Sunday, October 30, 2016

Continuity, but not too much

The US presidential election will soon be over, and the world will sigh in relief. Finally, there will be something else in the news than how terrible the two candidates are, and we can all go back to the business of not knowing what Thanksgiving is or exactly how or when it is supposed to be celebrated.

Normality will return. And there will be another Clinton as a president.

Paradoxically, it will be more interesting to see what the Republican party makes of Trump after the election than during it. During it, they will have to manage a fine theological line of being loyal to the party but only in spirit. Afterwards, they'll have to construe the whole ordeal as some kind of discursive anomaly that only occurred due to aberrant circumstances. A freak accident. Something that, during the years to come, will be referred to as "that one time", the exception to normalcy.

Undoubtedly, there will be generous amounts of sophistry, retconning and outright lying to make it happen. One does not simply erase billions of dollars of brand promotion without effort. The next step in making America great again will, ironically, involve forgetting that very phrase.

Constructing a discursive anomaly also means constructing the thing it is anomalous to. If Trump is to be made a weird thing that cannot possibly happen again, some sort of Republican identity will have to be rediscovered or invented, and then presented as the sane, rational, absolutely non-Trump baseline. To erase the past and move on to a better future. Build a better mousetrap, as it were.

It is one of those inherently American traditions. Like Thanksgiving.

Monday, October 24, 2016

You love the Left

It is so tremendously handy. If anything stupid is ever uttered, someone from the Left uttered it. If something stupid happens, someone on the Left thought it a good idea. If something ever goes wrong, there is always some specter of the Left causing it.

This state of things solves the ever so tricky problem of finding someone to blame. It is after all something of a hassle to analyze the situation, understand the historical context and identify the motives of all the relevant moving parts. It is an even bigger hassle to admit that things are complex and more often than not ended up the way are without anyone actually wanting them that way.

Blaming the Left is so much easier. Whatever it is, whatever has happened, whatever the situation. It was always the Left.

The only thing left is to admit it. You love the Left.

The alternative is, as you already know, an uncomfortable hassle.

Originally published May 26, 2015

Words about words about you

Looking back on the now not so recent Discursive Anomaly on plagiarism, I realized just how much of a multi-stage process source use is. And, moreover, how many stages of knowing what it is about there actually are. It's not as simple as knowing or not knowing, but rather a complex coming into one's own as a reading subject.

Here are some sketches of these stages. To give you something to think about.

The first stage is not being aware at all of the use or purpose of using sources. While I suspect humans are incapable of existing in this state in a more general sense (the phrase "but mom said" is in fact source use), in the context of writing they can and do exist without it. Reporting what someone else has written is not an intuitive concept, and like writing itself it has to be learned.

The next stage is knowing that sources can be used. Even if it is only rudimentary, or mechanically. Or, as in many a case, that there's an expectation to put something like (Foucault 1975) at an appropriate looking spot in the text. The text needs to relate to other texts somehow, or at least go through the motions of doing so.

This might seem like a trivial difference. The step from not being aware of something and being superficially aware of it is not a big step. But, as with many things, you have to start somewhere, and then gradually work through it. Even if the baby steps will look awkward in hindsight.

Next up is knowing that not all sources are good, and that some ought to be avoided. Simply having a source does not a well-grounded text make, and knowing what counts as a good source and what does not count is a skillset all of its own. The ability to look upon different texts and see what they have to offer to the specific context of one's own writing is a skill that takes time, practice and familiarity to grow.

These things are not made easier by different contexts drawing upon different bodies of knowledge. Sometimes, drawing upon Wikipedia is frowned upon, while at other times it is perfectly fine. It all depends, and finding out exactly on what it all depends (genre, tradition, situation, politics, policies, etc) is a slow and wordy process.

Next up is to summarize a line of argument. That is to say, to in some fashion paraphrase a text to give readers some insight into what it has to say. This goes beyond simply invoking the name (Foucault 1975) or saying that someone said something. Giving an account of what someone else has said, and working through the steps of it in a fair fashion, takes more work than it seems. It forces you as a reader to look closely at what the sourced text does, and to understand it well enough to give a fair account in your own words of it.

Texts do more than they seem to at first glance. Reading a text once and getting the gist of it is all well and good. But when read again, you'll find that the text makes all kinds of assumptions and uses a wide range of premises that your first glance didn't catch. Summarizing a text and conveying its core message means sorting through which of its parts are important and which are not. Figuring out what's what can sometimes take more time than might be reasonable to expect.

The point here is to take the strong points of someone else's argument and repurpose them in your own writing. No need to reinvent the wheel when you can borrow the schematics, as it were.

Next up is finding out that you do not have to agree with what you source. You can summarize it (as indicated above), and then go on to explain why you don't agree with it. Of course, simply saying that you do not agree with it is somewhat of a waste of verbiage - the fact that you have given a summary of what the other said means you can go into specific detail of why and how you don't agree. You can get real.

You still have to do the work of summarizing the other's line of argument in a fair and correct way, though. If you get it wrong, then the fact that they got it wrong first is lost upon closer inspection.

Next up is comparing and contrasting. That is to say, to summarize several texts and see how (or if) they relate to each other. The point of this is to put things and texts into context, and to make sure that this context is one of your own making. It is one of the hardest things to do, writing wise, but if you can manage to source several texts in such a way that your own point of view comes across in the process, you have a power that is both immense and beyond comprehension.

Next up is whatever you well damn please. You can take texts and make them dance. Compare a beautiful passage here with a striking argument there, and see what interesting thought children they make.

I suspect they will be beautiful striking and interesting by virtue of being yours. -

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Horse notes

I'm writing a thesis on horse_ebooks (because of course that's what I'd be doing), and one of the possible avenues of approach I'm investigating is Bakhtin's notion of genre. Because you are interested in the Horse, I'm going to share a few notes on this notion with you. To further a common understanding of the situation.

A classic understanding of communication and utterances is that someone wants to say something. They have some inner thought or emotion they wish to express, and in order to express it they turn to language. Using their understanding of grammar and their available vocabulary, they effort to produce some discourse that will hopefully convey the message across to the listener. It's a directed process, from one self to another.

Bakhtin is not a fan of this classic understanding. Rather, he proposes we understand communication in terms of genres. While it is true that communication takes place between individuals, it's not a question of one person talking directly to another person. Instead, it is a question of a person in a particular situation talking to others who are also in the same particular situation, and this situation has distinct and non-subtle effects on how the things being said are interpreted. The situation is as much a part of the communicative effort as the individuals in it.

A trivial example of this is a wedding ceremony. Everyone gathered has a certain understanding of what is going on, and unless something out of the ordinary happens, the situation will unfold as expected. Everyone knows the genre of wedding ceremonies, and this knowledge informs how those present understand what is occurring there and then. And, conversely, that it'd be weird if someone would act in a manner not in accordance with this genre.

Someone suddenly standing up and giving a rousing oration on the need to lower import taxes would be extremely out of place, and possibly cause a minor scandal. Whether or not there's actually a need to lower these tariffs is beside the point - there's a wedding going on, after all.

This kind of situational awareness is not unique to weddings, to be sure. It goes for all social situations, in general. However, there are only a certain number of such situations, and most of them tend to resemble each other over time. They become genres, albeit informal ones, and the understanding of those present informs what can be said in future such situations. If you are able to mobilize an understanding of the relevant genres, you will be able to make things happen in future situations pertaining to them.

The next time you hear someone relate an anecdote of someone acting strange at work, then they are giving an account of someone not understanding the genres at work. There is a certain expectation of how people ought to behave, and someone didn't act in accordance with these expectations. To amusing or confounding effect.

I imagine you might be thinking to yourself - how does this relate to the Horse? Which is a both understandable and crucial question

Remember how Bakhtin wasn't a fan of the classic understanding of communication? How it's not about one person saying something in a void, but rather a process of shared understanding of specific situations?

This becomes relevant in the context of the Horse, as it becomes meaningless to analyze it in terms of semantics and intention. It does not try to convey some sort of message, and decoding what it might be intending to communicate is a pointless exercise. It is communication without a subject, as it were.

Yet, it has over a hundred thousand followers. Clearly, it accomplished something with its tweets. And my hunch is that Bakhtin's notion of genre as social expectations might help uncover what this is.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Grading EU on a curve

Technically, our local universities have a new grading system. This follows from the Bologna process, which aims to standardize grading systems across the EU (among other things). However, given the considerable autonomy our local universities have, the rate of implementation varies from university to university.

The reasons for this have little to do with the new grades in and of themselves, above and beyond the basic reluctance of institutions to change anything at all. Rather, it has to do with a peculiarity of the legal status given to the new grades, and what it means to be given a particular grade instead of another.

The old system had three grades: fail, pass and pass with distinction. The difference between passing and passing with distinction is often quite significant in terms of effort, and utterly irrelevant to anything at all outside of your sense of accomplishment. The important thing is whether you passed or not, and the range of important grades stops there.

This has implications for the legal status of these grades. Given that our local universities are government institutions, and you cannot challenge decisions by government institutions that are in your favor, this means that you cannot challenge the decision to give you a "pass" rather than a "pass with distinction". The difference between passing and passing with distinction is so miniscule that it makes no difference, but passing a course is beneficial to you. Thus, since passing a course is a beneficial governmental decision, it cannot be challenged.

(It is not unheard of for students to intentionally fail a test they know they'd only get a pass on, in order to redo it later to ensure they'd pass with distinction. These minmaxing daredevils are rare and far between, though.)

The grading system proposed by the Bologna process, however, has more steps in it, ranging from A to F(ail). This might seem like a minor point, and if your only aim is to get through the educational process in one piece, it is. However, since there are more steps in the new system, the legal status of any particular grade is slightly different compared to the old system.

Specifically, getting a B rather than, say, a C, is better all around. It makes a difference. It says something about you. Something that is left utterly implicit in the old system.

This means that it is possible to challenge grades given in the new system (given that they are not an A). And students do challenge grades, en masse. The universities can't revoke a grade due to a student being annoying, but they can raise a grade if badgered about it with sufficient paperwork. Thus, the paperwork commences.

Equally thus, universities are dragging their feet in implementing the new grade system. Because being badgered with paperwork is a chore. An easily avoided chore.

If you want to understand the process of EU integration, all you have to do is to take the state of affairs described above, and multiply it across all the institutions of all the countries.

All of them.