The log fire in the lobby of Motel One in Leipzig is a simulacrum, a recurring loop of film on a flat screen, in which a large piece of wood near the front always breaks into ash embers at the same sequential moment. What’s more, all rooms in the hotel show the same fire, running off the same loop, while the human lives in each room play out their different dramas.
I was in Leipzig earlier this month for an Erasmus teaching exchange, one of the more enjoyable possibilities of a career in higher education. My hotel was right next door to the church where pro-democracy demonstrations helped bring in the democratic changes of 1989. The students spoke good English, and the faculty were warm and attentive.
I spoke about the lyric essay, a burgeoning form in English literature, and asked whether this was popular in Germany too. One class was put to work responding to the story title, “Things my father or mother never told me”. Afterwards, the thought struck that this standard writing exercise had another dimension in a country where, at one point, half the population might have been spying on the other half. Later, in the November chill, I stocked up on woollen tights and hats, and was struck by the kindness of the shop assistants.
A home for the new cushion sporting the UCL Centre for the Digital Humanities logo
A few days ago, on Wednesday October 19, Julian Barnes won the Man Booker prize for his novel A Sense of an Ending. In his acceptance speech he thanked the book’s designer and explained why its appearance was important: ‘Those of you who have seen my book, whatever you think of its contents, will probably agree it is a beautiful object. And if the physical book, as we’ve come to call it, is to resist the challenge of the ebook, it has to look like something worth buying, worth keeping.’
This blog has followed the concept of the ‘end of the middle’ and the tendency to find either very cheap goods and services at one end of the market, or luxurious, distinctive ones at the other. Slow journalism and other things associated with the ‘slow’ meme come in the second category. An aspect of their distinction is the luxury of time and reflection they offer in a speedy world, and a high standard of information about sources, or provenance. A recent post on the subject rounded up some relevant mentions.
Is it stretching this concept too much, to say that Barnes is making the case for what we can now call ‘slow publishing’? Assuming you will all kindly say ‘no’, it is not too much, here are some other mentions spotted since the last round-up which also seem to fit:
Buttonwood, ‘Slow Finance‘, The Economist October 22, 2011
‘Gervais Williams, a successful fund manager, argues that the [finance] industry’s approach should change. In some ways his new book, Slow Finance, is in the tradition of Benjamin Graham, the founder of modern security analysis. Investors should have a “value” bent, looking for companies that are unappreciated by the markets. They should particularly seek firms with a strong dividend yield. They should focus on the long term. [...] Just as enthusiasts for slow food like to buy their meat from local farmers, Mr Williams thinks investors should have a focus on small, local companies.’
Alan Rusbridger, ‘The Guardian iPad app goes live’, The Guardian, October 13, 2011
‘You can now [...] literally follow [The Guardian] minute by minute around the clock as it reports, mirrors, analyses and gives context to the shifting patterns and rhythms of the world’s news. [But] we’ve consciously set out, with this version, to deliver [...] a reflective once-a-day Guardian, designed and edited for iPad.’
Matt Stempeck, ‘What If We Had a Nutrition Label for the News?’, Idea Lab, October 11 2011
‘Demand for international news has actually increased in recent years. It’s beyond clear that in this global era, we need to know what’s happening elsewhere. But we’re also living in an age where we’re overwhelmed daily by the amount of information and content seeking our attention [...] The Center for Civic Media, under the leadership of Ethan Zuckerman, is embarking on a project to build the tools to empower the individual, and the news providers themselves, to see at a glance what they’re getting and what they’re missing in their daily consumption. We seek to provide a nutritional label for your news diet.’
John Gapper, ‘Instant Messengers‘, Financial Times October 2, 2011
‘Intimate accounts of world-changing events are now well-established in non-fiction publishing, with numerous examples provided by the 2008 financial crisis and by political events such as this year’s Egyptian revolution. [...] This evolution raises big questions about the trade-off between immediacy and accuracy – or at least perspective.’
John Ellis, ‘Documentary: Witness and Self-Revelation’, Routledge July 20, 2011
‘Innovations in technology can seem to offer greater realism but can at the same time frustrate attempts to achieve it. John Ellis therefore proposes the idea of “Slow Film” as an antidote to the problems of increasing speed brought about by easy digital editing.’
Minhee Cho, ‘Stephen Engelberg Shares His Thoughts on Long-Form Storytelling’, Pro Publica March 9, 2011
‘”I think in today’s world, what we’ve seen is that people are hungry for bits of information,” Engelberg said. “Mediocre long-form journalism falls by the wayside in this kind of world, but superb long-form journalism, I think, has a secure place in the future of writing [...] A daily newspaper, these days in particular, have significant limits on space and most of the stories are going to be produced fairly quickly. They are going to be related to news of the day. In long-form journalism, we hope to be telling a story and to take more time and more space to bolster the journalism and sort of deliver the narrative.”‘
Patrick Kingsley, ‘The Art of Slow Reading‘, The Guardian July 15, 2010
‘First we had slow food, then slow travel. Now, those campaigns are joined by a slow-reading movement – a disparate bunch of academics and intellectuals who want us to take our time while reading, and re-reading. They ask us to switch off our computers every so often and rediscover both the joy of personal engagement with physical texts, and the ability to process them fully.‘
On Monday I was interviewed by someone researching into women’s photography groups of the late 1970s and early 1980s. (She’s a historian. A historian! My past is history.)
I joined a women’s photography group in 1980, when starting on adult life in London. I was the youngest of five or six women. We called ourselves ‘Second Sight’. As a group, we only showed our work on two occasions: the first time, for a community project called ‘Hackney Creates’, and the second time – just before disbanding in the mid-80s – in a bespoke exhibition at Lauderdale House in North London.
Sitting now at a table in the British Library, the researcher asks me, ‘What was your group’s philosophy?’ I think: I dunno, we took pictures and showed them to each other in our kitchens. We were saying – at a time when that was still unusual – that photography, both as art and as a technical skill, was women’s work too (in a way, the Women Who Tech of our time). We were saying that women belonged in public spaces, not just private ones. We were interested in the stories of everyday life, not just the news ‘event’. The aesthetic was black and white, ideally with a black line around the image. (For those who care about such things, by the way, this was obtained by carefully filing back the edge of the enlarger’s negative carrier. Nowadays, you can get the effect in seconds on an iPhone app)
After the interview I dug out some prints. During the early 1980s, postcards were going through a revival and I had taken a photograph of mine to Walker Prints, to sell in London bookshops. One of my flatmates worked at Sisterwrite, but the collective wouldn’t stock the postcard because they thought cars were oppressive. On the back of the image still sitting in my personal archive, you can see the printer’s mark-up information, plus a sticker from the photography journal Camerawork, with a page number and issue date – the card was shown on its back page, along with a few others from that year.
The content of the image captures the political ‘graffiti’ art typical of the time. But it was the form, the physical matter of the image, that still gives the most pleasure. A gifted photographer had shown me how to develop film in a way that made every grain distinct, and the production of a print that might do this justice was the work of many hours in the foetal light of the darkroom. So was the experimentation with different photographic papers – the one shown here gave whites a beautiful luminosity – and grades of contrast. Every variation had to be tried on a separate piece of paper; exposed, dodged, burned, developed, stopped, fixed, washed and dried.
I have had some work published in Issue 62 of Free Associations. This is a long-established journal that explores psychoanalysis and its relation to culture, now under the new (and peer reviewed) editorship of Dr Caroline Bainbridge and Dr Candida Yates.
The article concerns the relations between facts and feelings in nonfiction writing, and develops the ideas sketched out in the THE last summer. One strand of argument is to show how reporting – finding out about the external world – can be understand as a form of personal experience, which is deliberately turned outward and tested by verification. Another considers the nature of demands for ‘authenticity’. I write:
If a text’s falseness or authenticity is no longer defined solely by its professionalism or stance towards objectivity, it becomes necessary to find a different way of distinguishing between the two [...] The possibility should exist of finding an alienated subjectivity not just in professional texts that manipulate the consumer, but also in those created by artisanal producers; and of finding authenticity not only in marginal practices, but also in professional, mainstream ones.
Text and links added September 7, 2011
Earlier in the year, this blog noted the launch of The Failure Files, a collection of essays about the uses of failure. A website called The 99% has now put together a fascinating list of stories on the same theme (nothing to do with the book) which can be found here. (Image courtesy of The 99%)
I also discovered that there is a website by a colleague, collating material on the theme and the book on a regular basis, which lives here. And in a comment below, a reader has pointed out an interesting artistic project called the Institute of Failure.
Since The Failure Files was published this spring, I found old files that show I have been following this thread for much longer than realised. For example, this article in Prospect back in June 1999 said that the public expectation of perfection can invite permanent disappointment. Why try to define an ethical foreign policy, when there might be inconsistencies? Why trust any profession, when some practitioners have erred? The Winnicottian concept of the ‘good-enough mother’ says that to develop, the infant must learn the mother is not infinitely controllable and the early, blissful illusion of perfect mother and baby cannot be sustained. ‘Societies that are rigid in finding perfection, like the former Soviet Union, get into trouble because mistakes go uncorrected. But so do those which rigidly find awfulness in everything. That way leads to paralysis, a refusal to make any diagnosis and take any action.’ We should argue whether a policy is right, but we should not expect it to be perfect.
I would add now, in response to a growing mood of paranoia, that rigidity also feeds the growth of conspiracy thinking, in which the messiness of life is not enough; everything must have a reason – the old choice between the conspiracy theory and the fuck-up theory.
An earlier post provided some background to the ‘slow journalism’ meme. My contribution to meme-hood back in 2007 (see story #3) was to make the link between slow-jo and the marketing concept of the ‘end of the middle’. Because people can now get reasonable goods and services cheaply, the idea goes, they are only prepared to pay more if they get something truly luxurious or special (hence the growth of organics and the slow food movement) and the middle of the market loses share. This is known as ‘the end of the middle’. In the information market, we get basic news on tap while traditional print journalism is suffering in the middle; might we therefore expect a flourishing market for journalism that offers something luxurious and distinctive?
The answer appears to be a qualified ‘yes’, and I describe developments in ‘Slow journalism in the digital fast lane’, due to appear in a forthcoming collection of essays about literary journalism (eds Richard Keeble and John Tulloch). There have been successes and some interesting twists, such as a possible ‘end of the middle’ within blogging itself, as the short-text-plus-link migrates to social media, leaving the blogosphere for mostly longer texts. I note tensions as well, arising from a tacit idealism about authenticity and a bias against judgment, selection and reflection.
The collation of excerpts, below, is an attempt to round up more references to this trend, defined in the broadest sense, and look at the different ways it is used. The examples below are listed in date order. A couple of themes emerge.
One is the apparent hunger that we feel for more time – time to think, and figure out what matters. I feel this hunger myself, and hope that the current changes to higher education will not remove one of few places left where thinking is encouraged.
Another is the tendency to adopt meme-like language. For example, a hot debate right now concerns the news article as the ‘smallest unit’ of journalism, breaking up and reassembling itself in new forms. As the digital culture scholar Lelia Green noted at a London conference this June, the term ‘meme’ itself – a genetic analogy that refers to the ‘smallest possible element’ in culture – could just as easily be called a trope or an idea. But clearly the meme metaphor has legs (ha ha).
James Surowiecki, ‘Soft in the middle’, The New Yorker March 29, 2010
The iPad and similar products ‘don’t target the amorphous blob of consumers who make up the middle of the market. […] In many businesses, high- and low-end producers are taking more and more of the market […] While the high and low ends are thriving, the middle of the market is in trouble.’
Slow Science Academy, Manifesto 2010
‘We are scientists. We don’t blog. We don’t twitter. We take our time. Don’t get us wrong – we do say yes to the accelerated science of the early 21st century [but] science needs time to think. Science needs time to read, and time to fail. Science does not always know what it might be at, right now. […] Society should give scientists the time they need, but more importantly, scientists must take their time.’
The man who fell asleep, blog post about ‘Social media and digital narcissism’, October 13, 2010
‘The way I use Twitter, there’s no time or space for ideas to develop in my mind. Bang! One idea! Bang! Another idea. No editing, no thinking, just a constant stream. In some ways this is no bad thing […] Twitter is a brilliant place for me to spit out a hundred different ideas a day. Of course, the problem is that it stops me doing other things: it prevents me playing the long game. Why bother crafting away in silence, waiting weeks or months for feedback and approval, when I can get hundreds of messages a day, all about ME, ME, ME. […] I no longer process information – I merely consume it.’
Andrew Sullivan, ‘What Bloggers Miss’, The Atlantic, February 21, 2011
‘We are caught up in the winds that blow every which way. And in the hullabaloo the thinking man is driven to ponder where he is being blown and to long desperately for some quiet place where he can reason undisturbed and take inventory. It may be that I exaggerate the need for occasional sanctuary, but I do not think so – at least speaking for myself, since it has always taken me longer than the average person to think things out.’ – Quotation from Alone by Richard E. Byrd (The Adventure Library, 1996 )
Standpoint, ‘About us‘, February 28, 2011
‘In a market swamped by the journalistic equivalent of fast food, Standpoint hopes to offer the discerning reader a feast of great writing – properly edited and presented in an elegant design that makes even longer pieces a pleasure to read.’
Peter Jackson, ‘When Reading is a Pleasure’, In Publishing, March/April 2011
‘No one in publishing could seriously expect people to pay for online news, any more than they would pay for bottled oxygen, […] If news has to equate with the provision of free parking outside the store, newspapers have a much stronger case for charging customers to come inside and linger over the fruits of costly investment in eminent editors, special correspondents and investigative journalists.’
Paul Bradshaw, ‘Five predictions for journalism in 25 years’, Online Journalism Blog, March 3, 2011
‘Number 2: Prices will head in opposite directions. Publishers will distinguish their offer from free titles by ‘converting the newspaper from tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapping to a luxury product, where you are buying access to an exclusive club as much as the content itself.’
Babbage, ‘Journalistic nuclear physics’, The Economist, March 14, 2011
‘One theme [of SXSW] over the past couple of years has been the attempt to blast what is currently the atomic unit of journalism, the article or ‘story’, into its constituent quarks, and reassemble them as something else. [The search is on for] ways to give more context when you’re not limited by the container of the news story.’ For long magazine articles, on the other hand, the ‘elegant complete package is the whole point of the exercise’.
Emily Wilson, ‘Planning to be better’, The Guardian, May 9, 2011
The Swedish paper Svenska Dagbladet now divides its newsroom into two streams: the ‘fast’ stream that ‘covers events that cannot be controlled, like tsunamis’ and the ‘slow’ stream, which concentrates on ‘agenda-setting’ journalism such as homegrown investigations.
Jeff Jarvis, ‘The article as luxury or byproduct’, Buzzmachine, May 28, 2011
‘There’s the choice: Some news events […] are better told in process. Some need summing up as articles. That is an extra service to readers. A luxury, perhaps.’
Jonathan Glick, Suilia, ‘The news article is breaking up’, Business Insider, June 1, 2011
News and analysis are getting a divorce. ‘Within the next ten years, long-form writers will accept that their readers have seen the facts of the story live as it happened, probably elsewhere. The longer content that succeeds in that environment will be pieces that provide the most value as backgrounders, news analyses, and commentary.’
Jaron Lanier, ‘You are not a gadget’, Penguin 2011 (paperback edition, page ix)
‘I asked the audience not to tweet or blog while I was talking. Not out of respect for me, but out of respect for themselves. If something I said was memorable enough to be worthy of a tweet or blog post later on […]that meant what I said would have had the time to be weighed, judged and filtered by someone’s brain. Instead of just being a passive relay for me, I went on, what was tweeted, blogged, or posted on a Facebook wall would then be you. Giving yourself the time and space to think and feel is crucial to your existence. […] You have to find a way to be yourself before you can share yourself.’
Katherine Travers, ‘Back to the future (of print journalism)’, Editors Weblog, August 18, 2011
John Bracken of the Knight Foundation for journalism created a flutter on Twitter when he told a conference that ‘print is the new vinyl’ – a reference to the current renaissance for records. Explaining it later, he said he wanted to emphasize ‘the value of the tactile object in a world where digitization makes the acquisition of both music and information a rather intangible experience.’