Category Archives: writing

ruins – the past, the real, the monumental, the personal

Did I ever tell you about one of my favorite buildings in the world? It’s a public housing project named Kaigan-dori Danchi 海岸通り団地 (not to be confused with the type of projects one finds in the US, it was perfectly desirable housing in its time). This particular danchi (“community housing” or – generally public – housing project) was located smack in the middle of the richest section of Yokohama, between Kannai and Minato Mirai, perhaps one of the richest areas of the Tokyo region. Here it is in all its dirty, dirty glory, with Landmark Tower in the background.

Yes. This is Kaigan-dori Danchi, one of the grossest “ruins” (haikyo 廃墟) I had ever seen. Or, I thought it was a ruin. You know, an abandoned building. Because it looked too much like a shell to be anything else.

Then I got a message on Flickr.

In it, the messager wrote that he grew up in Kaigan-dori Danchi and now lives in New York City. He advised me that yes, it’s still inhabited, and thanked me for putting so many photos of it on Flickr. (Yes, I went for a photo shoot of this complex, more than once – hey, it was on my walk home from school!) He felt nostalgic at seeing his boyhood home and was interested to see what it looked like now.

In other words, what I’d felt vaguely strange about as some kind of ruins voyeurism – the same kind of ruins porn that takes hold of nearly everyone who wants to take photos of Detroit, for example – turned out to be a two-way street. It wasn’t pure voyeurism; it was a way to connect with someone who had a direct experience of the past of this place, a place that was still alive and had a memory and a history, rather than being some monstrosity out of time – as I’d been thinking of it. I saw it as a monument, not an artifact.

So this was in 2008, a half year after I’d become obsessed with Japanese urban exploration photography, which was enjoying a boom in the form of guidebooks, a glossy monthly magazine, calendars, DVDs, tours, photo books, and more, in Japan at the time. (Shortly thereafter, and I CALLED IT, came the public housing complex boom. I do have some of the photo books related to this boom too, because there’s nothing I love more than a good danchi.)

As part of the research for a presentation I gave on the topic for my Japanese class at IUC that year, I’d done some research into websites about ruins in Japan (all in Japanese of course). These were fascinating: some of them were just about the photography, but others were about reconnecting with the past, posting pictures of old schools and letting former classmates write on the guestbooks of the sites. There was a mixi (like myspace) group for the Shime Coal Mine (the only landmark of the first town I’d lived in in Japan). The photo books, on the other hand, profoundly decontextualized their objects and presented them as aesthetic monuments, much the way I’d first viewed Kaidan-dori Danchi.

So I wonder, with ruins porn a genre in the United States and Europe as well, do we have the same yearning for a concrete, real past that some of these sites and photographers exhibit, and not just vague nostalgia for the ruins of something that never existed? How much of ruins photography and guidebooks are about the site in context – the end point of a history – and how much is just about “hey I found this thing”? How much of this past is invented, never existed, purely fantasy, and how much of it is real, at least in the minds of those who remember it?

These are answers I don’t yet have, but I’ve just begun on this project. In the meantime, I’m happy to share Kaigan-dori Danchi with you.

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.

my disagreement with authorship attribution

I’m torn: I’m very interested in stylometry, but I have issues with the fundamental questions that are asked in this field, in particular authorship attribution.

In my research, I’ve thought and written quite a bit about authorship. My dissertation looked at changing concepts of authorship – the singular, cohesive, Romantic genius author as established in collected editions in Japan at the turn of the 20th century – and also at actual practices of writing and authorship that preceded and accompanied these developments. My conclusion about authorship was that it is a kind of performance, embedded in and never preceding the text, and is not coextensive with the historical writer(s) behind the performance – pseudonymous, collective, anonymous, or otherwise.

These performances are necessarily contextualized by space, time, society, culture, literary trends, place of publication, audience. They are more or less without meaning if one doesn’t take context into account, even if not all relevant contexts at once. For a performance takes place within a historic, cultural, and literary moment, and does not exist independently of it. I see that place of performance as both the text and its place of publication, its material manifestation; and it is a performance that is inextricably linked to reader reception.

I also don’t see these performances as necessarily creating a unified authorial identity or unified author-function across space, time, and texts. This may sound extremely counterintuitive given that many performances of authorship share appellations and can be “attributed” to the “same” author, and I recognize that my argument is downright bizarre at times. I blame it on having spent too much time thinking about the implications of this topic. But in a way, our linking of these performances after the fact is artificial, and these different author-functions are, for me, so linked to the time and place of both publication and reading – whether contemporary or not – that they can be seen as separate as well. This is why I concluded that collected literary anthologies are constructing – inventing – an entirely artificial “author” out of the works associated, after the fact, with a historical, individual writer, whose identity and name may not have coincided with that of the authorial performance at all in the first place.

So, that said, let me get to my disagreement with authorship attribution. It’s fundamentally asking the wrong question of authors and authorship: who “really” wrote this text? My argument is that the hand of the historical writer “behind” the authorial performance is a moot point; what matters is the name, or lack of a name, attributed to the text when it is published, republished, read, and reread over time. It’s the performance that takes place at the site of the text, coinciding with and following the creation of the text, deeply associated with and embedded in the text, and located within reception rather than intention. It takes place at a different site than the hand of the historical writer holding a pen or the mind creating an idea. And so the search for the “real” identity of the author is beside the point; what is happening here is really “writership attribution” that is something separate from authorship.

A colleague recently asked me, too, what the greater goal of authorship attribution is – what is it beyond finding out the person behind the text? What is it besides deciding that the entity constructed with the name Shakespeare “really” wrote an unattributed or mysterious text? And I couldn’t answer this question, which brings me to my second fundamental problem with authorship attribution. I don’t see an overarching research question guiding methodology, besides the narrow goal of establishing writership of a text. This could be my own ignorance, and I’d be happy to be corrected on it.

I’m interested to hear your thoughts!

New issue of D-Lib magazine

D-Lib magazine has just published their most recent issue, available at http://www.dlib.org

This looks to be a great issue, with a number of fascinating articles on dissertations and theses in institutional repositories, using Wikipedia to increase awareness of digital collections, MOOCs, and automatic ordering of items based on reading lists.

Please check it out! All articles are available in full-text on the site.

why print?

I recently uploaded a new (and my first) resource to my site, a guide to print reference resources for Japanese humanities held by the University of Michigan. This guide was originally made for a reference class in 2008, so it’s about time that it saw the light of day. It certainly wasn’t doing much good sitting on my hard drive.

You might ask, though, on viewing this: Why would Molly make a resource guide for only print books? Aren’t they a little, well, archaic and outdated? Isn’t it more convenient to check out digital resources from the comfort of my own laptop, perhaps in bed? After all, there are fantastic reference resources – available through institutional subscription – such as the JapanKnowledge database that suit many needs, and bring together information from a wide variety of (originally) print sources and other databases. With something like JapanKnowledge, going to the Asia Library Reference Room and thumbing through dictionaries seems a little slow and pointless.

Let me tell you something. In the process of looking at the various humanities reference resources, for literature in particular, I found a large number of unique sources that aren’t available online. These range from the legendary Morohashi Dai kanwa jiten Chinese character dictionary to synopses and reception histories, guides to folk literature, a multi-lingual proverb dictionary (it has translations and annotations in Japanese, English, French, and German), and a guide to Buddhist terms found in Japanese literature that include the original Sanskrit and phrases from the classic literary works containing the terms.

Among the books that are entirely unique – an equivalent resource doesn’t exist in any other format (or, sometimes, language) – are a biographical dictionary of foreigners in Japan from the 1500s-1924, an annotated bibliography of translations into European languages dating from 1593-1912, an annotated bibliography of Japanese secondary sources on literary history published between 1955-1982, poetry indexes, and a dictionary of popular literature (taishū bungaku).

The process of making this bibliography was the pure joy of a scavenger hunt, and did I ever come up with a list of treasures. Leafing through a book of English-language synopses of untranslated Japanese work from the 19th-20th centuries may not sound exciting, but the fact that it exists as a quick reference resource for those looking to read some Meiji or Taishō literature is pretty amazing. I had a good time in the Reference Room finding these resources, and I’ve put some of them to very good use over the years.

Yes, I use digital resources; in fact, I couldn’t have come up with my dissertation topic without them. (As always, many thanks to the National Diet Library for the existence of the Kindai Digital Library.) But Japan is still a world of print – it’s nigh impossible to get a journal article in electronic form at this point – and, more importantly, print reference sources like these don’t go out of style. A guide to poetic allusions from the 1950s, or a popular literature dictionary from 1967, do not become outdated or irrelevant; we may wish for an update to the latter, but the information it provides is still valuable. Being able to use print reference works opens up a world of information to us by supplying that which has not been converted to database form.

Finally, why this guide? Is a guide coming for electronic resources? The short answer is, save for one-off blog posts, no. There are already so many excellent guides to electronic resources out there on the Web that my own meager contribution wouldn’t make much of a difference. The reason for this guide is that I haven’t found a good annotated bibliography of print reference books for Japanese literature specifically, and humanities more generally, that live at what used to be my own institution. I wanted to both know for myself, and share with others, what treasures were hiding on those rarely-used shelves (and, worse, in the off-site book storage) – what treasures were at my fingertips.

I hope you find it useful, and if you’re at the University of Michigan – or hey, anywhere else, for I can always check the catalog – and you have your own preferred humanities reference works, please send them along or leave the info in the comments. This is an evolving work and I’d like to include everything I possibly can!

don’t learn to code

There is a lot of speculating going on, on the Internet, at conferences, everywhere, about the ways in which we might want to integrate IT skills – for lack of a better word – with humanities education. Undergrads, graduate students, faculty. They all need some marketable tech skills at the basis of their education in order to participate in the intellectual world and economy of the 21st century.

I hear a lot, “learn to code.” In fact, my alma mater has a required first-semester course for all information science students, from information retrieval specialists to preservationists, to do just that, in Python. Others recommend Ruby. They rightly stay away from the language of my own training, C++, or god forbid, Java. Coding seems to mean scripting, which is fine with me for the purposes of humanities education. We’re not raising software engineers here. We tend to hire those separately.*

I recently read a blog post that advocated for students to “learn a programming language” as part of a language requirement for an English major. (Sorry, the link has been buried in more recent tweets by now.) You’d think I would be all about this. I’m constantly urging that humanities majors acquire enough tech skills to at least know what others are talking about when they might collaborate with them on projects in the future. It also allows one to experiment without the need for hiring a programmer at the outset of a project.

But how much experimentation does it actually allow? What can you actually get done? My contention is: not very much.

If you’re an English major who’s taken CS101 and “learned a programming language,” you have much less knowledge than you think you do. This may sound harsh, but it’s not until the second-semester, first-year CS courses that you even get into data structures and algorithms, the building blocks of programming. Even at that point, you’re just barely starting to get an idea of what you’re doing. There’s a lot more to programming than learning syntax.

In fact, I’d say that learning syntax is not the point. The point is to learn a new way of thinking, the way(s) of thinking that are required for creating programs that do something interesting and productive, that solve real problems. “Learning a programming language,” unless done very well (for example in a book like SICP), is not going to teach you this.

I may sound disdainful or bitter here, but I feel this must be said. It’s frankly insulting as someone who has gone through a CS curriculum to hear “learn a programming language” as if that’s going to allow one to “program” or “code.” Coding isn’t syntax, and it’s not learning how to print to the screen. Those are your tools, but not everything. You need theory and design, the big ideas and patterns that allow you to do real problem-solving, and you’re not going to get that from a one-semester Python course.

I don’t think there’s no point to trying to learn a programming language if you don’t currently know how to program. But I wish the strategies generally being recommended were more holistic. Learning a programming language is a waste of time if you don’t have concepts that you can use it to express.

 

* I’m cursed by an interdisciplinary education, in a way. I have a CS degree but no industry experience. I program both for fun and for work, and I know a range of languages. I’m qualified in that way for many DH programming jobs, but they all require several years of experience that I passed up while busy writing a Japanese literature dissertation. I’ve got a bit too much humanities for some DH jobs, and too little (specifically teaching experience) for others.

Annotation and Murasaki Shikibu nikki

I recently looked up Murasaki Shikibu nikki (The Diary of Murasaki Shikibu) on the Kindai Digital Library (Digital Library from the Meiji Era) as part of my research in revising a dissertation chapter for further publication. I found an 1893 printing and was interested in how the diary was being presented to readers at the time – this was one of the first times it was typeset and published on a mass commercial scale. (The diary itself is from the late 10th and early 11th centuries, written by the author of The Tale of Genji.) Because I’m studying the printing of Higuchi Ichiyō’s diary – a modern woman writer who was compared to Murasaki herself – I’m interested in how other women’s diary literature was being talked about and published as a context.

Anyway, I found no preface, footnotes, afterward, or annotations, so I was out of luck on that front. Except that the lack of annotations itself presented a fascinating problem in the case of this book. Instead of annotations along the top of the page with a line dividing them from the text, as was usual for classical texts being printed at this time, what we have is room for annotations that was intentionally left blank. In other words, this printing specifically made room for readers’ own annotations. Check it out:

 

Murasaki Shikibu nikki

 

We often think of digital texts as being uniquely interactive when compared with physical print books, but this 1893 edition shows that that is far from the case. It is a book that specifically invites – no, demands – reader interaction. Reading becomes a two-way activity here, both receiving and contributing, producing and consuming. It is a profoundly personal experience as well, with room for individualized comments and reflections, perhaps, along with jotting down notes to oneself to help understand the text. It is an experience that demands rereading as well – these are notes for further use, written down for future reference and rereading and rethinking. This book asks readers to contribute their own text, and legitimizes those individual interpretations as written upon its pages by providing an official space for them that runs alongside the legitimate text.

This is a remarkably different experience of reading than we might find in, say, a manuscript copy of that same diary from hundreds of years before (as it was originally circulated) or in a printed version with annotations already filled in. (Or even no annotations or room in the margins for them, although that would be extremely rare.) It is an experience that combines readership and authorship, and makes the reader into an editor and author him- or herself in the act of interactive reading.

Yet this book is not entirely unique. It simply presents an extreme case. There was recently an two-day conference on note-taking at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute – entitled, appropriately enough, Take Note – and the focus of this event was on what I would call interactive reading, on readers’ annotations. Readers have been annotating texts – interacting with texts, modifying them and producing their own text in response – since perhaps the written word was invented. Practices may have changed over time and between cultures and languages, but marginalia and annotation have been, and are, alive and well. We might call the typeset, printed text a static thing, unlike mutable digital texts, but in practice, it is easily modified and given new and different meanings through readers’ interactions with pen and pencil.

In fact, I might go so far as to say that digital texts in the form of ebooks are actually less mutable, less interactive, than print books at this point in time. I have a Kindle and while I love reading on it, I still buy any book that I think I might interact with – that I might read slowly and carefully with pen and sticky note sin hand – in a paper version. Annotation may be possible, but it is not comfortable or, for me, practical. It’s a laborious process and can only handle highlighting and plain text, not sketches or diagrams. There is something freeing about the handwritten note or image, something that allows ideas to flow and take shape without restriction. Ebooks do not accommodate this now, although it’s certainly not impossible. It’s implemented badly or not at all.

There is no such restriction on the paper book: it is a good implementation for reading actively and interactively. It is far from static and stable; it is open to readers’ interpretations and analysis. In fact, it is a home for them. As Murasaki Shikibu nikki demonstrates, the page invites our interaction, not simply our passive consumption.

what books to read and how to read

I came across a book a while ago from 1912 entitled What Books to Read and How to Read when searching around in the university library basement. (Incidentally, this is where all of my wonderful finds come from – including the ones that make up the basis of my research!) It’s such a fascinating and still-relevant book that I’d like to introduce it here. (Full citation: David Pryde, LL.D. What Books to Read and How to Read: Being Suggestions for Those Who Would Seek the Broad Highways of Literature. New York and London: Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1912.)

The book starts off with the anxiety that is surely familiar to us: there is too much information out there, and it’s growing exponentially. It’s overwhelming. The number of books being printed is too much for any one human to deal with and the problem is only getting worse. What to do in the face of this?

Well, this book has an answer. First, how to read books. You don’t want to become a “dungeon of learning,” someone who reads a wide variety but can’t apply any of it to real life. Instead of just ingesting, investigate first. The advice reads like a library seminar on reliable sources and searching for research leads. Learn something about the author first. Read the preface carefully. Take a comprehensive survey of the table of contents – “if the preface is the appetizer, the table of contents is the bill of fare.”

Give your whole attention to whatever you read. “A book is a representation of the best workings of the author’s soul. In order to understand it, we must shut out our own circumstances, cast off our personal identity, and lose ourselves in the writer before us. We must follow him closely through all his lines of thought, understand clearly all his ideas, and enter into all his feelings. Anything less than this is not worthy of the name of reading.”

Be sure to note the most valuable passages as you read. Write out in your own language a summary of the facts you have noted.

Most important? Apply the results of your reading to your every-day duties.

This guide is a paean to close reading and taking books to heart. It’s a guide to knuckling down and processing information in a useful way, rather than simply succumbing to the overwhelming amount of books out there. It’s reading for use, not reading for reading’s sake.

The second half of the book involves a full bibliography of books you should read, and annotations of them. It’s a catalog of useful knowledge that everyone ought to be familiar with.

There is much to be said for going outside a set canon and reading widely, and for not relying on authoritative sources to tell you what to read. But I can’t help but wish there were an updated version of this book – and perhaps the “how to read” does not really need to be updated. Actually, the bibliography probably doesn’t need to be either. But it could be adapted and expanded to meet the specific contents of our information overload now. In any case, I found it remarkable that 100 years ago this year, someone was writing in a very 21st-century way about just the same problems that we wrestle with now, and over which many anxious words have been spilled.

Information. It’s always a problem. The question is what you’ll do about it. Say what you will about the contents of any particular bibliography, but the advice of Mr. Pryde is timeless.

blog link: the inferiority of blackness as a subject

I don’t do nearly enough (or any) linking to other inspiring blog posts. Today that will change. I came across an eloquent and inspiring (not to mention blood-pressure-raising) post today critiquing a Chronicle of Higher Education blog post that clearly should never have been published – which attacked doctoral students’ dissertation titles as a statement on the illegitimacy of black studies departments as a whole. Seriously. Picking on PhD students, by someone with no graduate education, as though black studies is a complete waste of time because it doesn’t meet the writer’s standards of legitimate, relevant topics. By the way, did you know that racism is dead? We’ve got a black president! Clearly studies that focus on race are no longer relevant. Especially topics in black studies that are written on by, you know, black scholars.

Anyway, what I will link to is not that offensive and – hey – less than worthwhile post. I link to a much better one.

“The Inferiority of Blackness as a Subject” at Tressiemc <– Click that link; read and weep for humanity. Get mad. Sign the petition. Share to your own audience. Let’s not put up with this kind of thing being posted at Chronicle of Higher Ed.

creativity, goals, and the dissertation

I’ve been consulting some books on art-making lately, that you could broadly say are on that nebulous idea of “creativity” itself. (Art and Fear is the most well known of them and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s the best tiny book you’ll ever own.) As I’ve read more, I have realized that they apply not only to my artistic life – my life outside of the “work” of research and writing – but also to my current writing project as well. In other words, writing a dissertation, essentially a non-fiction book, is a creative undertaking of great magnitude and can be considered with the same principles in mind as would a painting or a composition or a mathematical theory.  (Fill in your creative path here.)

This was a revelation for me, despite the fact that I engage in drawing, painting, and creative writing as a part of my life: why would non-fiction writing for my “real job” not be creative work as well, and best approached with the same attitudes? Why  not?

So one thing that comes out of this is the issue of the goal. Art and Fear talks about this one and I’d honestly never considered it before. The goal often sounds like this: have a solo show, or get a piece in MoMA, or get a book published, or whatever. The problem arises that when the artist is successful and meets that goal, art-making can often cease completely, forever, because the goal has been met and there is no direction anymore, and nothing to aim for.

This book in particular recommends that goals should be more along the lines of “find a group of like-minded artists and share work with them.” Things that won’t be attained in a single moment, but that continue for the rest of your life.

It made me realize that yes, as a scholar, I have an end goal right now, and that is finishing my dissertation. After that, it’s a few articles, a monograph. But then what? And I don’t have a good answer for that. Thus, I am at high risk for becoming the same as the writer who quits after her first bestselling novel, adrift without an ongoing goal.

I wonder how scholars deal with this (I may just go and ask a few of them), but I think for myself, I’ve found a seed of it in a digital humanities project I’m dreaming up but haven’t had time to start implementing yet. It’s one that is less about content and more about opening up possibilities for exploring questions in ways that didn’t exist before, and to experiment with new methodologies that wouldn’t have traditionally come from my discipline. Sure, it’s building a database. But then it’s what to do with that database that’s the real project.

At the same time, I think a huge issue both in the arts and the academic humanities is that of solitude. I am not saying anything new here. Right now, a colleague and I are planning on co-authoring an article and attempting to get it published (please cross your fingers for us). I think it may be in my best interests, more than anything else, to keep in close touch with this person who works on things that are similar to my own work, and to keep picking up those business cards I like to collect from people I meet at conferences who are interested in my research for some reason, and routinely emailing them. My database project is something I want to leave open source and twist others’ arms to take part in. So I’m thinking now, as I’m nearing the end of my PhD course, where to start with the idea of forming a like-minded group to continue to share and collaborate with. To keep the end goal always moving and yet always fulfilled, because it is within myself and other people, and not just about me and something outside of me.