Reading Week Thesis Thinking

so, at the close of reading week, i’m starting to realize how little time is left in this term. in six weeks, i will have finished my coursework, and will start writing my thesis. in a little under three months, i have to hand in a final proposal of what this thesis is going to look like, what i’m going to talk about it, and how i’m going to write it.

it’s probably time to tackle that question. i like to write about it because, ultimately, this is a written production i’m making. i like to post these writings in the hope of comments, questions- anything that will help me understand my topic better or push me in new directions. thanks!

well what is this thesis about? in short- what can literary theory, specifically that surrounding 19th and 20th century comic novels (comic in the sense of ‘not tragic’, rather than ‘animated’), tell us about social and political critique as performed via social media, specifically via twitter. the question is not so ridiculous- i’ve tackled a couple of the bases of it already‎.

but really, how do we get from A to B? well, by choosing our corpus carefully. rather than writing about novels in general, which would be ridiculously broad, i’m writing about the ideas of a literary theorist- specifically Mikhail Bakhtin. Where we start is with polyphony: in the comic novel this is to say with many characters speaking with many voices from many different points of view. This speech does more than describe a single object or situation from more than one point of view: it tends to question whether such an object or situation can be singular at all. This is done all over the place in the late 19th and 20th centuries- Joyce, Woolf, and Dostoevsky all count examples of the style among their works. Describe Joyce’s Dublin from a singular point of view: you can do it, but you’ll be missing important details (important depending, again, on your frame of reference).

This is interesting, and explains a couple of things on Twitter for someone treating it as a literary object. The characters or profiles on Twitter are a wild mish-mash of real, dead, and fictional, their authors mostly anonymous. Some are serious, some are ironic, most are both at different times in different messages. When reading twitter responses to a political event (a debate, for example, or a protest), the literary critic is invited to do more than see the same object from multiple angles: s/he is invited to see different lived experiences of it, and to question its different significances to different people in different contexts. Twitter offers more facets through which the reader can perceive a lived experience (or a ‘story’), just as comic novels do.

(Tangent: Polyphony allows an author to say things that s/he couldn’t in an essay or an editorial, because there’s not really an underlying position to attack. It’s a lot easy to slip a folk tale through a government censor than it is a polemic, because the folk tale isn’t grounded in a particular ideology (though it can be dressed up in one) like an essay is.)

Does the rabbit hole go deeper? Of course it does. Bakhtin also talks about a particular kind of style which he calls the ‘carnavalesque‘. These stories, such as seen in Rabelais (which I realize is drastically before the 19th century) and again Dostoevsky, invert expected social norms and thus open society up to questioning, in the same way as medieval carnivals. This limited rupture with the norm helped strengthen society, but novelists were free to extend their literary carnivals, subjecting ideas to constant questioning and giving all views the same stature.

(Tangent: There are echoes here of the split between art and entertainment: art challenges our expectations and brings progress, whereas entertainment reaffirms those expectations and preserves the established order. )

This is interesting, because a reader of Twitter treating it as art, rather than as entertainment, can see there all kinds of subversions of established social order. Aside from the obvious juxtaposition of Barack Obama, the Prince of Wales, and the Curiosity rover in a single digital place, Twitter does not define a hierarchy between users, even though one can be inferred from a profile’s number of followers, retweets, &c. In the real world, this order is made explicit through offices, titles, reporting structures, and the media, but while people on Twitter can bring those titles with them to construct their online identity, the titles themselves hold no inherent power on the site. This dehierarchization allows new questions, dialogues, and discourses that were before impossible outside of literature.

So yes, what can literary theory tell us about Twitter? First, that different voices allow a richer understanding of the subjective experience of events and objects, and that a literary reader of Twitter can experience a similar effect when following a hashtag throughout an event. Second, that the reversal or questioning of social structures allows for the asking of new kinds of questioning, breaks taboos, and enriches discourse. But are literary or twitterary critiques given in isolation, or is there something more?

Enter Marc Angenot. Angenot’s theory is effectively that every utterance, spoken or written, influences and is influenced by the totality of all other utterances. This is to say that texts are interdiscursive, or that writers, authors, and readers in different fields have an impact on each other. Some literary works ‘change the conversation’ in a sudden, dramatic, manner. Others take a very long time to propagate very small impacts. They all, however, have a measure of impact on political, social, economic, and academic discourses, which are all influencing each other at the same time.

This would suggest, then, that things on Twitter also have an influence on other fields of discourse, whether this influence is literary or not. This seems true on the face of it- look at the explosion of news outlets posting hashtags and handles in their infographics, and integrating tweets into their comments from readers/viewers. A literary reader of Twitter, then, can not only see radically different views of the world collide in the form of diverse characters, not only see these collisions on a field somewhat liberated from real life social norms and conventions, but also understand that these exotic new particle collisions can have a broader impact. If that’s the case, it’s worth reading to understand what those impacts could be, and, in the case of certain people, how to influence the direction the cloud is drifting.

So that’s more or less the shape of it for now. It’s easy to blow off a tweet as ‘just some guy’s opinion’, but in most cases it’s a real guy, and a real opinion. His tweet is only a tiny fragment of the totality of his ideas and worldview, but it is a real part, and could in many cases be the only part you get to see. The increased diversity implied by having many, many writers of a text (who can each create multiple ‘characters’ if they want), rather than just one, merely offers a wider selection of viewpoints to compare, without pronouncing on the validity of any of them- that task best left to the reader. If we’re beyond looking for the objective truth of things, and are instead interested in the many ways things can be true subjectively, we can do worse than reading social media through the lens of literature.

Before the Summit: Towards Free Tuition, Cautiously

So here we are. the summit starts tomorrow. the fruit of last spring’s student movement, this gathering of dignitaries and ministers hopes to reconcile very different views of the future of Quebec’s education system, and thusly help the PQ minority government smother one possible spark for a politically costly mass mobilization campaign.

I don’t want to talk too much about the parliamentary politics in play here, mostly because i think it’s a little crass. The summit itself is non-partisan, and will surely provide equal time to all different view points- Kidding!

It seems a foregone conclusion that regardless of the recommendations that come out of this conference, students are most probably going to see their fees indexed to inflation. However, in a tricky rhetorical flourish, Pauline Marois has moved the goalposts: for her, indexing fees to inflation is the same as freezing them. It’s a clever trick- she can implement an indexation, thus asking students to pay more for their education every year (even as their wages are stagnant with unemployment high) while still arguing she froze tuition fees.

Of course, her definition is nonsense, and is contradicted by no less a public figure than Jacques Parizeau. He reminds us that tuition fees were initially (in 1968) set to $567 annually, and were frozen until 1989. The idea was to “allow inflation to reduce the burden on students”, a gradual move towards a free system. “A whole generation thought the same thing. They (today’s student activists) aren’t out of line, aren’t out of the norm.” The fact, then, that Marois is already redefining terms, and taking them out of their historic context, doesn’t bode well. Students can make elegant arguments in favour of a tuition freeze, a position I’m for in the short term, but they will be taken as arguments in favour of indexation.

There is more evidence that the outcome of this summit is a foregone conclusion, and that it will result in a bad decision for partisans of universally-accessible post-secondary education. The summit is going to focus on four major elements of discussion. The third is defined as ‘ensuring the evolution of university financing considering the capacity of Quebeckers to pay. These are muddy rhetorical waters- which Quebeckers? Including university students? excluding financial and resource corporations?

It gets uglier when you go to the tape (pdf). The PQ government reminds us in their section on this discussion topic (p.17) that they’ve planned to increase funding to universities by a third over what was planned by the Liberals through 2018, but then go on to suggest that some of this money should be used to ‘encourage philanthropy’ (wining, dining, and tickets to Cirque du Soleil no doubt) and to encourage ‘better financial and governance practices’. Should the money to make sure our education money is being well-spent be spent from the money we’re spending on education? The question makes me dizzy. We’re not talking here about who can really afford to pay increased tuition fees, and whether it would take a bigger bite out of my personal budget than a 1% capital tax on financial companies would on theirs (it would, proportionally).

This is a small example, but I invite you to read the material and see for yourselves that this summit has every appearance of a smokescreen to cover the politically risky imposition of an increase in tuition fees through indexation, rather than a gradual decrease as envisioned by the founders of Quebec’s public university system. I understand that free tuition, desirable as it is for a modern society trying to compete in a global information economy, is not going to happen tomorrow. Nor should it. I don’t want anyone’s taxes funding disasters like the Ilot Voyageur or Concordia executives’ golden parachutes. Hopefully some tangental good will come from other conversations at the summit, such as stricter oversight of university finances, or more funding for research- the real conversation, however, about our vision for higher education and Quebec’s place in the world, looks not to be for tomorrow either.

So, what is reasonable to hope for, given an intransigent government and a hostile media? I’m personally in favour of maintaining a freeze on tuition while we look at ways to make the system more accessible and of higher quality. An indexation to inflation, however, in an unstable economic climate, is a hardship waiting to happen, especially among the most vulnerable student populations, particularly women and First Nations (pdf). Bloquons la hausse.

It’s a question of vision. I believe in a universally-accessible, world-class university system, producing new research and new art, mostly in French, made in Quebec, and promoting us around the world as the best place in the world for a young person to be. I believe in progressive taxation of major financial and resource companies to get us there. But I’m prepared to be patient. Let’s freeze it today and keep the momentum moving towards tuition zero. But let’s not forget to do our own work in the meantime- improving our schools in the ways we can, building networks across institutional borders, and sharing our work and research. Towards free tuition, cautiously.

why joyce murray should be taken seriously for the Liberal leadership

the federal liberal leadership race has looked sown up for a long time. aside from marc garneau (himself a rich, famous montrealer) calling out justin trudeau for being a rich, famous montrealer who lacks the courage of his convictions, the campaign has passed effectively in silence. in what way are these new Liberals going to be any different from michael ignatieff’s disastrous 2011 squad?

m. trudeau, if elected, will surely come under the most withering assault imaginable from the Conservative media machine. the ad men are prepared for him, make no mistake. thomas mulcair may have had a gentler ride than either m. dion or m. ignatieff (uncle Jack’s parting gift, no doubt), but m. trudeau is in for one hell of a grilling. ‘he is no self-made man like stephen harper is’, ‘he has no economic experience, unlike stephen harper’, ‘he’s not a Strong Leader like stephen harper’- these lines worked against messrs. dion and ignatieff. if those two were ‘wimpy’ intellectuals, but trudeau is a ‘charismatic’ one, will  it make a difference?

some will argue that it does, and that justin is what is needed to bring the party into the future. maybe that’s true. trudeau is against ‘tough-on-crime’ legislation, and wants to support community programs. his stance on sovereignty, that’s to say a two-thirds majority is needed for anything to happen, is coherent, if unpopular among ndp voters in quebec (which last time was basically everybody).

but this is the thing. we already know that 60% of the country is going to vote for a platform along those lines. it’s not that there are no good ideas in politics right now, it’s that good ideas can’t get implemented. the political machine in canada is badly broken. the PMO has more power than it’s ever had, and omnibus legislation is getting rammed  through a stacked  system which senators steal from.

everywhere in the country, if the liberals run on a ‘Stop Harper’ platform, they and the NDP (who we had may as well just call the ‘Stop Harper Party’ anyway) are going to cannibalize each others’ votes. Aside from the Great Quebec Wild Card (the Bloc are not dead, Option Nationale/Québec Solidaire have not disappeared, and the Maple Spring is not over), the result is predictable in an ‘any Liberal’ v. Mulcair v. Harper election: the left leftists vote NDP, the middle leftists vote Liberal, and everyone else, the whole gamut from libertarians to red tories, about 40% of people per riding, vote Conservative. this has happened before. it keeps happening. how to go from this stalemate to a responsible government?

ask joyce murray, endorsed this week by David Suzuki. you can read an official policy paper on her web zone, but i’ll just quote a highlight: “Where appropriate, Liberals will cooperate with local NDP and Green riding associations to put forward the strongest candidate — the one best able to take that seat from a Conservative.” This would of course allow them to form a government, and then “create a fair, representative electoral system” which among other things “(d)elivers sound, evidence-based policies that will better position Canada to respond to the challenges ahead”. this is simply good sense.

we have real problems coming down the pipe, and we are going to need a responsible government that makes sound long-term decisions. it needs to reflect and inform the national discourse. this no longer seems possible: endless electioneering, whether a legitimate political tactic or not, lowers the quality of discourse. if we’re speaking in sound bytes, we’re not saying anything. joyce murray wants to Stop Harper, then reform parliament, and i’m game. ndp candidate nathan cullen was up for it too. we don’t need to disturb the foundational parts of the constitution to get radically better results in our lawmaking and policy-setting. once the reform is discussed then implemented, have the Governor General dissolve the government and hold an election under the new rules.

no-one suggests that this is going to be an easy. what specific kind of electoral reform do we want? reform the senate, or abolish it? these are tricky questions, which is exactly why next election progressives want to run the strongest candidate possible in every riding, regardless of their party affiliation. but make no mistake: a coalition is urgent. do we really want to risk losing this next election? what will Canada look like in 2019 after 13 years of Conservative rule? will we recognize it at all? joyce murray, at least, is serious about Stopping Harper. i hope you are too.

why the penny may be more useful than you think

So as of today, the penny is dead. The CBC have posted a nice obituary, something for us to remember the little guy by. And ultimately, it’s for the best. You haven’t been able to buy anything useful with a penny for a long time, and, if some politicians get their wish, you won’t be using nickels for much longer, either.

Now, there’s an assumption in the above paragraph that passed without notice, but which is worthy of considering further. What can you buy with a penny? As it stands, right now, not much. What about with many pennies? Well, it depends how many. Facebook, it turns out, makes around two cents per user per month, after costs are taken into consideration. It doesn’t sound like much, but considering that there are somewhere in the ballpark of 300 million users on the site, it adds up. Now, I don’t want to talk too much about Facebook here- $64 million profit is a triffle (not trifle) for a company of its size.

But let’s think. Let’s imagine for a moment that there is a way to make micro payments on the internet. Let’s say it costs a tenth of a cent to open a Facebook page, a penny to post an image on reddit, maybe a nickel to read an article on the Globe and Mail. For the individual, assuming they look at Facebook three times a day, and consult an average of 20 pages per visit: we’re looking at about 6 cents a day for Facebook usage. Assuming they post five images a week to reddit, we’re looking at 5 cents. These amounts would add up, eventually, and real internet junkies may need to change their surfing habits, but ultimately we’d be looking at paying for content on the internet based entirely on what we view, and with total costs adding up to about the same amount as you pay for your physical connection. For the companies making these tiny amounts from many different users, their revenue base would explode.

There are, of course, problems. First, people aren’t used to paying for content on the internet. Would they unplug en masse? It seems unlikely, given the internet’s ubiquity- besides, it would seem well worth it to pay the equivalent of one five-hundredth of a stamp to send a message to a friend. Second, people would need to make some sort of account which is connected to their banking information, which would necessarily imply a link to their real identity. Would they stop posting upon needing to use their real name? The number of users on Facebook and Twitter using their real names would seem to be a counterpoint, and, if no-one on the internet is anonymous, it seems less likely anyone would be particularly bothered by it.

The third problem is the really interesting one. What would change in the internet’s architecture if it cost something, even something very small, to post? Because it currently costs nothing to instagram a picture of your breakfast, people do it. There is, in other words, no barrier to entry to writing on the internet, and so there is effectively no quality control. Look at this the other way: a newspaper charges readers to read it, so it must ensure a certain level of coherence with the expected standards of its target audience. A blogger, who charges nothing, has no such responsibility. Which model is better?

This is a philosophical question to which I have no answer, but whose sides I can outline. The free internet, proponents go, is necessary to ensure intellectual progress. If we put any sort of limit on how much information a user can consult or contribute, we necessarily stifle innovation. Think of the classic case of Bolivian Einstein, who can no longer spend his or her days consulting wikipedia and ehow in order to build a fusion reactor for the family farm. The profusion of poor-quality information/writing/art on the internet is a necessary side-effect of total free access: how will a bad artist get good without a forum to display her work? How can we prevent inaccurate information from being posted without sweeping up a lot of other controversial, but pertinent, content in the drag net?

The other side, the side that says the internet should cost ‘not nothing’ has ready counterarguments. The impact of a small cost is more psychological than anything: it will prevent people from aimlessly blowing time on the internet, forcing them to narrow their research and surfing to its most important functions. For some, the essential is Facebook. For others, its Wikipedia. The consumer is free to decide where to spend his penny slivers, but he should be compelled to spend them. His small contribution, along with that of hundreds of thousands of others, will ensure the viability of the websites he uses, and the armies of coders, editors, journalists, and contributors who give their lives to them. Some sort of guaranteed revenue would make it more likely that creative workers would establish their own webspaces, and take the time to make them of the highest quality.

There is a brutal market logic in this retort that is hard to deny. Newspapers have figured this out the hard way: if they have no online section, their readers go to free online sources rather than buy the paper. If they have a free online section, the user stops buying the hard copy. It is only when all of the major newspapers are behind paywalls online (as will soon be the case in Canada), and the consumer has no choice but to pay for content, that they can afford to pay their contributors and staff. Investigative journalism costs something, and who should pay but the readers?

The same logic applies to all kinds of visual and textual artists. Their work costs something to make: these people need to eat, live somewhere, get around, and even (gasp!) have some money to enjoy themselves. In the absence of a radical revamp of the grant system in Canada, the money is not going to fall from the sky, and so micro payments (that’s to say, payments of less than a nickel) would be a one possible option to ensure that they have some revenue.

And so some questions for reflection: Is total accessibility fundamental to the quality or character of the internet? Is there a way to integrate banking and payment information to an internet account while allowing the user a measure of anonymity online (like how authors use pseudonyms for their ‘pulp’ work)? What would change about our individual internet use if we were billed per page view? How would such a system be handled internationally? A nickel for your thoughts.

Reappropriating Urban Space

This weekend, I had the pleasure of visiting the ABC:MTL exhibit at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. While a number of exhibits jumped out at me, the one that I’m still thinking about on Monday deals with Building 7 in Pointe-Saint-Charles.

Building 7 is effectively an old train shed, built in the 1920s, and abandoned by CN Rail in 2003. A strong artistic and activist community nearby has been appropriating the space since its abandonment for use as arts studios and a community meeting place. The building was sold in 2006 to developers Groupe Mach for $1, on the condition that Groupe Mach would decontaminate the site. These developers were at odds for some time with the local activists, but in 2012 an agreement was reached, which would give the 7 à nous committee ownership of the building, a necessary arrangement to allow the development of the rest of the site.

There’s a number of interesting things here. First, it’s important to note that the overall trend in Montréal (and other big cities) is to construct condos on every available piece of land, in theory to maximize revenues. If a hundred-unit condo project can bring in revenues touching the tens of millions, why would any economically rational land-owner build anything but? The Griffintown development has come under fire for justly this- the construction of condos to the exclusion of everything else is no way to build a healthy, sustainable neighbourhood.

In a system where private, non-resident landowners, in collaboration with a city government keen to increase its tax base, are able to decide on the use of the land they own and manage, space for the community becomes hard to promote. It is normal that a non-resident land-owner would be concerned solely with the return on their investment, rather than establishing winning conditions for a vibrant, durable neighbourhood. It is thus normal that community and artistic groups are shunted to the sidelines and forced to appropriate economically ‘non-productive space’ to house their activities.


Well. The second interesting thing about Building 7 is the fact that the land itself is contaminated. While the developers are responsible for the costs of cleaning up this land, it is still likely that if their plans for condo development go ahead, they stand to make a lot of money. There is an interesting rupture here- the developer might clean the land to put up a culturally dead space, whereas the community groups occupying it have no means to decontaminate the space they occupy, even though they are cultivating a cultural vivacity. While the establishment of a cultural centre does not necessarily imply a high need for start-up capital, the fact that these centres are pushed to economically marginal land in turn heaps obligations on them, throttling their growth.

Consider this. There is a lot of unused, formerly industrial land all over the ‘rust-belt’, loosely defined as the former manufacturing cities stretching from Ohio into Quebec. This land tends to be on the margins of 1950s downtowns, is often contaminated, and is generally poorly-suited to residential use (short of knocking down the structures, decontaminating, and then rebuilding, not that this stops developers from ‘loft conversion’ programs). The recession of 2008 created a whole lot of commercial vacancy as well- only time will tell whether these buildings will be reused for offices and businesses, or whether they too will become abandoned, in search of occupants. In any case, there is an abundance of abandoned property in this area of the world: structures crumbling, land poisoned, devoid of people and purpose.

At the same time, the land in urban cores is being built increasingly higher as developers struggle to wring every last cent from their investments. There is no room in such constructions for artistic space: at the limit, a forward-thinking developer will content themselves with luxury boutiques on the first floor and a green roof and call it a day. As land is bought, services are squeezed out, leaving a housing monoculture in place.

The solution, as the 7 à nous activists (and many others!) realized is to reappropriate the existing space. Once they are occupying it, the owner is forced to deal with them. Because the owner does not occupy the space, and is motivated by economic considerations, the activists have a leg up in their dealings, being able to demonstrate the value of the work they do. Inhabiting the space, whether such an occupation is legal or not, is the surest tactic to reclaim it.

Before we all go out and set up studios in abandoned rail yards, it’s worth underlining the importance of bylaws and regulation. A fire yesterday killed hundreds in Brazil- lack of emergency exits and poor crowd control, as well as a toxic, flammable ceiling, appear to be to blame. I myself have been to parties in abandoned spaces in Montréal where a quick evacuation would be next to impossible, and it is our good fortune only that prevented such an occurrence. As hard as it is to see private developers and the city profiting from the homogenization of available space, we must take care not to throw the baby out with the bathwater: the safety regulations surrounding use of buildings are there for a reason, co-operation with police and firefighters is absolutely necessary in the case of an emergency, and the collaboration of private capital and the city is often necessary to ensure the environmental health of abandoned sites.

And so here is the point. We should be thinking about ways to collaborate effectively with stakeholders to improve the cultural health of our communities. Developers should be forced to take some sort of long position in the properties they are responsible for, ensuring that once the initial sales phase is complete, they have some meaningful stake in the health of the community (ensuring, in other words, that the space continues to be desirable into the long-term). This would force them to a recognition of the value of social and cultural services in the fabric of a neighbourhood, and its durability. The city, for its part, should take a more active role in such development, for example by matching community groups needing space to developers creating it, in order to avoid quasi-legal occupations such as that of Building 7. Yes, occupying the space is great leverage, but in a perfect world, it would not be necessary for culture workers to inhabit diseased land in order to gain use of it. The city too must recognize the value of activist contributions to a place’s vibrancy.

Activists should have allies, from both the top and the bottom. The Quebec government is keen to promote and valourise francophone culture in Montréal, which they distrust for its multiculturalism. By supporting local cultural organisations, they build a network capable of furthing this goal, and by forcing the inclusion of public space in new developments, they may be able to arrest the flow of young families from the city to the suburbs. For their part, local activists would welcome opportunities to sit at the table with landowners and be taken seriously, with their preoccupations and experience taking the place of purely economic considerations surrounding the use of our land.

The space we occupy is important, and decolonising and revalourising it should be a priority.