Diversity and Cultural Competence in Collections Work

[I recently took a course on Cultural Competence through the Library Juice Academy which I found very thought-provoking, especially because of the extensive reading and essaying with which we were tasked. This post is an adaptation of one of these essays.]

Readings being discussed:

Bolduc, A. P. (2010). “Collaborative collection development: a Canadian-Indonesian initiative.” Collection Building, 29(4), 124-130. doi:10.1108/01604951011088844.

Maloney, M. M. (2012). “Cultivating community, promoting inclusivity: collections as fulcrum for targeted outreach.” New Library World, 113(5/6), 281-289. doi:10.1108/03074801211226364.

I chose these readings because I was interested in both the role of collections in diversity programming, and how they can contribute to outreach to a university’s communities. What I also find appealing about the juxtaposition of these two articles is that, while their respective outreach efforts are at such vastly different scales – one on-campus and the other across the entire planet – the principles of cultural competence are no less important for each.

The Maloney article concerns what is often a fairly conventional (and in the words of the author, “passive”) feature of library programming – book displays – but demonstrates how, when combined with outreach efforts and partnerships can have significant benefits for both the library and the campus community. The author has a background in Social Diversity and Social Justice studies, and was hired by the University of the Pacific in Stockton California as their Outreach Librarian – which is commendable given that, of its nearly 5,200 students, 58.7% of whom identify as a racial minority. As well, the U of P boasts a Multicultural Affairs Office, and the author recognized that this would make a natural partner to regularly promote library collections related to diversity.

As a first step in the partnership, the library requested and received from the Office a schedule of diversity-related themed weeks and months (e.g., Native American Heritage Month, Black History Month, Women’s History Month etc.). A high-profile location was chosen for the displays, each of which was accompanied by signage to contextualize the items from the library’s collection chosen for their social justice- and empowerment- related content.

Yet, Maloney didn’t just assume that the displays would be viewed through foot traffic alone; instead she used Library Thing as a means for students and faculty to browse the selected titles or discover them through tagging, and thus be referred to related readings. This permitted the library to more easily track the circulation of the displayed books, by comparing their Library Thing shelf list to circulation records. The library also reached out to faculty through listservs to promote displays and to gather feedback.

As well, the partnership with the Multicultural Affairs Office yielded significant results in terms of the visibility of the Outreach Librarian role, and she has been regularly sought out by students and student groups – one of which was a local chapter of a national organization dedicated to Chicano education, culture, political activism and history — and by the Office itself, which proactively ensures that the Library is part of their own efforts.

Maloney demonstrates in this article how her efforts as Outreach Librarian are consistent with the ACRL Diversity Standard #4, in that it promoted library collections, programs and services that were inclusive of the needs of a very diverse campus community. As well, in working with the Multicultural Affairs Office and using social media effectively, Maloney exhibited knowledge and skill in the provision of information in the library and the broader society, and enabled users to discover and be referred to additional sources information, thereby meeting the requirements of Standard #5. Significantly, Maloney was highly proactive in seeking out this partnership and carrying out the project’s goals.

In the Bolduc article, the initiative is globe-spanning in scope: a collaborative collection development project between McGill University Library in Montreal and two State Islamic Universities (formerly known as the State Institutes of Islamic Studies) located in the Indonesian cities of Jakarta and Yogyakarta as a part of the Indonesia Social Equity Project. As these institutions (known by their Indonesian-language acronym UIN) were once purely devoted to Islamic studies, the goal of the project (supported by the Indonesian Ministry of National Education) was to augment existing collections with secular interdisciplinary content to support the Social Work program at UIN Yogyakarta and the Humanities and Social Sciences program at UIN Jakarta.

The author’s role was to coordinate collection development efforts in collaboration with Indonesian graduate students who, after completing their degrees at McGill would go back to become teaching faculty at these UINs, alongside faculty from McGill who would also teach as guest lecturers. Funding for the collections – which would focus on English language monographs in sociology, political science, anthropology, philosophy, education and comparative law – came from the Canadian International Development Agency. The newly-minted teaching faculty provided Bolduc with the necessary subject knowledge in these disciplines.

Key to the success of the project was the ability of the author to become culturally competent – to gain knowledge of Indonesian culture and engage in effective cross-cultural communication. In particular, the author realized he needed to account for two aspects of Indonesian culture: Bapakisme (the primacy of respect for status and hierarchy) and Harmoni Kelompok (conflict avoidance) both of which contributed to his Indonesian counterparts’ reluctance to offer their honest opinions for fear of being seen as disrespectful or complaining. For Bolduc, this meant he needed to regularly and actively encourage the graduate students to offer their honest feedback, and to deal with potential conflict within the team with understanding and empathy.

These cultural contexts meant that a great deal more attention would need to be given to effective communication and relationship-building than is generally needed to address the standard challenges of collaborative collection development between librarians and faculty at the same institution. The author met early and regularly with the graduate students in face-to-face meetings and ensured that lines of communication were always open. An awareness of the value Indonesians place on harmony made Bolduc strive to create a friendly, family-like atmosphere and to actively listen to his teammates. This was especially important when selecting materials to address topics otherwise considered taboo in these former Islamic institutions, such as reproductive rights and homosexuality.

The author’s positive experiences in this collaborative international project highlight the importance of developing skills in effective cross-cultural communication. In taking the time to learn about the different cultural context in which he was working and in engaging collaboratively and respectfully in a team environment, Bolduc was able to develop collections that were inclusive of the needs of a diverse community of users – consistent with ACRL Diversity Standard #4 – and demonstrated considerable knowledge and skill in the provision of information within an institutional context and in the broader society, key to the goals of Diversity Standard #5.

(As the initiative was initiated by a Canadian federal agency and involved both the author’s employer McGill University and the State Institutes of Islamic Studies in order to fulfill objectives set by the Indonesian government, Bolduc was but one of many players; it is difficult to tell from the article the extent to which McGill University was proactive or reactive in initiating the collection development aspect of the project).

Both articles offer valuable lessons for any library professional wanting to enhance their services to culturally diverse communities. The efforts of Maloney and Bolduc each required collaboration with institutional partners, albeit at very different scales and extents. They also involved varying degrees of cross-cultural communication: Maloney worked with a variety of constituencies representing different cultures (Native Americans and Latinos), while Bolduc was immersed in a wholly foreign social, cultural and linguistic environment with which he needed to become familiar. However, by gaining knowledge of this culture, and creating a social environment built around mutual respect, dialogue and listening – very much adhering to the notion of planning with, not for, communities (as described in the Allard, Mehra and Qayyum reading in week 3) – he was able to meet the objectives of a very complex project involving many powerful stakeholders.

What is abundantly evident in these articles is that the conventional “meat and potatoes” of librarianship – collections, programs and service delivery – become in the context of ACRL Diversity Standards 4 and 5 the means of addressing a huge range of social needs and inequities affecting multiple user communities — provided that the practitioner is culturally competent, practices effective cross-cultural communication and is deeply collaborative and genuine in their engagements.

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Cultural Competence: Situating the Self

[I recently took a course on Cultural Competence through the Library Juice Academy which I found very thought-provoking, especially because of the extensive reading and essaying with which we were tasked. In subsequent posts I will adapt selections from these essays.]

In the early 1990s I took some diversity training (but under another name I can’t recall) and was surprised to learn that my Irish ancestors in pre-Civil War America were once despised and subjected to racist stereotypes. At the same time, I also learned thanks to an aunt’s genealogical research, that one of my Dutch-American ancestors was a slave owner. While I’d always been concerned with racial justice, for the first time in my life I experienced myself as racially-situated and implicated in racism. 

I am aware that in almost every way I have benefited enormously from intersecting privileges and good fortune. As a white male generally — and in particular as a white male in a female-dominated and overwhelmingly white profession — I have had a very rewarding career. My university has been supportive of my research into what is generally a marginalized topic (the identity of Shakespeare), but here again most people engaged in this issue are, like myself, white, male and older. My parents were emotionally and financially supportive, which gave me the freedom to pursue my career goals and prevented me from incurring excessive debt. I married young and happily so have been in a stable, rewarding relationship for more than 30 years. We own (well, pay a mortgage on) a home. At the same time, we’re not wealthy – as a single-income household we can’t afford a car or to take the kind of vacations my colleagues seem to take on a yearly basis. But I have tenure in a unionized employer so have long-term job security.

My professional interests in librarianship are largely concerned with intersectionality and power relations, but I am keenly aware of my highly privileged position in carrying out that work.

What really resonated for me in the first week’s reading, “Why Diversity Matters: A Roundtable Discussion on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in Librarianship” was the notion that academic libraries are an “epistemological project,” and that curating knowledge and making it accessible are political acts. As such, integrating persons of diverse backgrounds to these processes does more than introduce a brown (or disabled or queer) body to an institutional space, but brings with it diverse knowledge systems – which can only serve to strengthen and enrich those political acts. At the same time however, I also agree that simply hiring a more diverse workforce is not enough, if we are not at the same time challenging and replacing the unjust structures our institutions are built upon or are a part of. 

Book Review: 21 Things You May Not Know About The Indian Act.

Scan the online comments section of any major media outlet following an article about Indigenous issues and you will inevitably encounter some variation of “Why don’t they just get over it?”

Bob Joseph has the definitive response to that racially charged rhetorical question — and, more importantly, to the ignorance behind it — that the Indian Act has made “getting over” colonialism impossible.

In his slim but powerful new book 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act, Joseph documents the harsh discrimination, controls, humiliations, political dysfunctions and “catch-22s” successive Canadian governments have imposed on Indigenous peoples for the purpose of subjugating and assimilating them.

Joseph is a member of the Gwawaenuk Nation in the Queen Charlotte Strait region of British Columbia. A certified trainer, Joseph is the CEO and president of Indigenous Corporate Training Inc., which he founded in 2002. His father is Chief Dr. Robert Joseph, who is the Hereditary Chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation and member of the National Assembly of First Nations Elders Council.

Yet like his father and many others in the Gwawaenuk Nation, “Bob Joseph” owes his legal name to the assimilationist requirements of the Act and an unknown Indian agent who travelled through Joseph’s ancestral region decades ago, imposing Christian names on the band and thereby erasing their traditional hereditary and clan names.

Joseph shows how this was just one of the many ways the Indian Act controlled and harmed the lives of generations of Indigenous people. Since its passage in 1876, the act (with its various amendments) was responsible for creating the reserve system and residential schools, stripping women of their Indian status if they married a non-status man and denying Indigenous people the vote — or granting them the vote at the cost of their status.

The Indian Act imposed European-style farming practices on reserves, but made it impossible for bands to sell their produce to non-Indian customers. Even if these sales had been permitted, it would have required leaving the reserve by obtaining written permission of the Indian agent, which was rarely granted.

Joseph makes this difficult history quite accessible, methodically describing these and other human rights violations in a highly readable prose over a brief 160 pages. Following the main text is a glossary of terms, a chronology of the history of residential schools and the text of the 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The book also includes discussion questions and suggested further reading, making it ideal for book club or classroom use.

In the book’s closing pages, Joseph offers a selection of damning quotes from former prime minister Sir John A. MacDonald and Duncan Campbell Scott (who oversaw the cruelties of the residential school system between 1913 and 1932 and made attendance compulsory), including the latter’s fervent wish that “Indians… finally disappear as a separate and distinct people” through their assimilation.

The book’s final chapter sets out what Canada must do next: dismantle the act and instead work with Indigenous people on forms of self-government and self-determination, allowing First Nations to generate their own revenues through development royalties and taxes and thereby become self-reliant.

We may not as Canadians ever be able to “get over” our colonial past — nor should we — but in the future, Joseph prescribes, Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians will be able to transcend it and build true nation-to-nations relationships in the spirit of reconciliation.

21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act.
By Bob Joseph.
Indigenous Relations Press. $19.95, 194 pp.

Original review published in the Winnipeg Free Press, April 14th, 2018.  

 

Book Review: Generation Robot

In Ray Bradbury’s classic 1953 short story The Murderer, a man driven beyond distraction by ubiquitous wrist phones, gadgets constantly blaring advertisements and home appliances that talk back to him, decides to smash every device he comes across, leading to his commitment to a psychiatric facility.

Now, 65 years on, this once-imagined future is being rapidly realized with smartphones, smartwatches, virtual assistants (Alexa, Siri, Google Home, etc.), domestic robots and the so-called “Internet of Things,” which will allow all these devices and our home appliances to “speak” to each other.

Terri Favro’s Generation Robot recounts the history of these technologies and explores their potential for reshaping our lives — depending on the extent to which we will accept them.

Acting as a sort of a personal guide to this world, from the anticipations of the 1950s to those of the 2050s, Canadian novelist and lifestyle journalist Favro has assembled an informative, if not entirely satisfying, mix of fact, fiction and popular culture, all of which is mapped onto her actual — and imagined — life story.

Favro is known primarily for her novels, short fiction and graphic novels published by small Canadian presses; her 2017 novel Sputnik’s Children was well-received.

She is, by her own admission, a non-specialist, which likely contributed to her use of an autobiographical conceit: each chapter begins with episodes from her own life as a launching point for discussing the ever-growing ­presence of technology in our lives.

This approach allows her to share her unique association with robots: in 1968, her engineer father was put in charge of overseeing the world’s first assembly-line robot. However, once her narrative reaches the introduction of desktop computers in the 1980s, her experiences will be familiar to many middle-aged readers.

The fifth chapter and beyond become exercises in science fiction, as she imagines her life with autonomous cars, artificial intelligence (AI) in her appliances and a sex robot joining her family by marriage.

Favro is at her best in the journalistic portions, where we learn from her research and consultations with experts about the tremendous progress underway towards AI and robotic assistants, but which will depend on consumer willingness to use them.

Key to the acceptance of robots is their staying to this side of the so-called “uncanny valley,” beyond which point humanlike features become creepy and off-putting.

Autonomous vehicles promise to drastically reduce traffic fatalities, yet Americans are reluctant to turn over the wheel to them. Meanwhile, a host of robots and other technologies threaten to replace entire classes of professions.

The greatest potential, Favro explains, appears to lie in robot helpers, especially in an era overpopulated by aging baby boomers.

Favro includes numerous sidebars highlighting robots and AI in popular culture; naturally, Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics looms large throughout. Unfortunately, some of these references are either unnecessarily flippant (the revered 1956 film Forbidden Planet is unfairly dismissed as a “campy intergalactic soap opera”) or clumsily inaccurate.

For example, she states that the disfigured crash survivor in Star Trek’s classic pilot episode The Cage is able to maintain the illusion of her beauty by using “advanced alien technology” (it was actually the result of powerfully telepathic aliens), and that the Stormtroopers in the Star Wars prequels are robots (they’re clones, although they do battle a robot army).

Her biggest missed opportunity comes in her chapter on sex robots, when she mentions mechanic Kaylee’s affection for machines in the cult series Firefly; she would have been much better off discussing the sequel film Serenity, in which one of the crew’s allies marries a sex robot.

Generation Robot follows upon a recent surge of books critically examining the social, cultural and political ramifications of digital technologies, AI and algorithms, including Franklin Foer’s World Without Mind, and Who Can You Trust? by Rachel Botsman (both recently reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press).

Unlike Foer and Botsman, however, Favro doesn’t offer any particular argument about these technologies, admitting in her introduction that she has more questions than answers.

As a result, readers of Generation Robot can expect to be informed and entertained, but not necessarily enlightened.

 

Generation Robot: A Century of Science Fiction, Fact, and Speculation 
By Terri Favro 
Skyhorse Press. $32.00, 256 pp. 

Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press, March 10th 2018.

The Perilous Cataloguing of Christopher Frayling’s “The Yellow Peril.”

Christopher Frayling’s new book The Yellow Peril: Dr. Fu Manchu and the Rise of Chinaphobia recently arrived in our library, and it caught my eye for a number of reasons.

The Yellow Peril: Dr. Fu Manchu and the Rise of Chinaphobia by [Frayling, Christopher]

The first is that, like much of Frayling’s other work, it focuses on popular culture and film (an interest of mine), in particular media that fed upon and promoted vile stereotypes and outright racism concerning Chinese people. The book originated in the author’s conversations with Edward Said in 1995 regarding postcolonialism and film. In his landmark book OrientalismSaid had approached the topic of exoticizing and “othering” the East from the top-down perspective of influential scholarship and elite opinion and their effects upon society, whereas Frayling believed that an examination of popular culture would be equally provocative. Frayling argues that, through such pop culture figures as Dr. Fu Manchu, Charlie Chan, Dr. No and countless “yellowface” and “inscrutable” portrayals by white actors, Americans were enculturated to think of Chinese people as alien and threatening, mostly through decades when China itself was divided, weakened and posed no threat to other nations.

According to Linda Kim, writing in Multicultural America the term “Yellow Peril” consisted of “images and discourses [that] cast Asians as exotic perils to white society, often described as inassimilable and cunning” with racist and discriminatory consequences, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and the internment of Japanese in camps during World War II. The latter-day ripples Frayling discusses include the  “coming war with China” discourse in the mass media.

The second reason I was drawn to this book is that the title refers to a concept that — as I have long been pointing out to students — still exists in our library’s catalogue in the form of the wretchedly racist Library of Congress Subject Heading “Yellow Peril” which is attached to older library materials:

yp

Of this subject heading, Sanford Berman says in his groundbreaking 1971 book Prejudices and Antipathies, “[i]t is not only an affront to the people so labeled, but it also demeans the user. How it has remained with us this long perhaps only the Sphinx can explain. Or a pathologist” (30). In the intervening 40 years the term itself has been deleted by the Library of Congress so could not have been applied to this particular book.

Nonetheless it is rather discouraging to see how Frayling’s book was actually catalogued:

Yellow Peril lcsh

The first heading refers to the author of the Dr. Fu Manchu novels, which typify the stereotypes Frayling examines. What I find so striking and troubling about the remaining terms is that they lack any conceptual approach to the actual topic of the book, which is to say the negative stereotypes and racism in Western popular culture, as well as the book’s subtitle, “Chinaphobia”. Instead, we get three generic headings describing the presence of Chinese peoples in various forms of media without acknowledging that what is being discussed in the book are extremely racist depictions of Chinese people in media, not just their presence. Indeed, the penultimate heading would appear to accept the offensive stereotypes Frayling critiques as objective reality — that they are, in fact, the “National characteristics” of the Chinese. It would have been far more appropriate and accurate to include the heading variants of Stereotypes (Social psychology) in [Literature, motion pictures, art etc.].

Which is exactly the route we’ve taken at the University of Winnipeg:

 

stereotypes

The original subject assignments can probably be chocked up more to inattention than any actual intent on the part of the original cataloguer to validate negative stereotypes. Yet, given the terrible history of the real-world impacts inflicted on uncounted millions of people over more than a century and on both sides of the Pacific as a result these stereotypes — so say nothing of the participation of the Library of Congress in reifying them — I believe much more care was warranted in describing this book.

(Thanks to Metadata and Discovery Librarian Dee Wallace and Metadata Supervisor Susan Ronquillo in responding so quickly to this issue and correcting it in the UW catalogue!) 

 

Sources

Berman, S. (1993). Prejudices and antipathies : A tract on the lC subject heads concerning people(1993 ed. ed.). Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland.

Frayling, C. (2014). The yellow peril : Dr. fu manchu & the rise of chinaphobia. London: Thames & Hudson.

Kim, L. (2013). Yellow peril. In C. E. Cortés (Ed.), Multicultural America: A multimedia encyclopedia (Vol. 1, pp. 2209-2210). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications Ltd. doi: 10.4135/9781452276274.n907

 

Book Review: Who Can You Trust?

Two recent news stories perfectly illustrate economist Rachel Botsman’s argument in her new book, Who Can You Trust?: in late October, Amazon announced its “Amazon Key” service, which would see its drivers gain access to customers’ houses – in their absence – to drop off purchases. Barely a week later, Facebook suggested that, in order to prevent the spread of “revenge porn”, users should pre-emptively submit nude photos of themselves to the tech giant, the unique digital fingerprints of which would detect and prevent attempts by others to distribute them.  

Botsman guides the reader on an enjoyably accessible but cautiously skeptical tour through this hugely transformative but barely-recognized shift in our sometimes irrational approach to trust. Among other things, this shift has unleashed the sharing economy (e.g., Uber negating the need to own a car) and the increasing – and for some, unnerving – reliance on computers and robots to make decisions for us, (e.g., autonomous vehicles negating the need for human drivers altogether).  

An instructor at the University Oxford, Botsman is a widely-recognized expert on the economics of trust who previously explored some of these themes in popular TED talks (available on YouTube), and in the 2010 book What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption (co-authored with American entrepreneur Roo Rogers).  

She begins by distinguishing between trust (which she defines as a “confident relationship with the unknown”) and trustworthiness, and how our trust has often been abused or misplaced, most notoriously in the case of Bernie Madoff and investment banks prior to the 2008 financial meltdown. As a result, instead of depending upon traditional institutions such as governments, banks and newspapers, we are now using social media platforms to distribute trust to complete strangers.  

Botsman explains how we have, in the process, become products in a global economy of “likes” and starred ratings denoting our trustworthiness, be it as social agents whose personal preferences are sold to advertisers (Facebook), buyers and sellers (eBay), guests and hosts (Airbnb), or drivers and passengers (Uber). She points out that not only can these regimes be gamed, but our fear of being ranked poorly ourselves can curtail our honesty regarding others in the system. Worse, they risk creating a society of mutual surveillance, in which everyone is continually ranking each other to boost their own trustworthiness rankings.  

Botsman shows how this dystopian outcome is already unfolding in China, where the government is well on its way to a 2020 launch of its disturbingly Orwellian “Social Credit System,” a massive trust ranking scheme which will grade all its citizens according their credit history, behaviour and preferences and personal relationships, with the resulting “trust score” then becoming the basis of all privileges and opportunities, including one’s education and career. 

Not that there will be many career choices open to many of us: Botsman cites a 2013 report by two Oxford economists which estimates that, as early as 2030, 47 percent of American jobs could be lost to computerization and automation via artificial intelligence (AI) or actual robots, whom we are trusting with more and more decision-making tasks.   

The ultimate outsourcing of our trust appears to be emerging in the form of blockchains – tamper-proof, distributed (i.e., ownerless) digital ledgers that are capable of proving the provenance of everything from bitcoin transactions to baby formula production to diamonds. Once they gain mainstream acceptance, warns Botsman, they have the potential to make obsolete almost every current intermediating profession and institution including banks, lawyers, and real estate agents. 

With our local networks of interdependence long since gone, expertise forsaken for filtered social media bubbles built around our preconceptions, and traditional institutions exposed as corrupt or rendered obsolete, we may find ourselves instead trusting our daily lives, commerce, livelihoods and governance to algorithms, AI and the immutable perfection of the blockchain.  

Who Can You Trust is an excellent – and apparently trustworthy – primer to this fundamentally upturned society in which we may be spending the rest of our lives.

Who Can You Trust?: How Technology Brought Us Together and Why It Might Drive Us Apart. 
By Rachel Botsman 
PublicAffairs. $31.93, 336 pp.  
 

(Originally published in The Winnipeg Free Press January 27th 2018)..

Book Review: World Without Mind

Franklin Foer believes that our infatuation with the countless ways the ubiquitous tech giants Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple have made our lives more convenient has blinded us to their toxic impacts on our economy, culture and politics. In his timely and passionate new book World Without Mind, Foer persuasively lays out the case against the unrestrained dominance of these four corporations, as well as the practical steps we can all take to rein them in. 

Best-known as the former editor of the venerable liberal magazine The New Republic, Foer is also a sports fan who authored How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization (2010), and edited the New Republic’s 2014 centenary anthology, Insurrections of the Mind: 100 Years of Politics and Culture in America. 

World Without Mindtoo, is an act of insurrection: where other cautionary books released over the past decade have focused on the harmful effects of the Internet age on our brains (Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows [2011]) and interpersonal relationships (Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together [2012]), Foer’s concerns are  as the title suggests  more global, a call for action against the monopolistic political and economic power of the Silicon Valley companies. 

Almost without realizing it, we have seen them extend their reach in ways few of us would have anticipated even a few years ago: Amazon is producing a television series based on The Lord of the Rings, while Apple is dropping $1 billion to produce its own content to challenge Netflix; Google is determined to perfect neural networks to create true artificial intelligence through its Google Brain project; and, in what may literally be the biggest coup of all, Facebook appears to have been instrumental in derailing the 2016 U.S. federal election by facilitating the spread of Russian propaganda in support of Donald Trump. 

To set out why all this should be resisted, Foer divides the book into three parts. The first comprises something like the corporate biographies of big tech’s leaders, including  Silicon Valley’s ideological father Stuart Brand, creator of the Whole Earth Catalog; Google co-founder and CEO Larry Page, who is steering his company towards boundless dominance in multiple technological fields; Mark Zuckerberg, whose social network Facebook routinely conducts psychological experiments on its users in its quest to package them for advertisers; and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who, by ruthlessly undercutting publishers fundamentally changed the book trade and global retail generally. 

Part two is the most literary and personal portion of the book, recalling Foer’s tenure as editor of The New Republic. Under the ownership of Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, the journal – for more than a century devoted to American politics and literary culture – mutated into a “technology company,” prompting Foer’s resignation along with most of the editorial staff. Foer then laments the state of contemporary letters, specifically how the brutal economic logic of free online content is eroding the financial viability of authorship as a profession, threatening a return to the days when full-time writing was largely the hobby of the idle rich. 

In part three, Foer lays out his strategy for reclaiming our literary and political culture: utilizing the trust-busting power of the U.S. federal government to break up the ever-widening reach of these companies (Google, for example, offers more than 200 services, while its parent company Alphabet, Inc. is developing autonomous cars); accepting our own responsibility to pay for the online content we consume; and a return to reading paper books, a personal act of insurrection which generates no metadata that might be digitally trackeor sold to third party advertisers. 

Foer argues that the tech giants’ outsized presence in the political economy represents a powerful form of gatekeeping that controls, manipulates and diminishes our access to information, and with it, bypasses our free will. The unintended consequences of our embrace of these tools are unspooling before us daily as newspapers fold, professional journalism is dismissed as “fake news” while outright propaganda generated by troll farms is accepted by millions as genuine, with the outcome of elections in the balance.   

World Without Mind is a powerful manifesto for reclaiming our culture, journalism and literature — indeed, democracy itself — from the all-consuming ambitions of Silicon Valley. 

 

World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech. 
By Franklin Foer. 
Penguin. $36.00, 257 pp. 

(Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press, January 13th, 2018).

Sacrificing the Future for the Present? The Sustainability of the “Library of the Future”

 

SnarkleMotion

The library profession has long had a problematic relationship with technology and the future. Its vast (and ever-growing) literature concerned with the “library of the future” is simultaneously replete with both enthusiasm for high-tech possibilities and existential fears of institutional and professional obsolescence (for example see Drabenstott; Duderstadt). While much of this literature may be classified according to its embrace of (or caution regarding) digital technologies, it does tend to be rather instrumental in its focus on institutional priorities, considering the challenges of the future solely from perspective of librarianship, despite the broad social forces in which libraries exist – forces reflected in the ALA’s Center for the Future of Libraries’ Trends webpages (“Trends”). As Karen Coyle observes, “we have to look beyond libraries in our long range planning. The future of libraries is inherently integrated with the future of a larger context: economics, technologies, social developments” (140). In other words, libraries must be understood materially and relationally, as dynamic institutions embedded within and functioning as a part of larger societies – which is to say dialectically (Bales 2015). As the study of continuously transforming interrelationships over time, dialectics emphasizes the materiality of institutions such as libraries (including their technological bases), while recognizing that they are inseperable from both intrinsic and extrinsic ideological foundations and historical circumstances.

In addition to inadequately situating libraries, the library literature about the future also neglects its other ostensible focus: the future itself, and our discourses about it. As a consequence, our ability to plan ethically for potential futures is unnecessarily constrained. This is particularly true for understanding, preparing for and addressing the very sustainability of future libraries, which suffers from a number of fundamental – but little-understood – threats. To address these gaps in the literature, and to better equip library practitioners with the tools necessary to plan for their institutional and professional futures in uncertain times, this article suggests that the prescriptions and potentials for the future of libraries be viewed through perspectives and ideas drawn from futures studies, a discipline intimately concerned with forecasting, anticipating, understanding, planning, evaluating and deliberating about the future. Such a lens can help us to better understand the promises and perils of future libraries, not just in terms of libraries in the future but how our own professional planning in the past has been rendered problematic by future-oriented ideologies.

Futures studies concerns how societies may achieve preferable futures and avoid potential threats while maintaining an ethical stance towards the future (Adam and Groves; Bell). As futurist Ziauddin Sardar (2010) argues, futures studies compels us to interrogate technologically-driven futures for their potential to preclude more pluralistic alternatives. Grounding our dialectical deliberations regarding the future of libraries in the external theories of futures studies can assist library professionals in mapping out future pathways characterized by stability and enduring principles rather than anxiety-ridden reactions to constant, external change.

For example, Hal Niedzviecki in his 2015 book Trees on Mars: Our Obsession with the Future identifies our culture’s tendency towards what he calls “future-first thinking”, a toxic and anxiety-generating ideology that leads to anxious existential questions about the future —certainly a theme in the LIS literature. In Niedzviecki’s view, our culture’s obsession with the future is about the goal of “owning” or “seizing” it, largely by disrupting the present through the rejection of traditional or current practices, technologies and values. Most relevant for our purposes is his observation regarding the eagerness with which we as consumers adopt new technologies even though the history of technology is “littered with unintended consequences” (224). With disruption being at the core of the ideology of the future, Niedzviecki warns that “we are adopting a techno-scientific notion of owning the future as a replacement for the social certainty we crave and have now irretrievably lost” (125).

All of this emphasis on owning and seizing the future begs the question: from whom or what? What might we irretrievably lose? What does owning the future imply about our obligations towards it? Barbara Adam, a futures studies scholar at Cardiff University observes that our ethics towards the future are fundamentally dependent on our metaphysical worldview: that if the future is “owned” and set in motion by the gods or ancestors, then we are compelled to act responsibly towards it. However, in the secular modern world, she writes,

we assume to own the future. The future, we say, is ours to take and shape. We treat it as a resource for our use in the present. As such we plan, forge and transform the future to our will and desire. It means we see ourselves as owners, producers and managers of an open future, which we shape to our designs and intentions (112-113).

Further, Adam and sociologist Chris Groves in their book Future Matters note that the acts of shaping, making and owning the future by necessity means that one is also invariably taking it from someone else; and that one is ultimately responsible for all outcomes (Adam and Groves).

What might such taking mean in the context of future libraries? For what outcomes are we responsible? I would argue that there are at least three potential ways in which the digital library of the future threatens to take – and has already taken – the future from others.

An uncritical embrace of unproven technologies as a pathway to dramatically reinventing libraries has already compromised collections and forever foreclosed future access to older materials. As preservation librarian Randy Silverman argues in his 2016 paper “Surely We’ll Need Backups,” the library profession in the late 20th Century, enamoured of visions for digital libraries of the future and buoyed by an extraordinary level of groupthink and a failure of LIS scholarship, convinced themselves there was a brittle books “crisis” and therefore an urgent need to microfilm and then pulp millions of books, journals and newspapers. For 20 years this federally-funded and ideologically-motivated campaign of “destroying print in order to save it” sliced, scanned and shredded en masse until all that remained of historic runs of great American newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and New York World were housed at the British Library — and even these were only saved from oblivion because author Nicholson Baker (Author of Double Fold) founded a non-profit organization and won them at auction in part with his own retirement funds. While microform companies and advocates claim microforms will endure as long as 500 years, these estimates are based on optimal storage and use conditions which do not always obtain. In any case, microfilm should never have been considered the “object of record” – yet so many originals are now lost forever (Silverman).

But what about the longevity of digital media? Our profession is greatly occupied with preventing a “digital dark age” and in archiving the fast-changing Web, but what will future generations know of all of the scholarship of our era – including journal collections largely replaced by online databases – in the event of catastrophic technological failure or collapse? Such a possibility is not confined to the realm of science fiction: in July 2012, Earth narrowly avoided being blasted by two coronal mass ejections from the Sun which, had they struck one week earlier when Earth was in a different position in its orbit, would have caused electrical grids all over the planet to collapse as transformers burst into flames, reducing “bookless libraries” such as the one at Florida Polytechnic University to little more than architectural curiosities, and sweeping into oblivion all online scholarship (Baker et al.). It would have sent us back to the 19th Century – but a 19th Century with almost no copies of The Chicago Tribune and New York World.

Even absent threats from outer space, our dependence on digital information platforms is premised on reliable electrical infrastructure into the future; however, in North America at least this is a problematic proposition at best. As Jason Makansi argues in his 2007 book Lights Out North America’s energy infrastucture is facing an interconnected series of crises: aging power plants, rising fuel prices, dangerously extended supply lines, neglected transmission systems, the ravages of climate change including frequent extreme weather events, a dangerous reliance on imported liquid natural gas, the introduction of deregulation into the supply chain, and an aging workforce and therefore a dwindling pool of expertise to address any of these problems (Makansi). The widescale replacement of owned print journal runs and paper books with licensed digital access is, as a result, a gamble that these tenuous present conditions will always persist.

The third future-foreclosing dimension of the library of the future – and the information age more generally – is that of the essentially unknowable environmental impacts of the decades-long transition to digital information delivery, and which have been thoroughly – and quietly – externalized. The rapid obsolescence of ICT in public and academic libraries has generated vast amounts of e-waste from standalone catalogues, PCs, CD-ROM drives, servers, monitors, VCRs and DVD players, etc., an enormously complex and toxic waste stream which has only in recent years come under regimes of recycling, which themselves may not be all they seem. Only half of the U.S. states have e-waste recycling laws in place, and in Canada an action plan for Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) was adopted for provincial jurisdictions only in 2009. Prior to these recent developments, 90% of e-waste in Canada was historically sent to landfills or illegally exported to developing countries with no such regulations at all (McClearn; Schroeder). To give some sense of the scale of the problem, a 2014 article in the Annals of Global Health found that

the amount of e-waste produced in 2012 is enough to fill 100 Empire State buildings …The final destination of nearly 70% of e-waste is either unreported or unknown. Eighty percent of e-waste generated in the United States reportedly contributes to the global “hidden flow” of e-waste; it is not registered meaning it is either unofficially exported [to Asia or Africa], dumped into landfills, incinerated [or] recycled…in scrap yards and homes [often by] by children (Perkins 287-290).

Remarkably, considering the transition to widespread computer use in libraries has been underway for decades, very little empirical research has been done or data gathered in the LIS literature on the environmental sustainability of the digital library. University of Toronto Communications scholar Sabine Lebel, in her analysis of environmental impacts in the ICT field, finds them “radically under-theorized” (1) despite ICTs constituting the fastest growing waste stream in the world, and the clearly racialized impacts of this waste stream. She considers our technological ideology according to what David Nye refers to as the technological sublime – in which ICT is exalted as inherently green, positive and future-oriented away from a dirty industrial past – as well as Rob Nixon’s notions of slow violence against poorer populations in the global south who suffer environmental degradation and as-yet unknown health impacts from the globalized economics of e-waste (Lebel).   

In economic terms, libraries have almost entirely externalized the ecological costs of the unceasing transition from one technology to another, rather than internally accounting for, preventing or ameliorating these impacts. This is not to place undue censure on libraries, given the lateness of appropriately-scaled regimes of reclamation and recycling in which they could feasibly participate. Yet we must acknowledge that the digital library of the future — far from being technologically sublime — is now, and has always been, unsustainable ecologically and socially, yet is a vision that has been for decades now pursued with barely-recognized ideological fervour. Adam & Groves would further add that

the modern drive towards innovation… has produced fundamentally different correlations of action knowledge and responsibility… contextuality and embeddedness have been displaced by decontextualized, disembedded relations in order to produce  a world of pure potential where anything is possible, thus subject to our design (164-5).

Such disembeddedness, I would argue, has contirubted to libraries casting print newspaper runs aside and nearly driving them to extinction, then with similar blithe trust betting everything on highly vulnerable digital pathway dependencies into an uncertain future, dependencies fraught with grave — but unrecognized and unaccounted for — ecological and racialized social consequences. While driven by what Niedzviecki calls future-first thinking, they ironically make the future of libraries less certain, not more — what philosopher William James described as “the sacrifice of the future for the present” (quoted in Kunstler 185).

What we see, then, is that any discourse about the “library of the future” includes but must transcend the scope of librarianship itself. As we progress through the ever-more difficult and troubling terrain of the 21st Century, characterized as it is by rapid technological changes, demographic transformations, growing inequality and concomitant political, economic and climatic uncertainties, as well as competing extremist ideologies, the dialectical situatedness of libraries takes on paramount importance to any discussion about their futures – a reality to which ALA’s Roundtables for Social Responsibility, Ethnic and Multicultural Exchange and Sustainability attests. Indeed, the “library of the future” in many respects meets the standard of a “wicked problem” as set out by Rittel and Webber in their classic formulation: it has no agreed-upon causes (what are the most pressing issues that will need to be addressed in the future?), is always a symptom of other problems (the “digital divide” is also an inherently intersectional and structural one), no end point (when will we have achieved the “library of the future”?),  and is so affected by every intervention (any technological innovation or implementation represents a different pathway-dependency) that they can have no ultimate, universal solution (Rittel and Webber).

This is why we as library professionals instead need to bear in mind a dialectical understanding of the situatedness of our institutions (Bales): how their materiality (including unseen energy, mineral and toxic footprints) and interrelatedness with the rest of the planet is influenced by our ideological assumptions — such as our own confidence in the public library’s inherent progressiveness and technological sublimity. Futurist Ziudden Sardar further reminds us that that actual location of futures studies’ discourses is in the present: that our conversations about the future – in this case about libraries — have a very real impact on their contemporary existences (Sardar). Accordingly, the ALA’s Center for the Future of Libraries stresses that futuristic technologies and service models must be weighed against the existing core values of librarianship (“Core Values”). Sardar also recognizes the colonizing potential in much of the futures studies discourse, which he sees as inherently Eurocentric, masculine and technologically deterministic. “The future is defined in the image of the West” he writes. “There is an [sic] built-in western momentum that is taking us towards a single, determined future” (182). Diverse knowledge systems, he argues, have the potential to temper and decolonize technocratic impulses.

Futures studies approaches can aid us in identifying these potential risks in our future-library discourses, policies and practices, while pointing to the need for alternative pathways to enriched, more humanistic, pluralistic and sustainable future for libraries.

(Image: SnarkleMotion )

Presented under a different title at the Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians conference, Ryerson University, Toronto May 30th 2017.

 

References

Adam, Barbara, and Chris Groves. Future Matters: Action, Knowledge, Ethics. Brill, 2007.

“Core Values of Librarianship” American Library Association. 15 Sept. 2017, http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/corevalues

Baker, D. N., et al. “A major solar eruptive event in July 2012: Defining extreme space weather scenarios.” Space Weather vol. 11, no. 10 (2013): 585-591.

Baldé, C. P. The Global e-waste Monitor 2014: Quantities, Flows and Resources. United Nations University, 2015.

Bales, Stephen. The Dialectic of Academic Librarianship: A Critical Approach. Sacramento, CA, Library Juice Press, 2015.

Drabenstott, Karen M. Analytical Review of the Library of the Future. Washington, DC: Council on Library Resources, 1994.

Duderstadt, James J. “Possible Futures for the Research Library in the 21st Century.” Journal of Library Administration vol. 49, no .3 (2009):217–225.

Kunstler, James Howard. The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century. 1st ed. ed., New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005.

LeBel, Sabine. “Wasting the future: The technological sublime, communications technologies, and e-waste.” communication+ vol. 1, no. 1.1 (2012): 1-19.

McClearn, Matthew. “Where Computers go to die.” Canadian Business. May 28 2013. https://tinyurl.com/y6wqgqra

Niedzviecki, Hal. Trees on Mars: Our Obsession with the Future. New York, Seven Stories Press, 2015.

Perkins, Devin N., et al. “E-waste: a global hazard.” Annals of Global Health vol. 80, no. 4 (2014): 286-295.

Rittel, Horst WJ, and Melvin M. Webber. “Dilemmas in a general theory of planning.” Policy Sciences vol. 4, no. 2 (1973): 155-169.

Sardar, Ziauddin. “The Namesake: Futures; futures studies; futurology; futuristic; foresight—What’s in a name?.” Futures vol. 42, no. 3 (2010): 177-184.

Schroeder, Harold. E-waste management in Canada. Environment Canada: Fredericton, NB, Canada (2013).

Silverman, Randy. “Surely, We’ll Need Backups.” Preservation, Digital Technology & Culture vol. 45, no.3 (2016): 102-121.

“Trends” American Library Association 15 Sept. 2017. http://www.ala.org/tools/future/trends

 

Book Review: Zoë Quinn’s “Crash Override”

Crash Override: How Gamergate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life, and How We Can Win the Fight Against Online Hate
By Zoë Quinn
PublicAffairs, 256 pages, $34

Perhaps a chance involvement in a controversial news story did it, or a phone-in interview on the radio. Maybe a letter to the editor in the days following, or even some politically charged comments on Facebook or Twitter.

Whatever the original impetus, an ocean of hate has been unleashed against you: every imaginable insult, as well as a stream of vile sexual and racist threats are now filling your email inbox and Twitter feed. Your phone is ringing at all hours of the night, and your employer is similarly besieged, leading you to fear for your job. Soon, everyone in your inner circle, including your family, suffers similar attention as this invisible, anonymous mob tirelessly seeks to tear your life apart.

As American video game developer and activist Zoë Quinn argues in this disheartening but instructive and fiercely compassionate book, if it happened to her it could happen to you — or anyone.

For Quinn, her nightmare began in August 2014, when a former boyfriend published a lengthy online screed about her, alleging multiple infidelities — one in particular with a gaming journalist, supposedly to garner a positive review. As a modestly successful independent developer (and self-identified queer woman) in an industry dominated by men, Quinn was instantly and brutally targeted by an army of misogynist trolls in an incessant campaign that continues to this day.

Not only did this assault force her from her home in fear for her life, but it also instigated the regressive online culture war known as #Gamergate, a predominately white male backlash against feminist and race-based critiques of gaming media.

The reach of this campaign is as appalling as its contents: a search for Quinn’s name on YouTube yields more than 11,800 videos, the vast majority of them vitriolic or accusatory. Quinn points out that Gamergaters include many of the players of the “alt-right” (including recently ousted Trump strategist Steve Bannon), all of whom invariably justify their frenzied incoherent rage and contempt for women as a concern for “ethics in gaming journalism.”

Crash Override begins with Quinn’s frank account of her early life, which included battles with depression and substance abuse as well as work as a nude model, before explaining the harrowing circumstances of her “doxing” (the internet term for the malicious release of personal and identifying information such as one’s home address) and her desperate efforts to combat it.

She soon learned that the legal system and other conventional institutions are simply not adequately versed in the technologies and rapidly shifting tactics of online hate and were unable to help her, leaving her and a few close allies on their own.

Quinn relates all this with both candour and occasional humour, but demonstrates remarkable restraint when describing her attackers, declining to even mention them by name: her former boyfriend is “the ex” while several celebrities associated with Gamergate are only referred to with vague references to their better-known public lives.

Based on what she learned from her terrible experiences, Quinn founded a non-profit organization, the Crash Override Network (crashoverridenetwork.com), which assists victims of online abuse. It is funded by the brilliant Feminist Frequency YouTube channel produced by her friend and cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian — also, not incidentally, one of Gamergate’s primary targets.

She supplements her own story with numerous accounts drawn from media reports of online hatred directed against (mostly) women, persons of colour, or those identifying as LGBTTQ*, presenting a fairly disturbing portrait of our collective capacity for cruelty. Significantly, she does not exclude herself from this depiction, admitting that she, too, had thoughtlessly attacked people online in her youth.

It is this honesty, combined with her compassionate ability to speak to both victims and abusers as well as the linkages she draws between online misogyny and broader contemporary political hate campaigns, that makes this such an important and timely book, especially following the recent events in Charlottesville, Va.

More than being merely Quinn’s personal story or a manual for protecting your online privacy, Crash Override is a powerful manifesto for how we can all combat online abuse, bigotry, racism and sexism, and become better digital — and real-world — citizens.

Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press, September 16th 2017.

Guest Post: On Decolonizing Shakespeare, the Publishing Industry and the Academy

[Note: Over the past several years I have been engaged in an interdisciplinary research agenda related to the Shakespeare Authorship Question (SAQ) which concerns doubt and skepticism regarding the dubious biography of “William Shakespeare” and the more promising authorial candidacy of Edward de Vere, 17th earl of Oxford. In 2014, the Shakespeare journal Brief Chronicles: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Authorship Studies (volume 5) published my article entitled “By Nature Fram’d to Wear a Crown? Decolonizing the Shakespeare Authorship Question,” which was followed the following year with “Knowledge Ill-Inhabited: The Subjugation of Post-Stratfordian Scholarship in Academic Libraries” which was published in volume 17 of The Oxfordian, a journal focused on research into Oxford as Shakespeare.

The argument in the first paper was that a major reason why it is so difficult in the academy to question Shakespeare’s biography (the myth of the thrifty businessman and theatre shareholder who supposedly rose from humble provincial origins to create the greatest literary works in the English language) is not just that Shakespeare has always been a secular British national icon, but that the mythos of his alleged “natural genius” closely mirrors (and is in fact tied to) the imperial, exceptionalist mythology of the “genius of the West” used to justify centuries of colonialism. The second paper is a Foucauldian look at how SAQ-related scholarship is subjugated and marginalized in the academy, specifically in terms of the extent to which library subject headings and classification contribute to these forces. 

Recently, I received the following amazing response to these articles from Paris-based novelist and publisher Amita Mukerjee, which builds upon my ideas but from the powerful perspective of someone raised in the culture of the post-colonial global south. As a librarian, academic and Shakespearean I found her remarks extremely insightful, provocative and generative; with her gracious permission I share them here not so much for the positive comments about my own work — however appreciated — but rather for her original and literary insights into the historic and ongoing influences of colonialism. — MD] 

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On Decolonizing Shakespeare, the Publishing Industry and the Academy

By Amita Mukerjee

I would like to congratulate you on two fantastic articles (“By Nature Fram’d to Wear a Crown? Decolonizing the Shakespeare Authorship Question” and “Knowledge Ill-Inhabited: The Subjugation of Post-Stratfordian Scholarship in Academic Libraries”), both of which I found phenomenal, the former especially. I grew up in India, and as such, have always been keenly aware of the Colonialist-Imperialist issues at stake in Shakespeare authorship; in fact, I have been looking to see if someone would raise the issue in the SAQ context. But really, both articles spoke to me, because I am also painfully aware of the institutional barriers your second article examines. In addition, I am an avid reader of Foucault, Said, Fanon, Deleuze etc. and nurture a full-blown obsession with the devoted upkeep of nineteenth-century racism-jingoism by leading Western institutions in the domain of culture (literature, music and art), but also in the fields of History, Philology and Anthropology. Lastly, since I am continually grinding my teeth at the ongoing, tiresome cacophony of Western exceptionalism, ubiquitous in the news and in ‘Entertainment,’ to read someone who actually refers to this exceptionalism by name and connects it to the SAQ was brilliant indeed. So for all these reasons, thank you and bravo!

I am a writer, and with my brother Gopal Mukerjee, (also a writer), I created a publishing company in 2007 (Revenge Ink, currently in a state of suspended financial animation owing to the institutional barriers you discuss in your second article), because we both discovered quite unexpectedly when we set out to publish with the mainstream, that we were trapped inside the asphyxiating Orientalist label: ‘Indian writer.’ In fact, we learned, entirely to our naïve surprise, that to be published in the mainstream as an ‘individual’ was nothing short of a pipe dream, especially if you happened to come from India. And that conversely, to tailor your work to Western elite-liberal expectations was the key to gaining access. To limit your writing, in other words, to a set of representations that continued to exclude a vast territory of potentially threatening ‘subjugated knowledge and discourse,’ which could only be neutralized by the Western mainstream via neatly framed categories such as ‘Indian writer.’ (The first page of Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Namesake’ encapsulates perfectly what I mean and what the publishing industry likes to read if you’re submitting as an Indian writer, combining as that page does, in one single brilliantly obfuscated image, the representations: brown female [with her quasi-animal burdenedness and swollen pregnant belly], sweltering heat, implied gender inferiority via isolation from the husband, grotesque exotic foods made out of familiar all-American products like ‘rice crispies,’ etc. etc.)

Only in 2007 then, did my brother and I discover that the phrase ‘Indian writer’ was not merely a marketing/sales category, but a type of ‘discursive formation.’ And as such, not only was it eerily similar to those ‘enclosing/excluding’ Library of Congress categories and headings you describe in your second article, but like pretty much every other profoundly insulting category in the publishing industry, actually made this industry a stalwart nineteenth-century-style Imperialist relic. Today, I have come to see quite clearly that the publishing and elite literary (academic, reviewing, etc.) institutions of the Anglo-Saxon world almost single-handedly uphold Western exceptionalism in culture, through their enabling/withholding of fictional and historical narratives, and by continuing to represent as ‘generally accepted,’ narratives and perspectives on/about race, gender and class that are actually patently ahistorical, but which get set down as ‘true’ as they enter generalized (seemingly unchallenged) mainstream discourse. Of course, as your first article so brilliantly suggests, even as this type of propagandist cultural reification is increasingly being challenged, Shakspere of Stratford remains at the heart of the argument. Shakspere’s transhuman ahistoricity mirrors the transhistorical superiority of the West. In both cases (Shakspere and the enclosing publishing categories we encountered), the elite literary institution claims to be letting the ‘text speak to us directly’ in a kind of naïve ‘Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare’ or ‘Indians write about India’ logic, but in reality, the academy and the publishing world strictly control which texts and representations reach the public, thereby determining which texts we should read and how we should read them. In the case of novel-writing, this ‘control’ includes the very definition of what novels are, rules about who gets to write them, and (most remarkable of all) what constitutes ‘literature.’ In fact, the label ‘Indian writer’ carries within it a tacit Imperialist contract: the mainstream publishing industry lets you in (essentially) to testify as an ‘insider’ to the backwardness of your people, and in return, asks that you declare your unquestioning fealty to the Western literary-institutional worldview and to its ‘modern,’ supposedly universal (read: superior) outlook.

Then there is the nineteenth-century notion of ‘high seriousness,’ which continues, I think, to imprison both the SAQ and the modern novel. For my brother Gopal and myself, the straitjacket category ‘Indian writing’ did not cover merely an atavistic Orientalist type of narrative (as exemplified by Arundhati Roy’s ‘The God of Small Things’), but also a fundamentally nineteenth-century bourgeois understanding (and academic/elitist circumscribing) of novelistic discourse. As far as I’m concerned, Shakspere in his Stratfordian guise not only perpetuates Western exceptionalism in culture, he also sits at the core of a certain ‘exceptionalist’ conception of literature itself: as fundamentally ‘high-serious’ in its moral concerns and ‘timeless’ in its ahistorical grandeur; as transhistorical but ‘modernizing’ in its influence; as culturally specific but unassailable as historical/socio-cultural object. Shakspere allows the Western literary and cultural institutions to say to the world and its writers: ‘(only) we know what literature is, because (only) we have produced the highest example of it.’ This then means the Western elite can further define (through access to publishing, reviews, and reification via awards, etc.) what kind of writing gets published and what is termed ‘literature.’ In this context, publishing categories (such as Literary, Women’s, Indian, Memoir, etc.) serve not as marketing labels, but as strictly circumscribed channels within the mainstream, to ensure literary discourse does not ‘leak out’ of ‘high-mindedness’ and begin to fuel subjugated discourse (as it did in the 1920s and more particularly in the 50s-70s). Shakspere then, in the Holy Trinity of the Western domination of global culture, is the Son, whose Father is the ever-superior Anglo-Saxon West, with the Holy Ghost embodied in the power to say what constitutes ‘great’ art and what does not. Part of this process, of course, involves Western critics retroactively (and preposterously) imprinting reified authors (liberated as they are from troublesome historical association) with contemporary hagiographic fantasies, such as ‘Shakspere, the first modern man’ or ‘Austen, the proto-Feminist.’

Ultimately though, I enjoyed your articles because they (to my mind) correctly located the SAQ within the wider gamut of ‘subjugated knowledge’ and accurately described its stance within Western literary discourse as ‘insurrectionary.’ I had myself noted in most SAQ articles the kind of naïveté you refer to, with regard to what is simplistically termed the ‘Stratfordian’ position and its attachment to Shakspere’s ‘candidacy.’ Although I continue to enjoy the myriad focal points of research within the SAQ, I was glad to see that someone was at last suggesting that since mainstream literary discourse is a discourse of exceptionalism, non-Stratfordians shouldn’t hold their breath about finding large numbers of mainstream adherents anytime soon. More particularly, let me say how satisfying it was to see mention of Said, and to see Foucault’s methods and terms employed in service of the Shakespeare Authorship Question. I’ve been thinking of Foucault and Said ever since I became interested in this issue, because for me, the hysteria of the Stratfordian response clearly conceals a core terror of losing hegemonic discursive status in the field of culture and the attendant power to make infantile claims like ‘Shakespeare is the best writer in the world.’ I recall in my childhood, hearing my parents and grandparents rail against the sustained and calculated Imperialist contempt contained in this claim of Shakespeare’s uniqueness, which was of course specifically and continually used to rubbish India’s literary heritage as ‘casteist,’ ‘decadent in its Oriental profusion,’ and too culture-specific to be truly universal.

I might mention, I was brought up to appreciate India’s literary and artistic heritage. Both my parents earned prestigious post-graduate degrees (in Medicine and Engineering) in the UK, but were also richly schooled in their own literary traditions (in fact, until she passed away in 2015 at the age of 87, my mother continued to quote freely from 16th century Marathi poetry as well as 1st century BCE Sanskrit drama). I myself have studied North Indian traditional music, which, interestingly, has a long-standing tradition of pseudonymity, considered to be a sort of ‘noblesse oblige’ gesture of ‘open secret’ authorship… And when I studied in Mumbai for a BA in English lit, I often complained loudly and bitterly about Shakspere continuing to serve as archaic figurehead of British Colonial cultural propaganda (even in the 80s and 90s).

Gauri Vishwanathan’s work becomes highly relevant in this regard and I was delighted to see her early work mentioned in your article. I am not sure if she’s been as courageous an anti-Imperialist scholar subsequently, but her work about British education policies in India as well as your Macaulay quote were very heartening to see. Viswanathan’s admirable thesis Masks of Conquest examines how in India, culture intersected with and reinforced empire. Viswanathan’s book elucidates how colonial education policies in nineteenth-century India sought to neutralize ‘native’ rebellion and create a class of reliable bureaucrats, and how English literature, particularly, was mobilized to inspire in the ‘natives’ an enduring respect for their rulers. I had myself considered the issue of colonial education through the writings of Thomas Babington Macaulay, a figure notorious among pro-Independence fighters like my mother and grandparents, for his unproblematically racist, vituperative dismissal of Indian culture. Macaulay, a key adviser to William Bentinck in the enactment of education policies in India, was infamous for having said that although he had “…no knowledge of either Sanscrit or Arabic…,” it took him just a few translations and conversations with Orientalists to conclude (in a way curiously reminiscent of the Stratford man’s knowledge of Italy gleaned from chats with travellers in a pub), that “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” As it happens, Macaulay, in the following passage from his oft-quoted 1835 Minute on Education, after referring to the “intrinsic superiority of the Western literature,” quite brilliantly connects the Stratford man to our vestigially colonial construct ‘Indian writer’:

Had our ancestors (…) neglected the language of Thucydides and Plato, and the language of Cicero and Tacitus, had they confined their attention to the old dialects of our own island, had they printed nothing and taught nothing at the universities but chronicles in Anglo-Saxon and romances in Norman French, – would England ever have been what she now is? What the Greek and Latin were to the contemporaries of More and Ascham, our tongue is to the people of India. The literature of England is now more valuable than that of classical antiquity. I doubt whether the Sanscrit literature be as valuable as that of our Saxon and Norman progenitors. In some departments – in history for example – I am certain that it is much less so.

What we see here, so neatly encapsulated, is the fact that Shakespeare (as wise Renaissance ‘ancestor’ from the age of ‘More and Ascham’) speaks directly to India, with the full glory of the Classics shining, in turn, upon him. Indeed, Shakespeare and his ilk not only direct the sublimating light of Latin and Greek influences upon the English language, they also help to transmute England into an empire by awakening an erstwhile “barbarous” Saxon-Norman people to their neo-Classical Imperial destiny. Macaulay thus sees the English not only as the carriers of an exceptional literature (towards India’s hapless ‘natives’), but as doing so within the unfolding telos of unparalleled Imperial grandeur. As such, Shakespeare (with others in the colonial curriculum) becomes empire. And his centrality in canonical perspectives on literature means that Indian writing too comes to be immovably fixed in that Imperial gorgon gaze. Speaking personally, I feel indebted to Macaulay, not so much for casually denigrating (and almost decimating) the extraordinarily rich and diverse culture of my ancestors, but for so succinctly, in this one paragraph, mapping a perfect center-periphery line, with its zenith/source in Stratford (chez Shakespeare) and its nadir/terminus in Bombay (or Calcutta or Madras or even the immigrant’s America, wherever is ‘home’ for the ‘Indian writer’). Macaulay clarifies further, when he speaks of the elite Anglicized population he wishes to engender through British education policy: “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, – a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” (emphasis added) And here we see the nascence of that all-important type – the ‘Indian writer’ – as privileged and “co-operative native” (to paraphrase Macaulay), and of the tacit Imperialist pact this kind of writer is asked to make when he/she represents an eternally backward India to the West, which in turn, via Shakespeare, represents itself as eternally exalted (West) to the world. Refuse that sacred covenant and you’re consigned to the ‘sick and pale’ lunar periphery, there to carve out a reputation with other (presumably) ‘envious’ outcasts who publish, print (even illustrate) their own (and others’) books – distinguished ‘losers’ like William Blake, Walt Whitman and Mark Twain (only a coincidence surely, that two of them also doubted the Stratford creed).

But what of all this is specific to Stratford, you may ask? Why, in this account, must Shakespeare necessarily be the ‘Stratford man’? Well, fascinatingly (and unsurprisingly), I find that the Orientalist moorings of Shakespeare as nineteenth-century Imperialist figurehead do absolutely require that he be the ‘Everyman-No man’ of Stratford and not a historical figure – particularly someone burdened with uncomfortable associations like violence of temper, marital infidelity, continental/Catholic tastes and hyper-stratified feudal-social privilege (à la Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford). After all, within the exceptionalist narrative Imperial Britain sought to establish for itself vis-à-vis India (and indeed continental Europe), the (supposed) common-sense egalitarianism of its history and people was a core focus, and to this day, is a theme that serves routinely to distinguish the West from India’s (supposedly) ‘caste-ridden’ backwardness. In other words, for Shakespeare to ‘work’ in an Imperial context, it was (and remains) imperative that he represent “the purer, cleaner literature of England” over the “basically immoral and sensuous” forms of Oriental literature. Simply put, the Shakspere/Oxford binary itself highlights the fundamental themes of a Colonial-Orientalist script: with an aristocratic, profligate, ardent, violently rebellious Oxford playing the part of the ‘decadent Oriental,’ and Shakspere of Stratford donning the garb of the quintessential, impecunious ‘middle-class English Everyman,’ with his ‘sound Protestant Bible principles.’

The terms used to disparage the Earl’s character and poems resemble in many ways the kinds of judgments made by British critics in the nineteenth century with regard to Indian art, when it was deemed fundamentally unfit for universal admiration, given its ‘decadence,’ ‘profusion/prolixity’ and ‘immorality.’ I have been personally struck by the sheer force of contempt and revulsion directed at Edward de Vere and how startlingly this evokes early denigrations of Indian art and literature (along with of course, other forms of non-European art, safely dismissed as ‘naïve’ and ‘primitive’). It is truly ironic that you still see this kind of condemnation of de Vere along with surprise at why on earth he would choose to publish under a pseudonym. It never seems to strike anyone that the derision expressed in his time at his profusive Italianate tastes may have extended to mockery of the kind of frank and personal poetry he was writing in the Sonnets, and indeed of the distinctly continental, Catholic-leaning, florid panache of his plays, and that this might have something to do with it! In fact, it seems not to come to anyone’s notice that this kind duality – personal frankness in one’s literary content and prolixity and ornament in one’s style – continues to be judged in exceedingly harsh terms by the Western literary academy.

For this reason, it is Joyce, not Céline, who enjoys the status of ‘greatest novelist of the twentieth century,’ when in fact Céline arguably had a vastly greater influence on twentieth century writers than did Joyce. After all, it is clipped ‘objective’ ‘Puritan’ self-control one seeks in the novel, without either excess of ornament or personal historical detail. Thackeray’s most enjoyable but shambolic prose, with its rich autobiographical detail about an identifiably historicized, racist, classist, sexist, Colonizing England can never, for this reason, partake of the kind of abject idolatry you see directed at the plain-speaking, dehistoricizing, naïvely patriotic, myopic plotter that is Jane Austen. Kerouac, Henry Miller, the Beats – none of them received the kind of academic recognition they deserved, because of this same duality in their writing, and if you happen to admire them as a writer and to locate your style within their sphere of influence, well, you’re doomed.

In this sense then, an Oxfordian reading of Shakespeare also constitutes an attack on what is essentially an eighteenth-century petty bourgeois parochialism in the Western literary institution’s criteria for deciding what is deemed ‘great art’ (or conversely, that personal content + stylistic profusion = primitive, aka non-white/decadent/feminine art). I have often said to my brother, Gopal Mukerjee (also a writer, as I mentioned), that were it to be proved that Oxford wrote Shakespeare, the entire Academic world would turn its back on the Works, because to recognize Oxford as true author would not only hit at core tenets of Western exceptionalism, it would also hack away at a heavily Enlightenment-influenced, Puritan-bourgeois, Anglo-Saxon distrust of the individual artist him/herself. It would signify that literary content and style might belong at last to the truly free writer and not to the academy. It would level the global cultural field and make room at last for true individuality, instead of everyone having to conform to the tired diktats of a tastelessly profit-obsessed, ungenerous and mediocre ‘Culture Industry’ (to borrow from Adorno).

Thus, I find that the SAQ has truly extraordinary insurrectionary potentialities, because it hits at a deeply ingrained Puritan-Eurocentric, Woman-hating atavism in the Western institutional field of ‘Literature’ itself. And that as such, with ‘smoking gun’ in hand or no, the SAQ community with its brave, conscientious, tremendously civil and eloquent effort at locating the truth, will serve to liberate the voice of not just one passing singular odd man of the sixteenth century, but all ‘singular’ and ‘odd’ literary voices everywhere.

Sources

Arnold, M., & Garnett, J. (2006). Culture and anarchy (Oxford world’s classics). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lahiri, J. (1999). “The Namesake.” Interpreter of maladies : Stories. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Macaulay, Thomas Babington, “Minute by the Hon’ble T. B. Macaulay, dated the 2nd February 1835,” Selections from Educational Records, Part I (1781-1839), Edited by H. Sharp (Calcutta: Superintendent, Government Printing, 1920. Reprint. Delhi: National Archives of India, 1965, 107-117) paragraphs 10-34. Web.

Viswanathan, G. (2015). Masks of conquest : Literary study and british rule in india(Twenty-fifth anniversary edition. ed., Oxford india paperbacks). New York: Columbia University Press.

[Image: India Today, August 16th 2014. http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/the-complete-works-of-william-shakespeare-play-gurgaon-julius-ceasar/1/377340.html]

About the author

Amita Mukerjee is a writer and publisher who lives and works in Paris, France. Amita grew up in India and moved briefly with her family to the UK and US, before returning to Mumbai in her teens and going on to graduate with a BA in English Literature and a Sangeet Visharad (Bachelor of Music) in North Indian Classical (Vocal) Music. She then received an MA in Translation and Interpretation in Monterey, California, after which she spent ten years working as a professional Translator/Interpreter in Paris, for governmental, international and private sector organizations. Her first novel Ugly Duckling describes those years. In 2002, she quit to become a full-time writer and in 2007, created (with her brother, Gopal Mukerjee as Co-Founder) the publishing company Revenge Ink, whose avowed aim was to focus on new writers and challenge prevalent discourse on all things ‘literary.’ The project met with little financial success, but Amita was nonetheless able to publish eleven authors and fifteen books. Although currently dormant, the company has not closed its doors.