Issues

October 2016

Re: “Bibliomania, “Bit Rot” and Fetishizing Time,” by Christian Bök and Douglas Coupland

I feel duty bound to point out an error in this interview. It is simply not true to assert that “digital information degradation is the shame of the archiving world. Nobody knows how to save any of it for very long. Nobody.” In fact, the archiving world should rightly be praised for the speed, seriousness and effectiveness of its response to the challenge of digital preservation. Archivists have very clear protocols for action, though could perhaps benefit from your help to secure the necessary investment to implement them.

The rapid development and impressive commitment of the archive community to the preservation of digital content should be properly profiled, too. It is perhaps not surprising that you have not heard of the Digital Preservation Coalition (dcponline.org) and the Digital Preservation Awards, though I feel sure that your readers, for example, would be interested in one of the recent winners: Manchester University Library’s efforts to preserve the archive of the United Kingdom’s premier poetry publisher Carcanet Press (library.­manchester.ac.uk/about/projects/carcanet).

I would also like to reintroduce you to your close neighbour, the University of Toronto, which is recognized around the world as a centre of excellence in the development of robust and verifiable preservation technologies and techniques for digital archives. I am sure colleagues there would happily discuss that work with Mr. Coupland, thus helping to correct a significant misrepresentation of the diligence, creativity and commitment of the archival community.

William Kilbride, FSA
Executive Director, The Digital Preservation Coalition
Glasgow, Scotland


Re: “Conflict Averse,” by Andy Lamey

Thank you for Andy Lamey’s fine essay on “the new victimhood,” which analyzes the cult of psychological vulnerability that has taken root on campuses. The author cites the specific example of four undergraduates at Columbia University who objected to the fact that Ovid’s Metamorphoses contains “triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities”’—i.e., rape. As Lamey notes, the proliferation of trigger warnings in such contexts would mean that “every student in the class receives a message that codes class content as potentially problematic. The idea that reading Metamorphoses can be harmful is normalized in advance … Class readings [thusly] are presented alongside an invitation into victimhood.”

I am old enough to remember the first wave of political correctness that washed over western campuses in the late 1980s. It was only when principled leftists added their voices to besieged cultural conservatives that a pushback against campus speech codes began to gather force. Lamey’s essay, one hopes, marks the stirrings of an analogous phenomenon in our own age. I especially appreciated the way Lamey, as an academic himself, is able to contrast the vague and vicarious complaints of trigger-warning proponents with his own experience dealing with individual students who have disabilities affecting their learning.

“In assigning humanistic texts to my students I am not victimizing them,” he writes. “I am expecting them to show resilience and mental discipline, to not crumble in the face of difficult ideas or images, as they learn to think for themselves. [Disability] accommodation letters allow me to meet my genuine obligations to students with mental health issues without compromising my expectations for the class as a whole. So to any OSD [Office for Students with Disabilities] students who happen to read this, please know, I have your back. To the rest of the class, essays on the ethics of torture, war and abortion are due Tuesday at five, no exceptions.” That’s great writing.

Indeed, I was so moved that I went out and bought Sarah Schulman’s new book, Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility and the Duty of Repair, which is the ostensible subject of Lamey’s essay. And I regret to inform LRC readers that the book is actually quite awful—notwithstanding Lamey’s own generous assessment.

While Lamey’s analysis of modern intellectual life is incisive and witty, Schulman meanders pretentiously through a variety of unrelated topics, including the history of AIDS, lesbian flirtation and the alleged evils of Israel. Somewhere in that weird mix was a decent essay on the theme that we all need to be more resilient and less kvetchy. But she didn’t write it. Lamey did.

Jonathan Kay
Toronto, Ontario


Re: “Jane Jacobs's Tunnel Vision,” by Lev Bratishenko

Re: “Tunnel Vision,” by Lev Bratishenko

Lev Bratishenko’s essay on Jane Jacobs takes the same tack as many such pieces in the decade since she died, taking her to task for what she didn’t write on one hand and faulting her for tilting against clear trends like sprawl on the other. Her failure to apply a race or gender lens to her writing, or to take a firm position on the role of capital, is held against her. And not understanding people who bought into suburban living or to big condos is also cited as a sign she missed the boat.

A writer can apply various analytical lenses such as race, gender or the role of capital. All of them are important. Race, for example, is a defining factor in any analysis of the United States, and in its current presidential election, and plays a less obvious but vital role in Canada as well. The problem with a broad application of these lenses is that they can eventually occlude what you are looking at. I know from conversations with Jacobs that both race and gender were central to her own view of the world.

Jacobs admired entrepreneurs large and small, but not always their projects. She was observant of their practical impact. She often objected to developments that she thought made worse spaces or disrupted neighbourhoods but recognized that development and redevelopment were how cities evolved.

Her approach to her writing about cities and urban regions was straightforward: observe closely to see what works and then arrange to do more of it. That led her to some of her better known suggestions such as “eyes on the street” and mixed use. These have had a lasting influence on both public and private developers (not all of them) and their suppliers such as architects and planners. In this regard the “less Jane Jacobs” of the article is not what we need or are likely to get.

More than anything, Jacobs would have been appalled to think that an orthodoxy had been created from her writing, or that people would be wondering what Jane Jacobs would do, as happens from time to time. She wanted people to observe and to think, not to search her texts for clues. Having her writing treated as a rigid prescription for all time was not her intention.

Describing her as “Mother Jacobs” or “Saint Jane,” or seeing her as a kindly old grandmother in her later years, disguises the fact that she was ferocious in argument and debate. She left more than one commentator wobbly kneed. The reviewer might have found it invigorating to debate her face to face.

Alan Broadbent
Toronto, ON


Re: “Jane Jacobs’s Tunnel Vision,” by Lev Bratishenko

In Lev Bratishenko’s piece a promising critique is undermined by a series of patronizing insinuations that amount, by the end, almost to character assassination.

Jane Jacobs’s main problem, we learn early in the article, and the main source of her “blindness,” was that she was a “middle-aged, middle-class, white lady in 1950s New York.” Implied is a hierarchy of authenticity in which Jacobs ranks very near the bottom. The impression is reinforced by her being a “white doctor’s daughter born in small town Pennsylvania” who “never knew want.” She has cleaning ladies, one of them black, another Calabrian. The second was “loaned” to her by Marshall McLuhan on her arrival in Toronto in 1968. She is oblivious of her family—not realizing “her youngest was illiterate until age nine.” She’s a bit of a hypocrite who “dutifully packed the family off to church,” even though she was an unbeliever.

Even what might have been considered admirable in Jacobs is turned against her. Her refusal to accept honourary degrees, which her friends ascribed to a dislike of self-serving academic pomp, is described as her being “sour … on credentials” because Columbia denied her an undergraduate degree. When she is shown around East Harlem by a local minister, she is criticized, rather than praised, for waiting for an invitation. Her appearance counts against her. “Her baggy-sweater inelegance,” Bratishenko writes, “was a kind of accidental disguise” that “made her look as if she could not possibly be on the side of power.”

Perhaps the worst moment in the article is reached when Jacobs is associated with racism. Bratishenko has quoted a character in Jacobs’s Systems of Survival who says: “Economic life is ruled by processes and principles we didn’t invent and can’t transcend whether we like that or not.” The book he is quoting is a dialogue, in the Platonic style, a form Jacobs adopted so she could play multiple points of view against each other, but Bratishenko assumes that the character who says this is Jacobs’s proxy, and that this can therefore be taken as her own credo. He describes this account of the iron laws ruling economic life, quite fairly, as “naturalization.” But then we read: “‘Science’ has also been employed to show that one race or another was ‘objectively’ inferior, putting relations with them beyond the realm of the political and into another category, something like the empirical management of a natural problem.” Is this example innocent, just a further illustration of “naturalization” that happened to spring into Bratishenko’s mind, or is it part of the pattern of innuendo that informs the whole article? He doesn’t say Jacobs sympathized with racist ideologies, and presumably doesn’t think so either, but his earlier emphasis on her whiteness as a disability as well as her “inattention to race” made me think that he was not unhappy to associate Jacobs with this virulent form of naturalization.

Bratishenko’s purpose in this article is explicitly iconoclastic. He wants to smash the idol of “St. Jane.” I think he may somewhat exaggerate her actual influence, and how ubiquitous she is, as when he pictures “her image … smiling from construction hoardings for new condos,” but I think a critique is timely and welcome. I certainly think he is on the right track in suggesting that she treats the market as a more primordial institution than it actually is. The trouble is that, even here, he is not really fair. Jacobs is accused of thinking the market “innocent,” of believing that “capitalism is the natural order of things,” of being a “crypto-libertarian.” Her view of herself as a pragmatic, non-ideological thinker is mocked. She is blamed for gentrification, with the hint that her naiveté was one of its main causes. I think more nuance is needed here. Jacobs was the enemy of the visionary planners, builders and architects who dominated the first half of the 20th century. This was salutary. If Jacobs-ism has now become an ideology, then it requires a more balanced, less condescending and less ad hominem critique than Lev Bratishenko has provided.

David Cayley
Toronto, Ontario


Re: “Jane Jacobs’s Tunnel Vision,” by Lev Bratishenko

I read David Cayley’s letter about Lev Bratishenko’s article on Jane Jacobs, “Tunnel Vision” in the October 2016 issue, with envy—I don’t think I’ve ever had such a meticulous reader. But I couldn’t help feeling like its charges of character assassination miss the point. When someone presents themselves as a voice of common sense and disinterested objectivity, and their methodology relies on direct personal experience, as in Jacobs’s case, then surely questions of character and background become of primary and not of secondary importance. “Whiteness” was no “disability” for Jacobs—can you imagine a black woman getting her opportunities in the 1940s?—nor do we have to go so far as to accuse her of racism to admit that questions about race dog her work for good reasons. If we choose today to continue ignoring the whiteness of Jacobs and other intellectual luminaries, it is at our peril. In this context, Alan Broadbent’s letter noting that, in personal conversations, “both race and gender were central to her own view of the world” only reinforces the strangeness of their general absence in her work.

John Taller-Passer
Toronto, Ontario


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