Monday, January 01, 2007
Talking, Endlessly Talking; or, Something I Presented Somewhere before Many People
Below you’ll find in situ the corpse of my lively talk. As will quickly become apparent, the word "talk" is no euphemism. I talked a talk. But I almost didn’t. Like most panelists, I arrived in Philadelphia toting a paper to be read. Mine concerned the role blogs could play as virtual parlors devoted to the professionalization of sharp minds with rodential social instincts. The first two panels I attended reminded me of my own base nature.
The original version of my "talk" betrayed both the conventional insecurities of an MLA panelist—the first-year fear of imposture, father to outbursts profound only in oblivious pretension—and those specific to a graduate student addressing an "unserious" topic. Legitimacy being the motivation behind the panel, why not describe it in a style with impeccable credentials? Why not partake of the inflated rhetoric of the scholar? Two panels into my MLA-crawl, I remembered what my insecurities had obscured: barking fifteen-to-twenty minutes of academic prose may impress the three people in the room who’ve never encountered it before, but it alienates and infuriates those who have.
Those articles written to be read at conferences? They sound like articles, written to be read, at conferences. They are difficult to follow because their content hardly suits their form and the medium flatters neither, the equivalent of a novelization of a film based upon an interpretation of a novel.
Novelty aside, who would a book whose front covered declared it to be "based on Huck in Love, the Independent Spirit award-winning adaptation of Leslie Fiedler’s seminal analysis of Mark Twain’s Huck Finn in Love and Death in the American Novel"? Yet here we are, fidgeting through strings of words and accumulations of arguments best parsed in the privacy of one’s own mind.
Exceed the limits of the audience’s ability to track an argument and a talk will become difficult, yes, but so too does this sentence:
Tina told Mark that John thought Pauline knew what Sam had planned for Justine, but Pauline insisted she had no idea John believed that, nor whether the look Justine exchanged wth Mark at work yesterday meant that Tina had inadvertatly revealed Sam’s trap before John and his brother Adam could spring it.
That sentence could be parsed, but not easily, not on the fly. Perhaps if acceptance packets included an audio edition of The Golden Bowl—or, better yet, Kant’s Third Critique—and threats of dire consequences, of career suicide, if they did not become the soundtrack of the initiate’s summer, perhaps then we could disentangle complex social relations and order subtle argumentation whilst inadequately-caffeinated in a dimly lit conference hall far from home. Given that academics should be skilled in this mode of communication, the incentive to cultivate such a specialized skill-set is slight. A well-trained audience would solve the problem, but so would a properly trained speaker.
All of which is only to justify the hours and hours I spent transforming my "talk" into one which could be understood when read aloud. On paper, the result of these revisions is less-than-impressive: it contains few expensive words and no Faulknerian feats of subordination. Instead, it presents, elaborates, then returns to a few key points. I pepper it with the "spontaneous" interjections and digressions which came to me as I delivered it, repeatedly, to the walls of my empty hotel room. Each read-through brought something to my attention, be it a wrinkled locution, an unpronounceable sequence of words, sentences larded with infelicitous alliteration and assonance, an appropriate occasion for a "spontaneous," witty aside, &c.
Why improvise once when you can round out your talk with a greatest hits culled from multiple improvisations? One final note: some of the things written below may not correspond, date-wise, to when things appeared on the site. That’s because I based it on the date I wrote them as opposed to the one on which I hit publish. Also, the paragraph breaks don’t work according to their normal logic so much as they represent me reminding myself to breathe.
On with the show:
I’ll open with a quick passage from Deleuze:
Academics’ lives are seldom interesting. They travel of course, but they travel by hot air, by taking part in things like conferences and discussions, by talking, endlessly talking. (Deleuze, Negotiations)
Two lines of thought follow: the first is that academics make for terrible bloggers because their lives aren’t that interesting. The second, that since all they’re doing is talking, endlessly talking, there’s no reason not to extend the conversation online.
The former assumes that academic bloggers belong to the legion of online diarists venting splenetic about the minutiae of daily life; the latter, that academics participate in a unique—if outwardly dull—culture of intellectual exchange. Only, few people feel as if such an exchange takes place anymore. To make this point, let me draw a few examples from the most recent minnesota review.
Interviewing Toril Moi, Jeffrey Williams follows her remarks about the atomization of feminist literary theory by saying "now it does seem an age of dispersion, into micro-fields or specific ‘studies.’ It does seem that, in the 80s, theory was much more, if not unified, a general discourse everydoby knew the terms of." Later in the same interview, he notes that his students "might have read [Judith] Butler, but have no idea who Paul de Man is."
In another interview, William Spanos observes that his "students haven’t the foggiest idea about the history of literary criticism prior to the contemporary moment. Not simply the hegemony of New Criticism, but also the emergent struggle of the early postructuralists to revolutionize that earlier tradition. They don’t know who Cleanth Brooks is, they haven’t read Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans or Twain’s Pudd’enhead Wilson or Faulkner’s The Bear."
This ignorance is the result of systemic disciplinary failures, not easily rectified, not likely to change anytime soon. But they are also failures of engagement, of exchange, a breakdown in the increasingly Beckettian formulation of talking, endlessly talking. Why isn’t the average graduate student familiar with Cleanth Brooks or Paul de Man? Because no one talks about them anymore. (Although, as someone who went from LSU to UCI, the idea that people don’t talk about Brooks or De Man baffles me.)
So what are we to do? How are we to restart these conversations, reinvest ourselves in our disciplinary history? One way, I want to argue, a little paradoxically, is to open our discipline up, dethrone the little despots and tear down the walls between their tiny kingdoms. How best to do that? Allow outsiders in, let them remind us that we have more in common —methodologically, theoretically, and topically—than we’ve allowed ourselves to believe these past two decades.
As I prepared for this talk, I realized how little I knew about the reach of the phenomenon—blogging—we’ve come here to describe. Presupposing its importance isn’t the best way to convince people who don’t blog, and don’t read blogs, that they have a function, much less an important one, in academic life. The possibility that academic bloggers are talking to a small, self-selected group of computer literate scholars who spend time tossing words into a void instead of with their family, exercising, or, God Forbid, even watching t.v.—is very real. On October 29th I polled my readership at Acephalous—polled it to see, first, how many of them there really were and, second, to learn a little more about them.
As of December 26th, 782 people had commented or emailed me their information. 211 were graduate students in English; another 172 of them were professors; 164 were historians, most of whom were professors; after that the disciplines begin to break down. 42 philosophers, 27 sociologists, 24 neurosciencists, 18 students of religious studies, 11 political scientists, 7 physicists, 3 classicists, and 1 self-described "freelance librarian" named Rich.
My list isn’t meant to be exhaustive, merely suggestive of the intellectual community an unspectacular graduate student can create when he spends an hour or two writing for someone other than himself, his committee and the lucky eleven people who ‘ll skim his work, if, by some miracle, it lands in a flagship journal. My ideas are out there, circulating, in way not often seen outside of conferences and seminar rooms, but the diversity of the crowd forces me to find some way to communicate with my readers in terms they’ll all be able to understand. This doesn’t mean, as some would have it, that I’m simplifying my ideas for a general audience.
My audience—and that of my more illustrious co-panelists—is highly educated, consisting of a group best described as "the unusually literate." The disciplinary diversity here is key: we only define ourselves as literary scholars against an interdisciplinary backdrop, one in which historians and historicists recognize and, ideally, respect the methodological and topical differences the -ian and -ist entail. It’s no coincidence, then, that almost 30 percent of my readership has a background in History: as a self-identifying historicist, what I write is, I hope, of intrinsic interest to historians.
Initially, this interest took the form of interdisciplinary sniping. But over time, that sniping, what Nicole Pepperell calls "Ph.d. performance art: the methodology slam," died down. That is to say, the terrorial shadow cast upon all interdisciplinary work—including one as routinized as "historicism"—has, in this instance, passed, lighting the way to a new kind of inter- and intra-disiplinary interaction predicated on enthusiasm.
As Peter Brooks argues in Being Difficult? Academic Writing in the Public Arena:
Most of us who continue to write and publish literary criticism don’t particularly enjoy reading it any more—not most of it, anyway. We continue to do so (if we do) out of a sense of duty, because we continue to think it important to learn what’s new in the discourse. But most of the fun is gone, since the stakes appear to be diminished, and there isn’t much sense of real dialogue about our understandings of texts and issues that matter—that matter in a way on which there is some consensus.
Now, I disagree with his trajectory—importance shouldn’t be bound to consensus the way he imagines it—but the general point stands: most literary scholars don’t read literary scholarship for pleasure anyone, but out of a sense of professional obligation. Why? Because the majority of it isn’t written with an awareness of a larger audience, aiming instead for an academic minyan, if you will.
Most write to impress, and not their audience either; no, they write to impress their committees, the tenure review boards, the functionaries of the literary-academic bureaucracy, and they do so at a speed which precludes revision. Advancement demands it. Their lives, our lives increasingly depend on the production of works we will know won’t be read. "Professionalization" becomes code for the manufacture of unread and unreadable works superficially invested in a dialogue of diminishing stakes.
But I’m not here to praise the genteel critics of yore or side with those whose polemics necessitated Brooks, that’s Peter, and Jonathan Culler to write their defense of difficulty.
Many people misunderstand what, exactly, one does on an academic blog—what John and I are trying to do with the Valve. Reading over the recent issue of Reconstruction devoted to academic blogging, I couldn’t help but feel that many bloggers don’t understand what academic blogging is either. That is to say, they’re bloggers first, academics second. For example, in "Blogadamia"—just one of the many awkward neologisms used to describe the academic blogosphere, "blogosphere" being another—Craig Saper quotes one academic blogger who said
I just password-protected my blog for the period of my job search after reading [the infamous Ivan Tribble] article in The Chronicle of Higher Ed, I actually got in trouble with my senior colleagues last semester for making a posting about a faculty meeting.
Now, I don’t want to dictate—not that I could—what should and shouldn’t count as an academic blog, but posting about faculty meetings doesn’t strike me as a uniquely academic topic, nor a uniquely academic breach of decorum.
Sure, it falls under the general rubric of "academic life," but we don’t share everything about our lives with our friends and colleagues in other departments, so the idea that we ought to be able to break that decorum online seems odd to me. Internal department politics are the traditional stuff of academic the gossip, be it online or off—but do it online, and Google archives it. So for the departmental gossip who wants to ply his trade online, danger abounds. But why are we talking about gossip?
It is, in equal parts, the fault and cause of aforementioned Ivan Tribble article, "Bloggers Need Not Apply." The cause, as many have discussed, is a general technophobia. Web-only journals lack the prestige of their paper equivalents—a prestige conferred by the transubstantiation of ink to word—but this isn’t the place to discuss why so many people fear electronic publication, only to note that they do.
The central objection, to my mind, would be that time spent blogging is time that could be spent thinking, writing deep thoughts about serious issues. This complaint dovetails with the common perception of blogs as diaries—or, in the more sophisticated version of that argument, blogging as a medium able to transform mere gossip into a new form of knowledge, documentation of what the aforementioned Capers calls "the social processes of knowledge production"—and to some extent, that’s correct, all blogs are diaristic, do produce new knowledge.
But the best of them—or, since I’m about to include my own, the most careerist of them—are professional diaries. To draw from my own archives—the week of December 3rd through the 10th—anyone who read Acephalous could tease from my posts that I’d:
- consolidated my thought on the American reception and appropriation of English Romanticism,
- thought long and hard, for the fifth time in as many months, about how to frame my argument historically,
- considered the influence of certain exceedingly popular English characters on the American literary marketplace, and
- shored up my argument about the significance of the Spanish-American-Cuban-Filipino War to the average Progressive Era American’s
Now, the posts themselves didn’t directly address those issues: instead, I
- summarized a series of close-readings on John Keats’ "Ode on a Grecian Urn," which I’d originally written with an eye to how they influenced the aesthetic theory of Silas Weir Mitchell—the subject of my current chapter
- discussed the concept of periodization and its institutional history in literature departments via Thomas Pynchon, Kant’s theory of genius and the place of Romanticism in the long eighteenth century
- considered why an Americanist would quote unironically Sherlock Holmes as saying "There is nothing new under the sun, it has all been done before" and
- created a multiple-choice question concerning the proper name of the Spanish-American War after reading the first footnote of Amy Kaplan’s The Anarchy of Empire
For the record, the other two posts for that week weren’t exactly unprofessional either: the first was a discussion of the all the panels I wanted to attend at the MLA; the second, the results of a test I’d run on Turnitin.com with my Keats posts—results which made me wonder why Turnitin.com doesn’t include Google in its searches, but that’s the subject another talk. So to those who would say that I would’ve better spent the time wasted blogging working on my dissertation, my response would be:
Conceptually, I was working on my dissertation. I know we’re not hired on the basis of what we know, but what we produce—but what we know, what we’ve considered, what we’ve debated, it affects the quality of what we produce. This goes without saying. To focus on one of the previous examples—the question of periodization—thinking not only about the creation of boundaries within my own area of specialization—the late 19th century—but of the act generally, led me to read Orrin Wang’s "Kant’s Strange Light: Romanticism and the Catachresis of Genius." Perhaps reading academic journals at 8 p.m., after having worked since on my dissertation since 8 a.m., strikes some as indulgent (insane, even); and perhaps trying to reformulate that into something a genuinely educated audience can understand, strikes some as a waste—but to me, the former indicates that I list "literary theory" among my hobbies, the latter that I’m interested in processing it Cornell-style and communicating it to those outside not only my increasingly specialized sub-discipline but my profession, so that I might better understand it myself. Consolidating what I’ve learned and rethinking what I’ve written occupy large chunks of my evening and are, I believe, essential to my intellectual and professional development.
LOL! I had just opened your site from a bookmark - wasn’t accessing it via a reader… I didn’t even look at the timestamp… Either that or… has anyone tried a turing test on me lately - perhaps there are more interesting reasons I might see things before they land on the feed… ;-P
The panel was an interesting experience, in that each of you depicted a very different situation for academic blogging, but while each of you were speaking, I kept nodding in agreement. I saw you basically covering the following four conflicting theses:
1) Blogs can be productive for the individual academic by creating a forum for nearly-realized ideas, while placing them in dialogue with an intelligent, helpful interdisciplinary academic audience. (SEK)
2) Blogs can be productive for the academic community by putting print authors in immediate dialogue with readers and creating an interpretive framework for the consumption of academic prose. (JH)
3) Blogs can increase both our sense of the public sphere, by effectively lowering the barriers to “publication,” and our sense of the private sphere, by providing a forum for intimate/personal sharing unavailable IRL. (TO)
4) No matter how great all of this is and can be, one must remember that blog readers and writers do not necessarily share the same standards for discourse, and thus the whole machine is incredibly delicate and prone to breakdowns caused by bad faith and the narcissism of small differences. (MB)
These points are in conflict (but still equally valid) because the functions of academic blogging are often in conflict. We all would like to believe in throwing open the gates of the academy, since keeping them shut has resulted in the intolerably airless and slow conversation JH described as the current publication situation. On the other hand, throwing them open results in the intrusion of all those elements the gates were made to keep out: the personal, the half-baked, the uncredentialed, the political, the vitriolic. The extent to which each of us, as academic bloggers, welcome these elements in our microspheres is, it seems, largely how we define what we’re doing online. Whether each of us manages to allow exactly the desirable proportion of these elements seems a function of whether we feel our online activities is successful.
Where I’d like to go with this is whether we could draw up a sort of rhetoric of academic blogging for those organizations and individuals that haven’t been onboard yet but would like to be in the future. I heard a lot of talk at the conference about the “possibility” and “future” of online academic discourse, and I kept saying, “No, actually, it’s already here,” and that it would be unwise for these individuals and organizations to dive into the pool without some knowledge of the existing topography.
Some friends and I used to have a hypertext theory reading group that ended with us throwing books across the room. After reading a fifth article that began with “I don’t really know anything about computers or the internet, but here’s how I imagine it will change things,” I started screaming. My fear is that those who like imagining the digital “future” would rather ignore the present than find out what’s happening.
To misquote something that Bruce Sterling writes a lot, the future is here in the present, it’s just poorly distributed. But in this case, I agree with the above that it’s mostly already here; I’d guess that 80% of the current academics who are ever going to blog are already blogging. The rest of the change is going to be generational—an increasing percentage of new grad students blogging,a slow retirement of people whose non-blogging habits are set, a faster conversion of pseudonymous bloggers without tenure to named bloggers with tenure. Most people don’t have the narrative or descriptive writing skills to hold a mass blogging audience, and without that, I think that people tend to give up. Possibly, they burn out and give up even *with* that, but then they tend to come back.
Rich, I don’t buy it. I can’t remember the number of people I talked to this past week who simply didn’t know--or entirely misunderstood--what academic blogging was all about. I think as more people realize its potential--I’ve half-written a post on this excellent, if specialized, blog--we’ll see more people jump into the game.
Carrie, I keep thinking more and more about the desire to create what we already have here, and I think this addresses Rich’s point too: scholars out there are stretching their minds to invent blogs, book events, and informal academic discourse--throwing around ideas which, as Carrie noted a couple of times last week, indicate an inability to use Google. All we need do is teach them that, and I think we’ll see an influx of new readers/contributors.
This is where I think the model of rhetoric has been underused. Yes, most hypertext theory has been under the umbrella of rhetorical theory, but with the emphasis on the theory and not on the rhetorical practice. From what I can tell, the best academic bloggers are not just those with the “narrative or descriptive writing skills to hold a mass blogging audience,” as Rich says, but also those who have been doing it for years. Sure, a few people hit the ground running on both feet, but it seems there should be some knowable method/rhetoric/etiquette that can be shared.
But then you get the problem that the method/rhetoric/etiquette is different from site to site, and from community to community. Is it possible to teach the kind of protean rhetorical ability required for successful and varied interactions in the academic blogosphere? Someone who is less invested in rhetorical theory than I am may be tempted to say no, and I think that would be fair, given the complexity of the problem. My optimism may prove quixotic.
This is a non-blog reference, but two of Wendy Chun‘s works, although not on blogging, may be of interest to those like Scott theorizing academic blogging (accessibly). New Media, Old Media, co-edited with Tom Keenan, features many contributors who link new media discourse with those on previous media “revolutions” (info. on the conference which lead to the book can be found at Archealogy of Multi-Media). And her book, Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of iber Optics, is a must-read. While I’m plugging friends, Geert Lovink is consistently thought-provoking, and he has written on blogging lately.
Besides a half-serious post recently on what Hawthorne would say about blogging, I have nothing to add to this, except to say that blogs that actually have regular readers become intersubjective as well as intertextual, which is only to say that both authors and readers and perhaps even the community(ies) they form change over the course of their interactions.
Seeing as how I’m commenting here because sitemeter has alerted me to what I find to be an unaccountable surge of visits from here to my Hawthorne blog (teh obscurest on the intertubes)--and started reading here regularly only since I found out that a fellow WAAGNFNP hack with a Gojira fetish frequents the place--I’m wondering what role knowing a little bit about the visitors to your site plays in all this…
A couple of thoughts:
First of all, I hope that blogging will eventually come to influence the form of standard literary criticism. As you suggest, the deafness to audience that characterizes most literary criticism has made the form unpleasurable. Blog posts are capable of starting in media res, with none of the throat-clearing that can muddle a good argument.
Furthermore, blogs provide more possibilities for tone and form. Instead of the bland, “objective” style of generic criticism, one finds in most cases a more personal and emotional voice, though one not less intelligent for all that. Consider all the digressive formal possibilities a blog allows: satires, exaggerations, fictionalizing, jokes, diagrams. Blogs are funny. I remember writing an essay on humor in Finnegans Wake and having my advisor say wistfully, “It’s too bad [your essay’s] not funny.”
As a graduate student, one reads essays by Walter Benjamin, or Sigmund Freud, or Virginia Woolf, with a mild feeling of astonishment over how much personal information their essays include. It would be delusional to try to publish an essay like “Unpacking My Library” in a modern literary journal. The much-scorned personal element in blogging can actually be an asset to philosophical and critical debate.
The responsibility to audience also pushes me to be more flexible in my thinking. If I see myself writing the same thing over and over in a blog, I am driven to vary the theme, whereas that same dogmatism may be mistaken for consistency in the haphazard crossings of daily academic business.
Rich, speaking from my own personal experience, Scott encouraged me to begin an academic blog and gave me his assistance. I have helped four other friends with creating brand new blogs, or moving from a primarily personal hosting site (like LiveJournal) to a more academic format. There are all kinds of stumbling blocks: misconceptions about blogging, ignorance of the academic blogging community, or a sense that one’s blog must fit neatly into a single category.
I can think of two dangers facing academic blogging. First of all, there is the obvious problem of Internet casualness, complete with unpunctuated screeds and sloppy misreadings. A subtler version of this problem is the tendency to respond to posts so quickly that comments sections fill up with clichés and knee-jerk restatements.
Second, the blogosphere continues to be overly determined by minor negative affects: exasperation, frustration, irritation, and the like—not to mention a feeling of having been wrongly overlooked. In my experience, bloggers continue to confuse the personal satisfaction of stating their viewpoint with the actual value of internecine blog wars. While I am all in favor of inclusive, reasoned debates, the phenomenon of bloggers writing long open letters to each other is just as insular as it sounds.
Anyhow, congratulations. I’m delighted that your post lives up to the challenge of “selling” academic blogging to a packed room at the MLA.