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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Promoting a Culture of Life, Online, Valve-Style

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/07/05 at 08:08 PM

Many, many, many people linked to the article in The Chronicle of Higher Education on “Academic Flame Wars.” To my mind, Miriam hits the nail on the head when she says “It’s not clear what we’re supposed to learn from this article. That people are sometimes nasty to each other in online environments? That discussion groups aren’t necessarily warm and cuddly? That spending time online can distract you from other pursuits?  I could have sworn that most of us knew these things already.” As a description of the way people relate online, Mr. Mendelsohn’s account is as accurate as any.  For those impressed by its profundities, well, you and I should have words about the sky (still up), the seas (still water), food (still edible) and television (still unbearable).* For the rest of you, the real issue in this article is accountability.

The first thing you notice when reading it is that its pseudonymous author, Alan Mendelsohn, appears to have played no part in the various skirmishes he describes.  He’s an innocent bystander in a violent, hostile (and presumably unmoderated) forum.  Perhaps Mr. Mendelsohn really did stand on the sidelines and watch as his department-mates tore into each other.  In his account, at least, he isn’t a major player.  He’s no tire-iron wieldin’ “Brian” who, “in a bizarre performance...vaulted into the discussion to announce that Dave was ‘the boy who cried racism.’” As the final paragraph makes perfectly clear, he’d like his audience to believe he’s the one who “plaintively” asks “Am I the only who that has papers to write?” (I don’t buy that someone would be moved, at least “a year later,” to write an anonymous column in The Chronicle if he hadn’t a stake in the affair.) He’d participate in these discussions, he’d have us believe, but he’s too busy

drafting a criticism of a theoretical trend that you’re bored with the essay by the time it appears in a peer-reviewed journal, but at least you’ve produced something more lasting than a blog-delivered, “You think you’re so sympathetic to the oppressed, Dr. New Historicist, but when it comes to labor activism in the community, you’re a no-show."

I’m circling back to that.  When he conflates an official departmental listserv and a blog--"my department’s online discussion group for graduate students, which often doubled as a blog in that students made six- or seven-paragraph comments about various topics"--he makes a category error that his brief mention of McLuhan should’ve warned him away from: different media, different ball-game.  An official departmental listserv, comprised of people you meet and interact with on a regular basis, and in which matters are discussed serially but in such a way that previous bits of the conversation are lost in the noise that follow, well, that’s entirely different from a blog in which everyone’s words are right painfully present.  They make themselves known by virtue of their permanence.  To misconstrue someone’s point is to risk being called out for misconstruing it because it’s right there for everyone to see.  When the obvious is unavoidable, the misunderstandings are likely to be less egregious, less enduring and less heated.  A departmental community is a closed system; a blog is an open system, one in which anyone can pop their level, disinterested head and inform all aggreived parties about the present, grossly engorged status of their molehills.  (Given the nature of these debates, all possible pun intended.) Why, do you ask, am I personally so invested in this? 

In the-thread-that-refused-to-die, replying to Jonathan’s misunderstood estimation of my intellectual abilities--I said “misunderstood,” mind you, not “incorrect"--I remarked

as for you indicating that I’m potentially “cartoonishly arrogant and ignorant,” I mean, c’mon: I have thicker skin, and I know you can do better than that.  I think these conversations succeed or fail based on how much benefit of the doubt’s ladled out.  I’m all for a liberal ladlin’...even if, at times, doing so requires ignoring what may be perceived as slights (personal or intellectual).

The problems that Mr. Mendelsohn identifies with the listserv format are the result of the ingrained group dynamics of people who’ve come, for largely institutional reasons, to interpret their colleagues’ words in the least flattering and most inflammatory manner possible.  There is absolutely no reason to sanction--as The Chronicle, by publishing this op-ed, appears to--similar conclusions about what happens on blogs.  We can decide, en masse, in the interest of the general productivity of discussions, to be generous readers of each other’s posts and comments; or we can coast on reflex and reflux and become Mr. Mendelsohn’s caricatures.  Over the next few months we’ll be discussing issues as inflammatory as those Mr. Mendelsohn’s constructs discussed--race and union action--and we’ll probably feel as strongly about these issues as Mendelsohn’s caricatures no doubt felt about theirs.  The question is, when these issues arise, what do you do?  What...do...you...do?




By on 06/07/05 at 09:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Damn you McSweeney’s!

(But really, I’ve already macro’d that link into my keyboard.  Next time Jonathan pipes up with a snarky Queensryche reference I don’t quite understand, he’s in for the “full Sarsman.")

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/07/05 at 09:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Am I the only one in the world who thinks that flame wars are basically a good thing? I’ve been off my game recently and have had to quit, but in the big picture I think that they are very productive and useful.

Collegiality and civility just lead to the old-boy network and back-room deals.

By John Emerson on 06/07/05 at 11:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

How much do they pay for these, exactly?

By Jonathan on 06/08/05 at 12:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Am I the only one in the world who thinks that flame wars are basically a good thing?

Yes...but not really.  As a former “master debater"--I have the plaque and am strangely proud of it--I aver that heatedness within the context of a rule-governed debate is one thing, a free-flame-for-all another entirely.  I don’t mind the former (sans rules), but I’d like to avoid the latter if possible.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/08/05 at 10:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Collegiality and civility just lead to the old-boy network and back-room deals.

Just?  You seem to be a pretty civil dude for a guy who thinks this way, John.  Which is a completely good thing, I think.  Yes, clubbiness is bad, but Scott’s surely right, there’s an important difference between fierce argument and slander, invective, bile, calumny, etc. 

I’m doubtful about your main claim, though, Scott.  Even if the problems Mendelsohn complains about have something to do in particular with group dynamics and institutional context, isn’t there some important facilitating role played by the style of on-line discussion itself?  Yes, mutual hatred, gossip, factionalism, etc. are all natural to academic life, but don’t the abstraction and the immediacy of e-conversation allow them to be heated up in ways they might not otherwise be?  (Yes, this is technological determinism.) And aren’t similar things evident in fact in the blogosphere?  On the internet nobody knows you’re a dog, and you can say whatever you like without fear that someone’s gonna sock you in the nose.

Contra, John, the reason to care about this is not just that flame wars are unpleasant, but that when they pass into outright incivility, they actively harm the quality of debate, information exchange, etc.

By on 06/08/05 at 01:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean is right, but I would add that flame wars are almost always incredibly boring, except to those who are directly involved. One of the rarest skills, among writers and speakers, is imaginative invective. Everywhere in the blogosphere—even among the august commentariat on the Valve—the same old insults are trundled out again and again. What we need to bring to our flame wars is the verbal inventiveness of, say, D. H. Lawrence—who once wrote of those who wanted his books banned, “Curse the palsied, pulseless lot of them”—or A. E. Housman, or Churchill, or (to take present-day examples) George Galloway, M. P. and Antonin Scalia. We should study the masters so that when our flame wars “actively harm the quality of debate, information exchange, etc.” they at least do so in an entertaining way.

By on 06/08/05 at 02:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

(Yes, this is technological determinism.) And aren’t similar things evident in fact in the blogosphere?

Similar reactions may be evident in the blogosphere, but it is an entirely different animal than a departmental listserv.  I don’t buy the validity of the comparison.  The mutual stakes in a conversation on a blog aren’t what they are in a given department; the consequences of incivility on a blog aren’t what they are on a departmental listserv.  I suppose I’m making two entirely unrelated points here: 1) that Mr. Mendelsohn’s quick conflation of departmental listservs and the blogosphere not only strikes me as facile but, in all probability, the angle that sold The Chronicle on the article, and 2) that while vitriol may be natural to online environments, there’s no reason we can’t make a concerted effort to avoid it here by giving people the benefit of the doubt.  (Alright, by giving some people the benefit of the doubt.  Trolls and the like can be dismissed/ignored/banned/etc.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/08/05 at 03:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Without the internet all of those people would have pretended to like one another, and each new faculty unit at each new job, right up to the ends of their lives.  And on their deathbeds, right before the blinding white light, they would have said to themselves: “God, I wasted a lot of time being civil to that asshole XXXX.”

Fortunately for them, God is merciful and forgiving of those who are unnecessarily civil to assholes. I’m less so, but so far I don’t control the keys of the kingdom.

By John Emerson on 06/08/05 at 07:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s been brought to my attention that I’m sporting some mightily rosey spectacles in this post...and that I’m ignoring some compelling evidence that similar abuses, and worse, not only plague the blogosphere, but that baseless accusations and outright fabrications have caused some real distress for some of the Valve’s contributors.  I have, indeed, had my head up to my ass in papers.  However, I stick to my contention that here, at least, we can remain civil.  And if we get a little fractious, instead of flaming each other lamely, as Ayjay--who, I should add, will reach his end, but with a dick in his mouth--we’ll be creatively uncivil.  So when Jonathan, who not many men do not use for anal sex, says something with which I vehemently disagree, he’ll be informed that his jowls gape like the open cunt of a pissing mule in heat, or that beneath his armpits dwells a ferocious goat, or that his point is softer than an old man’s listless dick, lying in cobwebs and neglect.*

*Yes, I crib from Catullus.  What can I say, the man was the master...

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/08/05 at 10:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Such flaccid commentary invites contumely, but I must decline matching micturation with you, so be so kind as to tuck that tiny thing back in your breeches; meanwhile, I’d advise you to voluntarily resume your meds, lest it have to be the hard way, like back when you were chewing through the thermometers to satisfy your fondness for a taste of quicksilver ...

By on 06/08/05 at 10:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

We seem to be well on our way to the “frank exchange of views” which was my goal.

Little do you know that I am secretly in the pay of Long Sunday and Crooked Timber, who will battle it out between themselves after eliminating the Holbo clique.

By John Emerson on 06/08/05 at 10:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The revisionist Holbo clique.

By John Emerson on 06/08/05 at 11:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

nnyhav, I’m bested by your original opprobrium.  Mine’s derivative and lame.  I concede, damn you, I concede.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/09/05 at 11:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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