Author Archives: Robert Robinson

Because I am Trying to Conceptualize Leaves of Grass as a Database…

Ed Folsom’s semi-anecdotal opening to “Database as Genre: The Epic Transformation of Archives” took me back to the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s. My parents, in an attempt to find economic solutions to grocery shopping for a family of 9, frequented the generic detergent, cold cereal, hot cereal, and toiletries sections of the grocery store. I was conditioned to avoid the bright colorful pictures, and I instead turned my gaze to the black background with the white Times New Roman printing of “Toasted Oats.”

Folsom’s start—an opening frustration with the abundance of lifelessness in the realm of the generic—is a smart preface to his discussion of Walt Whitman and genre. Whitman, even in his labeling, defied the laws of genre as he teased the boundaries of poetry, prose, and everything near or in between. This is no surprise when one considers how Whitman’s writing, if not his very existence, tore at the seams of the very fabric of sexual identity and philosophical thought. He was somewhere between transcendentalism and realism, somewhere between fifty shades of sexual orientation, and somewhere between anti-slavery and white supremacy. Whitman was not one to easily follow a prescribed agenda, and Folsom speaks to how this plays out in Whitman’s description of genre: “peculiar to that person, period, or place—not universal” (1572). Whitman was frustrated with the narrowness, the lack of transport-friendly-interconnectedness that comes along with genre. He did not want to be placed in a box, and Folsom is suggesting that the reason behind his refusal was a lack of options.

Recognizing this “ongoing battle with genre,” (1572) Folsom offers up the database as the best description of Whitman’s work. He credits Lev Manovich for introducing this conceptualization of the database as genre, and he adds to the conversation by asserting that for Whitman, “the world was a kind of preelectronic database” (1574). Moreover, he supports this claim by referring to Whitman’s multiple edits, last minute edits, antebellum and post-bellum coverage, and strategic posting of lines from poetry as markers or code within the text. This problematizing of Whitman as database then leads to a conversation of archive vs. database. Seeking to separate Derrida’s concept of “archive fever” from database, Folsom contends that archive has much more of an association with the physical space, the actual housing of artifacts, whereas database is more of a digital linking of information concerning a particular subject or combination of subjects. He establishes database as a new genre, one that can make the fitting genre home for Whitman’s works.

To be completely honest, I struggled with this piece. At times I jumped in, ready to find a place for Whitman, willing to re-embrace him as low-tech visionary and genius. And then there were times when my spidey senses tingled: How dare he box the unboxed Whitman? Why must “archive” exist in such limited terms? Being mindful of these tensions, I pose three questions. Like my previous provocation, feel free to respond to one or none of the following questions:

1) How do you think Whitman would respond to Folsom’s reading of his work?
2) Given our readings this week and last week, what do you think of Ed Folsom’s description of “archive” and “database”? Would you reframe them?
3) What does Folsom’s act of naming database as a genre do for the field of the humanities? What is its effect?

Folsom, Ed. “Database as Genre: The Epic Transformation of Archives.” PMLA: 1571-579. Print.

The Historical Expansion of Higher Education

In Chapter 2 of Dr. Steve Brier’s text, we see the extensive history of public education in California and New York as a result of the Zook Commission of the 1940’s. Driven, like many institutions, by the economic shifts (positive and negative) of a post-war state, both states institute a tri-part system of higher education. As a native Californian, I was impressed by Brier’s clear discussion of the hierarchical structure in California, a structure that he admits still maintains its hold today. While a handful of California State Universities grant doctoral degrees, the exclusivity of this terminal degree is still largely reserved for University of California students. The prestige of these universities is akin to that of exclusive private universities. As a result, community colleges and CSUs educate the vast majority of practitioners and professionals at a variety of levels.

The “success” of the tri-part structure was not as strong in New York, but the tensions between the private elite schools and the growing public institutions were much like the UC-CSU wars on the west. The fight for access to education for all students was clear on both coasts, but New York actually maintained this commitment for a lengthier period of time than its western counterpart. What we notice is this need for public education but a state government refusal to provide necessary funding.

As the student population grew and the number of institutions followed suit, the hierarchal tension trickled down to student populations and manifested itself in student resistance (50-58). Ironically, the UC Chancellor’s attempt to maintain a bureaucratic structure bent on UC elitism did not account for the student-led Free Speech Movement’s mission to undermine such systems. Sadly, while these movements led to the revitalization of the social sciences and an expansion of community colleges (along with an increase in consciousness raising among the masses) on both coasts and in-between, they eventually adversely affected the blurring of the stratification of these growing public institutions. Consequently, remediation was essentially removed from the CUNY senior colleges, and student tuition was integrated at the junior, senior, and graduate levels on both coasts.

Dr. Brier’s work elucidates the contradictions of equitable access to education and the maintenance of systems of economic power. It speaks to this nation’s simultaneous attempt to meet the needs of marginalized populations as it adheres to business management models. At the risk of sounding like Marx (and a number of radicals), I read this work as an explanation of the inevitable tensions that arise from an educational system that is born out of an industrial capitalistic (and sexist and racist) economic structure and political structure. While the aims of the Zook report carry significant merit, the deeply flawed economic and governmental structures of the nation ensured limits. And the current neoliberal movements have spurred a new wave of defunding of higher education (65-66) that could very well mean a retrogression.

Upon reading this text, I could not help but think of my longstanding love-hate relationship with UC schools (not meant to incite convo). Outside of that, I was riveted by the live broadcasts of over-enrolled undergrad courses, the connections to Little Brother, the rich historical accounts, and the mention of the mechanization of education. A number of questions came to mind:
*What do I do with this new information?
*Is there an underlying conversation of “quality” across these higher ed systems?
*What does this history reveal about power? Did the students REALLY win?
*What do we make of education now? How close/far are we to/from the Zook vision and how do we gauge that?
*How do we explore curriculum & pedagogy at these three levels of education?
*What does this narrative of education funding politics say about our history and future in higher ed?

Please don’t answer all my questions–just thinking aloud…

Karl Marx–Capital

Robert Synopsis   (I apologize in advance if this oversimplifies Marx’s work; I really tried to condense this)

In the selected sections from Capital, Karl Marx asserts that machines, as the conduit of industrial capitalist expansion, reveal the evolutionary exploitation of men, women and children as they simultaneously nurture capitalistic greed. Marx employs a number of sub-claims to support his stance–among them are the following:

  • The machine does more in less time, which increases the capitalist’s greed and presses workers to meet greater demands in less time (work intensity).
  • Machines simplify tasks, which increases the use of child labor and women’s labor and lowers the overall cost of labor (I could smell the underlying patriarchy & rigid gender roles, but we can save that for another discussion).
  • Machines, though meant to serve humans, have come to determine human production (and replace workers), which incites rebellion against the machines first and lead capitalists second.
  • The capitalist metrics of time, value, labor, and intensity are further complicated with the advancement of technology
  • The machine’s evolution over time under the capitalist framework presents an interesting paradox: humans created the machines that would eventually replace their jobs.
  • Machines, like the capitalist, embody a system of self-preservation–just as the capitalist mitigates the use of time, labor, and value to optimize profit for his/her own preservation, the machines eventually create the machines that will preserve the factory model.

Professor David Harvey explains the underlying analytical framework that Marx employs throughout the entire text, Chapter 15 included. According to Harvey’s analysis, technology does not determine, but rather reveals humans’ complex interactions with nature, labor, reproduction of daily life, social relations, and mental conceptions. Even when we apply Harvey’s framework, we still see technology as an integrated, fetishized tool of the capitalist superstructure. Marx, sharing a similar trajectory with his good friend Darwin, essentially argues that technology is an extension of the very evolution of capitalism. The model goes as follows: handicrafts  stage to manufacturing stage, and manufacturing stage to factory stage. But Harvey cautions against a deterministic conceptualization of machines and capitalism; he contends that Marx’s purpose is to elucidate the ongoing dialectic between the capitalist and the laborer. Machines are merely an element in this ongoing dialectical struggle.


The recurring conversation of the growth and development of machines  and their connection with increased exploitation is a critical one, carrying implications of class, gender, age, & racial oppression. Even in the early factory stages, we see fights for reductions of work hours, followed by a subsequent increase in labor intensity that marked the need for more productivity in less time–the new machine’s efficiency as justificaiton for such. With this reduction in physically complex labor came the employment of women and children. Education yielded to the capitalist superstructure, and entire families were now factory employees who, in the eyes of the capitalist, represented one uniform payout.  Marx, more than once, references the U.S. and Transatlantic slave trades as powerful parallels to this factory power dynamic. While the face of both technology and western society have changed significantly since Marx, the thread of exploitation remains constant. With this in mind, I would like to ask the following:

1) To what extent does current exploitation–within the realm of technological production and use–mirror the conditions expressed in Marx’s work? Explain.

2) How has the face of this particular brand of exploitation changed?

3) Considering previous conversations in class regarding contemporary humans’ current relationships with technology and Marx’s key points, what are some predictions you have about the future relationship between humans and technology?

4) Am I the only one who thought about the Matrix trilogy while reading?


Harvey, D. (2011, January 16). Reading Marx’s Capital Vol 1 with David Harvey. Lecture presented at Class 08 in The Graduate Center, CUNY, New York.

Marx, K. (1968). XV. In Capital. New York: Dutton.

–Robert Robinson