Blog Post

The English Institute, Periods, and NTP

Flickr photo is from mutantlog's stream and shows a small-scale atomic clock from NIST.

This weekend I attended the 67th annual meeting of The English Institute. The theme organizing this year?s Institute is ?Periodization.? Several of the talks touched on ideas circulating within the digital humanities. The first talk, by MLA president Gerald Graff, raised the issues around the course and how the walls of the classroom define a border between periods, especially in period sequences. One of the solutions Graff proposed in his talk was the use of networked social technologies to erase the ?courseocentricism? of the period classroom. Using the example of the academic conference as an ideal, we might have classes, or discussion sections, communicating with each other during the term. Or, perhaps we have a Wiki or other electronic repository, connecting the previous course in the sequence to the current. To draw out these connections is to undo the process that Graff refers to as the erasure of history by the period. While I have no doubt that bringing the excitement of the conference to classroom (and perhaps the near-endless supply of coffee) is generative of new ideas, there might be a few risks. One of these being the tendency toward the academic fad, by which I mean the way a conference might enable a hot theory or ?in? scholar to dominate the session or the majority of papers. I've certainly experienced this before, and perhaps it is my frustration at spending a significant portion of a year reading and attempting to understand Giorgio Agamben that is the cause for my concern. My fear here being that difficult to understand terminology, which in the case of the ?star theorist?, spreads rhizomatically throughout a number of talks. What technology might bring, however, both to the conference and to the classroom, is this, the somewhat delayed and digital-mediated response from audience. The English Institute historically has printed proceedings in book form, often lagging years behind the Institute. I have one of these from 1983, now a near classic of American literary studies. Graff?s paper proposes we keep the period open, and by extension I can only imagine him to also suggest we keep the conversation open.


Lisa Gitelman?s talk, "Ages, Epochs, Media" brought up many interesting points on the organization of ages (including the popular horseless and horseful ages) through history and media. Her talk reminded us that the presence of the current age is always connected to the absence of the previous and often in interesting ways. Take for example, the ?Wireless Age,? which she demonstrated as once being used for the age of the radio, and now announced by, among others, WIRED Magazine as the end of the wired, i.e. Ethernet age. The final section of Gitelman?s talk concerned the World Wide Web and the logic of the punctual. Using the W3C?s ?Least Recently Modified Website? to demonstrate the somewhat datelessness of the web, she argued that the Internet has altered our understanding of time. Might we imagine the Web as standing between periods, as in the space of the domain name caught between the signifier of the service, ?www.? and ?.edu,? as an example of the top level domain name (TLD)?


My one public comment of the Institute contested this notion of timelessness. While the web appears to offer a certain ?nowness,? what Harry Harootunian calls the ?boundless present,? it is an effect of underlying technologies which have increasingly tied us and our computers to a common, synchronized, and arguably eventally produced time. The adoption of the Network Time Protocol and encryption and authorization technologies, such as Kerberos, that require synchronized clocks have created a distributed system of clicking clocks, slowing down and speeding up as instructed by the nearest networked time keeping device. Another example, closely connected to NTP, is what we might want to call ?evental rupture? of the UNIX epoch. On these UNIX systems time has (for the most part) been stored in seconds since January 1 1970. The storage unit of time has historically been a 32-bit signed integer called ?time_t,? which lead to what was called ?the 2038 problem.? Many computing systems have dealt with this problem by moving the representation of time to 64-bit integer. The myth of an undated, timeless Web seems to be supported by the repression of access (both read and write) records, transaction logs, and global, synchronized time.


Like most conferences many of the talks blurred together as conversations connect and reconnect ideas floating between morning and afternoon sessions and in the extended forty-five minute discussion period following each paper. Katie Trumpener delivered the final, marvelously written paper of the Institute and reminded me of what made/makes me want to be a part of this profession.



This is a great analysis of the conference. I'm wondering, from your discussion of periodization, if there was much talk about what it does to English and American literature to have it chopped up into historical periods, as if those periods were fixed, movable ways of defining history, and what it does to the profession to have job searches organized by period? Were these topics as well?


Thanks for writing.


Hi, Cathy. Thank you for the comment. Yes, the impact of periodization on the structure of individual departments and the broader field of English and American literary studies was a major topic. I left the conference feeling that overall people don