Reading Vikram Chandra’s Geek Sublime———Post 1: Crossings


[Crossposted at]

I’m in the process of reading Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty by Vikram Chandra. While I plan to post a full review when I’m finished, I thought I’d start a short series in which I blog through my reading of the book.

A theme that has already emerged with great force in the book is that of crossings—crossings of cultures, of histories, of languages—and the theme allows Chandra to link together, often in unexpected ways, his personal biography, the larger history of programming, and a discussion of the mechanics of computer languages. Indeed, what drew me to Chandra’s book—beyond the fact that anything called “Geek Sublime” is likely to catch the eye of a Romanticist with DH interests—was Chandra’s relatively unique position as both a fiction writer and a programmer.

His fourth chapter explores his experience of another dual identity, one which emerged as he moved from his hometown of Bombay to an MFA program in the US:

I was moving between cultures, from India to America and back. I was a wanderer between nation states, I negotiated my way through their rigid borders and bureaucracies, and what could be more modern than that? I was surely a postmodern lover of modernist fiction. Yet, in my creative urges, in the deepest parts of myself, I also remained somehow stubbornly premodern. I didn’t use those premodern forms only for political and polemical reasons; I wasn’t only trying to ironize psychological “realism” by placing it next to the epic and the mythical, or only to create lo real maravilloso as a critique of bourgeois Western imperial notions of the real. No, the impulse was not merely negative. This multiply layered narrative was how I lived within myself, how I knew myself, how I spoke to myself. There was the modern me, and also certain simultaneous selves who llved on alongside. (41-42)

The chapter then turns to a cultural shift within programming culture itself: from its perception as an activity that was “more handicraft than science, more feminine than masculine, more mechanical than intellectual” (50) and which was carried out principally by women to the re-definition of programming—especially coding directly in machine code—as an inherently masculine, even “macho,” activity of pure intellectual creation.

But Chandra’s book is not only attuned to the crossings (and sometimes doublecrossing) in the experiences of writing and coding, he also demonstrates the multilayered nature of coding itself. In his third chapter (its succinct and clarifying description of the basic mechanics of computer languages is by itself worth the price of the book) he explains both the underlying digital logic of machine code and demonstrates how the high-level programming languages in which most programmers work today are in fact part of a “stack of languages” (37) and a complex network of translation. As a programmer, Chandra asserts, he works in “an orderly, simplified hallucination, a maya that is illusion and not-ilusion—the code I write sets off other subterranean incantations which are completely illegible to me” (40).

Blogging for HASTAC; or, the Reanimation of eReadingromanticism

So this blog has lain dormant for some time now, but I’m happy to be kicking it back into gear as I begin my work this year as one of HASTAC’s 2014 Scholars. In addition to publicizing events and being active on HASTAC’s forums, I’ll also be regularly blogging at my HASTAC account—but also publishing the content on here.


Committing Deconstruction/Betraying Deconstruction

From Flickr user Satryicom

At the recent annual conference of the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA), I presented a paper called “‘Committing Deconstruction: Credo and Critique.” It was a paper that arose from my own grappling with two persistent quandaries that have dogged me during my short career:

(1) Deconstruction has always been important to my critical practice, but I don’t consider myself a “deconstructionist” (a term rarely actually deployed by folks who “do” deconstruction). Is it even possible to be a “deconstructionist”—is deconstruction something that you could dedicate yourself to like Marxism or Feminism? Or does it resist that type of critical identification?

(2) I confess to having several personally meaningful philosophic and academic “commitments.” Would it even be possible for someone like myself to do deconstruction or does its very practice preclude the possibility of commitment?

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Popularizing; or, Knowledge Not Purchased by the Loss of Dignity

Simplicity in habit, truth in speech,

Be these the daily strengtheners of their minds;

May books and Nature be their early joy!

And knowledge, rightly honored with that name–

Knowledge not purchased by the loss of power!

-William Wordsworth, from The Prelude

It’s hard for me to not feel a little nostalgic when I return to the literary criticism of many decades past, back when texts in the field—at least the most important ones—enjoyed both popular and academic audiences. How long has it been since we’ve had a Seven Types of Ambiguity or a The Mirror and the Lamp, books read and respected equally by literary critics and lay enthusiasts? The crop of books that attempt any popularization of literary study is increasingly sparse these days: something by Harold Bloom every few years, of course, and there’s the recent success of Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines, and How to Read Novels Like a Professor: A Jaunty Exploration of the World’s Favorite Literary Form. However, few of these command the attention of academics in the field—the expert and the amateur now wander through different valleys.

This separation may be an unavoidable consequence of the hyper-specialization that permeates all of modern academe, including the social and physical sciences, and I’m not suggesting that we invest our energy in trying to turn back the heavy hands of that clock. However, there’s another trend that I think it is worthwhile trying to buck, a trend evident in the subtitles to the “like a professor” books; these are not merely accessible explications of the field and its methodologies, they are “lively and entertaining” and “jaunty” explications. I think that Prof. Foster’s project is a commendable one and I shy away from criticizing anyone in the humanities who still makes a sincere attempt to talk to the general public about what we do. However, something is gone awry when the selling point of our popularizations is that they’re “fun”—and not that they matter.

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Irony, Sincerity, and Critique

Rainy wedding

Not actually ironic, no matter what Alanis told you . . .

A recent New York Times “Opinionator” blog post by Christy Walpole, “How to Live Without Irony”, made the social media rounds on Facebook for me last Sunday—first with earnest posters (myself included) and then with a wave of wry criticism once we’d all calmed down a bit.

It was, for me, the return of a frustration that had previously come to a head several years back. As my classmates and I were sitting in a graduate seminar classroom waiting for the professor to arrive, someone made a joking remark about us all going out and getting stoned afterwards. An equally facetious conversation ensued about when and where and how much. Then one student broke in with this meta observation: “Or we could just talk about it and then never do it. After all, we’re grad students, that’s what we do.”

I suddenly realized that my classmate had vocalized something that had been half-consciously nagging at me for awhile: Talking was all we did. There was no doing, there was no follow through, there was no risk and no commitment. And it wasn’t only true for our faux weed smoking plans—it was hard to take any claim, no matter how weighty, too seriously. Because it was just talk, just play, just a self-aware and detached performance of our own knowingness. Real arguments during seminar discussions were few and far between—and even in the extremely rare cases that they did break out they tended to blow away quickly with no hurt feelings. After all, there’d barely been stakes to begin with.

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Zombies: Real and Imagined

I’ve hooked back up with some old #moocmooc friends for a Twitter version of Humans v. Zombies, appropriately titled Twitter v. Zombies, for a weekend of fun and procrastination. And I’ve got good reason to procrastinate, as any beleaguered grad student will understand, since a fat stack of (electronic) student papers have just landed on my desk(top) and threaten to consume the weekend. I am thoroughly in agreement with Chuck Klosterman’s assessment in the New York Times last year that the zombie is our modern monster because the constant zombie onslaught (and zombie slaughter) mirror our own Sisyphean task of waging war against the daily onslaught of data, tasks, and (of course) tweets:

IF THERE’S ONE THING we all understand about zombie killing, it’s that the act is uncomplicated: you blast one in the brain from point-blank range (preferably with a shotgun). That’s Step 1. Step 2 is doing the same thing to the next zombie that takes its place. Step 3 is identical to Step 2, and Step 4 isn’t any different from Step 3. Repeat this process until (a) you perish, or (b) you run out of zombies. That’s really the only viable strategy.

Every zombie war is a war of attrition. It’s always a numbers game. And it’s more repetitive than complex. In other words, zombie killing is philosophically similar to reading and deleting 400 work e-mails on a Monday morning or filling out paperwork that only generates more paperwork, or following Twitter gossip out of obligation, or performing tedious tasks in which the only true risk is being consumed by the avalanche. The principal downside to any zombie attack is that the zombies will never stop coming; the principal downside to life is that you will be never be finished with whatever it is you do.

The Internet reminds of us this every day.

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Wikis in the Classroom

I recently wrote a brief article for the newletter of Cornell’s Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines. Figured it was relevant to the concerns of this blog, so I’ve attached it below along with the link to the Wiki that’s still under construction—once the site’s been properly finalized, I’ll post some final thoughts on the exercise:

Using a Course Wiki to Teach Digital Literacy

In a digital age, the nature of “literacy” is rapidly changing; however, the way we teach writing skills has remained largely static. Most writing seminars still ask students to produce standard academic essays not terribly dissimilar to what they would have been asked to produce twenty or even fifty years ago: three to ten page expositions on a single topic, perhaps with research. The process can be livened up a bit by asking our students to imagine a particular audience: write a letter to a senator arguing against a decrease in farm subsidies, imagine that you’re trying to convince the Secretary of State to increase food aid to sub-Saharan Africa, etc. However, there’s an artificial nature to these exercises, and our students are well aware of that fact. In a field like my own—English literature—it is difficult to even invent contrived “real world” situations that would also lead students to engage closely and analytically with a work of literature. Even when these exercises do help students develop a greater sense of audience and purpose, they usually reproduce familiar genres that often don’t reflect how thoroughly the information age has radically altered how we create, disseminate, and consume the written word

In my current Freshman Writing Seminar, “Metamorphosis: Identity and Change,” I have been experimenting with a collaborative writing activity meant to replace one of the six standard “formal” essays typically required for writing seminars at Cornell. This assignment aims to create an actual rhetorical situation that differs from that of the typical academic essay and it attempts to provide students with instruction and practice in working with new media. For this project, the class is working collaboratively to build a course website utilizing a wiki format. I used Google Sites to create a basic wiki that allows any authorized user to add text, images, and links through a simple editing interface similar to Microsoft Word. The site, when completed, will consist of four separate pages, one for each section of the course. At the moment of this article’s composition, two of the four pages have been completed.

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Update on Coursera’s Modern American Poetry Course

If the lack of posts recently doesn’t demonstrate this for itself, let me just say that I’ve been busy lately between teaching, auditing, and reading for comps. So busy, in fact, that I have had to sadly let my participation in Coursera’s “Modern American Poetry” class fall by the wayside. As I indicated in my previous post, however, I did hang around long enough to complete the first unit, submit an essay, and give and receive peer feedback.

As I predicted in my last post, my essay’s reading of Dickinson’s poem was more typically “academic” than many of the other responses, and my readers didn’t seem to particularly know what to do with it, though the responses were earnest and respectful. It was also significantly longer than most of the essays submitted despite its (I thought) relatively modest five-paragraph length.

I will say that one aspect of Coursera’s format that I did like is that—after submission and an initial peer response—the essay and the peer response were placed in a forum viewable to all members of the course. I like the idea of students being able to view the work of the rest of the class; in fact, part of me is attracted to the idea of having my own students upload their work in Blackboard in a manner that all class members can view it, not just me, but I worry that this might be an overly-intimidating prospect for some students.

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Dickinson, De Man, and Disfiguring Coursera

Emily Dickinson

So, as I mentioned in a post ages ago,  I signed up for Coursera’s “Modern American Poetry” course to see how the MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) environment tried to handle the humanities and, in particular, the challenge of converting an experience that usually involves discussion between a small group of students and the careful grading of papers written in response to a prompt (with no one right answer) into a “massive” experience.

Since then, I’ve had a chance to think much more about MOOC’s thank to Hybrid Pedagogy’s MOOC of MOOCs and I, along with many of my colleagues, have grown increasingly concerned about the role of so-called “xMOOCs” in furthering a corporatization of Higher Ed. This concern has been fueled by the ouster (and, fortunately, reinstatement) of UVA’s president by the governing board in part because she refused to go the high-cost,questionable-benefit route of jumping onto the free online-ed wagon and, more recently, Emory’s elimination of several departments at the same time that it announced a contract with Coursera.

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Our Own Unnatural Selves: What Our Cyber Identities Tell Us About Our Lived Experience

[ D ] Edgar Degas - Madame Jeantaud in the mirror (1875)

The Naturalness of Our “Unnatural” Selves

I’ve been thinking a lot about the negotiation of personal and professional online presence(s) since an impromptu 2am Google Doc chat conversation on the topic during #moocmooc. After several days of mulling it over, I realized that the topic perfectly fit the (more in theory than in practice) aim of this blog: to draw together conversations about Romanticism with conversations about the digital humanities.

My WordPress and Twitter handles (myownunnaturalself and @myunnaturalself, respectively) are drawn from one of the odder lines at the beginning of William Wordsworth’s long poem The Prelude:

. . . I breathe again—

Trances of thought and mountings of the mind

Come fast upon me. It is shaken off,

As by miraculous gift ’tis shaken off,

That burthen of my own unnatural self,

The heavy weight of many a weary day

Not mine, and such as were not made for me. [1805 ver., ll. 19-25]

“My own unnatural self”—a phrase that simultaneously connotes both ownership and alienation—seemed the perfect descriptor for what’s going on with our various online avatars. If we read Wordsworth against the grain here, we could argue that this “unnatural self” is, perhaps, the most proper self precisely because it is “unnatural.” In “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” Paul de Man aligns Romantic allegory with an awareness of the self’s unnatural, temporal, contingent state:

Whether it occurs in the form of an ethical conflict . . . or as an allegorization of the geographical site, as in Wordsworth, the prevalence of allegory always corresponds to the unveiling of an authentically temporal destiny. This unveiling takes place in a subject that has sought refuge against the impact of time in a natural world to which, in truth, it bears no resemblance. (206)

An “authentically temporal destiny” is not, however, a route to an “authentic self,” as de Man’s later comments on irony underscore:

ironic language splits the subject into an empirical self that exists in a state of inauthenticity and a self that exists only in the form of a language that asserts the knowledge of this inauthenticity. This does not, however, make it into an authentic language, for to know inauthenticity is not the same as to be authentic. (214)

Which, to bring us back to the question at hand, suggests that our online “unnatural selves” might show up the general “unnaturalness” of our “empirical selves.” It also begs the question of whether the unique temporalities of the internet might increase the already disruptive influences of our linguistic selves.

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