In today's Academic Minute, Scott Hanson-Easey, a public health researcher at Australia’s University of Adelaide, discusses his research on how subtly racist language permeates the media. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.
It's taken a while, but we’ve made a little progress on the mathesis universalis that Leibniz envisioned 300 or so years ago – a mathematical language describing the world so perfectly that any question could be answered by performing the appropriate calculations.
Aware that the computations would be demanding, Leibniz also had in mind a machine to do them rapidly. On that score things are very much farther along than he could ever have imagined. And while the mathesis universalis itself seems destined to remain only the most beautiful dream of rationalist philosophy, there’s no question that Leibniz would appreciate the incredible power to store and retrieve information that we’ve come to take for granted. (Besides being a polymathic genius, he was a librarian.)
Johanna Drucker’s Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production, published by Harvard University Press, focuses in part on the capacity of maps, charts, diagrams, and other modes of display to encode and organize information. But only in part: while Drucker’s claims for the power of visual language are less extravagantly ambitious than Leibniz’s for mathematical symbols, it is a matter of degree and not of kind. (The author is professor of bibliographical studies at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies of the University of California at Los Angeles.)
“The complexity of visual means of knowledge production,” she writes, “is matched by the sophistication of our cognitive processing. Visual knowledge is as dependent on lived, embodied, specific knowledge as any other field of human endeavor, and integrates other sense data as part of cognition. Not only do we process complex representations, but we are imbued with cultural training that allows us to understand them as knowledge, communicated and consensual, in spite of the fact that we have no ‘language’ of graphics or rules governing their use.”
Forget the old saw about a picture being worth a thousand words. Drucker’s claim is not about pictorial imagery, as such. A drawing or painting may communicate information about how a person or place looks, but the forms she has in mind (bar graphs, for example, or Venn diagrams) perform a more complex operation. They convert information into something visually apprehended.
We learn to understand and use these visual forms so readily that they seem almost self-evident. Some people know how to read a map better than others -- but all of us can at least recognize one when we see it. Likewise with tables, graphs, calendars, and family trees. In each case we intuitively understand how the data are organized, if not what they mean.
But the pages of Graphesis teem with color reproductions of 5,000 years’ worth of various modes of visually rendered knowledge – showing how they have emerged and developed over time, growing familiar but also defining or reinforcing ways to apprehend information.
A good example is the mode of plotting information on a grid. Drucker reproduces a chart of planetary movements in that form from 10th-century edition of Macrobius. But the idea didn’t catch on: “The idea of graphical plotting either did not occur, or required too much of an abstraction to conceptualize.” The necessary leap came only in the early 17th century, when Descartes reinvented the grid in developing analytical geometry. His mathematical tool “combined with intensifying interest in empirical measurements,” writes Drucker, “but they were only slowly brought together into graphic form. Instruments adequate for gathering ‘data’ in repeatable metrics came into play … but the intellectual means for putting such information into statistical graphs only appeared in fits and starts.”
And in the 1780s, a political economist invented a variation on the form by depicting the quantity of various exports and imports of Scotland as bars on a graph – an arresting presentation, in that it shows one product being almost twice as heavily traded as any other. (The print is too small for me to determine what it was.) The advantages of the bar graph in rendering information to striking effect seem obvious, but it, too, was slow to enter common use.
“We can easily overlook the leap necessary to abstract data and then give form to its complexities,” writes Drucker. And once the leap is made, it becomes almost impossible to conceive such data without the familiar visual tools.
If the author ever defines her title term, I failed to mark the passage, but graphesis would presumably entail a comprehensive understanding of the available and potential means to record and synthesize knowledge, of whatever kind, in visual form. Drucker method is in large measure inductive: She examines a range of methods of presenting information to the eye and determines how the elements embed logical concepts into images.
While art history and film studies (especially work on editing and montage) are relevant to some degree, Drucker’s project is very much one of exploration and invention. Leibniz’s mathesis was totalizing and deductive; once established, his mathematical language would give final and definitive answers. By contrast, graphesis would entail the regular creation of new visual tools in keeping with the appearance of new kinds of knowledge, and new media for transmitting it.
“The ability to think in and with the tools of computational and digital environments,” the author warns, “will only evolve as quickly as our ability to articulate the metalanguages of our engagement.”
That passage, which is typical, is some indication of why Graphesis will cull its audience pretty quickly. Some readers will want to join her effort; many more will have some difficulty in imagining quite what it is. Deepening the project's fascination, for those drawn to it, is Drucker's recognition of an issue so new that it still requires a name: What happens to the structuring of knowledge when maps, charts, etc. appear not just on a screen, but one responsive to touch? The difficulties that Graphesis presents are only incidentally matters of diction; the issues themselves are difficult. I suspect Graphesis may prove to be an important book, for reasons we'll fully understand only somewhere down the line.
As campus efforts to support boycotts of Israel universities intensify this year — and everyone expects them to in the wake of events in Gaza, the most challenging and controversial question about the movement that sponsors the boycott agenda looms over all of us: Are there anti-Semitic dimensions to the Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment (BDS) movement?
BDS advocates have long countered the anti-Semitic label by protesting that critics of Israeli government policy do not deserve accusations that they are anti-Semitic. In fact BDS opponents themselves often reject the claim that every critic of Israel, or even every supporter of BDS, is anti-Semitic. Israelis themselves are relentless critics of the government in power, and many of the Jewish state’s strong supporters there and abroad condemn the occupation of the West Bank and urge curtailment of settlement construction or withdrawal from most existing settlements. BDS assertions that they are condemned simply because they are policy critics distract us from the more complex and troubling ways that the movement enhances anti-Semitic aims.
Ever since Lawrence Summers asserted that the divestment movement proposals were “anti-Semitic in their effect, if not in their intent,” we have had a model to use in examining the prejudicial implications of BDS in a more thoughtful way. That does not mean that every divestment proposal is anti-Semitic, but it does help us see why people who advocate the elimination of Israel as a Jewish state are promoting a goal that has anti-Semitic effects.
Arguments that Jews have no ancient connection to the land, that Israelites and Hebrews never existed — positions that some academic BDS advocates promote — also have an anti-Semitic component. The demand that the citizens of Israel give up their right to political self-determination and the unsupportable assertion that the Israeli government is an exceptionally egregious human rights violator are also consciously or unconsciously underwritten by the long-term history of anti-Semitism and the history of efforts to isolate and “other” the Jewish people.
I realize that people will dispute these conclusions, but they nonetheless offer examples of a more serious basis for debating the issue I am urging all of us to address. Doing so also requires that we confront the policies vigorously promoted by virtually all of the BDS movement’s major spokespeople, whether or not the movement officially endorses them. These include advocacy by Omar Barghouti and others of a one-state “solution” encompassing Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank in which Jews would become a minority. That demand is typically accompanied by the call for the Palestinian diaspora’s “right of return” to this new state, a plan that would further marginalize the Jewish population. Both positions are put forward in Barghouti’s Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, Judith Butler’s Parting Ways, and other books.
The confidence with which some BDS advocates assure us Jews could live peacefully and safely and have full religious freedom in an Arab-dominated state is so contradicted by regional history, culture, and politics that one has to consider the possibility that they really do not care about the fate of Israeli Jews. Naivety alone does not seem to account for so thorough a denial of reality. The real perils Jews could face in an Arab-dominated state undercut the rather pious claims about the movement’s dedication to nonviolence that are part of its founding principles. Once again, highly likely violent effects call into question the status of nonviolent intent. Equally worrisome are those BDS supporters who ally themselveswithHamas, despite the organization’s ferociously anti-Semitic and genocidal charter. One might well wonder why those in the West who would ordinarily oppose a group that vilifies gays — and has an appalling view of women — would overlook these facts because of Hamas’s stance toward Israeli Jews.
While the BDS movement undoubtedly gathers some conscious anti-Semites into its fold, the way in which it more broadly assigns the traditional pariah status of Jews to the Israeli state is equally troubling. Debates about BDS resolutions and petitions often invoke the standard tropes anti-Semitism has deployed, notably that BDS opponents are organized and funded by an international Jewish lobby, an accusation that surfaced during the Modern Language discussion of its 2014 resolution condemning Israeli visa policies. That both NGOs and foreign governments fund BDS activity is rarely mentioned.
Talking about such matters can also lead people to ask themselves whether their hostility to Israel is a vehicle for unconscious resentment toward Jews. Only individual self-reflection, not academic debate, can answer that question. Certainly when BDS advocates spread anti-Jewish stereotypes and myths they owe it to themselves to examine their hearts more rigorously. The fact that a number of Jewish academics support the BDS movement does not absolve anyone of the possibility they harbor an anti-Semitic bias, though the BDS movement likes to say it does.
Helen Fein’s 1987 definition (in The Persisting Question) of anti-Semitism as “a persisting latent structure of hostile beliefs towards Jews as a collectivity” is a good place to begin in thinking about the role of anti-Semitism in BDS passion. Indeed it is not unreasonable to feel that such psychological motives underlie the exceptional level of hostility displayed in some BDS forums, among the most extreme being the Electronic Intifada and Mondoweiss websites. Moreover, there are statements that have anti-Semitic content and anti-Semitic effects — that can be adopted and used by willing anti-Semites — no matter what their original authors think they intended. Such inherent hostility does need to be examined in the academy.
That hostility is often focused on the most demonized term in the BDS lexicon: Zionism. The historical movement and the concept have had many definitions over the years, though in the current political climate simply believing that a Jewish state has a historically, internationally, and morally justified right to exist in Palestine is enough to win disapproval of your Zionist identity. It often doesn’t help if you want Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories. You are still a blind Zionist ideologue.
Absolute opposition to Israel’s existence increases anti-Semitism’s cultural and political reach and impact. Indeed, if anti-Semitism is a fundamental condition of possibility for unqualified opposition to the Jewish state, then anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism’s moral salvation, its perfect disguise, its route to legitimation.
There is a disturbing bait-and-switch element to BDS’s recruitment strategies. The movement recruits students with a call for justice for Palestinians — justice that a two-state solution could provide — then draws them into one-state advocacy, a goal with devastating consequences for Israeli Jews. It justifies its one-state advocacy by demonizing the State of Israel with hyperbolic and irrational accusations.
Meanwhile, the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere puts the lie to the confidence that Jews do not need a homeland whose future and right to self-defense they control. Indeed it strengthens the opposite argument.
The same bait-and-switch effect attaches to the risk that recruiting anti-Zionists, while giving them collective support and making them more fervid, will turn them into anti-Semites. Beginning with the 2006 Journal of Conflict Resolution essay “Anti-Israel Sentiment Predicts Anti-Semitism in Europe” by Edward Kaplan and Charles Small and continuing through to Alvin Rosenfeld’s 2013 collection Resurgent Antisemitism, research has suggested that the more extreme one’s position on Israel, the more likely one is to harbor classic anti-Semitic beliefs. And those who want to abolish the Jewish state show higher rates of belief in Jewish conspiracies and other anti-Semitic delusions. All these patterns intersect uncomfortably with the BDS movement.
There are two peoples in Palestine who deserve justice and deserve homelands. Demonizing one of them, as BDS does, will not promote peace and not lead to a Palestinian state. Rage and hatred may be personally gratifying to some, but they get in the way of a political solution. Indeed they can block the willingness to compromise that is fundamental to any negotiating process. This suggests that anti-Semitism has consequences that those unconsciously succumbing to its influence need to confront. For anti-Semitism tragically offers nothing tangible to the very Palestinians BDS claims to champion.
Cary Nelson is a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the co-editor, with Gabriel Noah Brahm, of The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel, scheduled for October distribution by Wayne State University Press.
In today's Academic Minute, Ole Hertel, an air pollution specialist and professor at Aarhus University, discusses his research on air quality. Learn more about the Academic Minute here. And if you missed Monday's Academic Minute because of the Labor Day holiday, on the effect of vocal fry in the workplace you can find it here.
The philosophy department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has voted no confidence in Chancellor Phyllis Wise and other university leaders, The News-Gazette reported. The vote is based on the recent decision by Wise to block the appointment of Steven Salaita to a position in the American Indian studies program. The resolution states that "the recent words and actions of Chancellor Phyllis Wise, President Robert Easter, and the Board of Trustees in connection with the revocation of an offer of employment to Dr. Steven Salaita betray a culpable disregard not only for academic freedom and free speech generally but also for the principles of shared governance and established protocols for hiring, tenure, and promotion."
Depending on the geographic locus, the beginning of the semester is upon us and we have begun to do real work, finishing the musical chairs game of finding seats for students in the classes they need or a match with an instructor that they can live with for 50 minutes three times a week.
In my English composition classes we are now at work on the narrative and in order to not just talk about English 1101 being a workshop or activity class, my students and I took 25 minutes out for what is commonly called "in-class" writing.
When I say "we" I mean that my students and I write at the same time. This is by no means a radical or new pedagogical tactic, though for some reason most colleagues I have had over the years do not write with their students.
I write with my students because I want to feel what 25 minutes really feels like when one has been told to keep the pen or pencil going. Of course my 25 minutes might be very different from my students' 25 minutes, and that 25 minutes might differ as it relates to the writing experience from student to student.
I could not help but get philosophical, and maybe even a little nostalgic, about in-class writing this fall, the beginning of my 22nd year of full-time teaching at the college level.
My mind began to survey as I heard tables in the class creak -- most likely wood laminate surfaces, and these tables were good, tall tables where three students could sit, a far cry from the desks of my own school days and also most of my teaching career, which were uncomfortable and represented a strange continuance from secondary education. Come to think of it, and I did of course do so during this in-class writing session, most students would have a difficult time fitting into the "retro" desks; perhaps that is one reason they are no longer widely used.
Fortunately some things remain the same, such as students contorting their necks a certain way as they write, some with faces just above the erasure marks they make on notebook paper, while others have their own light imprint and yet others boldly press onto papers so that a felt tip pen would be short-lived prey in their hands. Thank God for cheap ink pens that are strangely resilient in the hands of some.
As I wrote this year I could feel my right hand hurt; I have begun to feel that very quickly these past three years or so, to be honest. It would be lovely to say that this is from all my years of hard manual labor of the mind and hand-writing. The truth lies in my orthopedic surgeon's diagnosis, "You're just like a car with a lot of miles on it."
I think most of my students will be spared, are already spared the experience of involving the whole hand, arm, shoulder, in the manual labor of writing. They are thumb writers, more advanced than I am when it comes to producing electronic texts. I use one finger to type out texts, more advanced than many of my middle-aged peers if I may say so proudly and slightly in illusion and defense of being youthful still. My students are athletic writers made for our times, I have for the first time not only come to accept but also to observe with some admiration.
In my introduction to writing I somehow spontaneously said, "You can probably write an essay with two thumbs on your smartphone," and this remark was very well-received by my students, friendly smiles and eyes lighting up in a positive way. I must have hit a nerve. And as my students were making the desks creak before me, some even wearing earphones because I had encouraged them to wear them to be in their own world as long as they kept them turned down enough so that no one else could hear them, I thought, I should experiment this semester and have students write their one timed, in-class essay on their smartphone.
I began to take this enormous pride, almost parental, at the thought of my students brilliantly, or at least with accomplishment, writing an essay with probably better results than they could produce on paper simply by typing on their tiny electronic device, performing a feat I and many others of middle age would consider almost something for the circus.
My free-writing brain then ventured into the territory of students' in-class writing over the last few years. I had one of those eureka moments, or if not that, the time was right for a revelation. Suddenly the answer was before me. I knew now why I had increasingly been receiving neatly printed essays and also anything that I had asked for to be written in class, in letters that were not cursive writing. I had over the years marveled at the students' scriptorium work, as if they were continuing some tradition, like monks illuminating manuscripts.
But the truth is more related to the gradual abandonment of cursive writing and the teaching of cursive writing in public schools.
I observe this not with negativity or in some kind of subdued snarl. Why would students really need cursive writing? Why do so many of us complain that students do not know this "art," and why might we say, "Look at this stack: only one person wrote in cursive"?
No, students have evolved and they have no need to write in cursive, not even during in-class writing. Judging by the amount of words they can produce they have adapted to print faster.
And look at us -- we might employ that ancient, "lost" "art," but really, often that is used to record a thought that might as well have been committed to our idea bank on a smartphone. And when was the last time you wrote an entire essay or article by hand and then transcribed it on the computer? Let's be honest here. Evolution has taken place.
Is there room for cursive writing as we now begin the academic year in the not-so-hallowed halls of academe across America?
Sure, but along with this kind of circus-act writing there is room, even more so, for the two-thumb essay.
Ulf Kirchdorfer is a professor of English at Darton State College.