“If I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning / I’d hammer in the evening, all over this land,” sang the late, great Pete Seeger. Notice he did not say that if he had a hammer he’d submit it to peer review or place it in his tenure and promotions file. He’d hammer it. All over the land! Of course, while on the blacklist in the 1950s, a good stretch of Seeger’s land was made up of college campuses across the United States (Seeger was a nomadic pragmatist: he had a message to spread and, as far as audiences went, he would take what he could get). Still, Seeger’s signal would not be bent or broken or, least of all, subjected to any sort of bureaucratic metrics.
It is funny that I only came to fully appreciate Seeger’s commitment to communication (just one of the legacies of the folk revival in general) after working with the Czech computer scientist and programmer Mirek Plíhal, who is not even a fan of American protest music but who nonetheless embodies its ethics. I met Mirek in Dawson City, Yukon, where the two of us were artists-in-residence together at the Klondike Institute of Art & Culture in the spring of 2013. Mirek was there to work on an app about Newfoundland, and I was there to work on a collection of Klondike attempted murder ballads, but we ended up collaborating instead on a project called Artificially Intelligent Folk Songs of Canada (see www.folksingularity.com). Basically we built a computer that can access the totality of the history of Canadian folk music and generate new yet hyper-legitimate compositions from the source data. It was a strange, beautiful brew: humanism meets science, art meets technology, East meets West, etc.
Also anxiety (mine) meets jouissance (Mirek’s), because I had spent the past several years in grad school, whereas Mirek (who once began a doctorate but quickly abandoned it) had a different understanding of creativity and success. It is difficult to beat out of oneself the effects of disciplinary apparatuses (see what I mean?), so as we broke barrier upon barrier in the fields of computer science and artificial life, I couldn’t help but wonder how our achievements would be received in my home bases of Canadian folklore and cultural studies. How would I frame LIVINGSTON, our artificially intelligent database of Canadian folk music, on my curriculum vitae? Which conferences would I attend to discuss it? Would I burn bridges in folklore because of our lossy compression of Canadian folksong into bits and bytes and algorithms? Would I get a SSHRC? To which category should I apply?
Mirek, on the other hand, did not care about anything aside from the work. We were doing something worth doing; we would figure the rest out later; we would need more money eventually, but we didn’t at the moment, so don’t worry, he would remind me again and again. We would find comrades who could help us. Our time together in Dawson oscillated for me between the thrill of collaboratively focusing on difficult and interesting problems and, on the other hand, the terror of worrying about how I might actually capitalize on the solutions. Yet, Mirek’s mind was oriented towards an entirely different horizon. He saw only creative capacities and carriers, objectives (which were either worthwhile or not), fellow conspirators, and time. Scholars in the humanities and social sciences tend to get their backs up when they hear this word, but Mirek appeared to me as authentic in Dawson City because he was what he wanted to be in the process of becoming in conjunction with others. This is why I came to admire him. He worked for money when he had to and he didn’t worry about things that don’t matter, like summers in France or nice briefcases, and because he made things worth making. Last I heard, he was in Venezuela, building radio transmitters.
I see Mirek as part of a long tradition of praxis-oriented intellectuals who have been banished, or have themselves escaped, from the once-cozy chairs and chaise longues of academia. This club includes Walter Benjamin, Lewis Mumford, Susan Sontag, and Alan Lomax, to name just a few. I admire their courage and their will to make do. Of course, there are struggles being fought within the university that seem worth fighting, but at this point the place is less the inhabitable ruins that Bill Readings once saw than it is a sinking ship. We all feel this loss and pain—especially those of us currently crushing our souls as sessional instructors—but let’s figure out how to take care of each other and to keep on doing work that needs doing. You bring the plans, and Mirek and I will bring the songs. As our folk-generating LIVINGSTON so beautifully put it, “Take it easy but take it—to the limit!”
My understanding of “authenticity” has been very influenced by Charles Taylor’s work and by my freewheeling readings of both Karl Marx and Félix Guattari.
About the Author:
Henry Adam Svec recently completed a PhD in media studies at the University of Western Ontario, where his dissertation explored media theory and the American folk revival. He is now an independent scholar scrounging in London, Ontario. He has published work in the Canadian Journal of Communication, Celebrity Studies, Popular Music & Society, Reviews in Cultural Theory, and Loading…. He also writes and tells stories.