Digital Keyword: Culture

digital keywords peters jacketThis post appears concurrently at Culture Digitally.

Culture is a keyword among keywords for Raymond Williams, who contributed to the founding of cultural studies in the 1960s and 1970s. It is among the most common ways to talk about how we talk. In the essay below, one of Williams’ most careful readers, Ted Striphas, offers a sensitive update to Williams and a wide-ranging intellectual history, describing how culture has coevolved with the digital turn since the end of World War II. No longer an antithesis to technology, culture has recently interpenetrated with the computational (e.g., digital humanities, culturomics, and big-data-driven cultural studies).

In fascinating conversation with Fred Turner’s prototype and Limor Shifman’s meme, in what sense do aspects of modern-day digital culture challenge and confirm Striphas’ observation about the dynamism and adaptability of culture—or, in Williams’ famous phrase, “one of two or three most complicated words in the English language?”

Ted Striphas: Culture

 

This comment may have been adapted from the introduction to Benjamin Peters’ Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture. 25% discount code in 2016: P06197

Digital Keyword: “Algorithm”

digital keywords peters jacketThis post appears concurrently at Culture Digitally.

Tarleton Gillespie demystifies the many uses of the recent keyword algorithm, on loan from Arabic. It is at once a trick of the trade for software programmers, a synecdoche standing in for entire informational systems and their stakeholders in popular discourse, a talisman used by those stakeholders for evoking cultural authority and avoiding blame (e.g., to blame “Facebook’s algorithm” can implicitly shift responsibility away from the company that designed it), and shorthand for the broader sociocultural shift toward, as Gillespie argues, “the insertion of procedure into human knowledge and social experience.”

In rich conversation with Ted Striphas’ essay on culture and Stephanie Ricker Schulte’s essay on personalization, Gillespie clarifies and multiplies the ways the current media environment extends a larger bureaucratic revolution central to modernity.

Tarleton Gillespie: Algorithm

 

This comment may have been adapted from the introduction to Benjamin Peters’ Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture. 25% discount code in 2016: P06197

Michaela DeSoucey: Bastille Day Appetizers

Michaela DeSoucey

desoucey jacketAmid the current political disarray caused by the recent Brexit vote and the ongoing refugee crisis, questions of what determines national identity are hot-button issues in France, and across Europe. Claims to national solidarity and shared symbols of national collective identity often rise to the fore on holidays. These appeals to unique histories and cultural practices are not just internal appeals to common descent or principles; they allege uniqueness vis-à-vis others and can trigger zeal toward a sense of belonging and pride in particular places.

Today is Bastille Day in France – the day that commemorates the July 14th, 1789 storming of the Bastille prison in Paris, which proved a turning point for the oncoming French Revolution and the declaration of a monarch-less French Republic. On this day, people around France will fête the French nation with parties and meals shared with family and friends. What will they eat, to represent this day? Symbolically and substantively, foods can offer multiple identity-laden markers for people and for groups. Eating is one way people demonstrate their political sentiments of national belonging and togetherness. Here in the U.S., for example, we eat turkey on Thanksgiving and call things “as American as apple pie.” Politicians on the campaign trail go out of their ways to be seen eating down-to-earth and local specialties (which can sometimes result in infamy, such as being seen eating a slice of New York pizza with a fork and knife).

Cuisine has long been one of France’s greatest sources of domestic and international pride. One food valorized as a quintessential symbol of French identity on the national plate is foie gras, the fattened liver of a duck or goose that has been manually force-fed with a tube. Foie gras is also a target of critical opposition, fueled by international animal rights organizations who call its production process cruel and inhumane.

In my new book, Contested Tastes: Foie Gras and the Politics of Food, I explore how foie gras came to represent French national culture and identity – a multifaceted process and a form of claimsmaking that I call ‘gastronationalism’ – and, for better or worse, what ramifications this has had. My book argues that these sentiments have developed at least in part because people elsewhere have challenged its very existence. In the last few decades, foie gras has been held up by France’s cultural and political leaders as an endangered tradition, at risk from the winds of globalization, Europeanization, and American cultural influences.

Foie gras has come to play a role in gastronational visions of Frenchness within France, too. In fact, the knot connecting foie gras and French identity has been tied so tightly that foie gras has even become a symbol used by some xenophobic political extremists aiming to draw starker lines around what they consider legitimate citizenship. When I was in France a decade ago, one of the country’s largest foie gras producers, Labeyrie, was targeted by several ultra-nationalist groups who condemned the company for marketing some of its foie gras products as halal, meaning suitable for consumption by Muslims. Their base complaint was that by paying a required certification fee to a French mosque to use a halal label, Labeyrie was funding Islamic worship and “taking the risk of supporting Islamic terrorism.” More to their point, it was marketing foie gras in France to people who these groups see as decidedly not French.

After several boycott threats and protests outside its shops, Labeyrie temporarily stopped using a halal label. They reverted the following year and were again subject to ultra-nationalist denunciations. The company was then criticized by members of France’s Muslim community – an estimated 6-7 million people seen by consumer product firms as an emerging and profitable market demographic – for being vulnerable to the pressures of right-wing media, because the company’s website, advertisements, and e-shop no longer showed images of halal foie gras labels, even though the products remained available in retail stores.

Yet, even with recent upsurges of social turmoil around race and religion, not everyone is on board with such a xenophobic mindset. Halal foie gras is now available all the time at national supermarkets and chain stores, produced by several different companies. And, multiple news outlets have reported on the rise of halal foie gras consumption among Muslims, especially upwardly mobile ones, in France over the last decade. Quotes from community leaders attribute this rise to desire for belonging in the category of ‘French’ and indicate popular perceptions that consuming foie gras is a meaningful way to do that.

Food and eating are, and continue to be, important sites where broader conflicts over national culture and identities manifest. In countries increasingly affected by political discord, I see food continuing to communicate both social acceptance and rejection of others. And on national holidays like Bastille Day, foie gras will likely be consumed as part of what it means to celebrate one’s country, or, at the least, its rapidly receding past.

Michaela DeSoucey is assistant professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. She is author of Contested Tastes.

Language in the age of “search”

digital keywords peters jacketHow does language function in today’s information revolution? Keywords, and these days, “digital keywords” organize research, teaching, even thought itself. In Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society & Culture, Benjamin Peters compiles essays on keywords by major digital media scholars, as well as an extensive list of these keywords themselves. Here’s a look at five words that have completely changed in today’s search-driven culture.

1. “Activism” has become one of the most popular terms found on the internet and it’s nearly decimated the use of “revolution”.

On the one hand, aspirations for political struggle continue to take both radical and nonradical forms . . . On the other hand, the history of activism and protest since the 1990s remains marked more by moderation than by radicalism in both Western democracies and other countries.

2. “Archive” is a word that has had its concept completely re-imagined as each person can individually decide what is important to them and should be saved permanently through digital means.

An archive is less about the printed word and can be about all facets of materiality, form, and its subsequent encoding–even the reader herself.

3. “Cloud” today does not only invoke images of nature, but streams of data held and protected somewhere.

Perhaps it is exactly their apparent blankness, mutability, and vanishing mode of being that makes them such a ripe canvas for human creativity and criticism.

4. “Meme” is an exception in that its meaning hasn’t changed so much as its relevance has. It is a word that was largely ignored when it was first conceived and now is in common use on the internet.

While researchers continue arguing about the usefulness of this construct, netizens have delivered their verdict. By the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the term Meme had become an integral part of online vernacular.

5. “Sharing” is a huge part of media and social relations on computers today, between friends or between millions of people who have never met each other except over the Internet. This concept has challenged concepts about copyright and how criminal activity can be conducted online.

However, while the term data sharing would not appear controversial in any way . . . File sharing . . . is not sharing, but rather theft.

Learn more about Digital Keywords this summer as we share a series of posts from Culture Digitally.

Justin E. H. Smith: How philosophy came to disdain the wisdom of oral cultures

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Smith jacketA poet, somewhere in Siberia, or the Balkans, or West Africa, some time in the past 60,000 years, recites thousands of memorised lines in the course of an evening. The lines are packed with fixed epithets and clichés. The bard is not concerned with originality, but with intonation and delivery: he or she is perfectly attuned to the circumstances of the day, and to the mood and expectations of his or her listeners.

If this were happening 6,000-plus years ago, the poet’s words would in no way have been anchored in visible signs, in text. For the vast majority of the time that human beings have been on Earth, words have had no worldly reality other than the sound made when they are spoken.

As the theorist Walter J Ong pointed out in Orality and Literacy: Technologizing the Word (1982), it is difficult, perhaps even impossible, now to imagine how differently language would have been experienced in a culture of ‘primary orality’. There would be nowhere to ‘look up a word’, no authoritative source telling us the shape the word ‘actually’ takes. There would be no way to affirm the word’s existence at all except by speaking it – and this necessary condition of survival is important for understanding the relatively repetitive nature of epic poetry. Say it over and over again, or it will slip away. In the absence of fixed, textual anchors for words, there would be a sharp sense that language is charged with power, almost magic: the idea that words, when spoken, can bring about new states of affairs in the world. They do not so much describe, as invoke.

As a consequence of the development of writing, first in the ancient Near East and soon after in Greece, old habits of thought began to die out, and certain other, previously latent, mental faculties began to express themselves. Words were now anchored and, though spellings could change from one generation to another, or one region to another, there were now physical traces that endured, which could be transmitted, consulted and pointed to in settling questions about the use or authority of spoken language.

Writing rapidly turned customs into laws, agreements into contracts, genealogical lore into history. In each case, what had once been fundamentally temporal and singular was transformed into something eternal (as in, ‘outside of time’) and general. Even the simple act of making everyday lists of common objects – an act impossible in a primary oral culture – was already a triumph of abstraction and systematisation. From here it was just one small step to what we now call ‘philosophy’.

Homer’s epic poetry, which originates in the same oral epic traditions as those of the Balkans or of West Africa, was written down, frozen, fixed, and from this it became ‘literature’. There are no arguments in the Iliad: much of what is said arises from metrical exigencies, the need to fill in a line with the right number of syllables, or from epithets whose function is largely mnemonic (and thus unnecessary when transferred into writing). Yet Homer would become an authority for early philosophers nonetheless: revealing truths about humanity not by argument or debate, but by declamation, now frozen into text.

Plato would express extreme concern about the role, if any, that poets should play in society. But he was not talking about poets as we think of them: he had in mind reciters, bards who incite emotions with living performances, invocations and channellings of absent persons and beings.

It is not orality that philosophy rejects, necessarily: Socrates himself rejected writing, identifying instead with a form of oral culture. Plato would also ensure the philosophical canonisation of his own mentor by writing down (how faithfully, we don’t know) what Socrates would have preferred to merely say, and so would have preferred to have lost to the wind. Arguably, it is in virtue of Plato’s recording that we might say, today, that Socrates was a philosopher.

Plato and Aristotle, both, were willing to learn from Homer, once he had been written down. And Socrates, though Plato still felt he had to write him down, was already engaged in a sort of activity very different from poetic recitation. This was dialectic: the structured, working-through of a question towards an end that has not been predetermined – even if this practice emerged indirectly from forms of reasoning only actualised with the advent of writing.

The freezing in text of dialectical reasoning, with a heavy admixture (however impure or problematic) of poetry, aphorism and myth, became the model for what, in the European tradition, was thought of as ‘philosophy’ for the next few millennia.

Why are these historical reflections important today? Because what is at stake is nothing less than our understanding of the scope and nature of philosophical enquiry.

The Italian philosopher of history Giambattista Vico wrote in his Scienza Nuova (1725): ‘the order of ideas must follow the order of institutions’. This order was, namely: ‘First the woods, then cultivated fields and huts, next little houses and villages, thence cities, finally academies and philosophers.’ It is implicit for Vico that the philosophers in these academies are not illiterate. The order of ideas is the order of the emergence of the technology of writing.

Within academic philosophy today, there is significant concern arising from how to make philosophy more ‘inclusive’, but no interest at all in questioning Vico’s order, in going back and recuperating what forms of thought might have been left behind in the woods and fields.

The groups ordinarily targeted by philosophy’s ‘inclusivity drive’ already dwell in the cities and share in literacy, even if discriminatory measures often block their full cultivation of it. No arguments are being made for the inclusion of people belonging to cultures that value other forms of knowledge: there are no efforts to recruit philosophers from among Inuit hunters or Hmong peasants.

The practical obstacles to such recruitment from a true cross-section of humanity are obvious. Were it to happen, however, the simple process of moving from traditional ways of life into academic institutions would at the same time dilute and transform the perspectives that are deserving of more attention. Irrespective of such unhappy outcomes, there is already substantial scholarship on these forms of thought accumulated in philosophy’s neighbouring disciplines – notably history, anthropology, and world literatures – to which philosophers already have access. It’s a literature that could serve as a corrective to the foundational bias, present since the emergence of philosophy as a distinct activity.

As it happens, there are few members of primary oral cultures left in the world. And yet from a historical perspective the great bulk of human experience resides with them. There are, moreover, members of literate cultures, and subcultures, whose primary experience of language is oral, based in storytelling, not argumentation, and that is living and charged, not fixed and frozen. Plato saw these people as representing a lower, and more dangerous, use of language than the one worthy of philosophers.

Philosophers still tend to disdain, or at least to conceive as categorically different from their own speciality, the use of language deployed by bards and poets, whether from Siberia or the South Bronx. Again, this disdain leaves out the bulk of human experience. Until it is eradicated, the present talk of the ideal of inclusion will remain mere lip-service.

Justin E. H. Smith is a professor of history and philosophy of science at the Université Paris Diderot – Paris 7. He writes frequently for The New York Times and Harper’s Magazine. His latest book is The Philosopher: A History in Six Types (2016).

McGovern scholar Thomas Knock on classic presidential reads

election blog banner logoThomas Knock is the author of The Rise of a Prairie Statesman: The Life and Times of George McGovern, the first volume of the first major biography of the 1972 presidential candidate and eloquent critic of the Vietnam War. Called “the standard bearer of all future biographies” by the San Francisco Chronicle, Knock’s reconsideration of the politician is a perfect pick for election season. Recently we asked Knock what classic books on presidents we would find in his own library.

By Thomas Knock

I’m happy to recommend five books about major presidents and the politics of their times— from the early 20th century to the early 21st century—all classics in their field and favorites of mine. My list of personal favorites encompasses several historically great presidents or otherwise quite notable ones—Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton— who still have something to say to us today.

1.  John Milton Cooper, The Warrior and the Priest, Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt (Harvard, 1983).  This is a dual biography of two progressive presidents—one a Republican, one a Democrat—and the two most literate chief executives of the 20th century.  Together TR and Wilson recreated the modern presidency and, in their respective programs (the New Nationalism and the New Freedom) they laid the foundations for Big Government as we have come to know it today.  Cooper has definite and persuasive reveries about who is the Warrior and who is the Priest.

2.  Robert McElvaine, The Great Depression and the New Deal (Times Books, 1993).  A sweeping account of the crisis of the 1930s that gives both Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt their due and even stresses a significant element of continuity between the policies of the two antagonists.  In this, while providing a most lucid interpretation of New Deal politics and culture, one also can see a parallel between Hoover and FDR, on the one hand, and George W. Bush and Barack Obama, on the other, as the latter pair struggled to contain the gathering disaster of 2008-09.

3.  Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson and his America (St. Martin’s, 1976, 1991).  This remains one of the two or three best, and most moving, books ever written about Lyndon Johnson, who I myself would describe as half a great president.  Perhaps the most important thing to take away from this work are the implications of a single remark of Johnson’s to Goodwin:  that he believed when he entered office that he had only 18 months or so to get done whatever it was he was going to accomplish.  And that—the concept of the 18-Month Presidency, so to speak—is something that too many presidents have never grasped.

4.  Sidney Blumenthal, Pledging Allegiance, The Last Campaign of the Cold War (Harper/Collins, 1990).  This study offers a trove of insights into American politics at the end of the Cold War.  Its most significant achievement is to establish Reagan and Gorbachev as an irreducible team–that the advent of each was fundamental to the other’s well being if either was to have the salutary legacy that they are both credited with today.  Along with the entire cast of candidates in the 1988 knock-down, the volume also addresses the matter of the presidential sex scandal, something new in the politics of the ensuing post-Cold War era, which fatally ensnared the formidable Gary Hart, a former McGovern protege.

5.  David Maraniss, First in His Class, A biography of Bill Clinton (Simon and Schuster, 1995).  An essential work about the first post-Cold War president, this biography also includes substantial instructive coverage of the early life of Hillary Rodham.  The thrust is the striving of the first Boomer to enter the White House, who left Arkansas to be schooled at Georgetown, Oxford, and Yale Law; lived the politics of the Sixties and Vietnam and earnestly embraced McGovern’s campaign (learning chastening lessons along the way); and then returned to Arkansas as his means to power.  From a 2016 perspective, one can fully appreciate his enormous capacities while apprehending the bridge the two Clintons constitute between past, present and future.

KnockThomas J. Knock is Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor at Southern Methodist University. He is the author of the prize-winning To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order and the coauthor of The Crisis of American Foreign Policy: Wilsonianism in the Twenty-first Century (both Princeton). He lives in Dallas, Texas.

Lynn Gamwell on math and the visual arts’ shared cultural history

GamwellMathematicians and artists have historically shared a common interest: inquiry and comprehension of the intricacies of the world around them, whether through numerical or aesthetic design. Illustrating the relationship between math and art from antiquity to present day, Lynn Gamwells Mathematics and Art highlights the significant impact these two linked worlds have on one another. Gamwell recently took the time to answer some questions about her book. Examining the modern disciplines of art and math, she reveals the profound philosophy of self-reflection that these two cultural and intellectual pursuits share. Don’t forget to check out the stunning slideshow following the Q&A.

What’s the basic idea of your book?

LG: I started with the assumption that how people understand reality relates directly to the concepts of mathematics that develop in their culture. Mathematics is a search for patterns, and artists, in turn, create visualizations of the patterns discovered in their time. So I describe a general history of mathematics and the related artwork.

Since you begin in Stone Age times, your book covers over 5000 years. Is there a historical focus to the book?

LG: Yes, there are 13 chapters, and the first gives the background up to around 1800 AD. The other 12 chapters are on the modern and contemporary eras, although I occasionally dip back into pre-modern times to give the background of a topic. A central question that drove my exploration of the modern era was: where did abstract, non-objective art come from? Between around 1890 and 1915, many artists stopped depicting people and landscapes and start using pure color and form as the vocabulary of their art. Why? I argue that modern art is an expression of the scientific worldview. Beginning in the late nineteenth century and continuing today, researchers describe bacteria, cells, radiation, and pulsars that are invisible to the unaided eye, as well as mathematical patterns in nature.

Can you give a few examples of the relation of math and art?

LG: Italian Renaissance artists, such as Leonardo da Vinci, constructed the space in paintings such as The Last Supper using linear perspective, which is a geometric projection invented in the 1430s by the architect Filippo Brunelleschi. In the twentieth century, Swiss Constructivists such as Karl Gerstner created symmetrical patterns based on the mathematics of group theory, which measures the amount of symmetry in a system, such as atoms and sub-atomic particles. The contemporary America artist Jim Sanborn uses topology, which is the projection of geometric shapes onto surfaces that are stretched and distorted. For example in photographs of cliffs in Ireland, Jim first projected concentric circles onto the rocks and then took the photograph with a long exposure at moonrise. These artists are, of course, interested in many other things besides mathematics; aesthetic issues are their primary focus.

The examples you give are artists who are inspired by math; are mathematicians ever influenced by art?

LG: Mathematics are rarely inspired by a particular piece of art (since most artists use elementary arithmetic and geometry), but rather they aspire to include in their proofs general aesthetic qualities, such as purity, simplicity, and elegance.

You mention Leonardo da Vinci; didn’t he use the Golden Ration?

LG: No. It is a common misconception that a ratio described by Euclid as “mean and extreme ratio” has been used by artists throughout history because it holds the key to beautiful proportions. This myth was begun in the early nineteenth century by a German scholar who called Euclid’s ratio “golden.” The myth took a tenacious hold on Western intellectuals because, as science was beginning to take them off their privileged pedestal, it assured them that all beauty is based on a ratio embodied in human anatomy. There is no science supporting this claim.

Your book is a global history; did you find that there is a difference between math in the East and West?

LG: Yes, because a culture’s understanding of mathematics is based in its understanding of reality. In antiquity, Eastern mathematics in based in Taoism, the view that nature is composed of myriad parts that came together by self-assembly into a harmonious whole. Thus Chinese mathematicians discerned patterns in numbers, such as the Luoshu (magic square), in which numbers in the rows, columns, and diagonals have the same sum (the harmonious whole). On the other hand, Western cultures believed that a divine person (The Egyptian sun-god Ra, the God of Abraham, Plato’s carpenter) had imposed order on formless chaos. Thus Westerners went looking for this order, and they found it in the movement of the stars (the Babylonian zodiac), and the planets (Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion). Although there was a difference between Eastern and Western math when there was little contact, in today’s culture there is one global math.

The book includes the diverse fields of art, philosophy, mathematics, and physics; what is your educational background?

LG: I have a BA in philosophy and a PhD in art history. I’m self-taught in the history of science and math.

At 576 pages, this is a long book with extensive endnotes and 500+ illustrations; how long did it take you?

LG: 12 years of research and writing, plus one year in production.

Did you make any discoveries about art that especially surprised you?

LG: Yes. When I started my research I thought that artists during the modern era (the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries) would have only a vague knowledge of the math of their times, because of the famed “two cultures” divide. But I found specific historical evidence (an artist’s essay, manifesto, interview, or letter), which demonstrated that the artist had direct knowledge of a particular piece of mathematics and had embodied it in his or her art. Examples include: Aleksandr Rodchenko, Henry Moore, Piet Mondrian, Max Bill, Dorothea Rockburne, as well as musicians, such as Arnold Schoenberg, and poets, such as T. S. Eliot and James Joyce. Again, I would stress that for such artists mathematics is a secondary interest at best, and they are concerned with materials, expressive content, and purely aesthetic issues.

Any surprising discoveries about math and science?

LG: Yes, here are two. Much of what is taught as physics is really philosophy (interpretation) of physical data. An example is the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics, which was taught as THE gospel truth from its announcement in 1927 to around 1960. In fact, there are other ways to interpret the same laboratory data, which were largely ignored. I’m used to such dogmatism in the art world, where artists and critics are known to proclaim what art IS, but I expected to find a more cool-headed rationalism in the laboratory. Alas, we’re all human beings, driven by our passions. Another example is the strong resistance to Platonism (the view that abstract objects exist outside time and space) in modern culture, even though Platonism is the view held by most working mathematicians (i.e., they believe they are discovering patterns not creating them). While doing research, I found myself viewed with suspicion of being a religious missionary (disguised as a scholar) because I gave a sympathetic reading of historical religious documents (in other words, I tried to describe reality from their point of view). In fact, my outlook is completely secular. I came to realize that many secularists are unable to separate Platonism from its long association with religious doctrine, which touches a nerve in certain otherwise dispassionate academics.

Are you planning another project? What are you going to do next?

LG: I’m going to take some time off and regroup. I’ve started to think about writing something for children.

Check out the slideshow highlighting just a few of the book’s stunning images:

[portfolio_slideshow id=38474]

Lynn Gamwell is lecturer in the history of art, science, and mathematics at the School of Visual Arts in New York. She is the author of Exploring the Invisible: Art, Science, and the Spiritual (Princeton).