I have been calling Shimer a community of inquiry, criticism, generosity and hope almost since my arrival in July 2012. Much of Shimer's literature focuses on the notion of a community of criticism, so that is the focus today; and yet, I think remembering to be generous and hopeful is also crucial.
I was reminded of this matter by our "social reading" of Utopia, by Thomas More. Stephen Duncombe, Associate Professor of Media and Culture at New York University, created Open Utopia, a project perhaps best described by Duncombe himself:
When Thomas More’s Utopia was published in 1516 it included copious marginal notes, some profound, others silly, likely contributed by More’s friend and co-conspirator in the Utopia project, Peter Giles. Since then, and with the exception of a few scholarly editions, the practice of reproducing marginalia has fallen off. Using the Institute for the Future of the Book’s SocialBook platform, the Open Utopia is an effort to restart the tradition — and open up the practice.
Here is part of what Dumcombe writes about criticism in his introduction, after describing horrific examples of Utopian dreams gone bad through totalitarian and fascist pursuits of political ideals at the expense of human life and meaning :
But without political illusions, with what are we left?Disillusion, and its attendant discursive practice: criticism.6 Earnest, ironic, sly or bombastic; analytic, artistic, textual, or performative; criticism has become the predominant political practice of intellectuals, artists, and even activists who are dissatisfied with the world of the present, and ostensibly desire something new. Criticism is also Utopia’s antithesis. If Utopianism is the act of imagining what is new, criticism, derived from the Greek words kritikos (to judge) and perhaps more revealing, krinein (to separate or divide), is the practice of pulling apart, examining, and judging that which already exists.
One of the political advantages of criticism–and one of the reasons why it has become the preferred mode of political discourse in the wake of twentieth-century Utopian totalitarianism–is that it guards against the monstrous horrors of political idealism put into practice. If Utopianism is about sweeping plans, criticism is about pointed objections. The act of criticism continually undermines any attempt to project a perfect system. Indeed, the very act of criticism is a strike against perfection: implicitly, it insists that there is always more to be done. Criticism also asks for input from others. It presupposes a dialogue between the critic and who or what they are criticizing–or,ideally, a conversation amongst many people, each with their own opinion. And because the need to criticize is never-ending (one can always criticize the criticism itself), politics remains fluid and open: a permanent revolution. This idea and ideal of an endless critical conversation is at the center of democratic politics, for once the conversation stops we are left with a monolithic ideal, and the only politics that is left is policing: ensuring obedience and drawing the lines between those who are part of the brave new world and those who are not. 7 This “policing” is the essence of totalitarianism, and over the last century the good fight against systems of oppression, be they fascist, communist or capitalist, has been waged with ruthless criticism.
You can join a debate about this -- and more (pun intended) by seeking out Duncombe's Open Utopia project. For details read on!
SocialBook is a new publishing platform based on the idea that "a book is a place" where readers can congregate. SocialBook makes it very easy to annotate a text and to follow a conversation in the margins. Using SocialBook, Open Utopia allows for readers around the world to annotate the text in the margins and comment on the annotations of other readers, creating a conversation that is both dynamic and preserved for future participants. SocialBook also makes it possible for us to create a specific reading group composed of Shimer faculty, staff, students, and alumni: Shimertopia. Others may join in the more genral groups reading Utopia as well. Regardless of where you may find yourself over winter break, you can still share in a text-centered conversation with other Shimerians.
If you would like to participate in this experience, please first sign up for SocialBook here. SocialBook is entirely free, and in addition to Open Utopia, you will find dozens of other texts that you may read “socially”. Please note that SocialBook works only with Safari or Chrome browsers. It will not function properly with Internet Explorer, Firefox or other browsers. If you do not already have a compatible browser, you can download Safari for Windows here or Google Chrome here. If you use a Mac or I-Pad, Safari should already be installed on your device.
After you have signed up for SocialBook, please email [email protected] and ask to be added to the Shimertopia Group. You will soon receive an email from SocialBook with a link to the Open Utopia text with a tab for My Group.
When you click on the My Group tab, you will be able to follow the comments of other Shimerians in the margin. You may add comments of your own by highlighting a passage in the text and typing your comment which will then appear to all of us in the margin. You may also click “reply” on others’ comments and continue the conversation they have started. Once someone has replied to a comment, that comment cannot be deleted. It becomes part of a permanently preserved conversation about the text.
What do we mean by criticism? Is that something we ought to discuss? Please join us.