Sunday, February 26, 2012

Is Wikipedia the Most Useful Encyclopedia In All of Human History?

I recently received my February 12, 2012 copy of Perspectives on History. This is the official magazine of the American Historical Association. I was shocked as I read the contents from an article published by the AMA's president, William Cronon, entitled "Scholarly Authority in a Wikified World" (available here.) At first he states the expected skepticism towards Wikipedia's reliability, but then he writes:
Whatever reservations one might still have about its overall quality, I don't believe there's much doubt that Wikipedia is the largest, most comprehensive, copiously detailed, stunningly useful encyclopedia in all of human history.
Really? I suspect that many professors and high school teachers have criticized students for using Wikipedia as a source in research. Is Cronon's article a scholarly scandal or is he marking a new shift in academia's views regarding this online source? I think he is making a broader point that should not be misunderstood. He is not saying Wikipedia is an infallible location of all human knowledge. He is addressing that it is a great place to start in research and that all encyclopedias, like any source, can have misinformation. He writes later on in this piece his clarification:
Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that any encyclopedia entry is a substitute for the much deeper, richer, more integrated knowledge that has always been the goal of good scholarship. Like every teacher, I caution my students not to rely on encyclopedias when doing serious research.
Here is perhaps where some educators have got it wrong. Research strictly founded on any encyclopedia source or limited works of scholars is not quality research. Singling out Wikipedia as potentially fallacious to students can send the wrong message.

Although, Cronon takes his praise of Wikipedia one step further. In some instances he finds Wikipedia's data superior to standard encyclopedias! He writes:
Wikipedia blows away most competitors for topics involving scientific or technical information, not only because it attracts volunteers especially knowledgeable in these areas, but because it can give such topics all the space they need and revise them literally by the minute. Compare Wikipedia with Britannica on "Fermat's Last Theorem" and you'll see what I mean. On topics of current interest, including many environmental subjects central to my own work, Wikipedia has a nimbleness that even newspapers have trouble matching. Its entry on Hurricane Katrina, for instance, already filled many screens while the storm was still raging over New Orleans. (Britannica, in contrast, still offers only seven short paragraphs on the subject.) Even controversial topics that are famous for generating warring submissions by opposing sides often do a remarkably good job of migrating toward shared middle ground. Compare Wikipedia's entry on "abortion" or "abortion debate" with Britannica's and ask yourself which does a better job.

Perhaps most importantly, Wikipedia provides an online home for people interested in histories long marginalized by the traditional academy. The old boundary between antiquarianism and professional history collapses in an online universe where people who love a particular subject can compile and share endless historical resources for its study in ways never possible before. Amateur genealogists have enabled the creation of document databases that quantitative historians of the 1960s could only fantasize.
I think William Cronon's viewpoints regarding Wikipedia will be charged with debate. Did he just open a can of worms, Pandora's Box, or the door to the future regarding technology and scholarship? I encourage everyone interested in this to read his entire article and tell me what you think.

Monday, February 20, 2012

A Review of Miguel Abensour's Democracy Against the State

My review of Miguel Abensour's Democracy Against the State has been posted on the CSCP website, meaning that it is forthcoming in a future issue of Symposium. And thus concludes my "contemporary French philosophy" trilogy, which included reviews of Rancière's Politics of Literature (here) and Stiegler's For a New Critique of Political Economy (here).

Given Abensour's anarchist sympathies, I'm quite surprised that this is his first book to be translated into English; some of his books seem like they would fit quite well with what used to be the editorial interests of both Autonomedia and Semiotext(e). Hopefully Polity will commission additional titles, such as his L'Utopie de Thomas More à Walter Benjamin.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Rights?

As part of my research on Jacques Rancière, I have been reading up on liberal discussions of human rights. What I've read confirms Todd May's characterization, in The Political Thought of Jacques Rancière, of these discussions as problematics of passive equality, as "the creation, preservation, or protection of equality by governmental institutions" (3). The philosophical discourse on passive equality, then, focuses how these institutional guarantees ought to be distributed. 

This discourse of passive equality, of course, is not Rancière's approach, though it should be noted that movements premised on active equality (the equality of intelligences and abilities) can turn the problem of rights into a space of dissensus, when, for instance, Olympe de Gouges publishes her Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Citizen as a searing critique the Declaration of The Rights of Man. Rather than dismiss rights as an illusion, de Gouges makes them a point of contention by asserting "the rights of those who have not the rights that they have and have the rights that they have not" (Hatred of Democracy, 61). Rancière also mentions the civil rights struggle in the US in the 1960s. So rights are not excluded as intrinsically liberal, but rather Rancière is careful show--in May's terms--that the politics of equality cannot be reduced to the contours of liberalism, and that where "politics becomes passive is not in the recognition or embrace of rights; it is when rights come to structure the field of politics" (May, 34).

For as much as I might appreciate large parts Lynn Hunt's Inventing Human Rights--especially her claims concerning the extra-juridical/literary origins of a sense of sympathy and empathy--she concludes on just such a note of passive equality: "The human rights framework, with its international bodies, international courts, and international conventions, might be exasperating in slowness to respond or repeated inability to achieve its ultimate goals, but there is no better structure available for confronting these issues" (213). She makes no mention of the possibility of transforming 'available structures' through a radical or revolutionary politics of equality.

In this post, I am going to focus on two rhetorical figures found in Micheline R. Ishay's The History of Human Rights. Overall, the book is textbooky in the sense that the text is often descriptive and written from a so-called objective viewpoint, a voice from nowhere, which gave me a greater appreciation of Patrik Ourednik's Europeana. To Ishay's credit, she dedicates a chapter to showing that workers' and socialists' struggle significantly influenced how we think of human rights. However, along the way she co-opts several important "dialectical images"--as Walter Benjamin would say--of revolutionary struggle.

The first is Benjamin's discussion of Paul Klee's Angelus Novus. "A human rights document," Ishay writes, "may be marred by barbarism, yet, according to Benjamin's observation, it is also a barometer of human rights progress" (2-3). This claim is derived from Benjamin's statement that the storm propelling the angel with his back to the future is called progress--as if this "progress" is the moment of redemption in his On the Concept of History. She does not address the fact that Benjamin's claim is part of a critique of progress. The idea of progress, according to Benjamin, is an assumption of the inevitable improvement of humankind (often thought to take place through technological improvements) which is used to organize the mass of data that fills a "universal history," an empty, homogeneous time (Thesis XVII). To this concept of history, Benjamin opposes a materialist historiography and praxis that seeks to blast events out of the continuum of history. By identifying Benjamin's messianism with the distribution of rights through institutional frameworks, Ishay limits radical politics to what we have already called passive equality.

The same movement of co-optation happens when Ishay makes rights the mantle of anti-colonialist struggle, when she claims to side with "the wretched of the earth." In Chapter Five, Ishay discusses what she takes to be the key problems of "globalization and its impact," one of these being the relation of humanitarian intervention and US imperialism in Afghanistan and Iraq. While much of her book is descriptive, in this chapter she moves to an argumentative mode. She claims that a "new realism of human rights" should criticize the human rights abuses of imperialism but should nevertheless "seize opportunities to advance its cause whenever Western powers confront repressive governments" (290), or be prepared "to a substantive agenda linking human rights and international security" (289). Through this model, she argues, globalization can be made to advance the cause of "the wretched of the earth" (293).

She never addresses the incongruity of yoking the cause of the wretched of the earth to imperialism. One of the central planks of Frantz Fanon's philosophy was that the self-determination of the oppressed could not be advanced by imperialist intervention. To intervene and implement rights from above repeats the civilizing gesture of the old imperialism. Any reference to rights must take place through local conflict and struggle, from the organization of the masses from below. In addition, when Ishay appeals to presenting a "substantive agenda" of human rights, she does not discuss to whom this agenda addresses: Western powers. The framework of rights-security is already today Western and imperialist, and does not have any accountability to those (the oppressed)  to whom Ishay or NGOs appeal for their moral legitimacy. Not to mention that intervention itself can/does destroy those networks and organizations that would be accountable to  local peoples (q.v. Haiti). Like the aforementioned examples, this argument again reduces politics to passive equality.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Saturday, February 4, 2012

CFP: The Post-Kantian Poe

The following is a call for papers for a special edition of The Edgar Allan Poe Review, to be edited by Sean Moreland, Devin Zane Shaw, and Jonathan Murphy. It will have its own permanent page here, so that it does not get lost in the shuffle.

Theory Mad Beyond Redemption: The Post-Kantian Poe

A call for papers for a special issue of The Edgar Allan Poe Review, forthcoming in Fall 2012, and guest-edited by Sean Moreland, Devin Zane Shaw, and Jonathan Murphy.

The editors invite original essays that address the influence of German Idealist and Romantic thought upon Edgar Allan Poe. While it has become a critical commonplace that Poe both makes use of and mocks many elements of German Idealism, there has been scant discussion of the specificities of Poe’s complex, and often vexed, treatments of Kantian and post-Kantian philosophy. Poe studies enjoyed a brief revival of the “French Poe” following the psychoanalytic and deconstructive interventions of Lacan and Derrida, but the anti-theoretical backlash of the past two decades has tended to extradite Poe back to his country of origin, restoring his “American Face” at the cost of recognizing the transatlantic influences that indelibly shaped his writing. This collection will focus on Poe’s indebtedness to, as well as his critical distance from, the German Idealist and Romantic writers, but its intent is not to delineate, as Hansen and Pollin (1995) have done,  the “German Face” of Poe, so much as it is to reintroduce the theoretical aspect of Poe’s artistry back into the critical conversation.
We especially welcome papers that consider the relationship between Poe’s reception of Kantian and post-Kantian philosophy (including Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Schiller, and the Schlegels) and that of his American literary contemporaries (including Emerson, Fuller, Hawthorne, and Melville); articles that examine the role of Coleridge and Carlyle, Cousin and de Stael in disseminating German idealism upon American shores; and essays that interrogate more recent peregrinations of German philosophy in Continental theory, especially as they pertain to a reconsideration of Poe’s literary legacy.

We require a 250 word abstract and a brief bio by no later than April 30, 2012, and the finished paper (Chicago-style, no more than 9000 words including endnotes) by July 15, 2012.  Abstracts, papers, and questions should be directed to:

Friday, February 3, 2012

Post-Althusserians in Review

Filed away for future reference, before they get away from me:
  • Todd May discussing Jacques Rancière's Althusser's Lessons.
  • Jason Read reviewing Etienne Balibar's Citoyen sujet.
  • And, Read again, reviewing Pierre Macherey's Hegel or Spinoza.
  • And, and, before I forget, the post-Middlesex Cahiers pour l'analyse site.