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His most recent work is Promiscuous Knowledge: Information, Image, and Other Truth Games in History , a book he completed based on the writings and research of his late friend and colleague Kenneth Cmiel. In our conversation Professor Peters discussed his research and historical ways of thinking about information overload. Sarah Pickman: Can you speak briefly about your academic background and interests?
John Durham Peters: I started out as an English major in college—and flirted with becoming a comparative Indo-European linguist because I really liked learning languages—and after I got my degree I discovered the field of communication studies quite by happenstance.
I realized that it had a lot of the same questions I was interested in in English, dealing with literature, history, culture, interpretation. So, I decided to pursue my Ph. After graduate school I got a job at the University of Iowa, where I taught for thirty years in communication studies, particularly in media studies. I came to Yale three years ago. Sarah Pickman: Could you speak about some of your recent work, especially Promiscuous Knowledge , a book that was begun by your late colleague, the historian Kenneth Cmiel?
He died suddenly in and left me all of his books. Ken conceived this project in the mid- to late s, at the high-water mark of postmodernism, and in some ways it was really tough to update that to a very different world. For example, he wrote a lot about how awesome Yahoo! News was! So some of his original material is now totally irrelevant, but a lot of it was totally apt for our current moment; it just took a great deal of time and effort to flesh out his ideas.
Finishing Promiscuous Knowledge took me fourteen years on and off and I quit several times because it was really tough going. The whole story of the process is written up in long postscript in the book, which you can read if you want all the gory details. Sarah Pickman: Do you find that in communication studies or media studies there has been a continual need to update the scholarship based on changing formats and presentations? What are some thre from earlier in your career that have remained just as pertinent as they were years ago? For example, I think that if we want to understand digital media, we have to understand clocks and calendars: media that manage, and collate, and organize information over time and space.
Brandes, a German physicist in the s, who produced some of the first weather maps. The result was that around , he published a giant report on the weather for the year The poor guy was always complaining that he had to personally collate 80, data points and he had to consult all of these texts to gather the data and it just sounds so incredibly tedious. Matthew Fontaine Maury, who led the U. Naval Observatory in the mid-nineteenth century, is another example of a big data cruncher from the nineteenth century. But on this basis, he figures out how to speed up maritime capitalism.
John Durham Peters: The argument of that work is essentially that data mediate the environment, and that if you look at things like forestry, or you look at plagues, they are essentially data entities. SARS-CoV-2 is a perfect example: can you distinguish the virus from the data tracking and following it? It is obvious to everyone that the virus has a hugely political component too—the pandemic has revealed the stark differences in the ways in which nations work. This virus is a quasi-object, or as Bruno Latour might say, an imbroglio. Milton was not a paragon of tolerance of different ideas, especially in how he treats Catholicism.
You can find traces of this fusion of the economy and free speech in Adam Smith or ancient Greek sources; in ancient Greece the agora, the marketplace, was both a place for selling goods and for speaking. But the concept of ideas existing in a market like other goods has a very specific and recent history of invention.
This essay followed up on my book Courting the Abyss , which argues that ideas about free speech are bound up with ideas about what it means to be a white, male gentleman and a certain philosophy of stoicism and how one is supposed to behave as a public figure.
This priority of the technology over the natural world, or the divide between instruments and the observable world, which is sometimes seen as so problematic today was also problematic—and useful—for people like Cicero and Pliny. We want to revisit a wider range of older forms of world-making with open minds, as historical case studies that might inspire or constrain the new universalisms that surround us in the present day.
Photo by Beanca du Toit on Unsplash. Conversations we are having… We want to revisit a wider range of older forms of world-making with open minds, as historical case studies that might inspire or constrain the new universalisms that surround us in the present day. .I have a very Durham dick
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The Last Sailorman by Durham Dick