PMLA

One of the added responsibilities that has come to me with my new position is serving as managing editor of PMLA. In that capacity, I work with our staff on facilitating the review process, and I work with the journal’s editor and editorial board as they make their selections and discuss other matters.

So far, one of the best aspects of this work is that I’m getting a chance to read the essays that will be going before the board at its next meeting, and it’s just lovely to be in close contact with the exciting work that’s going on across our fields. I’m delighted to have this opportunity, and I’m looking forward to everything I’m bound to learn in the process.

Cultural Studies as an Alibi

I would rather talk about the problems of ethics, value, trust, hierarchy, and labor in academic life than use cultural studies as an alibi, one more time, for the urgency of responding to the institutional pressures of the present that have rendered so many of us bitter or angry or tired or cynical or perhaps simply confused about what to do in this moment of intellectual expansion and economical downsizing in the United States academy. (9)

Berlant, Lauren. “Collegiality, Crisis, and Cultural Studies.” ADE Bulletin 117, Fall 1997, 4-9.

Attention

Yesterday was a lovely, quiet Saturday. I got up early, went through my morning routine, and then went for a walk in the park. I did laundry, I had lunch, I took a little nap. I spent part of the day with the book I’m currently reading (Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure, if you’re curious), and then in the late afternoon started listening to a series of lectures from a Oxford U general philosophy course. The lecturer is really quite good, and the narrative he presents quite compelling. I’m listening to this course, in part, because one of the more woeful gaps in my education (of which there are many, alas) is labeled “philosophy”; as an undergrad, I let the introductory formal logic course — which you had to get through in order to be admitted to any further courses — deter me, and so I have embarrassingly little grounding in the history of many of the ideas I want to be working with. I’m hoping that this series of lectures might at least give me enough of an overview so that I know a bit more about what it is I ought to know, but of course I’m certain that I won’t really know much of anything without taking on a more systematic, thorough course of reading.

This seems obvious, and yet what’s painful about it is all bound up in what Tim Parks and Corey Robin have lately written about: an increasing difficulty with actually doing the reading I set myself to do. I find myself lacking both for time (of which I seem to have precious little) and attention (of which I have less and less). Whatever the reason, it feels increasingly difficult to sit still and read much at all of late. I can’t tell how much of that difficulty is the technology-assisted monkey mind described by Parks — constantly looking for the next bit of incoming information, the next thing to click — or how much of it might be the distractions provided by other parts of my life, or (what I most fear) how much of it might simply be an aging brain. Would my attention span be shrinking even without all my surrounding technologies, in other words, or are the technologies interfering in my attention in the ways that I sometimes fear?

I’m working on some practices (a little meditation; a little bit of writing time in the early mornings) that I hope will help me better develop and maintain the ability to focus my attention on what’s in front of me, rather than constantly grasping for the next thing. But as I started pondering this problem in a bit of journaling this morning, it occurred to me that there’s another side to the question of attention that I hadn’t really connected here before. And it may be that they’re only connected by a sort of linguistic coincidence, but it nonetheless seemed significant.

As I started writing about my concerns about reading and my seemingly diminishing attention span, it hit me that this is the kind of thing that in the not-too-distant past I’d have written as a blog post, that I’d have shared almost reflexively. I felt little to no inclination to do that today, and so I started wondering what has changed. Is there something else different in my relationship to attention — not just the attention I pay, but the attention I seek, or more generously to myself, the attention I want to bear? One can read throughout my posts here since spring 2011 a series of not entirely successful attempts to work through my sense that my new position required (or seemed to require, at least) a reconfiguration of my public presence, my sense that I was at times a little more visible, a little more exposed, than might in the new order of things be ideal. There have also been, across that same period of time, some changes in the climate that have made working ideas out in the open feel a good bit less easy than it once was. But whether the changes are predominantly internal or external, the result is that I’ve become reticent about thinking in public — and that’s a not just a shame but in fact a pretty painful irony, given that thinking-in-public is both the source of whatever impact my work has had and the thing that I was hired to support.

In that support role, though, I’ve retreated somewhat behind-the-scenes, and I find myself somewhat reluctant to share the things I’m working on, in part because I get so very little time to work on them that all my ideas feel desperately under-baked. But the combination of what feels like my shrinking attention span and my reluctance to be public with my thinking have me more than a little worried about how (in fact whether) my work might proceed from here. I am hoping to find some strategies this summer to get myself past both of these hurdles, to work my brain in ways that help to grow my attention span again, and to re-develop my bravery about drawing attention to my work as it happens.

The Royal Society and the Profession of Knowledge

Philosophical writers vested much of their identities and reputations in their printed works, so that counterfeiting, abridgment, translation, and piracy threatened them with far more than merely economic damage. The repute of the individual concerned — and of the knowledge he or she professed — rested on the successful negotiation of such hazards. Writers developed certain strategies to overcome these dangers. They might coalesce and cooperate as a group, for example, combining resources to protect themselves. Such a body might even become a corporate licenser, utilizing the conventions described in chapter 3 to distinguish its books as creditable. Another possible course was to invent new techniques of communication, such as the learned periodical, the protocols of which might limit the practical powers of printers and booksellers. Still another was to police not just publication but reading, in the hope of stimulating debate while limiting conflict.

Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Book, 445

Reading with the Grain

The most difficult implication of this idea is the need to outgrow our supposedly Benjaminian habits of reading against the grain — the phrase the functioned as a byword for theoretically informed criticism in the second half of the twentieth century. In its place would appear a reading that suspends judgment, that commits itself, rather, to the most generous reading possible.

Timothy Bewes, “Reading with the Grain”