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  • Mark 10:12 am on June 11, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: craft,   

    Making time to think 

    It occurred to me yesterday that I spend less time thinking than I once did. One of the reasons I wanted to leave The Sociological Review and have a period of (sadly self-funded) underemployment was because I’d felt for a year or two that I was  as cognitively occupied as I’m capable of being. I keep running out of bandwidth and I increasingly dislike it.

    The problem is partly one of how my life has changed in the last five years or so. It used to provide me with endless occasions to think and I’ve failed to realised that I increasingly need to make time for this. There are a number of ways in which I can do this which I’ve been failing to:

    • Not listening to music or a podcast when I’m walking
    • Turning my phone off or putting it in my bag when I travel
    • Sitting in coffees shops with a notebook rather than a phone or iPad.
    • Not listening to podcasting/audiobooks in the bath

    These are small steps but I found it rewarding to think in these terms, with ‘thinking time’ being an accomplishment rather than a generalised feature of my life as a whole which I struggle to exercise an immediate influence over.

  • Mark 2:20 pm on April 2, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , craft, note taking, ,   

    Getting hold of ideas while they are clear: note taking as a creative practice 

    I often come out of meetings feeling that what we’ve been discussing is utterly transparent to me. I feel I hold the issue in my hands, seeing how the initial steps connect to a broader horizon of action. It couldn’t feel more straight forward. However partly for that reason, I never take notes at the time. I often scribble stuff on a whiteboard, piece of paper or notebook file which vaguely captures my sense at the time before coming back to it a week or more later to find that what was lively has now become dead, what was transparent has now become opaque and what was in my grasp now feels alien to me.

    It’s left me obsessing about the discipline involved in a note taking practice. I suspect I’d gain so much from forcing myself to spend twenty minutes quietly writing out long form notes after important meetings, before going on to other things. I’ve had this discipline for thinking for a long time. It varies depending on the time and energy available to me but I’ve trained myself over time to seize on what C Wright Mills called the feel of an idea and force myself to elaborate it while it’s fresh in my mind. The post you’re reading is an example of this. So why do I find it so much more difficult to get myself to do this with ideas which emerge in meetings?

  • Mark 7:51 pm on March 3, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: craft, entanglement, , , Marilyn Strathern, ,   

    The intimacy of writing 

    My notes on Strathern, M., & Latimer, J. (2019). A conversation. The Sociological Review, 67(2), 481–496. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038026119832424

    In this interesting conversation with Marilyn Strathern, who I had the pleasure to meet when Jana Bacevic organised a a masterclass with her at our department, Joanna Latimer explores the act of writing and the influence Strathern’s has had on her own. Joanna explains her experience of how Strathern’s writing “has this kind of extraordinary way of entering into one” such that “your parts become my own, and then I discover I can’t think without your parts”. As Strathern explains, her writing is intensely conversational even if the reader might not be aware of exactly who she is having the conversation with:

    And it may be that this sense of always being in conversation contributes to that. There’s an ethical side to it, and of course when I was doing my work on intellectual property I sort of touched on it, which is that, you know, nothing actually ever sprang from Zeus’s head fully formed. I mean one is in debt, one is incredibly in debt, one is always taking what other people have done, whether one knows it or not. It’s not always that I have a particular person in mind, or I’m writing for people who’ve provided me with the means to do so. Rather, you stand on, stand on the shoulders of giants and all the rest of it. I’m very conscious, that one is just simply turning the soil until the next person comes along. So there’s that aspect. There’s also the intellectual chase that one gets into, getting into somebody’s argument. It does its work, it sparks you off, and you really want to pull it apart or you want to put it back together again or you want to take bits out. There are things that you think you could do otherwise. And so forth. And that’s very often in relation to specific arguments.

    It is writing which seeks to “turn your reader over”, as Joanna puts it, by upending the conventional and the assumed. Marilyn describes her object as “recurrent habits of thought people just get into, time and again”, some of which provoke “real anger, I mean I’m cross”. It left me with a strong sense of the intimacy of writing, almost as vectors of entanglement through which the concerns of the writer spill over their boundaries and into the reader. There’s a really interesting section connected to this about Marilyn’s  preference for the word person over terms like identity or individual. These are bound into an imaginary which needs to be critiqued and other choices create the opportunity to get out from under them: 

    Person is a term that I get from orthodox classical British social anthropology. A person is a social configuration. It’s always a relational construct. It doesn’t have the [vernacular] implications of individuality that identity has. I think that’s where the preference is. […] But because person is slightly unusual in English, after all we do use it, everyone knows what we mean, and there are contexts where we use it on an everyday basis – like ‘a person in their own right’ – but actually we don’t use it as much as we would use the word individual for example, or human being, or whatever. Slightly unusual. And it tends to be in legal language, doesn’t it? Person of no fixed abode. Whereas we’d [ordinarily] say man or woman, or whatever.

    There’s a micro-podcast here in which I respond to Joanna Latimer’s presentation of an early version of this paper at a workshop last year. My talk is at 40 mins:

  • Mark 11:35 am on December 27, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: craft, , , , programs   

    Programming as practice 

    My notes on Yuill, S. (2005) Programming as Practice in J. Gibbons and K. Winwood, eds., Hothaus Papers: perspectives and paradigms in media arts, Birmingham: ARTicle Press.

    What does it mean to program? In this intriguing paper Simon Yuill takes issue with responses to this question which reduce programming to a technical practice, reduced to its relationship to computer technology. He observes that the term derives from the Greek programma: ‘pro’ (coming in advance) and ‘Gramma’ (mark or line) meaning “a set of marks that ‘comes in advance’, anticipates and provides for something”. It’s a “form of mark-making that encodes and guides processes of production” sharing a common form with “architectural plans, music notation and textile patterns” (pg 87). In doing so, they also express aesthetics and new notional systems have been developed in order to facilitate aesthetic innovations. In this sense, if I understand him correctly, there’s an unavoidable relationship between the ‘programmatic practice’ and the cultural activity of which it is part. The notation itself can indicate technical possibilities which feed back into practice, as makers seek to realise a potential indicated by a notation system.

    Programmatic practices record and communicative the assembly process of a cultural item, enabling that process to be “shared and communicated to others” (pg 88). As he puts it, “Where once craftsmen and architects would design directly into the artefacts they were creating, the introduction of programmatic practices enables designs to be produced in one location to be sent elsewhere and realised by other people”. For instance “Ibn Muqlah’s scripts were originally designed to facilitate the creation and use of written documents within the large bureaucratic system of the Abbasid empire” with their modular composition (I didn’t quite understand this: “the forms of letters were encoded according to a modular proportion based on a single dot”) “designed to increase reliability and ease of reproduction” so as to facilitate “transference of designs across distance and their continuation in use over time”. He uses the lovely expression, “the abstraction of design and plan from its realisation in any given medium” to conceptualise the possibilities opened up by this system of notation, including moving designs between media (pg 90).

    The distance this affords and the reflection it encourages enables increasing complexity, though the artefact remains marked by the programmatic system on which it depends. He makes the fascinating observation that this underwrites structural distinctions, as occupational relations within organisations are determined by differing relationships to the programmatic systems e.g. “an architect and a builder, a composer and a performer, a designer and a weaver” (pg 88). This enables practices to spread, facilitating innovations to be communicated and standardised. As a corollary of this certain modes of encoding can come to be marked as legitimate, identifying a practitioner as an insider rather than an outsider or as belonging to a movement with a particular set of commitments. It is a deeply social process, by definition orientated towards others, not least of all because “encoding a process in an externalised exchangeable form” makes it possible for “that process to be inspected, analysed and critically reviewed” (pg 89). It also facilitates a movement “from poesis to praxis, from the immediate task of making to a more critically aware, self-reflexive interrogation of that task” (pg 89)

    I found this article enormously thought-provoking, with its underlying argument being that “programming is not unique to computing” (pg 93) and that we miss the continuities which computer programming share with other forms of art practice if we fail to recognise this. New media facilitate an intensification and acceleration of programming practice, rather than marking a break with pre-existing forms (pg 94). Furthermore, the distinction between creators and users is breaking down due to the immense reactivity of the medium itself: the endless possibility for modification is not new but the ease and speed of modification is. This leaves us, Yuill argues, confronting programming as a site of ongoing production rather than the production of discrete artefacts. He ends by considering the new understandings of creativity and forms of creative practice these affordances might open up, liable to be missed if we remain fixated on the ‘technical’ character of programming. Much as other forms of programmatic practice are embedded in social structures, what is computer programming making possible and which of these possibilities are being realised?

  • Mark 8:47 am on October 23, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: craft, , , , ,   

    The challenge of being ready to think 

    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.


    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.

    • whitestudiolo 7:56 pm on October 23, 2018 Permalink

      I really like this piece! I’m glad that you have shined a clarifying light on creative workflow and managing a digital-analog hybrid in academic practice. Thanks!

      Karen R. White whitestudiolo.com


  • Mark 6:31 pm on May 4, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , craft, , , talks,   

    Preparing to think in order to prepare to speak: from routine to challenge 

    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:


    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.

    • Ben 10:36 am on May 23, 2018 Permalink

      Thanks for drawing my attention to the cards, Mark; I read this and the previous post and found them both interesting, and as someone with quite a serious stationery habit I will probably be buying some cards.

      Have you heard of a software package called Scrivener? It’s specifically designed for developing first drafts of extended pieces of writing, and was recommended to me by a friend who has used it for novels. The concept underlying its interface – very broadly, that you write chunks of text in one part of the interface and these are represented as cards which can be dragged around, shuffled and reordered in another part – seems quite similar to what you have been describing with the Artefact Cards. I have only toyed with it so far, as there is a learning curve and I want to find the right project to use as a means of learning it properly. I also like the physical nature of the cards, and would probably want to use a combination of the two. But I thought you might be interested to hear about the software since it’s a digital form of what you describe in these two posts.

    • Mark 9:52 am on May 30, 2018 Permalink

      I’ve never managed to make it work for me! I find it a bit overpowered for how I write. These days I tend to write in Uylsses and then move into a word processor when it’s time to package things together.

      Good luck with the artefact cards – they’re wonderful things!

  • Mark 5:43 pm on January 14, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , craft, craftsmanship, , ,   

    On intellectual craft  

    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.

    • landzek 6:53 pm on January 14, 2018 Permalink

      I feel like I read that years ago. I always liked that idea that our work lives are not separate from the life we live or whatever he puts it so great.

      I mean because isn’t that the modern way? Segregate activities into bubbles of knowledge that a person actively segregates and avoids conflation?

      It’s kind of funny because I’ve never understood that but I find it in so many of my neighbours and people around me. Lol it’s almost like a skill set that I developed because I have noticed for so long people is resistance to having a life where information from all areas flows in and out depending on the circumstance; I had to develop a certain kind of skill set in order to deal with these people in a manner so they wouldn’t think that I’m annoying or something. Lol.

  • Mark 8:49 am on September 2, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , craft, , , ,   

    Against the notion of ‘craft’: thoughts on the cultural politics of romanticising exploitation 

    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.

    • Martha Bell 10:37 am on September 3, 2016 Permalink

      “I’m still drawn to it as a way to organise my own experience” – I think you should think about this and consider how it is different to habit as in the comfort of doing something with bodily techniques and knowing that connects one to one’s culture and allows one to move/practice/work/circulate within the culture without much thought (Mauss). I have always thought about Dewey when thinking about the value of craft in making meaningful experience and learning – I think he would tie in citizenship to the idea of learning and experience.

    • Mark 3:20 pm on September 3, 2016 Permalink

      I think it’s more active than habit. Though perhaps it’s an activity that presupposes a bedrock of habit to make it possible.

  • Mark 3:14 pm on April 4, 2016 Permalink
    Tags: , craft, interests, , ,   

    How to ‘network’ without chipping away at your soul 

    ‘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.

  • Mark 4:19 pm on March 21, 2016 Permalink
    Tags: , , , craft, , , , , vic seidler   

    The Pleasures of Scholarly Blogging 

    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.

  • Mark 6:21 pm on March 4, 2016 Permalink
    Tags: , craft, , , ,   

    Writing praxes beyond papers and books 

    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.

  • Mark 7:28 am on February 28, 2016 Permalink
    Tags: , , craft, , ,   

    The advice given by W.E.B. Dubois to his teenage daughter 

    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,



  • Mark 11:13 am on February 23, 2016 Permalink
    Tags: , craft, , , ,   

    The Promise of the Pivot Format 

    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. 

  • Mark 10:00 pm on February 9, 2016 Permalink
    Tags: , craft, , , ,   

    The imposter syndrome of the young Neil Gaiman 

    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.

  • Mark 9:38 pm on November 18, 2015 Permalink
    Tags: , craft, , ,   

    tech giants and the possibility of craft 

    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.’

  • Mark 8:35 pm on October 2, 2015 Permalink
    Tags: , craft, , ,   

    the backstory to creative work 

    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


    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.

  • Mark 8:04 pm on April 23, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , craft,   

    Cory Doctorow’s Philosophy of Blogging 

  • Mark 1:25 pm on April 19, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: craft, , , readcube, ,   

    Why you should @readcube to manage your library of papers 

    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

  • Mark 5:19 pm on April 18, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: craft, , experimental fiction, ,   

    Biography and/as Experiment Fiction 

    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.

    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

    • Jordan Dumer 5:55 pm on April 18, 2015 Permalink

      Very cool article. Thanks for sharing! Experimenting is always key for innovation!

  • Mark 11:01 am on March 28, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: craft, ,   

    Creativity as Apophatic 

    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.

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