12/4/12

Sitcoms of yesteryear

Among the more popular premises for a sitcom is the fish out of water. Under this general rubric you will find many of the long-running shows of the last fifty years, often organized around the classic social situations: race, class, gender, and sexuality.

Race: The Jeffersons, which was an offshoot of one of the original fish-out-of-water scenes, the loosely veiled but still basically racial All in the Family, whose theme song (“guys like us we had it made… those were the days. … do you remember way back when, girls were girls and men were men… those were the days”) made it clear that Archie Bunker’s biggest problem was that he was a fish out of time — but of course for white folks to be out of time is always to be out of “race” as well. (If you have six minutes watch this amazing clip where Archie, late in the show’s run, takes on the KKK and calls himself “black”.) (Also in this category: Family Matters.)

Class: Two Broke Girls, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (not Roseanne; I’m talking about sitcoms where the basic premise is that someone is out of joint);  Sexuality/Gender: Three’s Company comes to mind (but not Will & Grace). Something like Modern Family seems to be trying to wrap all of these up in a single package (which is interesting, because it has to produce wholeness out of that incongruous mix, but of course, that’s the point.)

But none of these categories quite capture the strangeness of the science fictional sitcom, in which the fish is an alien and the new swimming pool is the planet Earth. It’s so strange I think it’s easy to forget that through the 70s 80s and 90s the alien-on-Earth was a basic premise for television comedy. Mork & Mindy for the 70s, ALF for the 80s; and Third Rock from the Sun for the 90s. (There was also Small Wonder (amazing!! theme song), but that was about a robot.)

I have almost nothing to say about this but to that the other night as I fell asleep I was overcome with the marvel of this kind of sitcom. Aliens yes, but aliens and comedy just doesn’t seem plausible. I mean, what a crazy thing, no? It seems totally unimaginable that such a show would be on television today. And so I found myself wondering what kind of culture we are that used to allow these shows, and now doesn’t. It could all just be random noise, of course, but the critical, close readerly demand for total necessity leaves me wanting more.

12/2/12

Republicans on Copyright

A few years ago at the instigation of Paul Saint-Amour Ted Wesp and I spent a few months thinking and writing about copyright (results in Paul’s edited book, here). Ever since I’ve been convinced not only of the importance of copyright for thinking about the history of aesthetic production, but also of its vital contemporary impact on the entire economic life-world, ranging from patent law (and its implications for technological or medical developments) to the field of culture.

Crooked Timber points me to the Republican Study Committee’s new thinkpiece on copyright, which argues against it from a radical capitalist/libertarian perspective. I am not going to read the entire RSC piece, and neither are you, so here instead is the quote CT pulls out:

Copyright violates nearly every tenet of laissez faire capitalism. Under the current system of copyright, producers of content are entitled to a guaranteed, government instituted, government subsidized content-monopoly … It is a system implemented and regulated by the government, and backed up by laws that allow for massive damages for violations. These massive damages are not conventional tort law damages, but damages that are vastly disproportionate from the actual damage to the copyright producer. … we do know that our copyright paradigm has … Retarded the creation of a robust DJ/Remix industry … Hampering scientific inquiry … Stifling the creation of a public library … Free 12-year copyright term for all new works – subject to registration, and all existing works are renewed as of the passage of the reform legislation. If passed today this would mean that new works have a copyright until 2024.

Ummm. Amen?

11/30/12

On the Phone

It was a few years back, at some big reception at the Goethe-Institut or the British Council, in Hong Kong or Taipei– forgive me, I’ve been to a lot of parties. (The fact that I can’t remember the details doesn’t mean I had an exceptionally good time.) As my friend and I were navigating the big room, looking for anyone we knew, I heard some French being spoken over to the side, and halloed: “Bonjour les francophones!” The answer came back: “Pas francophones, nous sommes français.”

The category corrective meant this: although in principle all French-speakers are Francophones, because that’s what the word means (Frankos, “French,” plus “phonê,” voice*), in practice the word is restricted to “people who speak French or something like it, and aren’t French.” French people don’t refer to themselves as francophones, unless by chance they work for the ministerial office of Francophonie, which really exists. The office, that is, exists; it exists in order to make Francophonie, a virtual nation spread out through Europe, Africa, North America, the Caribbean and parts of Asia, exist. The large area of Francophonie is to the small country of France like a sail that pulls the boat ahead into future history and away from extinction. But when it comes down to it, to be a mere Francophone is, as my interlocutors showed with their instantaneous reaction, a second-best to being French.

It would be more normal for France to count itself among Francophone nations, but what would that take? A definitive overcoming of colonial relations between the ex-metropole and the former outposts? A stronger sense among French that their place in the world depends on that of their fellows in Francophonie?

Languages have wobbly borders that don’t usually coincide with states, citizenships, or ethnicities. It is useful– sometimes, even, useful to nations– to have a way of referring to speech communities apart from political jurisdictions. In the case of Francophonie, to mark the difference that follows (perhaps, too, that which preceded) political independence; in the case of Sinophonie, to mark the difference between the big nation that thinks of itself as the One True China and the other nations, areas or diasporic groups that use the Chinese language** while carrying a variety of passports.

Sinophonie? Does anyone say that? Sinophonia? In French, the suffix “-phonie” is what the linguists call productive, that is, it confers meaning on the compounds to which it is attached. I might refer to a Mexican village as “Tlotzilophone,” to distinguish it from the Hispanophone one just to its north. If you never heard of Tlotzil, you’d now know that it was a language, the language spoken throughout Tlotzilophonie. But the power of the suffix to make sense weakens when it’s carried over into English (as it has been probably only a handful of times).

When people talk about “the sinophone”– to back up my last assertion, the suffix seems almost exclusively destined to a career among adjectives– in English, it’s not to exclude Big China, or is it? I’ve heard people speak of “Sinophone literature” in such a way as to exclude what we might call “Chinese and Taiwanese literature,” in other words to reserve the sinophone label for cases where Chinese is used as a minority language. At other times I’ve heard people use “sinophone” in the inclusive sense, meaning all Chinese-speaking areas including the putative Chinas. (Chinese, however you define it, is hardly a minority language in China, though those who know a little more about the place will chip in here to remind us that there are plenty of non-Sinophone citizens of Big China, people who speak languages related to Turkic or Thai or Tibetan, for example, and have putonghua or another topolect of Chinese only as an auxiliary language.)

“Sinophone” operates as a calque on “Francophone,” as the application of the logic of Francophonie to the domain of Chinese extraterritorial speech. But that analogy is sure to hiccup, like all analogies, at certain points. Some, but not all, Francophone regions are populated by descendants of French emigrants, as virtually all of Sinophonia (I think) is populated by descendants of Chinese emigrants. Other regions, the majority in both area and population, are Francophone as a result of conquest or enslavement. That might be true of some areas of China too, but in a far more distant past. And at another level, the persistence of French had to do with the exportation of educational protocols by the Grande Nation herself, something that wasn’t obviously true of the Middle Kingdom in recent decades but now, with the Confucius Institutes, is perhaps taking form.

The relevance of “-phone” comes into view when there is a doubt about the coincidence of nationality and language– that much I’m sure of. But just what the relations of inclusion and exclusion are, and how they came about, and to what degree the different “-phonies” are usefully talked about as a set, are all up in the air for me. What do you say, Shu-mei Shih? Victor Mair? Can I get you on the phone?


* The residual purist in me shudders at the Latin-Greek kludge. In Greek “Frangoi” are Franks, i.e., Western Europeans. “Gallophone” would be the Greek-Greek suture, but no longer recognizable to any French speakers but perhaps Gaullists or Gaulois.
** More accurately, “a Chinese language.” And the mechanism whereby these languages are recognized as Chinese has little to do with speech, phonê, but mostly with the writing system. A poor workman blames his tools.

11/28/12

Administrators and Professors

This piece in Bloomberg is disappointingly short. Money quote:

At universities nationwide, employment of administrators jumped 60 percent from 1993 to 2009, 10 times the growth rate for tenured faculty. “Administrative bloat is clearly contributing to the overall cost of higher education,” says Jay Greene, an education professor at the University of Arkansas. In a 2010 study, Greene found that from 1993 to 2007, spending on administration rose almost twice as fast as funding for research and teaching at 198 leading U.S. universities.

Again, the piece overall is a bit short. Would be nice to see some serious thinking about the causes of this shift (other than the aortic one).

11/28/12

The Historian and the Etymologist: An Experimental Twitter Essay

In the spirit of experimenting with media, I’m going to write an academic essay on Twitter. Because why not? Let’s play a little with form.
I’m not going to write it ahead of time and just post it after-the-fact in 140ish-character chunks: that seems contrary to the spirit of the medium, which is about immediacy and simultaneity of writing/reading and nowness and against significant editing.
I’m not sure how long it will be, but I’ll indicate when it’s done. Ideally, this will be something that will be meaningful if read forwards (from the bottom of the Twitter screen up) and backwards (from the top down). We’ll see how it goes.
The hashtag for this is going to be #etym1
I’m on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/CarlaNappi
Starting…now.

11/27/12

More on MOOCs

Siva Vaidhyanathan on MOOCs, just to keep the discussion going.

If we support the MOOC experiment it would be foolish to do so without confronting the serious incentive problems MOOCs present to teachers, students, and institutions of higher education. These are not reasons to quit MOOCs. They are reasons to take them seriously and strive to maximize the rewards of MOOCs while curbing the perverse incentives.

We should offer MOOCs that aim for many levels of expertise and in many languages. We should not reward universities or faculty based on initial, inflated enrollment. We should question the “O” as in “open” because a flood of trolls is about to show up in MOOC discussions, threatening to ruin everyone’s best efforts. We should ask why universities are not hosting and launching their own homegrown MOOCs when the software is simple and the talent is all in-house. Why engage with private companies that have completely different missions and demands than universities do?

The piece as a whole reminds me of how difficult it is to have a conversation about teaching (or education more generally) that doesn’t immediately suck in all sorts of related problems (technological fundamentalism, corporatization, the adjunct problem, administrative bloat) that make universities today so complicated.

11/27/12

Attention is a resource

This piece at Marginal Revolution draws our attention once again to the ways in which being rich benefits the rich twice–once in terms of a direct access to wealth, and once in terms of how it allows the wealthy to preserve cognitive resources that allow them to make decisions that benefit their long-term self-interest.

Thus, SMS [the researchers] show that poverty (over)-stimulates attention to urgent problems which results in less attention given to important problems–thus, reduce some day to day urgencies and people may become more open to devoting attention to important problems like deworming or hygiene or paying the rent which would in the not-so-long-run result in greater benefits.

Crucially, notice that SMS’s experiments are about the effect of poverty not about the poor. In other words, at least some of our discussion of the poor may suffer from the fundamental attribution error.

That bit about fundamental attribution error seems crucial. And this sort of research, which we have seen more and more of in the last decade, seems to me to offer–via rationality and science–the best non-ethical, non-moral arguments for things like affirmative action that I can imagine being put forward. No idea if they’ll change anyone’s mind but it’s good to know, as always, that social science will help “prove” things that I have known all along were “true.”

11/20/12

Clay Shirky on Higher Education and the MOOCs

Clay Shirky has a long and deeply thought-out post on Massive Open Online Classes (MOOCs) and the future of higher education over at his blog. As this is one of my issue-obsessions right now, it was a personal must-read and I thought I would drop a pointer to it here. His chief point is that the MOOCs, within the context of higher education, serve as the best analogue to the music industry’s MP3s, the newspapers’ Craigslist / Google, or the movie industry’s BitTorrent – the internet’s disruptive agent of choice for this particular industry.

The people in the music industry weren’t stupid, of course. They had access to the same internet the rest of us did. They just couldn’t imagine—and I mean this in the most ordinarily descriptive way possible—could not imagine that the old way of doing things might fail.

I agree with this fundamental point and, more than that, with most of his associated arguments and corollaries. In particular, I appreciated that he does not fall prey to the “same approach to teaching today as 1000 years ago in medieval Europe” trope, and takes the time to address the components of traditional higher education that are not likely to be obsoleted by the internet. All the same, he argues that – just as with MP3s, Craigslist, Wikipedia, and BitTorrent – the new internet substitute for higher education does not have to offer better quality to be highly disruptive. Indeed!

In Shirky’s vision, the chief near-term feature of the higher education landscape will be the breathtakingly rapid expansion and improvement of MOOC offerings from Udacity, Stanford, Harvard/MIT, and others, which will suck the oxygen out of the business model at the “low end” of the market first and proceed up-market from there. As an interesting aside (which I also appreciated), he points out that the true bottom-feeders of higher education are not the lowest-priced institutions but quite the reverse: they are the for-profit conglomerates, which offer much higher cost (debt) per value delivered than any public institution. Moreover, he points out, we are not talking about a product that threatens the business model of the Ivy League or, really, the top 100 schools in a fundamental way. (However, he does see deep trouble ahead for median institutions; as he puts it, “Bridgerland Applied Technology College? Maybe not fine. University of Arkansas at Little Rock? Maybe not fine.”)

At Penn State we are active participants in our own disintermediation these days, with a “World Campus” that happily offers online course credits for money – and good money at that. It has been hard to witness the expansion in these offerings, and the increasing contribution they make to the annual budgets of many Departments (including mine), without mixed feelings. On the one hand, this is a tremendous business success for the institution. On the other hand, we seem to be in the process of online-educating ourselves out of a job. And yet on the third hand – the point of Shirky’s piece, really – what choice do we have? We can either suffer disruption by others or disrupt ourselves.

In the academy, we lecture other people every day about learning from history. Now its our turn, and the risk is that we’ll be the last to know that the world has changed, because we can’t imagine—really cannot imagine—that story we tell ourselves about ourselves could start to fail. Even when it’s true. Especially when it’s true.

Finally, in a last twist of the rhetorical knife, I imagine I’ll be thinking a lot about these issues come January, when I begin teaching our Department’s World Campus version of “Life in the Universe” for the first time. We’ll see how it goes.

 

11/11/12

The disappointments of fiction

If you have time this Sunday please read Walter Kirn’s review of Samson Graham-Muñoz’s new novel, The String Theory Quartet. 

The following quotations are from the novel:

“The weather today was the weather of yesterday and tomorrow it would be the weather again: mummifyingly dry and hot and whipped by cyclones of toxic pink particulates that settled on the brown fields like vile confetti. Buddy Dean was up early, roaming about the house in a pair of patched digital overalls and a pre-diaspora Chicago Cubs cap. ‘Don’t be downhearted,’ came the leader’s voice over the old RCA tube radio. ‘The soil may be dust and the rains a memory, but courage is the crop that never fails.’ Buddy listened, too weak even to nod. Out the window a pair of skinny crows pecked for quarks and bosons in the yard.”

… and from a very different section, stylistically (Kirn compares it to Hemingway):

“He picked up his instrument. He drew the bow. He drew it across the strings. Some sounds came out. The leader was moved. His voice boomed through the envelope. An old voice, like music. But not music. A voice. ‘Keep playing, my boy,’ it commanded. And so he played. While amethyst planets burned coolly in the dusk and children who’d never seen whales or dreamed of unicorns imagined they had. Seen whales. Dreamed unicorns.”

And from an interview with the author:

“When I used to cut hair in my father’s Miami barbershop I learned something true about scissors: they have two blades. One for stretching the strand until it’s taut, the other for lopping it off. Two blades, one purpose. That’s how I write fiction. With my scissors-mind.

Good lord, I wish this guy existed. I spent 5 minutes searching for Graham-Muñoz and The String Theory Quartet on Amazon before realizing that the whole thing is a mirage. Well done, Walter Kirn!

11/11/12

The miracles of human creativity

One of the most amazing things about the digital age’s redistribution of the means of aesthetic production and distribution is that it reveals how much love and ambition remain connected to the work of making. Here you have, for free, a remaking of Star Wars entirely in ASCII. The hours it must have taken to do this are astonishing.

I dream of a world in which copyright, which has become a way for corporations to develop a stranglehold on innovation (and functions, as with Disney, in the manner of primitive accumulation), disappears in the wake of content freely produced for others out of this form of love, and the beauties that attend to it.

For that to happen we must, however, have leisure.