The long and the short of it

Since the end of the AAAs I’ve had a chance to read two pieces which touch on a central preoccupation of mine: the “different speeds at which we do research, and how certain technical forms enable or disable some speeds and not others”:/2007/10/03/pace-layering-as-research-method/. The two pieces in question were “twitter is fucking retarded”: and “At Day’s Close”: by Roger Ekirch. One is a thoughtful — and bracing — skewing of Twitter, and the other is a cultural history of the night in early modern Europe.

You can probably see this coming: I also think Twitter is retarded. It is the ultimate realization of American society’s shift from an expressive individualism that sees art as the exteriorization of the subjectivity of the creator to a more banal commitment to the idea that any ‘content’ made by someone must be valuable and valorized simply because they made it. Perhaps my skepticism for Twitter is the pot calling the kettle black or the narcissism of small differences — as a blogger who has shared my waffle recipes with the world it may sound strange for me to take the high road when it comes to aesthetics. But still.

At Day’s Close, on the other hand, is an elegant, monomaniacal work that took two decades to complete. Saying it is ‘about the night’ does not really do justice to it. One chapter on illlumination at night, for instance, moves systematically through different kinds of light: oil lamps, candles, rushes, and torches. It then moves on to Unusual Forms Of Illumination, such as the bodies of particularly greasy sea birds used in the Orkney Islands as oil lamps simply by sticking wicks down their throats. This is followed by sections on the moon, starlight, and finally illumination of the night by the milky way. The next section then discussions seeing things at night and ends with individual discussions on navigation at night by hearing, touch (groping in the dark), and smell. It is obsessively thorough and, in the hands of a stylist as accomplished as Ekirch, thoroughly enjoyable.

If Twitter is the nightmare of corduroyed professors everywhere then At Day’s Close is the fantasy book that many of us dream of writing: the solitary scholar locked in his study, dismissed by his peers as a hopeless eccentric, emerges one day with a manuscript that will be read by thousands and be remembered forever. Here is romantic authorship in the scholarly mode.

And yet in a way there is something terrible about At Day’s Close as well. I know that I will never spend two decades writing a single book and nothing else — and not just because I have to hop online and update my waffle recipe page. This is a model of scholarship that is admirable but also a little unrealistic for many of us. Simply put, not everyone is an ‘eggs in one basket and watch that basket’ sort of person. Shorter genres are appealing and the ‘all or nothing one glorious moment’ of scholarship is romantic but also, I think, vaguely unhealthy. Not that I am saying Ekirch is unhealthy — I’ve never met the guy — just that the vision of scholarship that he inspires in me is one which, while attractive on the surface, may in the long term be less appetizing than it first appears.

All of which is to say that if we are going to get down on the short end of the writing spectrum (i.e. Twitter) perhaps we should took a good hard look at the the long end and really wonder just how appetizing it is — especially for those of us who do not have the skill and dedication of Ekirch.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

11 thoughts on “The long and the short of it

  1. bless you. I hate twitter too. I’ve gotten into heated debates over friends who Twitter. I say I hate it and it’s a waste of the internet. They whine at me that it is nooooooooooooot. I say it is.

    1) There’s no content in 160 characters of banality (there’s no “there” there)
    2) Half of the tweets my friends tweet are replies to other people, which means I am basically reading half of an IM conversation… just get onto the IM client of your choice and have your conversation plz. Leave me out of it.
    3) the only way to comment is to tweet about it yourself, which again starts the whole IM-ness of the situation. how can you start a dialogue? what’s the bloody point? at least if you’re going to blog about your waffle recipe, i can chime in in a comment that *everyone* can see why i think it’s crap, or how i’d alter it. I’d rather see my friends have a dialogue about my postings than just blast them off into the ether where they may or may not get read. In fact, not getting comments on posts in my LJ makes me a sad panda.
    Dialogue. It’s not just for novels and movies anymore.

    Thank you. I’m so glad to see I am not alone in my twitterhated state.

  2. I want your waffle recipe. Seriously.

    I just checked Ekirch’s online CV and it doesn’t look like he spent 20 years in romantic isolation, doing nothing but scouring archives for stuff about night, the hopeless eccentric dismissed by his peers. He’s written 2 other books in 1981 and 1990, won prizes for an article and two prizes for “outstanding faculty” member. He was a Guggenheim fellow in 1998 and a director of the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar for School Teachers in 1995.

  3. yes with an if, no with a but – how about twittering during the bombay attack couple of weeks ago? it was pretty amazing, and much more informative, than any other media sources. blog eventually caught up, and the major media to blogs. twitter blows big time, but you can’t argue that it has no place in the ethnographic milieu; especially coming from a discipline where we prize what people are saying about their lives and experiences as real and valuable knowledge.

  4. Twitter is basically IRC for the rest of us. And I know you like IRC … The main difference being that, most of the time, Twitter is asynchronous. (Which is what makes me like it better than IRC.) But it is also quite interesting when it stops being asynchronous as well: such as during the presidential debates, the Mumbai attacks, the Wild Strawberry protests in Taipei, back-channel discussion during conferences, knowing when people you know have arrived in your neck of the woods, breaking news stories, etc. The open nature of Twitter allows for this multiplicity of uses in a way that IRC chat rooms do not. (Not to mention all the APIs built on top of Twitter which allow for even more services and tools.)

  5. Twitter is another social tool, and all tools are what you make of them. Besides watching the tweet updates from live-time around the world previously mentioned (Mumbai, Thailand, Taipei), I have used Twitter in my classroom during our rendition of Mike Wesch’s World Simulation. Yes, it is a giant universal SMS, but if you operate with that as a premise, Twitter can expand our ways of knowing and seeing. I like the idea that it can be used as distance live communication between large numbers of people.

  6. i have to say that i disagree with kerim’s comment about twitter being “irc for the rest of us.” i’m an irc’er myself… i don’t see it. the thing that drives me crazy is the IM nature that twitter takes for some of my friends.

    say friend a is tweeting about this, that, thus, and such, and starts tweeting back and forth with her friend b. say b has her twitterpage locked down so only friends can read it. i don’t know b, i don’t have her friended, so i can’t read her tweets, right?. so i’m only seeing one half of the conversation which is… obnoxious to say the least. (the majority of my twitter exposure, i admit, are those of my friends who insist exporting their tweets to their livejournals, so talk about really only seeing one half of the conversation…) in irc, everyone is seeing what everyone is saying (unless it’s in /msg), and to me is a much more open dialogue.

    and too there’s that whole asynchronous bit. which has its moments, i agree. but if i want to have a dialogue about something… 140 characters ain’t gonna cut it. i’ve seen friends use two or three tweets to get across one idea. why limit yourself? i’m all for being concise, but there is such thing as too concise!

    (besides, the irc character limit is… well, more than 140 characters!)

  7. Well, to be fair this post takes liberties with Twitter (which I don’t appreciate but which I don’t actually think is ‘fucking retarded’) and Ekirch (who is of course the solitary figure in my fantasy of him). I was just trying to make a point that both ends of the spectrum are unappetizing to me in ways I hadn’t thought about previously, and that this fact was brought home through a curious juxtaposition that just happened in my life.

    I actually did have 1 good thing to say about Twitter in my post but I didn’t say it but now we have a whole thread going so maybe I will post it as a separate piece.

  8. Dear Rex,

    Long and short or fast and slow? As a slow writer myself, I wonder if the fantasy is really the long romantic quest, or rather the genius to be able to write *lots of* beautiful books. Certainly, that is what I wish for in my Christmas stocking. I think we can all write well if we take forever to do it, and we can all write poorly if we rush; the fantasy is to write profoundly *and* prolifically. So don’t we all find the balance between the vision and the possible that our lives can tolerate? And don’t we all have regrets for the book that could have been, or the book that will be “someday, somewhere, somehow”?

  9. it strikes me that Twitter is not an online communications medium, which was what I got from the NYT article by Clive Thompson. I think rather, that we need to unearth our Proxemics; apply a little bit of Edward T. Hall or Erving Goffman to it: it’s about re-creating and extending the phatic online. It’s the online equivalent of ‘uh-huh, i’m listening’– even if you aren’t. No?

  10. I would like to express my appreciation for the very kind comments about my book. Yes, it did consume innumerable hours, but the topic held my fascination until the final six months or so. Actually, I have a new book coming out in January that is altogether different from “At Day’s Close.” Entitled “Birthright: The True Story of the Kidnapping of Jemmy Annesley”, it recounts the real-life saga that inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, “Kidnapped’ Set mostly in eighteenth-century Ireland, it’s a tale of betrayal and loss but also survival, resilience, and redemption.

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