In a wonderful London Review of Books piece, the composer Nico Muhly reflects on the challenge of being ready to think. If our work is embedded in a particular environment, scaffolded by the equipment we have within an office, it can be difficult to think when on the move. But even if we can take our equipment with us, it doesn’t mean we are ready to think. There is always refocusing required and this can take time and effort:

When I plan out a year’s work, I can see in advance that I’ll need to be writing certain pieces across several trips, and I seek out ways to keep my focus on work rather than the constantly changing environment. If the work were only saved on a computer, it would take me hours to refocus after a long trip, whereas if I bring a slim folder, the minute I see it on the desk or at the foot of the bed, I’m immediately ready to think about it again.

The folders accompany me everywhere; even if a piece is an unfertilised egg of an idea (‘Corpse Road’ is the title of an empty folder in my satchel right now), it is with me in my bag every day. At home, I save vegetable scraps and post-spatchcocking chicken necks and backs in a container in the freezer: a physical reminder that something can always be done with them. The folders, too, are a reminder of the endless possibility of what they might become.

https://www.lrb.co.uk/v40/n20/nico-muhly/diary

How do we realise this promise of being immediately ready to think? I’ve been thinking about this since reading Andrew Abbott’s advice in Digital Paper about the necessity of tagging and categorising research materials because time and energy spent searching for an item is time and energy not spend working on it. He stresses the importance of this work because it constitutes the analytic categories of your research project, as opposed to being clerical labour standing outside the lofty world of ideas which scholars are inclined to see themselves as embedded within.

This relationship between the ideas we we are working and the tools we use to work on them is one which fascinates me, not least of all because digital tools and digital platforms makes it more complex than it has ever been. Firstly, the relationship becomes imperceptible (though not immaterial)  because it is mediated by devices, giving a new valence to handwriting in the process and sparking resurgent handwriting cultures. Secondly, the ease of working with digital files means attentiveness has to be cultivated rather than being something which (mostly) flows organically from the physical process of undertaking the work. Thirdly, the vast array of tools and platforms with which we can work, as well as the changing ways of relating platforms which are themselves in flux, means a higher level of reflection is required, often subsumed under a notion like workflow.

The ideas we are working with are materials in the same sense as the tools we use but their realisation is dependent on those tools. There’s something important here about our ideational materials being at hand and the subtle alignments necessary in order for this to be true of the tools we use to access them. Adjusting our devices, habits and habitats in order to get our workflow right can feel like a distraction but in actual fact it is a crucial part of creative work. So much of what matters about creative work rests on what Nico Muhly describes as being “immediately ready to think about it again”. Unless we choreograph our digital routines, distractions multiply and we work in spite of rather than because of the tools we are using.

In the last couple of years, I’ve done around eighty talks on a variety of topics across a whole range of different settings. The biographical, professional and intellectual reasons why I’ve done so many are a topic for another post. What concerns me at the moment is how I prepare for them. To talk in public requires preparation and I’m in the process of experimenting with how I undertake that preparation. For much of this time I’ve relied on Artefact Cards for talks. As I described them in an earlier blog post recounting how I used them to collate ideas for my social media book:

The card themselves are designed to “help you craft better ideas, create new idea combinations by moving, shuffling, stacking, dealing and matching them”. In essence they’re just blank playing cards, with a look and feel which has obviously been the subject of much thought, which can be filled using the supplied Sharpie. They’re perhaps slightly overpriced but it’s hard to begrudge an individual creator this for a product that so much love has clearly gone into.

These small colourful cards allow you to scribble down a few ideas, depending on how large your writing is and how fine grained a sharpie you use. Sometimes I try and fit too much on the cards, prompting me to squint at them in the middle of a talk in a way which always makes me cringe when I see it on video. I have occasionally experimented with the extra large version of artefact cards, around twice the size, in the hope of countering the problem. Unfortunately, this tempts me to simply write more on the cards rather than writing a much larger version of what I would anyway.

My aspiration has always been to write a single word or phrase on then card, though sometimes I over-prepare. My general rule of thumb has been to prepare 8-12 cards for a 30 minute talk, though this varies. I usually mull over a talk in my mind for a couple of days, sit down with a cup of coffee and write out the cards in one go. I then practice once or twice to check something coherent comes out and that it remains roughly in the allotted time period. In this way, I usually prepare a talk in anything from one hour to four hours. If I’m travelling, I will usually run through them once at home before doing it again on the morning of the talk. I’ve written them on trains and planes, in bars and restaurants, but I prefer to prepare them on my own at my dining room table. For reasons I’ve never understood, I usually find myself doing them late in the afternoon at the end of my working day. Being on the verge of tiredness, propelled primarily by coffee, proves oddly fitting for what is essentially an exercise in externalising ideas from my mind to the cards.

When it works best, I barely look at the cards. It’s reassuring to have them there if I need them and their compact size, as well as the motion of dispensing with each card as I work my way through the talk, proves weirdly reassuring. This means I sometimes miss details, often not important ones but sometimes omissions I have regretted, such as explaining how much a particular person’s work influenced the analysis I’m offering, even if I’m not directly citing them. This is a useful reminder that improvisation can lead to things which are effectively ethical lapses, even if mild ones. Carefulness isn’t just a restraint on creativity and the impulse towards spontaneity can sometimes work against it.

This is the routine I’ve had for over two years. Sometimes it works well, other times it works brilliantly and occasionally it goes wrong for what are usually unrelated reasons. However in recent months, the routine has stated to feel, well, routine to me. The sheer familiarity of what I am doing has left the process failing to ignite my creativity in the same way it once did. What still works as a preparation to talk has stopped being reliable as a preparation to think. Furthermore, my ambition that the talks would sometimes be reusable has proved ill founded. I often can’t read my writing when I come back to it later, raising the question of how on earth I understood it at the time of giving the talk. Even if it is legible, the contents of the card seem inert to me, as if their intellectual vitality came from the context in which I used them, rather than the words written on them. I occasionally pick up individual cards which serve as prompts when creating new cards for upcoming talks. But I’ve never reused them in the way I once expected to, something which occasionally feels like a frustrated ambition when I notice my subliminal tendency to pile the cards up neatly in stacks for each talk as if I would one day pick them up again as a whole.

Nonetheless, some of the components have become so familiar that I am able to recite them off the top of my head. In fact, I occasionally do so involuntarily, slipping into fluent passages about a particular topic when I hit a keyword, in spite of it not being  part of expected or intended material for a talk. But more often they become hollowed out through over-use, echoing what I have said on past occasions with more force, rather than being iterations through which I get closer to what I am trying to say. The process reminds me of my experience with asexuality research, particularly formal writing and media work. In both cases, my invitations to write and speak came to outstrip what a relatively small empirical project had left me trying to say. In an important sense, I became worse with practice and I found the experience an unnerving one, ultimately motivating me to leave the topic in search of new challenges.

Now I find myself in a comparable predicament, feeling less confident about my public speaking as I become more experienced at it. The best way I can think to respond to this is to experiment. For this reason, I’ve decided to explore alternative methods of preparing for talks and plan to document the process as I go. Thus far, I’ve used blog posts for a keynote where I consulted a text which I had practiced before hand (40 mins and 4000 words) and a short talk where I simply used the post to order my thoughts (10 mins and 750 words). I since slipped back into the Artefact card routine out of convenience but over the course of the year, I plan to experiment with alternative methods. I’ve listed these in the thread attached to the Tweet below:

https://twitter.com/mark_carrigan/status/984822554539020288

I hope to blog about the experiment but whether I feel comfortable writing about each individual case remains to be seen. This is potentially taking my commitment to honestly documenting my practice in public a little too far, given the potential for awkwardness with people who have invited me to speak and dishonesty if I exclude aspects which are relevant to the experiment in the name of ensuring good relations with people. But the possibility the experiment would encourage others to do the same is an appealing one and certainly counts in favour of sustaining radical transparency. I offer this blog post and subsequent ones in the spirit of scholarly craft and a commitment to open discussion of it.

I’m currently reading On Intellectual Craftsmanship, in preparation for a talk I’m doing in Berlin next week. This famous appendix to The Sociological Imagination is something I’ve long been inspired by, finding in it a way of organising my own life that belies the text’s apparently humble ambition to merely guide the novice scholar through the daily minutiae of scholarship. It might be the case that, as Mills puts it in his introduction, “Only by conversations in which experienced thinkers exchange information about their actual ways of working can a useful sense of method and theory be imparted to the beginning student”. However it is in such conversations that we also renew our connection to what matters to us, finding energy and affirmation in the curiosity and concern we share for the social world we inhabit. If we dispense with the masculine language that marks the time in which it was written, there is a deeply powerful vision of scholarship as a vocation offered here by Mills. It is one which is all the more powerful for being grounded so precisely in a realistic sense of the “actual ways of working” which are the substance of our professional lives yet often fade from view when we describe what we do in terms of the lofty abstractions of theory and methodology:

It is best to begin, I think, by reminding you, the beginning student, that the most admirable thinkers within the scholarly community you have chosen to join do not split their work from their lives. They seem to take both too seriously to allow such dissociation, and they want to use each for the enrichment of the other. Of course, such a split is the prevailing convention among men in general, deriving, I suppose, from the hollowness of the work which men in general now do. But you will have recognized that as a scholar you have the exceptional opportunity of designing a way of living which will encourage the habits of good workmanship. Scholarship is a choice of how to live as well as a choice of career; whether he knows it or not, the intellectual workman forms his own self as he works toward the perfection of his craft; to realize his own potentialities, and any opportunities that come his way, he constructs a character which has as its core the qualities of the good workman.

It is a subtle vision, which I suspect I’ll return to in future posts over the next week as I reacquaint myself with it. It isn’t just an individualised matter, in spite of the vivid sense of interiority which Mills conveys in his urgent reminder that we should work to ‘keep our inner world awake’. It is in such awareness that Mills sees the possibility of methodological renewal, as a community can flourish when its members can converse about their foremost concerns rather than the dead formalities which their organisational lives demand of them:

informal interchange of such reviews of ‘the state of my problems’ among working social scientists is, I suggest, the only basis for an adequate statement of ‘the leading problems of social science.’ It is unlikely that in any free intellectual community there would be and certainly there ought not to be any ‘monolithic’ array of problems. In such a community, were it flourishing in a vigorous way, there would be interludes of discussion among individuals about future work. Three kinds of interludes—on problems, methods, theory—ought to come out of the work of social scientists, and lead into it again; they should be shaped by work-in-progress and to some extent guide that work. It is for such interludes that a professional association finds its intellectual reason for being. And for them too your own file is needed.

It is a powerful vision, worth returning to as our “actual ways of working” are undergoing a profound transformation. It should be treated carefully, because the notion of the ‘craft’ can obfuscate as easily as it can ground. But it provides an ethos which can guide our trajectory through the space of opportunities opened up by digital platforms, helping ensure that we use these platforms for our own ends rather than being used by them.

On pg 106 of their Rethinking Social Exclusion: The End of the Social? Simon Winlow and Steve Hall describe the changing realities of work, as more and more jobs become “non-unionised, low paid, short-term, insecure and part time”:

We should also note that few of these jobs enable workers to construct and maintain an image of themselves as socially valuable (Winlow and Hall, 2006, 2009a; Southwood, 2011; Lloyd, 2012); in fact, many of these McJobs (Ritzer, 1997) communicate the exact opposite: the low-level, low-paid service worker is seen as disreputable, exploitable and untrustworthy, the homo sacer of the post-political order, waiting tables, flipping burgers and sweeping rubbish. These are fundamentally insecure and alienating jobs. The people who have these jobs do not want to retain them beyond the obvious and pressing need to earn enough money to pay for their immediate living expenses (Winlow and Hall, 2009a). Most of the positive symbolism associated with traditional work has already been stripped away. They do not cling to and seek to defend an image of themselves as fast food workers, call centre operatives, cleaners, supermarket shelf stackers or factory box-packers.

This is the context in which I’m interested in contemporary discourses of ‘craft’. As anyone who’s followed my work will probably have noticed, I’m drawn to these ideas because they seem to promise a bulwark against alienation. For instance in higher education, I’ve long seen the idea of ‘craft’ as a way of experientially reclaiming the pleasures of scholarship in an institutional context which increasingly hinders, if not outright obliterates, such internal goods.

But are these residual pleasures mere consolation prizes against a background of exploitative precarity and communal diminishment? Increasingly, I wonder if they are but the theoretical challenge as I see it lies in recognising the reality of these internal goods while nonetheless being critical of their cultural deployment in the creation of a new ethos of work.

Can we see the notion of ‘craft’ as something that is developing alongside, indeed implicated in, the stripping away of traditional bases of working identity? On the one hand, for example the elaboration of the role of barista into that of cultural producer able to meaningfully express oneself through latte art (etc), goes hand-in-hand with the normalisation of part-time labour and zero hours contracts in the hospitality sector. On the other hand, craft micro-production and the opportunities for micro-enterprise are being embraced alongside the decline of secure employment, the growth of underemployment and the still expanding phenomenon of forced freelancing.

To explain away the real pleasures people take in these ‘crafts’ is problematic. But we need to avoid a dichotomy in which we take their accounts of craft pleasure at face value or we reject them in the name of being ‘critical’. What interests me is how the discourse of ‘craft’ increasingly organises the pleasures and dissatisfactions of contemporary labour, giving cultural form to “I am” statements* about one’s working life in a context where structural trends had made such statements less tenable in precisely the way Winlow and Hall suggest.

The notion of ‘craft’ also finds itself employed as part of a macro-economic narrative in which the harms of structural unemployment, particularly that led by technology into the previously secure professions which are themselves subject to longer-term trends toward deprofessionalisation, can be offset by the imperative towards craft production. There’s a kernel of truth here but only a kernel. The idea that mass unemployment can be offset by the expanding ranks of Etsy craft sellers is obviously absurd. But it’s another vector through which ‘craft’ can be used to effectively romanticise exploitation and abjection.

So on level, I increasingly find myself opposed to the notion of ‘craft’, despite this being an idea which I’ve gone on about for years to anyone who’ll listen to me. On another level, I’m still drawn to it as a way to organise my own experience, something which I think is ripe for informal autoethnography. There’s also a critical potential in the notion of ‘craft’ which I think shouldn’t be lost and that’s why we need to avoid dispensing with it entirely. What I mean here is captured incredibly forcefully by Akala after his freestyle in this video: ‘the craft’ is something which transcends marketing and commerce, something basically irreducible in any arena of human activity and a site upon which excellence can be achieved:

*This is an expression I heard on a radio call in show i.e. “I am an X”. I wish I could remember which one because I’d love to cite this properly.

‘Networking’ is a horrible term.  I’m sure I’m not the only person who hates it. It  nonetheless refers to something important, albeit perhaps pervasively misunderstood. The usual connotations of the term ‘networking’ are insincerity, instrumentalism and general creepiness. There have been a few occasions when I’ve been conscious of being ‘networked’ by someone else in a way that made me deeply uncomfortable. It’s worse when someone is really good at it, projecting enthusiasm for their encounter with you while nonetheless failing to engage with anything you’re actually saying: smiling plausibly while looking over your shoulder to check if anyone more useful has entered the vicinity.

In fact I think ‘useful’ is the key term to understanding the problem here. If you see ‘networking’ in terms of people being ‘useful’ to you then it will be a soul-destroying activity. You’ll either succeed in building a collection of ‘useful’ people around you (and destroy your soul in the process) or your confidence will be crushed by the feeling you’ve pervasively failed to do things properly (though your soul may very well be intact).

Rather than ‘useful’, we should think in terms of ‘interesting’: arousing curiosity or interest. Who do you find interesting? What do you share with them? What differences and commonalities are there in how you approach a shared interest? Setting out to build a network of people you hope might one day be useful to you is creepy and disturbing. Approaching academic life with the intention of having as many friendly conversations as you can with people who share your interests is incredibly rewarding. Plus social media takes so much of the awkwardness out of it. But that’s an entirely different post.

There’s a lovely extract of the Academic Diary in which Les Back reflects on the life and work of the social theorist Vic Seidler. Remarking on the vast range of topics on which Seidler has written, Les suggests that this deeply committed man “writes not because his academic position expects it but because he has something to say and communicate”. For someone like Seidler, writing is something a person does because they are “trying to work something out”.

This captures what I see as the promise of academic blogging. It’s a platform for trying to work things out. More so, doing it in the open grants each of these attempts a social existence, one that comes with undoubted risks but also enormous rewards. Little bits of thought shrapnel, brief attempts to make some sense of the ‘feel of an idea’, come to enjoy their own existence within the world. They’re mostly forgotten or even ignored from the outset. But there’s something quite remarkable about occasions when these fragments resurface as someone sees something of value in them, perhaps when you saw no value in them yourself.

Furthermore, it attunes you to the impulse to write because you have “something to say and communicate”. This isn’t always the case and I worry that the metricisation of scholarly blogging will prove immensely destructive of it. But there is at least for now something deeply rewarding about seizing on an inchoate idea, developing it and throwing it off into the world to see what others make of it. For no other reason than the pleasure inherent to it.

A really fascinating reflection by Rob Kitchin on ten forms of academic writing beyond scholarly papers and booksfiction, blog posts, newspaper op eds, email correspondence, policy papers, policy consultation, a television documentary script, powerpoint slides, academic papers, and grant application. What makes this so interesting is that all of these were deployed in relation to the same topic, feeding into each other in the process.

An absolutely beautiful snippet from Brain Pickings: the letter of advice W.E.B. Dubois wrote to his teenage daughter when she went away to school in England.

Dear Little Daughter:

I have waited for you to get well settled before writing. By this time I hope some of the strangeness has worn off and that my little girl is working hard and regularly.

Of course, everything is new and unusual. You miss the newness and smartness of America. Gradually, however, you are going to sense the beauty of the old world: its calm and eternity and you will grow to love it.

Above all remember, dear, that you have a great opportunity. You are in one of the world’s best schools, in one of the world’s greatest modern empires. Millions of boys and girls all over this world would give almost anything they possess to be where you are. You are there by no desert or merit of yours, but only by lucky chance.

Deserve it, then. Study, do your work. Be honest, frank and fearless and get some grasp of the real values of life. You will meet, of course, curious little annoyances. People will wonder at your dear brown and the sweet crinkley hair. But that simply is of no importance and will soon be forgotten. Remember that most folk laugh at anything unusual, whether it is beautiful, fine or not. You, however, must not laugh at yourself. You must know that brown is as pretty as white or prettier and crinkley hair as straight even though it is harder to comb. The main thing is the YOU beneath the clothes and skin — the ability to do, the will to conquer, the determination to understand and know this great, wonderful, curious world. Don’t shrink from new experiences and custom. Take the cold bath bravely. Enter into the spirit of your big bed-room. Enjoy what is and not pine for what is not. Read some good, heavy, serious books just for discipline: Take yourself in hand and master yourself. Make yourself do unpleasant things, so as to gain the upper hand of your soul.

Above all remember: your father loves you and believes in you and expects you to be a wonderful woman.

I shall write each week and expect a weekly letter from you.

Lovingly yours,

Papa

https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/02/23/w-e-b-du-bois-yolande-letter/?mc_cid=4559a30cf8&mc_eid=4a88406b25

Recent years have seen the proliferation of what I tend to think of as mini-mongraph formats. In their new book on interdisciplinarity, Felicity Callard and Des Fitzgerald offer a really nice account of the promise of these formats:

The Pivot format is produced within a distinctive (rapid) temporal horizon, and offers a particular length (mid-way between the long journal article and the usual scholarly monograph). We, when writing this volume, were interested in exploring what those constraints would do to our modes of argument, to the register of our writing, and to the kinds of material with which we engaged. The book works with, and mixes up, different kinds of ‘data’ and evidence, and employs diverse styles of argument. Our hope is that the volume functions as a provocation that carries a particular tone –one slightly different from the usual ‘voice’ of a peer-reviewed journal article (from whichever discipline), or of a heavily footnoted research monograph.

I share this sense of their promise. But I also worry that such formats are a function of the acceleration of higher education: an attempt to preserve something akin to a monograph when many rarely, if ever, feel able to read a more traditionally sized monograph in full. 

I love this description by Neil Gaiman of his experience of imposter syndrome early in his career, quoted in Presence by Amy Cuddy:

I would have this recurring fantasy in which there would be a knock on the door, and I would go down, and there would be somebody wearing a suit not an expensive suit, just the kind of suit that showed they had a job and they would be holding a clipboard, and they’d have paper on the clipboard, and I’d open the door and they’d say, “Hello, excuse me, I’m afraid I am here on official business. Are you Neil Gaiman?” And I would say yes. “Well, it says here that you are a writer, and that you don’t have to get up in the morning at any particular time, that you just write each day as much as you want.” And I’d go, “That’s right.” “And that you enjoy writing. And it says here that all the books you want they are just sent to you and that you don’t have to buy them. And films: it says here that you just go to see films. If you want to see them you just call up the person who runs the films.” And I say, “Yes, that’s right.” “And that people like what you do and they give you money for just writing things down.” And I’d say yes. And he’d say, “Well, I’m afraid we are on to you. We’ve caught up with you. And I’m afraid you are now going to have to go out and get a proper job.” At which point in my fantasy my heart would always sink, and I’d go, “Okay,” and I’d go and buy a cheap suit and I’d start applying to real jobs. Because once they’ve caught up with you, you can’t argue with this: they’ve caught up with you. So that was the thing in my head.

There’s an interesting discussion of craft in the book about Apple’s lead designer Jony Ive I’m currently reading. It describes his early consultancy career and his deep discomfort with the self-marketing necessary to thrive in this environment, as well as the design compromises that are often required when the whims of a client are paramount. It’s not exactly a deep-thinking book, definitely on the frothier end of the massive pile of business books I’m working my way through at the moment, but it makes an extremely plausible case about Apple actually being an extremely liberating environment for someone like Ive because it freed him from the constraints of consulting. For a select few, working for a tech giant can be liberating – doing things well for their own sake becomes possible – much more so than self-employment and/or mutual ownership of a practice. From page 60 of Jony Ive:

Another factor was undoubtedly that Jony was frustrated with consulting. He had achieved what many designers dream of: a successful practice with a lot of freedom. But consulting also restricted his ability to truly make an effect. ‘Working outside a company made it difficult to have a profound impact on product plans and to truly innovate,’ he said. 53 In most cases, by the time his commissions had been accepted, many of the critical decisions had already been made internally. Jony had come to believe that to do something fundamentally new required dramatic change from within an organization. ‘While I had never thought that I could work successfully as part of a corporation – I always assumed that I would work independently – at the end of this big programme of work for Apple, I decided to accept a full- time position there and to move to California.’

I just came across this series of videos in which Aesop Rock explains the backstory to his album Skelethon. I’m struck by the thought that there’s no piece of creative work I care about that wouldn’t leave me interested to hear such a story about it. Particularly when it has this degree of granularity, offering an account of the work as a whole through stories about its component parts.

On a slightly mundane level, it gives context to the things I get stuck in my mind. As with this lyric from Crows 1, which I’ve had reveberating around my brain for the last few days for reasons I didn’t completely understand:

Now let me slow this whole shit down for all you half-goat cowards
I’ll even grit my teeth for you
I am so completely off the god-damn grid it’s not a question of addressing me
It’s “what do these symbols under the dresser mean

http://genius.com/Aesop-rock-crows-1-lyrics

I still don’t completely understand the lyrics. But the account in the video has deepened my appreciation of them in a way I find interesting. It’s given them depth through providing a context that was lacking. I understand what Crows 1 is about as a whole and this fleshes out the song in a way which enhances rather than detracts from the resonance which has continually drawn my attention back to the lyrics in recent days.

I know the Zotero connector did something similar but I can’t get over how neatly this works in ReadCube. The pop up bar at the bottom appears whenever you open a PDF on the website of a participating publisher. To do my current literature review, I’m going through this process on my laptop and then when I open Readcube on my iPad, they’re all immediately synced with full bibliographical details and ready to read away from my laptop. The software has many other virtues but this is the first time I’ve ever experienced finding academic literature to be as seamless a process as writing a blog post or scheduling a tweet is for me. I hadn’t realised quite how much of a hassle I’d subliminally come to regard as being an unavoidable part of finding, reading and filing journal articles.

Screen Shot 2015-04-19 at 14.20.27

This looks really interesting. If I had less on in June, I’d be tempted to submit a paper for this in order to try and develop some of my thoughts on design fiction and sociological writing:

Biography and/as Experimental Fiction

5 June 2015
Goldsmiths, University of London
Richard Hoggart Building, Room 137

This one-day conference deals with intersections of biography and/as experimental fiction in the 20th and 21st centuries. While for scientists an experiment is a common way of proving or disproving a hypothesis and thus of arriving at certainties, fiction writers have long been demonstrating that literary experiments tend to have the opposite effect: they open up alternative and multiple ways of reading and pose new epistemological challenges. Similar experimental tendencies can be identified in 20th and 21st century biography, which has seen a proliferation in narratives that disrupt conventional generic expectations and question, or even satirize, traditional modes of representation, often overtly crossing over into the domain of fiction as they tell a historical character’s story. From Woolf’s and Stein’s modernist experiments in biography to Amia Lieblich’s Conversations with Dvora written as imaginary dialogue, from A.J.A. Symons’s meta-biographical Quest for Corvo to Manuel Vázquez Montalbán’s self-searching Autobiografía del general Franco and Janice Galloway’s typographically conspicuous biofiction of Clara Wieck Schumann, writers have extended the range of the biographical through formal innovations commonly associated with the fictional mode. If experimentation has been a staple diet of fiction writers and a defining criterion of much canonical fiction for centuries, the “battle for ‘experimental’ biography”, Carole Angier argues, “has to be fought anew in every generation” as positivist Victorian values prevail to this day (The Arvon Book of Life Writing 58).

This conference will look at narratives about historical characters that constitute innovative explorations of biography’s formal possibilities in their respective cultural and historical contexts. We welcome papers that explore the insights generated by such texts, consider what is gained by specific biographical-fictional experiments and where – as experiments are sometimes prone to – they fail or fall short.

Organisers:
Dr. Julia Lajta-Novak, University of Salzburg
Prof. Lucia Boldrini, Goldsmiths, University of London

Keynote speakers:
Janice Galloway
(Scottish novelist, librettist, poet, author of short fiction)
Prof. Max Saunders
(Director of the Centre for Life-Writing Research, King’s College London)

Please email your abstract (250 words) + brief CV and academic affiliation to Julia.Lajta-Novak@sbg.ac.at by 13 April 2015.

Delegates will be informed whether their paper has been included in the programme by 16 April 2015.

We plan to publish selected papers from the conference.

Attendance will be free of charge. Light refreshments will be provided.
Programme, travel and registration information will be published at
http://www.gold.ac.uk/ecl/events/biography-and-as-experimental-fiction/.

For the last couple of days, I was in Edinburgh taking part in Time Without Time. It was a great event and I’ll probably blog more about it next week. The second day was very different from the usual academic events I go to. This picture probably conveys how this is so:

Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 10.55.12

The experience left me thinking about ‘creativity’ in the broadest sense. These are the two thoughts I’m playing with:

  1. Creativity can usefully be understood as incorporating an apophatic dimension: involving “removing obstacles (mainly thinking, decision-making processes) which prevent the spontaneous emergence” of novelty.
  2. Creativity relies on non-linearity even if the process of creation itself might incorporate some linear elements.

With the exception of the Digital Sociology conference in New York last month, I can’t remember ever having come away from an event so full of ideas. Hence my desire to understand why spending the day (literally) playing has had this effect.

The idea that a part 2 to yesterday’s post would be less rushed seems rather naive in retrospect. Feeling rushed in the morning is different to feeling rushed in the evening but it is nonetheless feeling rushed. Much of my motivation for the Accelerated Academy project comes from a desire to understand this aspect of my daily experience in a sociological way. It’s not quite linking ‘personal troubles’ to ‘public issues’ however because I’m aware that I like speed. Much like the experience of rushing reflects something more than my own psychology, so too do the pleasures which can be taken in acceleration. Here are some suggestions about what they are:

  1. Time-pressure can be a symbol of status and flaunting it can represent one of the few socially acceptable forms of conspicuous self-aggrandisement available.
  2. Time-pressure can reduce the time available for reflexivity, ‘blotting out’ difficult questions in a way analogous to drink and drugs.
  3. Time-pressure can facilitate a unique kind of focus in the face of a multiplicity of distractions. If we accept that priorities are invested with normative significance (i.e. they matter to us in direct and indirect ways) then prioritisation can be pleasurable. This can take the form of people who rely on deadlines to ensure things get done. More prosaically, it can undercut procrastination by leaving one with finite temporal resources to utilise for non-negotiable obligations.
  4. Time-pressure can leave us feeling that we are living life most fully. If the good life is now seen as the full life then living fast feels like living fully.

I think this conveys the feeling I’m trying to conceptualise more effectively than I can using the abstract words which are the only tools too many years of higher education have equipped me with:

It’s a feeling that provokes ambivalence but does so in a way that can be thrilling. C Wright Mills once wrote that “My plans have always exceeded my capacities and energies”. This is a sentiment that resonates with me in the sense that it describes my own experience. But I think there’s more to it than that. There’s some latent moral force to this resonance, as if part of me thinks that a life of which this was not true would be in some sense a life wasted. I’m not sure if I believe this reflectively but something in me endorses it nonetheless. Part of me believes that a failure of one’s plans to exceed one’s energies would point to a failure of imagination, an inability to keep pace with the possibilities for creative activity afforded by digital capitalism.

I find myself fantasising about working on one thing at a time. If I play the game, mark myself out in the right way then I could win funding and immerse myself in one project. But I’m not sure I really want this. I may think that I do but all the evidence I have suggests that at the first sign of frustration or boredom, I would seek out new distractions to which I could commit myself, justifying this as structured procrastination – perhaps we are veering into individual psychopathology after all… more to the point though, even if I did this and committed myself to it, would it be possible any longer? The schemes I’d be applying to demand impact strategies which presumably have to be put into practice. There is monitoring and assessment, consultation with mentors and demonstration of progress. The Rortyean image of unstructured immersion in creative work reveals itself once more to be a fantasy, at least under present circumstances.

The further problem is that, as Ana Canhoto pointed out in a comment on part one, Rorty’s image of slow academia is still the one held by many non-academics. Friends, family, partners fail to understand the relentless pressure to do more, ascribing situational demands to individual pathology (and perhaps this leads to a tendency for all three groups to be composed heavily of other academics). The three most desirable jobs in Britain are author, librarian and academic. It would be interesting to know how much respondents to this Yougov survey know about the conditions of working life faced by authors, librarians and academics. Perhaps authors are free – if social media is my most practical escape hatch then being a writer is my most desirable one – in the way that only the truly precarious can be, with it becoming effectively infeasible to live full time as a (non-superstar) author, all the more so if one has dependants. Is it a desirable freedom?

In many ways, I’m probably as free as I’m going to get right now. The problem is that embracing that would mean stasis. It would mean wanting to hold things in their current place. It would mean foregoing the pleasures of acceleration. It would mean, crucially, investing myself in circumstances that are by their nature transitory. This is the dilemma of acceleration: any resting place we find, any point of respite from speed, by its very nature cannot be assumed to be anything other than temporary. The stable career trajectories, as well as their associated life narratives, which Richard Sennett announced the end of in the early 90s involved a different temporality: a slow and steady movement through life (and the firm). Could acceleration be something that we seized upon as an alternative? Defining ourselves through perpetual motion, identifying with going somewhere even when the ‘somewhere’ perpetually shifted?

In part 3, I’ll talk about social media and craft, given that this is what my talk was originally intended to be about.

A note to self as much as a post for other people:

  • Through Design Fiction (e.g. Zero Hours)
  • Through Social Fiction (e.g. Low Fat Love)
  • Through Visual Journalism (e.g. Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt)
  • Through Visual Biography (e.g. Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City)
  • Through Graphic Novels (I lack examples of this – I’m also aware the distinction between ‘graphic novels’ and ‘visual biography’ and ‘visual journalism’ may be so fine grained as to be pretty meaningless)
  • Through Photography ( e.g. Art Sexual)
  • Through Philosophical Biography (e.g. Wittgenstein, The Courtier’s Heretic)
  • Through Creative Non-Fiction (e.g. Zeitoun, Venkatesh’s work)
  • Through Film (e.g. Rufus Stone)
  • Through Theater (e.g. the Fabulous Ruins of Detroit) [thanks Helen!]
  • Through Video Games (e.g. Celiac Sam)
  • Through Buzzfeed Style Lists (e.g. this)
  • Through Walking Tours (e.g. the superb tour of Manhattan given by an urban sociologist at the 2015 Eastern Sociological Society conference)
  • Through Podcasted Dialogues (e.g. the Promise of Sociology in 2015)
  • Through Filmed Dialogues (e.g. British Sociology since 1945 or this dialogue between Carol Smart and Jeffrey Weeks)
  • Through Stand Alone Prezis & Slideshare (e.g. I’ve never given this as a talk in person or intended to)

I’ll expand this properly at a later date when I have more time. Any further examples much appreciated though!

That’s the challenge I’ve set myself for the next three months. The remaining sections of Social Media for Academics exist in embryonic form within this wallet. Each of the cards has an idea or theme written on it, functioning as a prompt for what I’m guessing will be 300-1000 words of writing. As well as pulling together the near finished chapters in order to send them off to my editor, I’ll be aiming to do 1000+ words per day from these cards. The wallet will be going with me everywhere I go (in the next month: Manchester, New York, Dubrovnik, Oxford, London x 2, Edinburgh, Manchester) to ensure that I get plenty of writing done while I’m travelling. I don’t normally travel this much and I was concerned it would break my writing rhythm. Whereas now I’m confident I’ll actually get a lot done. There’s going to be a weird combination of structure & minimalism in how I’ll be writing (a wallet & an iPad with no laptop in sight) that I’m actually quite looking forward to.

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As I wrote earlier this week, I’m really taken with my Artefact Cards. I’ve only had them for a week and I’m already convinced they’ll be a permanent part of my writing life. There’s a subtle permanence to the cards which lends a really useful sense of fixity to the ideas inscribed upon them. It really does feel like the rest of my book is contained in this wallet.