Chair's speech as delivered by Professor Bishnupriya Ghosh at the English Department Major's Reception, UCSB Commencement, June 2014.
Congratulations graduates, friends and family, for your achievements and for your courage. Despite the facility of expression that you have acquired as English majors, I know we are all experiencing testimonial fatigue. We’ve been asked for our views, our take, our reflections, too often—and certainly too soon for grief to turn into introspection. So I will not return again to the Isla Vista murders just to pick at a wound. Rather, I thought it productive to reflect on the intellectual and affective life you have lived here, as UCSB students—a life that will, we hope, sustain you, spur you to critical reflection, and inspire action against the social violence that touched your lives.
My cue comes from you, graduates: from the “aesthetic education,” as one of my colleagues (Chris Newfield put it) that you gave the UCSB community. He was not referring to the 22,000 strong at the Harder Stadium ceremony, but to the May 28 “paddle out,” a fitting memorial for our seashore town. Hundreds of students on surfboards, boats, canoes, and flotation devices moved beyond the breakers to remember and celebrate the dead; others immersed flowers at the shoreline, a crowd swelling far beyond the initial 2000 that had signed up on facebook. It was a vigil without words, as we all struggled to find the right ones, even us, in the English Department, the wordsmiths of the university. The gesture recognized the abiding relation that makes a community. It was not that everyone knew the lost or the bereaved, but they belonged to all of us, to the common, an idea that I hope you will take with you as you enter the world beyond UCSB’s shores.
A word with a loaded history, “common” entered the English language via Old French, simply meaning “shared by all or many.” The term became a part of public life in 15thC England when it began to refer to “land held in common,” a notion that persists in our national and city parks, groves and reserves (think the Boston Commons to Yosemite). But in the mid-20thC, the idea became the subject of debate after the publication of Garrett Hardin’s famous 1968 essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons.” I will turn to this history, shortly. But here surfing in the calm cool Pacific, there was an ineffable common that was beyond the shared emotion of grief, something understood in the silence of lapping waves. Something incorporated, something not easily put in words, an imprint, if you will: a voice you heard in the classroom, the brush of shoulder in the corridor, a smile at a café—traces of a college education beyond the curriculum. It is transpersonal relations surging to surface as our common resource during momentous events.
One of America’s most lyrical voices, the poet and critic, Adrienne Rich called the perception of such a common a kind of “knowledge,” a common language. She asked us to dream of a common language that might bridge official languages, dialects, and accents. In gatherings, that knowledge is palpable. But perhaps, in California, with its ethnic, racial, and linguistic diversity, it is also everyday knowledge. Haven’t you ever paused, struggling to understand another tongue, but intuitively knowing what the speaker asks, needs, or refuses? Haven’t you followed the direction of the gaze, the slant of the shoulder? Such gestures provide the context for how we receive a word, how we interpret its meaning, and are therefore central to the communication skills you acquired in your education here. In her poem, “Cartographies of Silence” (your first quote), Rich records the presence of the unsaid in the following way: “The technology of silence/The rituals, the etiquette/The blurring of terms/silence not absence/of words or music or even/raw sounds/Silence can be rigorously executed/the blueprint of a life/It has a presence/it has a history a form/Do not confuse it/with any kind of absence.”
Do not confuse the silent act of “living-in-common” with an absence, she reminds us. Amid the frenetic activity of lectures, papers, tests, and readings, you have all experienced it: that thing that happens in the classroom that stays with you. Those sentences—black and white marks upon a page—stared back at you the night before. Some of them seemed relevant, others just the fillers in that oh-so-long novel you were reading. But then you came to class. Someone pulled out that filler, asked a question, expressed an opinion. Suddenly that the mark became a “letter,” litera in Latin, ground zero for the study of literature. Suddenly the letter connected to others, slowly to a whole history of ideas and forms. You’ll remember the phrase—because of the common knowledge you made together in the classroom. I have taught the same texts in the same courses over a number of years. Each time, they become strange to me, newly discovered, remade by the singular readings you bring to them. For the study of literature is an interpretive science: the pursuit of meaning, significance, and value that changes with each era. Our job was to give you the tools and techniques, the histories and methods of knowledge. You took those instructions and made texts anew in the classroom. That collective knowledge making is an everyday practice of the common—and it makes possible, literary study. The unrecorded conversations, the quiet between talk, the slow sinking in of what you read is the education you will take with you. Our department lost two students who did not finish their courses this quarter. But they will remain present in the common knowledge we made together.
Such “commoning” (as it is sometimes called) is everywhere today in the larger field of literary studies. For those who have taken classes in our many specializations, you have encountered these discussions, perhaps under another name. In the “Literature and Mind” classes, you’ve read about the significance of transpersonal exchange to making knowledge, even as quantitative record remains individualized—your GPA, your certificate, your rank. Your classes in the Modern Literature and Critical Theory concentration have introduced you to the political and economic history of common enterprise through the twentieth century. If you have taken the Literature and Culture of Information courses, you will have heard of the digital commons, the open software movement, and copyright debates. And at the Early Modern Center, you have encountered the making of words, on paper and in ink, and how they came to be transcribed, authored and owned. If you have followed the “Anti-Racism Inc.” series hosted by the American Cultures and Global Contexts Center, you have thought of the call for social justice, often at odds with the law, as mobilization of the common around grievances that affect us all—not just that race or this ethnicity. And in studying the “Literature and Environment,” the commons are everywhere: in struggles against private enclosures of over land, forests, air, and water, and in the effort toward the collective renewal of the planetary resources that we use up everyday. Our faculty and graduate students have produced a rich body of writing on these concerns. It would not be possible in this brief time to do justice to that scholarship; nor could I catalog the many “commons” that are being imagined, made, unmade, and remade. So I close with a few observations relevant to this historical moment.
The history of the commons as a practice is inextricable from the enclosure of lands. An anonymous English poem puts it so: “The law locks/up the man or/woman/Who steals the goose from off/the common, /But lets the greater villain/loose/Who steals the common from the goose.” Here the parable is simple: those who would enclose, privatize, and extract wealth from things we own in common, be that water or software, are the greater villains. But as it turns out, the debate is far more complex. Garret Hardin argued that anything held in common was marked by coming tragedy, since exploding populations would ultimately use up common resources and lay bare the store. But the tragedy thesis—the idea that any effort to keep resources commonly owned is headed for disaster—has been richly contested, and most memorably by Elinor Ostrom, the only woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics (2009). Ostrom studied “common-pool resources” (core resources like fish or water) all over the world, and she found that these were not just free for all and ready for overuse or depletion. Rather common resources could be preserved and maintained by appropriate social arrangements. So the challenge is: How can we agree on effective social institutions that serve us all? How do we devise rules and formalize them as law?
In literary studies, the legal question is most profoundly raised around intellectual property: around open-access publication, free software, licit and illicit cultures of copy, and the extraction of private information for surveillance or for profit. In his 2004 book, Free Culture, Lawrence Lessig calls for the preservation of a media commons that frees it from a stifling “permissions culture” (your second quote): “Free cultures are cultures that leave a great deal open for others to build upon; unfree, or permission cultures leave much less. Ours was a free culture. It is becoming much less so.” Too much enclosure, in his view, pours cold water on creativity: “Think about the amazing things your kid could do or make with digital technology—the film, the music, the Web page, the blog. Or think about the amazing things your community could facilitate with digital technology—a wiki, a barn raising, activism to change something. Think about all those creative things, and then imagine cold molasses poured onto the machines. This is what any regime that requires permission produces.”
Whichever side one takes in this debate, you have all encountered the force of collaborative media-making in your education here, in the English department. The common as collaborative knowledge practice materialized a new literary arts magazine, this year, The Catalyst, organized and edited by a group of intrepid undergraduates. Their forging of an UCSB-Isla Vista arts community is evident in the many events they host, and the very popularity of the magazine. But the force of that common arose, again, in the midst of tragedy, when their network became essential for mobilizing the 5000 strong candlelight vigil at Storke Plaza on May 24, 2014. Here Ostrom’s incitement to an effective social arrangement finds local articulation in a network that uses common-pool resource (software, printing capacity, server space, creative ideas, time, sweat) but also produces an ever-renewing arts community. This is maybe what Vice-President, Joe Biden named the “character, courage, and commitment” of the UCSB community.
That commitment stands to renew a place that has had too much tragedy in the last months, Isla Vista, a beach town in which the social arrangement is between people and the ocean. This is another ecological notion of the common, involving not just humans but also plants, animals, and the whole earth. Anthropologist Anna Tsing, has written evocatively of the ecological networks of forests: microbes, worms, trees, and mushrooms engage in common exchange to sustain each other and the network, so that there is no imminent tragedy. Here, the network as a common, an open enclosure, plays a critical role in its sustainability, in the maintenance and repair of the forest. In bringing such networks into view, ecologically committed literature helps us imagine the possibility of renewal. Among such literary invocations is British novelist and poet, Thomas Hardy’s memorable transcription of his beloved Wessex countryside, a delicate ecology of sustainable farms under threat from industrialization (your third quote):
Hardy is speaking of a traveller from the coast that enters the Vale of Blackmoor. He sees behind him open hills, where “the sun blazes down upon fields so large as to give an unenclosed character to the landscape.” But in the valley, “the world seems to be constructed upon a smaller and more delicate scale; the fields are mere paddocks, so reduced that from this height their hedgerows appear a network of dark green threads overspreading the paler green of the grass. The atmosphere beneath is languorous, and is so tinged with azure that what artists call the middle distance partakes also of that hue, while the horizon beyond is of the deepest ultramarine. Arable lands are few and limited; with but slight exceptions the prospect is a broad rich mass of grass and trees, mantling minor hills and dales within the major. Such is the Vale of Blackmoor.”
For Hardy, literature replenishes through harnessing the formidable capacities of creative expression: to bring to consciousness the “network of dark green threads,” a balance of enclosures, that only the intimate and discerning eye can see. It teaches us to look at our Vale of Blackmoor, Isla Vista—a place now in need of imaginative, as much as physical, repair and renewal. You, graduates, are its scribes, some of you writing, painting, photographing, and filming its complexities—mediations you have learned from the touch of the literary. We will have occasion to draw on those as common-pool resource for IV’s replenishment, even as you will be asked to transcribe UCSB and IV as you move on. My hope is that you will carry the practice of the commons to other pastures, to make it new in modalities yet to come.
To our brilliant, talented, and all-round fabulous graduates! To their friends, family, and teachers—hearty congratulations! May the common be with you!
Quotations for Commencement Address (in brochure):
The technology of silence
The rituals, the etiquette
The blurring of terms
silence not absence
of words or music or even
Silence can be
the blueprint of a life
It has a presence
it has a history a form
Do not confuse it
with any kind of absence
Adrienne Rich, “Cartographies of Silence” (1978)
“Think about the amazing things your kid could do or make with digital technology—the film, the music, the Web page, the blog. Or think about the amazing things your community could facilitate with digital technology—a wiki, a barn raising, activism to change some- thing. Think about all those creative things, and then imagine cold molasses poured onto the machines. This is what any regime that re- quires permission produces.”
“Free cultures are cultures that leave a great deal open for others to build upon; unfree, or permission, cultures leave much less. Ours was a free culture. It is becoming much less so.”
Excerpts from Lawrence Lessig, Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity (2004)
The traveller from the coast, who, after plodding northward for a score of miles over calcareous downs and corn-lands, suddenly reaches the verge of one of these escarpments, is surprised and delighted to behold, extended like a map beneath him, a country differing absolutely from that which he has passed through. Behind him the hills are open, the sun blazes down upon fields so large as to give an unenclosed character to the landscape, the lanes are white, the hedges low and plashed, the atmosphere colourless. Here, in the valley, the world seems to be constructed upon a smaller and more delicate scale; the fields are mere paddocks, so reduced that from this height their hedgerows appear a network of dark green threads overspreading the paler green of the grass. The atmosphere beneath is languorous, and is so tinged with azure that what artists call the middle distance partakes also of that hue, while the horizon beyond is of the deepest ultramarine. Arable lands are few and limited; with but slight exceptions the prospect is a broad rich mass of grass and trees, mantling minor hills and dales within the major. Such is the Vale of Blackmoor.
Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Ubervilles (1891)