Free Your Mind, the Text Will Follow (Working With Text 1)

Free Your Mind, the Text Will Follow (Working With Text 1)

While I’ve written a fair amount of software reviews and how to guides in the past, this year I thought I’d do something different. This is the first of a series of planned posts aimed at getting anthropologists to take back control of their text. I don’t mean that in an abstract way, as in learning to be a better writer, or thinking critically about textual practices. I mean taking control of the actual text files on your computer or digital devices. In doing so I want to encourage anthropologists to feel that their text belongs to them, not to their applications or devices. Once you have a sense of ownership over your text the obstacles you thought were there will vanish before your eyes.

That is because a sense of ownership drives you to find ways to free your text. This might involve avoiding applications or devices that lock up your text, or writing to developers demanding that they make it easier for you to do whatever you want to do with your own text, or maybe even downloading apps to break the chains that lock up your text in the first place. A sense of ownership opens you up to the possibility of moving, transforming, filtering, searching, and otherwise manipulating your text as you would like. Once you have a sense of ownership, the second step is to start thinking like a programmer: seeing text as something malleable to your needs rather than something fixed and immovable.

free your mind

Ethnographic research, teaching, filmmaking, writing, collaborating—practically everything we do as scholars—involves rearranging, transforming, formatting, transposing, or otherwise moving text from one place to another. We select text in books and save it in notes and then cite it in papers; we record text as audio files, transcribe it, and then quote it in our ethnographies; we make tables in spreadsheets and then search and filter that text to analyze our data; we write notes which become outlines which become paper drafts which become conference presentations . . . you get the idea. But we live in a world that puts all kinds of barriers in the way of our work. But I hope to show you that those barriers are largely illusory—although it may require a little bit of effort to surmount them.

Derrida argues that a fundamental feature of writing is that it “be iterable, that is, repeatable in any context whatsoever.” He famously made fun of Searle by quoting the copyright statement from the cover page of his book, showing that the truth claims of the words “Copyright © 1977 by John R. Searle” (that the words attached to them are by Searle) are unable to withstand the fundamental nature of the written word, which is that it can always be detached from its original context.

A web browser might be running a script that prevents you from selecting text, your PDF might be locked to prevent you from printing it, and your e-book might have a limit to the number of passages you can highlight, but none of these limits should stop you. You could copy out whatever you see on the screen, either with a pen or a keyboard. Or you could read it aloud and use transcription software to turn it into an editable text file. You could take a picture and then run Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software on the photo to do the same thing. But surely there is a better way? Indeed there is.

When I said you should think like a programmer I meant that you should assume that someone, somewhere, has already solved the problem. If you start with that attitude, you are just a Google search away from freeing your text. Google “allow text selection” and you’ll find bookmarklets and browser extensions that bypass any attempt to prevent you from doing just that. Google “unlock PDF” and you’ll find apps to turn off controls that limit what you can do with your own PDF files. Google “download Kindle highlights” and you’ll see a number of options. While you should be careful with any apps that you find on the internet, many of these solutions are perfectly safe.

The first step to freeing your text is to have a sense of entitlement, giving you the right to do whatever you want with it. The second step is to think like a programmer, assuming that someone else has already fixed the problem you are trying to solve. Once you’ve freed your mind, the text will follow.

List of posts in this series

One Reply to “Free Your Mind, the Text Will Follow (Working With Text 1)”

  1. Learning basic CSS (e.g. display:none;) can be a powerful tool when combined with your browser’s developer tools. If a website makes a sloppy attempt at a paywall by simply throwing up a box you can’t close to cover the content, a quick bit of CSS can remove it. View source is also a great way to get to text that is being blocked with JS. 🙂