I’ve attended a couple of fantastic seminars on Frankfurt School critical theory recently – part of a series conducted by another university. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn about the series until it was well underway, and was able to attend only the final two. The regular participants were very tolerant of this strange interloper who dropped in on their sessions uninvited, and ushered me along with them to the meal and drinks that followed the final seminar last night.
As it happened, there was some discussion over dinner about my own theoretical work. I have these sorts of discussions all the time with the reading group folks, of course, but we know one another well, and have built up to discussions of our own projects, from the simpler starting point of shared discussions of other texts. And I have these sorts of discussions all the time online, as well. But – and here is the interesting thing – I had grossly underestimated the impact of those online conversations on how I currently think about theoretical discussion and debate.
So I found myself last night, trying to explain a project that, admittedly, is rather difficult to explain in the best circumstances, so I wasn’t particularly expecting to sound anything other than vaguely insane. (The visiting scholar leading the seminars listened to me for a while and then, somewhat puzzled, offered, “Well, you know… these things… I mean… One needs to put them aside for ten years or so, as it were – they are so big… And, then, maybe, one can come back to them…”)
But what I found myself feeling most acutely was a kind of chafing under the restriction of not being able to write out my response – my hands were longing for a keyboard, and I kept thinking: this would just be so much easier to explain if I could lay out a bit of background, and organise the presentation a bit more linearly – if I could just respond in email or on the blog. I spent the whole evening experiencing the… er… medium of speech as incredibly limiting, and longing for the additional expressive potentials available in online exchanges.
There is, of course, a grass is always greener dimension to this reaction: in online exchanges, I often find myself wishing that someone could just see my body posture, or hear my tone, and thus avoid mistaking my intention or affect… And, in fact, in specific respects this in-person discussion was able to be a bit more hard hitting than I can be online, precisely because it was quite easy to communicate nonverbally whether the focus were on the person, or on the ideas. I managed to get through an evening of theoretical discussion and, at times, quite pointed disagreement, without having to pay all that much attention to smoothing emotional reactions – something that can be quite difficult in online exchange.
Still… the systematicity that gets lost in face-to-face exchanges, the lost ability to post information that can quickly get a reader reasonably up to speed, if you’re coming at a common problem from an unusual or obscure perspective… (When a very bright person expressed that they needed me to define some of my technical terms – like “macrosociological” – it’s fairly clear we’re coming from vastly different disciplinary backgrounds, and some basic work in building a shared vocabulary will be required before discussion can move forward…) So I kept stumbling across these moments where I couldn’t help but long to translate the discussion into an online space.
I missed my keyboard…