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Monday, February 17, 2014

Lawrence Grossberg Memorializes Stuart Hall

The last post over on my other blog (The Late Age of Print) was dedicated to Stuart Hall, likely the most significant international figure in the field of cultural studies, who died last week at the age of 82. Lawrence (Larry) Grossberg, my doctoral advisor, has penned a moving tribute to Hall, his mentor, with whom he worked at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in 1968-1969.  Here is an excerpt from the piece, which appeared this past Saturday on Truthout:
When I think of Stuart, I think of an expanding rich tapestry of relations, not of followers and acolytes, but of friends, students, colleagues, interlocutors, participants in various conversations, and anyone willing to listen, talk and engage. Stuart Hall was more than an intellectual, a public advocate for ideas, a champion of equality and justice, and an activist. He was also a teacher and a mentor to many people, in many different ways, at many different distances from his immediate presence. He talked with anyone and everyone, and treated them as if they had as much to teach him as he had to teach them.
Hall's work was as much about the interpersonal—his kindness, charisma, and generosity—in other words, as it was about the many influential writings and lectures he produced over the course of his career. I wish I'd had the chance to get to know Hall better.

I had the privilege of sharing a meal with him once, in 1996, during my second year of graduate school. He was extraordinarily gracious and, indeed, patient, as I barraged him with what must have been dilettantish questions.  Afterwards we shopped for books at a nearby used bookstore.  I still have the copy of Erving Goffman's Asylums that I happened to pick up that day; even now I  associate the book more with Hall than with its author.

 I also got to know Hall indirectly, through a study of the Birmingham Centre annual reports, which I conducted with my friend and colleague Mark Hayward.  Hall's imprint is all over those documents, and not only because he authored the bulk of them.  In their inventory of daily life at the Centre one can plainly see Hall's emphasis on the interpersonal—in the way the Centre's working groups were organized; in the spirit of sharing that so defined its (as well as his own) intellectual modus operandi, and that had more than a little to do with cultural studies' success; in the way Hall empowered students to collaborate in the production of a serious academic journal; and certainly more.

 Larry's tribute to Hall is also a call, too: for the American mainstream media to pay heed to such an influential figure, one whose passing has not received the attention it deserves; and for the American Left to embrace Hall's legacy, a legacy defined not only by his towering intellect but, equally important, by his luminescent being-in-the-world.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

I'll Tumble for Ya

Because I know people inhabit multiple platforms online, I'm pleased to announce that I'm now on Tumblr.

Don't worry—I'm not shutting down this blog.  But if it wasn't obvious already, I've had difficulty  keeping up with Differences & Repetitions, a result, mainly, of my academic workload.  Since I love blogging but have less time to deliver substantive content, I figured Tumblr would be the perfect place to engage in some of the work I do here, albeit in shorter form.  You can still expect to see extended meditations on books, algorithmic culture, and other topics on this blog, at least from time to time.  But if you're looking for regular content, then my Tumblr's the place for you.

I'm excited about Tumblr because, as I'm learning, it seems to be as much (if not more) about curation as my own commentary.  I like the idea of being a little less "bloggy," as it were, and instead sharing a range of artifacts that say something about my disposition toward the world.  That's largely how I've been approaching Twitter over the last few years, as it turns out, which is something that my recent forays into Tumblr have helped me to see.  But sometimes I've felt constrained on Twitter because of the 140 character limit.  I appreciate how Tumblr gives me an opportunity to say a little more, absent the compulsion to be overblown.

I should mention that my Tumblr is all about you, too.  Many of the stories I've shared on Twitter and elsewhere have been sent to me by friends/colleagues/acquaintances, and I'd like to keep the tradition alive as I move into Tumblr.  And of course, you can expect credit where credit is due. Always.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

...in Translation

Great news, y'all. A couple of weeks ago I received a copy of the Korean translation of my book, The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture From Consumerism to Control! I'm thrilled, needless to say, and even a bit surprised. Last summer the publisher of the English language edition, Columbia University Press, let me know that the translation was in the works, but honestly I didn't expect it to surface for...oh, I don't know, a few years, I suppose. And yet, here it is, now. Can't you tell how giddy this makes me?


A big thanks to Columbia U.P., the Korean Publishing Association, and the translator for all of their dedication to the project.

Monday, May 02, 2011

The Billion Dollar Book

About a week ago Michael Eisen, who teaches evolutionary biology at UC Berkeley, blogged about a shocking discovery one of his postdocs had made in early April. The discovery happened not in his lab, but of all places on Amazon.com.

While searching the site for a copy of Peter Lawrence's book The Making of a Fly (1992), long out of print, the postdoc happened across two merchants selling secondhand editions for -- get this -- $1.7 million and $2.2 million respectively! A series of price escalations ensued as Eisen returned to the product page over following days and weeks until one seller's copy topped out at $23 million.

But that's not the worst of it. One of the comments Eisen received on his blog post pointed to a different secondhand book selling on Amazon for $900 million. It wasn't an original edition of the Gutenberg Bible from 1463, nor was it a one-of-a-kind art book, either. What screed was worth almost $1 billion? Why, a paperback copy of actress Lana Turner's autobiography, published in 1991, of course! (I suspect the price may change, so in the event that it does, here's a screen shot showing the price on Saturday, April 30th.)


Good scientist that he is, Eisen hypothesized that something wasn't right about the prices on the fly book. After all, they seemed to be adjusting themselves upward each time he returned to the site, and like two countries engaged in an arms race, they always seemed to do so in relationship to each other. Eisen crunched some numbers:
On the day we discovered the million dollar prices, the copy offered by bordeebook [one of the sellers] was1.270589 times the price of the copy offered by profnath [the other seller]. And now the bordeebook copy was 1.270589 times profnath again. So clearly at least one of the sellers was setting their price algorithmically in response to changes in the other’s price. I continued to watch carefully and the full pattern emerged. (emphasis added)

So the culprit behind the extraordinarily high prices wasn't a couple of greedy (or totally out of touch) booksellers. It was, instead, the automated systems -- the computer algorithms -- working behind the scenes in response to perceived market dynamics.

I've spent the last couple of blog posts talking about algorithmic culture, and I believe what we're seeing here -- algorithmic pricing -- may well be an extension of it.

It's a bizarre development. It's bizarre not because computers are involved in setting prices (though in this case they could have been doing a better job of it, clearly). It is bizarre because of the way in which algorithms are being used to disrupt and ultimately manipulate -- albeit not always successfully -- the informatics of markets.

Indeed, I'm becoming convinced that algorithms (at least as I've been talking about them) are a response to the decentralized forms of social interaction that grew up out of, and against, the centralized forms of culture, politics, and economics that were prevalent in the second and third quarters of 2oth century. Interestingly, the thinkers who conjured up the idea of decentralized societies often turned to markets -- and more specifically, to the price system -- in an attempt to understand how individuals distributed far and wide could effectively coordinate their affairs absent governmental and other types of intervention.

That makes me wonder: are the algorithms being used on Amazon and elsewhere an emergent form of "government," broadly understood? And if so, what does a billion dollar book say about the prospects for good government in an algorithmic age?

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

CFP -- Academic Labor

International Journal of Communication
Academic Labor & Administration in Communication Studies
Special Section Edited by Jonathan Sterne, McGill University

Academic labor today is characterized by a series of disconcerting trends: an increasingly casualized professoriate; universities that increasingly depend on  chronically undercompensated part-time and graduate student labor to support their course offerings; a top-down managerial style and erosion of faculty governance; increasing economic exploitation of staff and undergraduates; rising student debt; governments that attack public education; shrinking endowments (for the schools that had them) and heighted expectations for sponsored research; wooden research assessment exercises; and the acute uncertainty of the academic job market for recent PhD graduates.   Against these, there is a growing academic labor movement, with its own intellectual organs like Workplace and Edufactory and a wide range of activist manifestations, from labor unions to non-commercial alternative universities.  Academic journals have also fielded debate in this area, from Social Text’s foray into the Yale Strike to Topia’s announced special issue on the anniversary of Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins.

This special forum of the International Journal of Communication aims to make two contributions to the ongoing discussion of academic labor.

1.            To encourage university administrators – current and former – who are sympathetic to the academic labor movement and the new student activism to reflect on their experiences in administration and thereby provide useful knowledge for activists, organizers, and others.   Much of the existing literature on academic labor treats university administrations as a fairly monolithic “management,” yet university administrations are riddled with conflict, contradiction and constraint.    In most instances, administrators used to be faculty members, and in many they will be again, once their administrative terms are over.  A better understanding of the politics and conflicts of administration may be useful in the struggle for better conditions within universities as places to work and study.

2.            To encourage people in Communication Studies – at all levels in the field – to reflect directly on the state of academic labor in our field.  Much of the academic labor literature has come from fields with considerably worse job markets than Communication Studies, like English and History.   Yet Communication Studies does not conform to so well to models of those other fields, either academically or institutionally.  More importantly, it is possible that within professional organizations and within departments we can begin to address some of these issues.  But first, we need to confront them.

Submissions should be 500-4000 words in length and may come in any form of critical commentary piece, ranging from academic analysis of some aspect of the current crisis; to personal/political reflection; to recommendations for activism, policy, or best practices; or any other style of critical commentary.  We are particularly interested in pieces that not only identify problems but offer potential solutions or new perspectives.

Multimedia submissions are also welcome.

Although the section will be edited and reviewed, it will not be subject to blind peer review.

For the purposes of this forum, “Communication Studies” will be interpreted broadly to include all related fields and subfields, theoretical and applied.

We welcome commentary from any and all parts of the world, though submissions should be made in English.  Submissions by current or former administrators in fields outside Communication Studies are most welcome.

Send queries, proposals or essays to al@sterneworks.org.

Deadline for submissions: 1 June 2011

Decisions, and comments on accepted submissions will be returned by 1 July 2011

Expected date of publication will be September 2011.

All submissions must follow IJOC style.  Author guidelines for the IJOC are available at: http://ijoc.org/ojs/index.php/ijoc/about/submissions#authorGuidelines.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Algorithmic Culture, Redux

Back in June I blogged about "Algorithmic Culture," or the sorting, classifying, and hierarchizing of people, places, objects, and ideas using computational processes. (Think Google search, Amazon's product recommendations, who gets featured in your Facebook news feed, etc.) Well, for the past several months I've been developing an essay on the theme, and it's finally done. I'll be debuting it at Vanderbilt University's "American Cultures in the Digital Age" conference on Friday, March 18th, which I'm keynoting along with Kelly Joyce (College of William & Mary), Cara Finnegan (University of Illinois), and Eszter Hargittai (Northwestern University). Needless to say, I'm thrilled to be joining such distinguished company at what promises to be, well, an event.


The piece I posted originally on algorithmic culture generated a surprising -- and exciting -- amount of response. In fact, nine months later, it's still receiving pingbacks, I'm pretty sure as a result of its having found its way onto one or more college syllabuses. So between that and the good results I'm seeing in the essay, I'm seriously considering developing the material on algorithmic culture into my next book. Originally after Late Age I'd planned on focusing on contemporary religious publishing, but increasingly I feel as if that will have to wait.

Drop by the conference if you're in or around the Nashville area on Friday, March 18th. I'm kicking things off starting at 9:30 a.m. And for those of you who can't make it there, here's the title slide from the PowerPoint presentation, along with a little taste of the talk's conclusion:



This latter definition—culture as authoritative principle—is, I believe, the definition that’s chiefly operative in and around algorithmic culture. Today, however, it isn’t culture per se that is a “principle of authority” but increasingly the algorithms to which are delegated the task of driving out entropy, or in Matthew Arnold’s language, “anarchy.” You might even say that culture is fast becoming—in domains ranging from retail to rental, search to social networking, and well beyond—the positive remainder of specific information processing tasks, especially as they relate to the informatics of crowds. And in this sense algorithms have significantly taken on what, at least since Arnold, has been one of culture’s chief responsibilities, namely, the task of “reassembling the social,” as Bruno Latour puts it—here, though, by discovering statistical correlations that would appear to unite an otherwise disparate and dispersed crowd of people.

I expect to post a complete draft of the piece on "Algorithmic Culture" to my project site once I've tightened it up a bit. Hopefully it will generate even more comments, questions, and provocations than the blog post that inspired the work initially.

In the meantime, I'd welcome any feedback you may have about the short excerpt appearing above, or on the talk if you're going to be in Nashville this week.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Cultural Studies in the Future Tense

My mentor and dear friend Lawrence Grossberg recently published a great new book with Duke University Press, Cultural Studies in the Future Tense. I'll be reviewing it here in the next few weeks or months, but for now I wanted to link to a podcast from The Critical Lede.  The hosts Ben Myers and Desiree Rowe interview Larry about the book and how through intellectual work we might begin re-imagining political life in the United States and abroad.



Having listened to the interview, I should mention that it's not only compelling for what Larry has to say about his new book, but also as a succinct introduction to cultural studies.  He says, in a nutshell, that we should imagine taking ten jigsaw puzzles, dumping all the pieces out into a bucket, mixing the up, and then throwing out the pictures.  Then figure out how to reassemble them.  That's how hard it is -- or should be -- to do cultural studies.

Amen.  Enjoy the interview.