On Information, Rhetoric, and Bureaucracy

I am posting here an essay I wrote some months ago on the information-literacy standards (the “old” information literacy) as considered in the light of the cultural history of information as a concept. In the essay, I elaborate on a phrase by John Guillory — the “forgetting of rhetoric” — to argue that information literacy, as a pedagogical platform, forgets rhetoric in the interest of an epistemology serving bureaucratic control.

I’m not terribly satisfied with the essay; although the attached represents a polished draft, there’s a lot left out, and in revisiting the topic, I would probably drop the attention to information literacy altogether. I am more interested in how bureaucratic reason functions as a form of moral skepticism, in the Cavellian sense…But that’s for another time.  For now, I post it here in the interest of open scholarship and the promise of a new year and being a little more reconciled to the fate of one’s heartfelt efforts #polishedobscurity

Information Literacy as Bureaucratic Literacy


Don Quixote for the DH, Part II

The humanities have traditionally laid claim to value in virtue of the meanings they enrich. In practice, if not in theory, the activities of humanists have handled meaning by revelation and discovery. Eschewing the sophistry that would lend good arguments even to bad ideas, the humanist, like the scientist, digs and delves — even if, alone with her books and the light of her intuition, she is less scientist than shaman, less explorer or inventor or legislator of a world, than its  supplicant or priest. Humanistic activity, traditionally conceived, begs to be judged on its failure or success as meaning — i.e., as a contribution to an intersubjective, creative process. It is as a set of attachments to conversation and dialogue that this activity commands our respect. The elitism of many of those attachments notwithstanding, we who “do” the humanities tend to ascribe value to our work in terms of the survival of ethical thinking and feeling as forms of conversation. Since the value of conversation lies in its openness to the unforeseen, viz., in its contribution to the unfolding of history, it resists measurement by normative units of utility or efficiency.

But of late, it has become clear that this conception, long imagined to make a bulwark against the encroachments of instrumental rationality, no longer holds. How regularly our noblest intentions seem to fold before the demand — institutional, social, or even personal — for results. In the face of this demand, what Raymond Williams called “emergent structures of feeling” — which by definition elude the relative certainty of normative representation — can have no value, and representation itself can secure its place only by the vinculum of the bottom line, by the dollar sign’s lead balloon. If to be humane involves, in part, an ability or willingness to make our feelings legible to one another, what to do about the captivity of the legible itself to the ledgers of capital? One way of understanding the digital humanities, I think, is as a figure for this captivity. Once more, then, into the breach….

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Don Quixote for the Digital Humanities – Part I

The digital humanities (DH): if this topic excites among librarians a buzz verging at times on rapture, there are perhaps good reasons for that. After all, the humanities, as I have argued, have for their omphalos the library (or some such metaphor). Librarianship, on the other hand, has traditionally been a bureaucratic profession, concerned with the construction of order by application of a rule, rather than with the work of reading and interpreting; with the cataloging and stewardship of works, rather than with the consecration or desecration of texts. The digital humanities (DH), however, promise a fresh symbiosis (according to a recent OCLC report) between categorization and interpretation, bringing the work of librarians and humanists into a zone of more intimate contact. From text mining, to the creation of digital scholarly editions, to the construction of new analytic tools, the DH represent a confrontation between the humanities and the concepts of data and metadata; the fact that these data and metadata often pertain to textual objects beckons to librarians’ expertise.

But there are larger bones to pick. Let us suppose that, in the oracular words of OCLC, “‘the Digital Humanities’ […] will soon be considered ‘the Humanities.'” Is this prophecy cause for unqualified celebration? Does the ascendancy of the DH herald a world of broader access and deeper appreciation — a world in which digital surrogates bring ancient papyri into middle-school classrooms, and algorithmic techniques explode the canon, letting observation and insight traverse the most obscure nooks and neglected crannies of the archive? Or as more skeptical voices suggest, does this ascendancy betoken “the managerial and bureaucratic imperatives” (Eyers — see below) that more and more permeate higher ed, targeting now even those slow and steady herbivores, those workhorses who require for their upkeep only a library card and a quiet corner — the readers of texts?

Let’s look at two recent critiques of the DH — by Jeff Rice and Tom Eyers — following their suggestions to an errancy that might let us escape the hype.

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Is There an Art of Management?

Ann Larson’s recent essay declares that rhetoric and composition is dead. Its death, for Larson, accompanies the slow but certain demise of “the old idea of higher education as a publicly funded social good and a viable career path for teachers and researchers.” Larson’s analysis dovetails with recent discussion about neoliberalism and the academic library. What has killed rhetoric and composition, on Larson’s analysis — by which she means, killed its progressive, critical potential as a discourse and a site for emancipatory pedagogy — is an insistence, by some of those rallying to its banner, on securing disciplinary, i.e., professional, status. As Larson argues, this insistence has tended to co-opt and eclipse the struggle for fair working conditions for the majority of those who teach composition. That silent majority is, of course, the adjunct instructors, who typically lack the time to publish, the funds to attend conferences, etc. — in short, the means to assert a professional identity on their own behalf. Larson and others are right to remind us — in a reminder that pertains to librarians no less than scholars of rhetoric and composition — that those who work for a wage, regardless of their titles or credentials or the color of their collars, are workers. What this means, in an age of ramifying exploitation across all sectors of the economy, is that the tension between solidarity and professionalism — or between, on the one hand, an ethics of work and service and reciprocity; and on the other, an identity that appeals to expertise — admits of no reconciliation. As critics of a Marxist bent have long maintained, the tension is a conflict at the level of ideology.

Libraries as Belated Spaces

Like many of my colleagues, I tell students I work with, especially undergraduates, that research is an invitation to join a conversation. What I do not tell them is that one always comes to the conversation too late. By this I refer only in part to the petty narcissism that, on the occasion of writing this piece, and following a number of trenchant blogs about librarianship — Barbara Fister’s, of course, and also Feral Librarian, Beerbrarian, and others — compels me to feel unfashionably tardy to the party, bearing old wine in new bottles or beer gone flat. Facing up, in a way, to that fear, I want to make the case that belatedness is actually of the essence of conversation (essence, as Jacques Derrida tells us, being always supplemental to itself). And I intend to come to this point by way of the claim that such belatedness is what libraries are all about.

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On Librarianship and Aesthetics

In my zest to explicate Rancière on the ills of explication, I glossed over many parts of his argument begging for more complex treatment. But maybe “beg” overstates the case, and in any case, I must apply to the reader’s patience with these the lucubrations of a librarian who knows better than to relinquish his day job. With that disclaimer — and apart from the admitted, though ill-advised, pleasure of regarding oneself as a voice in the wilderness — my motive for writing here is partly experimental. How does one write — in an essentially didactic genre like the blog — while calling one’s expertise, or one’s right to explicate, into question? Not wanting to fall into the trap of Jacotot’s imitators and epigoni, who, according to Rancière, tried to reduce to reproducible method the former’s inspired madness, or his inspired refusal of the clean break between madness and sense, pedagogical flair and professional suicide, I am interested in a practice of writing that does without with the pundit’s or the pedagogue’s arsenal of bullet points. But perhaps in truth what I am asking is a perfectly ordinary question: how does one continue to write (or really, continue to do anything of value) under the pressure of feeling that one’s capacity to do so is never quite up to snuff? In that spirit, here are some inconclusive, haphazard, and highly speculative failures to answer that question.

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A Critique of Professional Reason

I want to inaugurate these pings on the void by reflecting on something that has preoccupied me for a while. In spite of the documented change in hiring practices, the profession remains discursively attached to an identity policed by traditional credentialing bodies, and associated, at least in principle, with the possession of an ALA-accredited degree. (I say “possession of a degree” because I do not think the identity of the profession, much less the character of the labor of those who call themselves librarians, hangs much upon the curriculum of library schools — but that’s for another post.) At the same time, the profession seems caught in a perpetual crisis — a crisis of relevance, a crisis that reveals the limits of what credentials are supposed to guarantee: the librarian’s expertise. How many are the webinars, conference programs, institutes, books and articles, special reports, and so on, promising to tell us how to become (better) online educators, data stewards, agents of scholarly communication, collaborators in the research process, and so forth? These trends repeat, as it seems to me, patterns of discourse I found ten years ago when I entered, already jaded about the degree but optimistic about the job, library school. Indeed, mine was a program then recently rechristened a “school of information,” presumably on the premise that library science, traditionally conceived, no longer met the needs of the library’s publics in the soi disant Information Age.

Yes, Virginia, but of course: the stampede into our daily lives of electronic communication,  digital text, and computing power has changed the dynamic, as they say, between librarians and their patrons. (I stick to the case of academic librarianship, being fairly ignorant — in the non-polemical sense — about the contours of the profession in public and corporate libraries.) Whether these changes, and those even greater changes chomping at the bit of progress, which it is said we must saddle up and ride, or else fall behind, choking on the dust — whether those changes, admittedly profound, are driven primarily by technological advances, or whether they do not bespeak equally the spur of administrative developments, and in particular the readiness of the boss-class to change what counts as a “professional” service, is matter for another time. Right now, with a broader brush, I want to pursue the crisis to its logical conclusion: Why do we need to be experts at all?

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