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Re: <nettime> Evgeny Morozov and the Perils of "Highbrow Journalism"
t byfield on Thu, 16 Oct 2014 21:52:07 +0200 (CEST)


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Re: <nettime> Evgeny Morozov and the Perils of "Highbrow Journalism"


On 15 Oct 2014, at 20:30, gab fest wrote:

> Organized envy sounds like a fair characterization. But the 
> organization is small and centered on a few friends and associates of 
> Medina. Then there are others engaging in opportunistic one-offs on 
> Twitter and Facebook, at various levels of engagement.

First: Morozov should have credited Medina's work more clearly *and* the
fabled editors and fact-checkers of _New Yorker_ should have helped to make
sure he did it right. Having said that...

As books about cybernetics go Medina's was a runaway hit, and with good
reason. She did original and meticulous research in an area that's both
easy and hard to define in that STS sort of way; and on that basis she
*wrote the book*, as they say. Though I wonder about waving this scandal
off as peculiar to a small group.

You put it well when you wrote:

> there has only been one notable book written about Cybersyn, and given 
> that limitation, it is easy to contend that the topic, the ideas it 
> generates and the primary sources are the "property" of the author of 
> that work.

But it's easy to do lots of things, so it's worth asking what makes
pillorying Morozov more appealing some other pressing STSish issue (say,
the sociotechnical clusterf-cks fueling ebola).

This kerfuffle says more about the precarious state of academia than it
says about Morozov (or about Medina, for that matter). In a more confident,
optimistic time, it's easy to imagine a lot of publicly collegial
high-fiving about Medina's work making it big and advancing the field's
stature, along with some private finger-wagging about sharing prestige.
Instead, what we got felt more like the resentful, righteous recriminations
of a group that's coping badly with an increasingly marginal status.

The fact that the 'community' in question is extremely articulate doesn't
help much -- if anything, it's a hindrance. They can make incredibly subtle
and detailed arguments about how and why what Morozov did was wrong, and
they can dress up those arguments in all kinds of finery: the young turk
who 'speaks truth to power,' the measured professional who's concerned for
the field, the sanguine ironist, etc.  Most of all they can invoke
venerable-sounding categories like 'scholarly norms' to back up their
arguments. But what they can't account for so well is how recent and
provisional these 'norms' are. The fact that they're new helps explain why
they're being asserted so aggressively in this case.

It's a bit like Graeber's argument in _Debt_: academics have the whole
foundation myth backwards. Adapting, summarizing, and occasionally
name-checking are the historical norm in nonfiction across many languages
and centuries. Compendious footnotes that meticulously cite every. single.
page. and. note. of. every. single. source are the novelty. Go to a
bookshelf and pick any widely influential work of nonfiction published in
the humanities or social sciences before, say, the mid-80s -- chances are
you'll find a referential style much closer to Morozov's than his critics'.
That's not universally true. There are fields where you're more likely to
find laborious, constructive documentation: legal-ish commentaries (secular
and religious), philology, biography, maybe mathematics. There are regional
and linguistic differences as well: for example the French were famously
lax, whereas Anglophones tended to approach it more like an exercise in
accounting.

Again, Morozov should've done a better job of crediting Medina's work, and
everyone should have been more attentive to the gender aspects. But too
many critics have batted around quantitative-lite factoids -- how many
paragraphs, how many mentions, how many years they've been reading the _New
Yorker_, etc. This shows just how much of the kerfuffle boils down to
accounting (and rules-based accounting at that). It's no mystery why. Every
academic knows that citations are the coin of the land and the key to the
kingdom: renewal, promotion, tenure.

If Morozov had typed MEDINA MEDINA MEDINA MEDINA MEDINA, there wouldn't be
a problem. But instead of a twitter-length point like that, we get this
kind of overinflated bouncycastle gothic:

> As I wrote in my last post: On Twitter, Meryl Alper pointed out that 
> there is an additional irony: Medina's "work highlights power 
> imbalances in knowledge production and circulation." The 
> Medina-Morozov affair is a story of power.

And indeed it is. But if *power* is the real issue, surely there are more
important stories to tell than whether Morozov typed Medina's name enough
times.

(I think "As I wrote in my last post" must be an incantation to ward off
accusations of "self-plagiarism," because the author crossed the "7-10 word
in one sentence" threshold of plagiarism -- as defined in an infographic he
cites, which "Scholars Passed around on Twitter in the Context of the
Medina-Morozov Affair." Seriously.)

*As I said on another mailing list,* Morozov's trajectory through academic
is almost sui generis. That doesn't mean the rules of academic don't apply
to him; but it does mean that we'd do well to take academics belaboring him
about the minutiae of newfound 'norms' with a grain of salt. And trusting
Anglophone academics to define the norms for crediting others is like
trusting oil companies to tell us what normal weather should be. They
can't. Their goals, values, and measures are trapped in an inflationary
spiral with consequences far beyond their field of expertise.

There's also an affirmative reason to question their assumptions as well.
Academic writing is becoming more and more unreadable, and the ever-growing
demands of scholarly apparatus are one of the main mechanisms of that
change. It may illuminate certain points here and there, but the systemic
effect is a sort of 'gravity' that distorts the text. In some fields or
contexts that's necessary, but not in all. If we don't distinguish which is
which, the fields where this kind of scaffolding is new will end up
following the fields where deference to authority -- whether physical or
political fact -- is the norm.

When I first read Morozov's piece I wondered how on earth he could describe
it as "entertaining" -- and wondered if there was a gender aspect to that.
Now I think, if anything, he was trying to do her a favor.

Cheers,
T


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