Tuesday, May 23, 2006
(8:58 PM) | Adam Kotsko:
On Academic Blogging: A DiagnosisMeta-blogging is the greatest vice yet developed by humankind. Nonetheless, I am starting to wonder what exactly can be done in a blog post. This is prompted primarily by a not-to-be-linked blogfight, which has prompted some reflection on my part. I've been asking myself: Why do these conversations go nowhere? Why do particular people make me so angry? And the answer seems to be a rather simple one: they are asking for things that cannot be profitably done on a blog.
I know that the blog is a developing genre and that we might be surprised by what is finally done in this genre, but the general contours of its utility are becoming clear: first of all, it is best suited to matters that can be treated conversationally. This goes for the posts and especially for the comment threads. Once a conversation devolves into a quest for rock-solid arguments or evidence, it becomes abusive -- of the blog-form, and of the participants. A conversation that becomes a quasi-debate -- always "quasi" because it cannot really be pulled off in a satisfactory way -- tends inevitably toward the point where someone, in order to prove his (and let's be honest, usually "his") point, will have to do some serious extra-blogospheric work. Either he does it, and proves himself to be an idiot (objectively speaking -- who writes a dissertation to win a bar bet?), or else he doesn't, and his opponents get to gloat over his failure to provide evidence for his statements.
In essence, this is why I don't think that academic discourse can be very profitably pursued in the blogosphere, beyond gossipy stuff, book recommendations and capsule reviews, calls for bibliographic help, etc. -- that is, the superficial social stuff. When one's intellectual project becomes involved in any serious way, the intellectual project on which one's career depends, then conversation simply cannot profitably happen anymore. When one is attempting to advance that project through blogospheric methods, one is asking for trouble. It's analogous to cornering someone at the party and definitively proving to him that Jean-Luc Nancy represents a real advance over Heidegger's understanding of Mit-sein -- except in this case, you end up potentially dealing with forty people yelling back at you that Nancy's a hack, or you never understood Heidegger in the first place, or you're not taking into account this obscure text of Heidegger, or Lacoue-Labarthe was the real brains behind the operation and it's all been downhill for Nancy since the breakup, etc., etc., etc.
So I would say that blogging is a great way for academics to socialize and should be encouraged -- it's especially great for academics who would otherwise be quite isolated from other academics of similar interests. But what goes along with that is a tacit agreement -- nothing can exceed the level of rigor of a conversation at the pub after class. If people make overblown statements, no one necessarily has to call them on it. No one has to be convinced of, or especially prove, anything on the spot -- because that's the kind of thing that we do in journal articles and books. And we do that kind of thing in those formats because it's the kind of thing that takes a really long time and a lot of work and study and because it's not easily digested in any other way. Maybe it's a shame that certain articles aren't read very much, but the point isn't to put those ideas into a blog so that they'll get read -- the point is to say, "Hey everyone! There's this cool article out that I just read!" You know, social stuff. Recommendations. Passing the news along.
But there are other, deeper reasons why we do that kind of stuff in print rather than in person -- at least most of the time -- and those reasons are psychological. We all know that there are neuroses that are the unfortunate, but apparently necessary, biproducts of the academic system. These neuroses primarily present themselves in explicitly professional situations, and most academics I have met are able to keep them under control in social situations. But then there are those people who try to make every social situation into an opportunity for advancement or victory over someone -- those are the people everyone hates. If you put professional academia into the instant-response environment of the blogosphere, you're going to get all the neurosis and none of the rigor or interest -- there's just no way around that. To follow the founding metaphor of a great literary weblog, if we want a safety valve, it'd be best not to clog it up with the same shit that's suffocating us on the professional end of things.
This might seem too limiting. After all, there have been book events, even at this very blog, which have not developed a toxic atmosphere. The key, for me, seems to be to find something where everyone is, to some extent, still a learner -- something like a faculty seminar, we might say by analogy. No pressure, no one to impress -- just working through this stuff together. But we all know that blog book events don't always go that way -- and that may well be because they are trying to do something that is inappropriate to the situation. It might be that someone is deciding what books to read based on some kind of predetermined point that they're trying to make -- rather than, for instance, just polling a social group to see if anyone's interested in reading a little Agamben.
I'm explicitly trying to avoid making this sound like some kind of moral issue, although I do think that this attempt to inject academic professionalism into blogging almost inevitably produces a toxic atmosphere and hard feelings. It's more of a category error thing. The guy at the dinner after the lecture at DePaul, the guy who interrogated me about Laclau while I was just trying to eat some Thai food -- I'm sure he wasn't a bad person. I'm sure he'd hold the door open for me, or let me borrow his truck when I was moving, or whatever. It was a category error -- not allowing things to remain in their proper places.
What goes on in academic journals, books, and conferences is good and necessary. I am glad that I have been able to be a part of such things and hope to continue to be a part of them in the future. Blogging is something else, or at least it is showing itself to be something else. That something else is valuable -- a social space for people who would otherwise be dispersed in an unhelpful way. I have found those social developments to be tremendously helpful -- I can't count the number of times I have put out my questions about translation issues, for instance, and been pleasantly surprised by the volume and quality of responses. It is a rare privilege to meet someone in person for the first time and to have an instant feeling of comaraderie based on sharing the social space of blogging -- it would be good for academia, I think, if there was more of that.
Aside from the emotional benefits, perhaps these new types of connections would mean that more articles would be read and more conference sessions attended. Arguably that's already happening -- I'm sure that the readership of my Nancy review at JCRT, for example, was much higher than it would have been without my blogging presence. And I'm very likely to go track down something written by John Holbo or Scott Eric Kaufman or any of my blog friends. This is good stuff, a good use of blogs for academia. There are many good uses. There are also bad uses. For our own mental health, we all need to put our blogs only to good uses.
As we know, I have called this blog "The Weblog." Although some have assigned labels to it -- an academic blog, a philosophy blog, a religious blog -- it has no theme or agenda whatsoever. My only hope for The Weblog is that it will only ever have been a blog. There is a dignity to being a blog, to being a place of welcome for those far dispersed, those who need to know that they are not as alone as they think they are. I hope it is not arrogant to say that The Weblog has mostly been such a place -- to the extent that it has, it certainly hasn't been my doing. What it has achieved, it has achieved by being only and always a blog.
That is my hope for all blogs -- that they will have been nothing but blogs, that they will have achieved nothing other than being blogs. We have other spaces for other things -- but here, let us be bloggers and nothing more.