Order of Multitudes

Google and Moby-Dick: A Conversation with John Durham Peters

John Durham Peters is the María Rosa Menocal Professor of English and a Professor in the Film and Media Studies program. He is the author of numerous books, including Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (2001), Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition (2005), and The Marvelous Clouds: Towards a History of Elemental Media (2015). His most recent work is Promiscuous Knowledge: Information, Image, and Other Truth Games in History (2020), a book he completed based on the writings and research of his late friend and colleague Kenneth Cmiel. In our conversation Professor Peters discussed his research and historical ways of thinking about information overload.

Sarah Pickman: Can you speak briefly about your academic background and interests?

John Durham Peters: I started out as an English major in college—and flirted with becoming a comparative Indo-European linguist because I really liked learning languages—and after I got my degree I discovered the field of communication studies quite by happenstance. I realized that it had a lot of the same questions I was interested in in English, dealing with literature, history, culture, interpretation. So, I decided to pursue my Ph.D. in that field, at Stanford. After graduate school I got a job at the University of Iowa, where I taught for thirty years in communication studies, particularly in media studies. I came to Yale three years ago. My tenure home is in the English department—I’m very happy to be back in an English department—and I am delighted to be in the Film and Media Studies program, where I will soon serve as chair.

Sarah Pickman: Could you speak about some of your recent work, especially Promiscuous Knowledge, a book that was begun by your late colleague, the historian Kenneth Cmiel?

John Durham Peters: I was very close friends with Ken Cmiel when we both taught at the University of Iowa. He died suddenly in 2006 and left me all of his books. And in a moment of absentmindedness or in an act of grief I decided to finish this project that he’d talked about, though he’d only left a few bare-bones notes behind about the work in addition to a couple of drafts and finished pieces that I incorporated into the final book. It’s a genealogy of the information age, and in its finished form it goes all the way up to Google. Ken conceived this project in the mid- to late 1990s, at the high-water mark of postmodernism, and in some ways it was really tough to update that to a very different world. For example, he wrote a lot about how awesome Yahoo! News was! So some of his original material is now totally irrelevant, but a lot of it was totally apt for our current moment; it just took a great deal of time and effort to flesh out his ideas. Finishing Promiscuous Knowledge took me fourteen years on and off and I quit several times because it was really tough going. The whole story of the process is written up in long postscript in the book, which you can read if you want all the gory details.

Sarah Pickman: Do you find that in communication studies or media studies there has been a continual need to update the scholarship based on changing formats and presentations? What are some threads from earlier in your career that have remained just as pertinent as they were years ago?

John Durham Peters: There is a sense about communication studies that it’s a field about what is happening now. And I’ve always sought, in my work, to live up to the maxim of Marshall McLuhan that the content of a new medium is an old medium. The best way to analyze what’s going on today is to think historically. For example, I think that if we want to understand digital media, we have to understand clocks and calendars: media that manage, and collate, and organize information over time and space. We aren’t the first people to have a sense that we’re facing absolutely unmanageable floods of information. The second chapter in Promiscuous Knowledge is all about nineteenth-century information overload and “fact fetishism.” The “copious culture,” as Ken Cmiel put it, of the mid-nineteenth century is in some ways an anticipation of the multiple pages you get when you do a Google search. I teach Moby-Dick and that’s a very Google-esque kind of book, because it’s so compendious, so encyclopedic. Of course, the extracts at the beginning of the novel gather all of these amazing quotes which Herman Melville got from “swimming through libraries,” and not from Google, but it reads like an antic, well-curated Google search.

In the project I’m working on now on the history of weather media, one of the things I keep coming up against is the tedium of big data. One of the figures I’m looking at is H. W. Brandes, a German physicist in the 1810s, who produced some of the first weather maps. But he didn’t have the tools to predict weather, so the only way he could produce these maps was to work in a retrodictive way. The result was that around 1820, he published a giant report on the weather for the year 1783. The poor guy was always complaining that he had to personally collate 80,000 data points and he had to consult all of these texts to gather the data and it just sounds so incredibly tedious. Matthew Fontaine Maury, who led the U.S. Naval Observatory in the mid-nineteenth century, is another example of a big data cruncher from the nineteenth century. It’s astonishing what Maury does in his creation of sea current and wind charts in the middle of his century, by mooching data from every American sea captain and requiring that their logbooks be turned over to him so he can analyze and collate them. But on this basis, he figures out how to speed up maritime capitalism.

Sarah Pickman: I was intrigued by the premise of your earlier book, The Marvelous Clouds. Could you speak about this work, and how you see the concepts of “data” and “environment” in relationship to each other?

John Durham Peters: The argument of that work is essentially that data mediate the environment, and that if you look at things like forestry, or you look at plagues, they are essentially data entities. The ontology of a forest in Finland is partly a group of trees but it’s also partly a group of computers and algorithms that are tracking and monitoring and figuring out what’s happening with the trees.

SARS-CoV-2 is a perfect example: can you distinguish the virus from the data tracking and following it? I don’t know that there is one correct answer to that question. But I do keep thinking about Amartya Sen’s point about how famines don’t exist when you have a free flow of information; that famines always have a political component. It is obvious to everyone that the virus has a hugely political component too—the pandemic has revealed the stark differences in the ways in which nations work. This virus is a quasi-object, or as Bruno Latour might say, an imbroglio. It’s a nature-culture hybrid.

Sarah Pickman: In addition to big data, you’ve also written about the history of another term that has a lot of traction today: “the marketplace of ideas.”

John Durham Peters: There’s a myth that “the marketplace of ideas” is a venerable liberal notion that goes back to John Milton or John Stuart Mill or Oliver Wendell Holmes. But my research showed that it didn’t exist until the 1930s and didn’t really gain traction until the Cold War. Milton was not a paragon of tolerance of different ideas, especially in how he treats Catholicism. Mill,
though in some ways a free trader, was a feminist and a socialist, and was very aware of the ways in which the so-called “free market” or reign of public opinion can invoke the tyranny of the majority. The argument of that essay was that “the marketplace of ideas” is a Cold War term, and it was particularly propagated by The New York Times, arguing that America the marketplace preserves liberty because a free press is a commercial press. 

You can find traces of this fusion of the economy and free speech in Adam Smith or ancient Greek sources; in ancient Greece the agora, the marketplace, was both a place for selling goods and for speaking. But the concept of ideas existing in a market like other goods has a very specific and recent history of invention. And once it’s invented, with that invention comes the creation of a retroactive lineage or ancestry. It’s like nationalism: if you invent a new country, then you have to give birth to your national ancestors and create an ancient lineage in order to have claim to the land. “The marketplace of ideas” was invented in the mid-twentieth century, but its adherents gave it a romantic lineage going back to Milton and Mill. This essay followed up on my book Courting the Abyss, which argues that ideas about free speech are bound up with ideas about what it means to be a white, male gentleman and a certain philosophy of stoicism and how one is supposed to behave as a public figure.

Sarah Pickman: Can you tell us what you’re working on currently?

John Durham Peters: I have a Guggenheim Fellowship right now, and I’m working on a history of weather media. It’s been really fun to think about questions of how we mediate the natural environment. I’ve been spending the last few days learning about Greek and Roman parapegmata, which are devices that help you track weather and astronomical cycles in the natural world so that you can figure out things like sowing times and harvesting times. They’re very practical instruments. The scholarship I’ve been reading has argued that most Romans, for example, would not necessarily consult the stars to see when a particular star or constellation was rising, they would consult these instruments. It can be hard to pick out objects in the night sky, but it’s easier to look at the instrument. This priority of the technology over the natural world, or the divide between instruments and the observable world, which is sometimes seen as so problematic today was also problematic—and useful—for people like Cicero and Pliny.