Category Archives: boundaries

the first-world internet

I heard an interesting presentation today, but it concluded with a very developed-world, class-based interpretation of the Internet that I simply can’t agree with.

Although it’s true that more students are coming from abroad to study in the US (attributed in the presentation partially to budgetary issues in public schools in the US, another issue entirely), the idea of ‘globalization’, I’d argue, is really a concept based in the developed world. Yes, we have more students studying ‘cross-border’ topics, and interested in the world outside of the US. American students are coming into more contact with international students thanks to their presence in American universities, and perhaps gaining more cultural competency through this interaction. ‘Global studies’ are now a thing.

But this presentation talked at the end about the global power of the Internet, and globalization generally, about being able to reach across borders and communicate unimpeded. It doesn’t just have the potential to break down barriers, but already actively does so, this presenter posited. It doesn’t just encourage dissent but is already a channel for dissent, and an opportunity available to all.

International students in the US may be experiencing this power of the Internet, yes. But at home? Students from nations such as China and Saudi Arabia may not have experienced the Internet in this way, and may not be able to experience it back home in the same way as they can in the West, in Korea, in Japan, in other developed countries. (And I realize that’s a problematic term in itself.) Moreover, not all American students have experienced this Internet either. The students we find in universities generally already have opportunities not available to everyone, including their access to technology and the Internet.

There’s also the inherent assumption that this global access – and ‘global studies’ in general – takes place in English. While many students abroad are studying English, not all have this opportunity; moreover, their access to the educational opportunities of the developed world are limited to those opportunities they can access in English. Many undergraduates and even graduate students in the US limit themselves to the kind of global studies that can take place without foreign language competency. I realize that many do attempt foreign language studies and while the vast majority of undergraduates I encounter who are interested in Japan and Korea cannot read materials in their focus countries’ languages, they are often enrolled in language classes and doing their best. However, there are many more who are not. They do not come to the world – they expect the world to come to them.

And there are many, many students around the world who do not have access to the English Internet, or cross-border collaboration in English through the opportunities the Internet potentially affords (or doesn’t, depending on the country). They may not even have reliable access to electricity, let alone a data connection. This is changing, but not at the speed that the kind of thinking I encountered today assumes.

Related to this, another presentation talked about the power of MOOCs and online learning experiences in general. And yes, while I generally agree that there is much potential here, the vast majority of MOOCs currently available require English, a reliable connection, reliable electricity. They are by and large taken by educated adult males, who speak English. There is potential, but that is not the same as actual opportunity.

Overall, I think we need to question what we are saying when we talk about the power of the global Internet, and distinguish between potential and reality. Moreover, we need to distinguish exactly the groups we are talking about when we talk about globalization, global studies, and cross-border/cross-cultural communication. Even without the assumption of a developed-world, upper-class Internet, we need to recognize that by and large, our work is still conducted in silos, especially in the humanities. Science researchers in Japan may be doing English-language collaboration with international colleagues, but humanities researchers largely cannot communicate in English and cross-language research in those fields is rare. I can’t speak for countries other than Japan and the US, really, but despite the close mutual interest in areas such as Japanese literature and history, there is little collaboration between the two countries – despite the potential, as with digitizing rare materials and pooling resources to create common-interest digital archives, for example.

Even those international students often conduct their American educations in language and culture silos. Even the ones with reliable Internet access use country-based chat and social media, although resources such as Facebook are gaining in popularity. We go with what is most comfortable for us, what comes to us; that doesn’t apply only to Americans. Our channels of communication are those that allow us the path of least resistance. Even if Twitter and Facebook weren’t blocked in China, would they prove as popular as Sina Weibo and other Chinese technologies? Do Americans know what Line is or are they going to continue using WhatsApp?

If we find that English, money, and understanding of American cultural norms are major barriers to our communication, we might find other ways. Yes, that developed-world Internet may hold a lot of potential, but its global promise may not go in a direction that points toward us in America anyway.

politics and anthologizing

In this past year, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how the form of the anthologies I study (literary individual author anthologies in Japan at the turn of the 20th century) impacts possibilities of reading and interpretation. I’ve also commented at a couple of conferences that the narratives of who these authors “belong” to have been shaped and guided in these anthologies, and have written that taking works out of their original contexts fundamentally erases a part of their meaning (in terms of the ways readers encounter them) and simultaneously alters the work in terms of its received meaning.

After doing some reading this morning, I realized that one thing links these various threads in anthologies, and it’s a word I wasn’t using: politics.

I want to talk specifically about the example of Higuchi Ichiyō. For much of her career, she wrote for the magazine Bungakukai (among others) which was a driver of the first Romantic movement in Japan. In her anthologies, of course her serial works from that magazine are included as whole pieces, as though they were wholes from the outset, which has its own implications for reading. But the other piece of this is that just as the editors were writing the Bungakukai coterie social and ideological connections out of her career in their prefaces, they simultaneously erased this connection – this fundamental supplier of meaning – from her works by taking them out of their original Romantic context.

The first readers of Ichiyō’s works would have seen them embedded in theory and poetry heavily influenced by western Romanticism, including translations of English works and illustrations of faded ruins and statuary. The readers of her individual anthology, as well as reprints in wider circulation magazines such as Bungei kurabu before her death, would have encountered a very different context: in the magazines, other “modern” mainstream Japanese literature (presented as unaffiliated with any coterie or group other than the influential publishers of the magazines), and in the anthology, Ichiyō’s own works as a cohesive and self-contained whole. No longer would her work be infused, by virtue of proximity, with the politics of literature at the time she wrote in the early-to-mid 1890s. She becomes depoliticized, ironically despite the heavily social and what I would call political themes of her work: that is, the plight of the lower class and the inequity of Japanese society at the turn of the 20th century.

Especially in her second anthology, published in 1912, Ichiyō becomes a timeless woman writer, an elegant author of prose and poetry whose works are infused with tragedy – just as her poverty-stricken life was, to paraphrase the editors of the two volumes. Yet it is not a structural tragedy that pervades society, as it is in her work, but a personal, elegant, and heart-wrenching individual tragedy, one that makes her work even more poignant without necessarily having political implications. I can’t speak to the Romantic movement’s attitude toward this kind of theme found in Bungakukai, not being as familiar with its politics as I should be, but I can say that Kitamura Tōkoku – the founder of Bungakukai – basically started his career with the publication of Soshū no shi, a piece of “new-form” poetry about a prisoner, written at the height of his political involvement in the late 1880s.

So there is an association, simply by virtue of publishing in the same venues, between Ichiyō’s politics and those of Tōkoku, and the literary politics of the Romantic movement vis-à-vis the multitude of other ideologies of writing that existed at the time. Yet in her anthologies, this politics disappears and her context is lost entirely, in favor of a new context of Ichiyō alone, her works as something that stand alone without interference from the outside world. It is a profound depoliticization and something to think about in considering other anthologies as well, both early ones in Japan, current ones, and those found elsewhere in the world.

more room for annotations

Poking around on the Kindai Digital Library, as I am wont to do, I came across yet another book that leaves ample room for reader annotations without providing any of its own (where they would usually appear). This is a page from 華胥国物語 : 履軒中井先生遺稿:

For comparison, here is a page from Murasaki Shikibu nikki (1892) that does have annotations in that spot:

As you can see, too, there’s quite a difference between working with the first edition of a mid-Meiji book (my photo, immediately above), a microfilm version (not pictured), and a scanned and PDFed version of the microfilm version (the first image in this post). Thankful as I am for the Kindai Digital Library, its source material could be a lot better. (Post forthcoming on their new efforts to digitize and what a difference it makes. I’d like to point out that that photo was taken with Instagram on my iPhone, not some kind of high quality camera, and is yet still higher quality and more readable than most of what is on KDL.)

disciplinarity and undergraduate education

I have a quick comment on a recent blog post I read: “The Politics of Disciplinarity at the Undergraduate Level” (Natalia Cecire) This is adapted and expanded from a lengthy comment I left at said blog.

I have an admission to make: I was a naive, stereotypical computer science major. How so? I looked down, so very much, on the humanities – on what I perceived to be the humanities. Soft, vague, insular, self-interested, and ultimately irrelevant to my (or anyone else’s) life. “Learning for learning’s sake” was my hobby, but somehow it seemed ridiculous as a university course. How would humanities majors get jobs? Perhaps it’s partly my humble background, but majoring in something that didn’t have a definable endpoint in a career that would make up for the investment in a college education just seemed worse than pointless. It seemed irresponsible and naive.

Yet I was the one who was naive, along with my fellow CS majors who mocked MBAs and even the information science students. They were the ones who couldn’t hack it, right? If you’re not in a hard science or engineering (and we counted ourselves among them), you’re just playing around; you can’t make it to our league.

Who was I kidding? Myself.

I am now, as you know, in a humanities PhD program. I’m in an area studies department but study the history of the book, and came to it via literature (and before that, via a very social-science oriented history department, which is also partly the explanation for my attitude toward things like cultural studies and other vague humanities, including history departments with this bent).

It’s been a hard road, admittedly, for me to come to terms with this. I’ve never felt fully at home in the humanities and it’s because of the carryover of this attitude. And yet at the same time I’ve been doing a dual degree in information science, the very discipline I used to mock along with my CS buddies as for the kids who couldn’t hack our program, who couldn’t move from pseudocode to real programming, to real work.

And as you may guess, I’ve changed my mind in that I’ve become less naive (I would hope) and much more broad-minded about what can mean. Of course it’s more difficult to get a job that translates directly from a humanities degree to something concrete – but that doesn’t mean that one’s degree isn’t widely applicable and doesn’t prepare one for a variety of life paths. I know that’s often considered a platitude uttered by career counselors at universities everywhere (not to mention tenured professors who don’t understand undergrads’ lack of appreciation for “learning for learning’s sake”) but it’s true.

One of the things that was lacking from my CS education was a strong dose of critical thinking. It wasn’t until a few years into my humanities PhD program that I could think critically about the science discipline that I had come from, about  the inability to be truly objective but rather the ability to recognize and be aware of one’s own biases, and about how the questions we are able to ask, the problems we are able to pose, are not self-evident. Thinking critically about code, about programming, about application design from the very concept of applications to the endpoint of execution, was not in my DNA until I had already left the field and joined the legions of critical thinkers that inhabited another.*

The blog post referenced above speaks to the implications of politics at the “academic” level about disciplinarity having perhaps unintended consequences for attitudes at the undergraduate level, and so I’m sharing my undergraduate attitude, and gradual attitude change, above. Below, I’d like to address another consequence that the author brings up: the possibility of differential undergraduate tuition that could reflect perceived value of various “hard” versus “soft” majors. This is what I had to say in my comment on her blog:

One school, at least, has already implemented the policy of differential undergrad tuition: University of Michigan (where I am currently a student). The tuition varies by college, with Engineering being the best example, but since Computer Science is in the college of Arts & Sciences but veers toward the money-making assumption about engineering, it also gets differential (higher) tuition at the upperclassmen level.

I was a computer science major as an undergrad, and this kind of system would have strongly discouraged me from pursuing the degree. As a woman who was often the only woman, or one of perhaps two or three, in a class of 40-60 students, this has serious implications for the demographics of the major, which are already an issue. I also have to say that as a computer science undergrad with a double major in history, I held that unfortunate attitude: CS is “real work” whereas history is something fun I did on the side, something not really relevant to anything but history and academia itself.

I’m now a PhD candidate in the history of the book (within an area studies department – humanities, in other words), and I see now the patronizing and narrow-minded attitude I have. But it is so prevalent that even I – and I naively considered myself broad-minded – held it for a long time, and actively mocked those outside the “hard” sciences because of it.

It’s so pervasive, and I’m glad that you addressed the fact that what is often written off as academic squabbles and pissing matches impact undergrads profoundly as well.

 

* That’s not to say that everyone who majors in the humanities ends up being able to think critically. I meet many who get by completely unable to do so. But here I speak from my own experience and say that it is what allowed me to do so.

is it ephemeral?

I work largely with sources that you would call “ephemeral” in my research these days. By that, I simply mean “in danger of disappearing easily, or have already done so.” Things prone to disappearing can range from things like theater playbills and concert programs to magazines and newspapers, to gum wrappers and signs and internet forum posts, not to mention non-archived Web sites and things that can be lost easily in a hard drive crash with no backup.* I’m being somewhat narrowminded by considering “non-ephemeral” sources to basically be books, but they are made for persistence through time, and they are often so redundant that they are de facto preserved through this.

In any case, I’ve been thinking as I write my dissertation, especially the current chapter that I’m working on, about what happens to ephemera when one decides to preserve it in a non-ephemeral form. Here, I’ll use the example of reprinting something in a book or putting it on microfilm. Not all magazines and newspapers are thrown out completely, although they do tend to be tossed out en masse every week throughout the world. Newspaper companies keep archives and libraries bind periodicals for preservation and (through) access and redundancy. Things get microfilmed. Sometimes they are reproduced in a traditional bound form at some point, as though they were books to begin with.

I’m working with two authors in particular who published almost solely in magazines that are now extremely hard to get ahold of, about 120 years ago. I’m studying the act of reprinting those stories in book form, here in anthologies of the “complete works” of those authors.** I talk a lot about the crucial role that reprinting in the form of an anthology plays in access and preservation: without reprints, these stories, published in sources that are very easily lost to us, may never have been accessible at all after a few decades of their original publication. The paper of these types of publications is rarely very durable and as time goes on, the surviving owners of the publications tend to throw them out, or the executors of their estates do it for them.

In fact, one magazine in particular is an extreme example of ephemerality. It was a handwritten magazine – really, a zine from the 1880s – that was passed around between members of a literary club, who annotated it as they went along, writing in the margins and then passing it on to the next member, sometimes making their own handwritten copies as well. In this way, the publication and distribution was profoundly decentralized and depended entirely on the efforts of the members of that club. Yet, they were all quite committed to literature and to each other, and so it was relatively successful – if you can call a magazine with only a few hand-written, hand-circulated copies successful.

The problem with the issues of this magazine (before it later was printed and sold commercially) is that they are literally no longer available. Garakuta bunko from the late 1880s is simply inaccessible to us as literary scholars and historians. There are no accessible copies, and possibly no surviving copies at all. This was the case even in the early 20th century, when the extant copies dwindled to a single set held in a private collection; only the tables of contents were published, reprinted in a book on the literary club. Now, that private collection is even inaccessible, and all we have left are those reprinted tables of contents.

Why is this important? It is now impossible for me to investigate, for example, early uses of pseudonyms by some of the authors that I study, and impossible to read their earliest works to evaluate their first efforts in literature. As this group became extremely influential from the late 1880s through the early 1900s, this is a big problem for studying its development over time, its roots, its connections with the literature of the late Edo period (1600-1867), and its early influence on others. In short, this work has been rendered impossible and these questions unanswerable.

Even as early as the 1920s, there were reprints of the publicly distributed, later issues of this magazine. It was a set of only 500 copies and its preface is extremely telling. Edited by former members of the club, the reason for the reprint is stated unequivocally: the number of surviving copies is very few, they are limited to the collections of private individuals, and the early works of club members are nearly impossible to get ahold of. It has been reprinted for posterity and for access at the time of the reprints. There are those who would like to read the works, and the reprints are made and distributed so it becomes possible again to do this.

This is a noble undertaking, and one that is extremely important to our access now. It is reasonable to wonder whether, if not for this early reprint set, even more of Garakuta bunko would be lost to the ether over time. We have more reprints now, in book form, and they are likely to persist through time thanks to this. But what if those reprints had nothing to reprint?

Finally, I come to the sticking point of all of this. It’s prompted by a question from a month or so ago: if ephemeral materials are preserved in such a way, through a digital archive, through photographs, through reprints, does that fundamentally change their nature as ephemera? I don’t have a concrete, definitive answer to this, but I do think there are two issues at the heart of this. One is a practical issue – the major difference between ephemera and other sources when attempting to create a digital archive is that there is even more impetus for careful preservation, because the danger of loss is so high. If a magazine could almost entirely disappear less than 50 years after its initial publication, what does that say about even more volatile materials? We lose a major part of the historical record and in most cases we will be unable to ever retrieve it. This means that there are historical, cultural, and literary questions that we simply cannot ask – or rather, can never answer. It reduces our understanding of the past and even of the present, given that ephemera can disappear in the blink of an eye, historically speaking.

The other issue is thornier. My answer on reprints or digital reproductions is this: it does not change the status of the source as ephemeral. Rather, I think that in some way it both attempts to obscure its ephemeral nature, and yet also makes it even more evident. What is the need for a reprint, after all, if there is no danger of disappearance? If a work is already persisting through redundancy, is there a need for preservation? And there is the issue of the reprint fundamentally altering the context, and thus the meaning, of that ephemeral source. That highlights even more its ephemeral nature, because by recuperating its pre-reprint context, its pre-preservation context, we cannot help but focus on its ephemeral nature, because we are reprinting ephemera, preserving ephemera.

In other words, we can perhaps think of reprints or digitally archived versions as separate objects entirely from the ephemera that they preserve, and this stresses even more the ephemeral nature of what has been preserved. Of course, a work reprinted in book form is less likely to be ephemeral. But what has been reprinted, a serial in a newspaper or in a magazine, is tremendously so, and this very gap in the nature of the medium is emphasized in the process. These are ephemera, preserved. Preservation does not change the fact that these sources are always, will always be, in imminent danger of permanent loss.***

Thoughts?

* In fact, I have lost some of these things that I had never considered ephemeral until they were gone. How fragile is an older hard drive full of personal data and artwork? Very. How about things you burn to a CD-ROM for safekeeping? Even worse. A personal web site that you had a few years ago? If the Internet Archive didn’t grab it, it might as well never existed. We talk quite a bit these days about the danger of things never being erased if you put them out in public, on the Internet, but they’re more endangered than we give them credit for.

** Take that with a grain of salt; “complete” is more aspirational than literal, and it has quite a lot to do with “completely” being able to know or possess the author as an author, rather than a complete set of works in themselves. I digress.

*** The fact that Garakuta bunko was reprinted in the 1920s, after all, does not change the fact that the original copies of the magazine are in grave danger of being completely lost to us. A reprint is not the same as the source that it reprints. The reprint, if not an ephemeral source in itself (this short print run of the Garakuta bunko reprint suggests that it can qualify as such), is not ephemera. But what it reprints will never stop being ephemeral.

post office as information central?

The future of the post office – and of snail mail generally – is a frequent topic these days. (Well, it has been for a while.) I listened to an excellent show from On Point the other week that had on several people, including someone with the post office. It was excellent in that the guests made several really strange points that were extremely thought-provoking, and I’d never heard them before. I think they deserve to be discussed widely: they broaden the conversation from just “post office or not?” and think about the actual role of this institution in serving its consituents. What is the point of the post office, anyway?

The post office delivers information, reliably (mostly) and often securely. It provides a way to get delivery confirmation and insurance on your stuff, rents out mailboxes (especially important for people in neighborhoods where mail delivery is unreliable, often due to the lack of safety and lack of access to mailboxes – and lack of maintenance by landlords). It lets you get stuff where it’s going, fast. I know that UPS and FedEx and DHL do these kinds of things too, but for general purpose information delivery, the post office is here to serve all of us, no matter where we are, no matter what. This is its mission.

As time goes on, demand and form of information changes, obviously. We’ve already had new technologies and new regimes of categorization that bave been developed to accommodate changing needs. I have only to look at pre-ZIP code letters to be reminded of this. Honestly, for someone who has grown up with ZIP codes, it’s shocking. Within my lifetime, moreover, the place of ZIP codes on the envelope has changed (no longer a need for a new line; in fact writing it along with the city and state is encouraged). We have even more, better technology for reading the messiest handwriting, for distinguishing that ZIP code (and now, a 4-digit code afterwards that means it’s your house) from the text written next to it. We’re getting pretty advanced, here, if you think about it.

So now there is the fairly dramatic change of declining mail volume, which has not been accompanied by a high enough increase in stamp prices to keep up with the times (really, every other country in which I’ve mailed a letter has been close to $1 for even domestic mail). We have a lot of people conducting their information needs online, even those bits of information that must be kept secure: banking, shopping, student financial aid and loan applications and processing, university business (I’m thinking of my own stuff here). We need secure document delivery, and we need it to be a lot better than it is now. Recent break-ins to companies that are holding customer and credit card information (ahem, SONY) are making this abundantly clear.

In light of this, do we need some kind of central, trusted authority that we can go to for secure document delivery?

I argue yes, and I argue that this is exactly a natural place for the post office to step in. I’m not talking about printing out PDFs and making sure they get securely to their destinations. I’m talking about a secure information infrastructure provided as a public service for all of us. No, it will not replace our banking or our insecure game network accounts. But don’t you think that this would be a great service, one that we can’t quite imagine now what it would look like… and one that exactly fits the mission and history of the post office?

Through any kind of calamity, no matter what, we will get your stuff securely and reliably to where it needs to be. We will make it available to you, no matter what.

This sounds a lot like the current mission that surrounds the delivery of paper mail and packages. I am not arguing that this should replace what they’re doing. Don’t close all the post offices and argue Internet for everything. There are still a lot of things that need to be delivered securely by post: you wouldn’t believe how few forms will take my secure Adobe digital signature on the PDF as the equivalent of a pen signature. Imagine being able to develop that pen signature (so easy to forge) into something more secure, in digital form. Would that not be awesome?

With the way things are going, I hardly think that anyone in government would consider this kind of natural evolution as worthy of supporting, as worthy of seed money for infrastructure. We are not so good at thinking outside the current narrow box of the status quo; we have blinders on that we can’t seem to remove. But the post office itself sees itself as needing a transformation for proceeding from here on out. If only innovation and creativity could win out, but I’m not holding my breath.

Incidentally, this whole post office closure thing? Most articles I read are about people complaining they would have to drive 6 miles to the nearest post office. Guess what. I have had to drive miles to the nearest post office my whole life, because I have been unlucky enough to grow up in the suburbs, then live in a city that thinks it’s a great idea to build their fancy new post office (and library!) miles away from our small but active downtown, and make it miles away from any public transit: you can’t walk either, because you’d need to get across several very dangerous freeway on and off ramps. Seriously.

where are the japanese exchange students?

I was recently reading Jake Adelstein’s review of Reimagining Japan and he noted the need for openness as a topic explored in the book – and defined that as a reluctance for both young Japanese to go abroad, and for companies to reach outside of their own borders. I don’t have any profound insights into this issue (or even on whether it is the issue that people make it out to be), but it reminded me of a touching conversation I had last year.

I organized a flower-viewing party (for cherry blossom season) in the last April that I lived in Tokyo. For those of you who haven’t had the experience of cherry blossom season in Japan, I’ll give you a representative image: cold, cloudy, miserable day, often with no cherry blossoms in sight, a park completely covered in blue tarps (“leisure sheets!”), populated by shivering drunk people trying their damndest to get even more drunk while snacking on party foods like octopus dumplings. Doesn’t it sound like that romantic image of an elegant branch of cherry blossoms against the clear blue sky, perhaps with Fuji-san lurking nearby, that has become the representative of Japan? Well, don’t believe it. The version I’ve given you is hard cold reality.

Still, you do hanami (“flower viewing”) in late March and early April, flowers or not, and regardless of whether you need a winter coat. Once you’re plastered, you won’t notice anyway! Well, let’s move on now that I’ve set the scene.

I was chatting with my friend Naoko who had brought her shy but nice cousin along with her, who was interested in learning and practicing English. We got to talking about how I’d come to Japan in the first place and how my experiences were.

As we talked, she surprised me with her reaction: She revealed that she’d love to live abroad for a year or two after college, and she was so jealous of people like me and my friends who had been able to do that in Japan. It really threw me. After all, she was shy and hesitant about speaking, but her English was passable enough that after a few weeks in a place like the US or UK, she’d be doing fine. Her interest in foreign countries and languages was obvious. So why the resignation to not having a chance? What was stopping her?

Her answer to this really blew me away. “Well,” she said, “companies want to hire their new employees when they graduate from college, on time.” (By this she means that graduation is in late February, and the start of the new school/employment year is in April. Because of this, if you happen to not pass your entrance exams or not get a job offer, you have to wait until that time in the next year to try again.) “So if I were to go abroad, I’d come back and I wouldn’t be a new graduate, and I wouldn’t be with the class I graduated with. So it would be really difficult to get a job because I wouldn’t be in the category of people that companies want to hire.”

It really shouldn’t have surprised me so much. After all, it’s true. There is a deeply ingrained system of when and how, from college exams to job interviews. Of course, part-time jobs, and going into business for yourself, are different. But overall, despite a lot of shifting preferences and more varied ways of living compared to a decade or two ago, that system is still there. And if you don’t fit into the path that leads you to a position as a regular company employee (as opposed to contract or part-time), you are going to be stuck in what’s still considered by many to be an underclass.

The irony here is that Japanese firms would benefit immensely from young employees who have at least traveled, if not lived, abroad – anywhere. In fact, I worked very informally at a large company in Tokyo and my contact there confided in me more than once that he’d like the old guard to open their minds to hiring foreigners as in-house workers, instead of using contractors to do tasks like translation. His argument was that it would be more cost-effective and flexible (at one point they needed a rush translation and had to pay through the nose to get someone else to do it), and even more than that, that it would change the culture of the workplace in a positive way. But at the same time, he sighed when he said this and said, “There’s no way that could happen now. I’m hoping in two or three years, it might be possible, if I keep working on them.”

I see how this system is set up and I understand the logic of it, because everyone knows how it works and it’s self-perpetuating because of it. But looking at it from the outside, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. On the one hand I’m reassured and even inspired by the people I’ve talked to in Japan who have either made a path that weaves in and out of the system as they like, or who have become successful within powerful companies and used that position to shape their work into something international. There are plenty of people I know who lived abroad for a while (from three months to like 20 years) who were then perfectly successful when they returned. But by and large, if this attitude is there – well, the fear that success can only be had along one specific, limited path is self-fulfilling.

I can only hope that more people like my friend’s cousin who have a desire to go abroad and experience life in other countries do get the courage to do it regardless of the rigid system that they live in, and make something successful out of it. But in the meantime, I am a lot more understanding of why the Asian exchange students at my university come to us from every nation but Japan.

what can you do with a million (non-digitized) books?

I am growing into a scholar with a foot in literature and a foot in information science, I have a stake in asking and answering that newly liberated question: What can you do with a million books? What do you do with a million books?

It’s a question that’s being asked a lot in the past few years, and what’s more, so many answers are beginning to be offered in concrete terms rather than speculation. It’s an exciting and promising time for literature, for other humanistic fields. Digital humanities are here, and we finally have both the ready means and ready material to start interrogating texts in ways that were logistically not possible before now.

It’s a question that I’d like to offer my own answers to, in the form of experiments and projects, as so many others are now doing. But there is always another question nagging at me when I look, with real enthusiasm, at the kind of work that is being done to take humanistic inquiry to an unprecedented scale.

At first I asked the question that made me feel like an outsider, despite sharing the same desires and the same curiosity as those whose web sites I visit, and whose articles I read. I asked, why is this happening in the same departments, in the same fields? Why does it seem that this is limited not to a discipline, but to a time, to a place?

To be blunt, the vast majority of projects are dealing with texts in English or French, or more broadly in European languages, with the classics, and with texts from the early modern period through the early 20th century. Why did I read an article today whose very title asked “what is the place of digital humanities in English departments?”
Continue reading what can you do with a million (non-digitized) books?

who is ‘anonymous’?

Given that I write about issues of anonymous, collective, and pseudonymous authorship, a headline this morning couldn’t help but grab my attention.

Guessing Who the Anonymous Author of ‘O’ Is” (New York Times, 2011.01.19)

This headline is terrible, and not just in terms of grammar and flow (not to mention catchiness). By terrible, I of course mean that I would rewrite it. Let’s try this.

“Media Freaks Out Over Not Knowing Who Wrote Work Published Anonymously; Writers Overcompensate By Insisting Loudly That They Didn’t Do It” (I have no idea if my capitalization is right. So maybe you can burn me for grammar too!)

The article begins with this great statement that pretty much sums up the attitude of journalists and critics toward a kind of entitlement to making a direct connection between attributed author (here, “Anonymous”) and a single writer or team of writers.

The publisher of “O,” an anonymously written novel about a 2012 presidential campaign, made a brazen request of journalists and other writers in an e-mail on Tuesday: if anyone asks whether you are the author, please decline to comment.

I couldn’t have made up anything better. It’s brazen! The nerve of that publisher to emphasize the authorial identity of “Anonymous” as complete in itself rather than something that demands to be linked to the private identities of the writer(s). Of course, it’s not just the possibility of “Anonymous” in itself being an author: it’s also the context of past political novels (here, Primary Colors) attributed to that very same author, although here the “Anonymous” is quite different in that it is tied to a completely separate political novel.

I often ask when studying writing in the 1880s and 1890s, what did it mean to read a work that has no writer’s name attached, and one attributed only to Anonymous?

Continue reading who is ‘anonymous’?