The MIT Museum houses many wonderful things, but my favourite is an exhibition of kinetic mechanical sculptures by Arthur Ganson in a genre he calls “gestural engineering”. In Ganson’s own words to the viewer: “The objects are part of a cycle. I take an idea from my heart, but it is not complete until you have seen it, and found your own meaning in it.”
It’s hard to describe the experience of looking at Ganson’s installations. His kinetic sculptures are deliberate, exquisite. Each features a mechanism which repeats a single, precise set of motions. A long coiled chain of ball-bearings is pulled link by link down a hole, and is replenished link by link from a tap above it. An ostrich feather and a violin caress each other in a sequence of slow, sensuous dance steps. A tiny chair plods in meditative circles around a stone platform. These iterations, accompanied by the click and whirr of their mechanical sequences, are equal parts beauty and hypnosis.
It occurred to me that by their nature, Ganson’s kinetic sculptures engineer — or perhaps mechanistically reveal — a certain way of viewing art.
First, they literally force engagement: many of the installations require you to jumpstart the mechanism, by pressing a button or pushing or pulling something, or turning a crank. In other words, like most art, you must actively engage with it before it will start to produce meaning for you.
Secondly, like films, they structurally induce patience. Each of the artworks produce their meaning over a set period of time, and therefore dictate the duration of your engagement.
Finally, they also demand to be read: these are not objects you can skim and grasp at once. They are frequently baffling at first glance. Many have revelation built into them: you press the button, the mechanism whirrs to life, and you watch an iteration or two before something like a meaning or an emotion presents itself, in a moment of ambiguous, personal and wordless epiphany. Ganson’s Yellow Chair exhibit embodies this moment of revelation beautifully: for most of the artistic sequence, it’s unclear what is happening, right until the pieces snap together. The split-second jolt of epiphany this produces, the first time you watch it, can never again be reproduced.
I loved all the installations, even the slightly creepy ones involving babies. But the one which snagged most in my mind was Ganson’s Beholding the Big Bang (2009). Clearly made with the Long Now clock in mind, it is a gear train comprising twelve pairs of reduction gears set in 50-to-1 ratio. They’re arranged such that although the gears closest to the motor on the left are in constant motion, the gears furthest from the motor, on the right, are effectively motionless: they will take 13.7 billion years to complete one rotation. Roughly, as Ganson reminds us, the age of the known universe.
Almost instantly, Braudel rose to mind. Here was his metaphor of historical time, made art! Fernand Braudel, a structuralist historian of the French Annales School, first articulated his conception of historical time in his monumental history of the Mediterranean, the three levels of which correspond beautifully to Ganson’s sculpture. On the left, the breathless spinning ephemera of histoire événementielle: the bustle of daily politics; the lived domain of the journalist, the politician, the Great Man. These are the days, weeks and years of diplomatic time. In the middle, the moyenne durée: the decades and centuries of economic and social time, the rise and fall of empires, and the revolutions of industry and technology. These movements, though barely perceptible, can be apprehended by discerning, long-lived participants, and perhaps readers of history. And on the far right, literally lodged in concrete, la longue durée: the monumental stasis of geological time, this thing which all things devours. Here we find the life of mountains, the crawl and dissipation of glaciers, a thousand starbursts, the exhalations of galaxies.
The model also suggests two other aspects of the Braudelian metaphor. The first is that despite the heuristic distinction Braudel makes, and despite the failures in our own perception, all three levels of historical time are deeply related. One pair of gears turns the next, and the next; one day’s flurry is directly connected to a millennium’s stasis, and time implacably moves all levels of change. The second is that, as Dan Little has observed, the apprehension of historical change is problematic, for different reasons, at both ends of the spectrum. On the one hand, longue durée historical change is so slow as to be invisible; consequently, it’s almost impossible for human societies to factor it into their more ephemeral considerations. (An obvious example is the impotence of political action on climate change). On the other hand, the gears of the courte durée, ephemeral time, can move more quickly than the human eye can see: some changes happen more quickly than the state or policy-making bodies are able to react to. (The legitimisation of gay marriage, or the collapse of Wall Street, come to mind).
But the model, and my reading of it, also demonstrates what Ganson means about the intensely personal experience of looking at his art — all art. In his words, “[each] piece should be crystal clear and also completely ambiguous. That’s what allows each viewer to create their own story.” Seeing Braudel in the gear reduction exhibit, or reading capitalism into the installation of a wishbone plodding up and down its platform: this is the essence of art. It’s a feeling or idea “wrestled into physicality” just long enough to allow it to jump from one mind to another, girding itself in the new metaphors of each one it enters. So in my own mind, with its irredeemably historical and melancholic bent, is it any wonder that I watched the gears spinning and not-spinning, and felt both the weight and absurdity of human history? That I watch these paper scraps flit on their fragile perches and feel the promise and entrapment of impossible dreams?
I’ve recently noticed a strange discontent online. It looks like this: the physical world is making some kind of comeback.
I thought at first that it was just me, and the last two months I’ve spent in Taiwan on an intensive Chinese summer program. Typing in Chinese (these days, at least) is simple and commonplace: so much so that there has been an observable phenomenon of Chinese ‘character amnesia‘ exacerbated by overreliance on computers for writing in Chinese. Certainly my school didn’t require work to be handwritten. But still: I’d spend hours writing and rewriting my essays by hand, in an effort to bind muscle memory to the work of language learning — to put the words I was learning into my very body. The quiet succession of brushstrokes, as words and sentences inched their way across the page (right to left!), became meditative, hypnotic. I learned by making, creating, doing. Typing was insufficient: the words I’d try to learn slid right out of my head. And just reading — the silent, head-echo sort which by many accounts is a relatively modern practice — is no good way to master any language at all, to say nothing of Chinese.
So in Taiwan, I carefully selected and bought paper notebooks; I bought a pencil case, and filled it with pens which I used to fill my notebooks with words and meanings. The joy of writing spilled over into other areas. I began working on my research primary sources by hand; I arrived at a workflow of curious hybridity. I had photographs of archival material which I’d ransacked, desaturated in Photoshop, compressed, turned into PDFs, deposited into Dropbox and downloaded onto my iPad. But in Taiwan, I’d take that iPad into my favourite cafe, prop it up on my Bookchair and write notes into a projectbook. In blue ink. In fact, as I write this, a short essay of mine on DevonThink and historical research is going to press this October in the American Historical Association’s Perspectives. Among many things, it states my own uncertainty in the paperless dream.
I thought it was just me. But I’ve noticed it surfacing now more frequently, and I realized that I’ve been noticing it for a long time. Suddenly it seems like all my information streams, many of whom were on the cutting edge of every technological advance, have been starting to whisper: maybe, just maybe, we need to get back — just a little bit — to the physical.
Over here, a ‘Little Printer’, for which advance orders opened today: it’s a tiny printer which lives in your home, bringing you your own personalised digest of media subscriptions printed out on tiny receipts — ‘a timely, beautiful miniature newspaper’. The rebirth of the hard copy: a redaction of the paperless dream.
Over there, the observation that capturing thoughts on an iPhone is an incredibly tedious series of actions from ‘slide to unlock’ to ‘enter code’ to ‘open note program’ to ‘add new note’ — by which time the best fleeting thoughts are little more than a deflated snarl (god, what did I want to write here again?) He’s right: very few things are more frictionless than a scrap of paper to hand.
Over here, the observation that being on top of information all the time forecloses rather than feeds conversation. Disconnection is an opportunity for connection. ‘Did you hear the latest news?’ ‘No — tell me.’ Over there, some time ago, a similar thought: fast from information. And everywhere, a steady stream of Facebook deactivations, or else those who set up new accounts in an exasperated cull for ‘actual’ friends, or else those who, ensnared, continue while waxing cynical about the unbearable flatness of the online social world.
Cynicism, rather than thrill. When phrased like that, it’s a familiar story: what product, what rockstar, what book, what explanatory hypothesis does not go through such revisionism? But I think it would be wrong to view this as a step backward. Perhaps it’s not that we need to ‘get back’ to the physical, so much as discover, or invent, balance. I love the way Matt Webb, inventor of the Little Printer, put it: ‘We need to stop thinking about the physical and the digital as separate realms’. Isn’t this a precis for the 21st century? the story of DRM, of the crisis of the newspaper industry, of QR codes, of Netflix’s Qwikster debacle, of tenure review in the digital humanities, of Foursquare and Etsy… Yes, perhaps we do need, now, to reconcile ourselves to the persistence and interdependence of both, and to brace and innovate for a hybrid world, which may yet prove to be greater than the sum of its parts.
It’s been far too long since I’ve written something, but life has been clamorous and manic in the best possible way. Academic life here is thrilling & overwhelming. Every day brings new ideas, new opportunities, new conversations — this tiny town is teeming with remarkable people, and I am frequently bewildered that I should be here, astonished at & thankful for my good fortune. I’ve also found that my reading horizons have been abruptly prised open. In spending most of my academic life in one (wonderful) milieu, I’ve gotten to know a given constellation of authors by whose familiar lights I navigated my intellectual world. Now I walk under stranger stars, and it’s exciting to be here with an armful of uncharted books.
Files in DT
Many people have asked how I store files in DT. My general principle is to store archive material directly in the database, but to index (i.e. link externally to) PDFs of journal articles, which I store in the “Attachments” folder in Bookends (my preferred citation management software). You can do this by clicking and dragging a PDF into the database while holding Cmd+ option. This makes the article searchable within DT without duplicating it in both applications.
I don’t tend to use the RSS or web bookmarking features in DT, because I prefer to have all my material available with or without an Internet connection. If I want to use a web article, I tend to PDF it. YMMV according to how much of your research is based on web materials — for me, almost none.
I do use the wonderful Scrivener, and some of you noticed that my seventh label is in fact called “Scrivener”. I use this to mark documents in my database which I have copied into Scrivener’s research folder. I had one Scrivener project per thesis chapter, and extracted documents relevant to that chapter from DT into Scrivener. Labelling them in DT helped me avoid accidental duplication. This was more of a hack than a strategy — tedious, but it was late enough in the thesis game that it did what it needed to do. I need to think more about this, but a future post on Scrivener is definitely in order.
I’ve never used Sente or Papers (on the former, see the interesting exchange between Bruce Williamson and Peter Medway in the comments) but I did experiment with Evernote, and found it not quite to my liking. I’m not sure why — perhaps the lack of structure, or haphazardness, or the fact that for some reason uploading pictures from my iPhone just didn’t seem to work all that well for me. But I know many for whom it is an indispensable part of their workflow, so I’d still encourage anyone thinking about their research systems to give both a go. Finally, I gave up on Microsoft Word for Macs a long time ago, switched to the glorious Mellel (which integrates with Bookends), and never looked back.
I recently made a /mentoring page in response to an intriguing idea Diana Kimball launched into cyberspace a few days ago. I loved the idea immediately — in part because it celebrates, and makes explicit, a form of interaction which doesn’t always get formal due in academia: we build on the insights, wisdom and guidance of those who came before us, and pay the blessings forward to those who come after us. I learned this not by being told about it, but by being shown time and again, by mentors, that it was true. I love the insight that this isn’t unique to any one field or discipline or pursuit, but intrinsic to the way we develop as individuals and groups. I also love that, like real-world mentoring, /mentoring can occupy the whole spectrum of guidance, from a helpful one-off coffee or email all the way to the deep and meaningful collegiality of equals. I’m excited to see what happens.
In that vein, here is a great article on how to review journal articles, which junior academics may find useful (I certainly did). Take-home message: be nice, be prompt. Pay it forward, pass it on.