describes the perspective that they wish to share:

[The Overview Effect] refers to the experience of seeing firsthand the reality of the Earth in space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life, hanging in the void, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere.  From space, the astronauts tell us, national boundaries vanish, the conflicts that divide us become less important and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this “pale blue dot” becomes both obvious and imperative.[2] 

Medievalists may be forgiven for experiencing a moment of déja vu when reading this statement. Admirable as the sentiment may be, it is not a novelty brought about by the manifold technological contrivances of the Cold War. It is a perspective that has found new voice in the space age, but has long formed a key element of the constructs deployed to imagine life on Earth. Take, for example, the well-known example of Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis, well known to medieval commentators through the commentary of Macrobius. In the dream, Scipio Aemilianus floats above the world guided by the shade of his grandfather Scipio Africanus, viewing its variegated colour, its insignificance in the cosmic schema, and its partitions:

On which [Scipio] Africanus said, I perceive that you are still employed in contemplating the seat and residence of mankind. But if it appears to you so small, as in fact it really is, despise its vanities, and fix your attention for ever on these heavenly objects. Is it possible that you should attain any human applause or glory that is worth the contending for? The earth, you see, is peopled but in a very few places, and those too of small extent; and they appear like so many little spots of green scattered through vast uncultivated deserts. And those who inhabit the earth are not only so remote from each other as to be cut off from all mutual correspondence, but their situation being in oblique or contrary parts of the globe, or perhaps in those diametrically opposite to yours, all expectation of universal fame must fall to the ground.[3]

Sagan, Scipio, and the Overview Institute all seek to place life in perspective, to different ends and framed by different epistemes, and yet each participates in a long sequence of desperate grapplings with the ultimately facile conclusion that human life has no meaning. Any indication of human insignificance is equally a claim that human actions are significant. Bleak realities engender moral reaction. The question is endlessly complex: where does the meaning reside? Meaning for whom? And perhaps, most importantly, where can we reside in order to shift our perspective, to see new meaning in old, and old meaning in new? 

[1] Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, New York, Random House, 1994 [1997], pp. xv-xvi.

[2] See http://www.overviewinstitute.org/index.php/about-us/declaration-of-vision-and-principles

[3] The Dream of Scipio, see http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/cicero-republic6.asp

Digital Manuscript Studies – Hiatus

Hello All,

This week I am in Washington DC attending a couple of academic events. Although I am working on my curriculum development, I will likely wait until next week before I post again.

Until that time I would like to encourage you to read Digital Humanities Pedagogy: Practices, Principles and Politics edited by Brett Hirsch. It is full of excellent articles, including a good introduction to the topic by the editor himself. In a pattern that I hope will become more common, the book is available in hard cover, soft cover, or as a PDF. Very good value for a book that is of value to anyone hoping to included digital humanities material in their teaching.

So until next week, take care.

James

Hello post-hiatus

Hello All,

I apologise for my silence, but there are a few reasons for this. First, I was in a bit of an ebb in my creativity. A bout of reading, thinking, walking and podcast listening seems to have stimulated the old creative organ. Second, I have been busy arranging a few things (paperwork and so on) which always leeches every creative impulse from me. Third, I have been in a strange metacognitive mood, in which I have been content to observe and ponder rather than express myself (at least online).

My time has not been wasted, for I have a few ideas for blog posts (an Aristotelian triad, no less!) that I hope to roll out over the next couple of weeks. I would also like to advertise the creation of  a tumblr blog, entitled Dulcisonus. This is an extract from my first post:

Unfortunately, a focus on [academic and personal musings] on Fluid Imaginings has led me to neglect something close to my heart: water, fluidity and the importance of the elements in human existence. Those of you who know me in real life will know that I harp on about this constantly. After some contemplation, I decided that a tumblr blog was an ideal outlet for these ideas. As a result, Dulcisonus was born. The word is a conflation of the Latin for sweet (dulcis) and sounding (sonus): sweetly sounding. This comes from a medieval primary source that I am working on for my doctorate. I will briefly expound upon this topic at a later date, I imagine.

So, the goals of this blog are as follows:

  1. To repost and aggregate interesting articles, images and blog posts on water that come across my path.
  2. To share my thoughts on water.
  3. To share new books, conferences and initiatives that are close to my heart.
  4. To muse on water.

Like water, the blog will flow where my fancies take it, but since I am always running into fascinating watery material, I hope that the journey will be an enjoyable one.

You can follow both my WordPress and my Tumblr by subscribing to the rss on the former, following me on the latter, or the third option, Twitter. You can follow my tweets in which all of my blog posts appear, together with my reblogged content. I’m not really fully engaged with Twitter yet, but I enjoy using it as an aggregator for information.

Anyway that’s all folks. I have much to do, so per ardua ad astra.

James

A Blur of Digital-Analogue

Hello Readers,

The following post is something of a miscellany, so I apologise in advance if it follows no clear structure.

Something has happened to me in recent days that has caused me to reconsider my relationship with technology in this crazy digital world that we live in. I find myself in a coffee shop, typing on a laptop, with four items next to me on the table. A moleskine notebook, an amazon kindle, an iphone, and a fountain pen. What a miscellany of items from different worlds! How can I reconcile these divergent devices? What follows is an internal monologue, a miscellany of thoughts and questions about my digitalisation.

It is worth further studying these items: the moleskine –a nostalgic recreation of the classic writing notebook that has provoked a storm of bibliophilia in the young writer crowd; the fountain pen, made in germany out of plastic with reloadable cartridges with a nib that writes from any angle (something that would have been impossible in the past); the iphone, over two years old and looking somewhat battered, my faithful warhorse for on-the-spot information retrieval, and the shackle that binds me to the internet 24-7; and the newest addition, my kindle, upon which I am ironically reading a book entitled Program of Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age by Douglas Rushkoff, having purchased it based on a decision arrived at while listening to a podcast. If I had a coat of arms, it would probably contain these items. For further anachronism, there would be a Latin motto.

How did my life become such a crazy mish-mash of digital and analogue, and is this a good thing? Do I want to be a tech warrior? Not really. The simple fact is that the collection of gadgets before me are not early adopter avant-garde items, but increasingly common tools of the modern academic. One of my favourite blogs at the moment is Profhacker, in which computer motivated ‘hacks’ for academic life are doled out day by day by an array of tech-enabled and intellectually curious academics.

Where does the scholar end and the internet begin in this digital world? Why am I simultaneously an enormous fan of high quality notebooks, fountain pens and e-readers? I do not remember any of this happening, and yet now I look around me and my life is a digital-analogue hybrid. Did I become assimilated by the borg when I was looking the other way, or am I simply a human being with new tools?

I often wonder how I came to this juncture, at the crossroads between the past and the future of academia. I wonder if there will ever be a generation of scholars that will so clearly see both sides of the divide. I have been coasting the wave of computer technology ever since I was in junior school, remembering the time before everything I now possess, and yet inhabiting the new world. What series of events and decisions brought me to this point? In my ebook copy of Program or be Programmed, I found the following passage intriguing.

For most of us, the announcement of the next great “iThing” provokes not eagerness but anxiety: Is this something else we will have to pay for and learn to use? Do we even have a choice?

Did I have a choice when I purchased these items? In my case, I think the answer is a resounding yes. I remember carefully considering the notion of buying each of these items (some over several years), and the internet enabled my choices. Did my twin cores of futurism and nostalgia push me into the moleskine/kindle paradigm?

I can immediately see benefits and drawbacks from my choices, as I slide further into the digital abyss. Retrieving the highlighted passage above was extremely easy – magically so – and yet all I can only see is that it comes from ‘Location 717’, since an e-book has no page numbers. Thus, my choice to read this book in e-format has both brought me closer to the book, and alienated me from its traditional markers such as page number. This is perhaps the reason why I still love my pen and notebook. It provides a touch of the old school in an increasingly abstracted digital world. Creativity and penmanship must still be best friends in my world.

Paradoxically, I feel powerful and yet I feel alienated. I have more information than it has ever been possible for a scholar to collate at the tips of my fingers, and yet I feel less intimacy with it. I can deal out a massive collection of article citations like a deck of cards, and yet I have no physical evidence that these articles ever existed. My world has become a sea of files and metadata, mediated by a few devices. I despise piles of paper, so this fills my mind with an austerity and clarity that I have never before known. Any yet I feel cheated, robbed of an experience so typical of scholars. The academic sitting alone in a sea of books, poring through ancient tomes. Yet i’ve still got my fountain pen which, rather than an obscurantist hipster fashion statement, keeps me in touch with the roots of what I do. I like the feeling of using one, but it stopped being about feeling cool a while ago. I won’t deny that this may have crossed my mind at first, but something grew with my pen-fetish. Why, if we are increasingly creating ideas digitally, should I use a crummy ballpoint pen? If I am going to use one analog tool, why should it be a convenience item? If I am going to refrain from burying myself in paper, why shouldn’t I enjoy a nice moleskine?

Where will all this end? The answer, I posit, may be in the paradoxical image of the augmented analogue, the moleskine-that-is-also-a-kindle. As we move towards digital ubiquity –the stage at which technology is so common that it simple becomes our material culture– I feel that my twin urges for analogue and digital will be recognised. What is to stop me, in a coffee shop in the year 2030, leaning back and writing with my fountain pen stylus on a device that looks like a book, and yet hides the faculties of a computer? What if my notebook allows me to write and to add hyperlinks , to play back my own writing in a synthesized voice – to contain a series of wafer thin paper-like oled screens? Lord knows where this road is going, but I am on it, for good or ill. Whether I am absorbed by the machine or the machine disappears into total ubiquity, the future is exciting.

NOTE – 21/5: Having reread this post, I think it is interesting that there are a few technologies that do just the thing that I described in the final paragraph. The Livescribe smart pen, for example, and the speech synthesiser/ annotation tools on the Kindle 3. Still crude, but developing fast. Flexible OLEDS will be hitting the scene soon as well. Forget 2030, more like 2015!

Humanism for the Future

Hello All,

I occasionally experience a twinge of guilt when I think about the Humanities. We are, at this very moment, going through a period of intense change in the standards by which our collective disciplines are judged, and the role that we are expected to play within a rapidly changing humanities. But what am I doing to promote and preserve our discipline for the future? Surely sitting in the sidelines doing my PhD does not give me to right to gripe and carp and moan about the dubious future of both my job prospects and of the Arts? How can I put my money where my mouth is and fight for my discipline? Furthermore, what skills does the warrior-academic of the future require in order to carve a bloody swathe through the bureaucrats and penny pinchers, the pressure of the insatiable market and dubious business priorities? I often feel that, rather than sitting back and bemoaning the decline of our discipline, the next generation of scholars will  increasingly be called upon to fight for relevance.

But what traits will make a Historian or a Literary Critic or a Philosopher relevant in the 21st century? What skills will make us effective? My belief, growing in strength with time, is that we need to recall the idea of the Litterae Humaniores, the humane letters, upon which the Liberal Arts are based. We must become conscious that we are both humanists and intellectuals, and that we have the role of teaching the human race to be human now and in the future. Hardly original stuff, but what path ought a twenty-something year old PhD student take on his path to efficacy? I have a vision of becoming the intellectual that I have always wanted to be. Somebody who attempts at all times to uphold the values of the Humanistic education, and to actively teach these to others.

But what is required of a Humanist in the new century? To my mind, it is our role to bring context to debates such as climate change, to guide and shape human interconnectivity and to nurture cultural change and growth. A variety of new courses have appeared in recent years that seem to cater for this role. I feel that this new drive will come from a convergence of people, ideas and resources into new nodes. Hence the new notion of the Centre of Excellence, or the Excellence Cluster, or the Knowledge Centre so popular in the modern university and in government policy The U.N. Mandated University for Peace offers Masters in ‘peace studies’ from its Costa Rica campus, bringing students from all over the world together in a common cause. Even at the local level, my university now has a Centre of Integrated Human Studies. Academic structures are changing and warping to fit new challenges, and frankly this excites me more than I can say. I wholly applaud this created proto-structure, for it brings together ideas from diverse disciplines. I want to be part of this process, to be an engaged and public scholar who reaches out, who forms connections, who inhabits multiple disciplines, and who pools knowledge for the advancement of society.

What do you think, readers? Do you have a strategy for engaging with the future? I’d love to hear from you.

Until Next Time,

James

5 things I love about graduate conferences

Dear Readers,

I hope that this post finds you all in good health. Having returned from a graduate conference about a week ago, I have been reflecting on just what it is that I love about them. I have spoken to some graduates who have been told by their supervisors not to go to grad conferences, that they are a waste of time. This attitude, to my mind, reveals both a lack of perspective on the part of certain tenured professors, and something of a disjoint between what a PhD is about and the way we are expected to act as PhD students.

Many academics say that a PhD is preparation and training, not an academic achievement in itself. If this is the case, surely we should be learning how to be a graduate (learning how to learn, perhaps?) rather than learning how to be a full blown academic 100% of the time? To this end, I am going to present a list of the five things I like the most about graduate conferences:

  1. Practice in giving Papers – One of the reasons I really love graduate conferences (something of a truism) is the experience gained in confident presentation of papers. If the graduate student does not get a chance to hone their public speaking in an informal environment, then what happens when they have to give a paper at a big scary conference? Thus, I see the graduate paper presentation as essential training.
  2. Variety – Rather than focusing on very narrow topics, graduate conferences are more likely to feature a theme that draws in a wide variety of grads from many disciplines. We are expected to learn how to inhabit a discipline and learn how to be faithful to it, but this takes practice. Being placed in a situation with students at a similar level to oneself from a variety of backgrounds allows one to expand one’s repertoire, and become more aware of one’s background. Like the traveler away from home, the graduate outside of their discipline becomes aware of how they do it over there, but we don’t do it here (ooh ohh fashion?). This then allows us to become more confident that we understand how we do things differently, and what we can bring to the table.
  3. Making Friends – I distinguish this clearly from networking, because the two are not synonymous. As a graduate (especially a young graduate), one needs the opportunity to meet the people who will be the colleagues and friends of the future. International grad conferences are particularly fun, since you meet students from all over the world.
  4. Keynote Speakers – As graduate students, we learn by mimesis, and by example (like the babies of the academic world that we are, we have the ability to learn and discover, but lack the framework of a fully mature academic). Watching the plenary/keynote talks at a graduate conference takes on a new meaning, because the professors attending are inspirational as well as interesting. Students can talk to experienced and often well known figures of academia, and have a chance to chat to them formally and informally. Better still, graduate conferences are a great chance to compare notes with other graduates about what was good/bad about the presentation style of the speaker.
  5. Benchmarking – Although this sounds mercenary, going to graduate conferences gives one a good chance to see where other students at a similar level stand. I generally discover that I admire my peers and think that they are all smart, charismatic and capable. At the same time, talking to others at your level and swapping stories helps to teach that every PhD student has the same problems to deal with, and wants to get out and talk shop. It is fun, perspective building and educational.

Feel free to disagree, but I love graduate conferences! Well…I love all conferences, but graduate conferences in particular. Naturally it is politic to be present at some big name conferences and get noticed within your discipline, but there is a lot to be said for balance.

Best Wishes,

James