Wednesday, April 19, 2006
Theorizing Blogging, Theorizing Theory (and a little on Spivak)
[Part of the Spivak event]
This post was partially inspired by John Holbo’s comment on an earlier post: that he doesn’t necessarily mind what theorists do, he only wishes they would be humble and honest enough to disown the role of the all-knowing priest: “Spivak’s essay might have made a decent blog post. As an article, however, it seems to me a lead balloon. The problem is a high level of self-seriousness, combines with a high level of undisciplined messing about.” On the one hand, we could well question this statement: why is it that what makes a good blog post doesn’t make for a good article? Wouldn’t we say that a good number of posts on our respective personal blogs as well as on the Valve are also “undisciplined messing about”? Or we could flip his comment around, and point to various good things one finds in blogging, which go beyond messing about, and which are lacking in Spivak’s essays. Perhaps Spivak is writing a kind of concatenated blog post that doesn’t know what it is?
Two other prefatory/contextual thoughts: First, it isn’t just about whether or not one can stomach Spivak, or Derrida, or Hardt/Negri, or Zizek. The subtext continues to be the question of theory itself, which needs to be reevaluated and perhaps even reinvented. Secondly, I think it’s worth addressing the medium in which we’re trying to have this conversation, which is remarkably unlike the space of an academic conference or an academic journal. What might come of a conversation about theory on a smattering of blogs? How are we talking to each other? (Are we?)
Here I will propose to use ‘blogging’ and ‘theory’ as terms that refer specifically to a practice of writing, not so much an academic culture or an ideological framework. And I’ll ask: what can blogging (not ‘the blogosphere’) say to theory, and what can theory say to blogging?
* * *
The qualities that have always attracted me to theory are quite directly parallel to the things that attracted me to blogging two years ago. I wanted a free space to explore ideas, to think through problems in different spheres of life, and to generally give my mind a bit of exercise that teaching alone might not offer. Both blogging and theory can be engrossing and hugely rewarding, though institutionalization and certain bad habits means that both can also be a drag.
For the basic definition of “theory” I’m using today, I’ll draw on Jonathan Culler, from Literary Theory: A Short Introduction (the first chapter is online here). Here is Culler on “Theory as Genre”:
[Theory is] a body of thinking and writing whose limits are exceedingly hard to define. The philosopher Richard Rorty speaks of a new, mixed genre that began in the nineteenth century: ‘Beginning in the days of Goethe and Macaulay and Carlyle and Emerson, a new kind of writing has developed which is neither the evaluation of the relative merits of literary productions, nor intellectual history, nor moral philosophy, nor social prophecy, but all of these mingled together in a new genre.’ The most convenient designation of this miscellaneous genre is simply the nickname theory, which has come to designate works that succeed in challenging and reorienting thinking in fields other than those to which they apparently belong. This is the simplest explanation of what makes something count as theory. Works regarded as theory have effects beyond their original field.
Culler’s somewhat unsatisfying definition echoes Rorty’s negative definition. Perhaps it’s not an accident; isn’t one of theory’s essential qualities its undefinability? Theorists are always chasing after other people’s dogs.
But undefinability might not always be a bad thing. For one, it parallels what I see as a certain undefinable quality in blogging. At a basic level, I would define blogging as a frequent practice of quasi-public expression, which is as comfortable deflecting the self (borrowing, quoting, linking, and anonymity) as it is in expressing it (i.e., your basic confessional blog post). It is also fundamentally interactive and requires active involvement: one might read a number blogs and be involved in the culture, but it isn’t until one actually starts keeping one’s own blog that it becomes something qualitatively different from, say, participating in an email listserv or chat room.
A couple of years ago we were considering the possible value of blogging (on Crooked Timber, as I recall) against conventional ideas of academic publication. But at least in terms of understanding what blogging is, that might be the wrong question to ask. Blogging (which is, after all, an idea goes well beyond the walls of academia—and we academic bloggers tend to accept how it’s been defined for us) isn’t just a proxy for “publication” in the professionalized academic sense. It’s really a much more fundamental approach (in psycho-social terms) to writing.
Why do it? What is, after all, so exciting about these public diaries that are date-stamped? What makes it so addictive? Why has it emerged so rapidly, and why does it appeal to some people so much more than others?
I can’t answer all these questions (though I would welcome comments on them), but I might hazard this: perhaps the power of blogging has less to do with the form (i.e., the specific technology of blogging software) than with the ego-investment it seems to encourage. Bloggers create and constantly nurture these public avatars, that are measured, counted, and endlessly evaluated and ranked. One’s blogging avatar isn’t exactly coterminous with one’s natural idea of self, partly because a blog persona has to be much more self-consciously careful and constructed. A similar kind of ego-investment is also present in massive multiplayer role-playing games: my character on the internet is me, but not really. (And as with RPGs, hopefully there is some element of play involved in the propagation of a blogger’s persona.)
* * *
Let’s take another paragraph from Culler on theory, and see how it might be related to blogging:
The main effects [sic] of theory is the disputing of ‘common sense’: common-sense views about meaning, writing, literature, experience. For example, theory questions
* the conception that the meaning of an utterance or text is what the speaker ‘had in mind’.
* or the idea that writing is an expression whose truth lies elsewhere, in an experience or a state of affairs which it expresses,
* or the notion that reality is what is ‘present’ at a give moment.
Theory is often a pugnacious critique of common-sense notions, and further, an attempt to show that what we take for granted as ‘common sense’ is in fact a historical construction, a particular theory that has come to seem so natural to us that we don’t even see it as a theory. As a critique of common sense and exploration of alternative conceptions, theory involves a questioning of the most basic premisses or assumptions of literary study, the unsettling of anything that might have been taken for granted: What is meaning? What is an author? What is it to read? What is the ‘I’ or subject who writes, reads, or acts? How do texts relate to the circumstances in which they are produced?
There might seem to be a contradiction with blogging here, where common sense is said to rule and anything that smacks of obscurantist jargon is readily mocked. But I don’t think the contradiction sticks. Though excessive academic jargon is still a problem, the idea that blogging is really a space for the expression of common sense is overstated. It can be used that way, but blogging is at least as much a space where individual writers work out how they see the world as it is an index for popular opinion.
As a practice of writing, blogging demands constant reflection. It’s not considered sufficient to simply say that you agree with a certain political party’s point of view, and you’re done. The most interesting bloggers (one thinks of Tim Burke or BitchPhD) are somewhat unpredictable and ideologically complex: they are trying to think for themselves, and see everything as freshly as possible. As part of blogging’s ethos of individualized, autonomous writing, bloggers try not to repeat themselves, or merely echo a party line. (Partisan blogging has become more and more prevalent, and is always threatening to turn blogging into an extension of the corporatized world of mass media-entertainment-news-politics. Perhaps I’m referring to the “spirit of blogging” here more than material reality… A fair objection.)
So I guess I don’t think that eclecticism (which is not quite the same as bricolage) is a bad thing. Going from Culler’s non-definition above, it’s probably one of theory’s constitutive values. Isn’t it a core virtue in blogging as well?
In expanding the parallels between blogging and theory (say, in a fully developed essay), one could also get into some theoretical particulars. It might be interesting to revisit the Foucauldian idea of a nexus between power and knowledge in light of the internet’s redistribution of access to information. It might also be worthwhile to go back to Derrida and re-theorize the idea of writing as ‘supplement’ in light of blogging’s intensive preoccupation with individualized ‘voice’—ironic, given that this is a medium where writing rules, and voice is relegated to the sad little ghetto called “podcasting.” (And we could also talk about “blogger’s brevity,” but only at the risk of sacrificing it ourselves.)
* * *
A word or two on Spivak, based on the streaming video of Spivak’s lecture at UCSB that I watched last night. (I tried my hand at rereading “Scattered Speculations” and “Ghostwriting” and was sadly uninspired.)
The lecture is something else. As Spivak admits towards the end, she didn’t really have time to write a script for it—and some of the anecdotes she tells reveal why: she had just come from the Boundary 2 Conference; she had just come from an indigenous people’s knowledge conference in rural South Africa; she had just been having dinner with Catherine Stimpson in New York; she had just been on the phone with Romila Thapar ... and so on. And: the title itself of the talk itself was given to her by the editors of the journal Rethinking Marxism, so that’s why she’s doing a keynote “On the Trajectory of the Subaltern in My Work”: someone else suggested she write about herself, so she did.
The lecture is fairly overrun with Spivak’s namedroppy anecdotes. She’s gives the impression she’s so busy she doesn’t have time to actually write anymore. And perhaps she is. But instead of thinking about the lecture with sympathy for the pressures produced by Spivak’s lifestyle as an academic superstar, we might consider what it is actually like to sit and listen to this kind of disorganized talk, which is sometimes about her idea of the “New Subaltern,” sometimes about secularism and rationality (she goes after Meera Nanda two or three times), and sometimes about her Bengali Marxist intellectual milieu. Through it all, she never pins herself down to a concrete politics or epistemic framework (i.e., “modernity,” “postmodernity,” or “anti-modernity"). For me, it’s the latter failure that’s most irritating, though there might be other formal or aesthetic problems with the talk as well.
If you don’t have time to sit down and watch the lecture, Spivak covers some related points in this interview with Jenny Sharpe in Signs (PDF). Notice again the constant reference to the fact that she just got off an airplane (this time from Hong Kong, where she spent three months teaching Aristotle in Greek and Dante in Italian, etc. There isn’t so much name-dropping, though it’s thick with anecdotes).
Arguing off the cuff, Spivak is still doing “theory,” but she’s doing it in bite-size epigrams, and with a nearly constant reference to herself. I find it tedious to read and to listen to; she’s as all over the place as an over-caffeinated celebrity blogger who looks everywhere and sees only signs of herself.
So what does Spivak have to say that is noteworthy, interesting, striking, etc?
Nobody involved in the Spivak event has made much effort to address any claims she makes. What are her claims? What is the value of her work, when all is said and done?
I can’t say what the value will be when all is said and done, since I think we are still saying and doing.
But Matt’s recent post on Long Sunday gets into some specifics, including the curious fact that Spivak has few outright defenders. Oddly enough, his own defense seems somewhat measured to me—coolly supportive rather than enthusiastic.
One of the moments in the videotaped lecture at UCSB that got my attention is her comment dealing with secularism in particular:
Secularism is not an episteme...In fact the two eighteenth century ideas that have served us so well, the separation of church and state and also the privatization of religion, that served us so well, are in fact not working for this violent world today. That does not mean that we throw secularism away. That means that we do not mistake secularism for an episteme. Secularism is an impoverished, abstract system that must be protected as such.
[...] So in that context, the idea of producing a possibility where secularism is protected as small r-reason as our ally, within (again the agent-subject problem) within a much richer acknowledgment of the imagination...
She is making a pretty concrete claim here—that secularism (and I think she means it in the common sense of the ‘privatization of religion’) is important, but insufficient. There is still one big nebulous point in the “richer acknowledgment of the imagination,” which I can only think refers to religion under the broader category of “imagination.”
I guess the term “concrete” is applied a little more loosely when it comes to Spivak. I really don’t have a good idea about what sort of claim she is making about secularism.
Is she making, for instance, the political claim that the separation of church and state is necessary but not sufficient for a just society? Is that particularly noteworthy?
I don’t get what she means by repeating that secularism is not an episteme.
I would hope that somebody here at The Valve would take a crack at summarizing Spivak, since what I have read at Long Sunday is not particularly helpful. They repeat the same ridiculous jargon used by Spivak and use the same long-winded, impenatrable sentences.
I get the feeling that nobody wants to talk about Spivak’s claims because it is nearly impossible to pin down what types of claims she is making.
For me, the interest in blogs is not in the theories expressed, political or literary, but in the different voices I can hear. The best of the voices I have come upon hold the fascination of reading a journal, May Sarton’s for example, but with the addition that I am reading the entries immediately, and relatively unedited.
There are other threads at Long Sunday in which people argue over whether they’ve addressed Spivak’s claims rather than style, and what those claims are. I think that a good deal of the floundering about is based on how Spivak got chosen for examination in the first place, which you can see the genesis of in this Weblog thread.
Amardeep asks: “how to define blogging?” Drawing a parallel with a definition of ‘Theory’ he says: “Isn’t one of theory’s essential qualities its undefinability? Theorists are always chasing after other people’s dogs.”
So, blogging is defined by its undefinability. Amardeep also mentions Goethe in passing: poet-scientist par excellence. His interest in the poles of science and poetry make him rather indefinable. I relate to Goethe and to many other writers like him (Holub, Ponge, Michaux, Levi-Strauss), European mainlanders all, all taking pleasure in a certain indefinability.
Amardeep also says: “Bloggers create and constantly nurture these public avatars, that are measured, counted, and endlessly evaluated and ranked. One’s blogging avatar isn’t exactly coterminous with one’s natural idea of self, partly because a blog persona has to be much more self-consciously careful and constructed. A similar kind of ego-investment....”
Show me the rare beast that does not quickly learn how to check their blog statistics… It is certainly an ego-investment, but for me at least, not a relative one. I don’t give a fig how many hits other people are getting and regard the ups and downs of my own hits with only amused interest. All of that pales to utter insignificance compared to the pleasure of real evidence that someone has actually read what I have written, thought about it and tapped out a considered response.
Finally, Amardeep says: “The most interesting bloggers (one thinks of Tim Burke or BitchPhD) are somewhat unpredictable and ideologically complex: they are trying to think for themselves, and see everything as freshly as possible.”
Yes, absolutely. What would be the point otherwise? I have, in my head, a whole framework of items that I want to get into my blog and put into order. It’s as if I’m feeding tough steaks into a grinder in order get edible mince out of the other side.
I can foresee in advance what I’m going to write about and blogging provides the complex structural framework (I’m talking particularly about links and indexing) for me to make sense of my thoughts). For example, on New Years Eve last year I could predict several of the blogs I was going to write several months later, but I first had to do the reading and thinking to put that into context for myself (if not for the reader). I could note several subjects that I am going to approach in the future as well: ideograms, trace fossils, ant colonies, memories of America. Of course, they are all related. Nearly everything on my blog is related, and if it seems not to be, that is because it’s not yet finished (and it will almost certainly never be finished).
For me, the point of blogging is not to directly dream up partisan views, as Amardeep suggests, but in actually merging the disparate parts of my personality into a unified whole. And, of course, I’m not unusual in that. Every member of humanity is basically indefinable in some way.
It is the absence of formal framework (the personal domain) which allows partisan views to evolve, and feedback which stokes the fire…
Blah, when she says that secularism is not an episteme I think she means that it can’t be a starting point for a philosophy (the grounds upon which we know what we know). The word “episteme” itself is one of those bits of theory jargon I could do without. Try this: “Secularism is not an independent philosophical system.”
I think that it’s more than that the separation of Church and State is necessary but not sufficient. Rather, what she’s hinting at is that even if we take secularism as a strong political and philosophical directive, it won’t survive without friendly support from imaginative works that derive from the softer and broader cultural support system. The first amendment won’t continue to hold up (quite separately from Samuel Alito and company) if people aren’t writing it and and thinking it—if they aren’t attempting to imagine their world in secularist terms.
One other thing—another way we might not need to know why her work is valuable “when all is said and done” is if we think of her as a kind of blogger ex cathedra, which is what I’m arguing in this post. Spivak generates and works with a lot (as in, hundreds) of ideas in brief rather than a manageable number arguments developed at length. That eclecticism has made her famous, but the danger in it is that spreading a lot of “small value” might dilute or occlude your “major value.” (This is a problem for bloggers too!)
Nancy, my argument in this post is that the act of blogging might in some ways look like the act of writing theory. And that the theory world could benefit from the immediacy, unedited quality, and high level of interactivity we currently see happening in blogging. Right now theory is a bit too top-down for some of us.
Rich, thanks for the link.
Thank you for that.
I could note several subjects that I am going to approach in the future as well: ideograms, trace fossils, ant colonies, memories of America. Of course, they are all related. Nearly everything on my blog is related, and if it seems not to be, that is because it’s not yet finished (and it will almost certainly never be finished).
For me, the point of blogging is not to directly dream up partisan views . . . but in actually merging the disparate parts of my personality into a unified whole.
Yes and yes: blogging as an ethic of constant writing, which defines and locates the self under a name and a URL, but which (unlike conventional argumentation) never really “ends.”
"she’s as all over the place as an over-caffeinated celebrity blogger who looks everywhere and sees only signs of herself”
From the interview, that doesn’t seem right. In the interview, she was asked to talk about her fieldwork, so she’s talking about her fieldwork. The interviewer seems a bit star-struck, but that’s hardly unusual. (I haven’t watched the video.) The interviewer asks questions like “I am interested in juxtaposing the different sites of your teaching”, “can you speak a little bit more about your schools in India”, so it’s not surprising that she does. The initial whee-we’re-on-a-plane bit is from the interviewer, not from Spivak.
Pointing out that Spivak’s essay concerns economics without really engaging with what economists of the time were doing seems to me like pointing out a classic example of the problems that people like to talk about under the rubric of theory: a miscellaneous genre (taking off from Culler) that challenges thinking in other fields without ever really understanding them. Criticizing her personal style seems to me to go too much into list-on-a-door territory; what does it matter, really?
Your thoughts on blogging are interesting.
On Spivak, I have to say I think you’re just taking potshots, this time at her celebrity. There’s some truth there, of course. She may suffer from a lack of time to write (who doesn’t, these days - and I’d definitely distinguish between blogging, impromtu lecturing, and writing for publication), but you seem to ignore here the seriousness of her entire project.
For which, yes, it’s probably important to have some Derrida. (And not just from Christopher Norris, though he’s the best place to start.) But then I’m just repeating myself here, yet again. (Damnit everywhere I go, I only see myself. Could it be this problem is universal? Show me a person who is not a narcissist, I quadruple dare you!)
Anyone who’s even remotely interested in taking part in this conversation should, I think, watch the video. If only because it’s harder to be gratuitous and mean-spirited sometimes, when you’ve seen their human face.
In the interview, I was thinking of the part when she talks about going to a technical university in Hong Kong and teaching literature in Italian and Greek to students who don’t know Italian or Greek.
She really does talk about herself an awful lot in the lecture.
I’m not sure I understand where you’re going with the last paragraph; it sounds like you’re referring back to earlier posts and other comment threads. (Here I’m actually not getting into the essays on economics, and I’m criticizing the talk’s narcissism and disorganization more than its style. But I’m also suggesting that it might be interesting to read her—positively—as a little bit bloggy.)
In my post I said this:
Through it all, she never pins herself down to a concrete politics or epistemic framework (i.e., “modernity,” “postmodernity,” or “anti-modernity"). For me, it’s the latter failure that’s most irritating, though there might be other formal or aesthetic problems with the talk as well.
I think that’s a bit more than a potshot at her celebrity. I really do want her—on the question of secularism, for instance—to actually commit herself to a position. She might deny that anything coming from her pen would have an influence on what people on the Hindu right are saying, but actually people like Partha Chatterjee publish their comments in the Indian newspapers pretty frequently. (Chatterjee had some really good insights after the Indian elections in 2004, as I recall.) If she decided to write something on the subject that was clear enough to be printed in a newspaper, thousands of people would be interested.
I think I’m sort of making the case here that her project as a theorist is more interesting to me when rendered as somewhat un-serious. That might sound like another posthot, but actually it isn’t—I am making a positive investment in Spivak: my blogging is like her theory.
"But I’m also suggesting that it might be interesting to read her—positively—as a little bit bloggy.”
OK, thanks for the clarification. I didn’t see the description as a positive one.
The point of the second paragraph was to indeed refer back to other posts and threads, and suggest that maybe the problems of the essays on economics are more characteristic of theory than the bloggy qualities that you bring out.
Well, one person’s “floundering about” (Rich) is another person’s trying to get things straight, I suppose. Or just trying to suggest people do some reading.
Meanwhile, if we’re talking about Spivak’s work in general, it is interesting that she does seem to favour the interview form. After all, one of her books is simply a collection of interviews. A more charitable way of interpreting that is to indicate the ways it offsets the alleged difficulty of her prose pieces, to read her in conversation.
Through it all, she never pins herself down to a concrete politics or epistemic framework (i.e., “modernity,” “postmodernity,” or “anti-modernity").
Ok, well I guess I’d wonder what on earth that might mean, concretely. (According to most folks, the last two are one and the same, for instance.)
Could you provide an example of such self-pinning-down that would be a representative model of what you mean?
It seems sort of obvious to me she’s a “posty”, in a faithful-to-modernity sort of way (often-enough conveniently overlooked), and though with rather pointed differences with someone like Lyotard, for example.
"Well, one person’s “floundering about” (Rich) is another person’s trying to get things straight, I suppose. Or just trying to suggest people do some reading.”
If you look back at why Spivak was chosen, it seems largely because people hadn’t really read much of her work, and this was a chance to. Therefore no one came in with a deeply worked out theoretical background on her concerns. Thus a certain degree of floundering is to be expected, I think.
Ok—she is, as you say, a posty, and at least in this lecture she makes gestures to the effect that she’s also trying to be “faithful to modernity.” I’m not sure if it works conceptually, but I can live with it.
In politics “concrete” begins with the obvious question about secularism: does she or doesn’t she support the institution of the Uniform Civil Code in India? Does she support the abolition of polygamy in Muslim Personal Law? The abolition of Triple Talaq? Sorry to hit you with a bunch of terms out of Indian politics, but secularism is very much in flux there, and will continue to be so. Taking a principled stand for secularism there might well mean advocating a position that minorities may not be happy with. The “subaltern” does not help you, and I’m not sure whether we can do much with her reference to either Kant or the “acknowledgment of the richer imagination.” (I appreciate your response to my comment to your recent post on Long Sunday.)
There’s also the question about Maoism. She talks a lot about the Adivasis she works with, but what about the People’s War? Would she support that? The Maoists in West Bengal are winning their elections because they’ve killed many of the people running against them (in the CPI-Marxist Leninist party, oddly enough) in targeted assasinations. Is that the voice of the ‘people’?
I don’t expect to enter into a discussion of Indian politics here, but those might be some contexts where a concerete position from an intellectual of her stature might well be valuable.
I’d be curious too, in her responses to those issues. As well as any further comments you care to make about them. Thanks.
Amardeep: Spivak generates and works with a lot (as in, hundreds) of ideas in brief rather than a manageable number arguments developed at length. That eclecticism has made her famous, but the danger in it is that spreading a lot of “small value” might dilute or occlude your “major value.” (This is a problem for bloggers too!)
Yes, but what if the shifting constellations of “small value” and their exchange are precisely the “major value” of her texts, so to speak. Then, I suppose, it might not be so much of a problem per se.
Jon: Meanwhile, if we’re talking about Spivak’s work in general, it is interesting that she does seem to favour the interview form. After all, one of her books is simply a collection of interviews. A more charitable way of interpreting that is to indicate the ways it offsets the alleged difficulty of her prose pieces, to read her in conversation.
I would be interested to know if she turns any of those conversations into reflections on the ways in which the conversation itself becomes a site of betrayal - she gets on Foucault and Deleuze for this in _A Critique of Postcolonial Reason_ (adding to it the form of the conference as a betrayal as well, perhaps the blog symposium too...).