Tag Archives: postaweek

Review of #frankensteinapp for iOS

The British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies’ Media Reviews site has published my review of Dave Morris’ Frankenstein, an interactive fiction app for iOS. It’s an arch adaptation of prior adaptations, and a teachable text. (I particularly like the subtle nod to Blade Runner, but identifying it here would be a bit of a spoiler.)

Conflicted about the #pdftribute

The research-sharing tribute to Aaron Swartz makes an eloquent statement, but harbours real risks.

On Friday, January 11, Internet activist and innovator Aaron Swartz committed suicide, at age 26. Swartz was behind RSS, DemandProgress, Reddit, and other initiatives and campaigns for the open Internet and Open Access. The US DOJ was pursuing a criminal case against him which the original plaintiffs, JSTOR and MIT, had earlier decided not to prosecute: in 2009, Swartz had exploited MIT systems to collect almost all of JSTOR’s digital archive, nearly 5 million articles. Swartz’s “guerrilla open access manifesto” explained his action as a radical opening of access to knowledge to the public. He was charged with fraud and theft and was facing millions of dollars in fines and up to a half-century in prison. Amidst the eulogies, obituaries, commentaries that followed this tragic turn, a grassroots academic tribute emerged: #pdftribute – a call for academics to share PDFs of their research openly online, using the twitter hashtag to aggregate them. I’ve watched and taken part in the #pdftribute; it’s part homage, part thanks, part protest. In this latter respect, it reminds me of the #TellVicEverything protest against Canadian Safety minister Vic Toews’ online surveillance bill: a protest that takes shape as oversharing.

But while, as I say, I’ve taken part in the #pdftribute, I must admit I’m also conflicted about it – as a scholar of copyright, sure, but mostly as a scholar per se. What is being protested? Who is being honoured? And what are the risks – both of protesting this way, and of not protesting this way?

What is being protested?

The #pdftribute is, in its conception, an eloquent, even poetically just recognition and extension of Swartz’s legacy. To honour the man “pursued” to his untimely death by “prosecutorial overreach” and “an exceptionally harsh array of charges” for seeking to open public access to knowledge, #pdftribute delegates the continuation of that opening-up work to academics: those whose writings had built the particular archive Swartz was prosecuted for opening. The idea is for academics to publicly share pdf articles of research that normally reside behind university libraries’ or publishers’ own paywalls.

The #pdftribute has, in a matter of mere days, put Open Access (#OA) in the public spotlight and given the movement new momentum. But because Swartz’s work, like the criminal case against him, involved so many different interests and institutions, the tribute risks losing the #OA mission, as participants and commentators in the #pdftribute Twitter feed weigh in on other matters, like DOJ procedure, bullying, copyright, abstractions like “freedom” and “truth,” not to mention meta-commentary like this on the tribute itself (as well as the regular quota of spam, of course). That said, the tribute’s complex, diversified character refracts the complex character in honour of whose diversified, progressive work it unfolds. some of these other matters are relevant and worth keeping sight of in the mix here: matters like copyright, dissent, and depression in particular, all in the context of emergent practices of criminalization: the “criminalization of people with disabilities and [the] criminalization of dissent,” as my RA shrewdly notes.

Even very early on, the #pdftribute demonstrated a disjunction between conception and execution. That is, the initial idea was for “academics” to “put their PDFs online in tribute.” Some responses have interpreted this invitation radically: one participant, acknowledging his work’s already OA, daringly suggested that “for real/risky tribute – post all PDFs you have,” meaning not just those academics have written themselves, but everything they’ve got a PDF copy of – for research, teaching, etc. But the Twitter feed shows that the majority of participants are posting links to or otherwise announcing that their work is already OA. That majority includes Yours Truly, for the moment anyway, for reasons I’ll take up below.

Who is being honoured?

I must admit that one of my first reactions to the #pdftribute – despite my own later participation in it – included a momentary rolling of the eye. An invitation to academics to publicize their research in the context of honouring such a major and widely followed Internet activist as Swartz is, inevitably, asking for an avalanche of smug self-aggrandizement, which in its milder forms we see in declarations of existing OA practice, and in its wilder forms makes grandiose or uncritically entitled-sounding claims for truth, freedom, etc.

So there is a risk, despite the recurring evocation of Swartz’s name in the Twitter feed, that Swartz himself could get lost in all the hustle and bustle? Or that related issues like depression get lost or neglected, in what at times amounts to a torrent of self-satisfied armchair slacktivism? (From which I’m not excluding myself.) Among the more extensive and reflective statements that keep Swartz and his work front and centre is Cory Doctorow’s moving and frank eulogy, which balances discussion of his radical, risky work and his personal difficulties, and which foregrounds copyright as the context for making sense of the former. Which brings me to ask:

What are the risks of participating?

As a critical scholar of copyright – but by no means a legal expert – I see a huge risk for academics here, individually and as a class. Publicly sharing publications that aren’t just copyright-protected but also – and more to the point – paywall- or password-protected incurs the real and all-too-present risk of litigation for infringement, or of counseling or being accomplice to infringement. One recent and troubling tweet I read this morning mentioned a professor suggesting that an undergrad class could “liberate” some JSTOR documents. To be frank, I don’t think that’s okay: I have since learned that this comment was made in jest. (Twitter is great for killing context and nuance, no?) Still, few enough professional academics – like the general public – have enough of a grasp on copyright to basics to make an informed decision for themselves whether to post or not – never mind suggesting (maybe even in jest) that students infringe university conduct codes and copyright law. For instance, while recent Canadian Supreme Court decisions and legislation have arguably brought Canadian copyright law’s provisions for “fair deling” much closer to US law’s provisions for “fair use,” there are significant differences in legislative language and in jurisprudence that may provide American participants here with safeguards and protections that cannot be extended to Canadian participants.

The #pdftribute enables the sharing of protected documents on the tacit premise that doing so is not just technically easy and but ethically straightforward. The ease of posting protected work here derives from the illusion of community that the tribute makes such acts appear to belong to. But herein lies the risk: a Twitter feed does not a community make. There is little solidarity and less security in leveraging such an ambivalent social medium for mass copyright infringement. The #pdftribute is not a community – what it is is a massive and growing papertrail. The current political-economic climate of copyright is leading publishers’ intermediaries and some publishers themselves, to act and react in highly unpredictable ways, as Canadian academia has seen over the last two years in the example of Access Copyright. So, when it comes to a bustling and openly aggregated action like #pdftribute, I can only assume that some copyright troll out there – or a horde of such trolls – is already taking names and starting to churn out reams of cease and desist notices, or maybe even gearing up for a class action on publishers’ behalf. As copyright scholar Paul K. Saint-Amour cautions:

you can seldom criticize the law by breaking it and yet expect the law to forgive your infraction as criticism. (19-20)

In addition, my RA suggests shrewdly that this infringement risk “doesn’t seem warranted by the entire lack of benefit it’d likely produce, especially when are options like organizing colleagues or teaching students to publish OA.” That is, the #pdftribute makes an eloquent statement, but to what extent does this mass sharing actually mobilize knowledge for the public, or communicate knowledge to the public, relative to that effected in the more concerted organizing and teaching of Open Access?

A related risk might be that of harm to the relationship between academic authors and academic publishers, a relationship that is already tense at best and openly hostile at worst, a spectrum seen in the Elsevier boycott, in Canada’s “quintet” of cases between public sectors and royalty-collecting societies, in the Hathi Trust case, and so on. In the context of this fraught, changing, and contested territory of academic capital, the #pdftribute is adding fuel to the fire. By polarizing scholars against publishers, the #pdftribute risks tarring all publishers with one broad brush, when even a cursory browse of the Sherpa-RoMEO database and the Directory of Open-Access Journals soon reveals that there is a vast spectrum of positions for publishers to occupy on the issue of Open Access, and that for all the “knowledge cartels” and monopolies out there, there are many other publishers who are deeply committed to Open Access.
Let me be clear that I offer these reflections not at all as a defence or justificaiton of the status quo in academic publishing. I support and pursue Open Access publishing. But I am concerned about the cultural-economic consequences of the shape and direction taken by the #pdftribute, and moreso about its potentially serious legal implications for academics from tenured professors to undergrad students.

What about the risks of not participating?

In closing, I’ll briefly consider the flipside: the risks of not taking part in the #pdftribute. As a critical scholar of copyright I do feel morally obliged to participate, a feeling based on extensive reading in the history and transformation of copyright law and an understanding of its constraints on innovation and growth in culture and knowledge. I imagine other critical scholars of copyright, Open Access, OER, social justice, censorship, and/or academic freedom may feel similarly obliged, and perhaps rightly so. Would declining to take part in the #pdftribute amount to remaining complicit with extant and emerging threats to academic freedom and freedom of expression more generally? Could declining to take part mean the individual scholar or the whole profession misses an opportunity to affirm or even expand the principle of academic freedom? Or to transform the culture of knowledge communication and mobilization?

I don’t have answers to these speculative questions. What I do have is a profound uncertainty that the specific concrete character of the #pdftribute will in the long run represent an unequivocally positive gain for academic research and those who produce it. I offer these reflections and questions as an invitation to dialogue that can address and advance the interests of the Open Access movement, of scholars (both professional and student), and of academic publishers alike.

Works Cited

Doctorow, Cory. “RIP, Aaron Swartz.” BoingBoing 12 Jan. 2013.
Jauregui, Andres. “Academics tweet tribute to Aaron Swartz.” Huffington Post 13 Jan. 2013.
Kopstein, Joshua. “Aaron Swartz’s family releases statement, blames overreaching prosecutors for his untimely death.” The Verge 12 Jan. 2013.
McCutcheon, Mark A. #pdftribute tweets. 13-14 Jan. 2013.
Musli, Steven. “Researchers honor Swartz’s memory with PDF protest.” C|Net 13 Jan. 2013.
Payton, Laura. “‘Tell Vic Everything’ tweets protest online surveillance.” CBC 16 Feb. 2012
#pdftribute. N.d.
Richman, Jessica. “Tweet at all of the academics you know to put their PDFs online in tribute to @aaronsw. Use the hashtag #pdftribute.” Tweet 7:55 pm MT 12 Jan. 2013.
Saint-Amour, Paul K. The Copywrights: Intellectual Property and the Literary Imagination. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2003.
Sample, Mark. “You want to challenge the knowledge cartels, don’t just make your research open, make your research about power. #pdftribute.” Tweet 9:25 am MT 13 Jan. 2013.
“World Peace.” “Had Aaron Swartz not been born, our Internet would be censored, truth would be an unknown word. RIP Aaron. The bullies will lose #pdftribute.” Tweet 9:56 am MT 14 Jan. 2013.

Good riddance to the cassette mixtape: on the ironies of aura in mechanical reproduction

In a recent Forbes article, Michele Catalano waxes nostalgic – or should that be rewinds nostalgic? – for “the lost art of the mixtape.”

The art – and make no mistake about it, it is an art – of making a mix tape is one lost on a generation that only has to drag and drop to complete a mix. There’s no love or passion involved in moving digital songs from one folder to another. Those “mixes” are just playlists held prison inside a device. There’s no blood, sweat and tears involved in making them.

I come not to praise mixtapes, but to bury them.

I come not to praise mixtapes, but to bury them.

Where to start a critique of such nostalgia for days of storage media yore? A statement like this, in the first place, is simply ironic: arguing that one recording medium is more authentic or immediate than another is more than a little absurd (although not without precedent: it’s part of what Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin call “remediation,” or how new media are understood relative to old). A statement like this antagonizes both new media and its users – “kids these days” – in a manner that is at once as current as claims that the Internet rots your brain and as ancient as Plato’s criticism of writing itself (which, given in writing, was also ironic). Lastly, in a manner reminiscent of the dangers in writing of which Plato warned, a statement like this forgets as much about the “art” of the mixtape as it claims to recollect. Like, for instance, how crappy cassette technology was.

Today’s mediascape is so supersaturated with so many different and competing apparatuses, techniques, and systems that it has become not just plausible but commonplace to argue that some media are more authentic – less technological, and more “live,” if you will – than others. The German cultural theorist Walter Benjamin coined the term aura to describe the effects of reverence and awe that accompany the traditional, unique work of art – the painting, the chamber music performance – and yet these effects only make sense after the advent of recording technologies for mass copying art, as you will know if you’ve ever lined up at the Louvre to see the original Mona Lisa. The performance scholar Philip Auslander has coined a related term: “liveness.” The very idea of liveness, he argues, does not precede but can only be defined in contrast to recording. Reversing conventional wisdom, Auslander argues rock & roll is a genre the live performance of which always strives to sound as much as it can like its prior studio recording; he also shows how entrenched the value of liveness is in popular culture, with reference for instance to the case of dance act Milli Vanilli, disgraced for having their Grammy revoked on the grounds they had lip-synched their work.

Arguments for “liveness” and against mediation are in some ways a reprise of the ancient hostility to new media as media, which is to say hostility to techne – to art – as mythologized by Plato’s Phaedrus (circa 370 BCE), which recounts the encounter between the Egyptian king Thamus and the god Theuth, inventor of writing: a technology that Thamus argues does not aid memory, as Theuth claims, but rather destroys it.

this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them.

In the context of music, the hostility to media has been modulated by a Romantic ideology of creativity as spontaneous, individual expression and by musicians’ organized campaigns against recording media. Ironically, since the 1980s, the DJ sector itself has been reproducing this tradition, in campaigns against the CD, campaigns to “keep vinyl alive.” Last summer, Toronto producer and DJ Deadmau5 reignited the “liveness” debate in the domain of DJing specifically by claiming >many top dance DJs like himself just “hit play” (instead of mixing and beatmatching tracks). His comments drew fierce and defensive criticism from other top DJs, who went on to justify their work and the outrageous sums that overcompensate it in terms of romanticized “blood, sweat and tears.” As though some ways to press play are less technological, or more work, than others.

Catalano’s article, then, is a very recent variation on a very ancient theme. It is invested in Romanticism, in authenticity, in the notion that making a mixtape is work that can’t be matched by whatever it is the kids today are doing with their phones (clicking and dragging, shuffling, sodcasting, and so on). Unlike sorting mp3s, making a mixtape is an “art,” Catalano insists, repeatedly, perhaps protesting too much. Moreover, it’s an “art” that is driven by “love and passion” and that demands “blood, sweat and tears” – it demands real work, that is, unlike pointing, clicking, and dragging. Which are also apparently acts devoid of love and passion.

These claims – about old media being better quality, or more authentic, or more engaging, and – conversely – about new media being lower quality, or artificial and superficial, or dissociative and antisocial – will not stand. They rehearse assumptions about culture and technology that are not only ancient but pernicious and regressive: they’re the same kinds of assumptions that Big Content exploits to pursue its copyright maximalist agenda, thwarting cultural innovation and growth (but that’s another story). They valorize kinds of DIY cultural labour as though they havedisappeared, rather than transformed. And these claims are also more than a little ironic, for appearing in blog form.

Let me be clear: I too made my fair share of analogue cassette mixtapes when I was young. I still own, and even play, several of these pause-button productions, soundtracks to youthful desire and mystery. But would I trade the mobile device I can pocket for a double-deck boom box, a shoe box full of cassettes, a milk crate full of vinyl, and an antennae-borne FM signal? Hell no.

Let me also be clear that I’m not refuting the idea that making a mixtape is a creative practice. (I wouldn’t call it an “art,” actually, but that’s a different argument to make elsewhere.) Making a music mix – whether as “live” set, mixtape, mashup, playlist, or podcast – is an eminently, critically creative practice. What I am refuting is the idea that this art depends on a specific medium – and in this case a rightly dead one that nobody should feel like they miss, or missed out on. I’m not even refuting the idea that a cassette mixtape takes a lot of work – I’m just saying it’s work not worth missing, and that goes on anyway, in different forms.

So let me count the ways I don’t miss the mixtape, and bid it good riddance.

1) Sound quality: analogue cassettes start degrading as soon as you play them, and the more you play one back, the faster it goes. (As a kid I even bought commercially made tapes, before a school friend pointed out I should buy vinyl and blank tapes instead, a more robust solution.) Depending on the tape and the recording-playback unit, a tape could all too often end up sounding warbly. To fix that, you’d have to do it again, or risk a new tape. In contrast, the fix for a warbly-sounding mp3 is simply finding or forking out for a high-quality one instead. I sure don’t miss warbly-sounding tapes – whether they got dubbed that way or just inevitably got that way with repeated play.
Then there were levels, too: tape decks had better and worse EQs for sound-checking a mix, and EQing this detail, making sure the levels just touched the reds from song to song, could get hugely time-consuming. It’s work I don’t miss. (Not that iTunes does anything like an ideal job with its own sound check, but it’s an improvement.)

2) Research: finding music new or old, sourcing the right songs for a certain mix, trying to decide what gear to buy, what records, what kinds of blank tapes (what quality, how long) … the sourcing and selecting of music did take a lot of work before the Internet, and it’s work I don’t miss for a second. Then, as now, to not only find the right music but to develop your own distinctive tastes, you relied on your friends, social circles, and your own idiosyncratic navigation of the social fabric and cultural media of the day.
The Internet increasingly allows you to source and select songs from more and more of the whole history of recorded sound (as long as the copyright lobbies don’t ultimately get their way – by using the same romantic rhetoric on display in articles like that under discussion). Would I, as a teen, have had access to Edison’s recordings? Wouldn’t even occur to me to have tried.
As the Internet has magnified the opportunities for developing musical taste – allowing for both global diversification and micro-genre specialization equally – so do digital playback apps and systems enhance possibilities for honing the craft of the perfect mix. If you made a mixtape and, after repeated playback, one or more songs started to seem out of place, you’d have to put a fair bit of work into redoing or perfecting it. Not so with digital playback. And what’s more, digital playback allows for what I consider a welcome element of chance: the shuffle function often yields sequences and juxtapositions that have an uncanny serendipity about them, like a ghost in the machine. Such chance combinations have a valuable role to play in the conscious composition of a playlist or mix.

3) Sharing: You know what was maybe kind of special about mixtapes? Not being invited or pressured to share them with the world. Or being auto-prompted to check out similar music “you might like.” Privacy is a scarce resource these days. And I will concede that the surveillance mechanisms and privacy policies those algorithms represent are deeply spooky, even dystopian.
And you know what is kind of special about digital mixes? BEING INVITED TO SHARE THEM WITH THE WORLD. Similarly, being advised by algorithms to check out music you might like is certainly creepy, but we are living some science fiction shit when robots can suggest what music we might sample.
In addition, the aura of a given mixtape – its uniqueness – reflects its fragility, its vulnerability to vicissitudes of sharing and distribution. Lend a tape and there’d be no telling what shape you’d get it back in. You could make a backup, but that too was time-consuming and costly (and risked the warbly issue I mentioned above, too).

4) Democratized mixing, DJing and sound engineering: It’s true that the whole genre of hip hop started with pause-button boombox tape edits and vinyl hackers like Herc and Flash rebuilding the relation between needle and groove from the ground up. But it’s also true that today’s digital milieu has even more dramatically further democratized music mixing and music-making. For one thing, digital files are much more portable and manipulable. For another, audio tools for doing so are available in abundance and relatively easy to learn – Audacity is a great example of free, high-quality, and easily learned sound editing and podcasting software for anyone who wants a mix to be more than an iTunes playlist. Not that theres anything wrong with an iTunes playlist. Similarly, streaming music services engage listeners more interactively in selecting and customizing the sound stream.

5) Footprint: See what I said above, about the double-deck boom box, shoe box full of cassettes, and milk crate full of vinyl. That’s a lot of mass, for one thing. On this front, at least, I feel like the science fiction future I was promised as a youth (in part by the new wave and Afro-Futurist sounds of my ’80s mixtapes) has come to pass: the shit that used to fill my bedroom now fits IN MY POCKET. I do not miss packing for trips or moving house that involved hauling so much bulky tech luggage.
That said, it isn’t at all clear or straightforward that today’s pocket jukebox puts down a smaller environmental footprint than yesterday’s shelves full of boxes did, especially when we consider: offshore manufacture environment policies and shipping; the “planned obsolescence” business model for consumer technology, which yields a new crop of flat glass rectangles every fall; electronic waste; the “rare earth” that goes into microprocessing and, arguably, some geopolitical coflicts.

Like I said, I agree that making a mixtape is a creative practice, and that, in their day, mixtapes held momentous cultural importance: they helped to found hip hop, and they helped to build rave scenes, for instance. And for those who still have and can play them, they remain important cultural-historical artifacts. But I disagree with claims that making mixtapes is more creative than manipulating iTunes, that dead media are inherently of more value or better quality than current media, or that mixing music is anything like a “lost art.” If anything, it’s booming now more than ever. As numerous music critics, historians, and DJs themselves point out, the art of the mix is – at its aesthetic core – the art of selecting and sequencing. Composition is compilation. And this is a creative process that long predates cassette tapes, and has thrived in their wake.

I also like to think that the automation of one creative process makes possible new kinds of hands-on creative opportunities;for instance, automated beat-matching frees up more time for thoughtful selecting, or for effects and EQing. We also see this transformation of creative work in the wider proliferation of not just new mechanisms for consuming music but also new modes of producing it – some of which themselves mix and match, in the ever-changing realm of consumption-as-production, or “prosumption.”

In closing, it’s interesting to note that Catalano’s article is itself something of a mix of the kinds of deep-seated premises I’ve outlined, a mix that resonates strongly with more recent and specific statements on the cassette mixtape in particular. Carl Wilson wrote a similar column in 2005, when iPods first burst into the consumer tech sector. His “Ode to the yearning, churning mixtape” was composed as an annotated playlist – the article is “a mix tape in memory of mix tapes,” organized as reflections on twenty selections from Billie Holiday to Sonic Youth (and for further recursivity, some of the tracks are themselves musical odes to mixtapes). Here’s a sample entry:

19. Mixtape=Love (Viva Voce, 2004): The mix CD may permit laziness, but it doesn’t require it. I spent as many hours on a mix for my wife while she was away this winter as I ever have, sifting hundreds of tracks for strands on separation and return, on time’s conveyances. Her response was as tender as to any cassette. (But handwrite the track listing: Modernity has its limits.)

So I’m tempted (perhaps unfairly) to suggest there’s no blood, sweat and tears involved in the Forbes article. In its unexamined, problematic assumptions, nostalgic affectation, and played-out tropes, this article suggests that the art of lamenting the lost art of the mixtape is itself in danger of being lost on a generation of writers that can so easily pastiche premises and arguments from the whole history of writing on media – premises and arguments that demand critical scrutiny. Such arguments short-change and dismiss the diverse and vital practices of music sharing and music-making practiced by kids today – who are still alright, as The Who sang, and whom you can’t fool, as Peter Tosh did. Maybe download those two to start your next playlist.

Works Cited

Auslander, Philip. “Liveness, Mediatization, and Intermedial Performance.” Degrés: Revue de synthèse à orientation sémiologique 101 (2000). http://lmc.gatech.edu/~auslander/publications/liveness.pdf

Benjamin, Walter. “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction” (1936). Rpt. in Marxists Archive.

Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.

Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. New York: WW Norton, 2010.

Catalano, Michele. “The lost art of the mixtape.” Forbes 23 Dec. 2012.

Deadmau5 [Joel Zimmerman]. “we all hit play.” United We Fail 23 Jun. 2012.

Plato. Phaedrus. Plato in Twelve Volumes. Vol. 9. Trans. Harold N. Fowler. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1925. Rpt. in “The first critique of writing: Plato’s Phaedrus.” U of Illinois.

Tosh, Peter. “Can’t blame the youth.” Intel-Diplo, 1973.

The Who. “The kids are alright.” My Generation. Brunswick, 1965.

Wilson, Carl. “Ode to the yearning, churning mix tape.” Globe and Mail 4 Jun. 2005: R6.

Bienvenue dans le domaine public, Monsieur Bataille

January 1st is Public Domain Day: each year, copyright terms expire and admit to the public domain the works of artists, authors, critics, scholars, and other cultural producers whose copyright protection has ended. In Canada, copyright protection ends fifty years after the creator’s death; in other jurisdictions, it can end as late as seventy years after the creator’s death.

Bataille_StoryOfTheEyeAmong the new entrants to the Canadian public domain this year is the French critic and scholar Georges Bataille (1897-1962), whose inter- and postwar criticism, philosophy, and pornography – and in particular his work on transgression – enjoyed a resurgence of interest amidst the Humanities’ turn to theory in the last quarter of the 20th century. (The first MA defence I attended was for a thesis on Bataille.)

In honour of Bataille’s entry to the public domain (pas en traduction, bien sûr – seulement en français, sa langue originelle), and in response to a Daily Post prompt to share a favourite quote, I’d like to post a scene from Bataille’s autobiographical appendix to his own novella, Story of the Eye (L’histoire de l’oeil, 1928), a scene that has stayed with me through the years.

One night, we were awakened, my mother and I, by vehement words that the syphilitic [Bataille’s father] was literally howling in his room: he had suddenly gone mad. I went for the doctor, who came immediately. My father kept endlessly and eloquently imagining the most outrageous and generally the happiest events. The doctor had withdrawn to the next room with my mother and I had remained with the blind lunatic, when he shrieked in a stentorian voice: “Doctor, let me know when you’re done fucking my wife!” For me, that utterance, which in a split second annihilated the demoralizing effects of a strict upbringing, left me with something like a steady obligation, unconscious and unwilled: the necessity of finding an equivalent to that sentence in any situation I happen to be in; and this largely explains Story of the Eye. (94-95)

To me, this scene represents a moment of dramatic intensity, transgressive absurdity, and critical illumination that continues to inform and inspire my own conviction that the research imagination must be impertinent – even audacious. Story of the Eye is perhaps the most frequently lent book I own – it should go without saying that if you’ve not yet read it, you owe it to yourself to do so at the earliest opportunity.

Work Cited
Bataille, Georges. Story of the Eye (1928). Trans. Joachim Neugroschel. San Francisco: City Lights, 1987.