Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Constituting Voices

I had been intending to write something on the exchange over academic blogging by Adam Kotsko and Scott Eric Kaufman, just published in Inside Higher Ed (hat tip Acephalous). As it happens, Joseph Kugelmass has beaten me to the punch, with an excellent analysis (cross-posted) of these and other reflections on academic blogging, including Joe’s own Ivory Webpage reflection from earlier this year.

Joe picks up on the major points from both Adam and Scott’s pieces, adding a nice critical, reflexive edge of his own. Rather than trying to summarise or add comments of my own (given that I’ve likely reflected sufficiently on academic blogging in another recent thread…), I’ll point readers to Joe’s piece – both for its critical summary of the recent discussion, but more for the distinctive inflection it provides, in situating these recurrent debates over the role and purpose of academic blogging within the social sciences and humanities. In this respect, Joe finds both an all-too-familiar identity crisis:

The term “academic blogging” is something of a misnomer; in my experience, most discussions about academic blogs concern blogs within the humanities and the human sciences. Scott and I are graduate students in English, Bitch Ph.D. does her academic work in English, Adam studies theology and philosophy, and N. Pepperell works on philosophy and social systems. There are of course math blogs, physics blogs, and the like, just as there are technology blogs, but these blogs attract a more specialized readership, and do not suffer routine crises of identity.

Part of the reason that math blogs (or, say, blogs about video games) do not undergo the sometimes tempestuous Bildung (development) of humanistic blogs is that they are usually focused on information and evaluation. They are fairly impersonal by nature; they try to build credibility, rather than building a style, though they may be stylishly done. Ultimately, this is a large part of Adam’s vision for blogging within the humanities: “bringing new scholarly research to the attention of an interdisciplinary audience.” Creating a new scholarly news feed is a perfectly legitimate vision for any given blog, but it fails to capture the potential of academic blogging as a whole.

And a distinctive vision of immanent potential:

Paradoxically, the humanities are universally perceived as “in trouble” at a moment when culture and criticism are thriving: new journals, new novelists, a whole new era for television serials, an explosion of independent music and film, and new homes on the web for criticism (Pitchfork, Slate, Salon) and imaginative work (YouTube and other video hosting, webcomics, hypertext fictions, etc). Humanistic blogs are one way of restoring the connection between scholarly tradition and the new plenitude of culture.

Like all of Joe’s work, this piece has a multi-layered – one almost wants to say musical – structure to its argument, making excerpts a particularly problematic way of rendering its sense. Best to read the original to get a sense of the complexity of the potential Joe identifies for intellectual blogging – a potential woven, like potentials always are, in and through the mundane and everyday – loneliness, boredom, even the practice of in-group formation can all be acknowledged as drivers of the medium, without this undermining the possibility for the constitution of spaces of meaningful and ongoing engagement within and between intellectual communities.

Updated 3 Nov: I also wanted to point to Andrew’s nuanced reflections on this discussion over at Union Street. Andrew casts a sociologist’s eye on the issue, turning some of the issues around and examining them from a new angle. His observations are worth reading in full – I’ll provide a brief passage from his conclusion as a teaser:

I tend to side with those who see blogging as an inherently contradictory affair, or rather a joining together of forces and tendencies that we ordinarily keep separate or regulate more deliberately in our public lives and face-to-face encounters. Academic blogging is academic in its objectives, and yet it’s often deliberately provisional and umpolished (and much more fun to read for that reason); it’s conversational, but also textual (which is why I worry that some of my more foolish and ill-considered posts will one day come back and bite me); it allows for the public presentation of private thoughts; it’s directed at an audience and yet it’s at its best when it reveals an irredeemably subjective element; it has the trappings of spontaneity and informality, and yet it’s mediated through the written word and by the very nature and limitations of the technology technology; it generates open-ended conversations that anyone can join, but single people (blog moderators and administrators) can control.

In short, it’s an unstable medium, given to difficult choices, which is what motivates these periodic efforts by bloggers to reflect upon its properties, potentialities, and direction. But we’ve yet to develop the means or structures that would allow for its normative regulation, or for the reflexive self-conditioning of blogging through blogging, despite diverse efforts to do so – for example, by embedding it within established organizational parameters, to form group blogs or coalitions of blogs so that at least there can be some internal self-conditioning of communication, or to adopt a system of badges and icons that allows academics to refer to their own communications, announcing when they are doing serious academic blogging on ‘peer reviewed research.’ Whether blogging will develop stable structures along these lines is, I think, uncertain; whether it ought to, I can’t really say.

2 responses to “Constituting Voices

  1. Joseph Kugelmass November 3, 2007 at 8:46 am

    NP,

    Thank you so much.

    Like all of Joe’s work, this piece has a multi-layered – one almost wants to say musical – structure to its argument, making excerpts a particularly problematic way of rendering its sense.

    It is exhilarating to be characterized this way. My first major graduate paper, which I am working on publishing, was on Huxley and musical counterpoint; my first Valve post was on opera and narrative form; my dissertation is built around theses on Finnegans Wake, a novel that constantly assumes musical shapes. Musical form is central to the way I read and write, and I really blush to be read so acutely and generously.

  2. N Pepperell November 3, 2007 at 2:36 pm

    Hey Joe – It’s something that’s struck me very strongly in your writing, although I’ve never had occasion to mention it (I’m also always a bit self-conscious when I comment on others’ styles, as I don’t know how idiosyncratically I “read” other people…). I hadn’t realised it was also a substantive focus of your work, but it makes a great deal of sense…

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