Rappers on bicycles


As an enthusiast of both rap and cycling, I’ve been interested in rap music’s intermittent engagement with that alternative means of transportation, the bicycle. Make no mistake: in hip-hop, the car is king. Rappers have made household names of luxury brands such as Maybach and Bugatti — but what of Colnago or Cervelo?

First of all, forget road bikes and drop bars. The BMX bicycle is the conveyance of choice, sometimes slung low like Harleys with high-rise handlebars.


Not surprisingly, these miniature bicycles inspire considerable nostalgia in the artists who rap about them. The bicycle is associated with fond memories from childhood; Jay-Z boasts how he “[u]sed to wheelie bicycles since I was six.” The boy on a bicycle is the starting point of the rapper’s story — a boy on the come up. The bike itself becomes at times a symbol of the slender means one has moved past. “Trump Tower and I started with a ten speed,” Rick Ross says in “Sixteen”; Gucci Mane (“Swing my Door”) describes his rags-to-riches trajectory as going from a 10 speed to a Bentley.

Learning to ride a bicycle is one of those pivotal mythical moments in the formation of autonomous identity, and so it stands to reason that the rapper’s story would begin there. Autonomy brings potential, of course, but also peril, as you are exposed to accidents and injuries from which you were previously protected. Hova’s wheelies aside, the bicycle is generally not a site of childhood play in rap music, but an instrument of work, used in low-level street drug dealing and other criminal activities. Jeezy stashes drugs in “inner tubes like the tires on my Mongoose” (“Trap or Die”). Lil Wayne warns that he and his crew will “pop up on bicycles, pop y’all like spot pimples” (“Bring it Back”). The bicycle is situated somewhat uneasily between youth and age, play and work.

The bike is unique of road vehicles in being powered by human exertion. Perhaps rappers are generally not shown riding a bike because they are imagined as having transcended the necessity of physical labor.


An important iconographic subgenre shows rappers riding on the front handlebars as someone unseen pedals the bike: Snoop Dogg “rolling down the street” in a Pittsburgh Penguins jersey in the video for “Gin and Juice” or, more recently, this beautiful photo of A$AP Rocky being carried through the Manhattan city streets, below:


Like any arcane topic, this one has been curated online. See the 2012 gallery “Pictures of Rappers on Bicycles,” from which I believe all of the images of this post are taken.

A little thing

UCR Fund Recipient

So much has been written already about the recent online beef between Rebecca Schuman (@pankisseskafka), the adjunct faculty member, higher ed blogger and journalist, and the historian Claire Potter, aka “Tenured Radical” (@tenuredradical); I am not eager to add one thing more. The occasion of the Schuman-Potter dispute was the revelation on Rebecca’s blog that the English department of the University of California at Riverside would not contact those it intended to interview for its tenure-track position (in American literature before 1900) until January 3, less than a week before the MLA convention in Chicago. Schuman wrote the blog post about this news that went viral; in response, Potter wrote the blog post attempting, somewhat peremptorily, to shut down the controversy as an isolated and irrational instance of academic “rage.”

I objected then, as I do now, to the personal and somewhat condescending terms of Potter’s assessment. I understand anger at a broken system to be more than “merely” personal. In response to this flare-up, Chuck Rybak, Timothy Burke and others have issued sensible calls for solidarity between adjuncts and those on the tenure-track. As these bloggers observe, both populations of university employees are subject to the same forces at the hands of university presidents; both populations too make a small part of a much larger trend toward the casualization of employment in the U.S. and elsewhere.

The dispute between Schuman and Potter has quieted down in the meantime, though a general climate of dis-ease remains in the run-up to the MLA convention. How could it not? The deep inequities of a broken system show more dramatically these days. What faith can we bestow in a “profession” that (as quite a few perceive it) has disappeared in all but name? Why do we ask job-seekers and adjunct faculty to defend institutions that have shown them no favors? What loyalty to the preservation and maintenance of tenure can we expect from those who have been systemically excluded from participation in it?

When I created an Indiegogo campaign to help send to MLA those chosen by UCR for an interview, I wanted a way to contribute to a heated conversation then passing without participating directly in it. I created the campaign to show my support for Rebecca, a writer I greatly respect and admire even where I disagree with some of her opinions. Admittedly, I created the campaign from a sense of anger too, much less at UCR than at Potter’s attempt to rationalize and shut down criticism of its practice. (It took virtually no time to establish an account with Indiegogo and create the campaign — certainly less time than it took Tenured Radical to write a seemingly disinterested follow-up post on the importance of preserving social media etiquette.) Above all, I created the campaign in a gesture of solidarity with graduate students and adjuncts on the academic job market.

To date, 27 people have contributed more than $800 to this hastily-produced campaign. (I chose the fundraising goal more or less arbitrarily; that the campaign is not likely to reach the established goal is I think no indication of its having been a failure.) Contributions came from friends, colleagues, and strangers; from the tenured, junior faculty on the tenure track, adjunct faculty, and graduate students (some of them on the market themselves). Contributions came from academics from fields outside English, and from non-academics as well.

Some may think the gesture misplaced, or mean-spiritedly directed at UCR on account of a technical error. To the latter objection: I am not personally acquainted with anyone in the UCR English department. At the end of the day, moreover, I am glad and grateful that UCR has a tenure line open at all, and that they choose to interview for a specialist in “old” material (being a person who works on such material myself). I wish them the best of luck in their search.

That a fundraising campaign targeted to assist those interviewing at one school does not solve larger problems with the academic job market seems obvious, and somewhat beside the point. I am delighted that the contributions received will help one candidate who has stepped forward at least. But the campaign does not pretend to solve anything so much as its gesture intends, in a small way, to make visible the extent of the problem.

Many thanks are due to the contributors to this campaign — you know who you are — and to those many of you who helped me get the word out about it. I want particularly to acknowledge the assistance of Jonathan Goya (@jkgoya), Lee Skallerup (@readywriting), and the inimitable Rebecca Schuman.

Wordsworth on the senses

I recently delivered to Cambridge University Press the final version of a short (ca. 3500 word) essay for the book Wordsworth in Context, edited by Andrew Bennett.  I include roughly the first half of that essay here.  Parenthetical references refer to the Cornell Wordsworth editions and to the Prose Works from Oxford, the standard scholarly editions.  BL refers to Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria from the Princeton Collected Works of Coleridge.  The image below, dated 1800, is a dig at Frenchified sensuality by Wordsworth’s contemporary Thomas Rowlandson.Gratification-of-the-senses-a-la-mode-francois-Rowlandson-LWL-729x1024

   Few poets before or since Wordsworth have made sensation and the bodily senses more central to their poetic theory and practice.  Wordsworth’s famous ‘experiment’ in literary language, as articulated at the outset of the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, is conceived as a venture to impart pleasure ‘by fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation’ (LB, 741). From the beginning of this programmatic document, Wordsworth makes the representation and/or evocation of sense experience central to his poetic project in at least three related ways. Wordsworth asserts, first, that the poetry concerns itself with particularly elevated expressions of passion or feeling (‘vivid sensation’), either on the part of the lyric speaker or of the characters depicted, or both.  Second, this experiment in poetic representation is principally designed to produce pleasure; as Lionel Trilling observed years ago, Wordsworth’s commitment to what he calls the ‘grand elementary principle of pleasure’ (LB, 752) and to the centrality of pleasure to poetry is virtually unprecedented in literary history.[1] Finally, Wordsworth designates poetic meter as a privileged medium for the communication of vivid sensation, either raising passion or lowering it as required for the poet’s specific purposes.

            With such statements, Wordsworth establishes the dependence of poetry, as much as the poet, on the senses, and on the ‘elementary feelings’ that follow from them (LB, 743).  In some of the most characteristically Wordsworthian lyrics – ‘The Solitary Reaper’ or ‘I wandered lonely as a Cloud,’ for instance – the physical and cognitive activity of sensing takes center stage, to become the focus of representation as much almost as the perceived object itself.  Seemingly simple impressions of seeing or hearing reverberate in the speaker’s mind long after its passing: ‘The music in my heart I bore, / Long after it was heard no more’ (PTV, 185). The senses are thus directly connected to poetic inspiration, and serve as vehicles of self-expression: in Wordsworth’s famous formula, ‘Poetry…takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity’ (LB, 756), which in representing also re-creates the ‘powerful feelings’ that lay at its source. But Wordsworth makes clear too that both poet and poetry are dependent on a generalized ‘atmosphere’ of feeling, and on sensations that may be singular in nature but are attached to no determinate subject position.[2] Of the poet, Wordsworth writes: ‘though the eyes and senses of man are, it is true, his favorite guides, yet he will follow wheresoever he can find an atmosphere of sensation in which to move his wings’ (LB, 753). This ‘atmosphere’ belongs to no single person, or belongs to all: ‘…this whole Vale, / Home of untutored Shepherds as it is, / Swarms with Sensation’ (HG, 664-6). The poet endowed, as Wordsworth asserts in the Preface, with a greater than usual proportion of ‘organic sensibility’ (LB, 745) is the one who detects this atmosphere most keenly and is most responsive to changes within it.

Wordsworth’s conception of poetry as an art of sensation brings that art into conversation with the contemporary sciences of the senses, the science of physiology principal among them. Though Wordsworth is remembered for having famously decried the scientific rationalist as one who ‘murder[s] to dissect’ (‘The Tables Turned,’ LB, 109), he was in fact deeply invested in the scientific topics and debates of the day. The Wordsworths were acquaintance with several leading scientific figures, including Humphry Davy and Thomas Beddoes. David Hartley’s neuro-physiological account of mind has long been recognized as a durable influence in Wordsworth’s work. More recently, literary historians have perceived links between Wordsworth’s poetic theory and practice and a number of contemporary physiologists and medical theorists, including Erasmus Darwin, physician, poet, and figurehead of the Midlands enlightenment; William Cullen, one of the leading figures of the prestigious Edinburgh medical school; and the Scottish physician John Brown, the controversial and influential opponent of Scottish medical orthodoxy.[3] In 1798 Wordsworth wrote to the publisher Joseph Cottle to request a copy of Darwin’s ‘Zoönomia by the first carrier,’ citing ‘very particular reasons for doing’ (28 Feb or 7 Mar 1798, EY, 199). The poem ‘Goody Blake and Harry Gill,’ which Wordsworth describes in the 1798 ‘Advertisement’ to Lyrical Ballads as based on ‘well-authenticated fact’ (LB, 739), was almost certainly drawn from a medical anecdote included in Darwin’s influential book.

Wordsworth’s poetic theory and practice is closely informed by these contemporary medical contexts, and more generally by a deep vein of empiricist thought that had flourished in Great Britain from the late seventeenth century onward. Of Romantic poets, perhaps only Keats insists more strongly on the power of the bodily senses to do the work otherwise charged to forms of abstract ratiocination. In ‘Expostulation and Reply,’ for instance, the poet addresses an interlocutor ‘who was somewhat unreasonably attached to modern books of moral philosophy’ (LB, 355-6):

The eye it cannot chuse but see,

We cannot bid the ear be still;

Our bodies feel, where’er they be,

Against, or with our will.

In the jocular debate that the poet conducts with his friend, the ceaselessness of bodily feeling is taken as an argument against the necessity of book learning. Wordsworth’s preference for truths immediately and vividly disclosed by the body and its senses informs his critique of abstract systems of moral philosophy (see the ‘Essay on Morals’, Prose, I, 103-4) and of poetic personification in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads.

As committed as Wordsworth obviously is to the primacy of the senses, the poet’s powerful apprehension of the limitations of ‘mere’ bodily experience is equally notable. Wordsworth and Coleridge both write of the ‘despotic’ character of the eye (1805 Prelude, 11.174; BL, II, 107); the suspicion that Wordsworth bears towards the conventionally most privileged of the senses applies, albeit to a lesser degree, to all of them, at least so far as they are capable of achieving ‘dominion’ over the mind (1805 Prelude, 11.174; BL, II, 107). The poet is similarly critical of literary genres, notably that of gothic fiction, which in relying for their considerable popularity on the production of violent readerly effects seem to pander to what Wordsworth unsparingly refers to a ‘degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation’ (LB, 747).[4] Wordsworth’s great poetic narratives of intellectual and imaginative development, The Prelude and ‘Tintern Abbey’ especially, associate maturation with an access of visionary power accompanied by the suspension or momentary dimming of the physical senses. As William Empson demonstrated, ‘sense’ is an extraordinarily polyvalent term in Wordsworth’s poetry, signifying either a primitive excitement of the physical senses or the highest intellectual exercise, or often both at the same time.[5] Wordsworth’s poetry frequently expresses considerable ambivalence as to whether vivid sense experiences are valuable in themselves or only valuable insofar as they serve as a prompt or foundation to thoughts of a higher order.

These equivocations may not ultimately be hedges against unbridled materialism (and the associated taint of immorality or irreligion) so much as reflections of the indeterminate status of aesthetic experience as at once physical and cognitive in its origin. In contrast to ‘sense,’ ‘sensation’ in Wordsworth generally refers to experiences that combine the intellectual and bodily affection. Proceeding from the ‘feeling intellect’ (1805 Prelude, 13.205), they count among that class of experiences that a later generation than Wordsworth’s will call ‘aesthetic.’ Aesthetics, the branch of philosophical inquiry concerned with the nature of the beautiful and of art, took its name in eighteenth-century German philosophy from the Greek term for sense-perception; from its inception this field was concerned with forms of physical and psychological response. In the first of his influential Spectator essays on the subject, Joseph Addison situated ‘the pleasures of the imagination’ in an intermediary zone between sensations and ideas.As the bodily senses are a necessary but not sufficient condition of aesthetic perception, aesthetic perceptions belong to the class of experience that the poet calls ‘[t]hose hallowed and pure motions of the sense / Which seem in their simplicity to own / An intellectual charm’ (1799, 1.383-5). ‘Poetry, ‘the history or science of feelings’ as Wordsworth defines it in his 1800 note to ‘The Thorn,’ (LB, 351), is the paradigmatic aesthetic form of Romanticism in furnishing at once an effusion of powerful feeling and a form of sophisticated reflection on it.

[1]  Lionel Trilling, “The Fate of Pleasure,” in The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent: Selected Essays, ed. Leon Wieseltier (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2000), 427-449. 

[2]  Contemporary affect theory has emphasized the trans-subjective character of affect and feeling.  See for instance Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004). In Romantic studies see especially Kevis Goodman, British Romanticism and Georgic Modernity: Poetry and the Mediation of History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), and Mary A. Favret, War at a Distance: Romanticism and the Making of Modern Wartime (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).

[3]  On Wordsworth’s indebtedness to Darwin, see Richard Matlak, ‘Wordsworth’s Reading of Zoonomia in Early Spring,’ The Wordsworth Circle 21 (1990), 76-81; and Alan Richardson, British Romanticism and the Science of the Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). On Wordsworth and Cullen, see my Science and Sensation in Romantic Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), esp. 75-80, 84-8. Paul Youngquist discusses Wordsworth’s aesthetics in relation to John Brown’s medical theory in ‘Lyrical Bodies: Wordsworth’s Physiological Aesthetics,’ European Romantic Review, 10:2 (1999), 152-62.

[4]  On Wordsworth’s ambivalence with respect to the gothic’s production of vivid sensory effects, see especially Karen Swann, ‘Suffering and Sensation in “The Ruined Cottage,”’ PMLA 106, no. 1 (January 1991): 83-95.

[5] William Empson, ‘Sense in the Prelude,’ in The Structure of Complex Words (New York: New Directions, 1951), 289-305.


Of borrowed words on social media


A few weeks ago, when the Affordable Care Act went into effect and was fitfully launched, I had a thought that I thought would be mildly amusing to share on Twitter: what if, instead of working with government contractors at great cost to build the plagued website, Obama had simply gone through GoDaddy? Before tweeting I did a Twitter search for “Obama” and “GoDaddy” (which, if you don’t know, is the web hosting company famed most of all for its repulsively sexist SuperBowl commercials); and, well, it turns out that many others had tweeted more or less exactly the same thought.  So I abstained from adding one more variation on what had become a hackneyed and unoriginal theme for a joke.  (I’d say, “leave the jokes to the professionals” — but then again, Jay Leno and Jimmy Kimmel are professionals.)

This experience, and some recent instances on Twitter of word theft (or something like it), got me wondering about the status of borrowed words on the platform and on social media more broadly.  If you search “Twitter” and “plagiarism,” you will find plenty of people dissatisfied with the ease with which words are lifted and recirculated without attribution.  Twitter’s terms of service includes a copyright policy that emphasizes “the intellectual property rights of others,” and proposes a formal procedure in cases where copyright infringement is suspected.  Spend any time on Twitter, however, and you will encounter numerous instances of (largely) unnoticed, tolerated or simply overlooked, essentially unenforceable theft — that is, beyond the predictable but otherwise quite innocent levels of banality and unoriginality (such as in the instance above) that you will witness when thousands of people comment on any passing event of note. 

It is often observed (see “Further reading,” below) that the understanding of authorship and of what constitutes plagiarism is changing dramatically in the digital age — so much so that some scholars (Chandrasoma et al., 2004) question whether we should preserve the category of “plagiarism” at all.  The transformation in the concept of authorship is understood to be taking place largely as a byproduct of what Henry Jenkins calls “participatory culture.”  This phrase refers to the widespread transformation of cultural consumers into cultural producers, or (as one might more skeptically put it) to the increasing indiscernibility of production and consumption in the age of Web 2.0.  A participatory culture is one in which thresholds for cultural production are low and cultural objects circulate freely, often without regard to standards of single authorship.  Included in this domain are a wide variety of digital practices such as file sharing; participation on sites such as online bulletin boards, blogs, and social media; the culture of remix and mashup, widely assisted by the easy appropriation of digital materials; and a culture of collaborative, largely uncredited work, for which Wikipedia is one obvious model.     
In such a culture, it is generally agreed, plagiarism — though never a wholly transparent concept to begin with — loses some coherency in many teaching and learning contexts.  Like other cultural objects of sound or image, texts can be manipulated, appropriated, “remixed,” drawn from multiple sources, and collaboratively altered or produced.  If the 21st-century author is better understood as a collaborator with others and with systems of texts rather than an isolated individual producer of wholly original content, perhaps plagiarism has exhausted its utility as a concept.  Chandrasoma et al. go so far as to suggest that “students and staff do away with the notion of plagiarism altogether” (172), to embrace instead a more open-ended and context-dependent distinction between “transgressive and nontransgressive intertextuality.” 

Let us provisionally accept this substitution, ungainly as the terms are, and agree to consider tweets not as subject to plagiarism so much as to acts of transgressive and nontransgressive intertextuality.  Were I, having performed a Twitter search beforehand, to have gone ahead and tweeted a lame joke how Obama should have commissioned the site from GoDaddy, my act (I presume) would be one of the nontransgressively intertextual sort.  No authorial rights were harmed in the making of this (hypothetical) tweet.

Consider some other examples of borrowed words on Twitter, however, and the line between transgressive and nontransgressive use becomes more difficult to define and defend.  Example one: some weeks ago, a joke (provenance unknown) about Miley Cyrus and Home Depot

circulated widely on Twitter — so much so that its frequent circulation without attribution became a widely-circulated complaint in its own right. (for instance here: Later, the “original” jest was modified to become a joke about Marina Abramovic: 

Having circulated thus far widely and without attribution as a joke about Miley Cyrus, had the format of the joke acquired the status of a meme, making it subject to legitimate (nontransgressive) reappropriation?  If that is the case, was its nontransgressive intertextuality only acquired by repeated unattributed recirculation of the earlier tweet?

Example two is an ostensibly more clear-cut case of plagiarism, in which a tweet in September by Twitter user @angry_prof

was in November tweeted word-for-word without attribution by @GradElitism:
What followed was like an episode from a modern-day academic morality play: an initial reply from @angry_prof, followed by a series of incensed and condemnatory tweets from users including @CrankyStudent, @[Shit]AcademicsSay, and @ResearchGosling — like @angry_prof and @GradElitism, all of these anonymous (as far as I know) accounts. What one witnessed in this case was a situation, both bizarre and I think only bound to become more frequent in time, in which at stake was the right of one anonymous account to own and be credited for words that had been purloined by another.  (Not knowing the creators of either account, I can’t exclude the possibility that @angry_prof and @GradElitism are accounts operated by the same person.) The charge of plagiarism or of “transgressive intertextuality” in this instance represented a case in which the claims of copyright were asserted, but independently of the individual legal persons which copyright exists to protect in the first place.  

It is hard to say how much Twitter is an engine of such transformations in borrowed language or a mirror that reflects changes taking place in the culture at large. At some level, of course, what these instances point to is nothing new: language is a common property, belonging to everybody and nobody; ideas are at base social, coming into being in relation to other words and ideas, and largely dependent for their intelligibility on what has been previously said and thought.  What Twitter and other forms of social media may make visible (for better or for worse) is the frivolity of any effort to “own” our words when language was never ours in the first place.

Edit 12/31/2013

I wanted to record two responses I received to this post. Quite a few readers, mostly from anonymous or pseudonymous accounts, came forward with further instances of plagiarism by one Twitter user mentioned in the post, @GradElitism. Quite unexpectedly, then, a piece on the difficulty of distinguishing between collaboration and plagiarism in social media generated, for a time, a heated reaction against the predations of one social media user. I asked @GradElitism to contribute his or her end of the story; along with a few other users, I was blocked by the account.

From Lee Skallerup (@readywriting), I was reminded that women and persons of color are often the victims of plagiarism on social media through the unauthorized borrowing of words by people in positions of authority and/or privilege. Lee pointed me to a recent case in which Twitter user @FeministaJones created a popular hashtag (#RacismEndedWhen; see the first use of the hashtag below) that was subsequently appropriated by some news media outlets without attribution to its creator. Loose standards for attribution on social media make it easier to get away with theft of this sort. As Lee (and Sarah Kendzior, see below) observed, real issues of power are involved here too, where words from marginalized individuals and groups are appropriated, and their voices marginalized still further in consequence.

Further reading 

Ranamukalage Chandrasoma, Celia Thompson, & Alastair Pennycook, “Beyond Plagiarism: Transgressive and Nontransgressive Intertextuality,” Journal of Language, Identity, & Education 3.3 (2004), 171-193.

Nicholas Diakopoulos et al., “The Evolution of Authorship in a Remix Society,” HT ’07 (September 2007), 1-4.

Lea Calvert Evering & Gary Moorman, “Rethinking Plagiarism in the Digital Age,” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 56.1 (September 2012), 35-44.

Henry Jenkins et al., Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009).

Trip Gabriel, “Plagiarism Lines Blur for Students in Digital Age,” The New York Times (August 1, 2010). 

Debbie Wheeler & David Anderson, “Dealing with Plagiarism in a Complex Information Society,” Education, Business, and Society 3.3 (2010) 166-177.

“Simple and complex and kind of magical”: the rolling jubilee

Strike Debt red square

[T]he event is neither substance nor accident, neither quality nor process…And yet it is not something immaterial either; it is always at the level of materiality that it takes effect, that it is effect…Let us say that the philosophy of the event should move in the at first sight paradoxical direction of a materialism of the incorporeal.

– Michel Foucault, “The Order of Discourse”

The Rolling Jubilee, a project of Strike Debt launched November 15, 2012, celebrates its one year anniversary today.  Its founding on this day marked the first year anniversary of the eviction of Occupy Wall Street from Zuccotti Park.  The anniversary of the movement has been widely and justifiably celebrated this week, here and here and (by one of its architects, Astra Taylor) here.

Reviving the Judeo-Christian tradition of Jubilee, in which debts were periodically canceled for the community, the Rolling Jubilee represents an innovative and highly successful project in mutual aid. Astra Taylor calls the Rolling Jubilee concept “simple and complex and kind of magical.”  Working through the secondary debt market where “distressed,” unpaid loans are bundled and typically bought by banks and collection agencies for pennies on the dollar, the Rolling Jubilee has, with $400,000 in donations, purchased and canceled nearly $15 million in medical debt.  The money travels from unknown benefactors to recipients whose distressed debt happens to be included in the bundled loans that are purchased by the Rolling Jubilee.  By these means, almost 2700 people so far have had their debt burdens lifted.

Like most or all charitable projects, the Jubilee concept is simple at its core. Part of what makes the Jubilee “complex and somewhat magical” has to do with the advanced nature of the market systems in which it participates. With origins in ancient religious practice, the Jubilee intervenes in the complex credit mechanisms of 21st-century financial markets. Most charitable acts , moreover, involve a simple donation from one hand to another. But it is difficult to say precisely where or in what event the Rolling Jubilee consists (this is one reason why it is a Rolling Jubilee, defined by its ongoingness). Is it in the collection of donations from thousands of people? in the purchase of bundled debt from the banks? in the notification of those whose debt has, at random, been abolished?

This last stage, in which the beneficiaries are notified that (a portion of) their medical debt has been canceled, is often taken to be the highlight of this complex process. (To mark their anniversary today, the Rolling Jubilee has announced another major debt buy, in Austin, Texas.) The letter that Strike Debt sends to debtors on this occasion bears a simple subject line: “Balance Abolished.”


Matthew Yglesias asked in an article for Slate whether the money that went to abolishing the distressed debt would not be better given as cash to the needy.  Setting aside questions about the financial efficacy of its model, however, it is not difficult to perceive that the Rolling Jubilee operates on an altogether different principle than that which Yglesias proposes as a potentially better alternative.  For the abolition of debt is neither a gift nor a charitable donation, not exactly.  Debt abolition “merely” removes an pre-existing obligation.  Something has not been given, therefore, so much as it has been taken away; more precisely, what is given is the taking away, the removal of a debt burden.  In the YouTube video that Strike Debt produced to promote the campaign, one of the participants in the Rolling Jubilee describes its action in these terms: “Instead of collecting on the debts we buy, we’re going to abolish it. Poof.”  As Auden famously describes the action of poetry, then, the event of debt abolition “makes nothing happen.”

As a teacher and scholar of poetry, I encounter many instances of this strangely agencyless agency, both in the poems we read and in the minds of those who engage with them.  Maybe I am attracted to the Jubilee because it operates in a similar way, “simple and complex and somewhat magical.”  Maybe I am attracted to both for the way that they make visible something about the occult and insufficiently understood nature of events themselves.

In “The Order of Discourse,” Foucault describes the event as having effect on both material and immaterial planes.  Just as the historical event must be seen at once as a singular phenomenon and as part of processes of much longer duration, so does the event considered in itself appear to be a divided and contradictory thing — something not entirely present as positive substance, but whose existence and material effects are beyond doubt.  It is for this reason, Foucault insists, that “the philosophy of the event should move in the at first sight paradoxical direction of a materialism of the incorporeal.”

The Jubilee is consistent with an understanding of the event as operating on jointly material and incorporeal planes, with effects (however obscure) in both domains.  Perhaps we cannot say exactly what it is; but it is not nothing either.

That the Rolling Jubilee “makes nothing happen” is often adduced as a point against it. Those skeptical of the Jubilee model observe (here, for instance) that the amount of debt abolished does not come close to any statistically significant figure; it is not so much as to make a dent in the nation’s multi-trillion dollar debt burden.  Not amounting to much, the event of debt abolition is, however, not nothing. The Rolling Jubilee has so far relieved a debt burden for thousands of Americans.  Perhaps more important than this, the disappearing of debt has made widely visible as never before the secondary debt market and the predatory mechanics of debt collection.  “[S]imple and complex and kind of magical,” the Jubilee is an exemplary (historical) event in that regard.  As the movement marks its one year anniversary, I am eager to see what nothing it has still to make happen.

You can donate to the Rolling Jubilee here.

November 15, 2013

Of drones, and other Impartial Spectators

This is my drone.  I’ve taken a picture of it here at rest, without its battery (see the black and red wire dangling beneath), on a dwarf cherry tree in bloom. I think it looks rather fetching as well as faintly menacing.

Some months ago I conceived the idea of invading my own privacy using a mini toy spy drone. Though capable (the manufacturer claims) of moving within a 120 meter range and of flying in an impressive “Stunt Mode,” the Micro Drone is not capable of carrying a payload, and so wanting a wireless micro camera to affix to it, the invasion of my own privacy is only a thought experiment.

I named my drone the Impartial Spectator, after the phrase that Adam Smith, founder of modern political economy, uses to describe the conscience in his 1759 book of moral philosophy, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The Impartial Spectator is in Smith’s book the internalized point of view of civil society.  Operating in Smith’s text as a figure for the situational awareness of the reasonable individual, it names the imagined response of a rational public to any imaginable scenario or case of feeling.  Smith’s moral philosophy is famously grounded in sympathy, the communication of fellow feeling between members of the human species.  By comparing one’s most powerful, potentially a- or anti-social feelings to those of the Impartial Spectator whom we imagine to be observing us, Smith argues, the individual regulates the excesses of passion, and so brings his or her strong feelings into accord with those shared by the rest of society.  As the imagined, admonitory eye of a watchful public, the Impartial Spectator names a relationship between individuals and others, and (more importantly) between individuals and themselves, that makes possible the smooth commerce of sympathy.

Smith’s book is useful in reminding us that the functions of introspection, never truly private in the first place, have long been (so to speak) outsourced in modern capitalist society.  To look into oneself is to consult a tribunal of imagined others.  Authors have for centuries imagined an externalized agency or presumptively representative rationality of some kind — an Impartial Spectator, imagined community, panopticon, or “common sense” — charged with the role of overseeing an individual’s conduct, thoughts and/or feelings, and prompting us to regulate these.  In this sense at least, the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones used for surveillance today represent the technological implementation of an idea that has been in place for as long as modernity itself.  Intellectual and cultural historians frequently observe that Smith’s book of moral philosophy, published almost a generation before The Wealth of Nations (1776), presents an ethics for a modern commercial society.  (Great Britain had at this time only recently established a system of national debt and begun circulating paper currency in place of coin.)  As “the looking-glass by which we can…scrutinize the propriety of our own conduct” (112), the Impartial Spectator facilitates the kind of regular and predictable social relations on which a society of debt depends, if it is to avoid financial catastrophe.  The Impartial Spectator in other words performs the regulative work in Smith’s moral philosophy (of maintaining and preserving an existing social order) that surveillance drones are imagined to perform in our own world.

As it happens, several hobbyist academics like myself have been led to build and operate drones.  (The link between academia and drone use is in one sense well established: along with police and security agencies, research universities are among the groups most frequently licensed for drone operation by the FAA.)  In an engaging essay “A Drone of One’s Own”, the journalist, law professor, and private drone enthusiast Rosa Brooks rightly observes that no laws currently prevent individuals from buying a drone in order to spy on neighbors (or worse).  Privately owned drones (including drones owned and operated by private companies) have so far flown under the protection of now antique regulations from 1981, which currently permit hobbyists to fly their UAVs to a maximum height of 400 feet in virtually any airspace.  Francis Fukuyama, the academic with the highest profile among academic drone operators and hobbyists, notes in a piece for the Financial Times that these laws are likely to change soon.  The FAA has been charged to come up with new rules to regulate private drones in public airspace by 2015.  In the meantime, private corporations as well as individuals have been eyeing drones for commercial use: Hollywood has asked the FAA for permission to use drones, and other industries (farming, e.g.) will not be far behind.  And a lot of drone use by private interests is already being carried out in the open, with dubious legality.  For a few thousand dollars you can buy drones that are optimized for cinematic use.  In my home state of Massachusetts alone, one such drone was recently spotted capturing aerial footage for reality TV.  And in a local Boston suburb, residents of Quincy have recently expressed consternation about a drone-like object that has reportedly circled the city making a “low-pitched humming sound” over several successive nights.

Drones have unsurprisingly triggered a number of privacy concerns and questions about the wisdom of living in a society of ubiquitous surveillance.  Given the astounding technological resources possessed already by government and other security agencies — resources easily and as yet legally accessible to private corporations and others — what new levels of surveillance will the public be exposed to in the future?  Hobbyist drone operators like Fukuyama and Brooks remind us that we have the means, technical if not quite legal, to spy on our neighbors (if not also on ourselves).  From the perspective of sheer technical capability, little prevents the proliferation of domestic surveillance programs but the willingness of drone users to refrain from such activities.  For Smith, in fact, this impulse to peer too closely into the lives of others is among the excesses against which the Impartial Spectator protects:

This passion to discover the real sentiments of others is naturally so strong, that it often degenerates into a troublesome and impertinent curiosity to pry into those secrets of our neighbours which they have very justifiable reasons for concealing; and, upon many occasions, it requires prudence and a strong sense of propriety to govern this, as well as all the other passions of human nature, and to reduce it to that pitch which any impartial spectator can approve of.  (337-8)

In observing how the natural human emotion of curiosity turns the subjects of surveillance into its agents, Smith remarks (with no apparent irony) that the self-surveilling agency of the Impartial Spectator might ultimately be responsible for preventing individuals from prying unduly into the lives of others.  What stops me from spying on my neighbor may be little more than the near certainty that at any given moment I am myself being surveilled.

My interest in surveillance drones extends to the broadly aesthetic questions that their use (both at home and abroad) confronts us with today.  How does the world appear from the estranging drone’s-eye point of view?  What does being looked in on, or of looking in on oneself from above, look like? What kinds of attachments do we (or will we) form to the UAVs, GPS devices, satellites, and other pieces of sophisticated technical equipment that silently watch over our movements?  Will we someday feel a kind of fondness and habitual affection for these instruments as we already (some of us, anyway) feel for our phones, tablets, laptops, etc.?  And if one can as it were divide oneself in two (this conceptual self-division being essential to how the Impartial Spectator assists in regulating an individual’s behavior), can we imagine entrusting matters of conscience, behavior or even thought, to drones of our own?

My spy drone experiment has been accused of being a solipsistic project.  I accept the characterization, and described the project half in jest as carried out with an aim to execute the most solipsistic drone campaign ever.  (I would also ask: is there another person whose privacy I should violate?)  I don’t have the kind of disposable income that would allow me to pursue a domestic drone program matching Fukuyama’s in technical capability; but I don’t wish to scale up the experiment either.  Without the funds or zeal to pursue a home drone campaign of any sophistication, I am content for my experiments with the Impartial Spectator to represent a miniaturized version and parody of the academic drone hobbyist at the so-called end of history.  Should my personal drone campaign only prove to be a way of accommodating myself to the fact of near-constant surveillance in late modernity, my time spent with the Micro Drone will have served the civilizing, regulative ends for which the notion of an Impartial Spectator was intended.

Happy surveilling!

Most of the links in the post above came to me courtesy of Twitter, both in conversation and from users such as @drones, @dronestream, @eff, @cesgnal, @dgolumbia, and many others.