Humanities & Social Thought

The Design of Yearn

YEARN: An Application for the Recovery of Meaning

A social network that builds relationships around critical thought and reflection.

High Concept, Low Threshold

Yearn is designed to probe two important boundaries in what I have termed “participatory thought.” The first boundary is the line between the “traditional” humanities and the digital humanities. Yearn does offer a critique of the digital humanities for their lack of definition and most importantly, their frequent lack of depth. However, it rests its critique on the premise that there is nothing inherent to digital spaces that prevents humanist work – rather, the larger framework of cultural approach is responsible for the false dichotomy which asserts that the digital is to breadth as the analog is to depth, and therefore, that breadth at the expense of depth is inherent to the digital humanities. Yearn is attempting to recover a digital space for meaning, which is arguably the main product of the humanities. I use the word “recover,” as opposed to “invent,” because Yearn follows in the footsteps of digital spaces that came before it, and borrows ideas from digital spaces that currently exist.

The second boundary is between intuitive thought, often associated with user experience, and participatory thought, often associated with democracy. “Participatory thought” is not necessarily intellectual, although intellectual work is necessarily participatory. In this context, participate means “to engage in meaningful decision making,” where meaningful is meant to distinguish between decisions that substantially affect oneself or others and more trivial decisions, like what color of pants to buy. Voting involves meaningful decision making, it is the obvious example. However, this paper will assert that meaningful decision making happens on smaller scales constantly. There are two important points to keep in mind about the user/participant divide – the first is that it is applicable to the public at large and not just any one demographic, and the second is that the divide pits worldviews against each other, and not discrete decisions or events. The user and the participant are essentially contradicting conceptions of self.

Finally, we cannot move forward without acknowledging that nothing about Yearn is a critique of breadth in and of itself. There is merit in projects that take a broad view, if only to remind us that connections exist at broad levels. And while most digital humanities theory is embroiled in discussions of definition, some projects have admirably represented the humanities – particularly those that take a humanist approach to data[1] and those which seek to examine digital processes humanistically.[2] All of which is to say, Yearn is a critique of an extremist trend within a field that has much potential value.

Predecessors and Contemporaries

Yearn is heavily informed by a number of other digital and physical spaces. Among the digital spaces, question answering services like Quora and Yahoo Questions represent a significant contingent, as well as more foundational frameworks found in many digital spaces – like the “log in,” and the “user profile.” It also takes some ideas from “casual gaming,” in that various features can be “unlocked,” after certain actions are completed or levels are reached, and from familiar tropes about resistance (I had to resist using “the force” as a metaphor). In addition, it is influenced by the oldest social forum on the internet, The Well, which boasts membership by some of the great thinkers about digital community, including Stuart Brand and Mike Godwin of Godwin’s Law. I will spend some time in this section talking about the various ideas that were stolen borrowed and to what end they were used in Yearn.

Yearn’s main mechanic is the question. This is both an easy way to invoke the process of thinking and also a cute pun – humanists often refer to a body of thought as “The X Question,” where X is the subject. I don’t think that “The Question Question” is a particularly good name for a web app, but The Question Question is at the heart of Yearn – what does it mean to the participant to ask and answer a question? Quora[3] and Yahoo Answers[4] work similarly in that one user asks a question, e.g. “How many licks does it take to get to the center of a tootsie pop?” and other users give direct answers, e.g. “the world may never know.” Yearn, however, is designed to take a more humanist view of the question, and so instead of answering the question with a direct answer, the users respond with annotated bibliographies. The underlying concept is that a question does not necessarily have a direct answer, and an answer that is derived through reflection will be more comprehensive, if more complex.

During the process of designing Yearn, one of the challenges that came up was community building. Other social media platforms – like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Tumblr – reward users for base line interaction: friending, following, and connecting, by providing more complex social interactions and using hidden algorithms to increase the percentage of content users see from each other based on their interactions with each other. Yearn doesn’t have any of that, and in drawing from Camus’ definition of intellectual, its main functions could not be hidden to begin with. Camus defined an intellectual as “someone whose mind watches itself.”[5]

From a purely pragmatic point of view – that of feature design, I had to consider other approaches to building relationships between users. I ended up borrowing some features from casual games, such as games for the smartphone and for Facebook. The process of adding game features to an app that is not a game is called gamification. The first thing I did was invoke the idea of “character class.” In a game, a user might be an elf or a goblin or a dragon or a human – or in the case of, say, an online game of Risk – might represent a demographic. In Yearn, users choose to represent themselves as descendants of particular thinkers, each of whom represents a particular discipline. Each user can choose one thinker/discipline to begin with, and may “unlock” any other by asking at least three questions to the same descendant of the other discipline — essentially, finding a mentor. Users answer questions asked to descendants of the thinker they chose, and may answer for new disciplines as they unlock them. In addition to this form of leveling, there is a leveling of user-to-user social relationship, wherein asking the same user questions unlocks the ability to see their contact info off site. Ideally, each user will both be mentor to some and student to some. I found after I had built this model that I lacked a sufficient reward for the role of the mentor – who wants, of course, to know how his or her student feels after consuming media from the annotated bibliography that constituted the answer. This feature, called “Synthesize,” is optional — it allows the querent to respond to the answer with her thoughts about how she is now thinking about her own question. This is a little more intimate, and is really designed so that the querent may choose whom he or she wants to move forward with. It is in the mode of a “reply.” While users must be logged in to see content, all questions and all answers are viewable to all users. Names are not public though, each user has a username, and his or her contact information is only available to designated “philoi.” [6]

The decision to go all-access with the content was complemented by the decision to implement an invite-only system, so that all registered users must have been invited by other users, and

the number of invitations each user has to give out is based on how active she is on the site.

Lastly, I drew on The Well, and older senses of the digital community to create an implicit movement within that lost narrative. Another thing Yearn attempts to recover is an older conception of what it meant to connect with other people online. To do this, I created a particular overarching narrative about joining the resistance, and I cited historical figures of import as having fought for our right to participatory thinking. I present the users as the inheritors of this legacy, and I assert that their mission – should they choose to accept it – is to take up this legacy and transform from mere users into true participants. This way of thinking was pervasive in the sixties in digital political culture, and that mentality was represented on The Well.

Finally, I developed a syntax for Yearn that was unique unto it, in the same way that Facebook has “friend,” “poke,” and “timeline,” or Twitter has “tweet.” These words include “Resist” (register), “think” (log in), and “philoi” (friend/connection). By creating this syntax, I hope to help create a somewhat closed context – the beginning of a way of communicating that might be specific to the Yearn community.

In the next section, I will discuss the intellectual underpinnings of Yearn, and the sources that contributed to them.

Critical Basis

As mentioned in the introduction, Yearn exists primarily to explore the relationship between the analog and the digital humanities, as well as the tension between digital cultural cornerstone of user experience and the humanist cornerstone of participatory thought. Several works have informed my design of Yearn, beginning with discussions about what the digital humanities are, but also including theorists and and classic intellectual works.

Matthew Kirschenbaum, at the University of Maryland, suggests that the digital humanities are about understanding how the humanities disciplines affect computing and conversely, how computing affects humanities disciplines.[7] The definition Kirschenbaum provides specifically mentions an interdisciplinary approach, referring to what one assumes must be computer science and the humanities. This definition is confusing for a couple of reasons: in the first place, while it may be interesting to understand how the humanities and computing intersect, this is not an accurate representation of the humanities, nor is it even a good representation of current explicitly self-identified digital humanities projects. In the second place, the humanities – which constitute several different disciplines – have been interdisciplinary long before computing was affecting them. But perhaps most astonishing of all is his apparent use of the percentage of humanities scholars using twitter as an example of evidence that the digital humanities are important. In describing Twitter, he mentions that the 140 character limit “has less to do with attention spans than Twitter’s origins in the messaging protocols of mobile devices,” which immediately prompts the reader to wonder why the founders of Twitter made this decision. We understand that Twitter is a for-profit company, and so we must ask what monetary gain there is in the 140 character limit imposed by cell phones, and the answer could very well be that the mobile is affecting our attention spans. That is not to say that it certainly is, but how strange for a humanist to suggest that the 140 character limit has its origins in process free from human politics. Kirschenbaum concludes by asking who wouldn’t want the 24-7 digital life online in one’s English department? Yearn is the response to that question, it poses this answer: The person who would not want the 24-7 digital life online is the person who prioritizes certain values over ubiquity, and speed, and those values might include depth and caution. Above all else, Kirschenbaum’s definition of the digital humanities is not cautious enough, given the course the humanities are going – which is rather unlike a humanist.

Indeed, the intellectual basis for Yearn began largely with Johanna Drucker’s discussion, where she asks one of Yearn’s essential questions, “Have the humanities had any impact on the digital environment? Can we create graphical interfaces and digital platforms from humanistic methods?” This is an essential question in the digital humanities, indeed it may be that the future of the humanities lies in the answer. She answers her own question this way: “The challenge is to shift humanistic study from attention to the effects of technology (from readings of social media, games, narrative, personae, digital texts, images, environments), to a humanistically informed theory of the making of technology (a humanistic computing at the level of design, modeling of information architecture, data types, interface, and protocols).”[8] Drucker’s point is unique and strong, within the various discussions of the digital humanities, insofar as it cannot be stated strongly enough there is a lot to say about the meaning of the choices that are made in the processes of creating digital technologies, and that humanists are absolutely the ones to do it. This is precisely the issue that Kirschenbaum failed to address when he spoke of Twitter. However, the project I ended up developing – that became Yearn –diverged from Drucker because her initial discussion of the ways the digital affected humanities work assumed the direct translation of the analog to digital. She only briefly gets into whether distance reading and other methods of quantitative evaluation of text can be useful to the humanities before she gets into the question of how the humanities might affect the digital. Since her article, digital humanities have emerged – if nothing else – as obviously making use of digital methods for evaluating text. Yearn is interested in seeing whether there can be a digital space for humanist methods of evaluating text. Drucker essentially suggests that this is occurring with library databases and Microsoft Word already – and so Yearn expands this to ask whether it can be done in the social-digital space, which all digital space may soon be.

Both Trevor Owens, at the Library of Congress, and Christof Schöch, at the University of Würzburg in Germany, talk about the humanist approach to data. Owens and Schöch agree with Drucker that humanities scholars can focus on more than simply the effects of technology, they can focus on the design and implementation of technology, they can use humanist methodologies to analyze digital methods. But they inform Yearn in a different way than Drucker does – Yearn takes from the discussion of the humanist approach to data the obvious fact that that which is produce on Yearn is both text and data, that being a space for humanist methodologies does not make it less susceptible to anything that data is susceptible to. For that reason, Yearn has an invite-only model but complete internal transparency for all participants.

Ultimately, then, Yearn is informed by the insufficiency of the definitions of the digital humanities to date. Either they do not account for the humanities well enough, as in the case of Kirschenbaum, or they do not account enough for the digital, as in the case of Drucker. Rather, Yearn is also informed by theorists and authors including Manuel Castells, Albert Camus, Thomas Jefferson and Aristotle.

Castells writes – movingly – “The project informing this book swims against streams of destruction, and takes exception to various forms of intellectual nihilism, social skepticism, and political cynicism. I believe in rationality, and in the possibility of calling upon reason, without worshipping its goddess. I believe in the chances of meaningful social action, and transformative politics, without necessarily drifting toward the deadly rapids of absolute utopias. I believe in the liberating power of identity, without accepting the necessity of either its individualization or its capture by fundamentalism. And I propose the hypothesis that all major trends of change constituting our new, confusing world are related, and that we can make sense of their interrelationship. And, yes, I believe, in spite of a long tradition of sometimes tragic intellectual errors, that observing, analyzing, and theorizing are a way of helping to build a different, better world. Not by providing the answers – that will be specific to each society and found by social actors themselves – but by raising some relevant questions.”[9]

Here Castells discusses what Yearn is most interested in: the way The Question of the Question relates to participation, and – as Castells so beautifully says, a “different, better world.” The boundaries between user and participant, and digital and analog humanities are areas of interrelation that Yearn explores as well.

Thomas Jefferson also defended participation when he wrote, “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man,” in a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush in 1800.[10]   Jefferson consistently argued for the education of the common

people that they might be better members of a democracy, and Jefferson informed the decision to make Yearn a platform for the public, as opposed to housing it within an academic context,

as the digital humanities traditionally are.

When I began looking up definitions of intellectual, Camus’ appealed to me the most: “An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself.” Since reflection was a core part of what I wanted Yearn to encourage in its participants, and because I wanted specifically to use a definition that wasn’t limited to academia – that is, that could be applied to the public intellectual and to an intellectual public – I adopted this view in my construction of Yearn, and attempted to infuse this watching of ones’ own mind into all of Yearn’s features, and all of its language. By adding text to the buttons that were action oriented like “RESIST,” and “THINK,” and by creating explicit functions which force both the user and the querent to approach the question in an intellectual manner, I attempted to bring about the intentionality Camus references. Lastly, I borrowed Aristotle’s concept of “Philoi,” which he explicitly defines as two people who are both aware that they love each other in a non-romantic way. In other places Aristotle uses philia to describe all kinds of non-romantic love, in fact the only thing that is absolutely sure about it is that it isn’t romantic. Philoi, as opposed to philia, also definitely involves both parties being aware of the love. However, in Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle uses a definition I am particularly fond of, in which he discusses philia as being a friendship that has matured into the kind of closeness where each wants the best for the other for the other’s sake, where the each friend’s happiness contributes to the other’s. This is why I used the word “philoi” instead of friend – and instead of adding a friending mechanism, I created a buildup of actions between participants that will result in their gaining the status of philoi.

Despite the amount of reading that went into creating the design of Yearn, some ideas did emerge I simply didn’t have time to incorporate, and there were some ideas I had after the fact. I talk about what a Yearn 2.0 might look in the next section.

Future Considerations

It wasn’t until after I finished putting the new layout together that it occurred to me that I should switch all mentions of the word “user” to “participant.” I did remember to remove the “user” from “username,” but the function that allows users (or participants, as it could be) to search for each other, and the examples all have “user” in them.
In many ways, Yearn sympathizes with Jean Baudrillard’s “Ecstasy of Communication,”[11] but Yearn often uses “digital” to refer to what Baudrillard calls communication, and this might be painting to broad a stroke. It may be useful in future iterations of this app to take into account more explicitly the process by which people have substituted content with what Baudrillard calls “signs.” Certainly the annotated bibliography is meant to do reverse that process, but it is not stated explicitly that this reversal is occurring, and to follow Camus’ conception of the intellectual, it must be.

The introduction text has gone through a lot of iterations but it is still not done. In the very first iteration, which predates this project as it began as an essay, the role of technology was analogized to the role of Pagan Gods, and human relationships with each. This critique of faith- based worship moved from religious zeal to capitalist zeal but it never fully matured into the approachable critique of the anti-democratic nature of American culture’s current relationship with technology that I was hoping to develop. In part, this was because I did not have the time to really distinguish “technology” from “approach to technology,” which would have been necessary, and in part, this is because is truly also a larger discussion of the problems of neoliberalism and its disdain of the community member in favor of individualism, flexibility and mobility. There are some areas of this critique that are academic, or at the very least, not easily accessible.

Lastly, this web app has little to no marketable scaffolding, and yet, the essential idea can be seen as fun – learn about anything you want, from casual or domestic things to hobbies to big existential questions; join a community of curious, energetic and thoughtful people; remember the advantageous bits of slowness, often referred to in phrases like “slow food” and “slow travel,” one might call this “slow consideration.”


Yearn: An Application for the Recovery of Meaning is a social media platform designed to connect participants around reflection and thought, but it is also a platform designed to help users connect with each other socially in a unique way that ultimately moves outside of Yearn. Thus one of the goals of Yearn is not only to challenge its participants to be active on the webapp, but also to be better participants in the world. This is more important, in many ways, than all the critiques and challenges Yearn presents of the digital humanities and of the user experience. Essentially, Yearn’s thesis, if it were to write a paper of its own accord, might be that it is possible to be thoughtful about anything it is possible to be thoughtless about, and it is possible to think in depth about something while not dismissing the value of the broad view. In this case, the digital humanities are just one example of what could potentially be occurring at any time, in any situation.

But equally importantly, Yearn is about public intellectualism, not about anti-intellectualism. It therefore emphasizes evidenced based thinking as a path forward, while suggesting simultaneously that this is a way to feel less lonely in a neoliberal society: by seeing the evidence of one’s argument as having been written or created by one’s community, to see oneself as the continuation of a narrative of many people, to find freedom in place, instead of in motion.

It has always been the job of the humanities to deal with what something means, and Yearn is designed to remind us of the value of meaning, indeed: to recover it.



[1] See for example: Trevor Owens. “Defining Data for Humanists: Text, Artifact, Information or Evidence?” Journal of Digital Humanities, March 16, 2012 and Christof Schöch. “Big? Smart? Clean? Messy? Data in the Humanities.” Journal of Digital Humanities, November 22, 2013. I go into more detail about this in the “Critical Basis” section of this essay.

[2] See for example: Wardrip-Fruin, Noah. “Essay on the Digital Humanities’ Data Problem | Inside Higher Ed.” Essay on the Digital Humanities’ Data Problem. March 20, 2012 and Johanna Drucker, “Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship,” in Matthew Gold, ed., Debates in the Digital Humanities(Minnesota, 2012). See “Critical Basis” section of this essay.

[3] “Quora – The Best Answer to Any Question.”

[4] Yahoo! Answers.

[5] Camus, Albert. Notebooks, 1942-1951. Vol. 394. Knopf, 1965.Albert Camus, Notebooks (1942-1951).

[6] See “Critical Basis” section for explanation of term.

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

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

[9] Manuel Castells. “Prologue” in The Rise of the Network Society. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

[10] Rowe, C. J., and Sarah Broadie. Nicomachean ethics. Oxford University Press, 2002.

[11] Baudrillard, Jean, and Jean-Louis Violeau. “The ecstasy of communication.” (2012).


Humanities & Social Thought

Graffiti and Moral Geographies in New York City

Public space in the city is most frequently perceived by the public literally: a physical space where various logistical processes, mostly involving moving from one place to another, take place.  A sociological conception of space asks how spaces are constructed – or “produced” – socially.  Such a view of public space looks at the social dynamics[1] at work to understand what the public space is.[2] A theory originally proposed by John Locke asserts two arguments. The first is that public space should be composed of individually owned, private property that is shared through the competition of a fair and free market – that is, that which is “public” is shared via exchange value – an individual offers up X which is produced by him and gets an equal value of Y in return. Locke’s first argument hinges on the idea that the labor of the individual is tied to the land he owns.  His second argument, which follows the logic of the first, is that an individual who is not productive does not have the right to land.[3] This is one way in which certain demographics become marginalized, and the public can normalize certain definitions of productive specifically in order to marginalize certain populations in the city. Locke’s market driven discussion of value is also a model for seeing public space.  A full discussion of the ways in which the social construct of public space produces norms, and thus which demographics are marginalized, is beyond the scope of what can be addressed here. There are simply too many kinds of public spaces, and too many things that happen in them. Instead, I will take the specific example of public space in New York City from the 1960’s through the 1990’s, and the particular dynamics that graffiti create to model the ways in which the social order of public space can be disrupted and resisted.  This paper will show that graffiti resists the order of public space in its nascent stages, and is ultimately subsumed by capitalist interests or subdued by the state. Despite the relatively linear progression of the dynamics that produce graffiti and that graffiti produces, it is worth noting that in New York City, all of these stages are happening simultaneously, as new graffiti is appearing constantly.
In the late 1960’s, New York City’s mayor, John Lindsay, and his administration were facing a string of unlikely and unlucky events – there was a sanitation strike, a public school shut down, a transit strike and a big Winter storm that combined to make movement in the city very difficult. Many of the tensions that led to these outbursts were inherited, but nonetheless the administration was put on the defensive – it needed to show that it could competently run the city. It was during this time that the rhetoric in support of civility as a sustainer of city life began to emerge in New York City.[4]  During the same time, TAKI 183 was working as a delivery boy and scrawling his name all over the city. He lived on 183rd street, and Taki was his nickname. His job allowed him to get his name up, or to “get up” as Graffiti writers are apt to say, all over the city. The ubiquitous presence of “TAKI 183” ultimately culminated in a feature article by the New York Times. By 1971, graffiti had left the confines of the ghetto and began to appear in high profile locations. In 1972, Sanford D. Garelik, city council president, said, “‘graffiti pollutes the eye and mind and might be one of the worst forms of pollution we have to combat.”[5]
In fact, there were two kinds of graffiti being produced, though they could overlap. The first, which most people already knew, were gang markers to identify territory. Given its purpose, this type of graffiti never strayed from gang territory. The second form of graffiti, as I will show shortly, actually emerged in resistance to the first, and specifically moved outside of gang territory in order to identify its new purpose: to resist invisibility, and to reveal marginalization.
But for many New Yorkers, this distinction was not apparent. Graffiti had become a symbol of the failure of New York City to sustain social order on its streets. A report from the Bureau of the Budget of the City of New York encouraged the city to carry out psychological experiments on graffiti writers to determine their motivations.[6] Taki himself is quoted as asking, “Why they go after the little guy? Why not the campaign organizations that put stickers all over the subways at election time?”[7] A psychologist, Robert W. Stock, referred to graffiti as “symbolic assault” in a New York Times article.[8] In addition, Nixon was rolling back programs that kept youth off the street, and while the city tried to pick up the slack where the federal government withdrew, it largely failed in this endeavor.[9] This goes some way to exposing the implicit relationship New York City saw between poor Latino and black youth and graffiti, and the way the association with those populations informed its understanding of graffiti as anti-civility.  But Nathan Glazer might have been the first to coherently express these views in 1979 when he wrote in the The Public Interest, “I have not interviewed subway riders; but I am one myself, and while I do not find myself consciously making the connection between graffiti-makers and the criminals who occasionally rob, rape, assault and murder passengers, the sense that all are part of one world of uncontrollable predators seems inescapable. Even if the graffitists are the least dangerous of these, their ever-present markings serve to persuade the passenger that, indeed the subway is a dangerous place – a mode of transportation to be used on when one has no alternative.”[10]   The rhetoric around the quality of life paradigm confused the clear right to safety with the right to exclude, marginalize or actually remove whole populations that were believed to potentially create disorder. As Alex S. Vitale notes, “quality of life created a stark division between residents’ reasonable desires to be free of fear and harassment and their belief that the way to achieve this is by systematically removing anyone perceived to be a potential source of these problems.”[11]
In 1982, the increasing bias towards young Latino and black youth found formal representation in the “Broken Windows Theory,” written by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. This theory confused correlation with causation, suggesting that low-level crimes and misdemeanors were responsible for neighborhood decline, and that as the neighborhood declined, more serious crime and violence would follow. As Kelling and Wilson framed it, if when a window is smashed, it is repaired immediately, then that means that there are codes of moral behavior being enforced that essentially do not allow for the sort of social deviance that vandalism entails. However, if it is not fixed, it is only a matter of time before all of the windows are smashed, and the building is vandalized with graffiti art, because there were no effective moral codes enforcing civility. This influenced a lot of policy in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and the City government began to see the marginalized and the poor as the cause of marginalization and poverty.[12]
In 2000, David Matless wrote an essay on moral geographies in which he notes, “moral codes are revealed when their limits are transgressed.”[13] He discusses the idea of moral geographies, which refer to the moral codes that produce particular spaces – different spaces can have different moral codes, and these are moral geographies. Moral codes are socially constructed, and therefore moral geographies are a reflection of social norms surrounding behaviors in different places. These moral geographies delineate, by way of these norms, who is included and who is excluded, by marking certain behaviors more associated with particular populations outside of social norm. When those populations resist against this form of social policing, the norms are suddenly revealed explicitly. Until that moment, the very existence of the norms may not be in the public consciousness.[14] Moral geographies can cause stark divides not only between demographics, but also between logics. In fact, TAKI 183 and his friends were not aspiring criminals, and what they were trying to resist was a particular kind of social order that was largely invisible to city government officials and citizens like Glazer, who, through their own interaction with moral geographies, did not have access to either the desires and values of underrepresented youth, or the social norms that created the moral geographies in gang territories.
It turns out that the graffiti writers were reacting to the limitations imposed on them by gang territories. They used their tagging as a way of avoiding the power dynamics of gangs, because the nature of tagging is that a writer has to “get up” as many places as he can, he must be territory-less. Graffiti writing was a respected art and a justification for not joining a gang, which also enabled graffiti writers to avoid drug addiction. [15] The second motivation for graffiti writers in the seventies and the eighties was recognition, as Themis Chronopolous put it, “to escape invisibility.”[16] The rising rhetoric around subduing graffiti artists and getting tough on small crime served only to show that it was working.  City officials highlighted hip-hop culture, which largely existed in Latino and black youth populations in the projects, as responsible for the decline of New York City, and the graffiti problem in the subway. But graffiti was the most obvious aspect of hip hop culture, and most offensive, because of its aggressive overtaking of public space. Astonishingly, the graffiti writers were well aware of the political significance of their work and in response to hostility from smaller gangs in Manhattan and Brooklyn, they formed their own gang called “The Ex-Vandals,” which eschewed violence and relied instead on safety in numbers. Graffiti writers were as concerned with their own citizenship, and what it meant to be a community member as their detractors were, and this awareness guided graffiti writing in New York City towards political action.
To be clear, gang graffiti never stopped existing, and quite often did symbolize a lack of safety, especially in the territories of smaller gangs, who attacked not only rival gang members but also simply individuals they came across in their territory.[17] But for the Ex-Vandals, there was certainly a political consciousness, and soon there was a publication to represent that consciousness- The International Graffiti Times, also called The International Get Hip Times (or TIGHT).[18]  Based out of New York, this publication included discussions of issues such as apartheid, and included rap lyrics and interview with graffiti artists. It also expressed disdain for local government.  Another surprising element in the graffiti culture in the seventies and eighties was the explicit mentorship. Graffiti artists would draw the outlines of their work, usually in white, before they colored them in, and they would bring in younger kids who they found in the train yards admiring their work to make the outlines and learn how to write.[19] All of this then shows that the graffiti community in NYC had its own code of civility and awareness of its own moral geography.
This political awareness continued within hip hop culture and is still present today. Here is part of the top definition from Urban Dictionary for Graffiti:

“An element of the Hip Hop culture misinterpreted and misrepresented by the mainstream media, and most especially hated by affluent (usually white) businessmen who don’t understand the roots or meaning of the writing on the walls….since Graffiti is an element in Hip Hop just as important as DJing, MCing and Breaking, any assault on Graffiti (i.e., calling it “vandalism”, “not art”, etc.) should be viewed as an assault on Hip Hop altogether…Now it may seem like everything is okay since Rap has hit the mainstream, but the major corporations threaten its existence every day. Remember the last Rap video you saw on TV. Did you see any tags, any DJs working the wheels of steel, any B-Boys tearing up the floor, any MCs really rocking the party? Or was it just images of scantily clad females, guys flashing their “bling”, and “gangstas” shooting their guns off? Chances are it was the latter, the money-making gimmick that corporations such as MTV make money off of today.”[20]

As the reader can see, there is still a hard line drawn between hip hop culture and gangster culture. The mention of corporations is significant, too. With the rise of neoliberalism in the seventies, a new manner of civility arose. That is, while the administration was very clear about graffiti representing anti-civility, it also needed to shape what civility looked like, and it did so in a neoliberal framework. Often, this resulted in the state or corporations making decisions on behalf of communities based on their perceived interests, which emphasized the local and therefore often skewed minority interests. Moral geographies that emphasized both localism and majoritarianism challenged diversity as well as any larger, city-wide coherence. Moral codes were developed that did not contain awareness of the way their own behaviors were both informed by and informed the dynamics of the larger city. As Vitale describes it, “it assumes that the roots of our current dilemma lie in urban liberalism’s rejection of the liberalism of the New Deal and its vision of universal equal opportunity and equal responsibility in favor of a New Left liberalism of radical individual freedom and preferential treatment for those historically disenfranchised.”[21]  Vitale points out that urban liberalism had no response to what was happening in New York City at the time, because it valued centralized planning, and social reform over the equalizing market, and these policies were both not succeeding and also increasingly alienating populations with a lot of influence – those with money. So a distance emerged between the rhetoric of urban liberalism and the experience of the citizenry, and into this distance came neoliberalism, with its emphasis on the market, and the Giuliani administration embraced it.[22]
In 1994, The Giuliani administration hired William Bratton as its New York City police commissioner, a role he has reprised and is currently serving today. Prior to his appointment, he had been chief of police for NYC public transit, during the years when graffiti had been all but eliminated from the subway.  As the New York City police commissioner, he wrote new strategies for addressing crime, the fifth of which was called “Reclaiming the Public Spaces of New York.”[23] This strategy explicitly referred to, and relied heavily on the broken windows theory, and asserted that restoring order began with getting tough on minor crimes and misdemeanors, citing graffiti as one of them.
At around the same time, a third set of interests emerged- “Reclaim the Streets,” a movement that began in London and came to New York City. Like the graffiti writers, RTS set out to challenge the moral codes of the street, and particularly to protest Giuliani’s administration. But RTS was made up of young, affluent professionals and students, and not of marginalized populations. Nonetheless, their goals were strikingly similar:

“Mayor Giuliani’s homogenizing (and boring!) ‘Quality of Life’ campaign is fast privatizing scarce public space, squeezing our diverse communities and stealing our freedom to express ourselves. The campaign is targeted at working poor, community gardeners, immigrants, people of color, gays, young people, bicyclists, skaters, booksellers, artists, sex workers, students, homeless people, and political activists of all kinds. If Giuliani is successful, his vision of a whitewashed, Disneyfied New York of the future will replace the diverse, exuberant, exciting city of the present.
We can fight back by making ourselves visible, by refusing to be swept under the carpet, by coming out together and declaring that a diverse group of New Yorkers exist, that we have a right to exist, and have a right to public space. Take to the streets! After all, if we can’t dance, it’s not a revolution.” [24]

They stood against “local commercialism and global capitalism,” and they perceived the Giuliani administration to be allowing these influences to mediate the definition of community values and interests. The sudden appearance of this third group allowed for a new, more sympathetic view of graffiti. This in turn led to various forms of commercial success, including shows in New York City galleries.[25]   Certain artists who are well known today began as graffiti writers. Jean-Michel Basquiat is a prime example – he was part of a duo, with Al Diaz, whose tag was “SAMO,” and his work was admired by art critics on the street.[26] Interestingly, he commented in an interview about the transition from graffiti to gallery. When asked if he could have predicted it, or was hoping for it, he said, “No. I was more interested in attacking the gallery circuit at that time, I didn’t think about making paintings, I just thought about making fun of the ones that were in there.”[27]
There exists today a debate about the authenticity of graffiti written by folks in the context of hip hop who do not belong to underrepresented demographics. One of the uses of the phrase “street art” is to differentiate between graffiti and art that has been made in the same space and with the same materials, but after having been exposed to art education. It would be nice to think that Jean-Michel Basquiat represented the typical model of the graffiti-turned-commercial. His original graffiti was witty and political, but it was not based in any formal art education. In fact, he met Keith Haring when Keith snuck him past the security guard into the School of Visual Arts, in New York City, where Basquiat was not a student. Eventually, Basquiat would become so famous that some of his work was carefully removed from the outside of buildings in order to be displayed in galleries. He was all over the world, and was given a cover story in the New York Times Magazine all during the same period of time that the Giuliani administration was cracking down on graffiti. Giuliani’s administration published a statement in 1998 that said, in part: “If people don’t see improvements in their individual lives, if they have to put up with incivility and disrespect for their rights every day, they will remain basically pessimistic about the future of the City, even if overall crime is dramatically down. But if a sense of tangible improvement reaches millions of lives, and millions of people understand that the City cares about their annoyances and is working hard to protect their rights, then more and more people begin to feel the true optimism of the City, and the City is moving the right direction. We begin to feel that together, we all have a stake in the City. This is what the idea of a civil society is all about.”[28]
But the truth is, Basquiat was an outlier in terms of his success, and a lot of it came from the people he associated with – Keith Haring, and Andy Warhol, who both had great connections because they both came up in the art world in a more traditional way. Commercial success for graffiti artists was usually less epic, and generally moved away from anything in a legally grey area and into other creative or artistic pursuits. While Basquiat was both rich and famous in his lifetime, most graffiti writers can’t turn their work around in that manner, and instead are simply lucky enough to translate artistic skill they’ve developed into a job that Giuliani would approve of. But it did emerge as an alternative to criminalization, and this was at least partly due to Giuliani’s more neoliberal approach to public space: if a graffiti artist could produce exchange value with his work, then he was considered a productive member of society. There were, then, essentially two paths for the graffiti artist: commercial success, or state suppression.
Throughout the nineties, the Giuliani administration would indeed hand over a lot of authority to corporations at the expense of public space. It sold community gardens to real estate developers, it passed laws that restricted street vendors, and it even identified which newspapers and magazines vendors could and could not sell. These actions were done in the hopes of supporting businesses and the landlords of business properties. And lastly, the Giuliani administration invested a lot of time into confounding protest efforts. While Reclaim the Streets sued them repeatedly, and won repeatedly, it was in many ways still a net win for the Giuliani administration because the protests never happened.  Giuliani subscribed to Locke’s logic – a fair and open market would socialize privately owned property, and those citizens who could not create exchange value with their property were not entitled to property.[29]
Since the 1990s, corporate power has increased in NYC and locally – up to and including citizenship, but hip-hop graffiti as an act of resistance remains a local, community centered form of resistance, in its nascent stages. By the end of the nineties, the “graffiti crisis” had waned – mostly due to the police commissioner and the mayor, who developed an anti-graffiti task force. However, it is still popular among underrepresented Latino and black youth, as is hip hop generally. Occasionally, an artist will be named a “graffiti elder,” this is someone who was most likely commercially successful and who is known in the art world as a graffiti writer, but who is considered too old to actively participate in what is essentially a youth culture.
Graffiti falls into two general categories – gang related and hip hop – the second arising as an alternative to gang membership and constituting a form of political resistance to the moral geography of public space in New York City. Ultimately, such graffiti either becomes marketable or it is subdued by the New York City police. However, since new graffiti is constantly appearing throughout the city, graffiti as resistance is a constant presence.

[1] I am using the term “social” broadly here, it also encompasses economic and political forces.

[2] Malone, Karen. “Street life: youth, culture and competing uses of public space.” Environment and Urbanization 14.2 (2002): 157-168.

[3] Harvey, David. “The future of the commons.” Radical History Review 2011.109 (2011): 101-107.

[4] Chronopoulos, Themis. Spatial Regulation in New York City: From Urban Renewal to Zero Tolerance. London: Routledge, 2011.

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Caryl S. Stern and Robert W. Stock, “Graffiti: The Plague Years,” The New York Times, October 19, 1980, sec. 6, p. 44.

[9] Vitale, Alex S. City of Disorder How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics: New York University Press, 2008.

[10] Glazer, Nathan. “On subway graffiti in New York.” The Public Interest 54 (1979): 3-11.

[11] Vitale, Alex S. City of Disorder How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics: New York University Press, 2008.

[12] Ibid

[13] Matless, D. (2000). Moral geographies. In R. J. Johnston, D. Gregory, G. Pratt, & M.Watts (Eds.), The dictionary

of human geography (pp. 522–524). London: Blackwell.

[14] McCauliffe, Cameron. “Graffiti or Street Art? Negotiating the Moral Geographies of the Creative City,” Journal of Urban Affairs, Vol. 34, no. 2. Pg. 189-206. 2012.

[15] Chronopoulos, Themis. Spatial Regulation in New York City: From Urban Renewal to Zero Tolerance. London: Routledge, 2011.

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid

[18] International graffiti times. Began with v. 1 (Jan. 1984) and ceased in 1994. NYC, NY : Yanqui Junkie, c1984-[1994].

[19] Style Wars. Documentary directed by Henry Chalfant and Tony Silver. 1985.

[20] jAwN. “Graffiti.” Urban Dictionary. June 29, 2004.

[21] Vitale, Alex S. City of Disorder How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics: New York University Press, 2008

[22] Ibid

[23] New York (NY). Police Department, Rudolph W. Giuliani, and William J. Bratton. Reclaiming the Public Spaces of New York. The Department, 1994.

[24] “Reclaim the Streets NYC.” Reclaim the Streets. 4 Oct. 1998. Web.

[25] TAKI 183, Zephyr, CASH, PHASE 2, Lady Pink, Blade and Future 2000 were the first generation of graffiti artists to transition to commercial success. They showed at galleries like the FUN gallery and 51X, and even toured in Japan.

[26] Deitch, Jeffrey. “Jean-Michel Basquiat at Annina Nosei (review)” Flash Art, May 1982.

[27] A Conversation with Basquiat Director Tamara Davis. Becky Johnson, interviewer. Documentary Short. USA. 2006. 21 mins. Dist. By Arthouse films, NY

[28] “The Next Phase of Quality of Life.” Archives of Rudolph W. Giuliani. 24 Feb. 1998. Web. <>.

[29] Shepard, Benjamin and Gregory Smithsimon. The Beach Beneath the Streets: Contesting New York City’s Public Spaces. Albany, N.Y.:  SUNY Press, 2011.

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-