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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
Mark Bauerlein
Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

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

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

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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Friday, November 03, 2006

The Valve - Mightier Than Gods?

Posted by John Holbo on 11/03/06 at 05:59 AM

From Plato’s Euthyphro (7B-D):

S: When hatred and anger arise, Euthyphro, what sorts of disagreements are likely to be the cause? Let’s look at it this way. If you and I were to get into an argument about which of two numbers was greater, would this difference of opinion turn us into enemies and make us furious with one another, or would we sit down, count up, and quickly smooth our differences? 

E: The latter, certainly.

S: Likewise, if we had a fight about the relative sizes of things, we would quickly end the disagreement by measuring?

E: That’s so.

S: And we would employ a scale, I think, if we disagreed about what was heavier and what lighter?

E: Of course.

S: What sorts of things might we argue about that would make us angry and hostile towards one another, if we couldn’t reach agreement? Maybe you don’t have an immediate answer, but let me suggest something. See whether it isn’t these things: justice and injustice, beauty and ugliness, good and bad. Aren’t these the very things for causing disputes which, when we are unable to reach any satisfactory agreement, make people become enemies, whenever we do become enemies—whether you and I or everybody else?

E: That’s just how it goes in arguments about such things, Socrates.

S: What about the gods, Euthyphro? If in fact they get into arguments, won’t they be about these sorts of things?

E: That must be how it is, Socrates.

As you might have noticed - well, some people did - Adam Robert’s math thread was less than collegial in tone. Obviously it follows that we at the Valve - with a little help from our friends - flame on where even angels fear to tread. Kudos to us. But pride goeth before a fall, the gods punish mortals who aspire, rota fortuna yadda yadda. As Lenin inquires: What is to be done? By the bowels of Christ, I cannot say I traced every twist and turn of that thread, in which I was not a participant. But it seems clear to me it is a disease of the blood. Bad blood. This is not to say that intellectual fault is equal on all sides (let alone absent from either side) only that the constructive correction of intellectual fault has long since ceased to be the point. The point is to punish the other for having been a blockhead in the past, by humiliating him now. This is not so much poetic justice as fairness (per last night’s post), but retributive justice as intellectual relevance. Far be it from me to weigh the ethical imponderables of such a theory. Yet it might be edifying - or at least experimental - to propose an amnesty. In commenting to Valve threads, from this day forward, no one is allowed to color their commentary - select a bile-tinged or disdain-drenched palette - with an eye to doing mimetic justice to the tinges and drenches of past threads. Wouldn’t that be funny? Would it work?


Would it work?  In a word, no.  On a blog where moderation is basically absent, there’s no way to stop people who want to start a flamewar from starting one.  As that thread shows, it doesn’t even have to be about anything.  When you have people taking a poster’s supposed refusal to accept their point as justification for righteous exasperation, there’s really not much to be done.

Jonathan Mayhew writes, in the piece that you link to:
“The tendency to have heated discussions in the comments, about mostly non-literary matters (religion, philosophy, math), detracts from the purpose of the blog, which is not to be another Crooked Timber but to be a specifically “literary organ."”

It is evident that flamewars detract from a blog’s ability to be anything, so that far the statement is true.  But the bit about it being a specifically literary organ, and consequent avoidance of philosophy, is Ray Davis’ critique yet again.  As I remember, he suggested that The Valve stop posting about Theory, because this would just restart the then-ongoing continual flames.  This would also have meant that you, John Holbo, wouldn’t be able to post about the academic subject that you were working on, which just about everyone else considered to be linked to literary concerns.  I didn’t think much of acceding to a heckler’s veto then, and I don’t now.  And as the math thread proves, it wouldn’t even have worked.

You have basically two choices; you can either up the moderation regime significantly, or treat The Valve as a group blog focused around literary concerns but not limited to them—in which posters may post queries about math, cat pictures, and all the other personal bits that would at least humanize the area to counterbalance the tendency to flame.

By on 11/03/06 at 10:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Noooooo!  I LOVED the Adam Roberts thread.  You guys are all brilliant and great at what you do, but with all due respect, over the past few months this website has gotten.  So.  Boring.  To riff on an earlier Holbo post, it’s as if the Fantastic Four stopped fighting super-villains and just sat around in their Tower watching reruns.

I mean, Rich Puchalsky and Cultural Revolution actually started to agree on things.  And forget Scott--he’s probably going to be the godfather of CR’s kid.  It’s been months or even years since Sean ("Hit Man") McCann and Matt ("Serenity Sperm") Christie squared off.  You have to go to I Cite or Long Sunday for Jodi Dean’s bizarre revisionary Nietzscheanism, and meanwhile she’s confining her pot shots at Holbo to footnotes in *books* that you can only get at the *library* (wtf??).

And most of all, whatever happened to The Bruce?  Dudes, in the beginning he WAS your website.  The only reason I initially began to read was to see whose career he was bent on destroying that week.  But somehow you managed to scare him off.  Now he’s just bashing these obscure online poetry journals. 

Really, I was just going to delete my Valve bookmark.  The only thing I had to look forward to was Mark Bauerlein’s report on the 2007 CCCC convention.

But a few days ago, there was an innocuous-seeming post from Adam Roberts and suddenly old scores were being paid off, vendettas were being waged, and for blog lurkers everywhere, good times were here again.  Flame On!!!

By on 11/03/06 at 11:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Though that ridiculous thread was the occasion for this complaint, I think it’s pretty clear that the Valve has not yet been quite what people thought it was going to be.  There have been fleeting moments, certainly, but by and large, it is not fulfilling its stated mandate. 

You may want to consider taking a new approach, then—namely, you should change the stated purpose of the blog to be a location where people can beat up on Adam Roberts.  It’s an elegant solution that would suddenly render Mr. Mayhew’s critique moot.

By Adam Kotsko on 11/03/06 at 11:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Despite our couple of public instances of mutual incomprehension, I enjoy most of Adam R.’s posts (and other people enjoy the remainder) much too much to fall in with Adam K.’s plan.

John H., your suggestion might work well for some commenters—I can’t know. But some serious (probably too serious) introspection has convinced me that I’ve suffered and made others suffer unnecessarily by having followed it too faithfully. I’ve generally tried to respond to inquiries and issues if (and only if) I think (possibly wrongly) I can “add something”. But this appealingly simple rule can, given a social context where the “something added” is halved at every step, exponentially snarl into an exploding embarrassing farce and leave me feeling like Edgar Kennedy in a Marx Brothers movie.

Until you’ve achieved the sublime equanimity of Margaret Dumont, the only sensible thing to do when Chico and Harpo wheel their cart onto your side of the street is to move to some other street.

So for me, I hope that keeping blog histories in mind will reduce the pain rather than exacerbate it—but only because I prefer silence to redundancy and flame wars. Other commenters’ mileages may vary. (And possibly approach infinity.)

By Ray Davis on 11/03/06 at 02:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I mean this in the best possible way, but can we get more literature and more posts intended to edify, enlighten, and/or engage - and fewer posts on science fiction, comic books, funny YouTube videos, and other assorted amusing stuff? 

Oh, and asking people to be nice can work.  Aside from the trolls, there really are only a few people that engage in verbal fisticuffs.

By on 11/03/06 at 02:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yeah it would be a great idea.  As someone who only wanders in here occasionally and enjoys a good math thread, it’s off-putting to have that crossed with episode n of somebody’s bad relationship. 

Folks should not assume that their resentments toward other folks are of interest to the entire world.

By on 11/03/06 at 02:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

... it is not fulfilling its stated mandate. 

If by “stated mandate” you mean the Statement of Purpose, that’s worded in such general terms that it’s hard to see how The Valve, as it is, does not fulfill that purpose.

... can we get more literature ...

Well, when someone does make a post on literature, it doesn’t get much action. Adam Roberts has written some long posts on specific texts, but they haven’t gotten much action. The same with Dan Green, Miriam Burstein, and Amardeep Singh.

And I don’t think the problem has anything to do with the literary posts we do have. They’re fine. The problem is that discussing literature—or even science fiction, comic books, and funny YouTube videos—is very different from discussing philosophy and politics. They’re “easy” in a way that literature is not.

Here’s what I said in an email to Jonathan Mayhew:

The problem with discussing literature ... is that you have to discuss examples. You can’t do that unless you’ve read the examples, and in many cases you need to have read the examples recently. Sure, I’ve read Bleak House, for example, but so long ago that I don’t have anything useful to say about it. So literary discussions involving non-trivial attention to texts are not going to attract much commentary. Such posts tend to be solo efforts and end up as trial balloons for a potential formal paper or as display pieces. And that’s fine, it’s just an informal mode of publication.

By Bill Benzon on 11/03/06 at 02:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The conflict between numeric measures of “popularity” and other standards of value has bedeviled the web since the dot-com years. I’ve written about it a couple of times—here, for example.

And it’s just a special case of the old, old problem of applying the Golden Rule: not everyone wants the same things done unto ‘em.

By Ray Davis on 11/03/06 at 04:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ray, it’s not really people thinking that hundred-comment posts are “popular” and therefore valuable, even if those hundred hits are flames.  It’s a difference between liking conversation, even inconsequential conversation, and wanting to create artifactual texts that sit there, with people reading them.  As your comment above puts it, you not only prefer silence to flamewars (most people do) but you also prefer silence to redundancy.  Conversations are inevitably redundant, since people must say many of the same things that they said before in slightly different contexts; why not turn off comments in that case?  You may have the ideal of never writing something twice, but other people do not.

But to turn the hundred-comment threads from flamewars back into conversations, attempting to wipe the slate clean as John suggests will not work.  The problem is not with the slate.  To suggest that it is is to pretend that the people badgering Adam Roberts must have had some grudge against him from before he started posting here.

By on 11/03/06 at 04:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I started writing this before, but I had to do something productive and lost my text file in the process.  Rich writes:

Ray, it’s not really people thinking that hundred-comment posts are “popular” and therefore valuable, even if those hundred hits are flames.  It’s a difference between liking conversation, even inconsequential conversation, and wanting to create artifactual texts that sit there, with people reading them.

But the format complicates this distinction: one man’s conversation is another man’s artifactual text.  The statement of purpose for this site likens a group weblog to a little magazine, and I’m sure the intermediate status of weblogs between “magazine” and “community forum” has been discussed ad nauseam—but I think it’s clear that a large proportion of readers of any site treat the site, comments and all, as an artifactual text that just sits there.  Frequent commenters, with their “redundant” (Rich’s word) posts, are as much the authors of this text as the names on the masthead are—yet the obligation of the official site writers and administrators to deal with editorial issues, solely and collectively, is still keenly felt.  But the paradox doesn’t go away.

My two cents isn’t worth much in this economy, but I’m all for putting regular commenters on the masthead, much as magazines have “contributing writers” and “staff writers.” The fact that the regular writers, who produce some percentage—70%?  65%?—of the data on this site, are bound by some sense of professional compunction and accountability*, whereas the commenters who collectively generate the other 30 or 35% of the text are officially nonentities and treated unevenly, doesn’t seem to reflect the work that goes into making the site as it stands.

I don’t know if there’s a way beyond this dubious suggestion to reconcile the magazine model with the forum model, and other weblogs seem relatively content with hybridity.  Maybe the Valve’s literary orientation biases its writers and readers towards the magazine, though.

*Cf. what Dan Green said on Jonathan M.’s site about a writer quitting because of senior faculty disapproval, for instance; I’m sure there are other examples.

By pica on 11/04/06 at 09:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think we need to cleanly separate the discussion of rancorous discussion at The Valve from Adam’s post on squaring the circle. I think that, on the whole, that discussion, nasty though it was at times, was a good and important one. Important because it hinged on the concept and conceptualization of infinity, good because it finally managed a positive resolution—as opposed to dying out through exhaustion.

It’s clear to me that if there are to be new methods in the humanities, some of which are responsible to contemporary developments in the sciences, then infinity must be dealt with. It is critical to the formulation of models and arguments in the cognitive and neurosciences for one thing. Chomsky’s claim to intellectual fame, as an example, owes a great deal to his ability to formulate questions about language in such a way that the mathematics of infinity can be brought to bear on them. Hence one’s ability to comprehend and deal with such arguments depends on one’s appreciation of infinity. That is not a trivial matter.

It’s unfortunate that Adam’s thread got so rancorous. But if I had to choose between not having that discussion and having the rancorous one we had, I wouldn’t hestitate to choose the latter. Sterile amity is a sure route to intellectual obsolescence. Where there’s rancor, there’s life and where there’s life there’s hope for enlightenment.

By Bill Benzon on 11/04/06 at 10:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Pica, do you think that adding regular comment-writers’ names to a site masthead might help make them more accountable and thus behave better, or that it’s a question of acknowledging and recognising (thanking, I guess) the contributions of comment-writers? 

I like this idea very much.  Is there a site somewhere that does it already?  Can I take it away to my own group blog?

By on 11/04/06 at 11:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Heh—Laura, I wasn’t thinking specifically of behavior modification, although that might be a side effect, positive or negative—i.e. might make everyone disappear.  It was more for purposes of recognition, affirmation, all that, and because the existing hierarchy seems contrived to me and seems to confuse discussions of editorial policy.  I don’t know of any other sites that do this, and I have no idea if it really is a good idea, but you have my blessing if you want to implement it somewhere else.  Best of luck.

By pica on 11/05/06 at 02:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Aren’t frequent commenters already acknowledged in the sidebar?  The frequency with which certain names appear informs the readership just who is and isn’t a regular face in the discussions generated by the contributors.  I think, though, that the difference is an important one.

Somewhere, Rich and I had a conversation about this.  I think it was about why frequent commenters often don’t have blogs and prominent bloggers usually don’t comment on other people’s blogs.  Has to do with the idea that some people like to sit down and sort through their own thoughts, whereas other people like to sift through the assorted thoughts of others.  I understand this dynamic, and it’s what motivates me to, say, religiously read feminist blogs but rarely write about feminism myself.  Before the recent infighting, I frequently commented on feminist blogs too—but there’s no way, even when I commented on thread after thread, I would’ve wanted my name on the masthead.  It may have give other readers of the site a better idea of the community that existed, but it wouldn’t have been fair to the contributors, without whose spurs I wouldn’t have been able to produce my comment.

That said, I’m increasingly sensitive to what does and doesn’t help foster a community of readers, so I don’t think debates in which everyone dons heart-sleeves are necessarily a good thing.  Now, however, back to Keats interminable!

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 11/05/06 at 04:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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