Humanities & Social Thought

The Elevator Pitch (On the Longest Elevator Ride Ever)

Yearn: An Application for the Recovery of Meaning is a browser application (most people would just call this a website, but technically, there is a difference between a browser app, like Facebook, and a website, like a restaurant’s homepage).  The goal of Yearn is twofold, the first is investigative: is it possible to use digital methodologies to enhance (or contain at all) humanist methodologies for answering  questions or solving problems.  Building off social networks that already exist to ask questions, like Yahoo Answers and Quora, I decided that the only way to answer a question that could ever engender something intellectual  would be with an annotated bibliography. But I was interested in public intellectualism, and an intellectual public. I was interested in making a social network that made  the public more intellectual. If every question was answered with an annotated bibliography, that changed the nature of every question. But if every asker was also an answerer (this would be the ideal state, consistent  participation),  the nature of every answer would have to adapt as well, from the traditional annotated bibliography – that academic text – to a public version. I envision questions that range from “why did my boyfriend break up with me” to “why are we here,” and bibliographies that cite everything from Gossip Girl to Kant (as well as other forms of media, including art, graphic novels, radio, TV, film and games).

I began to think about the main algorithms at work in social media.  I quickly came across an initially startling, but ultimately obvious facet to the social network: If LinkedIn connects, Facebook friends, Twitter follows, and OKCupid matches, and Quora asks, then Yearn thinks. But Yearn doesn’t think,  its users do.  In almost every social network, there is an algorithm that is automatic and hidden. The main algorithm in Yearn is not automatic – while it is designed by me insofar as user interaction is guided by me, it is not the same design process as these other social media use, because the very work of connecting various pieces of information to each other is what the user is meant to do: to think. I thought about what it would be like to develop an algorithm that was also exposed, that made observation of the process part of the process. There is a really excellent quote by Albert Camus, that goes:

“An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself. I like this, because I am happy to be both halves, the watcher and the watched.”

Then, I must create interactions that make the interactions explicit. I began this way: When you register for the app, you answer the question “What does it mean to think?” and this is what constitutes the body of your user profile.  Secondly, I create a rating system that uses a rubric which highlights the ability of the bibliography to promote reflection.  Thirdly,  possibly the most difficult, some sort of reflective commentary system – one that enables conversation between users but in such a way that it feeds back into the process coming together to think. Fourthly, inlay some kind of mentoring system,  where users can  demonstrate expertise in particular areas and build relationships with other users whose questions consistently address those areas. Towards making a more intellectual public, we hope that most people will be both teacher and student. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, contextualize the entire thing within a long history of intellectual activity – develop a mythology of the intellectual, and assert the users as the sacred, chosen inheritors of this mythology.

That isn’t to say there is not already a mythology of the intellectual, but this one will belong to the public, it will be one that the public can see themselves as the proper inheritors of, as opposed to how they often see themselves now:  the coldly observed subjects.

Humanities & Social Thought

The Humanist Question

The digital humanities have bred some interesting discussions about what the humanities are. I have to be honest with you, it never occurred to me that this was so controversial. I assumed that the humanities were obviously a way of asking questions that complemented the sciences through difference. That is, the sciences were concerned with factual explanations, and the humanities were concerned with that erstwhile issue of meaning. I said, with no small amount of confusion, but isn’t it obvious? Science can explain to you what gravity is, why it exists and how it works, but only the humanities can tell you what it means. So, obviously, both the sciences and the humanities were valuable because they addressed different aspects of the same thing. Our tendency to focus on STEM came from pleasure of quantifying things – and it is pleasurable, because one of the primary anxieties is not merely whether one is doing something right, but what constitutes “right.” Quantification takes care of all that.  Suddenly, measuring the world is a lot easier. That sounds glib, but the truth is, there are a number of times when quantification is a great method for measurement – one of the primary examples is time itself. But anyway, my only point is that I thought we were all pretty much agreed that this was the case: that the humanities and the sciences were both valuable and difficult for different reasons and we happened to be finding the humanities a little more difficult than the sciences in this current time. Did you think that, too? You may be alarmed to find out that this is not the case.

In reality, there are fundamental questions of methodologies at play right now, because the digital humanities do not ask the kind of questions that the humanities usually ask. I’ve made a slight pun in the title of this post, because it is typical to see in the humanities when referencing a particular body of thought, “The [subject] Question.” In this case, I am referring to the construction of a humanist question in general, but I am also referring to the underlying crisis that comes out of people apparently not agreeing about what that construction is. Many people argue that the digital humanities are the future of the humanities. [1] But some of my favorite humanists, including Kant and Thoreau, could never have existed within the digital humanities. That’s because the digital humanities use computational methods (which must ultimately be quantifying methods) to answer questions about humans, humanist texts, and the arts. A program was used to scan all of Agatha Christie’s books and find out whether or not her vocabulary began to shrink significantly before she showed any other symptoms of Alzheimers (it did); a program was used to scrape the blogosphere for sentences that started with “I feel” and then show those sentences by color according to whatever came after “I feel”; a program was used to digitize all of Thoreau’s work and the commentary by the greatest Thoreau scholars alongside it, so users could read the scholarly commentary alongside Thoreau’s text; a program was used to do high resolution scans of old manuscripts page by page and make them searchable with a controlled vocabulary. Sometimes the digital humanities consist of a humanist doing something and then a computer scientist doing something to whatever the humanist did. This is called interdisciplinary work, and usually the people who use this phrase do not refer to or otherwise acknowledge different disciplines with the humanities working together, which they often do. This is another cause for concern, it seems that the digital humanities have also challenged what a discipline is.

So there is a question here about abstraction. I just want to briefly mention this before I move on to pick apart the question of the question. This process of abstracting disciplines away, of functionality subsuming diversity, is a lot larger than this particular example. Again, there seems to be a certain fetishization of the quantification of experience, and this has led to what appears to me to be a large and dangerous abstraction of content into process, of thinking in steps and technique instead of in ideas and philosophies. I am talking about consumerism, and dating, and communication. I am talking about representation of self, and democracy, and governance. I am talking about religion, and morality, and education. I am talking about everything. Except – possibly – art. I am not going to spend any more time on this right, I just wanted to briefly mention that though this writing is exploring a question about academics, this is not an academic question.

So, if we were going to use an older conception of the humanities in relation to the digital humanities, I would have assumed that we would be talking about the meaning of data [2]. And for what it’s worth, the French are really very good at examining the technical and technological processes critically from a humanist perspective [3]. Or at the very least, we would be talking about a humanist approach to digital native texts (where text refers to the examined body and not only to words). But we are not.

That is not to say that there is no use for what the digital humanities are doing – indeed, many DH projects are fascinating – but what they are doing is not only new, it directly contradicts what the humanities have traditionally done. It contradicts it so much that in fact, there is a division in the literature between the “digital humanities” and the “traditional humanities.” The main way in which this contradiction expresses itself is on the axis of breadth vs depth. The digital humanities take a broad view because they use digital methodologies which are best used in application to large amounts of data. One of the most clever bits of computer functions is recursion. That is, running through a vast amount of data, and applying the same process to every datum and then collating the results. If you have a long list of names in no particular order, you can use recursion to alphabetize them by checking the first letter of every name and even checking the second or third, upon finding that this is not the first name with that first initial. You can check the total vocabulary of a text by using a function which asks each datum “have I seen this word before?” It’s really, truly brilliant and it’s solved innumerable problems for us. Its vastness is its greatest benefit. But you see the catch, I’m sure. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason did not apply the same question to each datum in a large quantity of data, in fact Kant had to be very particular to avoid vastness. Such is the nature of the humanist text: it is particular, it is cautious, and it is interested in talking about the same small thing for a good long while, instead of talking about the similarities or differences or ordering of many little things from many sources in aggregate. Any given digital humanities project is broad, any given humanist text is particular.

I don’t have a particular love of humanist texts, I find them often very obnoxious to read, and even my favorite ones are only really my favorite because I found I was glad I read them, not because I enjoyed the process of reading them. It would be convenient to do away with that tedious process altogether, but I can’t escape the fact that what is lost cannot be gained through the digital humanities, and on a more personal note, that the people I love and admire most on the planet are themselves steeped in the work of tedious reading and careful thought.

If the digital humanities are indeed the future of the humanities, then very soon, there will be no more humanities. Not to sound too conspiratorial, but they may not be the only things to find their death at the feet of the digital. We must be careful.

[1] Here is all the stuff I read for class about it. Brace yourself:

Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp. Digital_Humanities. The MIT Press, 2012. Sections 1 and 2, pg. 1-72

Johanna Drucker, “Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship,” in Matthew Gold, ed., Debates in the Digital Humanities(Minnesota, 2012).

N. Katherine Hayles. “Chap 2: The Digital Humanities: Engaging the Issues” in How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. University of Chicago Press. (available through NYU ebarary)

Matthew G. Kirschenbaum. “What Is Digital humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?ADE Bulletin, 150. 2010.

Stephen Ramsay, Geoffrey Rockwell, “Developing Things: Notes toward an Epistemology of Building in the Digital Humanities,” in Matthew Gold, ed., Debates in the Digital Humanities (Minnesota, 2012).

Stanley Fish, “The Digital Humanities and the Transcending of MortalityThe New York Times. 9 Jan 2012

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, “The Humanities, Done DigitallyChronicle of Higher Education. 8 May 2011

[2] Humanist perspectives of data (also yanked from class readings):

Trevor Owens. “Defining Data for Humanists: Text, Artifact, Information or Evidence?Journal of Digital Humanities, March 16, 2012.

Christof Schöch. “Big? Smart? Clean? Messy? Data in the Humanities.” Journal of Digital Humanities, November 22, 2013.

[3] French musings on technology, and technique:

Baudrillard, Jean. “The ecstasy of communication.” 1983.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Vol. 16. Cambridge university press, 1977.

Ellul, Jacques, and Robert King Merton. The Technological Society. New York: Vintage books, 1964.
Lefebvre, Henri, and Christine Levich. “The everyday and everydayness.” Yale French Studies (1987): 7-


Public Librarianship

Kids From the Projects

Hello, world!
On November 16th, I joined the Brooklyn Public Library system as an adult services librarian. I have been on the desk for two weeks now, and there is already so much to think about. I’m going to start by addressing a question I think a lot of people in my demographic wonder about: what are kids from the projects really like? The branch I work at is directly across the street from the housing projects, and so our main population of patrons is in fact kids who come here after school, because their parents are at work and it’s free to hang out here.

If you’re like me, you have long suspected that there’s something fishy about the pedagogy, and the social theory. They consistently fail to keep it real, because they tend to represent a middle class white perspective, and on occasion, I have had direct experience with their racism. And I’ve known bright, inspired people who have dropped out of their teaching certifications and degrees because of this culture. This is a sweeping judgment; obviously, this cannot possibly be true of every member of the field. But it dominates the literature, and if we’re being honest with ourselves, we have to admit that the whole framework inside which “the literature” lives is disconnected from the street on which this people it talks about live. And then we have the popular media, which tends to present the projects in two ways: 1) oppressors of the middle class and 2) victims of police brutality.

So that leaves people like myself, who have no real access to the projects, relying on what are obviously incomplete and often biased sources. What’s it like to wake up in public housing? To get ready for work or school? To come home and make dinner? To discipline your kids? To attend parent teacher conferences (or not)? To celebrate Thanksgiving? Do they text? Do they have smart phones? Do they all hang out with each other or is it like my apartment complex, where we might know each other’s names, but never really interact? Are they really violent all the time? Is the “broken windows theory,” which states that low level crime, like graffiti,  is an indicator of more serious crime to come, true? Are these kids getting ready to become criminals?

Well, if you haven’t guessed already, the answer is definitely nope, not even a little bit.

Here are some things that are true about kids from the projects:
– They have earlier access to “adult concepts” like sex and profanity. It is not uncommon to catch groups of grade school boys looking at porn on a library computer.  While they are younger than the demographic of middle class white dudes who do this, they are certainly not alone in their interest in looking at porn on public computers. However, it is evident that they have a pretty decent understanding of how hookup culture works, and how and when adults swear. While I have seen kids swear before, I’ve never really seen them swear like someone who knows how to swear. But these kids do. And when they want to act out, they’ll hide behind shelves and make sex noises.
– Like their more well-to-do counterparts, they represent a wide range of intellect and interests. Most of them love computer games. Some of them like to color dinosaurs. Some of them like to collect books that have been left around, and pretend to be library employees. Some of them really do just want to do their homework. All of them want to be here because their friends are here.
– They all want library cards, and they all lose them with great frequency. I spend a lot of time on the desk helping kids get replacement library cards. We give them these little library card holders that they’re really into. It doesn’t help them keep track of their cards though. They appear to simply have a different understanding of these cards, one that is more transient. For them, their identity as library patrons is only tied very loosely to a “library card.” My limited experience suggests they treat a lot of other IDs the same way. They’ll produce long-expired ID, or random IDs with no official affiliation, sometimes old tickets or school documents they have lying around, to prove identity. This is not surprising – I doubt they have much motivation to maintain a strong connection with their public or state identity representation.
– And I doubt this because despite the fact that these kids are not really very different in potential from any other group of kids I have ever met, they suffer from an obvious lack of attention. The kids here are regulars, I can tell you which ones are “precocious” (one quick way to tell you’re talking to someone who doesn’t know how to keep it real is that he or she uses the word “precocious” to describe a kid) and which ones would be future DMV employees. I can tell you which ones are afraid of their parents, and which ones never see their parents. The vast majority of them respond very well to one on one attention, even to small group attention.  The analogy that comes to mind is morning glories, they open up. Some of them roll their eyes, some of them are hostile – but even in those cases, it is perfectly obvious (I mean entirely uncontroversial to anyone who sees it) that their hostility arises from the a lack of familiarity, that given enough time and sustained attention, these kids would come around. I don’t have access to the reasoning for this lack of attention – maybe their parents work long hours, maybe their teachers have huge classes, maybe it’s racism.  I don’t know, and I’m not attempting to pass judgment here, I’m just telling you what I see: these kids are jonesing for some love.
– As a direct result, the security guards often play the dual role of disciplinarian and parent. And they know it. Our usual security guard is out on a vacation. It is notable that the kids have asked for him. But it has given me a chance to talk to the assortment of substitute security guards, who work full time going from branch to branch. One of them goes as far as to take off her uniform shirt (and use her “civilian” shirt) when she wants to have a “sisterly” conversation, instead of a disciplinary one. She tells me she has seven younger siblings, and she knows what to say to kids to get them to do the right thing.

What makes kids from the projects “at risk,” if you’re going by the ones who show up at the library every day, is not at all inherent to them – they are largely the same as their white, middle class counterparts. It is evident from watching this group of kids every day for the last two weeks that what puts them at risk is a lack of infrastructure.

Dear Diary


Often, I feel as though I should wait until something substantial has happened to blog. But of course, life is essentially the perpetual wait for substance, and it seems to me that when we finally arrive at the moments we have obsessed over, we find in them only clues and other moments to wait for. And so it goes, until one day there are no moments left, and it’s too late to write blog posts. I don’t advocate for living in the moment, because, in the first place, it’s crap – if you have a final paper due, you can’t live in the moment, you have to plan that shit. If you have to pay rent, you can’t live in the moment, you have to budget for that shit. If your child needs, like, the basic stuff of life, you can’t live in the moment, you have to parent that shit.  But also because the moment has no meaning, except in relation to other moments. Living in just the one will really fuck you in the long term.

So here I am, precipitously writing this first post – because postcipitously is altogether too uncertain of a state. I arrived in New York City just about three months ago, not without a plan. You see, I am a grad student. It’s an excellent plan, it goes like this: do a lot of work, pay way more than you could possibly have for the privilege of doing said work, and pray to the powers that be that by the time you’re done with it all, you’ll have a new plan all ready to go. I am knowledgeable about grad school, because I’ve done it before. I went to library school and got my master’s. What’s that? You didn’t know you needed a master’s degree to be a librarian? Fuck you.  Anyway. So then I was a librarian for a few years at a law school, which is just about everyone’s dream job, in terms of the cush factor.  I had my own office and a lot of time. So I wrote a novel. And when my novel was done, I realized that I was desperately lonely and yearned to contribute to something larger than my Microsoft Word Document. Research librarians often need a second master’s degree in a subject area. You may have heard the phrase “subject librarian.” (What’s that? You didn’t know you needed two master’s degrees to be a subject librarian? Fuck you.) Since my professors in library school assured me I was too snobby to be a public librarian, I went back to school, specifically, to NYU. Why NYU, one of the most expensive schools in the country, you ask? The answer, my friends, is that if you get a degree in the humanities, you need some name brand recognition. I mean – I guess some people have parents or lovers with that kind of juice, but me – all I got are the wits the good lord gave me.

Where was I? Right. I moved to New York City, with my cat – I advise against taking cats on planes, by the way. I was coming from Chicago, which is a short flight, but the airport was very nearly a disaster of epic proportions. The highlight was when the TSA agent insisted I simply put my cat down on the floor while she swabbed my hands. Because, you know, my cat is so likely to just wait for me nicely. Which isn’t even to get into why my cat wasn’t in the pet carrier in the first place. But anyway. I moved with my current roommate (who I will call V) from Chicago to NYC, and we arranged for an apartment with an old college friend of mine (who I will call E), in Bushwick. Bushwick is a neighborhood in Brooklyn that is currently famous for its rapid gentrification by wifebeater, hot pink sunglasses wearing dudes with massive beards and a love of pizza. I’m not going to use the “h” word, but you know what I mean. The real estate agent informed me that we were the first of several apartments he was renting to “nice young people” like us.  I say trendsetter, you say gentrification magnet…let’s call the whole thing off. Where was I? Right. I moved to New York City, to go to NYU, and pray for a new and brilliant plan to emerge. I must have prayed extra effectively because the new plan came earlier than expected, in the form of a job offer from the Brooklyn Public Library.

So there I was with two very time intensive plans: finals (which in the land of the humanities, is papers papers papers), and a full time job as a public librarian. And I was like fuck it, I’m in the city of superheroes now, let’s DO IT.  I had E do a tarot reading for me, and it seems that I have love and money in my near future (we won’t even talk about the reversals, okay?), so I’m confident everything will work out. E is a pro tarot reader, and an actress. V’s a project manager and a filmmaker. I am maybe the only twenty-something (okay, twenty-nine, let’s not talk about it) in NYC that was like “creative pursuit? meh.”

TBD: Am I too snobby to be a public librarian? Is there LOVE AND MONEY in my near future? Will I fail out of grad school? Can I successfully bring back the Carrie Bradshaw thing? (All I’m saying is that if Sarah Jessica Parker can do it, why can’t I? I mean, we’re both eccentric Jewish ladies with a knack for terrible puns, we’re both in NYC, and we’re both a lot less hip than we want to think we are.  But SJP was starring in Sex and the City before the age of the blog, of the personal brand, of the user experience. And what could be sexier than false choices and bullshit?)

Um. Stay tuned.