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How do we pay for a democratized Commons?

By Erin Glass

Since the early 19th century, media distributors have relied primarily on two types of revenue streams. One, they sell their product straight out to the consumer for a fee that covers their production costs, or two, they sell advertising space to subsidize production costs either partially or completely. Facebook is certainly not the first company whose consumers are in fact their product; newspapers, journals, magazines, radio and television would not have grown into central facets of modern life had they not discovered early on that the attention of their consumers was by far a more profitable good than their content.

However, as we well know, the introduction of the internet complicated the situation.  Because of the sophisticated means consumer surveillance enabled by networked media, advertising is no longer a black box into which advertisers toss bottled messages with fingers crossed  And thus, the profit driven impulses that were once confined to “advertising space” — harmlessly so, it seems from this vantage — are now given an all access pass into almost every aspect of our personal and professional lives.  There is a great deal to be concerned about here.  But while we talk a lot about how Google and Facebook have compromised our privacy to a degree previously unimaginable, we don’t talk much about how this trend is really just making more efficient the way in which we have subsidized our media consumption for nearly the past 200 years.  One of the reasons Google and Facebook have developed such efficient, helpful tools is precisely because their controversial business practices have generated wealth that allows them to continue to grow.  Does this mean I support their business practices? No. Nor does it even mean that I think their tools are as helpful as they could be, for their guiding principle at the end of the day  — no matter how many effortless tools such a principle leads to —  is to keep users dependent on their services and blind to their collective agency and other technological possibilities. However, a critique of consumer surveillance is not going to be very useful until we decide as a society how we might best fund and continue to develop our communication tools.   Until we do so, corporate interest, for better or worse (for I believe there are both better and worse possibilities), will continue dominate our technological activity for their own interests.

These will not be easy questions and the way we answer them will have a tremendous impact on the future of the knowledge commons.  We should be careful from condemning corporate interest straight off the bat, for these forces have opened up technological possibility that most likely could not have occurred otherwise.  But, as Levine notes, “corporate power represents a constant threat to the knowledge commons. Even if some corporations find that their interests align with the norms of open access temporarily, there is always a possibility that major firms will enclose or undermine the commons” (253).  And so, I was excited to see Kranich’s article discussing the library as the potential site for building out the future of the knowledge commons.   And I think she’s right in citing Carol Rose’s thought that “narratives, stories and rhetorical devices” (109) will be essential to making this argument clear and pressing to the general public, especially to our tech-dazzled friends in the Bay Area.  Surely, the rapid evolution of media tools has prepped even the most uncritical of us to understand that the design of communication platforms dramatically shapes possible communication. Likewise, the funding model of any Knowledge Commons will predetermine from the start the potential production, use, accessibility and sustainability of that knowledge.  And so, when dreaming up the future of the commons, we must ask, what is it we as a society even want knowledge to do? Our answers, I guess, will first and foremost be political, not technological, in nature.




Some Thoughts on Countering Enclosure: Reclaiming the Knowledge Commons

In Nancy Kranich’s “Countering Enclosure: Reclaiming the Knowledge Commons”, Kranich states that, “For scholarship to flourish, researchers have always needed free and open access to ideas. In today’s digital age, this means access to knowledge and information online” (85). While the critical claims that Kranich advances are ultimately persuasive, I wonder whether there are any drawbacks to her brand of altruism. Kranich is critical, for example, of “valuable information” being “privatized or restricted from the public, who used to be able to rely on this information” (86). When reading this passage, I was reminded of the fact that some of my professors at the GC openly discourage their students from posting their theses to the ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Database, because of the looming fear that such public exposure would render their work ineligible for publication (it would be considered, in effect, previously published). Is such a fear substantiated in the first place? (In applying for a grant recently, I heavily relied on ProQuest’s database in order to locate “gaps” in current scholarship…it was a resource that  I admittedly found immensely useful and was grateful that it was accessible to me). But for the sake of playing devil’s advocate I wonder –  Are there other times/other examples that might justify withholding one’s work from public consumption?

Good Google

Last week, I had drinks with a close college friend who had come into town from San Francisco, where he works for a popular publication covering the digital media industry. This prompted a healthy debate over how much information we grant digital spaces access to—how much we allow to be extracted from our own digital lives, so to speak.

I have grown increasingly fearful of allowing digital spaces have access to my information following a variety of reports about the extent to which companies like Facebook or Google use that information. I’ve also become increasingly skeptical of Google as a company since it began to invest into defense technology and vie for defense contracts.

When the question comes up on my i–Device, asking me whether I am willing to grant access to my information, photos, whatehavenots, I say no.

He says yes.

His explanation was multifold, but it predominantly rested in the idea that these extractions are for the primary purpose of using metadata to better a product and create innovation. He suggested that his experience of permitting the sharing of his digital information with companies like Google was something thrilling to him—that “it was as though the company itself were giving me the opportunity to see a piece of the future,” he noted.

Wow. I’ll leave the implications of how excited he is about “seeing the future” aside.

Are we not afraid of Google? I’m afraid of any company that has this much social, cultural, and economic capital; that has the economic means to vacuum 19th century’s literature, as we have discussed; that has the symbolic capital to leave newspaper readers complaining that there aren’t enough world-renowned jam bands playing at their holiday parties; that has the power to rearrange the distribution of search results willy-nilly with little recourse but changes to its own profitability in ad revenue; that makes a car that can run without a person in it; that has invested so much in artificial intelligence in celebration of “the solidarity” (imagine this paired with Google Car—I had a class of middle school students imagine this once, and they crafted the plot of a television show about a sad car rampage).

I’m afraid of a company that does the above and houses the official mantra “don’t be evil.”

I’m afraid of any company that has a slogan WHOSE PRIMARY AUDIENCE IS ITSELF.

Kranich talks about enclosures. Levine, the relationship between corporations and the commons. Google enables commons spaces to thrive for now, but as Kranish notes various enclosures have been placed upon our access to information, particularly scholarly information. I am afraid of any company that can so easy generate a panoptic, that already colludes with the military industrial complex, and that can iron first or vacation gift shop clampy-style (yeah, you know the grabber) our access to information, including academic work and library sources, so easily.

What do you think? What do we do?

Are you ready for Google use this on your brain?


LeiLani Dowell

December 15, 2014

The articles assigned from The Imperial University really got me thinking about the contradictory nature of the tenure process in regards to academic freedom. Apparently this is not a new debate; in 1940 the American Association of University Professors felt the need to publish a Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. In it, they state that:

Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition. Academic freedom is essential to these purposes and applies to both teaching and research. Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth. Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning. It carries with it duties correlative with rights.

Tenure is a means to certain ends; specifically: (1) freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities, and (2) a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability. Freedom and economic security, hence, tenure, are indispensable to the success of an institution in fulfilling its obligations to its students and to society.

The AAUP’s definition of tenure asserts that “tenure, briefly stated, is an arrangement whereby faculty members, after successful completion of a period of probationary service, can be dismissed only for adequate cause.”

Obviously, I am all for academic freedom and tenure and, like many of us, I am hoping and praying and putting in work (not necessarily in that order) in order to secure a tenure-track job down the road. However, it’s the “successful completion of a period of probationary service” in the AAUP’s definition that gives me pause. The articles by Salaita, De Genova and Pulido attest to how tenuous that probationary period can be for dissenters and/or people of color (and incidentally, I love Moten and Harvey’s definition of the “undercommons of enlightenment” as the place “where the work gets done, where the work gets subverted, where the revolution is still black, still strong”).

The assigned articles have helped clarify the importance of tenure (on grounds other than the purely economic) and strengthen my resolve to fight against the corporatization and adjunctification of academia. But my question is, in this fight, how do we also fight for academic freedom that begins before one receives tenure? Perhaps this sounds far-fetched, but it seems absolutely absurd to me that academic freedom is something one must earn, and moreover that it must be earned by subjecting oneself to its very opposite. If, as the AAUP declares, academic freedom “is fundamental for the protection of … the student to freedom in learning”, and if more and more students are being taught by adjuncts, then denying academic freedom to nontenured faculty also amounts to a clear attack on students’ rights.

I almost wonder if we, as a whole, need to question the very nature of tenure itself, which, as is apparent by the experiences of the three authors, is also a punitive measure that actually ends up silencing dissent – or placing a chill, a hesitation, on those (myself included) who would challenge the imperial university and the state structures it upholds. De Genova’s article in particular reminds of Foucault’s analysis of the “panoptic modality of power” in Discipline and Punish: “The general juridicial form that guaranteed a system of rights that were egalitarian in principle were supported by these tiny, everyday, physical mechanisms, by all those systems of micro-power that are essentially non-egalitarian and asymmetrical that we call the disciplines” (565). The fact that De Genova was isolated by his peers for engaging in discourse on the war in Iraq screams of spectacle and surveillance, reinforced when he was denied tenure. I guess I’m wondering how we all participate in the processes of micro-power when we don’t question the disciplinary nature of the tenure process.

I would love to hear what you all think of this. Happy last day of class – we made it (most of us) through our first semester!

Works Cited:
Foucault, Michel. “Discipline and Punish.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan.  Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2004. 549-565. Print.

Thoughts on the Imperial University

I was particularly drawn to the selections from the Imperial University assigned for tomorrow’s discussion, and not just for the Saidian references of which we all know I am especially fond. I was engrossed in Nicholas de Genova’s account of what seemed to be the malignant misappropriation/misinterpretation of his speech against the U.S. invasion of Iraq for its exploration of the harmful rhetoric employed by his fellow faculty members and administrators, rhetoric which insidiously suppressed him as a member of the faculty. I was simultaneously impressed with and sickened by the way in which Lee Bollinger was able to both advocate for the tolerance of both freedom of speech and academic freedom while simultaneously impressing upon faculty and students, through coded language, that “both the form and the substance of [de Genova’s] speech commanded vociferous condemnation”. I am unsure how these principles of freedom are able to coexist with a flagrant disregard of them, and an insistence that there exist situations in which academics can be seen to be “crossing the line” – in an environment that truly advocates for academic freedom, should there really be a line to cross? I am further unnerved by de Genova’s insistence that “widely publicized allegations of ‘sedition’ or ‘economic heresy,’ which are perceived to diminish the value of the university’s commodity and to degrade the institution’s corporate credibility and respectability, are deemed infinitely more consequential than sustaining a space of genuinely uninhibited, robust, and wide-open freedom of speech and expression.” What, then, is the value of the university as a space of knowledge production and inquiry, if that very inquiry is limited instead to  inquiry that doesn’t disrupt the hegemonic status quo, or engage problematic issues of U.S. foreign policy, or make social justice a priority of the academic sphere, but rather only pays lip service to these ideals? As a postcolonial scholar, the details of Bollinger’s commencement speech, in which he “unreservedly upheld the notion of U.S. global hegemony as [the graduating students] special responsibility,” do not sit well with me. If that is my special responsibility going forth, I, for one, want nothing to do with it. I am further unnerved by the idea that “the feelings we have that I have called familial, and that live in an extended orbit…including soldiers that fight on the nation’s behalf, often class with the seemingly abstract values and principles we also embrace for social and other purposes.” I feel Bollinger here is implying that such familial feelings are to be extended only within the bounds of nationhood, and therefore that such abstract values as “freedom of speech” and “social justice” exist only when they fall within the circle of the family of the nation. That makes me uncomfortable. As de Genova asks, “why indeed were these officials of the imperial university not more appalled and outraged by the real atrocities that the United States war machine was perpetrating against innocent civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq than the violent imagery [he] conjured with [his] words?” Why, indeed.

I am further interested in the way in which de Genova was punished for his incendiary words through a culture of censure rather than censorship, thereby divesting the university of any real responsibility or accountability for disciplining him. As he notes, “when I violated the tacit terms of that academic covenant – which pervasively encourages scholars to speak and write in disguised, Aesopian, obfuscatory language and exalts the exchange value of apparently sophisticated esoteric complexity – the penalty was not overt official sanction but instead a concerted silencing that could be enforced only through the multifarious manifestations of political disapprobation and professional disregard.” In this way, the institution itself was able to navigate the murky waters of public opinion, paying lip service, as I said, to the ideals of freedom of speech and academic freedom, placating faculty and students who disagreed with punishing de Genova overtly for his speech, but also ensuring that he did receive a form of punishment regardless of its comments to the contrary, through manipulating the culture of the university to exclude him and denying him tenure, thereby simultaneously placating the efforts of, for example, the 104 or so members of Congress that demanded he be dealt with in some way or another.

Insidious manipulation aside, attempts such as these to quash what appears to be overtly political dissent, or whatever you’d like to call it, bring to mind several current debates within postcolonial studies, namely that “the ‘linguistic turn’ and ‘descent into discourse’ in postcolonial studies risk obscuring the material coordinates of imperialism, and depoliticizing a field of study that is from its inception engaged with inherently political questions of empire, race, colonialism, and their relationship to cultural production” as Helen Scott writes in her Caribbean Woman Writers and Globalization. I am concerned with the institutionalization of this subfield into the discipline of literary studies, worried that it will lose it’s edge, soften its radicalism in order to conform to the expectations of the academy so as to be conducive with the process of evaluating candidates for tenure, a process that seems to insist that scholars conform to the existing status quo rather than interrogating it. I wonder, as well, if this speaks to the fact that postcolonial theory largely refuses to engage with the status of the United States as a postcolony despite the fact that many seminal texts of postcolonial theory (Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth comes to mind here, for example) are directly applicable to the history of independence and neoimperialism in the US. Instead, however, postcolonialists have chosen to engage with globalization, leaving the myth of nationality behind as an obsolete concept, much to my dismay. As Rob Nixon notes in Slow Violence, “together, the rise of world literary studies and the rise of the pro-globalization public intellectual have allowed many universities to phase out (or greatly reduce) their hiring and course offerings in postcolonial studies as a purportedly superannuated field. This would concern [him – and me!] less if [he] did not suspect this as being symptomatic of a broader scaling back within the humanities and the social sciences of the kind of radicalism that anti-imperial and postcolonial work often enabled.”

Finally, at the risk of clambering up on my soapbox and preaching accessibility yet again, I would just like to make a nod to de Genova’s encoded stab at the inaccessibility of language in academia, his comment about the culture “which pervasively encourages scholars to speak and write in disguised, Aesopian, obfuscatory language and exalts the exchange value of apparently sophisticated esoteric complexity,” as this is a deep concern of mine within the postcolonial sphere as well. Rob Nixon (who, as an aside, seems particularly relevant to Steven Salaita’s chapter in the Imperial University, as well) is similarly discomfited by this trend, noting that “an involuted turn toward an abtruse prose accessible only to disciplinary initiates severed much postcolonial work from the public, communicative ambitions that, at its best, had provided much of the field’s anti-imperial dynamism.” It puts me in mind of questions I often find myself asking of postcolonial theorists when grappling with their work – who, exactly, is your audience? Who, exactly, are you pretending to liberate, when the fact of the matter is that even those of us who claim to be postcolonial scholars have trouble muddling through what you’re saying? Who is being served by this rhetoric? How can you consider yourself a public intellectual when the public finds you completely unintelligible? And if your mission is not to serve the postcolonial public, then what, exactly, is it?




Commons as Air

If you are interested in the idea of commons you might want to know that Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, who is at the GC this year from Northeastern University, recently put out a book on the commons called New World Drama: The Performative Commons in the Atlantic World 1649-1849 (Duke University Press, 2014). I read the intro to New World Drama as part of Eric Lott’s class, in which Dillon came to speak a little about her book. As I understood it, the gist of her argument is that after the commons were enclosed during the eponymous “age of enclosure” the imaginative space the commons provided moved to the theater. Whereas the commoner once had the right to enjoy the benefits of the commons, he now had the right to enjoy the theater as a substitute for that space. In Dillon’s engaging talk she mentioned the riots and fights that would occur semi-regularly at theaters if the audience didn’t like the actor or the play. In fact, the audience had so much power that it could not only eat, drink, and talk during the play, it could even shout at the actors to repeat exciting scenes or skip boring ones! Dillon mentioned one incident in NYC in which a regicide was enacted on stage: the American audience become so enthused it stormed the stage to literally attack the actor playing the king. This was all new and exciting information to me, and if you’re interested in learning about the commons and theater then I’d recommend Dillon’s book as a way to continue this discussion.

But right now I’d like to talk a little about the chapters of Commons as Air by Lewis Hyde, who is a professor of writing at Kenyon College. I really enjoyed reading the chapters, which I thought blended history and criticism together in a smooth, persuasive style. Particularly I was interested in his conception of a “stinted commons.” Unlike the neo-liberal rendering of the commons in Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons,” Hyde used well deployed historical details to show the commons was closely regulated by the commoners who “beat the bounds” and by the natural sense of fellowship between commons-users. I thought this was a great point, and Hyde used his historical evidence without turning Hardin into a straw man. In fact, Hyde demonstrated Hardin’s ecological good intentions and explained how Hardin’s theory does apply to fishing. Hyde’s generous reading retrieves the commons as a space of opposition to capitalism’s notion of unbridled growth, yet Hyde is not dogmatic enough to argue the commons are anti-capitalist. He shows that Scottish printers used the commons to ignite the marketplace during the Enlightenment.

While it is flexible, I do really appreciate Hyde’s focus on the commons as a potential antidote to limitless growth. David Harvey, among others, has shown that capitalism relies on continued growth to survive. As Hardin tried to argue in “Tragedy of the Commons,”  the environment cannot support limitless growth. Hardin may have been wrong to point the finger at the commons as a cause of that metastasis, but he was right that our natural resources are running out. However, I’ve heard the argument that “ideas” never run down, and thus capitalism can continue to grow and survive by generating more new ideas and profiting off them. But I believe Hyde has a subtle refutation for this point. He quotes Talking Heads frontman David Byrne’s point that record companies only sell the container of an idea, not the idea itself. I think this is a great counter-argument against the neo-liberal idea that capitalism can continue to grow on ideas instead of material. How can the market grow on ideas when it only sells containers? But still, Hyde walks the line of nuance, and is flexible enough to incorporate many other points besides rank anti-capitalism in his piece. He merely shows the commons has the possibility to oppose that kind of growth, but also has much more besides.

Book Traces

Andrew Stauffer’s presentation got me thinking about all the interesting finds I’ve come across while exploring the stacks. While it’s true that we don’t have many historical editions in the Mina Rees Library here at the GC, I did my undergrad at City College, and thanks to what I thought of at time as institutional neglect, I came across many intriguing old books while browsing the stacks of Cohen Library.

Here are a few of fun ones that come to mind:

A physics book written in French from the mid-19th century, stamped “The New York Free Academy” (City College’s original name)

A Carnegie Hall ticket stub from the 1950s inside an edition of the Collected Essays of E.B. White.

Various flowers and leaves pressed within the book.

I’d agree that in age when the marks that we leave on texts are so public (so-and-so has left such-and-such comment) that there’s something enchanting about these anonymous material traces that appear to us as such poignant details of a life-once-lived.

But, along with Stauffer, I also wonder how many of these bits of evidence we’d need to create a useful set of data. On the other hand, it seems to me that it’s a worthy project to start thinking of the study of these artifacts as an acceptable field of scholarship. Certainly, the history of book preservation has thought otherwise, as book collectors of the past of lobbed off marginalia when rebinding, or simply threw out the books with excessive writing in them.

That being said, I would also like to think about how we can judge extant editions with marginalia, considering that so many of these editions have simply been lost to history.


Book Traces

Reading about Andrew Stauffer’s project reminded me of a lecture that I saw last year at Duquesne University given by Cristanne Miller about her book, Reading in Time, in which she examines the marginalia and the material on which Emily Dickinson wrote her poetry and generates new “readings” of some of her canonical poems. Though Book Traces is really addressing the finished product of a published book rather than the processes by which it came to exist, I’m compelled by the reminder that the materiality of a text (and maybe, also, the way that readers interact with the “finished” product over the course of time) helps us do some sort of richer interpretative work and, certainly, to build a more complex context around the past (even if our ability to “know” the past can be severely limited by the boundaries of our modern epistemologies, our culture, our sense of the “logic” that governs time, etc., and even if the immediate application for that context isn’t yet visible because, for example, an obscure author’s work has been, to date, unexamined). I feel like there are potentially interesting implications within this project about the instability of a finished literary product: a book, as we all know, goes into the world, and as Kate brings up in her post, the meaning of the text changes depending on what kinds of experiences we bring to it. This is something that we know theoretically, and it’s something that I think we, as readers, know…experientially? affectively? maybe even corporally?…but it isn’t always necessarily reflected in our methodological practices unless we’re textual scholars or, potentially, historicists / cultural studies scholars / etc. I think this project also brings up interesting questions about resource allocation: what is deemed “worth” saving, and what is deemed trash, and how does this come to be? What are the conditions by which we are able to have both closely guarded and meticulously maintained archives, and then also trucks full of books that are, one day, available (and that incur fines if they’re not returned on time!) and, then, the next day, headed for the garbage heap?

Private Vs. Public Space and the Book

I like what Stauffer says about books being artifacts of private and public history, exchange, and encounter. In particular, I find the question of private and public space, as they relate to the book-as-artifact, very interesting.

For example, Stauffer mentions, in the Atlantic article, a women who wrote a eulogy for her daughter in an edition of Felicia Hemans’ poems:

“Stauffer gives a poignant example. A woman named Ellen received a book by the sentimental poet Felicia Hemans. Years later, her seven-year-old daughter died, and she adapted lines from Hemans to create a memorial inside the book. Mary, Mary, Mary.”

For me, an interesting question this brings up is: To what extent could we consider this a private act of mourning, considering that it was written in the pages of a book, a publicly inflected item? Moreover, what expressions of grief are allowed in the space of the book that are perhaps disallowed elsewhere, if we take the 19th century’s strictures on mourning into account? Is the sentimental book a vehicle for a private-public hybridization of mourning that would not be possible in other spaces and contexts? If so, the book-as-space-for-mourning serves social functions that we have yet to fully ascertain.

Reflections on Book Traces


My Copy of Jean Valentine’s Dream Barker

I especially enjoyed Professor Stauffer’s article and there some interesting points and intersections I’d like to mention in relation to it. I don’t own many old books but a few years back I purchased this book:


It’s a first edition of Dream Barker by Jean Valentine, published by Yale University Press, 1965. Jean won the prestigious yale younger poets award for her first collection, which was selected by Dudley Fitts, a then poet and translator of Greek. (For those who are unfamiliar with her work, Jean is still writing. Her 2010 collection Break the Glass was nominated for the Pulitzer prize and she was the New York State poet laureate from 2008-2010.) On the inside flap there are two hand-written texts, one from Jean and one presumably from whomever sold it to the Strand’s rare book collection where I purchased it:



I went to a reading and a book signing for Jean’s 2010 Break the Glass and I presented this book to her. Turns out Harvey, who was indeed her editor back then, had passed away some years ago and whomever had this book had passed it along, either to the Strand or to a third party. Jean was nice enough to sign the book again for me on another page:


This whole thing was interesting to me. This person whom Jean Valentine had never met (me) now had this personal record of her past. At the same time, this object from the past had now been appropriated to the present via Jean’s inscription to me on the proceeding title page.

When I purchased this book, I did so despite already owning the same text in another form. I wanted to own an original print edition, and I love how 1960s it is. The aesthetic design of the whole book is unmistakably marked by the decade and region from whence it came. These aspects are inseparable from the text itself.