Category Archives: marx

GAM3R 7H30RY: a work in progress… in progress

McKenzie Wark

I’m pleased to report that the institute is gearing up for another book-blog experiment to run alongside Mitchell Stephens’ ongoing endeavor at Without Gods — this one a collaboration with McKenzie Wark, professor of cultural and media studies at the New School and author most recently of A Hacker Manifesto. Ken’s next book, Gamer Theory, is an examination of single-player video games that comes out of the analytic tradition of the Frankfurt School (among other influences). Unlike Mitch’s project (a history of atheism), Ken’s book is already written — or a draft of it anyway — so in putting together a public portal, we are faced with a very different set of challenges.
As with Hacker Manifesto, Ken has written Gamer Theory in numbered paragraphs, a modular structure that makes the text highly adaptable to different formats and distribution schemes — be it RSS syndication, ebook, or print copy. We thought the obvious thing to do, then, would be to release the book serially, chunk by chunk, and to gather commentary and feedback from readers as it progressed. The trouble is that if you do only this — that is, syndicate the book and gather feedback — you forfeit the possibility of a more free-flowing discussion, which could end up being just as valuable (or more) as the direct critique of the book. After all, the point of this experiment is to expose the book to the collective knowledge, experience and multiple viewpoints of the network. If new ideas are to be brought to light, then there ought to be ways for readers to contribute, not just in direct response to material the author has put forth, but in their own terms (this returns us to the tricky proprietary nature of blogs that Dan discussed on Monday).
So for the past couple of weeks, we’ve been hashing out a fairly ambitious design for a web site — a blog, but a little more complicated — that attempts to solve (or at least begin to solve) some of the problems outlined above. Our first aim was to infuse the single-author book/blog with the democratic, free-fire discussion of list servers — a feat, of course, that is far easier said than done. Another concern, simply from an interface standpoint, was to find ways of organizing the real estate of the screen that are more intuitive for reading.
Another thing we’ve lamented about blogs, and web sites in general, is their overwhelming verticality. Vertical scrolling fields — an artifact of supercomputer terminals and the long spools of code they spit out — are taken for granted as the standard way to read online. But nowhere was this ordained as the ideal interface — in fact it is designed more for machines than for humans, yet humans are the users on the front end. Text does admittedly flow down, but we read left to right, and its easier to move your eye across a text that is fixed than one that is constantly moving. A site we’ve often admired is The International Herald Tribune, which arranges its articles in elegant, fixed plates that flip horizontally from one to the next. With these things in mind, we set it as a challenge for ourselves to try for some kind of horizontally oriented design for Ken’s blog.
There’s been a fairly rigorous back and forth on email over the past two weeks in which we’ve wrestled with these questions, and in the interest of working in the open, we’ve posted the exchange below (most of it anyway) with the thought that it might actually shed some light on what happens — from design and conceptual standpoints — when you try to mash up two inherently different forms, the blog and the book. Jesse has been the main creative force behind the design, and he’s put together a lovely annotated page explaining the various mockups we’ve developed over the past week. If you read the emails (which are can be found directly below this paragraph) you will see that we are still very much in the midst of figuring this out. Feedback would be much appreciated. (See also GAM3R 7H30RY: part 2).

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blog meeting in la-la land

The Chronicle of Higher Education has published a positive piece on blogging in academia, a first person account by Rebecca Goetz, one of the first academic bloggers, of how blogging can actually enhance scholarly life, foster trans-disciplinary communication, and connect the academy to the public sphere.
The timing of Goetz’s article is auspicious, as the institute is currently grappling with these very issues, gearing up for a grant proposal to do something big. Last week, about to dash out the door for the airport, I mentioned this project we’re cooking up to encourage, promote and organize academic blogging with the aim of raising its status as a scholarly activity. Well, last Friday in Los Angeles we assembled a cadre of over a dozen blog-oriented professors, grad students, and journalism profs, along with a radical blogger-librarian, a grassroots media producer, and a sociologist, for a day of stimulating discussion about what can happen when you put blogs in the hands of people who really know something about something.
blogmeeting1.jpg blogmeeting2.jpg
We’re still sifting through notes and thoughts from the meeting, and for anyone who’s interested we’ve devoted an entire blog to continuing the discussion. I guess you could say we’ve formed a little community dedicated to answering the big questions — chiefly, how the blogging medium might serve as a bridge between the world of scholarly knowledge and the world at large — and to helping us form the proposal for a project — a website? a network? a new sort of blog? — that will address some of these questions.
John Mohr, the afore-mentioned sociologist, described it as a matter of “marshaling and re-deploying intellectual capital,” which I think brilliantly and succinctly captures the possibilities of blogs both for making the academy more transparent and for helping it reach the general public, shining the light of knowledge, as it were, on the complexity of human affairs. The power of blogs is that they exist in a space all their own, not entirely within the academy and not (at least not yet) within the economic and editorial structures of mass media. Because of this, bloggers are able to maintain what McKenzie Wark calls “a slight angle of difference” from both sides. We here at the institute, from our not-quite-inside-not-quite-outside-the-academy vantage, are interested in simultaneously protecting that angle and boosting its stature.
Back in May, I saw Wark speak at a conference on new media education at CUNY called “Share, Share Widely.” He talked about how the academy should position itself in the media-saturated society and how it can employ new media tools (like blogging) to penetrate, and even redefine, the public sphere. I was mulling this over leading up to the meeting and it seems even more dead-on now:

“This tension between dialogue and discourse might not be unrelated to that between education and knowledge. Certainly what the new media technologies offer is a way of constructing new possibilities for the dialogic, ones which escape the boundaries of discipline, even of the university itself. New media is not interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary. It is antidisciplinary — although one might be careful where and to whom we break this news. Its acid with which to eat away at the ossified structure of discourse — with the aim of constructing a new structure of discourse. One that might bring closer together the university with its outside. Not to erase the precious interiority of the university, but to make it porous. To actually apply all that ‘theory’ we learned to our own institutions.”
“Imagine a political refugee, fleeing one country for another, jotting down his thoughts on the run, sharing them with his friends. I’m talking about Marx, writing the 1844 manuscripts. I think critical theory was always connected to new media practices. I think it was always about rethinking the discourse in which dialogue is possible. I think it was always knowledge escaping from the institutions of education. Think of Gramsci editing New Order, negotiating between metropolitan and subaltern languages. Think of Benjamin’s One Way Street, a pamphlet with bold typographic experiments. Or Brecht’s experiments in cinema. Or Debord’s last — amazing — TV program. Broadcast only once so you had to set your vcr. Or the Frankfurt School and Birmingham Schools, which broke down the intellectual division of labor. Or the autonomous studio Meilville built for Godard.”
“We need to do a ‘history of the present’ as Foucault would say, and recover the institutional aspect of knowledge as an object of critique. But of more than critique as well. Let’s not just talk about the ‘public sphere’. Let’s build some! We have the tools. We know wiki and blogging and podcasting. Let’s build new relations between theory and practice. No more theory without practice — but no more practice without theory either. Let’s work at slight angle of difference from the institution. Not against it — that won’t get you tenure — but not capitulating to it either. That won’t make any difference or be interesting to anybody.”

ron silliman: “the chinese notebook”

5. Language is, first of all, a political question.

The cover of Ron Silliman's _The Chinese Notebook_Like the problem of hunger in the world, the problem with publishing in the United States isn’t one of supply but one of distribution.

What’s worried me lately: that I go to airport bookshops and always see the same books. Because I live in New York, I can go to any number of specialized bookshops & find just about anything I want. The same is not true in many other parts of the country; the same is certainly not true in many other parts of the world. What worries me about airport bookshops is how few books they carry: how narrow a range of ideas is presented. May God help you if you’d like to buy anything other than Dan Brown in the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport. This is an exaggeration, but not by much. James Patterson is also available, as are the collected works of J. K. Rowling, and, for a limited time, those of J. R. R. Tolkien.

Into this emptiness is paraded the miracle of electronic publishing. As pushed by Jason Epstein, amongst others, the idea of print-on-demand will solve the question of supply forever more – you could go to a bookstore, request a book, and Barnes & Noble would print it out for you. (Let’s not think about copyright for the moment.) Jason Epstein believes these machines will be small enough to fit into an airport bookstore. This hasn’t happened yet, and I’m doubtful that it will any time soon, if at all. Booksellers have the supply & distribution issue down cold for Brown & Patterson & J. K. Rowling – they have no incentive to invest in these machines. When was the last time you, member of the reading public, went to complain to Barnes & Noble about their selection?

Until this marvelous future creates itself out of publishers’ good will towards humanity, people are presenting texts online, with varying degrees of success. If you have a laptop in the MSP airport (& a credit card to pay for wireless internet there), or, for that matter, any computer connected to the internet, you can go to and browse their archive of documents of the avant-garde. Among the treasures are /ubu editions, an imprint that electronically reprints various texts as PDFs. They’re free. I have a copy of Ron Silliman’s The Chinese Notebook, a reprint of a 26-page poem which originally appeared in The Age of Huts. Ubu reprinted it (and the other two parts of The Age of Huts) with Silliman’s permission.

6. I wrote this sentence with a ballpoint pen. If I had used another, would it be a different sentence?

/Ubu editions (edited by Brian Kim Stefans) aren’t really electronic books, and don’t conceive of themselves as such. Rather, they are a way of electronically distributing a book. This PDF is 8.5” x 11”. While you can read it from a screen – I did – it’s meant to be printed out at home & read on paper. That said, this isn’t a quick and dirty presentation. Somebody (a mysterious “Goldsmith”) has gone to the trouble of making it an attractive object. It has a title page with attractive, interesting, and appropriate art (an interactive study by Mel Bochner from Aspen issue 5–6; graciously hosts this online as well). There’s a copyright page that explains the previous. There’s even a half title page – somebody clearly knows something about book design. (How useful a half title page is in a book that’s meant to be printed out I’m not sure. It’s a pretty half title page, but it’s using another piece of your paper to print itself.) There’s also a final page, rounding off the total to 30 pages; if you print this off double-sided, you’ll have your very own beautiful stack of paper.

(Which is better than nothing.)

8. This is not speech. I wrote it.

Silliman’s text is (as these quotes might suggest) a list of 223 numbered thoughts about poetry and writing that forms a (self-contained) poem in prose. It is explicitly concerned with the form of language.

Karl Marx anticipating Walter J. Ong: “Is the Iliad possible when the printing press, and even printing machines, exist? Is it not inevitable that with the emergence of the press, the singing and the telling and the muse cease; that is, that the conditions necessary for epic poetry disappear?” (The German Ideology, p. 150; quoted in Neil Postman’s A Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future).

17. Everything here tends away from an aesthetic decision, which, in itself, is one.

Silliman’s text is nicely set – not beautifully, but well enough, using Baskerville. Baskerville is a neoclassical typeface, cool and rational, a product of the 18th century. Did Silliman think about this? Was the designer thinking about this? Is this how his book looked in print? in the eponymous Chinese notebook in which he wrote it? I don’t know, although my recognition of the connotations of the type inflects itself on my reading of Silliman’s poem.

21. Poem in a notebook, manuscript, magazine, book, reprinted in an anthology. Scripts and contexts differ. How could it be the same poem?

Would Silliman’s poem be the same poem if it were presented as, say, HTML? Could it be presented as HTML? This section of The Age of Huts is prose and could be without too many changes; other sections are more dependent on lines and spacing. Once a poem is in a PDF (or on a printed page), it is frozen, like a bug in amber; in HTML, type wiggles around at the viewer’s convenience. (I speak of the horrors HTML can wreak on poetry from some experience: in the evenings, I set non-English poems (in print, for the most part) for Circumference.)

47. Have we come so very far since Sterne or Pope?

Neil Postman, in his book, wonders about the same thing, answers “no”, and explains that in fact we’ve gone backwards. Disappointingly, there’s little reference to Sterne in Postman’s book, although he does point out that Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield was more widely read in the eighteenth century: possibly the literary public has never cared for the challenging.

Project Gutenberg happily presents their version of Tristram Shandy online in a plain text version: at certain points, the reader sees “(two marble plates)” or “(two lines of Greek)” and is left to wonder how much the text has changed between the page and the screen. Sterne’s novel, like Pope’s poetry, is agreeably self-aware: how Sterne would have laughed at “(page numbering skips ten pages)” in an edition without page numbers. There are a few lapses in’s presentation of Silliman, but they’re comparably minor: some of the entries in Silliman’s list aren’t separated by a blank space, leading one to suspect the pagination was thrown out of whack in Quark. When something’s free . . .

53. Is the possibility of publishing this work automatically a part of the writing? Does it alter decisions in the work? Could I have written that if it did not?

A writer writes to communicate with a reader unknown. Publishers publish to make money. These statements are not always true – there’s no shortage of craven writers if there’s a sad dearth of virtuous publishers – but they can be taken as general rules of thumb. Where does electronic publishing fit into this set of equations? Certainly when Silliman was writing this twenty years ago he wasn’t thinking seriously about distributing his work over the Internet.

(Silliman has, for what it’s worth, an excellent blog, suggesting that had the possiblity been around twenty years ago, he would have been thinking about it.)

56. As economic conditions worsen, printing becomes prohibitive. Writers posit less emphasis on the page or book.

Why does’s reprinting of Ron Silliman’s poetry seem more interesting to me than what Project Gutenberg is doing? Even the cheapest edition of Tristram Shandy that I can buy looks better than what they put out. (Ashamed of their text edition, one supposes, they’ve put out an HTML version of the book, which is an improvement, but not enough of one that I’d consider reading it for six hundred pages.) More to the point: it’s not that hard to find a copy of Tristram Shandy. You can even find one in one of the better airport bookstores. It’s out of copyright and any would-be publisher who wants to can print their own version of it without bothering with paying for rights.

I could not, alas, go to a bookstore and buy myself a copy of The Age of Huts because it’s been out of print for years. Thanks a lot, publishing. Good work. I could go to and buy a “used/collectible” copy for $113.20 – but precisely none of that money would go to Ron Silliman. But I don’t want a collectible copy: I’m interested in reading Silliman, not hoarding him. (Perhaps I start to contradict myself here.)

223. This is it.

But there are still questions. How do we ascribe value to a piece of art in a market economy? Are Plato’s ideas less valuable than those of Malcolm Gladwell because you can easily pick up the collected works of the first for less than 10% of what the two books of the second would cost you? when you can download old English translations for free on the Internet?

How valuable is a free poem on the Internet? How much more valuable is an attractive edition of a free poem on the Internet? even if you have to print it out to read it?

Why aren’t more people doing this?