Archive for mla paper

MLA 07 Paper: Sameness or, the Declaration of Futuristic Democracy

Posted in papers, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on 24 February 2013 by Ben

Another one from the vaults. Although I am certain that I am making mistakes in my readings of the various thinkers I engage here, I am nevertheless rather proud of this paper, which was easily the most well-received of any paper I have ever given. It is also much more coherent. I must have put a lot more effort into conference papers back then.


My plans for this paper initially included a formulation of a theory of declaration, a means by which to break the Sameness of the endless present, a means of destroying extant relationships, especially those that involve asymmetrical power. In fact, this declaration was to posit a means by which asymmetrical power can become symmetrical, much in the manner that Thoreau claims that a single just man can stand up to the power of the state and disrupt its hegemony. However, what I discovered in my thinking was that, far from interrupting Sameness, declaration, as it is understood historically and in the context of documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, far from being that which interrupts Sameness and inaugurates the future, is that which produces Sameness. It is thus, in my argument, an agent of the futuristic, a false future that is merely an extrapolation from the present. This paper is about this issue.

Throughout his work Giorgio Agamben returns to Aristotle’s conception of the ground, that formulation through which things are categorized. As he puts it in The Open, in reference to a passage from De anima, “Here we see at work that principal of foundation which constitutes the strategic device par excellance of Aristotle’s thought. It consists in reformulating every question concerning ‘what something is’ as a question concerning ‘through what something belongs to another thing’” (14). Following from his attention to the Aristotelian ground, Agamben is concerned in much of his work on biopolitics with the question of inclusion and exclusion and the role it plays in the modern nation-state.

Similarly, Carl Schmitt turns to Aristotle in the preface to the second edition of The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, where he first notes that the notion of government by discussion, parliamentarianism, belongs not to democracy but, rather, to liberalism, a concept that Schmitt distinguishes from democracy. Writes Schmitt, cribbing from Aristotle’s Politics, “Every actual democracy rests on the principal that not only are equals equal but unequals will not be treated equally. Democracy requires, therefore, first homogeneity and second—if the need arises—elimination or eradication of heterogeneity” (9). Building upon his claim, Schmitt populates this equation with what, for Agamben and this paper, are problematic terms when he states that a “democracy demonstrates its political power by knowing how to refuse or keep at bay something foreign and unequal that threatens its homogeneity” (9). Schmitt would elaborate this distinction between the interior that is equal and the exterior that is not in The Concept of the Political, where he claims that the primary political opposition is that between friend and enemy. Agamben’s work marks a decisive turning away from Schmitt’s categories characterized by a reading of Aristotle that demonstrates the primacy of the formulation of the ground rather than the appearance of any particular instantiation of that formula. The significance of this turning away will become evident in the course of this paper.

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Paper for Marxism and New Media

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on 21 January 2012 by Ben

Here is my paper for the Marxism and New Media conference at Duke this weekend. It largely overlaps with my recent MLA paper, but it is rather different in many respects as well so I will just put the whole thing up despite the repetition. In any case, I am trying to beat it into shape for a more formal publication venue.

The Political Economy of Digital Media and Education

Benjamin J Robertson

First, let me shill for ebr and ask anyone who is interested in submitting their paper to us for publication to speak to me at lunch or later today. You can also find me online, on Twitter, etc.

Second, let me say that this is perhaps the worst paper title I have ever come up with.

This paper is a continuation of one that I gave at MLA two weeks ago, with a much better, if less informative title: “Digital Anamnesis.” My aim for that paper, and for this, is to think through my hesitation with regard to the new, history, form, and meaning. Briefly put, and not saying anything new as yet I think, I value new forms and processes of discourse, ones that seek to overcome limitations inherited from the past in order to make meaning in new ways. These forms and processes would have to, perhaps, ignore history and the methods of meaning making it affords us. However, I also value history, however problematic, insofar as it allows us to contextualize, understand, and make judgments about the new. In my MLA paper, and with further elaboration here, I consider received forms and processes of scholarship, especially as such scholarship (which is being challenged by digital media) operates within a political economy of academic employment and instruction and intellectual discourse. My concern, specifically, has to do with the manner in which the discourse surrounding what we still call the job market has been inflected by the advent and valorization of the so-called digital humanities. Dh has, it seems to me, implicitly promised young scholars jobs if they are able to write code, create databases, or otherwise interact with networked computers in an expert manner, often by prioritizing alternative academic, or alt-ac, careers. My purpose is not to argue against the value of DH broadly, but to question how DH or new media interacts with and informs the political economy of academic instruction, production, and employment in the humanties.

My MLA paper was part of a panel organized by David Golumbia: “Digital Literary Studies: When Will it End?” which has the distinction of being name-checked by Stanley Fish in a New York Times op-ed. Given where we are, and the appositeness of Fish’s comments on the MLA convention generally in the context of this paper, I will start with him as a way into my argument. Fish tells us that he cannot attend MLA, but that he has read the program and can therefore weigh in on its shortcomings, which, it turns out, are legion. He writes, “I was pleased to see that the program confirmed an observation I made years ago: while disciplines like physics or psychology or statistics discard projects and methodologies no longer regarded as cutting edge, if you like the way literary studies were done in 1950 or even 1930, there will be a department or a journal that allows you to proceed as if nothing had happened in the last 50 or 75 years.” Ignoring that session titles are rarely useful for understanding what sessions are actually about or the directions they might take, we can see here Fish, apparently at any rate, critiquing his (former?) profession for failing to advance. In some respect, he is no doubt correct. I recall Michael Berube writing somewhere that most undergraduate courses are methodologically organized by practices of close reading and simple historicism. These practices, in fact, still dominate if silently, I think, even more advanced humanistic discourse. As I hope to make clear, I am rather perplexed by the question of what to do about this “failure” to move forward with new practices of reading, writing, and thinking.

In any case, Fish then goes on to reminisce about how everyone used to talk about postmodernism (which seems to be a proxy for “theory” broadly), but no one does anymore. So, it seems we do move on, but not in the manner that Fish wants or expects. He writes: “What happened then, and inevitably, was that after an exciting period of turmoil and instability, the alien invader was domesticated and absorbed into the mainstream, forming part of a new orthodoxy that would subsequently be made to tremble by a new insurgency.” It’s not at all clear what Fish’s point is here, whether he wants a continued instability or is happy to see it pass.

And, finally, we get to what is for my purposes the point, Fish’s criticism of digital humanities, or new media studies, or whatever you want to call it—the new insurgency before which the now staid and neutered postmodernism-informed profession trembles. DH is the “rough beast” that has replaced postmodernism as the destabilizing force that threatens “what we do.” As an aside: it seems to me the height of ignorance to equate postmodernism (which has been variously understood as a theoretical position, a style, and a historical period) with digital humanities (which seems to be becoming a methodological position, but has been understood more as a practical, pedagogical, and sometimes theoretical engagement with the hardware and software that increasingly dictate the manner and scope of our practices). Nevertheless, DH is Fish’s target, and he writes:

Once again, as in the early theory days, a new language is confidently and prophetically spoken by those in the know, while those who are not are made to feel ignorant, passed by, left behind, old. If you see a session on “Digital Humanities versus New Media” and you’re not quite sure what either term means you might think you have wandered into the wrong convention. When the notes explaining the purpose of a session on “Digital Material” include the question “Is there gravity in digital worlds?”, you might be excused for wondering whether you have become a character in a science fiction movie. And when a session’s title is “Digital Literary Studies: When Will it End?”, you might find yourself muttering, “Not soon enough.”

And here is the question: does this “not soon enough” reveal a longing to return to the proper practices of humanistic discourse or a longing for the incorporation of DH into those practices in such a way that it becomes part of the new orthodoxy? It seems uncontroversial to state that theory or postmodernism has transformed the profession, whether positively or negatively. Maybe no one “does” theory the way they use to, but we need look no further than the title of the recent collection Theory after “Theory” to recognize that its legacy remains. Is this “theory” a domesticated one, one that has lost its power to subvert as a result of our acceptance of it? I certainly cannot answer that question. Rather, in the remainder of this paper, I will address what I see as Fish’s hesitation in the face of digital media as a transformative force in the humanities in order to open up a discussion of the political economy of our profession.

To that end, I begin with Bernard Stiegler and his work on anamnesis.

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