May 062008
[Originally posted on Familiar Strangers blog]

Brian mentioned in class that he was thinking about looking at ambient intimacy in his project. His basic idea was that the minutia that gets shared on Facebook creates an effortless, ambient intimacy with people in our networks. For instance, I know that Brian had a sports blog, went to Vegas, etc., only from the fact that he is one of my Facebook friends. I haven’t spoken to him in a year. We then went on to talk about the fact that intimacy is, in fact, based on knowing the minutia of someone’s life. Big details are for acquaintances. Small details are for friends. (Look at it this way: Facebook allows you to post status updates, LinkedIn (the businessperson’s social networking site) doesn’t.)

In any case, I have been thinking about this idea of digital intimacy with respect to notions of relatedness promoted by the mass digitization of bureaucratic records and the development of social media-ish tools for the practice of genealogy. While I don’t think that there is necessarily an “ambient” nature to the intimacy that you form with your ancestor, there is suddenly an abundance of minute details which you can learn about their lives. Finding this amount of detail is predicated wholly on the digitization and searchability of old documents.

I have found this to be particularly the case with my ancestors who lived in Ontario in the 19th century. Both of the major newspapers from that time are digitized and searchable. I have turned up a wide variety of interesting tidbits about my ancestors, particularly those who were either wealthy or prominent. For instance, I learned that one of my great-grandfathers was involved in a ship wreck. He survived, but that story didn’t survive in the oral traditions of our family. From name searches, I have learned that my great-grandmother gave flowers to a Canadian Prime Minister, that my great-great-grandfather had stomach problems and endorsed a stomach tonic, that another relative from Montreal stayed a Toronto hotel ever once in a while (yes, this was recorded in 19th century newspapers)…

It is clear to me that the internet allows us to connect to our families and distant relatives in ways that were impossible before. I have read some (albeit non-scientific) articles which suggest that North Americans in particular are, for the most part, unable to name their great-grandparents. Some of this has to do with the mobility of our population, I’m sure. After all, it is a lot easier to remember your ancestors if you live in their house, own some of their belongings etc. The internet flattens this effect of mobility though — we can now locate and connect to as many of our distant relations as we dare to.

Through the discussion of intimacy, I realized that the internet not only flattens the effect of distance on families, it also flattens (to some extent) the effects of time on families. Information about some areas of the past are just as available to me as information about the present. The Globe and Mail from 1890 is just as searchable to me as the Globe and Mail from 1990. In fact, I have more information from 19th century sources about my relatives than I do from the 20th century sources. The 20th century sources are either protected by privacy laws or, in the case of newspapers, were no longer a repository for local information.

The internet also makes our memories collectively accessible as opposed to individually accessible. While one person in the family may have been the family archivist in the past, this information is being increasingly digitized and posted on the net. The death of the family historian will no longer mean the death of the family histories. These stories will have a longevity previously unknown. It is not hard to imagine, for instance, that my grandchildren will be able to access and read this blog. Their process of family storytelling and research will involve distilling TOO MUCH information as opposed to our current process of putting together the little pieces…

May 042008
[Originally posted on Familiar Stranger blog]

Derek passed on a provocative article to me. Frank Furedi argues that the recent spate of “false” autobiographies is a reflection of our therapy culture which both promotes the stories of victims and encourages a rewriting of the past as a mode of identity construction in the present. Interesting idea although I don’t agree with the basic premise of the article — that “real” history is being corrupted by our love of Dr Phil and Oprah. After all, I think that the writing of history is ALWAYS mitigated by the present in which it is written, whether it be a therapy-oriented culture or not, a point to which the author of the article concedes but doesn’t apply to his own example.

A drawing of the Wartburg castle by Goethe

Let me use an analogy: history is a castle which we continually renovate to suit our present needs, even if our present needs involve rethinking the past. To illustrate my analogy, I will use the example of the Wartburg castle near Eisennach, Germany. This is an extremely important place in Germany history — Martin Luther found refuge there, Goethe visited, and it is credited as the birth place of a modern united Germany. When I visited there in 1995, the thing that impressed me the most was that the castle had been renovated and redecorated several times and each renovation was a rewriting and new representation of the history of the castle. The East German government, for instance, renovated the castle in the 1950s. It is hard to imagine that this renovation didn’t involve a discussion which explored what the castle SHOULD look like from the socialist perspective. Most striking to me on my visit, though, was the hall that had been redone in 1838 in the style of the Middle Ages. It was very clearly a Romantic vision of that time period with very little interest in historical accuracy. Did it bother me that there is no way that this could be an accurate vision? Hell no! To me, how we construct the past is far more interesting than what the past actually was.

Remember when the guy who wrote A Million Little Pieces was discovered to have made up significant portions of his so-called autobiography? People were really, really angry at this man, and the publisher even had to offer refunds to those people who had bought the book. This really surprised me. After all, aren’t all memories a construction, an idealization of our pasts? My parents would write my biography much differently than I would write my own. Who’s to stay which is more accurate? I find surprising is that there is very little problematization of ideas of “historical accuracy,” “truth,” and “honesty” in popular culture.

I guess that the problem with the author of “A Million Little Pieces” is that readers felt that he had deliberately embellished his autobiography and therefore deliberately lied to them. It had gone beyond merely small variances in memory. He had broken an implicit contract between author and reader and he was therefore called back to Oprah’s show to explain himself. But aren’t we being rather unfair here? Aren’t all of our life histories a mingling of memories and plots which are deliberately crafted to be found interesting by others? Why are we so absolutely stuck on the notion of a singular truth?

Furedi quotes psychiatrist Derek Summerfield:

Any act of remembering is interpretative, driven by the concerns or ideas of the present. What a war survivor remembers will not represent a single, definitive narrative, will skip between victim and protagonist modes, will be shaped by the context in which the telling takes place and the purpose to which it is to be put.

Exactly. We are always, in some way, writing and rewriting our pasts to suit ourselves and our listeners at the time of the telling.

I suspect that our ideas of truth are strongly tied to the media on which we record our lives – stone (headstones), paper (Family bibles, typed accounts, bureaucratic records). Any genealogist will tell you to view all records with caution, even the carefully carved tombstone has been known to have errors or to reflect the survivors view of the dead person’s life. Carving it in stone does give your message some longevity, but it doesn’t necessary make your message “accurate”. Maybe we have been confusing physical longevity of the message with the “truth”. I suspect there is a much lower “truth threshold” for the stories we tell while sitting around with friends and exchanging anecdotes of our lives, anecdotes which are fleeting because the words spoken out loud disappear as soon as they are heard.

I just finished reading a book about the Mormons and the history of their interest in genealogy. The author basically deconstructs any possibility of genealogical accuracy. Whether it be from inextricable inaccuracy in the major genealogy database, the interference of social norms with ideas of biological parentage, or some other unmentionable nasties like incest or false paternity, any claims to genealogical truth are pretty flimsy. To give you an example, the author reckons that even using conservative estimates of false paternity there would be an 80% change of one line being biologically inaccurate in a tree which goes back 4 generations on both paternal and maternal sides. Of course, my reaction to this is “cool” and “god, I wish I could find out which one and hear that story”! (Mind you, I might be a little less enthusiastic if the error turned out to be with my own direct parentage!) Despite the obvious pointless of the search for genealogy truth, there is a strong commitment in genealogical circles to ideas of “accuracy”, even when the fact at stake is a year or two difference in someone’s birth date.

So I guess I’m wondering how our ideas of historical genealogy accuracy (and personal life story telling) are going to play out on a medium like the internet with its qualities of “secondary orality.” Words have some longevity, but the publication of these words is not mitigated by authority or ideas of privileged voices. Anyone can tell their story and find readers. Hello cacophony of human memory! Moreover, stories on the internet are built in hypertext which allow readers to choose their own path through the narrative (1) (Hey, do remember the Choose Your Own Adventure series? Was this the beginning of hypertext?). The internet way of storytelling is a retrieval of the oral way of storytelling – stories are never exactly replicated but are adapted for the context of the storytelling. The difference here is that it is the reader who choses his path through the story. It is not the oral storyteller who makes these judgments on behalf of the reader.

How are we going to stick to stubborn ideas of singular truth (both personal and social) in the context of a hyperlinked, polyphonous world? Hopefully, we are not. Wouldn’t the world be a much nicer place without the need to argue for the supremacy of one account over another?

(1) I got this idea from Stefik’s Internet Dreams. Page 13.

May 012008
[Originally published on Familiar Strangers blog]

For our self-reflection paper we were supposed to create a questionnaire for ourselves about our learning in this last semester. I toyed with this format, but then abandoned it for something that worked better for me for reasons which will be obvious when you read it. Of special significance in this post is the first-time ever publication of my resignation letter from grad schools past. It is slightly embarrassing in the same way watching Rushmore is embarrassing. But it was time to let it be read 🙂 Enjoy.

Research is a road and the road is life

This is a story, rather than an interview. Oh, I know that I am supposed to interview myself for this assignment, but the format wasn’t working for me, and, as you will see, narratives are central to my research journey. So please forgive this minor transgression and let me tell you my story.

A little over ten years ago, I concluded my Master’s thesis on the feminine sublime with a quote from Jack Kerouac. In my thesis, I looked at alternative structures of narratives, ones that were circular and suspended and which had no ending as such. It is the journey of the narrative and not its conclusion was what was important to these authors. The Kerouac quote – “the road is life” – therefore seemed a fitting way to end my thesis. In retrospect, however, this was the beginning of the unravelling of my academic plans. It marked a slowly awakening realization that the road that I was on that time was not taking me to the life which I wanted to lead.

Nevertheless, it took another year or so for me to arrive at the turning point. I used my scholarship money to finance a year of study in Germany, a move somewhat deliberately designed to force my own hand in the matter of my future career. Being away, I figured, would force me to think about where I actually wanted to be. Not surprisingly, my uneasiness with my academic journey grew, and almost ten years ago to this day (god, I love this symmetry), I wrote my resignation letter and handed in to my only possible witness at that time, a young, unsuspecting German professor. My “letter” was in fact an essay about a canonical German novel by Goethe — The Sorrows of Young Werther. It was also — and this is the radical part — an account of an impossible love affair that I was experiencing at that time of profound professional and personal doubt. It is, without question, one of my masterpieces (notwithstanding the fact that time has rendered my account of that love affair to be rather embarrassing). It was honest, it was passionate, and it was me.

My “letter” was not, however, anything that could remotely be considered acceptable research in academic circles. But why not? Because it was honest, passionate and personal. And that was my point exactly. Back then, post-modernism and critical theory were fashionable trends in literary criticism. These modes of thought call into question notions of objectivity, authority, reality and truth. However, this theory which I was being taught and which, to a large extent, I espoused, did not match the methodology of literary criticism that was being practised. Everything is subjective except the practice of literary criticism, or so it seemed to me. This lack of subjective space in the practice of research coupled with the undeniable abstraction of my chosen academic field (Comparative Literature) did me in. I could not negotiate the mixed messages which simultaneously promoted creative thinking but limited it to certain forms. So I left academia for an uncertain future where any internal inconsistencies were mine and mine alone.

Flash forward to the present. I had mostly forgotten about my epistemological angst of a decade ago. I had long since buried my resignation letter in a box in a closet. My thesis sits on a shelf unread and incomprehensible, even to me. For the most part, I like what life has thrown me in the last decade – a good job with the federal government, a kind, supportive, quite wonderful partner and a lovely child. However, the call of learning and books has been too strong for me to resist completely. I found myself back in a graduate program and ultimately taking a course on research methodology.

For obvious reasons, I came to the course with certain expectations and prejudices against the scientific method and the practice of research. I was surprised to find a methodological openness which allowed for students to align their epistemological inclinations with their research methodology. Every perspective is valued. What a refreshing change from the methodological tyranny of my previous degree! This approach quickly diffused a lot of my obsessively thought-out criticism which I intended to unleash on the course. In addition, I found this approach to be honest and respectful of the diversity of students, their interests and their backgrounds. I applaud those who designed this course.

This openness may not, however, solve my fundamental epistemological problem with academic research. I feel an obligation to respond to the Nancy of ten years past who passionately argued for her right as a researcher to tell her own personal journey. “If we absorb the lessons of post-structuralism,” I proclaimed, “one cannot really argue for the supremacy of one discourse over another. The narrative of my life and my experiences is a discourse like any other discourse used to provide insight into a literary work.” Yes, yes, indeed! I still believe these words. More importantly, I believe personal stories have a power to inspire, a quality often lacking in the objective voice of the scientific paper. Am I wrong to think that maybe this power of the personal narrative can be used to make research more readable, more interesting and more relevant?

When I re-entered graduate school, I promised myself that I would chose to do a final project for this degree which was practical. My partner is a practical man who has found a way to use his brilliant mind to help make the world a better place. I admire this and I want to emulate his example. When our instructor encouraged us to consider our research topics, I paused on the practical. I could easily think up a neat quantitative study which would presumably contribute in a minor way to thinking on important issues such as web usability. But then, I remembered. I remembered that I have my doubts about objectivity and the scientific method. I remembered that those doubts make me uneasy and that the uneasiness, although it starts as a whisper, has the very real potential to end as a long, passionate essay unleashed on some poor undeserving and unsuspecting assistant professor. So while my partner has found a way to use statistics for the greater good (oh, I am quite well aware of the irony in my choice of partners!), I think that this is not my path. My “practical” ideas got quickly abandoned for a topic in which I am quite passionately interested and in which I am a participant: family story-telling on the Internet. My intention is to interweave my own experiences with those of others who practice this craft and to marry these accounts with academic thinking on this subject. While this topic may not have workplace relevance, I am hoping that it will take me on a journey that will end in an interesting, and provocative paper that people, not just academics, will want to read.

The problem is, of course, that this story-telling approach to research straddles the line between qualitative research and some cerebral form of journal writing. It is just as unlikely now as it was ten years ago that my style of academic writing and research will be accepted as legitimate. Fortunately, there does seem to be a small group of academics who practice a qualitative model of research called “radical self-questioning”. This gives me hope that I can find support for my style and I intend to learn more about this methodology. I am old enough now, however, to know that there will be a compromise here. I do want to get this degree and I am toying with the idea of a PhD. I will have to choose the places in which to use my voice and hope that my small stabs at authenticity might strike a chord. In the end, I think that this is where my strength and my power as a researcher and a thinker lie. And I am convinced that to follow my strength and passion can only result in good things and, hopefully, good stories.

 Posted by at 4:30 pm