Laying Out Epoiesen

The semester is winding down and I’m working a bit now to catch up on some pressing tasks for The Digital Press. So, this week, I’m working on the layout for one of my more complex projects, Shawn Graham’s journal Epoiesen, for which The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota will publish an annual pdf and print-on-demand volume.

The articles in Epoiesen have a number of intriguing challenges. First, Shawn provided them to me in markdown (and my impression is that they are submitted in markdown). I’ve been a John Gruber fan for a long time and regularly read DaringFireball and was a devoted user of the new defunct Vesper app. In other words, I’m excited to work in Markdown. Unfortunately, markdown doesn’t play all that nicely with InDesign where I do my layout. As a result, I have to convert the files from Markdown to another format (and I’m converting them to .docx) to import them to InDesign using Pandoc. Pandoc is pretty amazing, but it is not super user-friendly and I haven’t figured out how to do batch conversions. 

 Each article in the journal has a little gaggle of information with it (paradata?) that includes the usual – author’s name and article title – but also other stuff like the article DOI, the various creative common licenses, and any other information about the article adds complications to the page. After a few failed efforts to incorporate that information and the text of the article on the 6×9 inch page, I decided to do a distinct title page for each article. What I decided, for better or for worse, is to celebrate the digital aspect of the journal by attempting to capture something of its formal digital character. So I divided the page into a series of distinct boxes, but rendered the lines as 50% to add a bit of depth to the page. 

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Each article in the journal also has a masthead image that I included and extended it beyond the edge of the boxes the edge of the page. This was meant to be a bit playful and to show how the articles and the ideas extend beyond their digital confines. I’m imagining that images associated with the articles might be offset to the margins of the page as well. 

For font, I’ve stuck with Tisa, which I used in Mobilizing the Past. I like Tisa because it’s such a modern serif-ed font and it is quirky and relatively unusual so it gives the page a distinctive look. I’m not sure that I love it for the article title, but maybe I do!

As per usual feedback – particularly of the constructive kind – is always welcome. None of what I’m doing here is cast in stone. 

The Mezzanine and Kipple

Last year, I was obsessed (or at least very interested) in Philip K. Dick and his view of the material world and archaeology. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, he introduces the word “kipple” to describe the proliferation of useless objects that reproduce in the absence of human presence. For Dick, kipple was the side-effect of useful actions that produced useless objects. Opening a stick of gum produced the useless gum wrappers, reading a newspaper produced a day old newspaper, and drinking milk produced an empty milk carton.

Nicholson Baker offers a different perspective on kipple. In The Mezzanine, Baker details a single moment in the life of the narrator as he as ascends the escalator to his mezzanine level office after his lunch break. The narrator contemplates his varied intersection with people, but more importantly objects which led him to be ascending the escalator with a small bag containing shoelaces purchased at a nearby CVS.

For the narrator, the inaction with objects proceeded along three lines – and these lines more or less echo how archaeology of the contemporary world (and perhaps all archaeology?) engages with objects. For Baker, some objects are merely functional. For example, his broken shoelace (and the one that had broken two days before), demonstrate the relentless pressure of consistently and repeated actions. These actions are not specifically or narrowly defined. For example, it remained unclear whether the shoelace broke because of how the narrator tied his shoes or how the shoe was designed and flexed during walking. Objects in the narrator’s life likewise seem both to resist and to accommodate human interaction from vending machines to drinking straws, and the affordances offered by these objects, in due course, shape human actions. At one point the narrator contemplates whether there was a quantifiable way to understand how his two laces broke within a day or two of each other. Elsewhere, he considers the periodicity of thoughts to determine how frequently he would need to think about a particular things or topic for it to be “often” or “rarely.” The idea of quantifying regular actions is hardly foreign to archaeologists.  

There are also objects that have greater ritual significance for Baker. While these objects are indistinguishable from other every day objects, they nevertheless carry special significance for the narrator. For example, the narrator’s tie evoked his father’s tie collection draped over the door knobs in his childhood home. The narrator’s shoes reminded him that his parents bought him those shoes before his first day at work. Ritualized acts from tying his tie to lacing his shoes let loose a stream of memories that connected him with his childhood and other individuals. In another passage, the narrator contemplates the little rituals associated with riding the escalator from the technical character of the escalator itself to how you place your foot when you step onto it. The connection between objects, routine acts, and specific memories mark the intersection of ritual and the mundane objects of the contemporary world.  

The narrator’s ride up the escalator (and his long meditation on the escalator and on every day life in his office) provides a compelling context for his reflection on objects. The narrator recognizes this, of course, and the mundane character of the act of riding the escalator to a middle class job provides a backdrop to his reflections on the nature of things. At one point the narrator notices how even the messy hulk of a trash truck barreling down the highway has particular beauty when set against the blue sky. The rusted form of a railroad spike takes on a different meaning and appearance when set on the swept floor of a garage.

Baker’s work reminded me of the importance of context, ritual, and routine in the material world of contemporary society. The mundane and banal world of everyday, “office life” of the narrator is no less materially rich and significant than ritual life of the premodern world or places set aside for our engagement with the sacred. 

Free Beauty, Boxes of Books, and Austerity: Three Updates from North Dakota Quarterly

This week, I spent a ton of time doing North Dakota Quarterly stuff.

The most fun NDQ project was perhaps the easiest. This morning I posted a link to a free book by our new art editor Ryan Stander called Wayside Sacraments. Check it out here and download it for free!

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Less fun was the approximately 20 hours spent over the last two weeks putting North Dakota Quarterly volumes in boxes so that they could be moved from our existing storerooms to new storage in various places across campus. While the work was tedious and largely unrewarding, I did find myself leafing through the table of contents for many of the issues and stumbled upon a few remarkable gems.

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Among my favorites was Maxwell Anderson’s senior play which though penned in 1911, it was not published until 1957. Titled Masque of the Pedagogues: Being a Dream of President McVey, it offers witty perspective on turn of the century life on the UND campus from the perspective of a student. Predictably, it features such fan favorites as O.G. Libby, A.G. Leonard (who famously recognized the potential for oil in Western ND), George Abbot, Wallace Stern (a Near Easternologist), and James Boyle (an early student of Gillette who goes on to Cornell), oh, and Satan. 

Finally, hanging out in the NDQ storerooms gave me time to think about our upcoming spring issue on humanities in the age of austerity. I’ve been carrying around (well, digitally) a copy of Mark Byth’s new(ish) book on austerity, but I’ve also been thinking about how to link the crazy quilt of ideas dumped here on my blog into something coherent. Part of me wants to do a series of rather disconnected “observations” that range from my overused “Billboard vs. Factory” (combining posts from herehere, and here) to something on branding in the humanities (like here and here), neoliberalism and competition in academia, and collaborative publishing.

I have some work to do before the February deadline!

Come Hear about Micah Bloom’s Codex!

If you’re a North Dakota reader, you should make plans to come over the the North Dakota Museum of Art on Friday, December 8th at 3 pm to hear a panel on Micah Bloom’s Codex featuring Micah Bloom (Minot State University), Thora Brylowe (University of Colorado-Boulder), David Haeselin (UND), Sheila Liming (UND), and Brian Schill (North Dakota Quarterly).

It’s part of the College of Arts and Sciences A-ha! Lecture Series and co-sponsored by The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota and North Dakota Quarterly.

Here’s the flyer:

Codex Flyer 2017

Here’s the press release:

Book Release Event for Micah Bloom’s Codex 

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota is proud to partner with the College of Arts and Sciences and North Dakota Quarterly in announcing the publication of Micah Bloom’s Codex at a public event hosted by the North Dakota Museum of Art on 8 December at 3pm. The event is part of the College of Arts and Sciences A-ha! Lecture Series. 

Micah Bloom’s Codex explores the fate of books in the aftermath of the devastating 2011 Minot Flood. Bloom, a professor of art at Minot State University, painstakingly photographed, collected, and recycled hundreds of books and this work became the basis of a film (2013) and an art installation (2015). 

This year the Digital Press published two versions of Codex that combined Micah’s photographs with a series of scholarly and reflective essays. The first was a large-format, limited-edition, fine-art book made available to wide audience as a digital download. The Digital Press has also published a low-cost trade paperback version of the book available at Amazon.com.   

The publisher, William Caraher (UND Department of History), connected with Bloom after seeing his 2015 exhibit at the North Dakota Museum of Art: “Micah’s haunting photos captured an event historically rooted in a time and place – 2011, Minot, ND – but by focusing on books, he made it speak to much more universal concerns. The destruction of the flood is brought home in an intimate way through Micah’s photographs and treatment of books. So it made sense for us to capture the exhibit /collaborate in this way.” 

The North Dakota Museum of Art will host a roundtable discussion featuring the artist, and three collaborators: David Haeselin (UND, English), Sheila Liming (UND, English), and Thora Brylowe (University of Colorado- Boulder, English) will join Micah in a discussion of his work moderated by North Dakota Quarterly‘s Brian Schill. 

David Haeselin, who contributed to the book, remarked that “the essays help bridge the gap between scholarship of material culture studies, book history, and eco-criticism.”Haeselin’s course in Writing and Editing in the Department of English collaborated with The Digital Press to produce the book. Haeselin goes on to say “Student copy-editors were asked to work on a real book going to press. This meant that they had to fact-check and mark up their teachers’ writing, me included. Once they got past the awkwardness, they learned how to manage author-editor relationships, a core responsibility of any editor.” 

Bloom comments on this opportunity, “It has been a joy to find so much local support for this project . . . and to now have a way to share a bit of our story with a larger audience. It’s such an honor.” 

To download or purchase Codex or watch the films go here: https://thedigitalpress.org/codex/

For more on the Digital Press go here: https://thedigitalpress.org

Markets, Billboards, and Higher Education: David Labaree’s A Perfect Mess

However liberal academics tend to be in their politics and intellectual life, we tend to be conservative about our views of our institutions. In fact, our view of university life is more then just conservative; it’s down right nostalgic. Our image of the American university tends to celebrate a fair narrow period in its history dating from the mid-1950s (post-McCarthy) to the mid-1960s (pre-Vietnam era protests). This period saw the rapid expansion of the university system, heightened commitments to faculty freedom and governance, and a substantial influx of federal research dollars (and a concomitant commitment to research). At the same time, faculty leadership drew from the interwar generation who continued to reflect the early-20th century biases in higher education: they were largely white, upper and middle class, and male. Thus, there was continuity and some consensus in terms of values and authority. At the same time, higher education leadership and administration had not yet professionalized and exerted a relative weak counter weight to assertions of faculty governance.    

Over the last week, I read David Labaree’s new book, A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendency of American Higher Education (Chicago 2017). Labaree makes the important observation that higher education in America has always been, in part, market driven. The diversity of funding sources – student tuition, grants, private donors, and direct support of state and federal government – and correspondingly wide range of stakeholders (alumni, faculty, communities, students, legislators, et c.) forced the American system of higher education to respond continuously to market forces.   

For Labaree, the market is what allowed the American system of higher education to thrive because it forced higher education to respond to a range of developing needs. In contrast to European system of higher education where state funding dominates research and teaching at the university level and mediates between market (and democratic) forces and higher education, the American system has direct contact with markets as students vote with their feet, donor vote with their wallets, and the legislation shapes the direction and character of academic life. 

This being said, Labaree does recognize certain counter currents that subvert various stakeholder pressures in higher education as well. For example, he notes that pressures to accommodate professional and even vocation training within higher education are consistently subverted by the long-standing tendency for universities and colleges to imitate higher raking (and usually wealthier and older) institutions. These institutions, rather more insulated by dint of large endowments and long-standing traditions and expectations among large and influential alumni, tend to embrace the traditional liberal arts and curriculum with an emphasis on broad, general education. This tendency combines with pressures from employers and even students to provide broad rather than focused training and pulls professional and vocation programs into becoming always more academic (despite billboards presenting their narrower emphasis on job training and direct applicability on the job market). 

Of course, this pressure for lower tier universities to imitate their higher ranking peers, never really succeeds. Labaree points out that every ceiling for schools and their graduates is really another schools floor. The value of degrees from elite institutions always carry more weight than less well-established newcomers irrespective of architectural, academic, or curricular imitation. Thus, like so many aspects of American higher education, the appearance of competition and the appearance of the open market does more to shape institutions than any real opportunities for advancement by either students or institutions. Moving up through the ranks of universities rarely happens and even the best students from lower tier schools can’t compete on a level playing field with students from elite universities (with a handful of well-known exceptions).

In this regard, Labaree’s book offers another – smarter and more subtle take – on my billboard versus factory analogy that I have developed over a series of posts (here, here, and here). Moreover, I wonder how Labaree’s conceptualization of higher education shapes universities enduring the most recent wave of austerity which is coupled with the acceleration of market forces. The conservative brakes on higher education both within and without, dig in all the more heavily as markets change and capital all the more quickly in the 21st century. 

#CyberMonday Extravaganza: Buy Less and Read More!

As an archaeologist, I love things, stuff, and objects. I like buying things, I like having things, and I even like giving things away and sharing things. But I have to admit that Black Friday and Cyber Monday (and the entire orgy of consumerism that saturates Christmastime) gets on my nerves. 

As a respite to this, my two little publishing ventures – North Dakota Quarterly and The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota – are giving things away. 

From North Dakota Quarterly, you can grab a collection of Tsotsil Maya poetry translated by my old friend Paul Worley, who is a leading member of the UND diaspora. The poetry is evocative and performative and lovely. The digital book evokes the independent publishing tradition of libro cartonero with their vivid, but low cost cardboard cover. 

Worley Maya Cover

Paul talks about the work here and you can download the work here. I’ve called it an NDQ Supplement, and it’s available under a CC-By 4.0 license.

Over at The Digital Press, we’re announcing the release of Elwyn Robinson’s History of North Dakota as a free download. This is a collaboration with the Northern Plains Heritage Foundation and the Chester Fritz Library at the University of North Dakota

History of north dakota cover

My hope is that this is part of a few Robinson related projects. Last year, North Dakota Quarterly solicited a little gaggle of Robinson related essays and the appearance of his History of North Dakota as a free download has inspired me to return once again to his memoirs. Rather than trying to publish the entire 150,000 word manuscript, which has run into endless road blocks and false starts, I think I might just publish the chapters associated with the production of The History

I’ve also produced a post at The Digital Press that reminds anyone who is interested of our recent catalogue of books. Lots of good, free downloads for #CyberMonday. Buy less, read more.

And, if you do need to buy something, go and pre-order The Beast!

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More on Codex: Books, Performance, and Archaeology

I was initially drawn to Micah Bloom’s Codex project because it combined two elements that have become more or less central to my life: books and archaeology. At our book launch event last Friday, I realized that Bloom’s project had even more in common with my interests than I had initially recognized. In a short presentation Bloom unpacked the process of developing both the Codex book and short films that came from his efforts to document the books scattered about the Minot landscape.

If you don’t know Micah Bloom’s Codex, do go and check it out now.

In a brief back-and-forth in Minot, I asked Micah if he was inspired by recent work in “archaeology of the contemporary world.” I was inspired to ask after he discussed the particular care that he and his team took to document the scattered books both in situ and to number, label, preserve, and photograph the collected books systematically. Moreover, his team donned hazmat type as you can see in this clip from his film, and approached each artifact with extraordinary care

He admitted that he wasn’t particular familiar with this frequently theoretical (or at least conceptually ambitious) branch of archaeological work. He was inspired, however, by various manuals and technical literature that he found on for dealing with toxic objects, biological waste (including bodies), and other potentially contaminated (and contaminating) detritus. In other words, he used technical literature as a guide to performing real archaeological fieldwork, not in order to produce a thoroughly and systematically documented record of the 2011 Minot flood, but capture the particular sanctity of the books left behind in its receding waters. Performing archaeological work demonstrated care.

Archaeologists like Michael Shanks have long recognized the confluence of archaeological work and performance, and, indeed, theater. Without delving too deeply into this inspiring, if complex set of ideas, I have always struggled a bit to understand the relationship between the superficiality of theater – that is the concession in theater that the actors and the audience both have to suspend disbelief and recognize the actors as acting their parts – and archaeological methods, which ideally guide actions even when no one is looking. This isn’t meant to denigrate the work of actors and the depth of the characters that they portray or the promote the idea of the archaeologist as a singularly and consistently principled practitioner (but I’m sure most of us say that we try to be). The desire to keep our scarps straight is not just a cosmetic act that reinforces the scientific (scientistical?) precision of our work, but a practical way to make the stratigraphic relationships between various depositional events more visible. An actor may embrace certain aspects of a character off the stage (perhaps as part of an approach inspired by method acting), but this is fundamentally secondary to role played on the stage. There is always a risk, then, in emphasizing the performative in archaeology that we succumb to the artificiality of the aesthetic and as Michael Shanks has realized “abstracted from what is being represented, removed in an escape from social and historical reality, from anonymous popular masses, from the messy vernacular human and natural detail…”

Micah’s work offers an intriguing complication to this risk. Not only did he document his work to bring order to the messy chaos of flood recovery speak to a particular moment in time (and an effort to resolve what must have been a pervasive feeling of disrupted existence), but he also documented the books themselves in ways that are not immediately visible in his published work. For example, he disclosed that he has photographs of hundreds of books in situ and once he and his team collected and documented them. He also has a database (technically a spreadsheet) of close to 800 books recovered, identified, photographed, and documented from his work. Unlike the public facing work of the film and book and installation, these aspects of the Codex project, like the method actors behind the scenes routine, remains out of sight (at least, for now). 

Since Micah’s presentation, I’ve been turning around in my head how to make at least some of this archive available. Whether this archive will produce new archaeological, historical, or cultural knowledge is difficult to say, but it does reveal the depth of Codex as a form of authentic archaeological engagement with the world. 

The Digital Version of Codex is LIVE.

I’m super excited to announce that the digital version of Codex is (a)live now.

Go and download it!

Codex Tradebook Cover Cropped

This project feels like the most ambitious project that The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota has undertaken to date, but made possible through the generous and sustained collaboration with Micah Bloom, Marissa Dyke (his design intern), and the contributors and editors of the volume (including Dave Haeselin’s writing and editing class in the English Department).

The digital volume is beautiful, well-designed, and thought provoking.

And the work isn’t done, yet! We are almost ready to release the trade paperback version of the book and there is talk about a small, unnumbered, print run of the hardbound version. 

Finally, we’re doing a public release of Codex tomorrow at Minot State. 

Book poster as book

So stay tuned for more.

Codex final large book 3

The Matter of History

I really enjoyed Tim LeCain’s first book, Mass Destruction: The Men and Giant Mines That Wired America and Scarred the Planet (2009) and that made me particularly excited to read his newest work The Matter of History: How Things Create the Past (2017). LeCain pulls apart the recent interest in materiality in history and situates it as a response, in part, to the growing dissatisfaction with so-called constructivist views of the past. These views, championed by critical theorists of the 1970d and 1980s, “marginalized matter” by viewing the world as a cultural construct established by a dense network of relational ontologies. While this remains a tremendously influential method for understanding texts, historians and archaeologists have typically approached these ways of thinking with a bit of ambivalence. After all, historians and archaeologists build arguments from evidence and, as a result, view these pieces of evidence as somehow being sufficiently essential to support our arguments for a real past. 

For LeCain, this view of the past as real opens the door not to some kind simplistic epistemology that sets the past up as a kind of immutable reality to be mined by the historian for facts, but rather provides space for the place of matter – in all its myriad forms as objects, animals, buildings, landscapes – in our understanding of the world. For LeCain, the matter of history is quite literally matter itself. By allowing matter space in the world of the historian, LeCain recognizes that humans are material and the materiality of both human things and non-human things constrains and enables humans to act. 

While this might sound like the fairly heady (if increasingly typical) and philosophical stuff circulating widely in the world of new or neo-materialists, LeCain grounds his commitment to empiricism in a series of compelling case studies that range from the fate of long-horns in the Deer Lodge Valley in Montana when confronted by the polluting smoke of a smelting furnace to the role of the silkworm in modernizing Shimotsuke Japan. LeCain’s arguments develop from his significant understanding of copper mining and smelting on a global scale. In both Montana and Japan, the expansion of copper production compromised local agriculture and sericulture by introducing sulfur, arsenic, and other heavy metals into the local ecosystem. The conductive properties of copper were vital to the electrification of the modern world and advancing the ambitions of Japan on a regional and ultimately global scale. By interweaving humans, animals, industry, chemicals, and even the very much elemental cooper and downright molecular quality of electricity, LeCain works to demonstrate the fundamental continuity between aspects of the world frequently divided into categories of “nature” and “culture.”

Butte MT Berkeley Pit April 2005 Composite Fisheye View

Historians are nothing if not practical in their approach to the past. By challenging the divisions between the natural and the culture in our world, LeCain not only offers a compelling critique of the once-pervasive constructivism, but also establishes the practical value of the new materialism for historical work. Over the last decade, this critique has frequently come from scholars eager to recognize the agency of things. In many cases, this has resulted in making things oddly human with biographies and agency that frequently do little more than present the “life of things” as a superficial reflection of how we have traditionally seen ourselves. As a result, we avoid dealing with the “thingness” of things, but slotting them into an existing ontology that is ultimately derived from the very nature-culture division that we’re seeks to subvert. LeCain’s book avoids this common challenge in talking about things by both recognizing the humanity of humans as vital for understanding the world (there is, after all, a limit to our powers of empathy; it is pretty much impossible to feel for a hammer or an atom of copper), but not as something that exists outside the world. Things of all kinds – from silkworms and longhorns to arsenic – are allowed to thrive in LeCain’s narrative, but they do not bear the burden of a concept of agency built upon an assumption of human dominance of the material world.    

Instead, LeCain might be accused of limiting, in a cautious and deliberate way, the agency of humans in their control over the world. His book starts with a discussion of the symbiosis between various gut bacteria, mineral resources, and the long trajectory of human evolution to recognize the place of humans within a world that we frequently set aside as “natural.” He then engages R. G. Collingwood’s critique that all history is the study of thought (and thought is manifest, in part, in human action) and not the study of the unthinking material world of nature and things. LeCain’s book is in many ways a response to Collingwood’s views. He demonstrates that the division between the material and the human is illusory because we cannot separate thinking about things from thinking with things. If Collingwood celebrated the transcendent and even disembodied human mind as the locus of history, LeCain returned the mind to both the body and its place in the world. In his hands, this proposition seems less of a radical explosion of centuries-old divisions between mind and matter and more a commonsensical reminder of the real task of the historian is to unpack the complexities of human action in the world. 

Micah Bloom and Codex in Minot

If you’re in the Minot, North Dakota area, you should make a point to come and check out my presentation with Micah Bloom, the author of the very soon to be released book Codex from the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, Friday, November 3, at 12. I’ll be joining Micah and three contributors to the book, Bethany Andreasen, Ryan Stander, and Robert Kibler in Minot State University’s Aleshire Theater. 

I’m pretty excited to head out West, and while my visit with my colleagues at Minot State will be short, I’m looking forward to catching up with Ryan Stander, who worked with us one summer at Koutsopetria as our artist in residence. Unfortunately the online exhibit associated with Ryan’s ran out of funding here at UND, but I have the images and the essays associated with the project and still think about doing something with them.

Micah has been the consummate collaborator on the Codex project and has literally worked on every part of the project from the layout and design of the book to helping edit the essays and strategizing publicity for the event. In many ways, Codex was the ultimate example of cooperative publishing with students from David Haeselin’s writing and publishing class lending a hand in copy editing, Micah and his crew chipping in on layout, and my little outfit working on the production side of things.

So, please check out my talk on Friday!

Here’s the flyer:

Caraher Bloom Minot

And, if you’re still reading, do click this link.