“Winks upon winks upon winks”

“Once human behavior is seen as…symbolic action—action which, like phonation in speech, pigment in painting, line in writing, or sonance in music…– the question as to whether culture is patterned conduct or a frame of mind, or even the two somehow mixed together loses sense…The thing to ask is what their import is…” (Geertz, “Thick Description,” 1973, 10)

As I read Geertz’ work on “thick description,” our discussions regarding history and historiography shadowed my thoughts. It seemed a natural extension of materials related to cultural historiography and I found myself trying to find a clearer connection between the essay and my perspective on historical methods.  With that aim in mind, I found two points from Geertz’ essay particularly compelling as a basis for developing a sensibility about historical methodology that could prove to be more nuanced in relation to the issue of culture.

First was the idea that it is necessary to look at actual behavior—events—rather than “abstracted entities” made to fit into “unified patterns” when considering a cultural system (Geertz, “Thick Description” 1973, 17). This practice can help to avoid many of the pitfalls of ‘thin description’, as well as of the abstracted analysis that attempts to fit behaviors into a(n) (over)generalized understanding of culture.

The second concept that I found particularly compelling was the idea that cultural coherence as a basis for ethnography or anthropology (and, I think, for historiography as well) is overrated (Geertz, TD, 17-18). First of all, Geertz says that an element of systems (including cultural ones) is coherence.  Geertz’ contention that coherence is overrated (“…there is nothing so coherent as a paranoid’s delusion or a swindler’s story,” p. 18) appears meant to emphasize important elements the nature of the act of interpretation itself.

His position seems to be that interpretation is a natural part of constructing understandings of culture and that the quality of the interpretation can allow the basis for the interpretation to shine through, or be further obscured allowing cultural significances to remain obscured (18).  Coherence, while a seemingly logical and appealing means of interpreting culture, may distort interpretations of culture.  Such a reliance on coherence may be another way of confusing ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ descriptions in a manner similar to Geertz’ thought that one might confuse “knowing how to wink as winking” (12).

An Unexpected Network

Following my critical analysis of Weinberger’s use of the term ‘expert’ in my last post, I now consider his discussion on the fluidity and interactivity of the internet. I find these concepts making a deep impression on me though leading to more mixed conclusions about the nature of books versus the internet than those of Weinberger. The most fascinating part of his discussion begins with his introduction of historian of books, Robert Darnton, who expresses frustration at trying to convey history through the long-form arguments of books and who seeks a nuanced way to hybridize books and digital networks.

Darnton’s statement that books make it difficult “to communicate the fathomlessness of the archives and the bottomlessness of the past,” is a perfect example of the lack of fluidity, of interactivity, and of the possibility of expanding discussions beyond the boundaries of books that Weinberger wishes to investigate in his exploration of the internet (Weinberger 2011, 95). Darnton’s desire to “show how themes criss-cross outside my narrative and extend far beyond boundaries of my book” seems to lead effortlessly to the notion that the internet can solve these difficulties and open up the limitations that books may hold (95). It is possible however, that both Darnton and Weinberger generalize about the nature of books. Are books of poetry and mathematics linear and leading? And alternatively, aren’t many oral narratives linear?

I was intrigued by Darnton’s use of a pyramid metaphor to show how books could be restructured to include some of the positive ‘capabilities’ of the internet (95). His discussion of the pyramid reminded me of discussions in my Comparative Law class regarding the differences between, on the one hand, civil and common law, and on the other, Talmudic law. This discussion led me to remember a very old system that I believe encompasses the positive fluidity and interactivity associated with the internet, yet also makes great use of the bound book.

The use of the pyramid was diametrically opposed in the civil/common and Talmudic strands of legal thought. Civil and common law included absolutes at the base of the pyramid, with few refinements or adjustments, which developed as the pyramid narrowed toward the closed/bounded top. Talmudic law used/uses an inverted pyramid—actually similar, but upside-down—to the one that Darnton describes as a way to structure a book “in layers” in order to open up its possibilities (95).

In the Talmudic pyramid, the bottom was the ‘word’ (of God). It rested on the narrowest part of the pyramid, its pointed tip. Again paralleling Darnton, occurring at the next wider level were clarifications of the torah’s arguments. The top and widest levels of the pyramid would, like Darnton’s widest layer, consider and discuss previous scholarship. This layer was never considered bounded in Talmudic scholarship. A predominant Talmudic ideal is that all discussion related to the ‘word’ is part of the very nature of it and necessary to its understanding. Talmudic discussion, therefore, is intended to be inclusive of differing perspectives and is certainly not consensus building in the strictest sense.

The Talmud then, seems to be an early example of networked knowledge that hybridizes the book with the open discussion ‘capabilities’ of the internet (although men were the only accepted contributors traditionally). As time went on, many of what became considered the most important contributions (through open dialogues where expertise was considered largely through quality of one’s participation—or ‘attempt’ in Latin) were set down in a newly bound volume, but the idea that the discussion was/is never complete remains inherent within Talmudic study.

This circles back to a vital point made by Weinberger. Just because the internet can afford the “possibility of connecting across boundaries, forming expert networks that are smarter than their smartest participants,” doesn’t mean that the possibilities will come to fruition (91). As he says, we must “…want to be smarter” (91). Perhaps my dilemma regarding the internet is less about what it can offer than about what society appears to ask from it.


On Expertise

exquisite corpseExample of Exquisite Corpse
The Online Oxford English Dictionary defines expertise as: “Expert skill or knowledge in a particular field: ‘technical expertise’. An expert, accordingly is, “A person who is very knowledgeable about or skilful in a particular area.” The origin of the word originally flows from the past participle of the Latin verb meaning to “try.”

David Weinberger spends much time in the early chapters of his book, Too Big To Know, speaking about changes in expertise coming from ‘networks of knowledge’ created by the internet. While he makes a compelling case for some positive outcomes of the internet’s ability to connections of crowds, long-term accumulation of information, diversity of participants, clusters of individuals, and ability to utilize networks at various levels of scale, I question whether his use of the term expertise is accurate, useful, or meaningful. The idea suggested by the Latin origin of ‘expert’ as one who tries does seem to incorporate two important points made by Weinberger. First, that it is the “quality of one’s participation,” rather than one’s rank that makes someone an expert via digital networks. Second, like Weinberger’s example of the individual who discovered a means of dealing with the Exxon Valdez spill even though oil was not his area of knowledge, his creative attempt/try developed the means to actually deal with the problem—that is, to guide action.

However, regardless of their worth, the types of instances that Weinberger presents as examples of expertise strike me as lacking something key. They seem to present positive support for the idea that groups that are open to creativity and to interdisciplinarity allow for dynamic moments of analogizing from a discipline or thought that exists outside of the question at hand. However, this is clearly not the same as having a deep understanding of a particular discipline. Why is distinguishing between expertise, creativity, and interdisciplinarity important, particularly within the study of history?
Consider the introduction to Tosh’s Chapter Five, “Using the sources,” in The Pursuit of History. Tosh states that there is a difference between the “source critic” and the “historian.” This difference sheds light on the difference between an internet expert and a more traditional type of expert and the reasons that I believe internet expertise is overrated. The source critic looks very closely at the source materials, and while the historian starts out at the same level, he or she goes beyond this to contextualize the materials within a particular era related to the materials. Historians, qua experts, must be able to analyze what is in a record, what is left out, and also, often, to uncover assumptions behind the material.

It seems to me that while there is multi-directional responsiveness via digital networking, most of it is completely decontextualized, therefore, is very superficial, as well as hardly what one could call expertise. Instead, it appears to resemble the Surrealist process, exquisite corpse.
“Exquisite corpse, also known as exquisite cadaver (from the original French term cadavre exquis) or rotating corpse, is a method by which a collection of words or images is collectively assembled. Each collaborator adds to a composition in sequence, either by following a rule (e.g. “The adjective noun adverb verb the adjective noun,” as in “The green duck sweetly sang the dreadful dirge”) or by being allowed to see only the end of what the previous person contributed” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exquisite_corpse ).

While these collaborations could be quite fascinating, they lacked a certain deliberateness that an expert, such as a contextualizing historian could provide. What Weinberger’s first four chapters make me hope is that the inclusiveness of networks—the fact that they base inclusion on quality of participation—outweighs the lack of contextualized knowledge about an issue. Additionally, while this inclusiveness can lead to lively interactions, it also removes all parameters constituting a group…not always a good thing. There may be times when studying Heidegger with anyone who wants to say anything about it may be like trying to lull a baby to sleep at a bar. There are reasons, after all, why different rooms in the world have different uses—sometimes we don’t all fit in one.