“Media literacy” is as socially contested a term as they come. Its meaning of has been debated at least as far back as 1933 (see Tyner, 2010).It’s not difficult to make the case that Marshall McLuhan‘s work in the main was about media literacy. Not to mention Howard Rheingold‘s lengthy and thorough work on new media and social media literacy.
So much has changed and changed hands since McLuhan left us. The computer moved from business and industry to the home and finally to every place and pocket available. In Coding Literacy: How Computer Programming is Changing Writing (MIT Press, 2017), Annette Vee argues that literacy is infrastructural. She explores two phases of its spread. One is where we adopt inscription technologies as material infrastructures. Then, as we adopt those technologies that affect the “quotidian activities of everyday citizens: literacy is adopted as infrastructure” (p. 141). She notes crucially that communicative practices such as writing and programming can manifest as actions and as artifacts. Vee’s approach addresses the social aspects of these literacies (i.e., understanding the actions), as well as their material underpinnings (i.e., understanding the artifacts). It’s an important new view of several serious issues.
Zooming out to the walls, rooms, and roads around us, Shannon Mattern’s Code + Clay… Data + Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media (University of Minnesota Press, 2017) takes up the mantle of media archaeology and “challenges the newness of the new” by looking back at infrastructure at large — our built environment. Our urban areas are the site of information access as well as media themselves. Citing Malcolm McCullough and echoing McLuhan, She writes, “Our physical landscapes inscribe, transmit, and even embody information–about their histories, their state of repair, their potential uses, and so forth” (p. xii). Mattern’s use of sound, inscription, voice, and code illuminates our environment in a different and generative light.
We academics do a lot of work to justify and perpetuate our own work, a lot of advertising for ourselves. This is not that kind of work. Both of these books are about current situations verging on crises, and both of them take a long, historical view of these situations. There is still much to learn about all of these constructs and all of their relationships. There is an entire network of literacies we all need to learn. Now.
Mattern, Shannon. (2017). Code + Clay… Data + Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Tyner, Katherine (Ed.). (2010). Media Literacy: New Agendas in Communication. New York: Routledge.
Vee, Annette. (2017). Coding Literacy: How Computer Programming is Changing Writing. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Many thanks to Alison Langmead, Lily Brewer, and the fine folks at the University of Pittsburgh and their Digital Scholarship Services for hosting and allowing me to crash the Willful Transgressions: Transdisciplinary Teaching workshop with Shannon Mattern. It was there that I was able to meet and work briefly with both Shannon and Annette.
Each time we move to a new city, we make memories as the city slowly takes shape in our minds. Every new place we locate (e.g., the closest grocery store, the post office, rendezvous points with friends, etc.) is a new point on the map. Wayfinding a new city is an experience you can never get back. Once you are familiar with the space or place, it’s gone. Since moving out on my own, I’ve gravitated toward cities: Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, San Diego, Austin, Atlanta, Chicago. Externalized memories built in brick and concrete. As David Byrne writes, cities “are physical manifestations of our deepest beliefs and our often unconscious thoughts, not so much as individuals, but as the social animals we are” (p. 2).
You can map out a whole city according to the weight of memory, like pins on the homicide board tracking the killer’s movements. But the connections get thicker and denser and more complicated all the time — from Moxyland by Lauren Beukes
Darran Anderson‘s Imaginary Cities (Influx Press, 2015) brings many of these unconscious thoughts out of our heads and into the light, mapping cities according to memories. Anderson humbly calls the book “a diminished non-fiction mirror” to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1974), but it is a masterwork unto itself. As Calvino (1974) writes in that book, “The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls” (p. 11). Anderson’s book illuminates these interstitial crags and corners, yet it goes as wide as it does deep, digging through the details as much as minding the monolithic. It’s a book I will have to spend much more time with, as it deserves to be explored in depth, like any good city.
What is the importance of placing a memory? he said. Why spend that much time trying to find the exact geographic and temporal latitudes and longitudes of the things we remember, when what’s urgent about a memory is its essence?
— from Days Between Stations by Steve Erickson
In the sagas it was said that humans dream with their hands, only their hands, and so have cities rather than sagas, monuments rather than memories. — from Easy Travel to Other Planets by Ted Mooney
Savage Messiah (Verso, 2011) is a compilation of Laura Oldfield Ford’s zines of the same name, chronicling the streets of London in various states of duress. I’ve never seen a zine or a zine collection that seemed this important. I’ve never even seen one with the potential to be this important. Ford’s writings and drawings map not only the city’s streets but also the lives underneath. In his Introduction, Mark Fisher calls the zine “out of time” but not “out of date”: “Savage Messiah deploys anachronism as a weapon. At first sight, at first touch — and tactility is crucial to the experience: the zine doesn’t feel the same when it’s JPEGed on a screen” (p. x). Indeed, Savage Messiah‘s return to the anarcho-punk aesthetic of the late-1970s is essential to Ford’s revival of that attitude. This is poetry. This is protest. This is London undone. Holding it in your hands is imperative.
Memory is redundant: it repeats signs so that the city can begin to exist. — Kathy Acker
Early on in In Divisible Cities, Dominic Pettman repurposes the idea of mattering maps, those maps we make to and from the things that matter: “A map that generates territory, rather than the other way around… A map that does not represent cities that exist independently, but a map that brings cities into being…” (p. 3). These three books can be read as giant, sprawling mattering maps. Within them, there are vast and multiple new cities to be explored.
Acker, Kathy & Wark, McKenzie. (2015). I’m Very Into You. New York: Semiotext(e), p. 135.
As school finally releases its grip on our attention and summer eases in around us, it’s time to peruse book pages for pleasure. If you’re like me, you’re still working through stuff from last year’s list. As my friend Kristin Ross tweeted recently, “Lately when I think about my mortality, the primary sadness I feel is in regards to all the books on my ‘to-read’ shelf.” We may never get to them all, but here are 2014’s summer recommendations.
This year’s list boasts newcomers Christopher Schaberg, Brian McFarland, and Alice Marwick, as well as veteran Summer Reading Listers Ashley Crawford, Lance Strate, Mark Amerika, Brad Vivian, Lily Brewer, Peter Lunenfeld, Alex Burns, danah boyd, Steve Jones, Zizi Papacharissi, Dominic Pettman, Benjamin Bratton, and myself. As usual, unless otherwise noted, the book links will lead you to the book’s page on the Powell’s site, the greatest bookstore on the planet.
I’ve picked up some second hand books that I intend to enjoy this summer, including two from Ralph Waldo Emerson. One is a stray volume of his collected works that combines two of his major publications, The Conduct of Life and Society and Solitude (Macmillan, 1910). The other is Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essays and Journals (Programmed Classics, 1968), selected and with an introduction by Lewis Mumford (which alone is worth the price of purchasing the book). And then there’s Understanding Understanding (Harper & Row, 1974), by Humphrey Osmond, with John A. Osmond and Jerome Agel, which I am understandably curious about.
For poetry, I can’t wait to delve into the long awaited volume from Dale Winslow, Tinderbox (NeoPoiesis, 2013). And in graphic novels, there’s Volume 21 of The Walking Dead, real brain food that I’ll no doubt gobble up in one sitting when it comes out in a few weeks.
The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell (Penguin, 2013) charts “a year’s watch in nature”—the author goes out to the same small plot of forest every day over the course of a year, and reflects on being (and non-being) at myriad scales. Haskell calls this place the “mandala”: seen in a certain way, it’s like a microcosm of the universe. The book reminded me of object-oriented ontology put into practice. In other words, it’s a work of praxis: an experiment in constraint and wonder, with the fruits (or more precisely, flora and fauna) of this endeavor recorded in sprightly prose.
But what if the mandala were not a spot in the woods, but a color? And what if the temporal frame were not a year but ongoing, indeterminate and blurry? Maggie Nelson’s Bluets (Wave Books, 2009) reflects on blue hues across literary, artistic, and philosophical registers, and as the color shoots through her own life in ways that are at turns visceral and vaporous, ambient and affective. The book unfolds as a sequence of playfully (il)logical propositions, at once echoing Wittgenstein while venturing into new poetic territory.
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has taken the impulse to color in another direction. His searching edited collection Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory Beyond Green (University of Minnesota Press, 2014) does exactly what it’s title says: It pushes way beyond traditional “green” readings of nature, environment, and ecology. The chapters find deep reservoirs of semiotic value and biotic interplay across the spectrum of colors, reaching into perceptual zones as seemingly unnatural and alien as x-ray and ultraviolet. Collectively, this book comprises a tour de force that could be the core of an entire seminar on cutting edge environmental theory. (I plan to adopt the book this way in an environmental humanities seminar at Loyola University New Orleans in the near future.)
Of course a more traditional way to go about ecological thinking is to ground it in place. Jim Harrison’s latest collection of novellas, The River Swimmer (Grove Press, 2014), revolves around my own home region of northern Michigan. The two novellas in this collection (“The Land of Unlikeness” and “The River Swimmer”) are paragons of the form; even as their plot lines unravel typical (for Harrison) male fantasies and nativist wish images, the stories are gently hilarious, disturbingly violent, softly sublime, and eerily haunting. Harrison has a way with the novella that exhibits incredible formal control and concision, even as the stories sprawl out to epic and even magical proportions. Throughout each story, the aura of Michigan seeps through details as striking and elusive as the spring marshy air, the texture of river currents, and rare bird calls.
Another geography I recently found myself reading about, somewhat unexpectedly, was New York City. Thomas Beller’s new biography of J.D. Salinger (subtitled The Escape Artist; New Harvest, 2014) suggests that the landscape and atmosphere of New York shaped Salinger’s writing and consciousness to a large degree. I don’t know the city terribly well, and I have not read a single work of fiction by Salinger (I know, I know!), but the fact that Beller manages to lure me into and guide me through these intertwined (and to me, unfamiliar) topographies speaks to a certain ecological acuity present in the book. But it’s an eccentric ecology, attuned to human culture and the patterns and quirks of things like publishing, personae, and literary production. To call this biography ‘ecological’ may sound strange, but it’s precise in the sense that Beller breaks from a simple, linear-narrative biography and develops something more networked, something more (to recover a theoretical term perhaps overused but still apt here) rhizomatic.
I read two kinds of books during the summer: academic books that get me jazzed about research, and anything page-turnery I can read on my Kindle while lying around in the sun.
I’m in an academic book club and by far our favorite title this year was Alice Goffman’s On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (University of Chicago Press, 2014). It’s a mind-blowing ethnography of young black men in a poor neighborhood in Philadelphia, and how the constant intrusion of the police and penal system systematically undermines their familial and romantic relationships. Goffman is a really gifted writer, and her book not only hammers home the horrific social impact of American mass incarceration of African-American youth, but includes a methods chapter where she discusses how living in a primarily black, masculine environment for six years affected her own subjectivity and relationship to academia. It’s the rare academic book I can’t put down and I would recommend it to anyone.
Goffman’s book has inspired me to finally read legal scholar Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2012) which tackles the same issues from a legal perspective. Alexander examines how today’s legal system has perpetrated systemic African-American disenfranchisement and inequality, much like the Jim Crow laws of years past.
In fiction, my favorite discovery of the year was the Steerswoman series by Rosemary Kirstein. I’m a huge fan of science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction, but I get very irritated by writers who can imagine a world with cybernetic augmentation, mass terraforming, etc. etc. but can’t get beyond run-of-the-mill patriarchy. Kirstein’s Steerswomen are scholars who travel around their realm, making detailed maps and observations about the natural environment. This, of course, deeply appealed to me as a social scientist, and I loved seeing Rowan, the chief steerswoman, use her version of the scientific method to puzzle through the various trials and tribulations that come her way. While the setting seems at first to be your typical medieval fantasy world, Kirstein expertly reveals throughout the series that it may be more than it seems. A fantastic, engaging series that is simultaneously nerdy and feminist. I can’t recommend these books highly enough, especially now that the rights have reverted to Kirstein and she’s released them all as ebooks.
I’m also planning on reading the second volume of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, which is also speculative fiction but from an almost Lovecraftian perspective. The first book, Annihilation (FSG Originals, 2014), described a team of scientists sent out to explore the abandoned Area X. Why it was abandoned, who commissioned the expedition, and what happened to the previous teams remains a mystery, but the sense of dread that sets in as you watch the biologist, the anthropologist, the psychologist, and the surveyor—all women—navigate the uncertainty of the landscape. Without putting too fine a point on it, this book creeped me the hell out. The second book, Authority (FSG Originals, 2014), focuses on the institutional apparatus that supports the expeditions, which doesn’t sound terrifying but I’m hoping doesn’t lose the momentum of the first.
Other than that, I’ll be finally trying to finish The Goldfinch (Little, Brown & Co., 2013), which is like half of a really good book interspersed with a lot of boring short stories, catching up on various mystery, sci-fi, and dystopian series that have new books out, and perhaps making a dent in my “to read” PDF folder. Preferably while out in the sun.
Krysztof Michalski’s The Flame of Eternity (Princeton University Press, 2013) provides a reexamination and new interpretation of Nietzsche’s philosophy and the central role that the concepts of eternity and time, as he understood them, played in it.
If you read this as a confused teenager seeking power amid your angst, this book will remind you of the joy and freedom that was embedded within all that poetry. While reading I had that rare joy (that only books can provide) of remembering a former self experiencing a book and transforming that experience by re-visiting the text again. That’s not so clear, but Krysztof Michalski had the same fascination with passages that confounded my younger self- and here I was years later remembering that confusion and achieving understanding of it many years later. A powerful read and the author does a nice job of making difficult concepts clear.
This summer, I’m studying various books on the subject of witnessing. Last year, I researched treatises on time and politics and, presently, I’m seeking to analyze the rhetoric of witnessing in light of temporality and the politics of time. To that end, my summer reading list features works that approach witnessing from unconventional angles and, in so doing, attempt to understand it in novel ways.
Kelly Oliver’s Witnessing: Beyond Recognition (University of Minnesota Press, 2001) illustrates one of the best features of her writing in general: her ability to connect canonical philosophical concepts and lineages to the concrete realities of public and political affairs. Here, she relates the Hegelian politics of recognition to conventional humanitarian, moral, or political discourse that assumes one witnesses in order to identify the basis for some common humanity and historical experience. Oliver helpfully pushes our approach to witnessing beyond recognition, in whatever form, as its guiding telos.
In this context, I also plan to closely study Jacques Derrida’s Sovereignties in Question: The Poetics of Paul Celan (Fordham University Press, 2005). This text is reputed to feature many of Derrida’s customary deconstructive topoi-my interest resides, in particular, in the extent to which that his reflections throughout Sovereignties are said to echo his remarks on impossibility and possibility elsewhere regarding related topics-specifically, forgiveness and mourning. That is, I’m interested in his understanding of how the impossibility of something like witnessing, forgiveness, or mourning might nonetheless accomplish productive ethical and political work.
Finally, I’ll be preoccupied with Marianne Hirsch’s The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust (Columbia University Press, 2012). In this text, Hirsch takes up a line of thought that others have begun to explore in their own scholarship (notably Celia Lury in Prosthetic Culture and Alison Landsberg in Prosthetic Memory): namely, the degree to which one can remember someone else’s memories. Many discourses of witnessing presuppose that memories may somehow be affectively transferred from survivors or participants in history to future generations who did not witness the original events. This kind of work necessarily involves reflections on the communication of memory via literature, art, and media while raising important questions about the ethics and politics of witnessing.
I graduated from my SAIC Art History graduate program last May, and within the first 25 days of said graduation, starved for novels, I had read 15 novels, textbooks, and other non-fictions: I feel I have read all the great books already, but will continue to pursue others. Here is a representative sample of both.
After reading Lydia Davis’ remarkable collection of short stories in Varieties of Disturbance (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007), wherein one story she outlines a systematic, syntactical, and secretly heartbreaking analysis of 27 fourth graders’ get-well letters to a classmate Steven. I’ve dipped my toes in her The End of the Story from 1995, but so far have found it more depressing than my summer warrants. Especially when read alongside S. D. Chrostowska’s Permission (Dalkey Archive, 2013), written as multiple emails’ soliloquy with image attachments, I’ve found that contemporary fiction writing, for me, needs to be carefully vetted by the public before I set my eyes to it. However, learning from my mistake and in an ameliorative effort, Tan Lin’s Seven Controlled Vocabularies (Wesleyan, 2010) so far relieves me with strange, sparse, deadpan scans of the backs of books, discount cards, and “Wet Paint” signs, and the narrative is obscure, or rather clandestine, or maybe not even there, and refreshing. I’m tired of narratives.
With that said, despite his overwrought account of the failure of memory in the sleepy wake of post-WWII PTSD, W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (New Directions, 1999) records scattered memories of scenes as they come to the narrator, with images anchored within two lines of its antecedent. I hope the image and text in his The Emigrants (New Directions, 1997) is just as meticulously and personally designed when I begin it soon.
Christian Bok’s Crystallography (Coach House Books, 1999) inspired me toward Jacques Roubaud’s Mathematics (Dalkey Archive, 2012), but unfortunately in name only: Bok’s stupifyingly researched, fractal, picture poem on crystals and their study has eaten Roubaud for breakfast. Giving the latter a shot anyway, I thought his memoir on his mathematical academic career would be as cynical toward the academy as Barbara Browning’s detective(?) novel I’m Trying to Reach You (complete with screenshots of YouTube videos of, likely, the author herself in interpretive dance performances inspired by the death of Michael Jackson; Two Dollar Radio, 2012) and maybe even Chris Kraus’ memoir/erotica/art-history-laced-in-latex Video Green (Semiotext(e), 2004), but both Mathematics and Kraus’ novel Summer of Hate (Semiotext(e), 2012) have fallen short so far. I have high hopes anyway while finishing those and Roubaud’s The Loop (Dalkey Archive, 2009).
Finally and always already on my list are Sylvia Plath’s journals, Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, Jacob Bronowski’s works on science and its critics, and textbooks on our solar system’s planetary landscapes. Like the tradition set by Marianne Moore and the second law of thermodynamics, this female, like her Amazon shopping cart, is a chaos.
Summer reading this year will veer even further toward pleasure and away from work, and even more toward indulging my interests in popular music, I’m glad to say. In no particular order I’m looking forward to reading Romany and Tom: A Memoir, by Ben Watt, that promises to be a fascinating look at British music and life before the Beatles broke. For somewhat similar voyeuristic reasons, you might say, I’m planning to read Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home (Little, Brown & Co., 2014), for its chronicling of the home life of people at the center of 1980s literary London. Holly George-Warren’s biography of Alex Chilton, A Man Called Destruction (Viking Adult, 2014), is also on my list. I’ve only known the Chilton myths, so I’m looking forward to something a bit more journalistic about hiim. I’ve also got Lisa Robinson’s There Goes Gravity (Riverhead, 2014) on the list, for light reading and a laugh. To round out the music titles I’ve got Greg Kot’s, I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers, and the March up Freedom’s Highway (Scribner, 2014). The Staples family have a singular place in popular music that I hope Kot is able to contextualize. I also very much want to read Alain-Fournier’s The Lost Domain (Oxford University Press, 2014), that’s actually been an intention for a long time. As I look at it now, it’s quite an indulgent list, really, and that makes me quite happy to see.
My reading list for summer 2014 is made up of largely overlooked titles. In most cases, they are lesser-known works by well-known authors, both fiction and non-fiction. In a couple cases, it’s a chance for me re-visit some favorites that have strongly influenced my recent work. If any of you read any of these over the next few weeks and write something on it, send me a link.
J.G. Ballard Crepuscular Enclave (Picador, 2014): This posthumously-published novel takes place in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, occupied by British forces who live and work behind what is supposed to be the most impenetrable fortress ever devised (obviously modeled on the USA’s Green Zone in Baghdad). After the mysterious disappearance of several soldiers, none of which are officially listed on the base’s manifest, the camp Psychiatrist begins to suspect that the real purpose of the compound is not what it seems. With with two of her patients, awaiting dishonorable discharge for desertion, she makes a furtive pact to investigate what is on the other side of the “barrier.” In time they come realize that “every outside is an inside”and that the architecture of the fortified enclave is the same as a concentration camp.
Hiromi Matsui and Ken Nomo, editors, She Gets Confused (Flying Over the Dateline): Tokyo-Los Angeles Art & Architectural Practices, 1990-99 (Rizzoli, 2013): The catalog for this show featuring art and architectural practices that were based in both Los Angeles and Tokyo during the 1990s and whose work expresses influences from both sides of the Pacific. Of particular interest are extremely inventive “mobile multimedia” projects, experimental manga titles that strongly influenced on the Osaka School of typography, and a series of UCLA student projects for the Japanese space program. I remember with fascination the essays debating the controversy over the design competition for a Yukio Mishima memorial in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo district (officially won by Angry Pineapple Now! after Studio Unit 731b withdrew in protest.) Purchase of the proposed site and construction of a memorial to the controversial right-wing Japanese poet, actor, body-builder, and political activist was provided by a local construction magnate, but outcry from Korean-American and Chinese-American Angelinos resulted in withdrawal of permits by the city. Amazing lenticular book cover design by APPPA.
Dr. Joseph Wang Programming Nanorobotics (O’Reilly, 2014): This introduction to programming essentials from O’Reilly Media books continues their excellent series of software/hardware primers in emerging programming fields. Nanorobotics has become a really interesting platform for design and development, especially in conjunction with standard 3D biotechnology tools. Autodesk’s systems are still the most widely used, including their prosumer iPad apps (like 123Gene and AutoProtein, which even my little boy can use to design DNA and print-to-order “biobricks”). I am more interested in what the new logic and behavior protocols can do (namely OOGL and NovoGenXL) especially in conjunction with Google’s Android Robotics OS. My previous work toying with nanotech skin-based sensing systems is something I would like to develop further for other surfaces with other machine behavior profiles.
Slavoj Žižek That Which is Not What it is Not (Punctum Books, 2014): I had a chance to spend some time with the intrepid Slovenian Philosopher earlier this summer at the European Graduate School in Switzerland, where we were both teaching. We had a memorable conversation about Jacques Lacan’s notion of “Lamella,” a kind of monstrous brainless undead asexually reproducing indestructible goop. Žižek has used the term in his reading of David Lynch films, as a substance that is horrific and uncanny. I pressed the point that as far as Astrobiology is concerned this kind of matter is pretty ordinary, and that the sorts of things that we take to be “normal” (having a face, inside the symbolic order, sexually reproducing, etc.) are really the bizarre and exceptional forms. He agreed with this (I think), and we discussed H.P. Lovecraft and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, which somehow lead him to anecdotes about Stalin’s body double’s true height and why he liked the new Robocop more than the original. Apparently, he deals with the concept of Lamella at greater length in this short independently published book, and even manages to relate it to the Dave Eggers/Emily Gould collaboration, The Tweed and Tonic Diaries (a text so deeply horrible that neither of us could bear to read more than a few pages —on that we agreed).
Alice Goffman’s On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (University of Chicago Press, 2014) blew me away. Through deeply embedded ethnographic work, Goffman illustrates how young black men must navigate the abusive nature of policing practices from their earliest years, forcing them to develop sophisticated strategies to achieve some sense of agency in an unfair world. This book is raw and brilliant, providing key insights into aspects of American inequality that aren’t fully understood by more privileged folks.
Another book that delighted me to no end is Robin Nagle’s Picking Up (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2014), where she joins the New York City Department of Sanitation to better understand the often invisible infrastructure of waste collection that keeps our city functional. Did you know, for example, that more sanitation workers die on the job each year than policemen or firemen? And do you know the history of how NYC went from a site of filth to an impressively functional sanitation machine? This book will tell you this and more.
Most histories of the internet start with big tech companies. But if you dig deeper, there’s a more complex story. In the 1930s, the US government brought together leading artists like John Cage and the New Bauhaus folks alongside artistic organizations like MoMA and anthropologists like Margaret Mead to imagine what “democratic media” might look like in response to the “fascist media” of film. As Fred Turner beautifully documents in The Democratic Surround (University of Chicago Press, 2013), the communities that emerged around this helped imagine interactive technologies as we know them.
It’s easy to bash security theater when spending another day trying to navigate the TSA, but the US’s obsession with security isn’t just annoying; it’s downright dangerous. In Against Security (Princeton University Press, 2014), Harvey Molotch offers a series of case studies that shed light on how we used security to implement practices, policies, and infrastructure that fundamentally disenfranchises and harms the very people it’s designed to protect.
My publisher would probably murder me if I didn’t list my own book, published in February, among the list of key summer reading. It’s Complicated (Yale University Press, 2014) is an attempt to synthesize a decade’s worth of work into young people’s engagement with social technologies by responding to various fears and anxieties that enshroud discussions of youth. Kids do care about privacy. Bullying is more complicated than you think. The internet is not the great equalizer. And our online safety discussions are often a distraction to real risks youth face. More importantly, what teens are doing today is trying to reclaim a space of their own because we adults have made it so darn difficult for teens to socialize with their friends.
My bifurcated research into media art and media design trifurcated when I started looking at digital humanities as well, and with a long-standing project on the cultural history of Los Angeles, has now morphed, re-mixed, and metastasized into a weird beast that I no longer quite understand or recognize, but one that demands to be fed with bushels of books over summer breaks.
More than a decade ago I wrote an essay about speed-up called “25/8,” so I’m interested in Jonathan Crary’s take in 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (Verso, 2013). This book has been very present on my grad students’ bibliographies, and I want to catch up with them (an anxious mode of text-reception befitting precisely what I figure Crary will be discussing).
I read Lev Manovich’s Software Takes Command (Bloomsbury Academic, 2013) on-line over time as he posted various versions, but I want to sit down and take it in as a totality now that it’s been published in book form. The chapter on motion graphics is the best thing I’ve ever read on the subject, and the final version is copiously illustrated.
In co-writing Digital_Humanities (MIT Press, 2012), I had to come to grips with just how tenaciously literary scholars want to hold onto the field as “theirs,” even though it seems quite evident to me that DH is far more. That said, I want to look more deeply at two of the best from that side of the aisle, with a close reading of Franco Moretti’s Distant Reading (Verso, 2013) and a microanalysis of Matthew Jockers’ Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History (University of Illinois Press, 2013).
In a similar vein, I plan to dive into the catalogues from some major shows about LA architecture and design from the past year, with Wendy Kaplan’s California Design, 1930–1965: “Living in a Modern Way” from LACMA, the Getty’s Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940-1990 curated by Wim de Wit and Christopher James Alexander, and Never Built Los Angeles, which Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin organized for the A+D Museum.
Finally, I’ve decided that I want to read all of Ian Fleming’s original James Bond novels. There are only twelve of them, with two short story collections, written between 1951 and 1964. I probably should be reading them while drinking martinis (shaken but not stirred), but I’m an Angeleno, and it’s already hot outside, so I’ll be opting for cucumber-jalapeno margaritas instead.
Most of my summer reading will consist of canonical texts concerning “Eros & Civilization,” which is a new course I’ll be teaching at the New School for Social Research in the Fall. But when I manage to steal away from such agonistic Grand Narratives, I’ll be hopefully getting a chance to read the following:
Karl Ove Knausgaard My Struggle: Book 2 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014): Yes, obvious I know. But I found Book 1 as inexplicably compulsive as many others, and I’ve heard volume 2 is even more absorbing.
Eugene ThackerAn Ideal for Living (Gobbet Press, 2014): I read this techno-remix mind-melt in ms. form over ten years ago, and am keen to revisit it again, now that it’s been given a new life by Gobbet Press. A nice appetizer for Thacker’s incredibly transporting book on pessimism, which will hopefully come out in a year or so.
Eduardo Kohn How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human (University of California Press, 2013): People I trust have been raving about this book for the past year, so I better catch up. Kohn seems to be doing something similar, yet different, from what Hugh Raffles did in his splendid book, In Amazonia (Princeton University Press, 2002).
Yuriko Furuhata Cinema of Actuality: Japanese Avant-Garde Filmmaking in the Season of Image Politics (Duke University Press, 2013): This book won a SCMS prize a year or so ago, and having read some of Yuri’s subsequent work-in-progress, this has rocketed to the top of the to-read pile. She uses specific sites to do astonishing historical revisions of interest to any scholars of critical media theory. Plus, I envy her virtuoso use of English.
Marguerite Yourcenar Two Lives and a Dream (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1988): Part of my ongoing project to read every word Yourcenar ever wrote, and remind the world that this remarkable woman needs to be rediscovered in a big way (a lá, the new marketing machine for Clarice Lispector). Truly humbling to be in the presence of such a brilliant and creative mind.
I have been reading Listening Publics by Kate Lacey (Polity, 2013), and am deeply regretting not having read it before turning in my own latest to Oxford University Press, Affective Publics: Sentiment and the New Political. It is a beautifully written and engaging book that reviews what form practices of listening took on in the past, and thus, makes us all reconsider what practices of listening mean for contemporary political cultures. I could not recommend more highly, especially to those interested in how newer media platforms can help revive tired civic habits of the past.
I also recently read and thoroughly enjoyed How Voters Feel by Stephen Coleman (Cambridge University Press, 2014), on what it means to feel like, rather than act like or think like a democratic citizen. Coleman examines how narratives, dreams, and memories inform performances of voting or non-voting, and what sorts of feelings about democracy and civic engagement these generate for people. The book focuses on what living in a democracy might feel like, rather than require of its citizens, and in so doing, it refocuses attention on the meaning of feelings for political engagement, without divorcing them from the organizing logic of rationality.
The Hybrid Media System: Political and Power (Oxford university Press, 2013) by Andrew Chadwick is another volume I recently finished and highly recommend, especially to those looking for a book to assign in basic courses on mass media (whatever the term may refer to these days), media systems, mass communication and new media, and all those courses that represent the core of our field. Having read this, many textbooks feel dated to me now. This volume describes the organization, logic, and function of contemporary media in immediate and engaging terms. It is a must read for all students of media, and interested parties in general.
Finally, I am trying to muster the energy to read Thomas Piketty’s much discussed Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Belknap Press, 2014). I have gone through the first chapter and had to ask myself whether all those who bought and pushed it to the top of best seller lists actually finished reading it. It is a very smart book, and one that had to be written, I am just not sure yet that the same issues have not been presented, in a slightly different contexts, by other social scientists already. I look forward to reading more, and more on this when I am done doing so. Happy reading!
Who has time to read? My world is one of continuous partial attention. Complicating matters is that I can no longer read anything without simultaneously writing something. Let’s call it riff-reading.
The best writing does absolutely nothing for me in the way of story, plot, character, authenticity, voice, setting or conventional meaning-making i.e. the predictable middle-brow or preprogrammed academic literary and theoretical styles that easily meet expectations. Rather, it immediately stimulates my muscle memory in a way my neurons never saw coming. Once the neurons are triggered and I am starting to go out of control, I too find myself writing-while-reading in the margins of my mind, iPhone, notepad, etc. What this means is that the best writing, the writing I come back to, is writing that awakens the writer-in-me, even if that writer is really anybody but me.
Fortunately, I often spend my summers in Portland, living and writing in my loft a mere six blocks away from Powell’s, arguably the best bookstore in America. My nightly visits to Powell’s open me up to books I might never have heard of were I to depend solely on the Internet or, worse, academic culture, to tell me what’s hot and what’s not. Which is why my summer reading is always an eclectic mix of the unexpected. This year is no different. These are the first books I have unearthed from the endless shelves that I immerse myself in:
Blake ButlerThree Hundred Million (Harper Perennial, 2014): Alongside Ben Marcus, Blake Butler has rapidly become one of my favorite authors of recent years. His last two forays, There Is No Year (Harper Perennial, 2011) and Sky Saw (Tyrant Books, 2012) were terrifying in scope and ambition. They were essentially abstractions, vivid, nightmarish images sown together with bloody twine to form shimmering, apocalyptic narratives. Three Hundred Million sounds like something of a departure for Butler. For one thing, judging by pre-publication blurbs, it appears as though he has veered into a more straight-forward approach (if that can ever be said of Butler!) – for the first time in his oeuvre he names characters – a psychopath called Gretch Gravey and a burnt-out cop called E.N. Flood. That fact alone suggests a more accessible narrative. But knowing Butler that’s a bit like describing Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night as a straight forward detective novel. I expect the unexpected.
David Cronenberg Consumed (Scribner, 2014): What’s not to be intrigued? He is one of the world’s most literary contemporary filmmakers, consuming and then exhuming, as it were, the works of the likes of Burroughs, Ballard and DeLillo for source material. As this is a first novel it will be intriguing to see if Cronenberg’s visual panache can be matched in the written word, but the themes are certainly suitably Cronenbergian: disease, depravity and conspiracy. Evidently the story of two journalists who become involved in the complexities surrounding a French philosopher’s death – it may be Umberto Eco on acid?
William GibsonThe Peripheral(Putnam, 2014): It’s rather impossible to know which direction Gibson is going to go in with this. Where Thomas Pynchon’s last outing, Bleeding Edge (Penguin, 2013), sounded like a precursor to some of Gibson’s recent speculations, this one is evidently back to the “far future” – which, with Gibson, probably means next year. The pre-pub blurb is certainly intriguing complete with veteran’s benefits for neural damage suffered from implants during time in an “elite Haptic Recon force,” Beta-testing a new game, where “Little bug-like things turn up,” but “it might also be murder.” Gibson, to date, has never failed to supply a decent narrative drive, although perhaps not as visionary as his first novel, he has an uncanny knack for picking themes that seem strangely relevant to our near-future(s).
Okwui Enwezor, Homi K. Bhabha, and Hilton Als Matthew Barney: River of Fundament (Skira Rizzoli, 2014): Whilst the other books listed here must go down as pleasure, this one is work-related as part of doctorial research where Harold Bloom’s American Religion meets Barney’s art, Ben Marcus’ novels and moments of David Lynch. Yeah, weird. But River of Fundament is an extraordinary film/artwork which I strongly recommend for those who do not have allergies to the extreme. Inspired in part by Norman Mailer’s Egyptian novel Ancient Evenings, his infamous classic that chronicled the passage of a narrator through the stations of death and reincarnation (here reinterpreted as Mailer’s own aspirations to be the Great American Novelist). Barney has outdone the Cremaster Cycle on many levels. If one likes the films of Lynch, Cronenberg, and the more extreme moments of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, River of Fundament is a must-see. Hopefully the main text by Okwui Enwezor will provide an insight into a baffling but brilliant project.
Michael Findley, Daniel Nielson, and Jason Sharman Global Shell Games: Experiments in Transnational Relations, Crime, and Terrorism (Cambridge University Press, 2014): The authors use an innovative experimental research design to investigate over 3,800 corporate service providers in 181 countries that establish anonymous shell corporations. These untraceable corporations are used for money laundering, covert financing, and offshore tax havens. One of the major findings is that corporate service providers located in major Western countries including the United States are more likely to flout international regulations of the World Bank and the Financial Action Task Force. The authors propose Transnational Experimental Relations as a new sub-discipline of international relations to conduct further research using field experiments.
Gordon Clark, Adam Dixon, and Ashby Monk Sovereign Wealth Funds: Legitimacy, Governance, and Global Power (Princeton University Press, 2013): In 2010 as the global financial crisis unfolded a new type of funds management emerged as a dominant force in international markets and financial media coverage: sovereign wealth funds. This rigorous study examines what sovereign wealth funds are, how they function in transnational economies, and includes case studies from Australia, Norway, Singapore, China, and the Gulf States. A model of how good academic research can dispel media hype cycles.
Thomas Piketty Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Belknap Press, 2014): Piketty’s multi-year research program is one of the sources for multi-country data on income inequality. This book became a bestseller in 2014; crossed into the financial and popular media; and ignited a backlash against Piketty’s data collection and policy suggestions. Rather than Karl Marx, Piketty’s research continues a tradition on social elites pioneered by Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto, and most recently, Jeffrey A. Winters. The backlash against Piketty in part reflects an elite strategy of ‘wealth defense’ and civil oligarchical trends in the United States (Winters).
David Weil The Fissured Workplace: Why Work Became So Bad for So Many and What Can Be Done To Improve It (Harvard University Press, 2014): Boston University professor Weil is now the Obama Administration’s first Wage and Hour Administrator. This confronting book on labor economics contrasts the asset and private equity style of management with the lives of independent contractors and outsourcing firms. Many of the trends that Weil identifies already apply to universities, and will continue to unfold over the next decade.
Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (W.W. Norton & Co., 2014): Brynjolfsson and McAfee continue a debate on technology shaped by Norbert Wiener (The Human Use of Human Beings) and Alvin Toffler (Future Shock). This book catalogues recent growth in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and related fields, and how these innovations might change workplaces in the next two decades. Brynjolfsson and McAfee contend that recent innovations will lead to societal transformations (Toffler), yet they may also create a new economic underclass (Wiener; Piketty; and Weil). A primer to critically interrogate the preferred futures of Bangalore and Silicon Valley.
Riccardo Rebonato and Alexander Denev Portfolio Management Under Stress: A Bayesian-Net Approach to Coherent Asset Allocation (Cambridge University Press, 2014): Modern Portfolio Theory faced critique after the 2007-09 global financial crisis. Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Nouriel Roubini emerged as superstar critics. This book develops a post-MPT approach to asset allocation and portfolio management that uses Bayesian nets: probabilistic models of belief networks. Rebonato and Denev’s insights and formal models articulate ways to deal with extreme events and risk management that has resonances with the therapeutic literature on post-traumatic growth and resilience.
Henrique Andrade, Bugra Gedik, and Deepak Turaga Fundamentals of Stream Processing: Application, Design, Systems and Analytics (Cambridge University Press, 2014): A decade ago business management literature hypothesized the emergence of real-time companies. SAP’s enterprise resource planning platform was one way. Tibco and Streambase’s complex event processing engines are another way. This book provides a conceptual and methodological overview of stream processing that deals with high-volume, real-time data streams – with sections on system architecture, development, analytics, and case studies. Stream processing is an example of Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s transformative technologies, and that benefit Piketty’s economic elites. For one application in financial services, see Yacine Ait-Sahalia and Jean Jacod’s High-Frequency Econometrics (Princeton University Press, 2014).
Jacob Shapiro The Terrorist’s Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations (Princeton University Press, 2013): During the Bush Administration’s so-called Global War on Terror the study of terrorist organizations was a ‘hot topic’ in security studies. This book is one of the best post-GWoT studies to combine agency theory with a careful study of internal documents from terrorist organizations. Shapiro identifies a dilemma: leadership need for control versus the need to be clandestine. His findings can also be read as a specialized form of Clayton M. Christensen’s influential Disruptive Innovation Theory, as applied to terrorist organizations.
Don Webb Through Dark Angles (Hippocampus Press, 2014): H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) influenced contemporary horror and weird fiction, films, and subcultures. This book collects the Lovecraftian-influenced short stories of Austin, Texas writer Don Webb. The short stories hint at Webb’s on-going practice-based research into the anthropology, linguistics, and sociology of operative magic (the Egyptian heka) as a liminal methodology to achieve, embody, and to cultivate Desire.
James H. Austin Meditating Selflessly: Practical Neural Zen (MIT Press, 2011): Over the past decade Austin has published a series of books on Zen and contemporary neuroscience. This book summarizes Austin’s research program, and offers guidance for mindfulness meditation practice. Rather than beliefs or doctrines Austin advises: “what you may glimpse are some of your brain’s innate resources” (p. xxiii). Austin’s latest book Zen-Brain Horizons: Towards a Living Zen (MIT Press, 2014) continues his personal research journey.
Lance Strate Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman’s Brave New World Revisited (Peter Lang, 2014): It’s high time that Neil Postman’s ideas were revisited, and, having studied under Postman himself, Lance Strate is the ideal scholar to do it. Media ecology as a perspective is more important now than ever. This is the source and the voice of its views in the 21st century. I’m looking forward to the upgrade.
Eugene Thacker An Ideal for Living (Gobbet Press, 2014) and In the Dust of This Planet [Horror of Philosophy, vol 1] (Zer0 Books, 2011): Eugene Thacker has been quietly building an impressively wide and weird body of work. An Ideal for Living is a deserved re-issue of the anti-novel he was working on during our 2006 interview. In the Dust of This Planet is Book One of his re-imagining of horror, philosophy, and their intersection. Both are worth a look. Or three.
In his essay, “Garcetti’s Bridge to Bicycle Nowhere,” LA writer Joseph Mailander (2014) describes the harrowing bike ride across the half-mile Hyperion-Glendale Bridge between “the lands the freeways forgot,” Los Feliz and Silver Lake. The traffic signals there currently afford a brief, semi-safe interval between the roaring cars and trucks on the road. “And how are they making this bridge safer?” asks Mailander. “By making the traffic even faster and daring the cyclists to mix with the motorists even more.”
Just about everything I’ve read about urban development has faulted the car for the ills of the city. “A city can be friendly to people or it can be friendly to cars, but it can’t be both,” says Bogatá’s mayor Enrique Peñalosa while riding a bike through his city in 2007 (quoted in Montgomery, 2013, p. 7). “The most dynamic economies of the twentieth century produced the most miserable cities,” he says. “I’m talking about the US, of course—Atlanta, Phoenix, Miami, cities totally dominated by private cars” (p. 9). Bogatá and Peñalosa are the first case study in Charles Montgomery’s book Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2013). Montgomery writes that as systems, cities are susceptible to self-replicating. That is, a design is established, becomes codified in the plans, and spreads itself to other cities. For example, the car-based dispersion that characterizes our American cities is encoded in their DNA. “The dispersed city lives not only in the durability of buildings, parking lots, and highways,” he writes, “but also in the habits of the professionals who make our cities” (p. 75).
A disturbing amount of these habits come from military practices. Sophie Yanow’s War of Streets and Houses (Uncivilized Books, 2014) briefly and beautifully tells a story of struggling with space, place, and the design of both through subtle comic panels and sparse text. Of this struggle, she tells Sarah Goodyear at The Atlantic Cities, “I sat in on an urban planning course once where the professor was talking about how we as a culture in North America have lost a certain ‘know-how’ when it comes to building and creating spaces. But even if we have the know-how to shape space the way we want to, authority always wants to defer to professionals, to urban planners or architects.” In War of Streets and Houses, she cites Foucault’s “disciplinary space” to describe the ways urban space is designed to control its inhabitants. Echoing urban theorist Jane Jacobs, Yanow continues, “…I think that in terms of building social movements, a walkable city is important. Places where people literally brush up against each other on the sidewalk, where they have to be in public together and don’t just see each other passing by in cars.” Urban space is such a different experience when you’re actually in it, on foot or on a bicycle and not in a car or a building. As Rebecca Solnit tells Jarrett Earnest at The Brooklyn Rail, “With cities I’m more interested in public spaces and streets, which have been important for my work on democracy and the way that democracy requires us to co-exist in public, so I’m more concerned with the space between the buildings than the buildings themselves.”
Having grown up in rural Northern California, Yanow first finds downtown Montreal an anonymous space, “Empty. Calm. As if it hid nothing and had nothing to hide” (p. 23). She quickly compares it to places along the coast or in the suburbs where “human scale things are quaint or unimaginable” (p. 20, 21). Democracy happens at human scale. That is why we occupy the streets and not the fields.
In Rebel Cities (Verso, 2012), David Harvey traces the pedigree of urban-based class struggles back to the late eighteenth century. From Paris in 1789 through Paris in 1968, through Seattle in 1999, and the more recent Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park in New York City, Harvey situates the city as the center of capitalist and class struggle. Where others have criticized OWS is unorganized and ineffectual, Harvey praises the movement, writing, “It shows us that the collective power of bodies in public space is still the most effective instrument of opposition when all other means of access are blocked” (p. 161-162). There is less and less public space to fill with bodies as such. From Georges-Eugène Haussmann in Paris to Robert Moses in New York, changes in architecture and urban planning might be the most tangible and tenacious result of political unrest.
Our cities were redesigned to prevent political action and simultaneously they’ve been reconfigured to accommodate automobiles. Looking ahead we see more lanes of gridlocked traffic. Mailander (2014) adds, “Imagining the future as a cool and pristine place is code for saying things aren’t right right now. Some may like to try to fix things by inviting dreamers to dream bigger dreams. But we had better apply some math to these dreams too.” Cars drive capital. If we want them out of the city, it’s time to learn the algebra of alternatives.
Earnest, Jarrett. (2014, March 4). The Poetic Politics of Space: Rebecca Solnit in Conversation with Jarrett Earnest. The Brooklyn Rail.
Goodyear, Sarah. (2014, April 14). An Illustrated History of All the Ways Urban Environments Can Control Us: An Interview with Sophie Yanow. The Atlantic Cities.
Harvey, David. (2012). Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. New York: Verso.
Mailander, Joseph F. (2014). LA at Intermission: A City Mingling Towards Identity. Los Angeles: Nellcôte Press.
Montgomery, Charles. (2013). Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.
Yanow, Sophie. (2014). War of Streets and Houses. Minneapolis, MN: Uncivilized Books.
“If I am asked to explain why I learned the bicycle,” writes Frances E. Willard in her 1895 book How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle, “I should say I did it as an act of grace, if not of actual religion” (p. 73). I grew up riding bicycles, so I often take the fun and freedom they afford for granted. Having seen several adults squeal with childlike glee after riding a bike for the first time in years or the first time ever, I am reminded of my own love for what Alfred Jarry called “that which rolls.” Willard continues,
The cardinal doctrine laid down by my physician was, ‘Live out of doors and take congenial exercise;’ but from the day when, at sixteen years of age, I was enwrapped in the long skirts that impeded every footstep, I have detested walking and felt with a certain noble disdain that the conventions of life had cut me off from what in the freedom of my prairie home had been one of life’s sweetest joys (p. 73-74).
Willard was president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and didn’t learn to ride a bicycle until the age of 53. Like most of the things she tackled in her life (e.g., women’s suffrage, politics, education, etc.), she took it as a challenge. As she so boldly puts it, “She who succeeds in gaining the mastery of the bicycle will gain the mastery of life.” Bikes can empower the weakest of spirit and liberate the most muddled of minds.
In Bikenomics: How Bicycling Can Save the Economy (Microcosm, 2013), Elly Blue argues that they can also fix the recession. Starting with the myth that cyclists don’t pay for roads and motorists do. Car drivers pay for about half of the paved infrastructure in the U.S. The other half comes from everyone, regardless of our choice of vehicle. Blue lives and rides in “bike friendly” Portland, Oregon, where its growing citizenry is able to pay higher rents because they don’t have to own or drive cars. I lived in Portland for a year myself, and it’s a great town to ride in. Out of the cities I’ve lived in since getting rid of my last car in 1998 (e.g., Seattle, WA, San Francisco, CA, San Diego, CA, Flagstaff, AZ, Athens, GA, Austin, TX, Chicago, IL), it’s easily one of the most comfortable. That makes a big difference.
A quick aside: I used scare quotes around the term “bike friendly” above because it’s one of those phrases that gets tossed around during urban mayoral elections and the like by people who don’t ride bikes. I hear it regularly here in Chicago. The friendliness of your city to bicycles is not about how many miles of bike lane your roads contain. It’s about how your city’s cyclists are treated while on those roads. With that said, Portland is way ahead of most cities in this respect.
Blue concludes Bikenomics with a re-envisioning of the future as seen through increasing trends in bicycle use. From global warming and access during power outages to general health and safety, she makes a strong case for the bicycle as the best choice for getting around. As David Byrne (2009) puts it in his Bicycle Diaries, “Strangely, the recent economic downturn might be a great opportunity. Sustainability, public transport, and bike lanes aren’t scoffed at anymore” (p. 40). Here’s hoping that sentiment continues to spread.
If you’re looking for a close-up view of the machine itself, Richard Hallett’s The Bike Deconstructed: A Grand Tour of the Modern Bicycle (Princeton Architectural Press, 2014) breaks it down to the last bolt and bracket. As the former editor of RoadCyclingUK.com, Hallett knows his shifters. I’m learning and will continue to learn from Hallett’s thorough guide being relatively new to anything outside of a BMX set-up. As Isabel Marks (1901) once put it, “to the ardent cyclist no side of the sport is devoid of interest…” (p. 5). If you need to know more about the mechanical minutia of your rig or just love to geek out on gears and gadgets, this book is perfect for both.
As the sticker goes, cars run on money and make us fat; bikes run on fat and save us money. Exercise is essential, and our technologies tend to sway us away from getting enough. “The bicycle…” Frances E. Willard concludes, “will ere long come within the reach of all. Therefore, in obedience to the laws of health, I learned to ride. I also wanted to help women to a wider world, for I hold that the more interests women and men have in common, in thought, word, and deed, the happier will it be for the home” (p. 74). Everything is better with bicycles.
Blue, Elly. (2013). Bikenomics: How Bicycling Can Save the Economy. Portland, OR: Microcosm.
Brotchie, Alastair (2011). Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical Life. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Byrne, David. (2009). Bicycle Diaries. New York: Viking.
Hallett, Richard. (2014). The Bike Deconstructed: A Grand Tour of the Modern Bicycle. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural Press.
Marks, Isabel. (1901/2013). Fancy Cycling. Oxford, UK: Old House Books.
Willard, Frances, E. (1895/1991). How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle: Reflections of an Influential 19th Century Woman. Sunnyvale, CA: Fair Oaks Publishing.
For what might seem a most mundane human activity, walking has quite a body of literature. Even being such a normal, everyday act, it’s a theme that never wears out. As Karen O’Rourke (2013) puts it, “…contemporary artists have returned time and again to the walking motif, discovering that, no matter how many times it has been done, it is never done” (p. xvii). Are they making too much of putting one foot in front of the other, or is walking always already much more than that?
and you don’t always realize it
but you’re always
With each step,
and then you catch yourself from
And this is how you can be walking
at the same time.
— Laurie Anderson, “Walking and Falling”
In The Art of Walking: A Field Guide (Black Dog, 2013) edited by David Evans, artists are shown contextualizing and recontextualizing the act of walking, sometimes by taking it outside its everyday context, sometimes by drastically changing that context. Evans’ colorful book covers Jan Estep’s Searching for Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ingrid Pollard’s Wordsworth Heritage (homage to the inventor of the modern walk), Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking, beautiful marches, weird shoes, paint drippings, mobile shelters, high wires, GPS units, various maps, and even walking dogs. It’s part art book, part documentation, and part field guide to the possibilities of both.
What makes a collection like this work is great photographs, and The Art of Walking is full of them. Nearly 200 photos of walks and works illustrate the wide-ranging art of the bipedal and peripatetic. It’s a worthy addition to the growing literature on walking as an artistic and political practice.
In her own history of walking, Rebecca Solnit (2000) writes, “Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them… Walking is a mode of making the world as well as being in it” (p. 27; p. 5). She continues,
Walking still covers the ground between cars and buildings and the short distances within the latter, but walking as a cultural activity, as a pleasure, as travel, as a way of getting around, is fading, and with it goes an ancient and profound relationship between body, world, and imagination (p. 250).
In Walking and Mapping: Artists as Cartographers (MIT Press, 2013), Karen O’Rourke explores not only the relationship between walking, body, world, and art but also walking and design. Using protocol as a trope through which to illuminate the differences between top-down planning and bottom-up development, O’Rourke breaks new ground between them. For example, paved sidewalks are predictions, attempts at restricting the walks of the future (top-down). Trails are of the past, worn by many previous walks (bottom-up). Maps are metaphors and often represent a bit of both, as well as the relationship(s) between body and world.
Making the workaday weird is one of the central challenges of art. Walking can be artistic, political, practical, or just a last resort for getting from one point to another. No matter our intentions, we walk this way to make our world and to make our way in it.
Anderson, Laurie. (1982). Walking and Falling. On Big Science [LP]. New York: Warner Bros.
Evans, David. (2013). The Art of Walking: A Field Guide. London: Black Dog Publishing.
O’Rourke, Karen. (2013). Walking and Mapping: Artists as Cartographers. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Solnit, Rebecca. (2000). Wanderlust: A History of Walking. New York: Penguin.
The densely populated spaces of our built environment have been slowly redefining themselves. In 1981 there were the nine nations of North America. In 1991 the edge cities emerged. In 2001 we witnessed the worst intentions of a tightly networked community that lacked physical borders, what Richard Norton calls a “feral city.” From flash mobs to terrorist cells, communities can now quickly toggle between virtual and physical organization.
The city, as a form of the body politic, responds to new pressures and irritations by resourceful new extensions always in the effort to exert staying power, constancy, equilibrium, and homeostasis.
— Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media
According to Joel Garreau (1991), an edge city is one that is “perceived by the population as one place” (p. 7), which, like neighborhoods, are staunchly identified with and defended by their residents, resisting outside influence. Conversely, one of the key insights in Richard Florida’s latest book, The Great Reset (Harper, 2010) is that rapid transit increases the exchange of ideas between such areas, thereby spurring innovation (Where the car used to provide this mass connection, it now hinders it). Deleuze called these areas “any-space-whatever,” but the space in his view is only important for the connections it facilitates. Adam Greenfeld (2013) writes that “the important linkages aren’t physical but those made between ideas, technical systems and practices.” After all, the first condition for a smart city is “a world-class broadband infrastructure” (Townsend, 2013, p.194). Connection is key.
Urban planner Kevin Lynch (1976) writes, “Our senses are local, while our experience is regional” (p. 10). In Great American City (University of Chicago Press, 2013), Robert J. Sampson argues for behavior based on our sense of local roots. The neighborhood effect is sort of a structuration between the individual and the network, the local and the global (cf. Giddens, 1984). The neighborhood is where the boundaries matter. It’s where human perception binds us within borders, where nodes are landmarks in a physical network, not connections in the cloud.
There are patterns because we try to find them. A desperate attempt at order because we can’t face the terror that it might be all random. — Lauren Beukes, The Shining Girls
Lynch called cities, “systems of access that pass through mosaics of territory” (1976, p. 21). In Out of the Mountains (Oxford University Press, 2013), David Kilcullen defines four global factors determining the future of such mosaics of territory: population growth, urbanization, littoralization, and connectedness. As more and more people copulate and populate the planet, they are doing so in bigger cities, near the water, and with more connectivity than ever. Basically the future of human hives is crowded, coastal, connected, and complex.
Today, we are witnessing the rise of swarm publics, highly unstable constellations of temporary alliances that resemble a public sphere in constant flux; globally mediated flash mobs that never meet, fuelled by sentiment and affect, escaping fixed capture.
— Eric Kluitenberg, Delusive Spaces
These “swarm cities,” as I call them, are only as physical as they need to be. And, as connected as they are, are also only as cohesive as they need to be. But the networked freedom to live and work anywhere doesn’t always make the neighborhood irrelevant, it often makes it that much more important.
Beukes, Lauren. (2013). The Shining Girls: A Novel. New York: Mulholland Books, p. 324.
Florida, Richard. (2010). The Great Reset. New York: Harper.
Garreau, Joel. (1981). The Nine Nations of North America. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Garreau, Joel. (1991). Edge City: Life on the New Frontier. New York: Doubleday.
Giddens, Anthony. (1984). The Constitution of Society. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press.
Greenfield, Adam. (2013). Against the Smart City. New York: Do Projects.
Kilcullen, David. (2013). Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kluitenberg, Eric. (2008). Delusive Spaces: Essays on Culture, Media and Technology. New York: NAi/DAP. Inc., p. 285.
Lynch, Kevin. (1976). Managing the Sense of a Region. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
McLuhan, Marshall. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: Houghton-Mifflin, p. 98.
Sampson, Robert J. (2013). Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Townsend, Anthony M. (2013). Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Special thanks to Scott Smith of Changeist, who posted a “smart cities” reading list on Twitter a couple of weeks ago. Much of the recent reading I’ve done on the topic came from that list.
“How did you get here?” asks Peter Morville (p. xi) on the first page of his book Ambient Findability (O’Reilly, 2005). It’s not a metaphysical question, but a practical and direct one. Ambience indirectly calls attention to the here we’re in. It is all around us at all times. In Tim Morton’s The Ecological Thought (Harvard University Press, 2010), he explains it this way:
Take the music of David Byrne and Laurie Anderson. Early postmodern theory likes to think of them as nihilists or relativists, bricoleurs in the bush of ghosts. Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” features a repeated sample of her voice and a sinister series of recorded messages. This voice typifies postmodern art materials: forms of incomprehensible, unspeakable existence. Some might call it inert, sheer existence–art as ooze. It’s a medium in which meaning and unmeaning coexist. This oozy medium has something physical about it, which I call ambience (p. 103).
“Ambient” is a loaded, little word at best. You wouldn’t be alone if the first thing that comes to mind upon reading the word is a thoughtful soundscape by Brian Eno. In Ambient Commons: Attention in the Age of Embodied Information (MIT Press, 2013), Malcolm McCullough reclaims the word for our hypermediated surroundings. Claiming that we’ve mediated aspects of our world so well that we’ve obscured parts of the world itself. Looking through the ambient invites us to think about our environment–built, mediated, situated, or otherwise–in a new way. McCullough asks, “Do increasingly situated information technologies illuminate the world, or do they just eclipse it (figure 1.3 below)?” (p. 20). He adds on the book’s website, “Good interaction design reduces the ‘cognitive load’ of artifacts. It also recognizes how activities make use of context, periphery, and background. But now as ever more of the human perceptual field has been engineered for cognition, is there a danger of losing awareness of how environment also informs?” How much can we augment before we begin to obscure?
McCullough’s background as a design practitioner grounds his inquiry in the cognition of the user (He is Associate Professor of Architecture and Design at the University of Michigan). That alone sets Ambient Commons apart from most other books in the field. It’s not against technology, and it’s not cheering it on. It’s a call to more mindful use.
Framing some of the same concerns within the wiry window of networks, Anna Munster’s An Aesthesia of Networks: Conjunctive Experience in Art and Technology (MIT Press, 2013) is also a call for more mindful consideration. “Aesthesia” reinstates experience in and of the network, which is possibly the most pervasive of all our mediating technologies. Using William James’ radical empiricism, viral media, video art, Deleuze and Guattari, and Google Earth, Munster’s approach pushes us past the day-to-day relations of data to the underlying assemblage of networks. Like Peter Krapp’s Noise Channels (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), An Aesthesia… pulls the background to the fore; it makes the ambient evident.
“Ambience points to the here and now,” Morton (2010) continues, “in a compelling way that goes beyond explicit content… ambience opens up our ideas of space and place into radical questioning” (p. 104). Just as poetry calls attention to language, ambience calls attention to place. You are here.
Krapp, Peter. (2011). Noise Channels: Glitch and Error in Digital Culture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
McCullough, Malcolm. (2013). Ambient Commons: Attention in the Age of Embodied Information. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Morton, Timothy. (2010). The Ecological Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Morville, Peter. (2005). Ambient Findability (Preface: You Are Here!). Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.
Munster, Anna. (2013). An Aesthesia of Networks: Conjunctive Experience in Art and Technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Those disgruntled with our current “technopoly,” as Neil Postman famously called it, often argue for returning to a simpler time. This is, of course, impossible, as even their visions of simpler times include technology. For example, in The Nature of Technology (Free Press, 2009), Brian Arthur envisions a world where all of our modern technologies disappear, yet we’d still be left with some. He writes, “We would still have watermills, and foundries, and oxcarts; and course linens, and hooded cloaks, and sophisticated techniques for building cathedrals. But we would once again be medieval” (p. 10). As ludicrous as such an argument appears, I would like to return to a time that never happened, an alternate universe where bicycles dominated the roads, as well as the construction and spread thereof. I’m not alone in this fantasy. Many of us take to the streets on two wheels instead of four, and movements like Critical Mass try to take them over completely on a regular basis.
The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is… one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.
— David Harvey
For the uninitiated, Critical Mass is a monthly ride aimed at taking back the streets from cars, demonstrating the presence of bicycles, and reminding everyone that they’re on the road, too. The event is known for blocking thoroughfares, pissing off motorists, and regular arrests. Shift Happens: Critical Mass at 20 (Full Enjoyment, 2012), edited by Chris Carlsson, LisaRuth Elliott, and Adriana Camarena, is a twenty-year, global retrospective of the trials and triumphs of Critical Mass. It’s a monthly revolution that will start its third decade this week. The scope of these essays is as global as the movement, from Budapest to Berkeley and Paris to Ponce, and its birthplace in San Francisco, as well as from my beloved Portland to my current Chicago.
Strangely, the recent economic downturn might be a great opportunity. Sustainability, public transport, and bike lanes aren’t scoffed at anymore. — David Byrne, Bicycle Diaries
For a look at the social forces that created the bicycle as opposed to the ones it has created, it gets no better than The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology (The MIT Press, 2012), edited by by Wiebe E. Bijker, Thomas P. Hughes, and Trevor Pinch. I first encountered this volume — and its use of the bicycle as an astute example of technological change (in Pinch and Bijker’s essay “The Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each Other”) — in Andrew Feenberg‘s “Philosophy of Technology” class at San Diego State. It has since been treated to a much-deserved anniversary edition (the original version hit shelves in 1987). This collection established the approach of the social construction of technology (SCOT) as a viable methodology, and it’s not all about bicycles: eighteenth-century cooking stoves, twentieth-century missile systems, and thirteenth-century galleys get their due. The aforementioned chapter on the social construction of bicycles is still my favorite though.
The mere fact of riding a bicycle is not in itself sinful, and if it is the only means of reaching the church on a Sunday, it may be excusable. — 1885 reply to a letter from a young lady
If you’re looking for more focus on the bike itself, rather than its urban and sociological implications, there’s Bicycling Science (The MIT Press, 2004), by David Gordon Wilson, which is now on its third edition (its original having come out in 1982). This book has everything to do with human-powered wheeled vehicles — bicycles in the broadest sense of the term: from the general (e.g., basic concepts of human power, the history of the bicycle, etc.) to the specific (e.g., physics, aerodynamics, bearings, materials, braking, steering, etc.), and the weird and the future of bicycles. If you’re looking for the mechanical minutia of bicycles, Bicycling Science is likely to be the only book you need.
I’m admittedly biased, but I think the bicycle is one of the greatest inventions in the history of technology. I’ve been riding one since the age of four, and they’ve been my primary means of transportation for the past fifteen years. If you don’t ride a bike regularly, give it one shot. Bicycles are fun, and that one ride might be the door to a whole new world. These three books go a long way to covering both the history of that world and its implications in the twenty-first century. On the eve of the twentieth anniversary of Critical Mass, do yourself a favor, and, in the words of Mike Daily, ride first, read later.
Arthur, Brian. (2009). The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves. New York: Free Press.
Bijker, Wiebe E. (1997). Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Bijker, Wiebe E. , Hughes, Thomas P., & Pinch, Trevor. (2012). The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Byrne, David. (2009). Bicycle Diaries. New York: Viking.
Carlsson, Chris, Elliott, LisaRuth, & Camarena, Adriana (eds.). (2012). Shift Happens: Critical Mass at 20. San Francisco: Full Enjoyment.
Harvey, David. (2008, September/October). The Right to the City. New Left Review, 53.
Wilson, David Gordon. (2004). Bicycling Science. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Woodforde, J. (1970). The Story of the Bicycle. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Though he’s better known as the paragon of paraspace, in the Sprawl of his numerous novels, William Gibson has explored the future of cities as much as any urban theorist, expanding upon the topography of late 20th-century exurban development with astute accuracy. “The record of futurism in science fiction is actually quite shabby,” Gibson says in an interview in the Paris Review. “Novels set in imaginary futures are necessarily about the moment in which they are written. As soon as a work is complete, it will begin to acquire a patina of anachronism.” While this might seem so statistically, Gibson’s visions of cities’ possible futures have come closer to reality than most others, and he regularly cites Tokyo as the human-made stone for sharpening his edge: “It’s hard to beat, these nameless neon streets swarming with every known form of electronic advertising, under a misting rain that softens the commercials playing on façade screens of quite surreal width and clarity. The Japanese know this about television: Make it big enough and anything looks cool.” In No Maps for These Territories: Cities, Spaces, and Archeologies of the Future in William Gibson (Ropopi, 2011), Karin Hoepker attempts to canonize Gibson’s excursions into our future urbs.
The suburbs are much more dangerous because in the city someone might come up and take your money, but in the suburbs they’ll take your soul. — William Gibson
Hoepker’s book extracts Gibson’s urban theory from his many novels. First, she establishes what she calls an “Archeology of Future Spaces,” then contextualizes Gibson’s work within 1980s science fiction. Next, she explores the future urban landscapes of his books in turn, illustrating not only the impossibilities of mapping these spaces via traditional means, but the invisible politics thereof as well. The gerrymandering of space for political gain is as much a part of the postmodern condition as advertising on every available surface.
Gibson’s tendency toward Tokyo notwithstanding, Los Angeles is widely considered The City of the Future, “nearly unviewable save through the scrim of its mythologizers,” as Michael Sorkin put it. Its metro myth-makers include Gibson, Norman M. Klein, Mike Davis, James Howard Kunstler, Ridley Scott, and Philip K. Dick, among others. The built environment shapes our lives like the dreamscapes in Inception shaped its ontology, but unlike Nolan’s metropolitan mazes, Gibson’s city of bits is the one we have come to inhabit: cities that connect us and reflect us like the hives of insects. Sleepily stretching out in “a vast generic tumble,” our cities and their limbs divide us even as they bring us together (see Shepard, 2011). More and more, this paradox includes the expanding matrix of cyberspace, which didn’t yet exist when Gibson first wrote about it in the July, 1982 issue of Omni Magazine. “Gibson’s influence is evident in everything from the Matrix movies to Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won this year’s Pulitzer prize for fiction,” writes Thomas Jones. Hoepker’s book exposes and explores Gibson’s continuing and consistent influence — on the blacktop rather than the laptop.
Exploring well beyond William Gibson, Miles Orvell and Jeffrey L. Meikle have put together a must-have compendium of of essays on urban spaces. Public Space and the Ideology of Place in American Culture (Rodopi, 2009) is rife with observations and theories. The idea that public space in America is regarded as little more than a waste of resources resonates with the rejection of the commercialization of everything here, as well as with the projections of Gibson’s stories mentioned above. There is an entire piece on desire lines and public space in Chicago, a chapter on Starbucks’ shilling of so-called “public” space (i.e. the illusion thereof, a “Third Place” in Howard Schultz-speak), one on urban communities including a bit on bum-proof benches, and another on designed space vs. social space, among many other things.
Technologist David E. Nye chimes in on public space as transformed by New York blackouts, arguing that they’re not an instance of technological determinism, a topic Nye has explored in depth previously (See chapter 2 of his Technology Matters, 2006). His take seems to flip the script on one of William Gibson’s well-worn aphorisms: The street finds its own use for things. If the technological use is culturally determined, then the use finds its own street for things. The line between a glitch in the grid and a glitch in The Matrix is in your head. Nye writes,
By the beginning of the twenty-first century, blackouts were recognized as more than merely latent possibilities. They were unpredictable, but seemed certain to come. Breaks in the continuity of time and space, they opened up contradictory possibilities. From their shadows might emerge a unified communitas or a riot. The blackout shifted its meanings, and achieved new definitions with each repetition. For some, it remained a postmodern form of carnival, where they celebrated an enforced cessation of the city’s vast machinery (p. 382).
While architecture and urban planning are tangential to my usual topics of interest, smart and expansive writing like this, writing that uses the same strokes and colors as science fiction, reminds me why I find the cumulative concerns of the built environment so fascinating. I recommend seeking out these titles. Also, it would be remiss of me not to mention that these two books are entries in two series from Rodopi. No Maps for These Territories is #12 in one called “Spatial Practices: An Interdisciplinary Series in Cultural History, Geography, and Literature,” and Public Space… is #3 in the “Architecture, Technology, Culture” series. This small sampling bodes well for two rich veins of new spatial knowledge, speculative theory, and stimulating writing.
Here’s a clip from Mark Neale’s William Gibson: No Maps for These Territories (2000) in which Gibson discusses our post-geographical, prosthetic nervous system [runtime: 2:02]:
Eshun, Kodwo. (1996, November). William Gibson in Dialogue with Kodwo Eshun: The Co-evolution of Humans and Machines. Unpublished outtake from Paul D. Miller (ed.) Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Arts and Culture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Gibson, William. (1982, July). Burning Chrome. Omni Magazine.
Gibson, William. (2001, September). My Own Private Tokyo. WIRED Magazine, 9.09.
Hoepker, Karin. (2011). No Maps for These Territories. New York: Rodopi.
Jones, Thomas. (2011, September 22). William Gibson: Beyond Cyberspace. The Guardian.
Neale, Mark. (director). (2000). William Gibson: No Maps for These Territories [Motion picture]. London: Docurama.
Nye, David E. (2006). Technology Matters: Questions to Live With. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Orvell, Miles & Meikle, Jeffrey L., editors. (2009). Public Space and the Ideology of Place in American Culture. New York: Rodopi.
Shepard, Mark, editor. (2011). Sentient City: Ubiquitous Computing, Architecture, and the Future of Urban Space. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Sorkin, Michael. (1992). Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space. New York: Hill and Wang.
Wallace-Wells, David (2011, Summer). William Gibson Interview: The Art of Fiction No. 211. The Paris Review, No. 197.