the media of thinking and arguing: paper, dust, discs and the cloud

I started a new job on 1 October as Professor of Human Geography at the University of Oxford, so over the summer I cleared out my office at The Open University. I’ve been at The OU for 17 years, so there was a lot of stuff to clear. And a lot of things to reflect on. One of which was the partiality of the shift in my scholarship media from paper to digital.

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There were piles of handwritten notes on books and papers in my office, some filed alphabetically by author, and a lot in piles depending on the project they’d been read for. Some lovely juxtapositions emerged as I began to empty the filing cabinets, probably possible only in the freedom of PhD years and in that most eclectic of disciplines, mine, geography.

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Some of these handwritten notes went back to my PhD and possibly beyond: faded and yellowing, I was torn between treating them as quaint souvenirs of a bygone age and horror at their unsearchability. Fading folders labelled ‘TO READ’ pricked my conscience, and I was also taken back to some very intense events, translated into academic offprints (remember those?). In the end, I put almost all of them into recycling bags.

Then there were the boxes of floppy discs and slides. The floppy discs made me smile and also gave me pause for thought. On them were copies of all the teaching material I’d used before I moved to the OU in 1993: lecture notes, handouts, overhead project transparencies. Aha, I’d thought then, I’ll put it all on discs and throw out the paper and acetate and save space and be modern. Now of course the floppy discs are unreadable and my materials are inaccessible. I particularly regret not being able to check out the handbook of my course on ‘The Cultural Politics of Landscape’ which I ran for several years at Edinburgh University and at Queen Mary before that – so many years ago, in fact, that the handbook might have the retro quality of a classic, I like to think – if only I could actually access it.

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Now, my notes are attached to pdfs in Zotero, and I use Evernote rather than hardback notebooks for ongoing Thoughts and Ideas. I still keep a folder of ideas attached to specific pieces of writing. But I don’t regret the shift to digital for pretty much everything else that I make to write. Evernote allows me to store written notes but also to add hyperlinks and attach documents and images, and Zotero has made citations and referencing a cinch. Both are searchable. And clean. I know dust has its qualities but, really, also, just yuk.

What I couldn’t throw out were things that I had made that felt more personal somehow. I have a folder for every paper I’ve ever written, with drafts and notes of my ideas, and every grant application. I have never gone back to look at any of these ever, but throwing them away was just too much. I still have my notes from conferences. And I kept my undergraduate lecture notes and dissertation too. I think I kept all of these because they all mark, more explicitly than reading notes, the process of my thinking, what I like to think of as the creativity of academic work. They now sit on shelves in my new office, impassive reminders of what has been done – but also, as materialisations of an ongoing and otherwise elusive process, I hope energising future work too.

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cultural geography going vulgar and viral

The Open University’s OpenSpace Research Centre held an event in June 2014, its annual Doreen Massey event, which was on the theme of ‘provocations of the present: what culture for what geography?’.  You can find recordings of it here.

Several of those of us who contributed have converted our talks into short papers for the journal Social and Cultural Geography, and three of them – including mine – are online now.  You can browse them here.  Mine is called ‘Cultural geography going viral’, and it reflects again on the impact that social media – and particularly Twitter – might have on the practice of cultural geography.  Sam Kinsley’s excellent contribution – ‘Vulgar Geographies? Popular Cultural Geographies and Technology‘ – is available on his blog here.  Sam’s piece (like mine) looked at things digital, but engaged with them from a rather different angle, suggesting that popular culture is now largely mediated through digital technologies, and thus that cultural geography needs to get both more popular (or ‘vulgar’ – a nice and nuanced prod at the subdiscipline’s longstanding neglect of the mass media, let alone social media) and more digital.

I  also took a paragraph in my essay to reflect briefly on my own writing practices now that I ‘do’ social media (this blog and Twitter really, I use Facebook and Academia.edu pretty minimally).  I think of them as an ecology, a kind of balance between long, short and extremely short forms of writing, each with their own voice and rhythms of production.  (Rather irritatingly, I wrote the essay for Social and Cultural Geography fairly quickly and in my less formal ‘blogging voice’, only to find that it’s taken nearly eighteen months to get published, of course, as it’s in a journal, so now feels less spontaneous and immediate and more sloppy and casual.)  Now that I’m in the middle of trying to write a long paper again though, I’m realising that ‘ecology’ doesn’t quite cover it.  Ecology does indeed imply a sort of balance, and what I’ve learnt is that if I’m trying to think and write long form, then both my blog and my tweeting are distractions that I have to switch off.  It’s more like a zero-sum game: either I distribute my attention in lots of little bits, or I concentrate on one big thing.  Or maybe I’m just getting old…

If anyone is interested, the long piece of writing that I’m working on will be a paper (I hope) with the provisional title of ‘post/human agency in the digitally mediated city’.  The draft has some phrases that I’m quite proud of (though, in my bitter experience, they’re usually the ones that referees dislike for their overgeneralising-ness*, so they’ll probably never see the light of day).  But here’s a taste of what I’m trying to do:

 While the notion of human agency is hardly ever interrogated in scholarship focussed on digitally mediated cities, the agency of nonhuman, emergent “quasi-objects” (Bingham 1996) is described in great detail.  Dodge and Kitchin (2009), for example, catalogue various kinds of agency enacted by coded objects, infrastructures, processes and assemblages, subdividing coded objects into hard, closed, permeable and sensible ‘codejects’; Kitchin (2014) pays similar forensic attention to ‘data’; and every restatement of Thrift’s (2011, 2012, 2014)  nonrepresentationalist account of the digitalised city  is enriched by new vocabulary.  The various modalities of human agency, however, have been left unexplored.  This is inconsistent, particularly in the context of the oft-mentioned Actor Network Theory emphasis on the ‘symmetrical’ analysis of both the human and the nonhuman; as Braidotti (2013 12) says, just as we are learning to think differently about the nonhuman, “we need to learn to think differently about ourselves” too (and see Anderson 2014; Halford and Savage 2010).  In its attention to human agency in particular, this paper contributes to a genuinely symmetrical, posthuman geography of digitally mediated cities.  

(That rather overweening final sentence will probably be revised too.)  I’m  really enjoying reading so much interesting geography on things digital and urban!  And thinking about how to work with feminist, queer, postcolonial and critical race theories of the digital too, which in my view work on digitally mediated cities really needs to engage with.  Watch this space for further updates.

*not only are blogs short-form writing (for me anyway), but they also allow me to use words like overgeneralising-ness on a Friday afternoon when I’m too tired to think of anything more elegant.  But you know what I mean, right?