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Evgeny Morozov, Author of the Quixote?

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These two message are reposted from the SIGCIS.org members discussion list which has been a primary locus for discussion of the Medina/Morozov affair. The references to a fictitious and sinister cabal of historians are explained by an earlier case in which SIGCIS was characterized as such by the self-proclaimed "inventor of email" and his friends. The piece was widely tweeted.

From: Thomas Haigh <thaigh@computer.org>
Date: 12 October 2014 15:45
Subject: Evgeny Morozov, Author of the Quixote?
To: members@sigcis.org

Evgeny Morozov, Author of the Quixote?

Dear Cabalists,

I have called you this evening to this secret cavern deep underground to address an important matter. I’ve been looking closely at the explanation Evgeny Morozov posted on Tumblr to describe the creation of his controversial New Yorker piece “The Planning Machine.” And you know what? We misunderestimated the guy. In fact he is even more brilliant than he says he is. Also more modest. Hard to believe, but let me convince you on this one.

Now I know that, when the article first appeared, some in the SIGCIS community were concerned that Morozov might not have given quite enough credit to Eden Medina’s award winning 2011 book Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile. Pedants noted that the article spent about twenty paragraphs on the story of the Chilean Cybersyn network project of the 1970s, closely recapping Medina’s argument and evidence. They observed that he mentioned her book only once, as the source of one specific insight. Ugly words like “erasure” were bandied around. Morozov was even accused of committing some kind of obscure academic misdemeanor. Plagism, maybe. Being a Phalangist? I forget the exact word. Some jealous cynics tarred the prolific celebrity critic turned Harvard Ph.D. student as the James Franco of the history of science.

If you look closely enough at http://evgenymorozov.tumblr.com/post/99479690995/some-notes-on-my-cybernetic-socialism-essay you will see that everything is resolved. Here’s what happened. Morozov set out to write a review essay focused on Medina’s book. So far, so humdrum. Any mediocrity can write a review essay. Then the magic happened. Morozov went to the library and pulled a bunch of the books Medina had cited. Some of them were very hard to read, but that didn’t faze him. He read even more books. He “pushed in many directions at once.” He followed in Medina’s footsteps to read Beer’s papers in Liverpool, to correspond with Beer’s former colleagues, and to interview Fernando Flores who initiated Project Cybersyn with an invitation to British cyberneticist Stafford Beer. He even found out some things about Beer and Cybersyn that Medina hadn’t mentioned in the book.

At the end of “six months of very hard work” Morozov had produced his own comprehensive history of managerial cybernetics, with Beer and Project Cybersyn as its main focus. A lot of review essays say more about an imaginary book that the critic would write than about the actual text under discussion. Morozov did something unique and different: he actually spent the time to recreate and transcend Medina’s entire research from the same original sources. So his final New Yorker piece didn’t deny anything due to Medina. She was properly credited in the one paragraph that still relied on her work. In the rest of the article Morozov was summarizing his own groundbreaking research. Unfortunately the space requirements of the New Yorker prevented him from ever writing down the longer, footnoted version of this seminal contribution, let along publishing it in a peer reviewed journal or with an academic press. It exists in his head and that’s good enough for me.

With just 4,000 words at his disposal in the New Yorker Morozov was generous to spend two of them evaluating Medina’s work in passing as an “entertaining history.” Two words might not sound like much, but The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (revised edition) summed up Earth and everyone on it as “mostly harmless.” Heck, I’ve seen posters for really bad movies that blew up fainter and shorter praise in huge letters (“Energetic!” Some guy you’ve never heard of – Huffington Post). Despite this clear signposting in the tenth paragraph some dimwits did not grasp that the piece was a book review. With what little respect might be due to them, this is clear their fault, not his. He simply did not have enough space “to repeat what was already obvious.” Let me observe in passing that Morozov is wasting his new piece on Tumblr. With a little editing it too could be published in the New Yorker. I suggest the “Shouts & Murmurs” section.

I have particular sympathy for Morozov as a glance at his Twitter feed over the past month shows that he is beset with idiots on all sides. People with paralyzed brains in startups. Events “about bullshit.” The silliness of Marshal McLuhan. The “stupidity” of Checky. The dullards who retweet him without recognizing his sarcasm. Bravest of all, a tweet observing “Got nothing to say? Add the word ‘ontology’ to it – at least, it will get published.” Perhaps he had, at that very moment in his research, come across Peter Galison’s classic paper “The Ontology of the Enemy: Norbert Weiner and the Cybernetic Vision.” His books tell a similarly moving story. As the only person in the world who is both intelligent and principled he puts a succession of idiots, hacks, and corporate shills to shame. It’s the lot of the genius to be unappreciated in his own lifetime.

His plight is captured eloquently by his twitter tagline, “There are useful idiots. Look around.” Let’s do that right now. All of you line up. Look left. Look right. One of you is an idiot. Probably that guy on your left. I think he’s drooling, but it’s hard to tell with the light down here. The woman on the right doesn’t look too sharp either. Chances are that they’re both idiots. Hell, I wouldn’t be shocked if all three of you are idiots. Some of you don’t even go to Harvard.

So, implausible as this might seem, here’s why I think Morozov is being unduly modest about his own immense potential. Over the past six months I’ve been conducting my own unpublished, unwritten, research project on a little known figure of the early twentieth century: Pierre Menard. Menard is remembered a prolific yet minor scholar, author of five monographs and a number of articles on a range of topics. Like Morozov he spread his talent widely.

Yet Menard’s true, and little acknowledged, genius lay in an entirely separate project. He was attempting a supremely audacious literary feat: reproducing Don Quixote without, and here comes the hard part, having read it since early childhood. He did not want to compose another Quixote —which is easy— but the Quixote itself. Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide—word for word and line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes. By the time of his death years of meticulous research had allowed Menard to independently reproduce significant portions of the text. He was one of the forgotten greats of world literature.

Menard’s challenge was more formidable that Cervantes’, just as Morozov faced a more difficult task than Medina. As Menard wrote, “To compose the Quixote at the beginning of the seventeenth century was a reasonable undertaking, necessary and perhaps even unavoidable; at the beginning of the twentieth, it is almost impossible. It is not in vain that three hundred years have gone by, filled with exceedingly complex events. Amongst them, to mention only one, is the Quixote itself.”

Looking side by side at identical passages from Menard and Cervantes it is clear that Menard’s was the greater accomplishment. To write in an alien tongue, three centuries later and still produce the same words was a remarkable and subtle triumph. Since Menard’s death none have dared to take up this challenge, but given his remarkable talent as a replicator of research I think Morozov might be able to finish the job. There are other parallels. Menard was drawn to Don Quixote as “an entertaining book.” Morozov’s research began with Medina’s “entertaining history.” Both authors transcended their sources by reproducing them.

They also share working methods. Menard spent sleepless nights scribbling thousands of draft pages, which he meticulously destroyed. As he noted, “the philosophers publish the intermediary stages of their labor in pleasant volumes and I have resolved to do away with those stages.” Only the brilliant end product remains. Morozov tweeted to an admirer that his method was “old school: most of is (sic) in my head and occasional notes in Open Office. I am blessed with good memory.”

Morozov’s ability to repeat interviews with Medina’s oral history subjects to reproduce the same quotes she used in her book is the surest sign of his readiness for this awesome challenge. Morozov mentions interviewing Flores and Brian Eno, but again his modesty is deceptive. I’m sure that he also interviewed Ángel Parra (quote p. 133) and Tomas Kohn (quote p. 132) to independently reproduce the remarks from their 2008 interviews with Medina that appear both in her book and in his article. He showed particular ingenuity in discovering that a quote Medina incorrectly attributed to a 2006 interview she conducted with Raul Espejo (quote p. 186 fn. 53, p. 288) was actually something that “one of Cybersyn’s directors remarked at the time.” Contemporary remarks are more historically reliable that those given decades later, so this is another way in which Morozov’s is a more profound scholarly contribution than Medina’s.

As Jorge Luis Borges noted in “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” an entertaining history article, Menard believed that “Every man should be capable of all ideas and I understand that in the future this will be the case.” We live in that future, and Evgeny Morosov is our champion. It would be a crime for him to spend years working on a Ph.D. thesis burdened with footnotes and the other accoutrements of mediocrity. Let him instead do what only he can do: take up the project of Menard and complete the Quixote.

There must be no more grumbling against this great and humble scholar. Cabal dismissed.

Tom.

From: Thomas Haigh <thaigh@computer.org>
Date: 13 October 2014 10:42
Subject: Some notes on my Morozov/Menard address
To: members@sigcis.org

Dear Cabalists,

I am sorry to have to drag you back to our lair on such short notice, but a couple more items are in need of our attention.

First, I’m sorry to say that despite my full throated defense of Mozorov during our last meeting it seems that some slow-witted critics are still not convinced. The situation was fully resolved with his original Tubmlr post. Sadly he has been called away from his work recreating Don Quixote to write a second Tumblr post. This is, if anything, more compelling that the first and the situation is even resolvdier than before.

As he makes clear at http://evgenymorozov.tumblr.com/post/99837458735/more-on-the-cybersyn-essay the books and boxes Morozov photographed previously were just the tip of the biblioberg. He’s photographed more sources. As he mentioned, “there’s also plenty of factual detail in my piece that comes from the archives – or other sources.” I think we can all agree that evidence some of the material in a paper genuinely was one’s own work is a surefire defense against any accusation that most of the rest wasn't. At least that’s what we were taught at the National University of Uqbar, where I got my Ph.D by mail. Student appeals against misconduct charges had a very high success rate there.

In addition Morozov is an exceptionally talented prose stylist, and for a man working on that artistic level the position of every word is crucial. Mentioning Medina in the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eight, or ninth paragraph paraphrasing her work would have ruined the aesthetics of his entire piece and betrayed his readers.  As he explained it, “where you, the author, decide to interrupt your piece and introduce the source matters – whether you do it in paragraph number three or paragraph number ten affects the overall flow and feel of the argument. My responsibility as an author is both to the readers AND to the sources that I draw upon.” As a reader I certainly appreciate that level of dedication to my wellbeing. Case closed. Again.

Second, some outrageous accusations have been made that my previous address bore a greater than acknowledged debt to the work of Jorge Luis Borges. Let me state for the record that I fully acknowledged my debt to Borges when I mentioned his entertaining article at the end of my oration. He wrote a nice piece, but it’s nothing special. Any further similarity in claims and word choices undoubtedly results from our reliance on shared sources. I can say without fear of contradiction that I have read every word Pierre Menard ever published, visited each archival collection holding his letters and manuscripts, and interviewed all of his living descendants. In addition a public address, even when taken down by goblin scribes for dissemination to those unable to attend in person, is a very different format from a journal article. There simply wasn’t time to acknowledge every source before the sun came up, which to say the least would have complicated your egress from our lair. Mentioning Borges earlier wasn’t an option either – I’m a very talented orator and it would have spoiled the aesthetics of the speech and betrayed your interests as listeners. Also, and I’m disappointed that any of you missed this, the whole address was a book review.

Finally, I am afraid that we had to flog those scribes because the previous message, and a few others they sent to the listserv yesterday, have not made it into the archive. Our elderly pipermail daemon seems to be self-censoring, which is ironic. So that we can better defend Morozov against the jealous and small minded I have posted a copy of the earlier message at http://www.tomandmaria.com/tom/writing/morozovquixote.htm.

Cabal dismissed.

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