Nicholas Andelin’s interview with Dr. Warren Hedges of Southern Oregon University

Dr. Warren Hedges grew up in Springfield, Missouri, in a very conservative town (John Ashcroft is from there; Jerry Falwell went to college there; Jimmy Swaggart & Jim Baker got called back there to be defrocked). This left Warren with a lifelong obsession with how exposure to outside sources of information (in his case, the public library) can expand your horizons and help you perceive other choices.

From the ages of 18 to 22, Warren Hedges attended the College of Wooster in Ohio where he majored in Creative Writing with minors in Philosophy and in Art. From the ages of 22 to 33, he studied at Duke University, including some time off and 3 years of teaching after getting his PhD in 1993. But Dr. Hedges also helped run his family’s telecommunications firm from when he was 21 until he was 36. He worked there during the summers, and spent a lot of time on the phone with his father while going to school. After that, Warren Hedges came to Southern Oreon University in 1996 where he now teaches Emerging Media & Digital Art. Recently, I interviewed him about writing, books, technology, and the publishing industry.

NA: Dr. Hedges, you have written some powerful and accessible material about Derrida and deconstruction, but at the same time you claim to be “hardly a Derridean,” can you explain more about this?

WH: Sure. I think the difference would be between when I say the word “Derridean” I think that would be someone who is not only interested in understanding a few key aspects of Derrida’s thought, and knowing how to apply those few key aspects, but someone for whom Derrida would be an important person you would devote a lot of your research time to. And for me, that’s more Gilles Deleuze – the recent philosopher I find I spend as much time reading as I can. But because Derrida is so important I thought it’s important to explain his ideas clearly and I think those ideas have a lot of usefulness, but he’s not someone I would devote large amounts of my own time to – I’m not an expert on him. I think I was fairly good at explaining his ideas to a broader audience, maybe in part because I’m not an expert. I think someone who would be a dedicated expert on Derrida would want to explain a lot more qualifications and subtleties than I even grasp.

NA: Right, because it is such dense and multifaceted writing, or…?

WH: Well, any philosopher could be. You could spend your whole life, and people do, studying Plato or studying Spinoza.

NA: Right, because there’s so much to get out of it!

WH: Absolutely, yeah. I think that’s what makes a significant philosopher a significant philosopher. There’s so much there.

NA: And then, maybe that’s what it takes for a philosopher to become an “–ism” or to have a following attached to the end of their name, like “Derridean”

WH: Yeah, or that influential.

NA: Yeah. That’s what I mean.

WH: Yeah. And I think this is happening with Gilles Deleuze right now. He’s become significant enough a lot of people are I think using his ideas without accurately understanding them, and that certainly was the case with Derrida. You know, I would say the height of Derrida’s influence was probably the mid-80s, and now he’s kind of everywhere. Just like, you know, there was a time period where you could have what we now call a Freudian slip and people wouldn’t go “Ah, Freudian slip!” you know,…

NA: Haha, right, because it was before Freud, so they wouldn’t even notice.

WH: Yeah. People made these slips of the tongue, and they’d just seem like slips of the tongue. They didn’t seem meaningful. But after Freud, he changed the vocabulary for how we think about that. And I think the same thing happened with Derrida. That he changed the vocabulary for how we think about binary oppositions and how they work. And, having done that, people who have moved onto other philosophy – that’s just there, it’s achieved. If you’ve been to grad school and increasingly undergraduate school, you know how to think about that, you know how to use those tools. And now we’re interested in other tools, for new problems.

NA: Thinking about that, it’s interesting to think about whose ideas coming out right now on Facebook or Youtube or whatever are influencing culture right now, or that we don’t even realize will be informing culture long into the future.

WH: Yeah! And that’s what a lot of my reading is usually about is trying to find people who are coming up with concepts to make sense of what’s going on now.

NA: Wow, yeah. Like what?

WH: For example, just this morning I’m reading this book by Alexander Galloway, Protocol: how control exists after decentralization and that’s certainly going to shape my teaching for the next few years.

NA: Interesting stuff. On the internet, you’ve laid out some interesting points about deconstruction v. post-structuralism and postmodernism.

WH: Mm-hmm.

NA: And we can clearly see the deconstruction of binaries everywhere we look in contemporary art and entertainment.

WH: Yeah.

NA: Do you have any thoughts about where this is leading or specific implications for the accepted industries of our time (ie – books and the publishing industry)? We have these industries and accepted icons in our culture, like you know, a book maybe is our iconic representation of knowledge . But now books are changing to e-books. So, how’s that going to change the way that we symbolize things. Or maybe that’s the other way around, and the way we symbolize things is going to transform the industries of the future?

WH: Yeah, I think that’s well put. Well, I think a couple of things. One, is for Derrida, you know, that binaries can be deconstructed is just the nature of language itself, whether that was in ancient Rome or today. But I think because our economy is increasingly about representations, you know, that they are what are being exchanged, whether it’s film or videogames or experiences, like you go to Disney World and in a sense the experience you’re consuming is bound up with animated films or super hero movies or whatnot. Because of that, I think, a lot of these oppositions between things that normally would be pretty stable are now in play. And the economy is putting all this pressure on it …

NA: And I guess it’s also the pace of technological development putting this pressure on it.

WH: But, secondly, with things like publishing – yes – those oppositions are definitely being erased. And it may be the case that the platform is pushing things more quickly and further than the traditional content. From my friends in publishing, the big debate I hear going on right now is, “Is it going to go the way of the music industry?” whereas the music industry traditionally had a monopoly on content when that content was difficult to duplicate.

NA: Like LPs and vinyl records.

WH: And then, with cassette tapes, it became easier to duplicate, but duplicate imperfectly. But when they went digital, it was possible to make perfect copies of things.

NA: And that’s right where we are with publishing right now.

WH: We’re going from a monopoly, where you would have to buy the book, to an attempt to, I think the publishing industry is trying very hard to learn from the mistakes the music industry made. So, they’re trying to do with the Kindle store what Apple did with iTunes. And avoid losing control of copyright, where things like the entire content of a book can be effortlessly duplicated.

NA: This leads right into my next question. Here is a binary opposition in the real world: Is emerging media broadening exposure to more accurate information which is relevant and accessible to a wider audience, or with so much information available, are people actually being exploited by corporations (which are guided by bottom line profits), and misinformed by unregulated industries or industries dominated by a handful of companies?

WH: Sure. I think the possibility of getting accurate information has been increased, but so has the difficulty of getting it. There is a book by my friend, Howard Rheingold, that just came out called, Net smart: how to thrive online, which is about how to find accurate information on the internet and the kind of tools for it. And I think that’s what we ought to be teaching, not just in college, but probably in Junior High or even Grade School, that the challenge now is not getting information but people learning how to assess the reliability of information.

NA: Mm-hmm.

WH: And Howard has consistently been out ahead of people with things like describing virtual reality or online communities, and I think he’s out ahead again by focusing on what we need to do in education.

NA: Wow. Yeah, That’s really interesting, “Netsmart is a lifeboat for people who want to participate in new technologies without drowning in the flood” you know…

WH: And Howard, on the internet, was part of The Well in San Francisco, which was an early online community. And he was there on the ground floor and has seen how things have developed. He teaches a class on collaborative and social media online learning at Stanford. So, he’s a very helpful resource.

NA: Maybe this book helps answer this question of whether emerging media is a bottom up strategy moving toward more social equality because it gives everyone a virtual global window and a virtual global voice, or is it a top down strategy toward more social disparity because everyone has to surrender to the rich and powerful in order to obtain that window and that voice?

WH: Well, I think the fight is on, and it could go either way.

NA: Ha ha, Yeah!

WH: There’s an author I like, Henry Jenkins, who writes about the term “convergent media,” and he writes a lot about fan culture too. And he says, “Well it’s convergent in two senses. There’s a bottom up sense, where say something like, fans of Harry Potter create their own content (and I can give you an outline of his argument).” There’s a bottom up sense in that it’s much cheaper for people to become producers of their own media.

NA: Mm-hmm.

WH: What in economics we call “the means of production” are within peoples’ reach. So, you know, once upon a time, to publish a book, it would have required not only the means to write it, but a printing press and the distribution network and so forth and so on. Well, now the means of production are just a word processor program, which you can get for free.

NA: Or you can use google docs for free.

WH: And the means of distribution are practically free because you can just have it on the internet. So that’s convergent in one sense: that people can come together and they can produce their own stuff. Convergence in the other sense is if you look at Rupert Murdoch or Summer Redstone and such, these media moguls, these companies are merging into conglomerations, and because of emerging technology they’re no longer cordoned off into separate industries. So, if you acquired the rights to Harry Potter, say.

NA: I think Warner Brothers did that.

WH: Yeah, so they’re not only interested in publishing books. There’s also games, there’s also movies,

NA: Action figures, a theme park…

WH: Yeah, and so you have the same corporate entity trying to assert its copyright rights over a product across a variety of platforms, and one of the cases Jenkins looks at is actually with Harry Potter, where you had a lot of fans fiction being written, and newsletters, and so forth. And that was fine with the author of the Harry Potter books, but what you have when her rights were acquired by Warner Brothers to make the films, is there was a large and costly battle where Warner Bros tried to shut all these people down, and the fans organized a boycott. And in that case, the fans won. And Warner Brothers backed down, and realized it’s a lot better to have participatory fans – appropriating these characters and writing about them and publishing on the internet…

NA: Particularly since they weren’t making any money doing that!

WH: …than to get in a big fight with them and lose the fans. Now, that was one battle where bottom-up convergence won out against top-down. But I think it’s going to be a long while before we see how all that will go.

NA: So, are Facebook and social media in general making this convergence between different companies possible so they can develop some kind of strategic alliance?

WH: Facebook is an interesting example. On one hand you have things like the Arab Spring happening. And it being easier for people to access information. Or I think Twitter is really important here because you don’t have to have a computer. One commentator during the Arab Spring said something that really stopped me in my tracks. He said, “Twitter is a blogging platform for people who cannot afford their own computer and internet connection.” And so, you have multitudes of people organizing quickly and rapidly using that, but it also increases the chances of surveillance, and there’s kind of an arms race there. And so, you have the ability to challenge corporate control or state control.

NA: So, it’s not a matter of things getting better or worse?

WH: Yeah, it’s not a matter of things getting better or worse, but it’s a matter of the field of battle has moved to social media, and it has both greater potentials for change and greater potentials for surveillance.

NA: Wow.

WH: Yeah.

NA: Do you think this opposition will always be there? Like, there’s this question of who is in service to whom: Is Facebook serving us a new platform for socialization, or are we serving them all of our time, if not money, thoughts, and attention?

WH: Mm-hmm.

NA: Do you think maybe these binary oppositions around social control and gatekeeping will always be there?

WH: Oh yeah. I think when you’re dealing with a capitalist world economy, and you’re also just dealing with politics: Who has power to do things, who doesn’t, and people have rival interests. So there’s struggle. And that’s just my personal political view, the struggle, as far as I know for the foreseeable future, the struggle between powerful opposing interests will always be there. That’s what we’re doing.

NA: So, we’ve been talking about how these binaries deconstruct each other in the real world of publishing. Do you have anything else to add?

WH: Well, you think about some of the things that were solid that are now in play:

The difference between a producer and a consumer – Traditionally (and you could take this a long way back), suppose it was the 1900s and I was a big fan of Charles Dickens and I wrote my own stories choosing characters from the Dickens universe, how would I reach a lot of people with that? It would be very difficult. I couldn’t get it published as a book because of copyright issues, so I might write it up myself in long-hand or something and share it with friends, and that would sort of be the end of it. But if you think of that now, where you have fans doing original things with mimeographed pages or writing themselves into Star Trek or writing about erotic encounters between Kirk and Spock, you know.

NA: Haha, Yeah.

WH:  But now, with the internet and chat rooms and everything, you have fans able to produce not only fiction, but their own movies set in Star Wars or whatnot, So that has blurred the line between fans as consumers and fans as producers. You think about that with software platforms, where it’s very easy to afford to be able to write your own thing and upload that to the iTunes store. And it benefits Apple. That’s tons of original content, and they get a piece of that pie. But they don’t have to develop the software. But on the other hand, people get the software out there. I mean, somebody wrote Angry Birds or there’s a company in town that has this wonderful application that’s a virtual art museum that I think is really cool. So, you can be exposed to a lot of art. And they’re making a decent profit, and Apple is making a decent profit. And I think that makes the world a better place. So there’s that. There’s the distinction that’s becoming eroded between a physical product: a book you go down to a bookstore and buy that has paper from forests that have been cut down and whatnot to the book as a digital product that gets downloaded and just goes on your tablet or your phone that you read. So I think all those things are in play and changing in ways that are challenging our conception of what’s a consumer, what’s a producer, what does copyright mean.

NA: Or what is publishing?

WH: Yeah. That’s good.

NA: Like, Angry Birds might even be a better example for this question than social media because it seems so far removed from the world of conventional publishing.

WH: Sure.

NA: But is writing lines of program for an application like Angry Birds a form of publishing?

WH: That’s nice. I like how you frame this question. Well, one of the things in this book, Protocol, I’ve been reading that’s interesting is that programming is a language that does what it says, literally.

NA: Ha, Interesting.

WH: You know, “stop.” “If… then…” you know, so forth. And the part of this book I was reading this morning that I found really interesting that I think fits with what you were saying is this: He’s talking about DNS, which is a system for setting up web addresses (Domain Name System). “DNS is not simply a translation language. It is a language. It governs meaning by   mandating that anything meaningful must register and appear somewhere in its system. This is the nature of protocol“ (Galloway). I just find that so interesting and that’s something he keeps bringing up is thinking of programming as a language that has these specific material effects.

NA: So what about social media? Is that a form of publishing?

WH: I would say absolutely. I think one of the things that distinguishes, say, if you were an author wanting to use social media, like my friend Cheryl Strayed, doing that so well, is social media is about stories. And Facebook status update tells a story. And for a while I tried to get people to do Haikus for their status updates because I thought this was a very short form with its own demands, and wouldn’t it be funny if for a day I could get everyone to do Haikus and stuff?

NA: Yeah. That’s cool.

WH: But approaching it as ok, this is a genre that has demands, so it partially can be about stories and striking statements. But it’s also about relationships. Facebook is not a broadcast medium. So, authors who treat it as a broadcast medium as part of their marketing campaign, people can just opt out of your broadcast. They just take you off their feed. They’re not interested in yet another update about your book. And, from what I’ve seen of authors who use social media particularly well, is they promote themselves very little (and I’ve noticed this about Cheryl).

NA: Right, I remember this example from class.

WH: Cheryl’s book Wild got picked up by Oprah Winfrey to relaunch her book club after the book club being down for a couple years. Friends of Cheryl are posting about this, and occasionally Cheryl is posting about this, but she’s not saying, “Hey, look! Oprah Winfrey is promoting my book!” Instead, she is telling a story about what it was like to hang out with Oprah Winfrey. She’s telling a story rather than just saying “Buy my book. Buy my book. Buy my book.” And people are saying “Oh, her book is probably going to be made into a movie” and whatnot. And that’s her friends posting that to her wall. And a lot of Cheryl’s posts I’ve noticed since her book got picked up by Oprah Winfrey, and it’s just really taking off, are about other authors she thinks we ought to look at.

NA: Oh yeah. That’s a good example of using social media correctly.

WH: So, rather than it being a PR campaign for her book. She is a source of information.

NA: She’s creating her own scene…

WH: Yeah. But she’s also just being a nice person. And I’ve said this many times to my students that because Facebook is about relationships, and because it’s about relationships over an extremely long timeframe, if you’re a mercenary fuck, people will know you’re a mercenary fuck.

NA: Ha ha… Yeah. I know what you mean.

WH: And so if you’re a nice person, and just decent and kind, that will work to your advantage in a social media network environment.

NA: I remember you’ve spoken before on what works well and what doesn’t work well for authors, editors, etc. developing a social media presence, or what we call a “platform.” Can you talk more about that?

WH: If you don’t have the temperament, like if Facebook is not for you or if blogging is not for you, don’t do it. Twitter is not for me, you know, and so I don’t do it. Blogging is something I use to throw out some interesting ideas, because it is almost like a bulletin board for my brain, so I remember to come back to them. I don’t get a lot of comments and I don’t respond to a lot of comments. If I really wanted to be a blogger, I would want to be posting something every day, and responding to people at length. I use Facebook for that. I post something short. I throw some photos up and whatnot. I have pleasant little exchanges. For me, that’s more renewing than draining.

NA: But maybe it’s not for everyone?

WH: For some people blogging is more renewing than draining. Or Twitter. I guess for me, Facebook is the Goldilocks Zone because blogging is too much and Twitter is too little – in terms of interactions. And blogging is too centered on me and my thoughts; whereas, I’m not responding to or following what other people are doing that’s interesting. But, I think that in addition to the other things I said, just being a nice person and developing genuine relationships are important. I think the other things I would add are you’ve got to have the temperament for it, or in the case of a big name or publishing house, have an intern or somebody who does thrive at that. And the other thing I’d say is that you have to spend a fair amount of time learning things like privacy controls, learning how to unsubscribe to people who aren’t helpful, learning how to set up inner-circles of people you really enjoy interacting with and then people you only want to interact with occasionally.

NA: That’s true. Learning Facebook privacy controls and these things takes time.

WH: Sure does. For Facebook to work for me, where it enriches my life and exposes me to new ideas more quickly and in a richer kind of way than I would get solely with an off-line life (not that the two are mutually exclusive) Has taken a good deal of time to learn how to use the tools in a way that enhances life rather than detracts from it.

NA: Do you have any other insights about the publishing industry from your own experiences in academia or authoring or working in the telecommunications industry?

WH: Blackstone Audio is coming out with a very interesting app any week now that I think showcases how technology is changing things a lot. I listen to a lot of Blackstone Audio books because I have a thirty-five minute commute twice a day. Their app is one where you can be reading a book in print on your Kindle or your iPad or your Android system at night, and then you stop at a particular place in the book. Then you get up in the morning, you get in your car, and you plug your iPhone into your car and it picks up narrating the book exactly where you stopped reading the text.

NA: Wow. Yeah, they came and spoke to our class about that actually.

WH: Oh, so you know all about that!

NA: This brings up another oppositional question I’ve been thinking about. Is technology changing to meet the needs of people or are people changing to meet the needs of technology? One example is Facebook becoming your Goldilocks zone, or another example might be Blackstone Audio with their new app.

WH: Yeah.

NA: …But in some ways the e-book industry still has a problem here because of this point Michael Nieman shared with our class: it’s not book publishers just publishing e-books on any device they want, it’s specific e-books becoming locked into certain devices. So now, you can only use a Kindle to buy that certain book you want. Or you can only use a Nook to buy this other book.

WH: That’s an interesting point. And everybody is interested in the Apple iTubes store as a model for solving that issue. Generally, you have to choose a kind of ecosystem that works for you. Although in my case I have an iPad (an Apple device), but I actually buy my books from the Kindle store because I actually like Amazon’s app better than Apple’s. But I think in terms of technology versus human needs and human desires, that’s been a two-way street since the invention of writing. We tend to forget writing itself is a technology.

NA: Good point.

WH: One thing that’s interesting to me because I’m interested in the history of typography is the way a new technological development in handwriting will come in, like the steel-nibbed pen. When that came in the late 1700s early 1800s was it, the Romantic era, one thing that allowed you to do is have dramatic contrast between the thickness and the thinness of the stroke of a letter. And that influenced typography. So you see romantic typefaces. I think Didot.  If you look at a Vogue magazine, you notice thin vertical lines and thick horizontal lines. That’s a romantic typeface. That’s in direct dialogue with romantic typefaces. There was a point where people would have been very uncomfortable with this new writing technology because they would have to unlearn their previous kind of handwriting and re-learn a new way of handwriting with this new kind of pen.

With the typography, when some of these typefaces came out that emulated this move to an extreme contrast between the narrowness and thickness of the stroke. Many people said this was unlegible. It’s crazy. This is terrible to demand that people struggle to read this kind of thing. To us, to now this seems really kind of funny. But I think that’s a good example of the push and pull. There was a lot of angst about paperbacks when Penguin and their Pelican line – Their idea was to get classics in peoples’ hands at an affordable price with paperback books. A lot of people thought they were destroying the air of handcrafted beauty that you had with a good hardback. And, I mean, there are some things lost. I think it was kind of bad for typography. With paperbacks you had all this bad paper with this acid in it for a long time, and so you would buy a paperback book and want to go back to it after fifteen years and the pages would be all yellow and brittle. And so, that didn’t serve peoples’ needs very well.

NA: In some ways technology still isn’t serving peoples’ needs very well.

WH: Well, you have the same kind of push and pull in negotiation with digital publishing. There are some things which expand our idea of what is possible, but there’s awkwardness because we’re adapting to a new technology. And in many things I think in terms of reading devices like tablets, and I love my iPad – it’s the first thing I read in the morning and the last thing I read before I go to sleep, because it’s just more convenient to read in the dark. But I don’t think it’s quite there. I’ve noticed when I’m taking notes on a book, and personally I believe it’s because I’m using a different part of my brain, than I’m using when I’m typing. When I’m lettering and I’ve got my three mechanical pens and my ruler out here, I’m trying to letter things in an exact way that slows down my note taking process and I think I’m even using a different part of my brain, than where I was trained to type, and I think this kind of historical specificity is important. I was trained to type on an IBM Selectric by someone who trained office workers. And office workers are trained to not think about what they’re typing, but just to be as much like a machine as possible – simply repeat the pattern that’s in front of you without thinking about it. So, because of this prior experience where I was trained to type like a machine, ironically, an ipad is not a good thing for me to take notes with.

NA: Well, thank you, Dr. Hedges for helping me put this interview together. I think you provided some useful analysis here which helps clear up apparent oppositions we find deconstructed in today’s digital shift of the publishing industry.

WH:You bet. Thank you.

 

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